Suffering 8 – Jesus the sufferer

Posted: June 18, 2013 by J in Bible, Pastoral issues, Theology

The gospel’s view of suffering and evil is rather unique: it declares God’s victory over it. In fact this is the big-picture story of the gospel, the main thing it has to say to us: God’s victory over evil. How does that victory come about, and why don’t we experience more of it now? I mean, our suffering continues, right?

The OT is full of stories of God’s victory of the forces of evil and misery in our world: think the exodus. But it is also full of promises and expressions of longing for the time when God will definitively deal with evil and suffering. The attitude of the Jew in Jesus’ time was one of waiting and hoping for a new age of freedom and peace, when God would set up his kingdom on earth at last.

Traditionally Christians have tended to say, ‘the trouble with the Jews was they took these promises in a worldly way, as though God’s kingdom would be a physical, this-wordly, political reality’. Instead, Christians have often relocated God’s kingdom to a spiritual sphere. There, it has little to say to our this-worldly sufferings.

The NT never makes this move. Its critique of the Jews is different: they thought God’s kingdom would be established through strength, whereas God’s plan was for it to be established through suffering.

When Jesus Messiah came, people wanted him to reveal himself and claim leadership over Israel – a power manoeuvre. When he arrived in Jerusalem, many thought he would start a fight. Instead, he came and died. “My kingdom is not from this world,” he told Pilate. “If it were, we would fight. But it is not”.

Jesus not only died, he died in the same way the nation of Israel had died historically: handed over to the Gentiles in disgrace, led away from the city to die in exile. Jesus took the evil and suffering of the nation upon himself, relived it, re-enacted it, exhausted and finished it. He ‘by the grace of God tasted death for everyone’ (Heb. 2:9). Like Gandalf and the Balrog of Moria, Jesus took death down to the pit with him, and defeated it there. He ‘shared our flesh and blood, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Heb 2:14-15). In his passion and resurrection, Jesus got the victory over the forces of evil.

Deliverance for Israel, then, came not through power but through suffering: the sufferings of the Messiah. This was the victory by which his role as saviour was fulfilled. God ‘made the pioneer of their salvation complete through sufferings’ (Heb. 2:10).

And the gospel declares that this victory over evil was won not just Israel but for all who were subjected to it: all mankind. For Jesus did not only suffer as a Jew, but as a human. 

for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…
and they will reign on earth.                           Revelation 5:9

This song from Revelation sums up the gospel story of Jesus who brings the victory of God. It also helps us answer our second question: Why don’t we experience that victory more fully now?

Traditionally Christians have often said, it’s a victory in the spiritual realm, it doesn’t change things in this world. But once again, the NT gives a different answer: ‘they will reign on earth.‘ It’s not that the venue is wrong, it’s that the time is not quite right. The NT makes great use of this element of time.

The victory of God is not an abstract doctrine: it is a story. As such, it is not simple but complex. It has details, and it takes time to reach its conclusion. There is a before, a now and a later. In the story, the victory was won at the cross, and Jesus has fully entered into that victory already. He no longer suffers. But for us, the victory is announced and tasted in the here-and-now, and is fully ‘rolled out’ in the future. Some things change now, but for others we have to wait. In other words, we are located just a little before the end of the story. Things are still unfolding, deliverance is still arriving. That’s why we still suffer.

But that won’t go on forever: pretty soon Jesus will return, this time not to suffer but to put an end to all evil, all suffering. On that day,

God himself will be with them;
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
And death will be no more,
Nor will mourning nor crying nor pain be any more
For the old things have passed away.
And the one who sat on the throne said, “Look! I am making all things new.”    Revelation 21:3-5

This is the victory of God. And isn’t it just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard? When I hear about Jesus the sufferer, and about his victory, I feel I can wait and pray and hope, and not despair. Don’t know about you, but I’d rather have this promise kept for me in Jesus, than all the explanations in the world about why suffering is OK.


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