Onwards and Upwards: A Theology of Endurance

June 18, 2021 at 9:54 AM

     Who am I?

Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (1 Cor 11:25-27).

     The Apostle Paul was by no means unfamiliar with suffering. In fact, tradition holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome, entering into the long, bloodstained line of martyrs for the faith. Church history is permeated with accounts of unimaginable suffering for the sake of the gospel. "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted," (2 Tim 3:12).

     Yet many believers fear suffering, especially those who have enjoyed the relative freedom and security of Western culture. Perhaps you struggle to comprehend such severe persecution, or fear compromising in the face of such vicious tribulations. Perhaps you are simply losing in your war against sin, burning out under the pressure of ministry, or crumpling under the burden of life's responsibilities. In any case, how shall we endure the Christian life? The early church had the same concern, and the NT writers offer at least three ways, to which we now turn.



Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12:1-3).

     The author of Hebrews wrote to warn his wavering audience against apostasy to their previous way of life under the Old Covenant and to spur them towards perseverance in their better way of life under the New Covenant. This passage follows an extended tour through the Christian "Hall of Faith," which commemorates the faithful legacy of bygone believers, who endured overwhelming trials and tribulations. Their lives and testimonies have encouraged and inspired countless Christians (practically, many believers benefit from reading Christian biographies).

     However, even more compelling than the legacy of the saints is the "founder and perfecter of our faith," who endured the cross and despised the shame, who bore the wrath and took the blame. Christian, when you falter in the face of opposition, look to Christ. Christian, when you stumble in your struggle against sin, look to Christ. Christian, when you flounder in the fear of man, look to Christ. Christian, no matter what trial or temptation, look to Christ; consider Jesus your example, your forerunner, so that you may not "grow weary or fainthearted."



For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Cor 5:14-15).

     "The love of Christ controls us," referring primarily to Christ's love for us rather than our love for Christ (although the two are theologically related). Paul's drive for ministry flowed from his depth, height, and breadth of perception into the love Christ. Doubtless you are familiar with Romans 5:8, which says, "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Remember, Christ bore the wrath that you would have borne in hell forever so that you might be saved. How could such sacrificial love not move us to perseverance? Out of love, He endured suffering for you, and out of love, you must endure suffering for Him.



For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish...that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8a, 12-14).

     Sadly, many believers fail to understand the practical significance of eschatology, yet the Apostle Paul consistently argues that eschatology has profound implications for the Christian life. For example, what goal is Paul straining towards in Philippians 3? He explicitly identifies it as the future bodily resurrection of the saints. In other words, Paul was willing to endure "light momentary affliction" because it was preparing him for an "eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison," the glory of a resurrected, perfected body (2 Cor 4:17). Forgetting what lay behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, he pressed on toward this goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus; nothing and no one distracted him from his prize.



     "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed," (2 Cor 4:8-9). Satan tramples us, but we rise up, for we know that God will trample him. The world afflicts us, but we rejoice, for we are counted worthy to suffer for Christ. Temptation assaults us, but we resist, for we are called to pursue holiness. Fear overwhelms us, but we rest calm, for we trust in the sovereignty of God. Life undoes us, but we press on, for we find help in Christ. With our eyes fixed upon Christ, with our hearts full of His love, with our minds hopeful of resurrection, let us persevere through every tribulation, through every temptation. Onwards and upwards!