Prayer and Suffering Display the Worth of the Gospel

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled The Church, the Gospel, and the Ends of the Earth; these are my notes from today’s class on prayer and suffering.

I. Prayer Displays the Worth of the Gospel

A. Isaiah Models Missional Prayer

The first passage that comes to mind when talking about the missional nature of prayer I immediately think of Isaiah 6.

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train[a] of his robe filled the temple.  2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  3And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah is confronted by the glory of the Lord, responds to it in broken humility over his sin and the sin of Israel.  Then a seraphim flies to Isaiah holding a burning coal taken from the altar.  The temple is filled with smoke because a sacrifice has been made on the altar and this seraphim takes a burning coal from that sacrifice and touches it to Isaiah’s unclean lips.  This sacrifice is applied to Isaiah and it takes away his guilt and atones for his sin.

Isaiah hears the intertrinitarian conversation as the Lord asks Himself “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Having just seen the Lord upon His throne and experiencing His atoning sacrifice for sins Isaiah exclaims, “Here am I! Send me.”  The prophet cries out, “I will tell of your glory, I will make your gracious atonement known!”  The Lord’s reply is devastating as He exhorts Isaiah to proclaim, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive” and commands him to “Make the heart of this people dull . . . [lest they] turn and be healed.”  Isaiah, having just experienced the Lord’s atoning sacrifice for sins, would not be proclaiming that great salvation to his people; no, his message was one of judgment and its purpose was to harden Israel’s heart so that she would not turn to the Lord in repentance.

Upon hearing this Isaiah replies asking, “How long, O Lord?”  There are two primary ways in which Isaiah’s question has been interpreted; first, “how long must I proclaim this message?” and second, “how long will their hardness persist?” or “how long until you redeem your people?”  Based upon Isaiah’s emphasis upon the fulfillment of YHWH’s covenant promises, his understanding of the blessings and curses of those covenants (cf. Deuteronomy 28; 30:1-10), and the Lord’s reply the later understanding of his reply best fits within the context of his ministry.  In this sense Isaiah cries out “How long until your people repent and you restore your blessing to them?”  The Lord’s reply glimmers with though Israel will be scattered in exile and the Promised Land laid to waste and burnt to the ground like a tree its stump will remain.  Later in Isaiah we see that this stump is Jesus Christ who is the atoning sacrifice, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  That is the hope the Lord offers in His reply.

We must regain Isaiah’s missional understanding of the Lord, his missional zeal for his people, and his missional petition on their behalf.  We must come to view God as Isaiah did; as a God who sends and saves, who graciously self-discloses Himself, and who makes atonement for the sins of His people.  We must be broken over our sin and over the sins of our culture crying out in intercession, “How long will our cities be ravaged by the worship of idols?  How long will this people persist in self-reliance?  How long will they perceive your invisible attributes and continue to suppress the truth in unrighteousness?  How long will they harden their hearts against you?  How long will they keep on hearing, but not understand?  How long will they keep on seeing, but not perceive?  How long will you make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes?  How long until they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts?  How long until you turn them to yourself that they may be healed?  . . . How long, O Lord?

Along this line of thought David Garrison in his book, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World, writes, “Prayer is the soul’s deepest cry of rebellion against the way things are, seeing the lost of this world and crying out, ‘This does not glorify God, and so, by God’s grace, it must change!’  Prayer comes from God and ascends back to God on behalf of those who do not know God.”[1]

B. Prayer and Proclamation

Commenting on Ephesians 6:16-18 John Piper explains, “Prayer is the power that wields the weapon of the word.  And by the word of God we do battle against sin and unbelief in our own lives and in the world.”[2]

C. Prayer and Mission

“We cannot know what prayer is for until we know that life is war. . .  Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief.  It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den.”[3]

II. Suffering Displays the Worth of the Gospel

A. Introduction

It was March 15, 2004 and five Southern Baptist missionaries driving through Mosul, in northern Iraq, were ambushed and four of them were murdered.  Months before Karen Watson had given a letter to her pastor in Bakersfield, California that was to be opened upon the event of her death.  In it she wrote, “When God calls, there are no regrets.  I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations.  I wasn’t called to a place.  I was called to Him, to glory.  To obey was my objective.  To suffer was expected.  His glory was my reward.  His glory is my reward.”[4]  She then writes, exhorting the reader, exhorting us, “Care more than some think is wise.  Risk more than some think is safe. Dream more than some think is practical, and expect more than some think is possible.  I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience.”[5]

Al Mohler, speaking in chapel at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained, “As we first heard this word (of the four deaths), we realized that the cause of the Gospel needed at least four more.  That’s just status quo, four more. But advance is going to take far more than four.”[6]

And indeed advance has come, and will continue to come, at a high cost.  The twentieth century alone saw nearly fifty million martyrs, that is almost 1,250 people martyred daily.[7]  For those of us in this room, in comfortable America, that reality is almost incomprehensible.

