I’ve had it on my heart this week to write about hope and joy. To do that I’ve gone looking for the hope that sustained the Apostle Paul as he endured trial after trial in his ministry. My logic here is simple: If Paul suffered greatly and found joy, those of us who suffer lightly in comparison should be able to find the same joy. A couple of days ago I showed that Paul found hope in the promise of resurrection and yesterday I showed that the resurrection was not an end in itself, but the means to the greater end of coming into the presence of God.
I want to wrap this up today and show how Paul progressed even from here. Even coming into the presence of God was the means to another end and here is why. With a resurrected body and in the presence of God he could now join in the most complete and heartfelt praise and worship of God. He knew that as he shared the gospel, the power of the gospel would continue to save souls. Each of these people would be added to the throng that would worship the Lord in that final day. Thinking about sharing the gospel despite pain and persecution he writes, “We speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving” (2 Corinthians 4:13). The math here is simple: the more people who hear the gospel, the more that can be saved. The more people who become Christians, the more people who can join with one voice in glorifying the Father for who he is and for what he has done. And some day all those who have been redeemed will gather together to praise the Lord.
Here is what the Apostle John wrote after seeing that day in a vision:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
There is a great throng, a huge crowd of people, so many that John couldn’t number them, people from all times and places, from all people and races, standing before the Lord and crying out together in praise to him. Paul knew of that day, he believed in that day, and he longed to participate in that great worship.
What was pain, what was persecution, what was suffering and nakedness and sword and hunger and all the rest, in comparison to joining with all of these people, all of these Christians, and joining that congregation in praising the Lord?
There is just one more component: the promise of glory. Resurrection will bring us to God’s presence. God’s presence will cause us to break out in praise. Do you see how Paul builds this? Resurrection to presence to praise and finally to glory. All of this praise will bring glory to God. Again, in verse 13 says: “We speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” This is the ultimate goal, the ultimate end, in it all. We are justified to bring glory to God. We are resurrected to bring glory to God. We come to God’s presence to bring glory to God. We offer praise to bring glory to God. Paul’s ultimate hope was not in escaping pain or experiencing a new body; it was the opportunity to glorify God.
Paul longed for God to be glorified through him, both now and for all eternity. Even in the midst of all the suffering, he would not give in to despair. Look to verse 16. He says, “So we do not lose heart.” Even when beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and hated and mocked and scorned and despised, even when tired beyond what it seems we can bear, even when lonely beyond what we could imagine, even when anguished by sin, we do not lose hope. Why? Verse 17: “For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Paul looked at his life and made one of the biggest understatements you’ll find. Paul, the guy who had often been beaten almost to the point of death, looks at all that has happened to him and says, “This is a slight and momentary affliction.” Why? Because this pain and anguish, all the distress this life brings, is preparing us for something so much weightier, something eternal, something that is beyond all comparison. Again, let’s not downplay all of the pain and all of the difficulty of this life. Our suffering is true; it’s genuine; it matters.
But we need to get the right perspective—God’s future perspective. When we look at it in that way we see that any pain, any experience, any hurt is light compared to the great weight of glory of what is to come. And what’s more, that pain has somehow prepared us for that weight of glory. What seems unbearably heavy now will be seen as light and momentary when we look back on it from an eternal perspective. When Paul suffered affliction his focus wasn’t on the weight of the affliction but on the weight of the glory that was to come.
So Christian, as you experience the weariness of life, as you pull yourself out of bed another day and feel the weight of fatigue pushing down on your shoulders, as you spend another day laboring at the task the Lord has given you, as you feel the pain of aging or the anguish of depression, as you mourn the loss of someone you love, as you feel the burden of your indwelling sin, as you are called to suffer for your faith if the Lord should call you to that…in all of these things, can you look to the future, to the hope of resurrection, to the hope of experiencing God’s presence, to the hope of the purest worship, to the hope of bringing glory to God?
Here is where Paul went. Here is where he found his hope. Hope for another day. Hope for another beating. Hope that would sustain him through it all. This is the hope that has sustained so many Christians in so many dire circumstances. They have looked to the future, future resurrection and presence and praise and glory and found strength to endure through fiery trials and through the pain and weariness and exasperation of life.
W.A. Criswell was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas for 50 years. He told the story of taking a flight to go and speak at an event on the east coast of the United States. As he boarded the plane he was excited to see that he was seated next to a seminary professor that he admired. As soon as they were underway, Criswell introduced to this man and they began to talk.
The professor told Criswell that he had recently lost his son to a terrible illness. The boy had been at pre-school and had been sent home one day after coming down with a fever. The parents assumed it was just another little cold or flu, but through the evening the boy got worse and worse so they took him off to the hospital. After running tests the doctors came and gave the parents the worst possible news—that the boy had somehow contracted Meningitis and that it had progressed beyond the point that they could help. The disease would run its course and the boy would die. There was nothing they could do.
For a couple of days the parents sat with their boy, praying and hoping. But the boy got worse and worse. Finally, after a few days, they could see that his body was too weak to go in. It was in the middle of the day and the boy’s vision began to fade. He looked up at his father and said, “Daddy, it’s getting dark, isn’t it?”
“Yes, my boy, it’s getting dark.”
“It’s time for me to sleep, isn’t it?”
“Yes, my boy, it’s time for you to sleep.”
The professor explained how his son liked to have his pillow and blankets arranged just so and that he always lay his head on his hands while he slept. So he fixed his son’s pillow and watched while the boy rested his head on his hands. “Good night daddy. I’ll see you in the morning.” The boy closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. His breathing became shallow and just a few moments later his life was over, almost before it began.
That professor stopped talking for a while and looked out the window of the airplane for a good long time. Then he turned to Dr. Criswell and with his voice breaking and with tears spilling onto his cheeks he whispered, “I can hardly wait for morning to come.”
Christian, do you know that morning is coming? Do you believe it? This man was a suffering father, a man who missed his little boy, but he had hope, sure hope, hope that was grounded in the gospel. He had hope in the future, that Jesus had been raised and that he, too, would be raised. He wasn’t looking to the future and holding on to a vague promise. He was looking to the future with sure and unshakeable confidence that just as surely as Christ was raised from the dead, he too would be released from all the pain and all the hurt of this life.
In all the pain and weariness and suffering and trauma, in a world of so many trials, it is so easy to be full of despair and to give up. Paul himself was sometimes close to giving up. When he wrote the church at Corinth he spoke of a time where he experienced some kind of trial in Asia. He wrote, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. We felt that we had received the sentence of death.” He was fragile. He was afflicted, he was perplexed, he was persecuted and he was struck down. But hold on. He was afflicted but never crushed. He was perplexed, but never driven to the point of despair. He was persecuted, but never forsaken. He was struck down but never destroyed.
Why? Because he trusted in what Christ had done and he kept his gaze fixed on what Christ had promised to do. Even the heaviest blow would some day be deemed a slight and momentary affliction when he experienced the crushing weight of God’s glory in the presence of God. He had no greater hope than that. You and I have no greater hope than that. Hold on to that hope, hold on to God who gives you that hope, and you will endure.