Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians: Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians (16): The Gift of Suffering for Christ’s Sake

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 26, 2007

Philippians 1:29-30

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The Lord’s Day

August 26, 2007

Philippians 1:29-30 (2)

“The Gift of Suffering for Christ’s Sake”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Now we’re studying today from Philippians 1:29, the Apostle
Paul’s words that “it has been granted to us not only to believe, but also to
suffer”. Let me just tell you ahead of time, we will only scratch the surface of
this vitally important subject. I hope the message today is something of an hors
d’oeuvre, something that will whet your appetite and give you a desire, a hunger
actually, for more, so that you can learn more about what it means to join with
Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings, and also so that you can understand
more about the place of suffering in our lives as Christians.

Two older writers, writers from 1600 years ago,
greatly encouraged me in this area as I was meditating on this truth during the
week. Marius Victorinus was a philosopher and a lecturer, and a school teacher
in Rome. For 61 years, he lectured in philosophy in that great city, and he was
converted to Christ when he was 61 years old. And a year after he was converted,
the Roman emperor decided that he was going to try and stamp out Christianity
and cause Rome to go back to paganism. (The emperor’s name was Julian – we
typically call him Julian the Apostate.) And Victorinus was so committed to
Christ and so thankful for what Christ had done for him, he insisted upon
continuing to publicly profess his faith in Christ and to teach as a Christian,
and so Julian shut down his school. It’s very appropriate then that we hear
these words based on Marius Victorinus’ meditations on Philippians 1:29 as we
prepare for worship today. He says this:

“It was therefore within His purpose that He gave us the gift of trusting in
Him. This was an incomparable gift. So we are to believe in such a way as to be
ready to suffer for Him.”

Let’s prepare to worship God.


Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn
with me to Philippians 1:29. The choir was singing of the greatest gift of love.
The Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:29 is talking about two gifts, the gift of
faith, and, perhaps surprisingly to you, the gift of suffering for Christ.

The Philippians are worried. The Philippians
themselves face enormous opposition. There are the Roman pagans who view them as
[followers of] an ignorant superstition that is a threat to the community, and
eventually in their lifetime they will face official Roman persecutions approved
by the emperor. They will face literal physical persecution because of their
faith in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, they’re facing opposition from false
teachers who are seeking to tear them apart from the gospel. And on top of all
that, the missionary that they’ve sent out, the man who brought the gospel to
them, the man who they think (rightly so) is the leading edge of God’s expansion
of the gospel to the Gentile world is in prison awaiting sentencing, chained to
a Roman officer and has every possibility of going to his death through
execution in the Roman court.

And they are discouraged, and so in verse 28, the
Apostle Paul has urged them not to be threatened, not to be discouraged, not to
be overwhelmed by the situation that they’re in–not that their situation isn’t
threatening and discouraging and overwhelming, but because there are truths
about God, about Christ, about the gospel, about grace, in this world that are
able to counter these very logical, very understandable, very overwhelming
situations and circumstances, and opposition and threats that they are in fact
dealing with…living through…encountering.

And so in verses 29-30, the Apostle Paul gives them
an enormous encouragement, a reason why they should not be overwhelmed by the
sufferings, the trials, the persecution, the ostracism, the mocking that they
are incurring in Philippi from pagan Romans and others…why they should not be
overwhelmed when they look and they see him in prison and potentially on his way
to execution. And he tells them to remember that not only did the Lord give them
the gift of faith for the sake of Christ, but that He gave them the gift of
suffering for Christ.

It really is an amazing thing that Paul is saying to
the Philippians. Paul wants the Philippians to see that not only is faith a
gift, and not only…as he said in I Corinthians 13 and as the choir has just
sung…not only is love a gift, but suffering for Christ is a gift. It’s not a
sign that God has abandoned them; it’s not a sign of the failure of His power;
it’s not a sign of the defeat of His purposes in the world; it’s not a sign of
His punishment of their sin; it is not a sign of their lack of faith; rather,
their suffering for Christ’s sake is an enormous privilege. It is a blessing
from God. It is a gift from Him. It is under His complete control.

Now. That encouragement that He gives to the
Philippians ought to force us, I think, to think together about at least two
things. The first thing is about suffering for Christ. What does it mean for us
to suffer for Christ’s sake?
Are we suffering for Christ’s sake? Are we
ready to suffer for Christ’s sake? Do we pray for the literally tens of millions
of Christians around the world who are now suffering for Christ’s sake?

