In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul presents a different view of suffering from the conventional wisdom we read in the book of Job. One of the major reasons for the shift in thinking about suffering is the experience of Jesus Christ, the ultimate righteous suffering servant. The notion that He who was without sin was made to suffer for the sins of the world must have some sort of extension into the life of faith. This extension is that when we suffer on behalf of others, we reflect the attitude of Christ and therefore join Jesus in his work to love the world until it hurts.
Paul wrote this to the Corinth church:
1:3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. 5 For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.
Paul seems to argue that the reason why we can relate to people and help others is because we have experienced the same things. He claims that when we suffer and are comforted, we learn how to be a comfort for others as they suffer…we are God’s tools for administering healing in the world, but only as we have received healing ourselves from God.
And notice who we are suffering for…Christ! He is the example and the one through whom the comfort comes…God comforts us because we suffer for Christ. This is different from suffering because we face the consequences of some sin we committed. This is not suffering because we made a poor decision. Paul was participating in church planting work all around the Roman world, and he experienced suffering because he was a Christ follower. We must make that important distinction here!
8b We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. 10 And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us.
There is something in the above passage that seems to show us that those who suffer have the opportunity to put greater trust in God. Paul said that although they thought they would die they trusted in the God who raises the dead! That is a powerful proclamation! As we suffer, we still have a choice to put our confidence in God or to reject God. To Job’s credit, he did not reject God but went to God with his question of “WHY?” Paul’s writing declares that when we put our confidence in God, He will rescue us and this promise does not come from someone driving a Bentley and living in a padded, cushioned palace…it’s from Paul who has a laundry list of bad days for the sake of Christ.
There are those who think that if we receive comfort from God, then our troubles just go away, but instead of removing the pain God grants us the grace and strength to persevere through the pain and hurt and time of suffering. God also grants us the opportunity to become a blessing to others in their pain and hurt. So the end game is not our comfort, but God’s Kingdom.
Suffering is deeply personal, and so often when things are going well for us there is little evaluation or reflection as to why we are succeeding. However, when a time of suffering comes, there seems to be exhaustive evaluation and reflection. The major question is “WHY?” Why is this happening to me? Why would God allow this to happen? Why do some people seem to escape suffering while others seem to escape success?
Often, the place we turn in the midst of suffering is the book of Job, and that is a good place to turn. Yet, in the book there is a central problem that gets played out as Job talks to his “friends.” You see, suffering is most naturally connected to sin and wickedness, thus suffering is viewed as divine punishment for evil behaviors and attitudes. Eliphaz takes Job to task after he asserts in defense from Zophar, “How can your empty cliches comfort me? All you explanations are lies!”
22:4 Is it because you’re so pious that he accuses you
and brings judgment against you?
5 No, it’s because of your wickedness!
There’s no limit to your sins.
Eliphaz then provides a list of possible wrongs Job might have done or thought. Yet, readers of the book know that Job’s questions about the wicked prospering and his questions of WHY seem to be justified. Whereas, the explanations of the friends rely on the notion of God’s retribution, which is very much in question in the story of Job.
Ultimately, Job receives an audience with God, who does not reveal sins and wickedness in Job’s life, but responds to Job by showing the vast gulf set between God’s wisdom and that of any person…including Job and his friends. God asks WHY…but his questions have no explanations because they are higher, greater, and more complex than human knowledge and experience.
So Job, even though he is confused about the “WHY” of his suffering, he concedes to God and even says it: “Who can teach a lesson to God?” (21:22) Job could not fully understand his deeply personal and awfully terrible experience, but in the midst of it he did two things: First, he did not think God had forgotten him or turned his back on him, and second, Job continually complained and turned to God who Job knew could actually change the situation. It is so easy in the midst of suffering or pain to feel alone, forgotten, and unworthy…but that was not Job’s condition. Job asked WHY…but he asked it of God and to God. The “friends” in the story play the part of annoyances and distractions, they represent the conventional or cultural wisdom of the times and we as readers want them to go away (or at least stop talking).
God does eventually act and restores the life of Job. We should not, however, think that everything is then all right and Job never thought about his suffering again. He lost everything including children and career. While he regains more family, different family, and rebuilds his career; it was not the same people and the same life. Thus, suffering changed Job and unfortunately the text ends before we see the outcome of Job’s suffering in his new life.