B. Suffering and Persecution Defined

Suffering and persecution are related.  Persecution can result in suffering but not all suffering is the result of persecution.  Looking at Paul’s statements in II Corinthians 11:23-28 we can see the difference between these two things.  Acts of persecution are underlined, suffering is in boldface, and suffering as a result of persecution is underlined and boldfaced.

23Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death24Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure28And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Suffering is important as a display of the gospel.  We saw that recently when we spent a weekend studying Hebrews.  We, as a church, need to see individuals looking to Jesus and running the race with endurance.  As they suffer through cancer and disease exhorting us that Jesus is worth it, that this present affliction is light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory (Romans 8:18; II Corinthians 4:17-18; Hebrews 12:1-2).

Charles L. Tieszen defines persecution as, “Any unjust action of varying levels of hostility perpetuated primarily on the basis of religion and directed at Christians, resulting in varying levels of harm as it is considered from the victim’s perspective.”[8]

  • Any unjust action
  • varying levels of hostility/resulting in varying levels of harm
  • perpetuated primarily on the basis of religion
  • directed at Christians
  • considered from the victim’s perspective

C. American Exceptionalism and Global violence

We come to this discussion from an incredibly unique vantage point.  For us as Americans the global reality of persecution is almost incomprehensible.  There are countless issues facing the global church that are completely foreign to us and because of that we are not addressing these things theologically.  So I want to force our hand this morning and address some of these things and hopefully force us to view the world from a different perspective.

1. Islam Does Not Have a Monopoly on Violence

I think our understanding of persecution and the relationship between followers of Christ and Islam is shaped more by American foreign policy than by Scripture and the global context of religious violence.

Charles L. Tieszen explains, “Persecution can be perpetuated on the basis of ethnicity, political persuasion, nationality, or any number of other factors.  When religion is involved, adherents of any religion or belief can be targets.”  And I would add that adherents of any religion or belief can be perpetrators.  He continues, “In this light, Baha’i communities are persecuted in Iran; Muslims are persecuted in India and Nigeria; and Tibetan Buddhists are persecuted in China.  Similar examples are numerous.”[9]

In the global context there are countless religions and belief systems that have resorted to religious violence and we only looked at four countries.  We could go a step further and break it down to people groups within countries and see just how pervasive violence is.  The main point I want us to see here is that Islam does not have a monopoly on violence.  We have to step out of our American experience of terrorism and the current foreign policy discussion of America and Islam and come to see this within the global religious context.

2. Christians are, Unfortunately, Not Always Passive

These are questions that we don’t have to ask ourselves.  When something happens locally we have the police and various government agencies that assure us that the perpetrator(s) will be found and brought to justice and the same thing happens globally with our armed forces.  We are never in the situation that Coptic Christians, in Egypt, found themselves in when during a funeral Muslim youth began throwing rocks and police fired tear gas into the cathedral.  We have never had to decide whether or not to use Molotov cocktails to incinerate protestors at a funeral.[10]

Or we could look at Nigeria where Christians have slaughtered Muslims and burned the bodies on piles of tires.[11]  There one Christian leader has argued for the church to build armies saying, “People say, ‘When they slap your cheek, you turn the other.’  We have turned both, and they have slapped us.  There is nothing else to turn.”[12]  Thankfully within that same context there are others who are arguing, “To fight back is contrary to the position of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .  He said, ‘If they strike you on one cheek, turn the other.’  He did that when he was arrested. It was what he used to conquer the world.”

So the world looks vastly different through non-American eyes.  If we are going to understand persecution then we have to come to grips with how we have been shaped by the American context. This means coming to understand that those who persecute us are not our political enemies but our mission field.