Secondly, I think that this verse asks us to think
hard about the general meaning of suffering in our lives: how God uses it; what
it is for.
We live in a day and time, we live in an age which sees the
avoidance of suffering at all costs as a wise course of action. We live in a day
and age where when suffering happens on either a small or grand scale, God is
immediately called on the carpet. Let a bridge fall down in Minneapolis,
Minnesota; let a hurricane hit the coast of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana;
let a tsunami sweep over the southeast Asian territory of Sumatra and elsewhere,
and immediately what happens? God is called into the office, like a principal
calling in a seventh grader–“Sit there in that chair right now. I want some
explanations”–because God’s at fault. God’s got to give an account, because we
assume that suffering is inherently wrong and shouldn’t happen.

Within the Christian world there are of course people
who say ‘If you really trust in Christ, you won’t suffer. God wants you to be
blessed. God wants you to be happy all the time. He doesn’t want you to have
trials, He doesn’t want you to endure sufferings; He wants your whole life to be
a blessing. If you are experiencing suffering, it is because you do not have
enough faith.’ It is taught in books, it is taught on television, it is taught
in churches, and so Christians today are very confused as to what to do or think
or say about suffering.

Our forebears were not so unwise. Our forebears, when
they encountered suffering for the sake of Christ, were not surprised. And when
our forebears encountered general suffering, suffering for which there was not
an easy and readily available explanation, they went to work in prayer seeking
what lessons God would have them learn in that suffering — not accusing Him for
allowing something to happen to them that shouldn’t be happening, but accepting
suffering to be a part of the Christian life, and only wanting to know what
God’s purposes were in that suffering. Our forebears were wise, and they were
biblical, because this is precisely what the Apostle Paul is doing with the

The Philippians are confused about the suffering that
they are experiencing and that Paul is experiencing, and God has a word for them
through the Apostle Paul as to how they are to view suffering, and suffering for

There are three things that I want to try and do
today — and I want to emphasize “try.” There is no way that we can cover the
massive ground of suffering in 25 minutes, and so what we’re really going to do
is outline this very, very important and practical subject, and I hope that it
will create enough of an interest on your part that you will want to follow up
in the Bible’s manifold teaching about suffering in the Christian life.

Three things I want to try and do with you today:
One, I want to look at the issue of suffering for Christ in God’s sovereignty;
two, I want to just in passing note that the Bible teaches that there is more
than one kind of suffering. There are lots of different kinds, or types, of
suffering, and we need to know that, because that will actually save us from
errors in interpreting what we’re going through. And then, thirdly, very quickly
we will look at our preparation for and embrace of suffering for Christ and
suffering in general.

Let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. You mean it
for our good, our edification, our maturing, and for Your glory. Grant that our
hearts would receive this word from Your heart as from Your very lips, as the
bread of life. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God. Philippians 1:29:

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only
believe in Him, but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict that
you saw I had, and how hear that I still have.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and
inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

How do you respond to suffering in this world? What’s
your instinctive reaction? Suffering on a grand scale, suffering due to massive
natural catastrophes, or suffering in the lives of friends and loved ones? Is
your natural instinct to ask what in the world is going on? To question God’s
wisdom or goodness, or power? To assume that suffering isn’t supposed to be a
part of life in this fallen world? To assume that it’s an accident, a mistake?

The Apostle Paul is deeply concerned that the
Philippians and you and me…he is deeply concerned that we would have a biblical
view of suffering for Christ and for suffering in general, and that’s what we
want to outline today — and I want to emphasize “outline.”

I. Suffering for Christ’s sake
is a gift from God
First of all, notice that the Apostle Paul teaches the
Philippians that suffering for Christ’s sake is a gift from God
. Whereas
they, in the midst of their experience of being opposed and threatened and
persecuted by their contemporaries, being deeply discouraged by that
circumstance, are not adequately responding to the truth that God is in control
and in charge of that suffering that they are experiencing, and so he says to
them point blank, ‘Don’t you understand that just like your faith was a gift
from God, so also this suffering that you are experiencing is a gift to you from
God? This is not a mistake. It’s not an accident. It’s not something that God
didn’t see coming. It’s something that God has in view in His good and perfect
plan for you.’

