Romans 8:17 “Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
Paul is talking about the wonderful privilege of being a son of God. One consequence of that, he says, is that you are also an heir of God, and even more glorious a joint heir with Christ. You are going to receive what he receives; you will share in the glory of the Son of God; you will also obtain his inheritance. Then notice that Paul brings in this tiny but very significant word ‘if.’ There is a condition to having this privilege, in fact he introduces the word ‘if’ twice; “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” If we are children of God, Paul says, suggesting that not everyone is a child of God; many are, but many are not. What are the conditions for this status of sonship? If you have obeyed the Lord who commands all men everywhere to repent . . . if you have fled to the Saviour for salvation . . . if you have trusted in him alone for the forgiveness of your sins . . . if he is your Prophet, Priest and King . . . if you have repented and turned your back on your sins . . . if you are taking up your cross and following him . . . if you show in these ways you’ve become a child of God then you’re also an heir of God. That is the status of every true Christian.
But there is a second ‘if’ which is more searching still; the apostle adds the word ‘indeed;’ “if indeed . . .” Paul says. In other words, there is another evidence of sonship, necessary and essential as a qualification for glory. It has to be fulfilled. If a certain state of affairs is really and truly attained then, and only then, you’ll indeed share in Christ’s glory as a co-heir of Christ. But if something is missing in your life then you’ll be a loser for eternity! Tell me, what is it? What must I do to share in Christ’s glory? Paul does not leave us in suspense. He explains this qualification making it absolutely clear. He says, “If indeed we share in his sufferings.” This has to happen; it is an indispensable factor. To inherit the glory of Christ we must also have shared in his sufferings. There can be no escape whatsoever from this. That was the order appointed for the Son of God, sufferings first and then glory, and that is also the order for all the sons of God; “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Let me bring you three introductory thoughts:
i] We many not hide the reality of Christian suffering from new disciples. It is imperative that we should not, in our evangelism, hide any of the realities of the Christian way. It is seriously misleading to suggest that precisely what the natural man wants – happiness, self-realisation, freedom from anxiety, continuous victory, health and riches – is the whole of what lies on the Christian side of a ‘decision for Christ.’ Even if it were true (which it is not) that the life of a disciple is continuously and exclusively joyful, yet joy in Christian terms is not joy in the sense of the natural man. Honesty, not to mention the explicit requirements of our Lord, demands that the Evangelist should tell sinners to count the cost, and should portray that cost: Deny yourself, take up your Cross, and follow me through a strait gate and along a narrow way. Be prepared for “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword” (Roms. 8:35). One cannot but wonder whether the high casualty-rate among professed converts today is due to their discovery that not all Christian experiences are joyous, that some are grievous, and that takes them completely by surprise. “When affliction or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble” (Mark 4:17). Another comment is this:
ii] We need to balance such teaching about suffering with Christ with other truths about the nature of the Christian life. The key-note of our lives as redeemed people of God is blessedness. That is where the Sermon on the Mount begins. Paul exhorts an entire congregation of converted Gentiles to rejoice in the Lord always, and he underlines that by repeating it. He tells the Christians in Rome that being justified by faith we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. This is the typical expression of the Christian spirit. When Paul and Barnabas were whipped and locked in the deepest cell of a Roman prison with their feet fastened in the stocks then in the blackness of midnight they were singing psalms together. The fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian heart is love and joy and peace. The Christian preacher from Cornwall, Billy Bray, is typical of the servants of God who have known this joy in their lives. He said that as he walked down the street lifting up one foot it said, “Praise the Lord!” and lifting the other it said, “Hallelujah!” and so in a spirit of praise to God he walked through life. That is an enviable spirit, much to be desired. One other introductory comment:
iii] Yet we need to be aware of the reasons for our pain, that we have to live our lives in this groaning and fallen world. It lies under the pernicious influence of the god of this world, Satan, the spirit that now is at work in the children of disobedience. The blessed and happy man described by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount mourns; he hungers and thirsts; he is persecuted. The world we must live in – for Christ prays that God will not take us out of this world – hates the church as it hated our Master. Satan throws his fiery darts at us at any and every opportunity. The Christian life is a marathon, a battle, an agonizing. Each son of God is a soldier and he needs armour covering him; he has to be constantly watchful; his calling is to endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. The believer is constantly made aware of his own internal tensions; the flesh battles with his spirit and his spirit fights against the flesh and there can never be any truce. In relation to the world he is a cross-bearer. In relation to God he is a child who needs correction and chastening and painful discipline. In relation to the devil he daily resists him. In relation to the congregations of Christ he knows the weight of caring for more than one.
