Teaching series from Ephesians

Keys to Suffering Victoriously

Ephesians 3:1-13

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Paul’s letters are full of digressions.  In the middle of a thought—or sentence—he will go off in another direction, and then come back to his original thought.  (He does this for 5 chapters in 2Cor.2:14-7:4!).  He does it here in Eph. 3 as well.  In 3:1, he gets ready to pray for them (read).  But his reference to his imprisonment prompts him to digress until 3:14, when he begins at last to pray for them (read). 

Why did he digress? Because the mention of his imprisonment in 3:1 made him concerned that they would be discouraged by his sufferings.  So in 3:2-12, he explains why he is not discouraged by his sufferings, and then in 3:13 urges them not to be discouraged by his sufferings (read; “therefore”).

This means that in 3:2-12 we get a glimpse into how Paul endured horrible suffering victoriously.  (In Col.1:24, he says he rejoiced concerning his sufferings.  See also Rom.8:37.)  This has obvious application for you and me, since we will all suffer in this fallen world, and we will suffer more because of our commitment to Christ.  We will distill from this passage three keys to suffering victoriously:

God has revealed his plan for humanity            

God has given you a unique role in his plan

God will give you the resources to play your role

God has revealed his plan for humanity

If you want to suffer victoriously, you must understand God’s plan for humanity.  This may sound abstract and initially irrelevant, but you have to start here.  It is only when you know God’s macro-purpose for humanity that you can learn your role in his plan, and only then can your sufferings become truly meaningful.

Paul understood God’s macro-plan, and the specific stage of God’s plan he was in, because God revealed it to him.  Read 3:2-6,11.  What is he saying?  He is saying two things:

God’s plan centers around promises that he made to Israel, promises that ultimately are fulfilled in Jesus Christ (3:6).  When humanity revolted against God, God launched his rescue plan.  In Gen.12, he promised Abraham that through his descendants he would one day make the blessing of salvation available to every ethnic group in the world.  The whole Old Testament period is the period of promise.  The Old Testament prophets predicted the coming of God’s Messiah (King), a descendant of Abraham/Judah who would decisively defeat evil and re-establish God’s kingdom so that all nations would know the Lord (CHART).  To demonstrate that this was God’s plan and that it would be fulfilled, the prophets also made short-term predictions that were always fulfilled (e.g., Babylonian exile and return).

God revealed the “mystery” portion of this plan to Paul and other apostles and New Testament prophets (3:5).  This “mystery” was a portion of the fulfillment of God’s plan not clearly revealed in the Old Testament (CHART).  This “mystery” portion began with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Instead of coming to reign, he came to die as the Lamb of God, the perfect Substitute whose death paid for humanity’s sins.  (The Old Testament prophets recorded predictions of Jesus’ death, but they didn’t understand them.)  The “mystery” portion continues with the formation and growth of a new chosen people.  During this stage of history, God’s chosen people are not physical descendants of Abraham who worship God at a physical Temple in Jerusalem—they are a growing multi-ethnic body of believers in Jesus who are God’s Temple all over the world (Matt.24:14)!  Paul knew God’s plan for humanity, he knew the stage of God’s plan he was in, and he was seeing God fulfilling his plan as the church grew numerically, geographically and ethnically.  This knowledge gave him confidence that God’s plan would ultimately be victorious—which helped him tremendously during his sufferings (Rom.8:18).

You and I have access to this same understanding of God’s plan—it has been given to us through the New Testament.  We can look back in history and see that God has fulfilled his promise to have his Son die for our sins and be resurrected to prove he paid.  We can look back in history and see that God has been building his church—now established in every political nation and exploding in the non-white, non-western world (CHINA, KOREA, INDIA, AFRICA EXPANSION STATISTICS).  History is headed to the fulfillment of God’s plan, just as Jesus predicted.  This knowledge gives you stability and hope in the midst of your sufferings

How can you learn about and stay focused on this “big picture?”  You can learn it by taking the “Intro to the Bible” class, and you can stay focused on it by following a daily, whole-Bible reading plan.  This is not as stimulating as “American Idol”—but it is profoundly strengthening!

God has given you a unique role in his plan

Paul endured suffering victoriously because he not only understood God’s plan, but also because he knew God had given him a unique role in his plan (read 3:7-10).