Again, John uses a familiar image from the Roman world that would resonate with his recipients of this letter. Listen to the words he writes to the church in Philadelphia:
12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
What does it mean to be made “a pillar in the temple of God?” What does it mean to “write on him the name of my God, the name of the city of my God?” Again, John is using the imagery that surrounded our ancient faith ancestors to show them a powerful truth about the Kingdom of God. For the one who “conquers,” that is this world and all the sinful temptations that are within, including the worship of other gods…Jesus promises to make them into a pillar that supports the temple of the real and mighty God. The Greco-Roman world used caryatids or atlantes as pillars in their ancient temples. Caryatids are stone carvings of draped female figures. Atlantes the plural form of Atlas and points to a carving of the male form that holds up the temple of the gods. I have included some pictures of these, the most popular is the caryatids from the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens which is the picture above, the others are from Rome and have been included below. The atlantes are just another visual example, only they are obviously the male counterpart to the female.
Some people would donate money (become a benefactor) to the temple, and in so doing they would be given an inscription that included a dedication to the god, their home city, and their name. John writes that Jesus will provide those who have given their lives to God their very own inscription that would include a dedication to God, they name of the city they reside in which is the new Jerusalem, and new name!
Thus, in the letter to the church of Philadelphia there is reference to the surrounding culture like in each of the 7 letters to the churches. This encouraging word takes something that they see as representative of the splendor of the Roman Empire, namely the ornate and vast architecture of the temples, and shows that as Christians participate in the building of God’s Kingdom, they are building something far greater than their eyes have experienced. Therefore, there is something greater than the Empire and it is to be pursued to the very end as Christians build a witness to God in the midst of these lesser important distractions.
In Revelation 3, we read about the church in Laodicea. A famous line that is sometimes taught is this one in 3:15-16. With insights from my professors Greg Stevenson, Rick Oster, and Dave Bland I want to address this passage in a way that provides understanding and stays true to the way Jesus communicates in the 7 letters to the churches in Revelation. Often, Jesus will use well known things about the city to call the churches back to spiritual fervor and obedience. So, I suspect that is what is happening in this verse:
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
There are three basic interpretations of this passage.
Given the great lengths the city explored to pipe water from Hierapolis and Colosse, I seem to think the ideas expressed in options 2 an 3 fit the idea that Jesus wanted to convey. In the ancient world, lukewarm water was known for one primary purpose which was to induce vomiting in the sick. Could it be that the church of Laodicea is making Jesus sick by their lack of usefulness, there lukewarm state, and his only course of action is to do with them the only thing they are good for — vomit them out? I have included a few pictures from the cities discussed here, I hope they help you see the picture that Jesus through John is trying to show the church.
In the book of Esther, I can’t help but take notice of Haman’s wholehearted narcissism I mean, the guy really does love himself, his accomplishments, and as a reader…we just know that something terrible is going to happen to this guy. Let me give you two instances in which we see Haman enjoying…well…himself. After coming home from the banquet with Esther, Haman gathers his family and friends together to share his experience with them:
5:10b Then Haman gathered together his friends and Zeresh, his wife, 11 and boasted to them about his great wealth and his many children. He bragged about the honors the king had given him and how he had been promoted over all the other nobles and officials.12 Then Haman added, “And that’s not all! Queen Esther invited only me and the king himself to the banquet she prepared for us. And she has invited me to dine with her and the king again tomorrow!”
Of course, his experience is not as happy and as self-aggrandizing as it could have been because Haman saw Mordecai on the way home and his presence was enough to stir up hatred in Haman. Yet, Haman has another opportunity when the king asks him how to honor a person who deserves the king’s acknowledgment. Haman’s response is self focused.
6:6b Haman thought to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” 7 So he replied, “If the king wishes to honor someone, 8 he should bring out one of the king’s own royal robes, as well as a horse that the king himself has ridden—one with a royal emblem on its head. 9 Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials. And let him see that the man whom the king wishes to honor is dressed in the king’s robes and led through the city square on the king’s horse. Have the official shout as they go, ‘This is what the king does for someone he wishes to honor!’”
The person to be honored was Mordecai, and the person to carry out the honor was Haman. This was not the way Haman wanted to spend his time, to say the least! Hamas will meet his demise at the end of chapter 7, but what I noticed is that there is not much sympathy for Haman, both in the text of scripture and in my reaction to the story.
As I hear the story unfold, and Haman’s death by the very devise he set up to kill Mordecai, I hear scriptures that warn about “unrighteous gain” and “scheming” and “not being boastful” and the list goes on and on. While Mordecai is crying out to God and doing the right things quietly, without honor (until the King can’t sleep that one night), Haman is loud, boastful, and conniving. So, justice comes…and we the readers of the book are relived to some extent because we agree with the king that Mordecai deserves honor and Haman deserves punishment.
Esther calls Haman, “wicked Haman” as she names him as an adversary and enemy. The story leaves little doubt that Haman really did love himself to death. Sometimes it isn’t as blatant as in this story, but the Bible warns us against this type of self-focus, self-love, and self-aggrandizement. I long for the day that all Hamans are brought to justice and all the Mordecais are honored…but first let me make sure I have put to death he Haman-like attitudes in my life!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.