Paul is not only the greatest theologian of the New Testament, but he is also a man whose life is worthy of emulation. He did not just know theology, but he also practiced it. What amazes me is that though the man endured an amazing amount of abuse and torment, he continued to be full of joy. I went looking for the source of Paul’s joy and found myself in 2 Corinthians 4. There I learned that Paul found joy in hope–hope in the future resurrection that had been guaranteed through Christ’s resurrection.
Paul knew that he had already been justified through the death of Christ, but that as a mortal man his body would eventually die, that his body was just temporary. He believed that in due time he would be given a resurrected body. He lived in that period between the accomplishment of Christ’s work of redemption and the final consummation of all that God has planned for his people. Paul found confidence, sure hope, in his knowledge of what would come.
As he considered speaking the gospel, as he considered the possibility of more danger, more beatings, more trouble, more toil, he said, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (verse 13). Paul knew that just as Jesus had been resurrected, he too would be resurrected. Paul never minimized the importance of having a body—he was the same guy who called the body the temple of the Holy Spirit and told people to take care of their bodies. And yet he knew that this body was only temporary and that even his body was to be used in service to the Lord. Paul would never purposely defile or deface his body. But he would take a beating, he would have other people leave scars on his body, he would let them destroy his body, if that was the cost of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Through the history of the church Christians have counted their bodies as less important than their faith, as less important than obedience. Countless Christians have suffered otherwise unbearable torment, always with the hope of resurrection, the sure promise that they will have new bodies, perfected bodies, no longer earthen vessels but bodies that will last forever. “You can throw me in the flames, but I know that Jesus lives and so shall I. You may destroy my body for a while, but when the Lord returns he will resurrect and perfect it.” This has been the hope of so many Christians who willingly laid down their lives in service to the Lord.
Helen Roseveare was a missionary to the Congo for twenty years and while serving the Lord there she endured a particular form of torture that in some ways must have been worse than death. In 1964 she was captured by rebel forces and held captive. Noel Piper has written a short biography of her life and here is one excruciating scene from that book.
Rebel soldiers were starting at one end of a large room, taking women away one by one and bringing them back after they were finished with them. Helen’s first impulse was to hide and not have to bear this humiliation. Then she thought of Jesus. He put himself forward as a substitute for us. The fellowship of his sufferings—she moved to the front, to try to protect some of the other women from undergoing a trauma they might possibly have escaped so far.
She looked back later on this whole period and wrote: “We learned why God has given us His name as I AM. His grace always proved itself sufficient in the moment of need, but never before the necessary time…As I anticipated suffering in my imagination and thought of what these cruel soldiers would do next, I quivered in fear…But when the moment came for action…he filled me with a peace and an assurance about what to say or do that amazed me and often defeated the immediate tactics of the enemy.”
She writes movingly of how abandoned she felt:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His answer to her was a removal of the fear as if it had been rinsed out of her—and a strong sense of his arms around her, holding her and comforting her. She felt as if he were saying, “When I called you to myself, I called you to the fellowship of my suffering. They are not attacking you. They are attacking me. I’m just using your body to show myself to the people around you.”
It was only with the knowledge that her body was the Lord’s to use, with the knowledge that this body was temporary, with the knowledge that she would be given a new body, that she could not only endure such torment, but actually seek it in an attempt to save and to serve others.
So how about you, Christian? Would you give your body to be burned? Would you be willing to give it to be beaten or tortured or violated if that served the Lord? Would you do this in faith, holding out the sure hope of resurrection? Resurrection is not just a vague hope for the future, but sure faith that guides us even in the here and now. It guided Paul so he could proclaim that the God who raised Jesus from the dead would also raise him from the dead.
In the midst of pain and persecution and all the trauma and weariness this life brings, Paul tells us to look to the future and the sure hope of the resurrection. And not just in a time of persecution. Even as your body ages and succumbs to the march of time, even as you grapple with sin, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, even as you bury people you love, even as you watch your children rebel against God, you can look to the future and know that you will be resurrected to something so much better and in that moment all the pain—physical, emotional, spiritual—will be gone forever.
Paul had joy because he had hope. In all the weariness of life, Paul found joy in the sure hope of the resurrection. He looked to the joy described in the book of Revelation: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning no crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” There is no greater joy and no greater hope than that.
(Update: there’s more to Paul’s hope than the resurrection. Read about it here)