The Suffering Servants Of Christ

From “The Cross of Christ”
by John Stott, 1921-2011

The cross of Christ is the symbol of suffering service. We are familiar with the four or five “Servant Songs” of Isaiah which together make up the portrait of the “suffering servant of the Lord.” Meek in character and conduct (never shouting or raising his voice) and gentle in his dealings with others (never breaking bruised reeds or snuffing out smouldering wicks), he has nevertheless been called by Yahweh since before his birth, filled with his Spirit and receptive to his Word, with a view to bringing Israel back to him and being a light to the nations. In this task he perseveres, setting his face like a flint, although his back is beaten, his beard pulled out, his face spat upon and he himself is led like a lamb to the slaughter and dies, bearing the sins of many. Nevertheless, as a result of his death, many will be justified and the nations sprinkled with blessing. What is particularly striking in this composite picture is that suffering and service, passion and mission belong together. We see this clearly in Jesus, who is the suffering servant par excellence, but we need to remember that the servant’s mission to bring light to the nations is also to be fulfilled by the church (Acts 13:47). For the church, therefore, as for the Saviour, suffering and service go together.

More than this. It is not just that suffering belongs to service, but that suffering is indispensable to fruitful or effective service. This is the inescapable implication of the words of Jesus:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless an ear of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.”

“‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (Jn. 12:23-26, 32-33)

It is hard to accept this lesson from the agricultural harvest. Death is more than the way to life; it is the secret of fruitfulness. Unless it falls into the ground and dies, the kernel of wheat remains a single seed. If it stays alive, it stays alone; but if it dies it multiplies. First and foremost Jesus was referring to himself. Did certain Greeks wish to see him? He was about to be “glorified” in death. Soon he would be lifted up on his cross to draw people of all nations to himself. During his earthly ministry he restricted himself largely to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but after his death and resurrection, he would have universal authority and a universal appeal.

But Jesus was not speaking only of himself. He was uttering a general principle and went on to apply it to his disciples who must follow him and like him lose their lives, not necessarily in martyrdom but at least in self-giving, suffering service. For us as for him, the seed must die to multiply.

Paul is the most notable example of this principle. Consider these texts taken from three different letters:

“For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles, ask you not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” (Eph. 3:1, 13)

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24)

This is my gospel, for which I am suffering. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” (2 Tim. 2:8-10)

Paul states in all three texts that his sufferings are being endured “for the sake of you Gentiles,” for the sake of Christ’s body or for the sake of the elect. Since he is doing it for them, he believes they will derive some benefit from his sufferings. What is this? In the Colossians verse, he refers to his sufferings as filling up what was still lacking in Christ’s afflictions. We can be certain that Paul is not attaching any atoning efficacy to his sufferings, partly because he knew Christ’s atoning work was finished on the cross and partly because he uses the special word “afflictions’”(thlipseis) which denotes his persecutions. It is these which were unfinished, for he continued to be persecuted in his church. What benefit, then, did Paul think would come to people through his sufferings? Two of the three texts link the words “sufferings” and “glory.”

“My sufferings are your glory,” he tells the Ephesians.

Again, salvation with eternal glory will be obtained by the elect because of the sufferings Paul is enduring (2 Tim. 2:8-10). It sounds outrageous. Does Paul really imagine that his sufferings will obtain their salvation and glory? Yes, he does. Not directly, however, as if his sufferings had saving efficacy like Christ’s, but indirectly because he was suffering for the gospel which they must hear and embrace in order to be saved. Once again, suffering and service were bracketed, and the apostle’s sufferings were an indispensable link in the chain of their salvation.

The place of suffering in service and of passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be a death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride (by the use of modest methods in reliance on the Holy Spirit), or to racial and national prejudice (by identification with another culture), or to material comfort (by adopting a simple lifestyle). But the servant must suffer if he is to bring light to the nations and the seed must die if it is to multiply.

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