The following article is an excerpt from "A Book of Bible Study"
by Joseph F. Harwood.
The book may be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the “Download” button below.
One of the most difficult things for believers to understand and to come to terms with is why our sovereign and all-powerful God would allow suffering to affect our lives, when surely He could prevent it from happening. When things are going well for us, we may not have much interest in what the Bible has to say about suffering affecting our lives. However when suffering does come upon us, we will bring our troubles to our God and Father in prayer, asking Him why He has allowed these hard and painful things to touch our lives, bringing sorrow and grief. There are insights given to us in the Bible as to why such things are allowed to happen.
In the light of many Old Testament passages, we can see that God promises His blessings for obedience to His commands and punishment for disobedience. Also in the light of numerous New Testament passages, believers are warned that disobedience to God’s commands will bring His discipline into our lives, which as the writer of Hebrews said, is sorrowful (Hebrews 12:11). With these things in mind it is easy for us to understand that disobedience to God’s commands will bring suffering upon us.
However as we will see from our study of the Scriptures, the matter of suffering touching the lives of believers is more complex than the simple notion that sufferings and trouble come only into the lives of those who have sinned. There are times when God allows various sufferings and hardships to affect our lives, and we will not be able to see any connection between these difficulties and some sin in our lives. And in fact, there may be no connection at all.
The Origin of All Suffering
In Genesis 3, we learn that suffering in all its’ forms entered the world at the time of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. There was no suffering in the world until the time that Adam and Eve yielded to Satan’s temptation to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had told them not to eat. He had provided many other trees in the garden from which they could eat, but He told them they must not eat the fruit of this one tree, or they would surely die.
At the point in time when Adam and Eve yielded to the devil’s temptation and ate the fruit which God had forbidden them to eat, sin came into the world. And with sin came suffering and death, which are the consequences of sin.
Every man born into the world from the time Adam and Eve sinned is born as a slave of sin and in need of a Savior. In Romans 5:12-19, the Apostle Paul taught about the fall of man. He explained that just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and one sin of Adam’s brought death and condemnation to every man, so also through one Man, Jesus Christ, and His one act of righteousness, God’s grace would overflow to many, resulting in justification that brings life.
Satan, or the serpent, would strike the heel of Jesus, but Jesus would crush the head of Satan. This prophecy was made about Jesus in Genesis 3:15, and it was fulfilled in His victory over Satan at Calvary, “and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Everything that Jesus suffered, He suffered as a result of the activity of Satan. And at the same time, everything He suffered came about according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God the Father (Acts 2:23).
Likewise, all of the sufferings that touch our lives as God’s people are the result of the activity of Satan. He acts directly by causing such things as various physical infirmities, and he also acts indirectly through his temptation of men. If he acts through an unbeliever, then he is acting through those who belong to him, who are his children (John 8:42-47). They are slaves of sin, and they can do nothing else but sin. He also tempts God’s children to sin.
Jesus described Satan as a thief, who comes only to steal, to kill, and to destroy. This is the bad news. However, for believers there is Good News: Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and He did so in order that His blessed people may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). This good news was accomplished for us through the sufferings He endured, according to His Father’s will for His life.
Jesus Characterized the Lives of His Blessed People
In Luke 6 there is a passage that many of us will consider to be baffling. At the time that Jesus gave this teaching, a large group of His disciples and many others had gathered to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases. As we study this passage, we can begin to see that the ways of God are contrary to the ways of the world and the understanding of men. Beginning in Luke 6:20 we read:
And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.” (Luke 6:20-26)
Many of us might reason that things appear to be backwards in this passage. Contrary to what Jesus taught, most of us will see no blessing at all in being poor, hungry, or in mourning. And at the same time, we would consider that those who are blessed would obviously be those who are rich and well fed, and who enjoy their comforts and consolations in this life. However in Jesus’ teaching here, we see that such is not the case. God’s thoughts and His ways are not like the thoughts, ways, and understanding of men, as we learn in the book of Isaiah where God spoke through the prophet saying:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God has different thoughts about the blessing of His people, and He has different ways in which He will bring these blessings to pass. We will soon see revealed through several passages of Scripture the ways that God has chosen to bring about the eternal blessing of His people together with His Son.
A Principle at Work in the Life of Every Believer
When the time of His crucifixion was drawing near, Jesus spoke to His disciples saying:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:24-26)
Jesus was at the point of fulfilling His Father’s will and purpose for His life by dying on Calvary’s cross to become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all whom the Father has given to Him (John 6:37). It was at this time that He gave us one of the most profound revelations in the entire Bible.
Using a single grain of wheat as a metaphor to symbolize His life and the lives of all who will follow Him, Jesus revealed the universal principle of spiritual fruit bearing that has been ordained by His Father. He taught His disciples that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain only a single grain of wheat, bearing no fruit at all. But if it dies, it will bear much fruit.
Jesus first applied this analogy of the fruitful grain of wheat to His life, in order to symbolize the fruit that would be born through the suffering that He would endure according to His Father’s plan and purpose for His life, whereby many would be brought to glory. And then He said to His disciples: “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also…” (John 12:26, emphasis added). With these words, Jesus revealed to His disciples that the same principle of spiritual fruit bearing that was at work in His life would also be at work in their lives as well.
We have by God’s grace been called to faith in His Son Jesus Christ, and with that calling we have been given the privilege of serving Him. God has ordained that everyone who serves His Son must follow Him. Just as Jesus submitted Himself to His Father’s will for His life, even to the point of death on a cross, we will follow Him in that we also will be called upon to submit to the plan and purpose of God for our lives, “dying” to our own will and what we would choose for ourselves, in order that God’s will and purpose for our lives will be accomplished. And it will be through this “death” that we will bear spiritual fruit to the glory of God, according to the principle that Jesus taught in John 12:24.