Now when the Apostle Paul says this, you understand
he is not speaking as some kind of dry-land sailor who doesn’t know anything
about suffering. This man, if you will remember, was beaten with a scourge five
times with 39 lashes. Some people didn’t survive one scourging in the Roman
world. Did you know what scourging would often not only splay a person’s flesh
until the bone was exposed, but it would also often reveal or expose internal
organs? Five times he was scourged with 39 lashes. Three times he was beaten
with rods, twice he was shipwrecked, once he was stoned and left for dead. Too
many times to count, he was run out of cities, pursued, mocked, and persecuted.
And the Apostle Paul says to the Philippians, ‘Don’t you understand that doing
that for Jesus is a gift from God to me?’

Now to understand why, you have to turn back to Acts
9, verses 1 to about 16. Do you remember the story of Paul’s conversion? Before
Paul was “Paul”, he was Saul of Tarsus. He was a Pharisee. He was the leader of
the group that was designed to stamp out Christianity in Israel and in the
world. And as Saul of Tarsus, he and a team — a persecution team — was heading
up from Jerusalem to Damascus, and they were going up to Damascus with the
express purpose of harassing Christians, persecuting Christians, identifying
Christians and causing them to suffer. The apostle — before he was the apostle —
Saul had even had a part in holding the cloaks of the men who killed the first
martyr, Stephen.

Yes, the Apostle Paul (before he was the Apostle
Paul) was a religious persecutor, an inquisitor, an assassin, and so he was on
his way up to Damascus to cause Christians to suffer, and something funny
happened on the way to Damascus. Jesus met him. And he lost his sight, he was
blinded. And then the men who were with him took him on to Damascus and left him
in the home of a man named Judas. And then Jesus rang up Ananias and said,
‘Ananias, I want you to go to Strait Street, and I want you to go to the house
of Judas. And I want you to find a man named Saul of Tarsus, and I want you to
take him in, and I want you to minister to him.’ And Ananias says, ‘Ah, Lord,
I’ve…ah…I’ve heard of this guy, and he was coming to Damascus to look for me.
You’re saying you want me to go look for him?’ ‘Yes, Ananias.’

And then Jesus gives Ananias two encouragements.
First He says, ‘Ananias, go find Saul, because he is praying. Saul is prostrate,
blinded, utterly dependent upon Me. I have humbled him to the dust. He knows He
needs Me. He’s in such deep need right now, he doesn’t know what to do. He’s
waiting for a word from Me, and I’m going to give that word to Him through you.’
And then the second thing that He says to Ananias is what? ‘I am going to show
Saul how much he will suffer for Me.’ So the very first thing that Saul hears
from this Christian who is the first person given to disciple him is, ‘You know,
the Lord Jesus has told me how much you are going to suffer for Him.’ And you
know what the Apostle Paul’s response is to that? It is the response of saying,
‘You mean I get to suffer for the One whom I caused so much suffering? You mean
I get to suffer for Jesus, when I deserve to be a tarred spot of incinerated
ashes somewhere on the roadside on the way to Damascus? You mean I get to suffer
for Christ? What a privilege! Because I am less than the least of the apostles,
and yet God has counted it His will to give me the privilege to suffer for

And Paul now says to the Philippians, ‘You get to
enter into that same privilege, too, because you’re a Christian.’ Paul says God
is in control even of your suffering at the hands of His enemies, and He has
purposes in view even in that suffering. Be encouraged. This is not a mistake,
this is not an accident, this is part of God’s plan.

II. Suffering in the Scripture.

Now, suffering for Christ is not the only kind of
suffering that the Bible speaks about.
There are different ways we could
enumerate it. Let me very, very quickly give you seven different kinds of
suffering that are spoken about in the Scriptures.

There is the suffering of justice — when people
get what they deserve
— like when the children of Israel rebel against God
in the wilderness, and 14,700 of them die of the plague. They rebelled against
God, they spurned His revealed will, they blasphemed Him, they followed after
their own hearts, they were judged on the spot. That is justice. The suffering
of justice: where God, responding to sin and disobedience, brings judgment.

Now it’s not the only kind of suffering in this
world, but it does exist. The problem with Job’s friends was that they thought
that because Job was suffering, he must have been suffering because of his sin
and disobedience. What they were wrong in was not recognizing that there are
other kinds of suffering in the Bible.