When Paul and Barnabas returned to the Christian congregation in Antioch we are told that they strengthened the disciples and encouraged them to be true to the faith . . . “Be true! Now keep being true! Be true to the faith!” So what did they tell them to keep their spirits up? Was it that ‘God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives’? Certainly God did, and we should all as children of God reckon on that, but it can be a terrible cliché, like, “God saves and keeps and satisfies.&rd
quo; Our familiarity with such phrases mutes their impact, and so those were not the notes Paul struck. This is what he told them to encourage them; “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). That was the awareness that gave them backbone and gumption and preparedness; “Men and brethren, we are facing a fight.” But that was not all, not merely an exhortation to tough it out and be brave. Paul and Barnabas told them that God had provided help for every one of them to enter the kingdom, and this is the help in the next verse; “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and with prayer and fasting committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23). Here were preachers provided for each church, and leaders to guide Christian sufferers through their hardships and bring them into the kingdom of God. They were not going to battle on alone. Our sufferings for Christ take place within a body of sympathizing, strengthening men and women. “God won’t let you down. He will take you safely home,” they were told. So the life of the sons of God is one of sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
- THESE PARTICULAR SUFFERINGS ARISE FROM BELONGING TO JESUS CHRIST.
In other words, if we did not belong to Christ then these afflictions and persecutions and cares and trials would not be ours. Let me give you an extreme case of this in the words of the apostle Paul describing what he has had to endure as he goes around the eastern Mediterranean evangelizing; “I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:27-29). If Paul had rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah he would never have known such sufferings. So what is being referred to in our text is the pain and shame and weariness that come into our lives because of our testimony to the gospel. Of course we suffer with all of humanity in this dying world. Ordinary diseases are also ours. Heart-ache and bereavement are ours too. We are not exempt from those things. Then there are also the troubles that we bring upon ourselves because of our own folly. Those are not the sufferings of Christ that we’re enduring, when we pass through them. They are the sufferings of fallen humanity, but Paul is referring to what the disciple endures specifically because he is following the Master, living like our Lord, and teaching others what Jesus taught.
Affliction by itself, no matter how great its intensity, doesn’t sanctify. You read of a media person suffering a car-crash, multiple injuries, much pain, taking a year or two to recover. He turns out to be as great a fool after all that as he was before. We know of a brilliant soccer player and a drunk, needing an organ transplant to survive his drinking, and yet after all his sufferings he is still as immoral a man as he was before. Why do sufferings not automatically elevate and ennoble people? The most general reason for this is that those men have despised their Creator’s chastening – they have treated it with contempt. Suffering is profitable only for those who take it very seriously. What is it to despise the chastening of the Lord ? and, what is it to be exercised by it ? The answer lies, I think, in recalling Paul’s reaction to the thorn in the flesh. He became aware of its presence; he grew anxious about it; he did it the honour of supposing that it was from God and therefore that it had come to him for a purpose. He prayed to discover precisely what that purpose might be.
I am asking you as a Christian to consider whether you might have gone through a time of suffering, and yet have not been nurtured and matured by it. You did not ask it questions. You were fatalistic about it. “So this heart-ache and pain came into my life. Stuff happens . . .” That was all! And you left it at that, as some event and incident that you were unlucky enough to experience. You did not see it as something that came to you on a mission, and with a purpose. A loving Intelligence had brought it into your life. The Word sent it, and if you had interrogated it in the presence of the Wonderful Counsellor then it would have yielded to you its meaning. It might have drawn your attention to some weakness of yours that you should be dealing with, or some peril in your spiritual life, and the suffering you had to go through was intimately connected with that state of affairs. It is a part of Christian watchfulness to maintain a questioning attitude towards the different providences that meet us. God is in control; of him and to him and through him are all things; he is working everything after the counsel of his own will, and so why has he allowed this to happen to you? Always go back to the First Cause. Ask how is this pain linked to your redemption. How can it serve your usefulness in the body of Christ? Pleasant things happen; blessings come to you, and they can help you to be a thankful and consolatory Christian. Bitter things may also happen as a corrective.