D. Persecution is Guaranteed

There are countless passages we could look at here but II Timothy 3:12 is pretty straightforward, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Luke 14:27 where Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” is also a helpful passage in this regard.  “Bearing ones cross” has been interpreted any number of ways over the years but I want us to hear these words as those listening to Jesus would have understood them.  Rome came to power in Judea in 63BC and it is estimated that they crucified 30,000 during their rule.  Furthermore, Judas of Galilee, who helped found the Zealots, led a revolt against Rome, which resulted in nearly 2,000 men being crucified along the roads of Galilee,[13] an event that many of Christ’s hearers would have vividly remembered.  Jesus is warning the great crowds that had gathered that following Him could result in death.

E. Persecution as Incarnational Ministry

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you” (II Corinthians 4:7-12).

From this text, we see that through suffering the life of Jesus is manifested in the body, the flesh, of the one who suffers.  What specifically is occurring in this text?  Looking at two other texts will clarify what is occurring here.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).

What is still lacking? Wasn’t Christ’s work on the cross complete?  Paul’s words here almost sound like heresy!  The only other place where the Greek phrase “fill up what is lacking” appears is in Philippians 2:30, “for he [Epaphroditus] nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, who had sent Epaphroditus to care for him.  Here he informs the church in Philippi that Epaphroditus had completed what was lacking in their service.

So what was lacking?  How was the church in Philippi’s service to Paul incomplete prior to their sending of Epaphroditus?

“The gift to Paul was the gift of the church as a body.  It was a sacrificial offering of love.  What was lacking . . . was the church’s presentation of this offering in person.”[14]

Understanding Philippians 2:30 allows us to understand what Paul means in Colossians 1:24.  “What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions are not known in the world.  They are still a mystery (hidden) to most peoples.  And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed”[15] and they are revealed through our suffering.  “Christ intends for the great commission to be a presentation to the nations of the sufferings of his cross, in the sufferings of his people.  That’s the way the commission will be finished folks!”[16]  Simply stated, suffering is one of the means by which we incarnate the gospel into culture.

F. Persecution as the Means by Which God is Advancing His Kingdom

In Matthew 11 John the Baptist, who is imprisoned, sends messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another” (11:3)?

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (11:4b-6).

Yes, Jesus is the one He is fulfilling the promise of Isaiah 61 but in His reply He makes no mention of proclaiming liberty to the captives.  Because captive John the Baptist would not be set free John was going to die.  And Jesus then addresses the crowds concerning John and in verse 12 explains, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  Commenting on this verse Erwin Raphael McManus exclaims, “God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of war. Not where we kill but where we are willing to let others kill us. Not where we hate but we are willing to embrace the hate of others. Not where we are violent but where we take the violence of the world upon ourselves and allow the love of God to prevail. I wonder how many of us actually believe God can prevail if we love the worst of sinners; if we extend our lives into the most dangerous situation in the world?”

[1]David Garrison, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World (Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, 2004), 176-177.
[2]John Piper, “The Weapon Serves the Wielding Power,” Desiring God [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.
[3]John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God In Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.
[4]David Roach, “Mohler: Slain missionaries spotlight need for worldwide Gospel proclamation,” SBTS [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.
[7]Charles L. Tieszen, “Mission in Contexts of Violence: Forging Theologies of Persecution and Martyrdom,” in Missions in Contexts of Violence, Evangelical Missiological Society Series, no. 15 (Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 86n6.
[8]Charles L. Tieszen, “Mission in Contexts of Violence: Forging Theologies of Persecution and Martyrdom,” in Missions in Contexts of Violence, Evangelical Missiological Society Series, no. 15 (Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 80.
[9]Ibid., 80.
[10]David Kenner, “Egypt’s Christians are under fire,” Foreign Policy [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.
[11]“Bodies pile up after Nigeria riot,” BBC [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.  See also “Riots in Nigeria leave many dead,” BBC [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.
[12]Sunday Oguntola, “Church Leaders Debate Self-Defense,” Christianity Today [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.
[13]John MacArthur, Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 135.
[14]Marvin R. Vincent, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 78.
[15]John Piper, “Called to Suffer and Rejoice: To Finish the Aim of Christ’s Afflictions,” Desiring God [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013;; Internet.
[16]John Piper. Doing Missions When Dying Is Gain, October 27, 1996. [Sermon]


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