Nowhere is this death to one’s own will and complete submission to the will of God more supremely demonstrated than in the life of Jesus Christ Himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to His Father that the cup He was about to drink might pass from Him. This cup was the crucifixion that He was about to endure in order to obtain salvation for His people.
Being God (John 1:1), Jesus knew what lied ahead for Him (John 12:23). And at the same time being man (John 1:14), we can imagine how He must have dreaded it. He knew that all things are possible with God, and He prayed that the cup of suffering and death He faced might be taken away from Him. However, as He always did, He submitted Himself to His Father’s will (Matthew 26:39, 42).
After praying three times for His Father to remove the cup of suffering that He was about to drink, Jesus received His answer. His Father would not remove His cup of suffering. It was His Father’s will that He suffer and die on Calvary’s cross in order to bring many sons to glory (Matthew 26:45-46, Hebrews 2:10).
At this point in our study, some of us will note that we have already established that all suffering comes about through the activity of the devil. But as we have seen revealed in John 12:24-26, spiritual fruit which glorifies God is itself born through suffering that comes about according to His sovereign will, plan, and purpose. (Consider also 1 Peter 4:12-19). In this apparent contradiction we begin to learn that all things, even the activity of the devil, will be made to serve God and to work together for the good and ultimate glory of His people (Romans 8:28).
As we study John 12:24-26, we should not overlook what Jesus said in verse 25: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” (Emphasis added). As we read this verse, we may notice similarities in John 12:25 and Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:20-26. Such teachings are hard for all of us to understand. We might wonder why Jesus said these words, and what they could mean for us as His people.
As we consider the meaning of John 12:25, let us look again at John 12:24 where Jesus taught us that no fruit will be born apart from the “death” of the grain of wheat. That grain of wheat symbolizes our lives and all that we want for ourselves in this life. Dying to our own will and what we want for ourselves is suffering; it is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
The things that we want may be completely honorable, with no sin in them at all. However God may will other things for our lives, things that run contrary to what we want for ourselves, but will result in fruit born to His glory. And He will bring these things to pass in our lives, as He has ordained them for each of us.
With John 12:24 in mind, we could understand Jesus’ words in John 12:25 as saying that the sufferings that bear fruit in the Christian life could at times make a believer even “hate” or despair of his life in this world. The Apostle Paul shared one such experience that he had in his own life, even as he was obeying God in doing the work that He had assigned for him. Paul wrote: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead….” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11, emphasis added).
This experience of Paul’s was for him a share in the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Through this experience and others, Paul “followed” Jesus in the way and in the measure that God had ordained for his life. And through his suffering he bore the fruit that would come as God’s people take comfort and are edified by his words as he recounted his experience. (Consider also 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
As we further consider Jesus’ words in John 12:25, we can see that he original Greek word that is translated as “hates” in this verse could also be translated as “loves less”. With this latter translation in mind, we could also rightly interpret this verse as teaching that as followers of Christ, we will be called upon to “love less” our own life and our own desires, hopes and plans for our lives, when compared to our love for and submission to the will of God, and whatever His will for our lives may involve.
This kind of submission to God’s will is something that He works to bring about in our lives as His people, and it is something that only He can bring about. This is the kind of submission to the will of God that Jesus demonstrated when He prayed to His Father three times that the cup of suffering He was about to drink at Calvary would be taken from Him, but ultimately He yielded Himself and His life to His Father’s will when He prayed: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39).
As we consider John 12:24-26, all believers are filled with thankfulness for the suffering and sacrifice that Jesus Christ endured on our behalf, according to His Father’s will for His life. At the same time, one of the hardest teachings in the Bible for us to accept is given to us in these verses, where Jesus revealed that all of us who serve Him must follow Him in His death, dying to what we would choose for ourselves in this life, in order that God’s will for our lives will be done, just as it was in His.
Practically speaking in terms that we can more easily understand, as we walk in obedience to God, and the circumstances and conditions of our lives unfold, we will at times experience the “death”, or the loss, of things that we wanted to have, or keep, or experience for ourselves, as God has ordained them for each of us individually. As these things happen, we will suffer because of them. And God our Father calls upon each of us to accept these things as His sovereign will for our lives, just as Jesus did when He prayed: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will”.
These “deaths” will come about in our lives in the ways and in the measure that God determines for each of us. And it will be through these “deaths” that we will follow Jesus, experiencing in some measure a share in His sufferings as we also are called upon to submit to our Father’s will and plan for our lives.
Just as Jesus bore fruit through the suffering and sacrifice that God had ordained for His life, so also in our lives, spiritual fruit will be born through the suffering and sacrifice that God has ordained for each of us. As believers we will all be called upon to follow God’s Son in His death, which is a death to own will and what we would choose for ourselves, and the acceptance of that which God chooses for us.
This is one of the most difficult teachings in the Bible for many to accept, and it is a teaching that many will very much want to deny and explain away. And maybe we could explain it away, if only this same teaching did not appear in numerous places elsewhere in the Bible.
All true wisdom is to be found in the teachings of the Holy Bible. And there is no greater wisdom or depth of insight than that which is given to us through the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus’ teaching in John 12:24-26 revealed the principle of spiritual fruit bearing that was at work in His life, and this same principle has always been, and will always be, at work in the lives of every one of God’s people until the time of Jesus’ second coming.
In later chapters we will see this principle at work in the lives of God’s servants, even from the book of Genesis. Though we may not be able to see or understand how anything good at all could possibly come from the sufferings and losses that our sovereign God has allowed to touch our lives, the Scriptures reveal to us that through our sufferings we will indeed bear fruit, and we will one day realize a share in the eternal glory of His Beloved Son.