Dr. Robert B. Sloan

July 17, 2002

Key passages: Psalm 44; Romans 8; Philippians 1:27-30
As Paul endures imprisonment in Rome, he writes to the church in Philippi what sounds to our ears like a very strange message: "In no way [be] alarmed by your opponents -- which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake ... " (Phil 1:28-29). Paul speaks of those who are opponents of the Gospel and the enemies of faith. Paul has in mind his own opponents who are oppressing him as he is imprisoned in Rome and those who rise up against the faithful worship and ministry of the church in Philippi. Theologically, Paul also has in mind a larger sphere of oppression from spiritual, cosmic opponents beyond just local opponents in Philippi or Rome. These are the powers of darkness that effect evil in the world.
And so Paul says with regard to local opponents that we should not be alarmed by them because their opposition to the Gospel is a certain sign of their eventual destruction. But Paul's integrated theology sees the issue as a much more complicated one than just that. Paul also keeps in mind certain powers of darkness that work their evil through humans with power or influence -- humans who may not even be aware of this larger sphere of evil which animates them.
Social tumults
We see the same perspective on the physical and spiritual sources of evil in Romans 8. Paul catalogs the various social tumults that come against the church and against humanity in general with an oppressive force: tribulation (catastrophes that hit on a large scale), distress (social upheaval), persecution (direct attacks against those who know Christ), famine (a natural catastrophe of poverty often linked to a social unrest like war), nakedness (again, the effects of poverty), peril (the dangers of disintegrating social structures) and the sword (war and military assaults). And in Romans 8:37, Paul says, "But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us ..." "Through Him who loved us" is a code reference, for Paul, to the death of Christ which demonstrated the love of God to us even while we remained in the rebellion of sin (Romans 5:8). So somehow, in the midst of these distresses, tumults, and upheavals that shake our world, we are co-conquerors who participate in Christ's victory over the powers of darkness, which he won through his death and resurrection.
Love of God
Then, in a passage dense in theological content, Paul explains the cause behind his conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God. What follows the causal introduction is a list of words that we usually translate into English as abstract or collective nouns: death, life, angels, principalities, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, any created thing. But by turning thanatos into "death" and zoe into "life," we miss much of the theological and cosmological significance that lies behind these words. Paul is talking about more than just death in general and life in general, but is using technical terms in Jewish and early Christian thinking for various categories of angelic beings. What we translate "angel" as a generic label for the whole category is for them just one sub-category of spiritual, cosmic beings. We know that Paul is not merely referring to abstract concepts in some of these but rather personal beings in all of them when he sums up the entire list with the catch-all "nor any other created thing." The implication is that as we translate these categories of angelic beings, we ought to translate them as proper names, with capital letters and all: Death, Life, Angels, Principalities, Things-Present, Things-to-Come, Powers, Height and Depth. 
So Paul's logic, as I unpack it, goes something like this. Paul is persuaded that the death and resurrection of Christ have conquered the powers of darkness. The angelic beings and the creatures who have rebelled against God have become the agents of tumult and distress in the world. Whatever their names, they have all been conquered through the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, their effects -- all the tumults, distresses, persecutions, wars, famine and nakedness they have caused in the world -- will one day finally and fully cease because the powers of darkness that caused them have been conquered. This is not to remove all human agency, but to point conjunctively to a larger cosmic agency. Since we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-5) and thereby included in Christ in his triumph over all the spiritual forces of wickedness that bring about the very worst in our present evil age, then we may rest assured that we will also be fellow children of God, joint heirs and co-conquerors with Christ Jesus. That is the logic of this passage.
Chaos and crisis
In times of chaos and crisis, the church often turns to Romans 8 for a message of faith, hope and love. But in the midst of our assurance of the triumph of good over evil, there is a strange word from Paul in Romans 8:36 that needs unpacking. Either because we don't want to muddy our reading with apparently mixed messages or because of our tendency to turn extended meditations into sound bites for a television age, we often omit this key verse in our public readings and then ignore it altogether in our subsequent expositions of our confidence in the overcoming love of Jesus Christ. In the middle of a passage that talks about the social tumults of religious persecution and national catastrophe, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22: "Just as it is written, 'For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered'" (Romans 8:36). Apparently, Paul finds Psalm 44 to be the scriptural buttress for what has come before and what will follow in his argument. "Sheep to be slaughtered" is a fairly common allusion referring to innocent creatures that cannot protect and defend themselves from being taken off to the butcher's shop. And it is significant, because Paul must explain how the causes of suffering can be finally conquered in Christ yet the followers of Christ continue to be vulnerable to the sufferings and sting of sin.