Not only is adversity not automatically edifying; in itself, it can be positively soul-threatening. Even our Lord was “tempted by suffering” (Heb. 2:18). A two-fold danger is suggested.
i] Firstly, there is the danger that we faint when rebuked by providence. Our hands hang down; our knees grow feeble. The tendency of such an experience is to exhaust us, to overtax our minds and break our hearts. We may become so pre-occupied with pain that we neglect Christian duty. We can imagine that our obligations to God must for the moment be forgotten: “God can’t expect me to be in two services on a Sunday when I feel like this. He wouldn’t want me to be in Prayer Meeting when I am in this state.” It is quite possible for sorrow to reduce the Christian to impotence. You see this in the conduct of the disciples in Gethsemane. They were sleeping – lots of preparation for the feast they’d had that evening, a long day, a long sermon, a long prayer and a general depression about the threats to Jesus’ life and his conviction that soon he would be killed. So in the Garden one by one they went off to sleep, and so they didn’t keep watch for the arrival of the soldiers led by their friend Judas, nor did they pray. The Hebrew Christians twenty years later were in the same state, nursing their sorrows, doing nothing and loath to get up and get out. So we can faint at a time of suffering.
ii] The second danger is that adversity can make us bitter. The Hebrew Christians were warned about any root of bitterness springing up and troubling them. What are the symptoms of the bad effects of suffering? We complain against
God, we grumble about our leaders, we are envious towards more privileged Christians, we develop a more morbid outlook on life in general. Aren’t those the symptoms of some Christians’ response to suffering? It is by no means an uncommon reaction. It can reduce us to a condition where we hold in contempt those whom we think are having an easier time, and we relegate them to some inferior spiritual status.
So I am saying to you that suffering is not a situation in which spiritual benefit is inevitable, one in which we can relax in the belief that we’re in no danger. The Biblical teaching is quite to the contrary; watch out! Be very careful! Be on your guard! These are dangerous days. If we don’t have God’s presence and help then this can be an exhausting time, leaving us in a bitter state. Suffering with Christ demands constant watchfulness, many little prayers and sighs to God. Nor are we to suppose that we are going to mature and be wiser as a result of the pain and losses we’ve endured. Certainly it should be, but our sanctimoniousness may be, too! But the poor and the persecuted are not always blessed. Of the three crosses on Calvary, one was atoning and the other was sanctifying. But, quite as certainly, the third was hardening.
Always remember, while hardship is inevitable, spiritual depression is not. The arduousness is by divine arrangement, the depression is the result of human sin and frailty. It is not, praise God, incompatible with our being Christians, but it is a serious defect and hindrance. The Biblical standard is, “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair” (2 Cor. 4:8). In every situation, we are called upon to retain our faith in the fatherliness of God, and to cling to the hope of our calling. To allow chastisement to cast us into despondency is, so far, to have failed. Pain has reduced us to such confusion, that we have omitted to bring the great Christian verities to bear on present experience.
4. OUR SUFFERINGS WITH CHRIST ARE EVIDENCE THAT WE ARE SONS.
In our text the apostle is insisting on this, and yet this proposition has to be stated cautiously. Let me remind you again that the fact that we suffer is not in itself proof that we are the sons of God. There were Christian slaves who were suffering because of their folly and laziness. Make sure you are suffering for righteousness’ sake, Peter told them. Suffering is common to mankind; it’s not peculiar to the Church. The negative certainly holds true: if we are without suffering, we are illegitimate. But the positive – if we suffer then we are sons – does not necessarily follow. All sons are beaten, but all who are beaten are not sons. The question is this, does the divine chastening that we get produce any fruit? Is there a change of attitude and behaviour? Does it bring forth peace and righteousness? Before you argue, “I suffer and so I am God’s son,” we need to know what fruit has come from your chastening. What has the suffering done for you? Has it made you a humbler and more earnest believer? All the sons of God suffer, and the fruit of their suffering is that there is greater likeness to Christ, and if that has been the case with you then that is proof positive that you are members of the family of God. (Let me share with you some help I have had from D. Macleod).
i] The first fact is that the one we follow suffered; he suffered intensely and he suffered uniquely. He had to endure the scorn of all the leaders of Israel. He had to endure the Cross. The temptation to give up his mission was great, and in the Garden of Gethsemane the fight was enormous. He resisted sin unto the sweat of his blood. We follow this brave young Saviour. We feel ashamed of our weakness and self pity and plaintiveness; what is our anguish compared to his?
