A Theology of Suffering
A Theology of Suffering
Rodney Gehman – November 4, 2023 – Acts 4:23-31
Introduction/Welcome to River City Church – my name is Rodney and I’m one of the pastors around here. If you’re a guest with us today, thank you for being here! We have been going through the book of Acts verse by verse, chapter by chapter, and so I’d love for you to open your copy of scripture to Acts chapter 4 if you aren’t there already.
Now, as you turn there, when it comes to sermon titles I usually only give them a title for the sake of the website. I figure sermon titles are like the letter “p” in the words pneumonia or receipt… it really doesn’t matter. But today, I’m going to tell you the title of the sermon, because it helps establish where we are headed this morning, and gives me a chance to define a word you’re going to hear me use a lot today.
[ 002 ] So here’s the first and maybe last time you’ll ever hear me give you a sermon title. I’m calling today’s sermon: “A Theology of Suffering.” And right when I said that, everyone shifted to the edge of their seat, like, ooooh, this is the one I’ve been waiting for! :)
But the first thing I want to do before we even get into the word of God is put a definition around that word “Suffering.” Because we use that word pretty loosely here in the US. And so I want to be clear on how I’m using that term today.
I don’t mean suffering like you can’t get Wi-Fi in the coffee shop. I don’t mean suffering like you got a flat tire and ran out of gas on the way to work and you missed the meeting where you were going to have to give a presentation and you got chewed out later by the boss. I don’t mean suffering, like your neighbor mows on your side of the property line, or that you don’t like the current political leaders in our state or our country and the weight you feel from the effects of their policies and leadership. I don’t mean suffering from cancer or sickness or family drama; I’m not talking about the very real suffering that comes from racism, domestic violence, divorce, or trauma.
When I use the word suffering today I mean the very real personal threats of physical harm that will be done to you or people you love if you do not renounce Jesus. I am referring to intimidation by either religious or secular institutions or persons whose number one goal is to separate you from your faith in Jesus. Persecution. Focused attacks that are not because of skin color or nationality, but because of Jesus.
So the suffering that I’m talking about today when I use that term, is very rare here in the United States. Our country was founded on the principle that this kind of suffering should never happen to anyone, and although I’m sure there have been a few cases where this kind of suffering has happened, for the most part, we have been successful in avoiding it. I think it’s probably accurate to say that none of us have experienced this kind of suffering. Maybe something small. But not full scale.
So, it will be tempting today to blow past this theology of suffering today and say it doesn’t apply to me. That’s for someone else. But let’s not be so arrogant, okay? We’ll come back to this at the end.
So we’ve been working on this story of a lame man who was healed for a couple of weeks now, and today we will finish up the story. So let’s start by reading this scene again, going all the way back to the beginning of chapter 3. You can either follow along, or close your eyes and try to imagine the story as I read it.
[ 003 ] Read Acts 3:1-4:22
So remember our discussion last week, that this court that has convened here is called the Sanhedrin, made up of 71 people, and they were responsible for putting Jesus to death probably just a couple months earlier. So these two apostles named Peter and John have been arrested by this group, held in Jail overnight, and most likely were preparing themselves for the worst. They didn’t expect a fair trial, they didn’t expect to be taken seriously…they were prepared to be treated like this group treated Jesus. False witnesses. Beatings. Torture. And eventually be Killed.
And yet, what we saw last week, is that instead of cowering in fear, Peter was filled with a boldness and a wisdom that wasn’t his own. The Holy Spirit filled him with words to say and a confident boldness to say them, even when it meant confronting the religious leaders for their sin of murdering the Son of God. But surprisingly, the Sanderin let them go without so much as a beating. They didn’t draw up plans for their crucifixion, they didn’t line them up at the whipping post… they basically just threatened them not to keep spreading the name of Jesus and then released them.