A certain ethic
What we see in Psalm 44 is a general pattern for how life is lived in relationship with God. We might phrase its question, What is it to be a Christian? It is a question people answer in any number of ways. Some define it in terms of belief in a set of doctrines about the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. And, indeed, the Christian faith has theology, a set of core convictions that must be included in any accurate, comprehensive description of the Christian faith. Others talk about the Christian faith in terms of the church, the community of faith that gathers for worship, fellowship and ministry. Ethics and morality are other ways that people define the Christian faith. Though not to undercut the principle of grace that is at the heart of our faith, the Christian faith does embody and express itself through obedience to the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, and the ethical imperatives of the apostolic writers of the New Testament. So the Christian faith describes a certain ethic.
But when you have said all of that, we must not forget that the heart of the Christian faith is a dynamic, interactive relationship with the Living God, revealed through Jesus Christ. The Christian faith is not only the things we believe. The Christian experience is not only our worship of God and fellowship with others. The Christian life is not only a canon of ethics or morals we abide by. Faith in Christ is real relationship by which we have legitimate right to call God "Father," to call Jesus, the Son of God, our "brother" and our "friend." We are in a living relationship with the Living God.
Sense of family
The intimate, familial relationship we can have in Christ is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. When God makes a covenant with David that he and his descendents will rule over Israel throughout the generations, this is the relationship into which God invites each of these anointed ones: "I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me" (2 Sam 7:14). This intimate parent-child relationship is extended to all of God's chosen people. Hosea 11:1-4 gives a beautiful depiction of this relationship, where God calls Israel his "son" and describes how he tenderly taught the infant people how to walk, holding them in his arms, stooping down to feed them.
So the Christian faith has this rich sense of family, of relationship, of connection with God. How does that play out? Basically, it is a pattern governed by a simple principle: He is the king and we are his servants. This king has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and has promised to bless us, protect us and keep us; we in turn have committed ourselves to him. We are faithful to him, we are devoted to him, we serve him. In this covenant, obedience brings blessing and disobedience judgment. These conditional outcomes are seen throughout the theology of Deuteronomy: he blesses us; we serve him (see especially Dt 28).
Covenant promises
Now we cannot rush ahead too quickly and turn this into a mathematical formula, guaranteeing certain outcomes if we faithfully perform certain behaviors. The same Bible that has the Book of Deuteronomy has the Book of Job as well. Life does not always work out simply and easily. The formula does not always apply. But even the fact that it does not implicitly confirms our confidence in a mutual relationship between God and us in which each of us fulfill our covenant promises in response to the other. He blesses us; we serve him.
We find the same mutual covenant in the New Testament as well. Jesus says: "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Mt 11:28-29). This invitation is a summons to discipleship and covenant, a summons to take a yoke of sovereignty and lordship upon ourselves. We will serve Christ in faith and he will bless us with rest, peace and salvation.
Psalm 44, from which Paul quotes in Romans 8, describes what is sometimes called the "Deuteronomic" pattern or this covenant of relationship.
O God, we have heard with our ears,
Our fathers have told us
The work that You did in their days,
In the days of old.
You with Your own hand drove out the nations;
Then You planted them [in the promised land];
You afflicted the peoples,
Then You spread them abroad.
For by [ancient Israel's] own sword they did not possess the land,
And their own right arm did not save them,
But Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence,
For You favored them. (Psa 44:1-3)
God is blessing his people. He chose them, he called them, he made them his people and now he blesses and protects them. And that word "favor" has a rich meaning. It appeals to the entire covenant relationship of faith and faithfulness. He is faithful. He has made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He will bless, and the sons of Israel are to serve him. That covenant of faithfulness, that pattern, has been passed down to us. We are called to serve Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and he blesses and promises peace. 
