Pain. Grief. Depression. Hunger. Disease. Betrayal. Loneliness. Fear. People suffer in many different ways. We spend a lot of time and energy on finding ways to avoid and reduce suffering, both individually and for mankind in general.
But when we turn to the Christian gospel to find a way out of suffering, we get a most remarkable answer: the Saviour is a suffering Saviour. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, says the Apostles’ Creed—governour Pilate, who had him arrested, tortured, and crucified. But that is not all. The catechism takes a broader perspective and says: During all the time he lived on earth, Christ suffered.
The focus of this lesson is the suffering of Jesus Christ. But in order to understand what it means, we will first discuss suffering more generally. We will also discuss how Jesus’ suffering is connected to the suffering of Christians even today.
The way of suffering
1. The suffering our sins deserve
2. Christ’s suffering in our place
3. Our suffering as followers of Christ
The suffering our sins deserve
Why do people suffer? There are at least four reasons for suffering.
First, we suffer because of the curse that lies on this world. The Bible tells us that the Lord subjected creation to futility, to meaninglessness and frustration, because of our rebellion against God. He sent Adam and Eve out of the garden into the uncultivated world, where Adam would have to work in the sweat of his brow and Eve would go through painful childbearing. (Gen. 3:16-19) Ever since, life is full of pain, disease, and death. There is famine and drought, there are floods and earthquakes.
Second, we suffer because of the ignorance and foolishness of people; not just that of others, but also our own ignorance and foolishness. We make plans that don’t work out and do harm to ourselves and others. Others hurt us often unknowingly, sometimes deliberately. People take advantage of us, or we take advantage of them. We get ourselves stuck in destructive ways of thinking, develop unhealthy habits, give in to temptation, fall into addiction, and so inflict pain upon ourselves and those around us, even the ones we love. Wherever people live together, they hurt each other, too.
And we have to take responsibility: this suffering exists because of our sin. It is easy to find fault with others: we can blame the suffering in Ukraine on Vladimir Putin, we can blame the poverty in Cuba and South Korea on their communist regime. Or we can look at the broken family down the street and say: the children grow up without a father because his drug habits got him in jail; or that neighbour is lonely because she cheated on her husband. But all of us are the cause of suffering, of our own as well as that of others.
Third, we suffer because the Evil One and his minions actively oppose what is good, and seek to undermine God’s plan. The devil takes delight in ruining the good things God has made, in attacking especially the people who love the Lord and know him. Psalm 73, for instance, points out that wicked people seem to suffer much less than godly and righteous people. But even for this suffering we must share the blame: because our ancestors, Adam and Eve, invited the Evil One into this world by listening to him rather than God.
Three sources of suffering: the curse, the foolishness of people (including ourselves), and the assault of Satan. But we should also realise that we actually deserve much more suffering than we receive. Our unholiness and sin deserve punishment from God. The principle was announced in Genesis 2: “At the moment you eat of that tree, you will certainly die!” The Bible speaks about a lake of fire, of the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of perpetual suffering; that hell we deserve, because we have perverted God’s good creation and rebelled against his holiness. We deserve, in the words of the catechism, the wrath of God against sin and everlasting damnation. There may be a curse on all of creation, but what we truly deserve is to personally wither away under God’s curse.
Christ’s suffering in our place
When Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, entered our world, he entered a life of suffering. As we discussed before, he laid aside his divine glory and power and subjected himself to the limitations of human life. And all the problems of our fallen human life. He could get hurt; he could get sick. As he lived among suffering people, he had compassion with them; their pain was his pain. We know that Jesus grieved and cried as he saw the brokenness of human lives. He was pained by the unbelief of people, by the death of Lazarus, by the betrayal of Judas. He was fearful in the face of his suffering and death, sweating drops of blood. He even knew the vicious pull of temptation, although he did not give in to it.
Certainly, Jesus is very familiar with the problems we face in our fallen world. The Bible teaches that he is not “unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are.” (Heb. 4:15)
Jesus suffered because evil conspired against him. He was still a baby when King Herod sent soldiers to murder the children in Bethlehem, because this jealous king could not stand the idea of a newly born King of the Jews. Jesus was barely anointed with the Holy Spirit, when he faced off with Satan in the wilderness, enduring hunger, insult, and temptation. And how often did the Jewish leaders think of killing him, silencing him for good, because they hated the gospel message and the Kingdom of God and its gentle, merciful King. The devil urged on the hatred against the Lord Jesus, so that his own townspeople threw him out of the synagogue and nearly pushed him off a cliff. Satan took hold of Judas, so that Jesus’ own friend and disciple betrayed him to his enemies. If ever evil powers conspired against good, they did so against the Son of God when he walked the earth, proclaiming the grace of God.
All four gospels tell us in detail how Jesus suffered at the end of his life. He was beaten, mocked, and flogged. They put a thorny crown on his head. Eventually, they crucified him. Crucifixion was a Roman invention, a way to execute a criminal publically and slowly, in an extremely painful, torturous, and undignified way.
But with all of that, we don’t appreciate Jesus’ suffering properly unless we understand that he suffered the wrath of God, and that he did so in our place.