Secondly, there’s the suffering of discipline, as
when the Lord says in Hebrews 12:5,6, that “whom the Lord loves, He
Now discipline is not fun! None of the fifth graders are
lining up and saying, ‘You know I would really like to get a paddling from Mr.
Herring today. Could you send me down to his office so that I could be the first
one to get a paddling today?’ None of us are lining up for spankings! Discipline
hurts! It’s supposed to. But it’s not designed to destroy us, it’s designed to
do us good. It’s not designed to punish us so that we receive the exact penalty
of our crime, it is designed to deter us from doing the crime again. It’s
designed to mature us. So there’s the suffering of discipline.

And then there’s the suffering of fellowship —
empathetic suffering, where one person’s grief affects another, like in Isaiah
63:9, where the Lord says, “All of your afflictions are mine.”
The Lord is
saying if someone touches the apple of My eye, they might as well come after Me.
It’s the same thing, by the way, that happens when Jesus meets Saul in Acts 9.
Do you remember when Jesus meets Saul on the road to Damascus, and He says,
“Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting them?” Is that what Jesus says? No.
Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting Me?” Now, Saul was persecuting
Christians, but as far as Jesus was concerned, you touch them, you touch Me.

Those of you who have ever ministered to a loved one
who is undergoing a trial know what the suffering of fellowship is…when you
would do anything in the world if you could take the place of your loved one
enduring that suffering.

Then there’s the suffering of witness. It’s the
kind of suffering that we see in the story of Job
, where Job’s suffering was
going to witness to some grand truth about God and His glory and was going to
teach millions and millions and even billions of people truths about God…the
suffering of witness to who God is, and to how He works…although let me say in
passing, there is no evidence from the book of Job that Job ever understood that
about his suffering. He may not have ever known what God’s plans and purposes
were in his suffering. We, who are the beneficiaries of his suffering, millions
upon millions of believers in the world who ever since his time have blessed his
name, but there is no indication that Job ever understood that. There is a
lesson hidden there as you evaluate your own suffering in this life.

There’s of course the heartbreaking story of Hosea,
whose wife is unfaithful to him and he endures great, great suffering because of
her infidelity; and yet, her infidelity and his faithfulness are designed to
teach us an enormous truth about God’s love.

And then there’s the suffering of the man born blind.
The story is told in John 9. The disciples ask, “Is this man blind because of
his parents’ sin?”

“No, he’s blind so that the glory of God can be revealed in
him. Be healed; receive your sight.”

Now the Bible says there is a suffering of witness in
which testimony is given as to who God is, revelation is made of who God is,
praise is given to God for His purposes.

Then, fifthly, there is final and eternal
suffering in the Bible

Sixth, there is the suffering of substitution —
vicarious suffering, suffering in another person’s place.
It is the kind of
suffering that the Lord did on the cross. It was not a suffering He deserved,
but He willingly, voluntarily, took the suffering in your place so that you
would never have to experience the suffering of the full and unmitigated wrath
of God’s just judgment poured out on you. He suffered as a substitute.

And then there is the suffering of discipleship,
mentioned here in Philippians 1:29: suffering for Christ’s sake, as when the
Christian has the privilege of enduring the rejection and trials and persecution
because of loyalty to Christ.

There are many different kinds of suffering in this
world, so the Apostle Paul wants us to understand that suffering for Christ’s
sake is a gift of God; second, that suffering for Christ is not the only kind of
suffering in the Christian life; but the third and final thing that I want
you to see is this: Christians should expect and prepare to suffer for Christ’s

III. Christians should expect
and prepare to suffer for Christ’s sake.

Christians should expect and prepare to suffer for
Christ’s sake. We need to be ready to identify with Him when His person and
cause are despised. Cassie Bernall had no idea the morning that she walked into
Columbine High School that that day she was going to have an opportunity to bear
witness to Jesus Christ with one word…one word: “Yes.” You remember the
question? “Are you a Christian?” “Yes,” she said. There’s her testimony. She had
no idea that that morning she was setting out on a day that she would become a
martyr for Christ, but she was ready to give witness when the time came. She was
prepared to say her yes. That was no long oration, no speech, no sermon. Just
“yes.” That’s it.

Those Turkish martyrs, only a few weeks ago when they
went into the publishing office, into the printing office where they had been
printing Bibles and Christian literature, they had no idea that that morning
they would have the opportunity to shed their blood for Jesus Christ, but when
the time came they were ready. They were prepared.