ii] Secondly, the one we follow suffered as a believer. Our Lord is called by the writer to the Hebrews, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebs. 12:2). Our faith finds its quality and texture from his example – our pioneer leader and perfecter. We can be comforted by the way in which the Lord Jesus became strong when he was going through the worst. We are not to think that he was God incarnate and so he had equipment that we don’t have. No! It was not, I say, that he was a divine Person, and so suffering for him was less formidable and less real and less intense than it is for us. No! If that were the cause of his bravery and acceptance under suffering then we are not helped. We can even secretly start thinking that it was easier for him than it is for us. No! Our Lord met his anguish as a believer, as someone who trusted in God. He needed to gather together every bit of faith that he had and to place it all in his Father’s loving hands. He had to say, “Abba, Father, I trust you.” As a believer he is our example. Alas we don’t put 100 per cent of our faith in God as we would, but know this, that our peace and strength are going to be commensurate with as much of our faith that we are able to focus in our Father. That is the message of Hebrews chapter 11. They were men of like passions as ourselves but they put their faith in God and so subdued kingdoms and obtained promises and worked works of righteousness. Jesus spoke of a believing centurion whom he described as having “great faith.” He knew how to handle the serious illness of a beloved friend in a Christocentric way.
The Lord Jesus was the first and only man in whom faith was absolute and perfect. He perfectly trusted in God, and his example is saying that it is possible for a man who believes in God to achieve great help in his sufferings. “Go on trusting God. Trust him with all your hearts and lean not to your own understanding.” The parallel between our Lord’s experience and our own is this; both Jesus Christ and ourselves have true bodies and reasonable souls. In other words, in all things he was like us, sin excepted. Like us he was confronted by temptation and suffering. Like us he was a man of prayer. Like us he was dependent on the grace of the Godhead. Like us he was ministered to by the Holy Spirit. Like us he trusted in God – “Is it possible for this cup to pass from me, nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” The man Christ Jesus prayed like that – just as we do. Putting his trust in God resulted in his suffering so meekly, majestically and triumphantly.
Gethsemane itself, the trepidation with which our Lord contemplated Calvary, is evidence enough that it was with the limited and created faculties of the prepared body that he suffered. He had to be sustained by God’s grace. He bore the anathema and the hostility of Beelzebub, and the journey through the valley of the shadow of death by God’s grace. He was really tempted and tested and survived by God’s grace. That is the stuff of his compassion today. That is why we may sing:
In every pang that rends the heart the Man of Sorrows had a part;
He sympathizes with our grief and to
the sufferer sends relief.
We may appropriate the fellow-feeling of Almighty God because in faculties similar to our own, a body like ours, a mind like ours, a psychology like ours, an openness to temptation like we have, and in circumstances similar to our own, the Son of God suffered, but he suffered far beyond any intensity conceivable in our experience as his people. His sufferings – in one man – were immeasurably greater than the sum total of all the sufferings that all of us endure.
iii] In the third place, Jesus was strengthened in his suffering by the joy that was set before him. In other words, he was encouraged in all his suffering by the prospect of the future reward. He knew that the chaos and horror of Golgotha were followed by the glory of an incomparable exaltation. Do we have a good biblical doctrine of our future days, for example, that in the remainder of our lives on earth all things are going to work together for our good, and that nothing is going to separate us from the love of God, and that God is going to supply all our needs richly. Then do we have a good biblical conviction about our dying, for example, that we will die unto the Lord not unto our own feelings or to the preferences of our family or the medical fraternity, but at the last there will be a transaction going on in which there are only two people, the Lord and ourselves. Nothing else is relevant; nothing else matters. We die to the Lord. Then as we go through the valley of the shadow of death he will be with us and his rod and his staff will comfort us. Then do we have a good biblical conviction about the heaven that awaits us? For example, that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). The figure is a maternal one: the mother wiping away the tears, every last one, with meticulous tenderness. Why the tears? Because the children have been in the Great Tribulation (Revelation 7:14) and it’s almost as if when they get to heaven the tears are still there and God the Father is saying with such tenderness, “It’s all right, it’s all over now!” Not only are the pains and sorrows over. God himself comes so close. We feel his touch upon our souls.
It is as if God were our Servant. It is as if God existed for his children. It’s also so maternal: a mother investing so much of herself in her child, prepared even to lay down her life for him. Here is God himself serving. On earth, Christ washed his disciples’ feet. In heaven, God wipes away the tears and tends the bruises. He will wipe all the bloodstains from his Son. He will tend all his wounds and glorify them. I’m not sure that the memory of all our tears is necessarily eradicated. The Bible speaks of God putting our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He knows every one of them and for each he has his own comfort and his own recompense.