God the Father afflicted terrible suffering on his beloved Son. This was especially clear during the three hours of darkness during the crucifixion, when Jesus cried out: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The darkness symbolises God hiding his smiling face, his benevolent goodness, his gracious presence. The day before, just anticipating these events, Jesus had prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, and it brought so much fear and anxiety that he sweated blood. Especially in this forsakenness by God himself, Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has or ever will: he bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. All the curse that our sins deserve was poured out on him, and him alone.
There are many aspects to Jesus’ suffering we could talk about. We will consider just two. First, Jesus suffered the earthly punishment of a criminal and the divine punishment of God’s wrath, while he himself was entirely innocent. The Bible teaches that he was without sin; and even the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, who signed off on Jesus’ death sentence and organised the crucifixion, had said clearly: “This man is innocent.” The only innocent man who ever walked the earth suffered the greatest punishment that was ever meted out.
Second, Jesus’ crucifixion shows especially that he suffered the curse of God. The Apostle Paul points out (Gal. 3:13) that dead bodies hanging on a pole were symbolic for the curse and condemnation from God. Pontius Pilate and his soldiers did not know it, but when they erected the cross with Jesus on it, they raised a symbol of the curse of God, and Jesus experienced the full power of that curse during his terrible suffering there.
Most importantly, we confess that Jesus suffered on our behalf and in our place. The catechism brings that home in all three questions and answers in Lord’s Day 15. Christ bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. His suffering redeems our body and soul from everlasting damnation. By his condemnation he freed us from the severe judgement of God. He took upon himself the curse which lay on me.
This suffering in our place is at the heart of the gospel. It is the only way in which we can escape the curse and suffering that we deserve, and instead live in peace and joy together with our God. Long before Jesus came, God hinted at this wonderful exchange. In the time of Abraham, he swapped out Isaac for a ram. In the law of Moses, sinners found forgiveness by laying their hands on a sacrificial animal who would die in their place.
And the Christian church has always been fond of that prophecy in Isaiah 53, which speaks so powerfully about the suffering servant of the Lord:
Surely, he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him strict,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned, every one, to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:4-6)
So Jesus suffering is the only atoning sacrifice. Because he suffered the wrath of God, we never have to suffer that wrath, if only we belong to Jesus in faith. Because he was cursed by God, we will be set free from the curse of sin, and eventually the earth will be released from all the futility that resulted from human rebellion.
Our suffering as followers of Christ
Jesus came and suffered in our place. Does that mean that we no longer suffer? Obviously, there is still much suffering in the world, also among Christians—especially among Christians. But we suffer in a different way.
When we suffer under the curse on this world, and under the consequences of our own sins and the sins of others, we do so with a profound hope. Paul speaks about this in Rom. 8:18ff; the first thing he says is that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us. He goes on to say that we suffer and groan along with the earth itself, and even the Holy Spirit himself, as we look forward to the renewal that will certainly come. Paul uses the picture of a woman’s labour: she is in much pain, but in the end it is good pain, because it announces the birth of new life.
There is a special kind of suffering that especially believers will undergo. Paul once said in a sermon that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) “Tribulation” literally means “being squeezed”; and the world is indeed squeezing Christians, because it really hates the message of the gospel. During most of history, in most places in the world, Christians have been despised, ostracised, bullied, and outright persecuted. Sometimes, true Christians are even persecuted by fake Christians.
This kind of suffering, for the sake of Jesus and gospel, is to be expected; and the apostles of Jesus showed by example that we should receive that suffering as a badge of honour. Peter writes: Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1 Pet. 4:15f)
The Christian life is following Jesus. And Jesus walked the way of suffering. Therefore we, too, must walk the way of suffering. Jesus said: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mat. 16:24) He did not say, as we sometimes do: Well, everyone has a cross to bear. But rather, take up that cross deliberately, where you choose against your own interests and face the wrath and ridicule of the whole world, because you are committed to belonging to Jesus Christ.
As Christians we celebrate the suffering of Jesus Christ. We are proud of his cross, even though it was a terrible tool of torture. Because Jesus, as the innocent One, suffered the wrath of God that we deserved, and underwent the curse that would be ours.
The question we all face is this: do you acknowledge Jesus as the one who took your place? Do you, as it were, place your hand on his head, so that he bears your sin as well and dies in your place? This is the only way to find peace with God. But we should not do it lightly: because when he died, we also died to sin, and now we live a life in his name. That new life means following Jesus. A life of suffering with him; but eventually it leads to glory and eternal life with him.
- Name some reasons why people suffer.
- How did Jesus suffer even at the beginning of his life?
- What suffering did he undergo, that we never have to undergo?
- Name a Bible prophecy that describes Jesus’ suffering in our place.
- As a Christian, why should you expect to suffer for the sake of Jesus?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-12. What is the Lord’s response to the suffering of his people?|
|Tuesday||Matthew 16:21-28. What did Jesus teach about his own suffering? What was so wrong about Peter’s knee-jerk reaction? What did Jesus then teach about the suffering of his followers?|
|Wednesday||Matthew 26:36-46. How did Jesus suffer in Gethsemane? How did his disciples make it worse?|
|Thursday||Psalm 22. The poet describes his suffering in vivid imagery. Which of these images become literally true at Jesus’ cross?|
|Friday||Acts 14:8-23. How did Paul suffer for the sake of the gospel? What did he preach about suffering?|
|Saturday||Philippians 3. What does this chapter teach about our suffering?|