Are you ready for, are you prepared to suffer for
Christ? This is not theoretical.
Oh, it may be true that not everyone in
here will face a direct threat on our lives because of our confession of faith,
but let me quickly say, you understand that most persecution in the Christian
world in the first three centuries under the rule of Rome was not like that.
They didn’t always come after Christians explicitly because they were confessing
faith in Christ. They found other reasons: ‘Why won’t you offer up those
offerings as a part of you becoming a military officer? What’s wrong with you?
You’re not loyal to the empire.’ If you sat them down and said, “Are you
persecuting Christians?” they wouldn’t say, “Yeah, I’m persecuting Christians.”
They would say, “No, I’m persecuting treasonists — disloyal, unfaithful, bad
Roman citizens.”

Many of you may have the opportunity to lose your job
because of your faithfulness to Christ. Just a few weeks ago, President
Bush nominated a new Surgeon General. That Surgeon General was a member of the
United Methodist Church and had been on a panel in which that church was dealing
with homosexuality, and he had recommended against the practice of homosexual
ordination. And when he came to be examined by the Senate, that did not sit well
with his examiners. He lost a job because of his fidelity to what he believed to
be the truth. You may have the opportunity to lose a job soon because of your
fidelity to Christ and to Scripture.

But I want to say one other thing, too. What about
our other suffering? What about suffering that is not explicitly and directly
because of persecution against us for the faith of Christ?
Well, John Piper
has some very wise words that I want to share with you:

“In choosing to follow Christ in the way He directs, we choose all that this
path includes under His sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in
the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ. Whether it’s
cancer or conflict, all experiences of suffering in the path of Christian
obedience, whether it’s from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in
common: they all threaten our faith in the goodness of God, and they tempt us to
leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all
perseverance and obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the
preciousness of Christ, whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.”

Do you see what Piper is saying? When the job is lost
and you’re tempted to say, “Lord, You’ve abandoned me”…when you’re tempted to
lose faith, and you say, “Lord, I will magnify Your name. I will believe in
You”…when you stay in a marriage and you’re facing impossible situations, and
you say, “Lord, I will do this for Your glory”…when you’ve gotten the terminal
diagnosis, and you say, instead of ‘Lord, You don’t care about me,’ but rather,
“Lord, I want You to get the glory in this, and I want this to be a witness to
my children and to my grandchildren, and to all of my friends,” that general
suffering is being offered up as a sweet smelling aroma to Christ: “Lord, take
this and be glorified by it.”

Piper’s not through. He goes on to say:

“Not only that, the suffering of sickness and the suffering of persecution have
this in common: They are both intended by Satan for the destruction of our
faith, and they’re governed by God for the purifying of our faith. Suffering for
persecution and sickness are often indistinguishable. Suppose that the Apostle
Paul had gotten pneumonia from all his work and exposure. Would that pneumonia
have been persecution? Would it have been suffering for the sake of Christ? Paul
didn’t make a distinction between being beaten by rods and having a cold while
traveling between towns. For him all the suffering that befell him while serving
Christ was a part of the cost of discipleship. When a missionary’s child gets
sick, that’s a part of the missionary’s faithfulness. But if any parent is
walking in the path of obedience to God’s calling, it is the same price. What
turns sufferings into sufferings with and for Christ is not how intentional our
enemies are, but how faithful we are. If we are Christ’s, then what befalls us
is for His glory and for our good, whether it is caused by enzymes or enemies.
When we speak of the purposes of suffering, we mean both persecution and the
accidents and sicknesses that befall us in any path of faith.”

So the question then for us — totally apart from how
we will respond to the obligation to be ready and prepared to suffer for Christ
when that comes explicitly and directly — the challenge for us is in all the
other sufferings of our lives is will we say “This will be now when I serve
Christ for His glory, and embrace this event as from His hand and seek to give
Him praise.” And, my friends, that is an important standing issue, because if
any one of us could know for just an instant all of the suffering that exists in
this room, it would crush you. And so how we respond to this suffering is a
vital part of our Christian discipleship.

You see? We’ve only just scratched the surface. Let’s

Lord God, grant that when we pick up our hymnals
and sing “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on your side; bear patiently your cross
of grief or pain”–grant that when we sing those words, that we will sing them in
faith for Christ’s sake. Amen.

[Congregational hymn: Be Still,
My Soul

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