6. THE SONS OF GOD WILL SHARE IN THE GLORY OF THE SON OF GOD.
In heaven how does Christ ensure that we share in his glory? “The Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water” (Rev. 7:17). Christ is active in heaven. Here he is, entitled to his own Sabbath, his work done, experiencing the joy that has been set before him. Yet what is he doing? It’s so beautiful! The Lamb will shepherd us. In other words, he will be our pastor. The flock is to be shepherded by a Lamb! He knows what being a sheep is like. He has taken our nature. He has been in our situation. He has been in the crushing. He has been in the valley of the shadow of death. He has been at the very storm-centre of death itself. He remembers.
Even in heaven we’re not going to be self-sufficient and autonomous. We’re still going to need pastoring. We’re still going to have needs. Unfallen Adam had needs, and God met those needs. Glorified, heavenly man will have needs and Christ will meet these needs. We will never lack: not because we shall never want or desire, but because every need will be instantly met by the Great Shepherd. Heaven doesn’t mean being independent, physically, intellectually or spiritually. It means that we shall have all our needs met in Christ. He will lead us to ‘springs of living water’. He will lead us to the fountains of the water of life. And where are these fountains? In the midst of the throne! (Rev. 22:1). In this present world God feeds us from the river of life. In heaven, we are fed at the source. The Shepherd takes his flock on this marvelous journey into the very heart of Godhead: into the core of his sovereignty and love.
What a picture of the flock grazing eternally under the loving eye of the Shepherd, at the heart of the grace and glory of God! It is no easy thing to put flesh on this. Heaven means standing close to the majesty of God. But that is always the majesty of love, which means that the believer’s privilege is to stand eternally where it all began. No doubt he will gaze and gaze upon it, but he is not taken to the fountain merely to look. He is taken to drink. We will quite literally enjoy God. In a sense we already enjoy his love, even in this present life. But in the 21st century it comes through the filter of providence, mixed with adversity and sorrow and distorted by the currents of demonic and human hatreds. There, it comes unmixed and undiluted, directly from its source in the very heart of God himself.
The journey is an endless one. Death is not the end of our pilgrimage. It’s only the end of the beginning. Through endless ages the Lamb will be showing us new things about the glory of God. We shall never exhaust the fountain. The feast will never be over. We shall never, never stop traveling. We shall never stop getting to know God: not, any longer, in a book, but beside him, face to face with him, in him, at the very source of Life. There will be a future in heaven: an infinitely extended prospect as, day by day, the Lamb leads us to new pastures. God is a God of infinite dimensions. His riches are unsearchable
We will also worship there. We will serve him day and night in his temple (Revelation 7:15). There, we shall see him as he is. We shall see him face to face. Our worship will be a response to that: not something exacted or extorted, but the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. The vision before us (the majesty of God unveiled in the transfigured humanity of Christ) will forbid silence. It will invoke, irresistibly, wonder, love and praise; and these will find expression not only in the voices of individuals, but in the symphony of all the redeemed. They will come from north and south and east and west. They will include black and white, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, the weak and the powerful, introverts and extroverts. Each will sing her own song. But it will be no cacophony. It will be a great harmony, a symphony of grace, awe-inspiring in volume and yet euphonious and melodious as the harp (Rev. 14:1-3): the response of humanity to the wonderful works of God.
And heaven is rest. Maybe rest above all. Here, in this life, responsibilities, pain and temptation. Here, harassment by the demonic, persecution by the world and disappointment in friends. Here, relentless, remor
seless pressure, requiring us to live at the limit of our resources and at the very edge of endurance. But there, rest: ‘the strife is o’er, the battle won’. The toil is behind us and the dangers past. No more the burden of unfinished work or the frustration of in-built limitations. No sin to mortify. No flesh to crucify. No pain to face. No malice to fear.
7. DURING OUR SUFFERING WE MUST NOT STOP THINKING OF CHRIST.
The theology of the Bible makes a difference to the sufferer; and the Bible has a theology of suffering; and we allow ourselves to fall into unnecessary depression because, preferring simply to worry, we refuse to think. Think is the operative word. To possess the Scriptures, to read the Scriptures, to hear the Scriptures preached – these are no substitutes. The Bible yields its comfort only to thought. We are to consider Christ – to think through the significance of his advent and his work. We are not to forget the exhortation, the argument, the case by which Scripture shows that to be cast down is unnecessary and foolish. And that argument speaks, it discourses, it reasons, it uses logic. We know the truth, but we do not know how to apply it; are we unskilful in the word of righteousness? Are we inept in applying its great doctrines to the anxieties of life?