The Prisoner of Christ Jesus
I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:1)
Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, military and naval hero of 16th century France, who had converted to the Protestant faith during the awakening in France in the 1550s, was in Paris in August, 1572 for the wedding of Henry of Navarre, a Protestant, to Marguerite de Valois, a Catholic. Queen Mother Catherine de Medici had orchestrated this wedding in hopes of bringing peace to an increasingly volatile France. The Huguenots or French Protestants were flexing their muscles, causing no small concern on the part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in France. Coligny was very close to the King, Charles IX, and Coligny’s desire to move France toward support of the Netherlands against Spain incensed Catherine. Something had to be done. She sought to have Coligny assassinated and when the attempt failed, she knew that she must strike quickly before the Huguenots moved in revenge. On the night of St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24, 1572, she moved her army against the Huguenots, murdering Coligny in his hotel room, and gathering up Huguenot men in the courtyard of the Louvre, murdering them there. The killing continued for several more weeks, and somewhere between 3000 and 5000 Huguenots were murdered by Catherine and her men. She effectively broke the back of the Protestant movement in France, something from which the country has never recovered, much to their own spiritual demise.
Here’s my question – if God loved the Huguenots, people for whom Christ died, those who were seeking to honour Christ in their lives, then why would God allow this to happen to His people? If God is all powerful, then why did He not intervene on their behalf? Let’s bring this concept closer to home. In the last 100 years more have died for their Christian faith than in the first 1900 years of the church combined. If God loves the Christians of Sudan, Uganda, North Korea, Iran, then why does He allow them to suffer? Why doesn’t He intervene? And even closer to home – as you consider the suffering and hardship of your past or present, if God loves you, if God is all powerful, then why doesn’t He do something to prevent it?
The answer to these questions is seen in the words of the Apostle Paul in the verse under our consideration. Paul refers to himself, not as a prisoner of Nero, the Roman Emperor of the time who imprisoned him in Rome, but as a prisoner of Christ. Certainly Paul was a prisoner of Nero, but he chose to look beyond his obvious and present circumstances. He saw God in his suffering and hardship. He understood what God was doing, for in Philippians 1:12ff he says that his imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well-known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that due to his imprisonment most of the brethren had far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
The simple, direct teaching of Scripture is that suffering and hardship are a reality for all believers. Consider some of the biblical data on the topic. In Micah 5:1 the prophet is telling those in the northern kingdom who face the threat of the Assyrian invasion to muster troops, for their city was soon to be under siege, that with a rod they would smite the Judge of Israel on the cheek. This clearly is a prophetic word, not only to the present Judge of Israel but to the Suffering Servant, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would die for His people (see Isaiah 42:1-3; 53:4-6). Paul says in I Corinthians 4:9 that he and the other apostles have the sentence of death upon them because they have become a spectacle to the world. And Paul says in Romans 8:17 that though we are heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ Jesus, we also will suffer with Christ. So suffering is a reality for Jesus, His apostles, and all His people.
To be more specific, God allows His people to suffer. The fall into sin, stated in Genesis 3:17ff, makes clear that the earth has been cursed, meaning things die, break down. Tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, genocide, wars, and pestilence all happen. In Philippians 1:29 Paul tells the believers there that for Christ’s sake they were made not only to believe the gospel but also to suffer for His sake. God allows His people to suffer. To go further, however, we must also say that God brings suffering. Amos 3:6 says, ‘When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble; and when calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?’ Isaiah tells us that there is no other than God, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity. But to go even further, we must say that God also foreordains suffering and hardship. In Isaiah 46:9-11 we read, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure…truly I have spoken, truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.’
But how do we put God’s foreordination and eternal decree in place with man’s obvious human ability to make decisions. We know man is not a robot. We know man is responsible for his own actions. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that God’s eternal decree falls out, in His providence, by secondary means necessarily, freely, and contingently. Consider this illustration to help you understand the concept. A plane which crashes, killing everyone on board, does not catch God by surprise. The only real comfort, the only thing which gives a sense of purpose for such a seemingly random act is that God allowed it, brought it, and foreordained it. But it happens through secondary means. A plane necessarily, due to the fall into sin, experiences at times mechanical failure, pilot error, or falls victim to weather problems. A plane contingently, due to the law of aerodynamics, when losing speed on take off, will begin to fall and due to its speed upon impact, those inside the plane will die. But God did not make anyone who died in the crash get on the plane. They were free to make their own decisions. This is a mystery of what theologians call concurrence, the mysterious working of God’s eternal decree and human responsibility.
But why does God allow, bring, and foreordain suffering and hardship? For at least three reasons – for the manifestation of His glory, the sanctification of His church, and the salvation of His elect. Understand this – you need to step back, survey your situation, as Paul did in that Roman prison, and understand that God is always with you; you are a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He will be with you when you pass through the deep waters.
Rev. Allen M. Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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