Promises of blessing
We are often at least skeptical and often downright cynical when we hear unmitigated promises of blessing. I know there are shallow preachers of money and financial salvation. But do not miss the foundational truth of God's desire to bless his children because of those who overreach and abuse the promise. It is more popular in some modern churches only to preach the "dark night of the soul," the problem of evil and the agony of life. Of course, those struggles are all real, all a part of life and all inevitable for each of us. But we have been promised -- mixed in with the tragedies and struggles -- blessings and glory that surpass what we experience today (Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17-18). We await the blessing of everlasting life in the new heaven and the new earth. 
The psalmist goes on in describing life in relationship with God:
You are my King, O God;
Command victories for Jacob.
Through You we will push back our adversaries;
Through Your name we will trample down those who rise up against us.
For I will not trust in my bow,
Nor will my sword save me.
But You have saved us from our adversaries,
And You have put to shame those who hate us.
In God we have boasted all day long,
And we will give thanks to Your name forever. (Psa 44:4-8)
The basic covenant pattern is here. The Psalmist expects blessing, namely, victory in battle, because he has been devoted to the Lord. God has chosen Israel and God ought to lead Israel in victory and triumph as their commander in battle.
But for those of us who know how honestly the Psalms deal with real life, now comes the other shoe that we have been waiting to hear dropped. The complaint begins:
Yet You have rejected us and brought us to dishonor,
And do not go out with our armies.
You cause us to turn back from the adversary;
And those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves.
You give us as sheep to be eaten
And have scattered us among the nations.
You sell your people cheaply,
And have not profited by their sale.
You make us a reproach to our neighbors,
A scoffing and a derision to those around us.
You make us a byword among the nations,
A laughingstock among the peoples.
All day long my dishonor is before me
And my humiliation has overwhelmed me,
Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles,
Because of the presence of the enemy and the avenger. (Psa 44:9-16)
The implication here is that God has a covenant obligation to us that he is not fulfilling. He is not providing the protection and honor that he ought to. The Lord has allowed us to be defeated. So the psalmist complains, "Where is the fulfillment of the covenant relationship?" It is the same kind of complaint that lies behind the cry of Jesus when he quotes Psalm 22 from the cross. It is the covenant cry, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" The writers of Psalms 22 and 44 both expect the same thing: "Lord, we are your people. You are supposed to bless us, protect us, and preserve us. So why this?"
The question of 'Why?"
What's the "this"? You can fill-in-the-blank. It is the question of the widow who cries, "Why did the Lord take my husband? He was a good man. I see other men, his age and older, who aren't nearly as good to their wives as he was to me. Why?" Or on a larger scale, it is the whole assortment of questions raised by September 11th. Why the murder of innocent civilians on planes and in the World Trade Center? Why firefighters and policemen rushing into a building to save people, only to be to be trapped and crushed in the collapse of brick and mortar and glass and steel?
Why do these things happen? Is it because our expectations were too high? Is our original assumption wrong -- is God really not the God of blessing? Were we naïve to think that we were in a covenant relationship where he would bless while we are faithful? The answer to each of those questions in turn is, NO! I do not think our expectations are too high and I do not think our conviction about the character of God is wrong. We cannot solve this problem simply by eliminating the premise that causes us to expect something other than heartache. The scriptures are too full of this notion that God is the God of mercy and covenant blessing who promises to guide and protect his people.
Consequences of sin?
So why? Is it possible that these things happen because of our sins? That is a fair question. There are tragedies that come because of our moral defects, mistakes and sins. But even though the question of sin is always a good one to ask, it does not always hold the right answer for our circumstances. This is a central message of the Book of Job. We see the same in the teaching of Jesus as well. On one occasion, Jesus' disciples ask if the blindness of a man born blind was the result of his sin or of his parents'. Jesus' response was neither -- this blindness did not come as a tit-for-tat punishment of anyone's particular sin -- but that his blindness came "so that the works of God might be displayed in him" (Jn 9:1-3). Then in the Gospel of Luke: "There were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish'" (Lk 13:1-5). The contemporary amplification of these questions is, Do you suppose that the more than three hundred firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center buildings were greater sinners than all those whom the buildings did not collapse on? Jesus makes it clear that, in situations such as these, such clear-cut answers for the cause of tragedy are likely inaccurate.