Now I don’t imagine that Peter and John went out thinking “Aw man, we really showed them. They can’t stop us now!” I think their assumption going forward is that the Sanhedrin didn’t kill Jesus at his first interview either, but eventually had enough and they took him out. I think Peter and John are leaving the courtroom with a joyful yet solemn awareness that they still could very much lose their lives for this.
And I think the clue to understanding that is in what they did next:
[ 004 ]  After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them.
They reported to their people that the religious leaders were Threatening them; Don’t spread this talk about Jesus any further. Ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, and you remember what they did to him. Guys they let us off the hook this time, but we are not guaranteed that that will happen again.
The people there in the house would have also understood that these threats toward Peter and John are also threats against them. Peter and John represent everyone who would preach in the name of Jesus. The same is still true today, that when Christians around the world are threatened and persecuted, It’s as good as if all of us are being threatened with persecution.
We’re watching this happen on a slightly different level in our world right this second. Yes the October 7 attack from Hamas was against the Jews of southern Israel, but in principle it was an attack on every Jew in the world.
So the people Peter and John went to that afternoon all realized, hey, it’s not just gather around Peter and John and pray for them – this is all of us. Our necks are all on the line now. [ 005 ]  When they heard this, they raised their voices together to God…
The part of their prayer that is written for us is very short, but I think there are 5 things we can learn from what they prayed that will help us develop a theology of suffering, or a theology of persecution, which basically means, their prayer gives us 5 ways to biblically think about suffering or persecution.
[ 006 ] And here is #1:
- The importance of Corporate Prayer. When they were threatened, they turned immediately to corporate prayer, raising their voices together to God. I love that short descriptor in verse 23 of where they went:
- They went to their own people. This is like a veteran walking into a VFW, or like when I go to events with our church planters network. You don’t have to say anything – the people there get you. They understand the things you are experiencing, and it’s not that you share common interests – it’s that you share a common story.
- The church is meant to be that kind of place for believers – a place where you don’t have to pretend you have it all together, a place where you can be real and honest and know that you all share a common story that was written for you in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We share a common story that we were born dead in our sin with no hope of ever living a life that would meet God’s standards of what was right and good and holy; but that God sent Jesus to live a perfect life of doing what was right and good and holy, and that at the cross, Jesus traded us his good, right, and holy life for our life of sin and spiritual deadness. He traded his relationship with God for the separation from God that belonged to us. And when God raised him from the dead, Jesus brought us with him, and recreated us by his Spirit, into new people that belong to him that are set apart for the purposes he has created them for. That’s the common story that all true believers share.
- And when persecution came, they walked right out of that courtroom straight to the people who shared their story, and they began to pray.
- [ 007 ] When they heard this, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Master, you are the one who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. #2 The beginning of their prayer is a carbon copy of what so many old, testament priests, prophets, and kings prayed. [ 008 ] It begins with an acknowledgment of who they are praying to.
- Master. That in itself is a huge statement, because that puts themselves in the position of servants. They are not the ones who are going to be bossing God around, telling him what to do, or what he can or can’t do, or what he needs to do in order for them to be obedient to him. He is the master, which defines them as his servants. He tells us what to do, not the other way around. He calls the shots, we obey. And for these believers, He told us to make disciples, to teach them to obey the commands, he told us to be his witnesses in this city and around the world, and as his servants that’s what we must be about, threats or no threats.
- You are the one who made the heaven, the Earth, and the sea, and everything in them. That is what makes him the master! Those are his credentials! He has more than earned the title of master. This is why we are ambassadors for his glory, not the other way around. As creator, he is able to dictate both the purpose and the plan and the meaning, and the outcome of everything that happens. So an understanding of suffering or persecution begins with a right view of God as the Master, and a right view of self as his servants.
-  You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David your servant: Why do the Gentiles rage and the peoples plot futile things?  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers assemble together against the Lord and against his Messiah.  "For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed… [ 010 ] Thirdly, they prayed using scripture. They understand that scripture is God’s word, it’s the authority for how they understand the things that are happening, and they turned it into prayer.
