Eschatology: A Help in Suffering

 

In a chapter titled, “Theonomy and Eschatology” from the book Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. explains how a proper understanding of eschatology can help us in times of suffering:

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, ESV)

“This treasure in jars of clay” graphically captures the tension at the heart of this statement, and of the apostle’s overall understanding of the nature of Christian existence between the resurrection and return of Christ…

Paul intends to say, as long as believers are in “the mortal body,” “the life of Jesus” manifests itself as “the dying of Jesus”; the latter describes the existence mode of the former. Until the resurrection of the body at his return Christ’s resurrection-life finds expression in the church’s sufferings (and, as will become clear presently, nowhere else—so far as the existence and calling of the church are concerned); the locus of Christ’s ascension-power is the suffering church…

A key to the intended impact of verse 10 is to recognize that both “and”s (following “Christ” and “resurrection”) are not simply coordinating but explanatory; they do not merely connect, they explicate. In step-wise fashion Paul progressively traces a single, composite notion: Knowing the power of his resurrection is not something in addition to knowing Christ, nor is knowing the fellowship of his sufferings a further addition to both. Rather, the controlling consideration is union with Christ in his death and resurrection such that to “know”/experience Christ is to experience the power of his resurrection and that, in turn, is to experience the fellowship of his sufferings—a total reality that can then be summed up as conformity to Christ’s death.

By virtue of union with Christ, Paul is saying, the power of Christ’s resurrection is realized in the sufferings of the believer; sharing in Christ’s sufferings is the way the church manifests his resurrection-power. Again, as in II Corinthians 4:10-11, the locus of eschatological life is Christian suffering; the mark—the indelible, ineradicable impression—left on the existence of the church by the formative power of the resurrection is the cross. And, further, this is not some merely temporary state of affairs incidental to the circumstances of the church in the apostle’s own day but is for all—the whole church in whatever time and place—who aspire to the resurrection of the dead (v. 11)…

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23, ESV)

Romans 8:18ff especially disclose the breadth of what ought to be our conception of Christian suffering. Suffering has to be seen in the context of the “frustration”/“futility” (mataiotes), the “bondage to decay” to which the entire creation has been subjected, not by the inherent nature of things but because of God’s curse on Adam’s sin (v. 20-21 are, in effect, a Pauline commentary on Gen. 3). Suffering is a function of the futility/decay principle pervasively at work in the creation since the fall; suffering is everything that pertains to creaturely experience of this death-principle…

This revelation/liberation of believers (note: along with and inseparable from the liberation of creation as a whole) is the future dimension of their adoption and will take place at the time of the redemption (=resurrection) of the body (v. 23), not before. Until then, at Christ’s return, the suffering/futility/decay principle in creation remains in force, undiminished (but sure to be overcome); it is an enervating factor that cuts across the church’s existence, including its mission, in its entirety. The notion that this frustration factor will be demonstrably reduced, and the church’s suffering service noticeably alleviated and even compensated, in a future era before Christ’s return is not merely foreign to this passage; it trivializes as well as blurs both the present suffering and future hope/glory in view. Until his return, the church remains one step behind its exalted Lord; his exaltation means its (privileged) humiliation, his return (and not before), its exaltation…

Gaffin explains, as Paul did, that our very existence in this unredeemed world, even and especially as believers, carries with it expectations of suffering, regardless of personal circumstance. Our experience is patterned after Christ’s experience: suffering unto glory. How relevant is this to the prosperity gospel, or any other false gospel that promises worldly comforts as reward for following Christ?

 
 
 

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

 

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