Suffering comes
As people who desire to honor God in the way we live our lives before him, we ought to ask the question of whether it is our sin that is bringing the wages of death and suffering into the world. But we must also know that there are times when suffering comes not because of sin but even in spite of faithfulness in our relationship with God. Again, Psalm 44 speaks to this mysterious reality of life with God. The psalmist implies that the people would have deserved the affliction and loss had they sinned, because such punishment is part of the covenant promise too -- obey, prosper; disobey, be cursed. Such suffering could not be said in any way to impugn God's faithfulness. But the psalmist says:
All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten You,
And we have not dealt falsely with Your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
And our steps have not deviated from Your way,
Yet You have crushed us in a place of jackals
And covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
Or extended our hands to a strange god,
Would not God find this out?
For He knows the secrets of the heart. (Psa 44:17-21)
If there is any sin in the people that deserves punishment, the psalmist has no doubt that God would know about it and answer it appropriately. But he also has no doubt that there was no such sin of individual women or men or the collective community that would adequately explain the onset this tumult, this distress, this catastrophe.
But here is where Paul's quotation for Romans 8 comes into play:
But for Your sake, we are killed all day long;
We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. (Psa 44:22)
In the psalmist's attempt to come to an explanation for tragedy, he comes to a simple reason: "for Your sake." This is the phrase that bears all the meaning. Our sins do not explain the suffering, but God, for some mysterious reason, has chosen for it to come. Somehow, for the sake of God and his glory, suffering resolves in his mystery. Because it is a mystery, we cannot very well expect preachers to stand up and spell out the sense in it all -- not that many do not try and fail miserably. The intertwining of suffering and God's sovereignty will remain a mystery until the end of the age, but the Scriptures do offer some broad explanations. These explain suffering in terms of its purposes (the intended future outcome from the experience) more than its causes (past events that trigger such a reaction).
Doctrine of two ages
Consider again the parables of Jesus in Luke 13. In both cases of inexplicable suffering, Jesus says the lesson for us is that consideration of suffering should lead us toward repentance, away from the sin that would rightly deserve such punishment. Jesus believes in what scholars call the doctrine of the two ages: history is divided between two dissimilar epochs, split asunder and transformed by a catastrophic judgment that will take place at the end of this age. It is not popular anymore to talk about the wrath of God, the final judgment or what C.S. Lewis called "the great divorce" between heaven and hell. But these uncomfortable realities are part of the structure of Jesus' thinking. And their implication is that, though we do not want to blame victims for their own tragedies, we must take these horrors as a reminder that our world is out of kilter and that there will be a day of judgment in which all is set aright. These moments of suffering do not nullify the covenant promises of God, but rather confirm that God will do as he as promised -- both to bless and to curse.
Paul expands this idea in Philippians 1 where we began this message. Paul believes that perseverance in the hour of suffering is not only a sign of the certain destruction of the opponents of the Gospel at the judgment, but also of the deepest realities of the Christian faith. True faith can persevere in trusting the Christ who has conquered the powers of darkness and their tumultuous evil effects. True Christian faith believes that, despite lacking any other easy explanation, all suffering is not the direct result of individual sin. Faith does not run from suffering, but perseveres in it, forging character and hope in the promise of the coming resurrection (Rom 5:1-5). When Paul says in Romans 5 that he rejoices in his tribulations, it is more than the warped confession of a masochist. Paul's joy in suffering is the joy of discipline, the joy of accepting something undesired for the sake of ultimate joy. We rejoice in tribulations because we rejoice "in the hope of the glory of God" seen in Christ Jesus.
Mysteries of knowing God
And as we come to know God through Jesus Christ, we come to know that all of these things are happening, mysteriously, for his sake and for his ultimate redemptive purpose. God is at work in the midst, knowing that these sufferings and tribulations bring about perseverance. And perseverance, in a proven and tested character, deepens hope and promises the hope that is to come. There is a certain realization of the future resurrection here-and-now in the lives of those who trust God in the face of the worst kind of suffering whether it is in our individual lives or suffering on a national or international scale. Trust in the one who has conquered and belief that he continues to conquer is the sign to the heavenly powers that they are destroyed and the sign to us that we are the children of God.
Have you been through troubled waters? Have you experienced suffering that you cannot explain? Can you still say, "Jesus Christ is Lord"? Can you still say, "Yet will I trust him"? If you can, rejoice and be glad, for God is working in you to effect perseverance and a tested character, the marks of a child of God who is already being transformed into his likeness (Rom 8:28-29).