- They are praying Psalm 2 here, understanding that the violence against Jesus was not a surprise to God. David, who wrote this Psalm 1400 years before Jesus came, wrote that God’s anointed king would always be opposed by the nations of the world, that the kings of the earth would take their stand, and that people would gather together, pass legislation, inflict penalties, and discuss methods of punishment for anyone who align themselves with the Lord, that is Yahweh, and his Messiah, his anointed king, Jesus.
- And what scripture reminds Peter and John and the people praying here is that the persecution really isn’t against them – it’s against God’s anointed Messiah. It’s Jesus that is being rejected, and this doesn’t come as a surprise to God. That’s number 4 in verse 28…
- They have assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, [ 011 ]  to do whatever your hand and your will had predestined to take place. And now this is the part that we have the most difficult time with. This is the part where, especially Americans, who value our independence and individualism, really start to throw up our fists, shake them at God, and maybe eventually walk away. We do not like the idea that God would have pre-determined anything, especially human suffering, and then intervene throughout history in such a way that it would happen exactly as he planned. We like the idea of saying it was our decision.
- So reading verses like this one is when the phrases like, “I don’t see how God could be good and allow this kind of thing to happen’” start to fly around. That’s when things like, “I have no idea where God was when these things started happening to me.” Almost every parent out there will do whatever we can to make sure that our kids don’t suffer pain unnecessarily. So it feels wrong to us when you read something like this that says suffering is part of God’s will for his children, and even something that he would choose for our lives.
- So how do we make sense of this? If you believe that God being good means that he never allows pain to come to his children, you will be incredibly disillusioned in this life, because pain is part of life in a world broken by sin. No one escapes it. Not every crippled man at the gate was healed. Not every broken marriage has a quick fix solution. Not every rebellious child repents and turns to Jesus. Not every Christian escapes persecution and tribulation. Read Revelation chapter 20 – Some Christians will be beheaded simply for being Christians. If you believe God is only good when he protects you from pain, you are worshiping an idea of the kind of God you hope exists, not the I AM WHO I AM that scripture shows us we can trust.
- Additionally, We cannot look at the life of Jesus, and tell ourselves that suffering is never in the will of God. We cannot look at the cross of Christ and tell ourselves that if God allows intense pain in my life that he is no longer good. What you see at the cross is Jesus willingly stepping into suffering, and even joyfully being obedient to his father even when it meant a life of sorrow and a death of torture and excruciating pain, because his suffering meant that God is good!!
- [ 012 ] And if that is true, then in the God of the Bible, you have a God we can trust – where you can be certain that everything he does, including all the various forms of suffering I mentioned at the beginning, is for his glory and for our eventual good. You can be certain that nothing you face is out of his control, nothing you face is out of his reach, nothing you face is beyond the scope of his power, nothing you face is something that requires a stronger, savior, a larger god, then the one true living God, Yahweh.
- The people here in Acts understood this clearly, and as a result, number 5, here’s what they pray [ 013 ] :  And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness,  while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus."
- Lord, you’ve heard what they said. You know that this could get more difficult for us. You know that they killed Jesus, and that they aren’t happy with us. Their threats are legit. But please allow us to speak your word with all boldness! Help us! We are tempted to be fearful. We are tempted to listen to them instead of to you! We’re tempted to backtrack on this and go silent so that nothing happens to us. We’re tempted to just disappear into the crowd and keep our faith as something that is between you and us. But that’s not what you’ve called us to. [ 014 ] So Lord, help us to speak your word with even more boldness!
- Lord, your hand and your will predestined our good friend Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and so we have to believe that you are Lord over even our own suffering. But don’t take your hand away! Like a good Father who disciplines his children, the same hands that inflict pain are the same hands that wrap that child up to comfort their tears. So Father, that same hand that you used to bring about the death of Jesus is the same hand that you stretch out for healing and signs and wonders when we pray in the name of Jesus. So don’t take your hands away.