Paul deserved God’s condemnation because he was religious bigot who persecuted and killed Jesus’ followers (because they told Gentiles about Jesus).  Yet Jesus not only showed him mercy (not giving him the condemnation he deserved)—he also showed him grace (giving him a privilege he did not deserve).  Specifically, Jesus gave him the privilege of leading the way in telling Gentiles about Jesus’ love for them (3:8).  As this multi-ethnic church grew, all people (Jews, Greeks, Romans) were getting a glimpse into God’s plan—and many of them were joining it (3:9).  And even the angels (fallen and unfallen?) are learning about God’s “manifold” wisdom as they see Jesus’ “multi-ethnic” church grow (3:10).

This is why Paul can say he doesn’t lose heart, but even rejoices, in spite of his imprisonment.  He sees that his sufferings have meaning, that they are worthwhile because they advance God’s plan to spread the gospel to the Gentiles, including his audience (3:1,13).  And God further redeemed Paul’s imprisonment sufferings by using the 5 prison letters he wrote to benefit millions of people all over the world for the last 20 centuries!

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, makes this same point.  While a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, he noted that only those prisoners who had a meaning for their lives were able to endure their terrible sufferings with hope and dignity.  Those who lacked this (who lived only for pleasure, comfort, etc.) soon wilted and died.  Frankl went on to develop what he called logotherapy (meaning-oriented therapy)—a form of psychotherapy that emphasized (among other things) that the key to enduring suffering victoriously was having a meaning for your life that was bigger than temporal comfort and circumstantial happiness.

“People have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning... One of the central tenets of logotherapy (is) that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.  That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition... that his suffering has a meaning.”1

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering... the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice... Once an individual’s search for... meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.”2

Unfortunately (as an atheist/agnostic), the best Frankl could do was to urge people to invent their own meaning.  But because God exists, and because God has spoken through his Word and Spirit, we can discover the true meaning of our lives.  And this discovery can enable us to face suffering victoriously (like Paul).

If you know Christ, your sufferings have meaning because they are part of your role in God’s plan.  Like Paul and like me, you deserve God’s condemnation for your rebellion against God—but according to his grace he has not only forgiven you, he has also given you a unique role in sharing and showing Jesus’ love to other people (read 2:10).

“There are hands out there that only you can hold. There are people out there that only you can reach.  There are hearts breaking that only you can heal.  Your race, your ethnicity, your gender, your sorrows, your experience, your age, your everything... God made you like a fingerprint, and there are certain people out there that God wants to touch through you, and they’re not going to be touched without you.  So go...”3

We will discuss this subject further (including how to discover your unique role) in Eph. 4.  But don’t miss the point here: Knowing that your life is part of God’s purpose, and that you have a unique role in God’s plan is tremendously fortifying during severe suffering.  This is not just because this privilege overshadows your suffering. It is also because God promises to work sovereignly through your sufferings to advance his plan (read Rom.8:28).  You can reflect on how God has redeemed your sufferings in the past.  And you can rejoice because you know he will redeem this present suffering as well.  I have asked my wife to share an example of how God has redeemed suffering from her past to enable her to play her unique role...

God will give you the resources to play your role

Now we come to the third key to enduring suffering victoriously—re-read 3:12.  “Don’t be discouraged by my sufferings.  I know what God is doing in history, and I know I have a privileged role in God’s plan—and besides, I have personal access to God.  By faith in Christ, I can go to him at any time and receive all that I need to play this part of my role.”

The first two keys are objective truths that you learn and believe; this last key is something that you subjectively experience.  The author of Hebrews invites us to draw near to God through the One who suffered victoriously to receive the help we need (Heb.4:15,16).  Jesus promised to personally give all of his followers peace in the midst of their sufferings (Jn.14:27; 16:33).  Paul rejoiced because of the personal encouragement he received from God in the midst of his sufferings (2Cor.1:3,4a,5).  This is why Paul’s prison letters bubble over with joy just as much as the letters he wrote when his circumstances were better!

If you know Christ, you have this same access and you can have these same resources.  Read Rom.15:4,13.  Learn the tremendous promises in his Scripture.  Go to God with your pain and suffering, and personally affirm your trust in his promises.  Ask him for the resources he promises so that you can fulfill your role in his plan.  Trust him to give them to you in the way and timing he knows is best. 

Would you like to have these keys to suffering victoriously?  Would you like to know that God has a plan for history, and that he has given you a role in his plan?  Would you like to experience his peace and comfort and hope and joy in the midst of your suffering? God wants to give you all of this—and much, much more.  Just come to his Son Jesus Christ and give your life to him and to his purpose for your life!

1 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1985), pp. 165,136.

2 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp.135,163.

3 Tim Keller in a teaching entitled “Witness”