The Suffering Son (Hebrews 5:5-10)

Hebrews 5v8 01

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over my years of ministry is, ‘Why do people suffer?’ For a lot of people, including Christians, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then it would seem to make sense that God would not want people to suffer and would get rid of evil in the world.

I am not aware of any place in the Bible which gives a philosophical explanation for why God allows suffering in the world. It just assumes that there is suffering because of the existence of sin. However, the Bible does talk about the reality of suffering and God’s relationship with people in our suffering.

For example, in Hebrews 5:8,9, we read that Jesus learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering so that he could be ‘the source of eternal salvation’ for all who obey him. There are some key words in here that really deserve a message in themselves to understand what is being said because each of them can be understood in a few different ways. However, one way we can interpret what’s being said is that, as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he was learning to trust in his Father in heaven. This is what Paul calls ‘the obedience of faith’ in Romans 1:5 and 16:26 – that ultimately God wants us to love and trust him more than anything else, and that trust will show itself in the way we live our lives. When Jesus went to the cross, all he could do was trust that his heavenly Father would hear his ‘prayers and pleadings’ as he asked his Father to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Even as he died, he was still trusting that his heavenly Father would keep his promises and raise him to life as he promised in the Old Testament (see Psalm 16:9,10).

This ‘obedience of faith’ then ‘qualified’ Jesus ‘as a perfect High Priest’ because it completed the task that God had sent him to accomplish. The Greek word used for ‘perfect’ is not so much being morally flawless, which is how we can sometimes think about perfection, but instead more about being brought to completion or reaching a goal. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering because God completed him as our saviour and high priest as Jesus trusted his heavenly Father fully in the middle of what he was suffering. Jesus reached his goal by experiencing the full weight of suffering in our world so that, when we are suffering, we can go to him as the one who has suffered more than we could imagine but has also trusted our heavenly Father in ways that we can’t.

To obey Jesus, then, means to trust him like he trusted our heavenly Father. We all suffer in some way in our lives, to one degree or another. However, our society sees suffering as something that should be avoided at any cost, so we spend much of our time, effort and money trying to avoid suffering and pursue happiness. We do that in lots of different ways – relationships, material possessions, life experiences, entertainment and social media, even involvement in church can be a way of avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness.

When we look at the suffering of Jesus, however, especially through this text, we get a different perspective on suffering. When we suffer, Jesus suffers with us, which means that God suffers with us in him. God’s answer to human suffering isn’t to rid the world of suffering, but to become part of human suffering and share in our suffering with us. Whenever we suffer in any way, Jesus, the Immanuel – God with us – suffers with us as well. So we are never alone in our suffering, not matter how alone we might feel.

In the same way that Jesus learned the obedience of faith in suffering, we can also learn this same obedience in our suffering through faith in him. When we are experiencing pain or suffering of any kind, it can feel like it’s all out of our control. To learn the obedience of faith in our suffering means to trust God with those things that are out of our control and causing our suffering, just like Jesus did when he suffered. This is where we find an important aspect of faith: trusting God in all circumstances, even when it seems like he is a long way away.

This is also how God shapes us and perfects us as his holy people. When we find the grace to trust God in the middle of our suffering, he moulds us into people who are able to be his presence in the world. When we suffer, we can find God with us in our suffering through Jesus, and then we can become the presence of God in the lives of others in their suffering. God can use the hurts and pain we experience to bring us closer to him in a relationships of faith so that we, in turn, can bring hope and comfort to others who are suffering as well. In the same way that God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust him and complete him as our saviour, so God can and will use our suffering to teach us to trust him in all the circumstances of life, to grow our faith in him, to equip and then send us to bring his good news of peace and salvation into a suffering world.

None of this means that God inflicts suffering on people. Suffering is part of living in a fallen and broken world, and because we fail to love each other in the way God wants us to. Suffering isn’t God’s fault, but he doesn’t stand by doing nothing while we suffer either. The life and death of Jesus shows us that God is intimately involved in our suffering, as he suffers with and for us. In his creative power, God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust his heavenly Father and to perfect him as our great High Priest and saviour. When we suffer, then, we are never alone. God uses suffering to teach us to trust him as the one who is with us in our suffering, to grow our faith in him, and to equip us as his agents of peace and hope in a suffering world.