Do you notice the words these people don’t pray? Never do they pray, “Lord, please make this stop. Please make this go away.” Never once did they pray, and ask the Lord to make their lives easy, or to give them a free pass on hardship. Not once. Instead, they looked at the truth of God’s word which promised this kind of thing would happen, they understood that they were following Jesus and this is where he had already led the way through his own suffering, and they asked for the strength and the courage to not back down no matter the cost. They did not ask for protection; they asked for power. They did not ask for fire from heaven to destroy the enemy, but for power from heaven to preach the Word and heal the sick. Their great desire was for boldness in the face of opposition. The emphasis is on the hand of God at work in the life of the church.
One author said very well for you and me today: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray that God would give you tasks or situations that are equal to your abilities. Pray for the abilities that are equal to your situation or your tasks.” That’s how the early Christians prayed, and that is the way God’s people should pray today (Wiersbe, 418).
And as they asked for God to stretch out his hand with signs and wonders, that is exactly how he answered their prayers.
[ 015 ]  When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly.
So there you have 5 pieces that make up the theology of suffering/persecution.
- The value of prayer in community
- A right view of God and a right view of self
- A right view of scripture as it points to Christ
- Understanding God’s hand and his will is at work
- Praying for strength and boldness instead of escape.
Jesus understood all of those when he faced his own suffering. Even though he was the Son of God, as he prayed before his crucifixion, he brought friends with him. He brought Peter and John along that night, asking them to stay awake and pray with him. Praying together is important.
Secondly, Jesus had a right view of his Father and a right view of himself. He prayed that the Father’s will would be done, not his own. He knew that he was the servant, and his Father was the master.
Thirdly, Jesus understood that all the scriptures pointed to him. So when Psalm 2 said that kings would unite against him, he knew that day would come, and that he could trust the Father when it did.
Fourth, Jesus understood and trusted God’s plan and his hand at work in the world. He knew his Father was trustworthy, that his plan even in suffering was good.
And even though Jesus knew all along in his ministry that he would suffer, he didn’t pray to escape it, he didn’t try running to another country, he didn’t make up his mind, I’ll just stay away from Jerusalem – He set his face to do his Father’s will.
And because he did, salvation has come to Riverside Iowa, November 12, 2023, to anyone who will call on his name. To anyone who will abandon this idea that you are self-made, that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, that you have what it takes to be good and right and holy according to God’s standards. If you will abandon that belief, repent of your sin, and turn to Jesus, you will be recreated in an instant: forgiven of your sin, spiritually cleaned up and given new clothes to wear, and adopted into the family of God! And at that moment, God will begin in you a transformation process where your life starts to look more and more like Jesus every day. As we go to prayer today, if you have not yet repented of your sins and called out to Jesus, please consider what that means for your life and do that today.
For the rest of you, as we move into a time of prayer in response to God’s word this morning, I’m just going to leave this slide up here on the screen and let you look it over. Which of those is something that God would be stirring in you this week? Maybe there is someone here today that you just can’t shake the notion that you are supposed to pray for someone before you leave – be obedient to that. As someone is talking about their week, pray with them. Maybe the Holy Spirit would be leading you that direction.
Maybe you would ask the Lord to reorient your view of him – that you realize most of your prayers are bossing him around telling him what to do, and not a whole lot of “Lord, you are the Master, I am the servant, show me what you want me to do.”
Maybe you haven’t let scripture inform your prayers, and it’s something you want to start doing more of. It’s what you’re doing right now, by the way.
Maybe you are having trouble trusting God’s hand and his will in the world. Maybe it’s war in the world, maybe it’s sickness or family issues, dreading the holiday season, something with school, work, kids, etc.
Maybe you find your prayers are more for escaping anything painful and not for boldness –
Whichever one or two or three of those landed with you this morning, go to the Lord with them. Scripture tells us we can come boldly to the Father in prayer – he’s ready for you, waiting for you, so let’s spend some time here in prayer before we sing.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994)
Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996)
Conrad Gempf, “Acts,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994)
Darrel Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)