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Life in Christian Community (Hebrews 13:-18,15,16)

family of GodLast weekend, a dozen members of our congregation’s leadership teams went on retreat to spend time focussing on the future of the congregation. Our main topic of discussion was around the idea of being a ‘Simple Church.’ This is a complex congregation with a lot of activity, so we began to imagine how things might look if we simplified our activity to help people find a greater sense of peace and rest through a growing faith in Jesus.

Part of simplifying a complex congregation is working out what is central to our identity as a Christian community. It is kind of like packing to go on a trip. Once we realise that we cannot take everything because our luggage is limited, we begin to sort out what is necessary from what isn’t.

In this morning’s reading, we are given a picture of what the writer of the letter to this group of early Hebrew Christians thought was necessary for them. There is more throughout Hebrews about the nature of Christian community, but here we have list of the things the writer wanted the people receiving the letter to keep in mind that he hadn’t talked about yet. We can look at a shorter version of his instructions like this with an additional thought on each from me:

  • Love each other as brothers & sisters (even though we don’t always get along, family love means that we are still there for each other when we need it)
  • Show hospitality to strangers (when was the last time you invited someone from the congregation you don’t know well over for a meal?)
  • Remember those in prison or being mistreated (possibly this was more about Christians who were being persecuted than convicted criminals)
  • Honour & remain faithful in marriage (even for single people, this is about keeping promises and remaining sexually pure)
  • Be satisfied with what you have (hard to do in a consumer culture like ours)
  • Remember those who taught you the Word & follow their example (this is about modelling ourselves on others who display maturity in the faith)
  • Offer a continual sacrifice of praise (this is about how we speak and what we do with our bodies every day of the week [see Romans 12:1])
  • Do good & share with those in need (the things we give to others we also give to God)

There is a lot we could talk about on each of these 8 points, so If you would like to discuss them in more detail, we will be looking at this reading in Wednesday’s Listening to God’s Word Bible study (please contact me if you would like more details).

How many of these do we practice regularly? Ideally, everyone involved in Christian community would regularly practice all of these. What I would like us to consider, however, is which are we neglecting the most? Then, I would like us all to challenge ourselves to choose one and commit to putting it into practice at some stage over the next month. If you want to up the challenge, maybe think about choosing one a week for the next month, or one a week for every week until you have done them all.

It is critical, however, that we engage with these practices for the right reasons. We believe that every good thing we have is a gift from a loving God who blesses us because he loves us and wants the best for us. God wants to share his blessings with others and so he asks us to live like this as acts of grace to others, trusting in his grace for us. We can therefore think of each of these like this:

  • Our community of faith is a gift from God, so treat each other like family
  • We say grace before meals to acknowledge that our food is a gift from God; he also wants us to build strong relationships with others as we share our food together
  • We thank God for the freedom to worship him in this country, but there are others who do not share that freedom
  • Remember that your partner in life is God’s gift to you
  • God has blessed us with so much; why would we dishonour him by being unhappy with what he has given us and wanting more?
  • God wants us to remember that the people who have helped our faith grow strong are a blessing from him
  • God gave us everything in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us; if Jesus gave up his life for us, we can also praise him with our whole lives
  • When we trust that God will provide for all of our needs we can share what we have with others

Following these instructions really is about encountering God’s grace to us in all of its forms in every aspect of our lives, and then sharing that grace with others. That is what Christian community is about – encountering God’s grace to us through Jesus by the power of his Spirit and then encouraging each other to share that grace with the people around us, especially those who need it most and deserve it least.

As we begin to consider what our congregation could look like if we were to simplify, this reading from Hebrews gives us a good place to start. There are a lot of activities we engage in as a congregation that are not included in this list from Hebrews. What could our community look like if we focussed our time and energy on what God gives us to do in Hebrews 13? How would you like to be part of a community where you could encounter and grow in grace like we read it here?

More to think about:

  • Which of these practices in Hebrews 13 do you find easiest to do?
  • Which is the most difficult for you?
  • What could our congregation look like if we focussed on putting these into practice & helping others put them into practice?
  • How can each one point you to a deeper trust in God’s grace & goodness?
  • Which one(s) will you commit to putting into practice over the next month?