We need to remember that the apostle Paul was in prison when he wrote this. Indeed, the apostle himself reminds us in the opening words of chapter 3: “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles. . .” (1). In 4:1 he again describes himself as “the prisoner of the Lord,” and in 5:20 as “an ambassador in bonds.” Technically, he was the prisoner of the Romans, awaiting trial before Caesar. But Paul never describes himself in those terms; it is always, “the prisoner of the Lord.”
This personal description was significant because for one thing it was a reminder that ultimately it is Christ who is sovereign. He is the prisoner of the Lord because, on one level, it was the Lord who put him there. Paul knew from experience that if he was in prison, it was because it was the Lord who put him there. Why did he get thrown into prison in Philippi? Because a jailor needed to hear the gospel and be saved. Why was he then in prison? Because the Roman emperor Nero needed to be confronted with the truth of the gospel. Yes, he was a prisoner of the Romans. But what they didn’t realize is that the Emperor of the Universe had him there for a reason. God is sovereign, and we must never forget that. They put Paul in chains, but they could not bind the power of the gospel: “I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9).
But it was also a reminder that he was not in prison because he had committed some egregious wrong against Roman (or Jewish) society. No, it was because he was a minister of Jesus Christ. In particular, it was because of the message that the Gentiles are “fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (6) that his fellow Jews had risen against him and accused him to the authorities. They had tried to kill him multiply times for the proclamation of the gospel. It is a very sad reality that though this message is the very thing we need to embrace in order to be reconciled to God, yet because of human sinfulness and unbelief it is also the very thing that unregenerate men and women want least to hear.
In Paul’s context, the most problematic aspect of the gospel to his Jewish audience was this insistence that God is creating a new society composed of Jew and Gentile, and that the door into this new society is not the observance of the law but faith in Christ. Paul tells the Galatians, “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? Then is the offense of the cross ceased” (Gal. 5:11). And he reminds them that the reason his legalist opponents in Galatia insisted on their converts keeping the law was “lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12). Paul refused to compromise the gospel, and so he got persecuted. He bore in the body the marks of the Lord Jesus (Gal. 6:17).
The reality is that following Christ does not always lead to people liking you. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we would like, it means that people will not only not like us, they will despise us. Faithfulness to Christ can be a lonely road in this world. It is not a popular way. Didn’t our Lord remind us of that when he described his way as a narrow and hard way, one that few traverse (cf. Mt. 7:13-14)? If we follow Christ, we need to remember that we are following him whom the prophet described as “despised and rejected of men” (Isa. 53:3). I think this is important to remember in our day, because the perception is that if you are a faithful follower of Jesus, everyone will see that you are a nice person and appreciate all the things you do. And on the other hand, if you stir up the malice of unbelievers against you, it must be because you said or did something inappropriate. But this is just not so. Jesus was the best person who ever lived on this earth, and his own neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff (cf. Lk. 4). In fact, our Lord says the opposite of the conventional wisdom: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26). Beware when you are popular. You might just be a false prophet. Paul was not a false prophet; he was a faithful minister of Jesus Christ and it landed him in prison.
Now at the end of chapter 2, Paul had just finished describing the double reconciliation of Jew and Gentile to God and to each other that our Lord accomplished through his death on the cross, and he was apparently then going to pray for the Ephesians. Verses 2-13 are a sort of parenthesis. In verse 1, Paul says, “For this cause I Paul . . .” and then doesn’t come back to what he was going to say until verse 14, where he repeats in identical language, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and then he prays. So in verse 2, Paul breaks off from this intention to pray, and instead gives them this lengthy description of the mystery and ministry that he has received from Christ. And the question is, obviously, why would Paul do that?
I think the reason is that, as Paul is describing himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ, he remembers something else. He remembers that many of the saints in Ephesus are discouraged because of his imprisonment. We know this because of what Paul writes in verse 13, at the very end of his parenthetical excursion: “Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.” They were fainting, losing heart, becoming discouraged precisely because he was a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that our Lord himself has warned us that following him is not a participation in a happy parade down Main Street, somehow we get the impression that if we follow him all should go well. And when it doesn’t, we begin to lose heart. Perhaps something like that had happened to the Ephesians. They didn’t understand why someone like Paul, a man personally commissioned by Christ himself, would suffer as he did at the hands of wicked men. And so Paul writes verses 2-13 to keep them from losing heart.
It is therefore very important for us to get the big picture here and to see what Paul is doing. Fundamentally, in verses 2-13, he is giving the Ephesians who are discouraged reasons to overcome their discouragement. And so if you are struggling this morning with discouragement, if you feel that you are on the verge of losing heart, if you feel faint, then you need to hear what the apostle has to say. You need to take the pastoral medicine that he is about to administer to these weary believers.
The key to overcoming discouragement is found in verse 13, where Paul says that his sufferings for them are their “glory.” This was very important for them (and us) to see. You see, there are two approaches you can take when you are confronted with suffering, whether yours or someone else’s. One approach is to try to understand why the suffering is taking place, to understand the reason behind it. And I think this approach is fundamentally flawed, because there is no way this side of heaven that we will ever be able to understand all the reasons why we or others suffer as we do. The big lesson from the Book of Job is that God never explained to Job why he suffered. God never let Job in on his meeting with Satan. Rather, God tells Job that he was not in the position to understand or even to ask why. No human being has the right to shake their fist at God and demand answers. God is not the one who needs to be justified; we are the ones who need to be justified.
The other approach is the one that the apostle takes. It is to place our sufferings and trials in the light of God’s redemptive purposes for us. It is to see our tribulations against the backdrop of the glory that God has reserved for his elect. Paul had seen glory, the glory of Christ and the glory that he gives. And he knew that no amount of suffering in this world would be able to diminish, not in the very least, the glory that belongs by grace to the children of God: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Our problem is that we often do compare our sufferings with the glory to come. We so fixate on them that we diminish the immensity of the reward that is ours in Christ. And when we do that, we begin to lose heart.
Now I do not want to give the impression that we are to pretend that our sufferings are not real or tragic or even at times unbearable. We are not commanded to bear up like a Stoic and act like we do not feel the pain. Our Lord wept at Lazarus’ tomb and in the Garden of Gethsemane he was under so much duress that he sweat as it were great drops of blood. Some of us will bear mental and emotional scars to the day of our death, and that is just reality. There is nothing sinful about being human. So I am not saying that the key to dealing with suffering so that we do not lose heart is to pretend that we don’t feel the hurt and pain. We are not supposed to live in denial that our suffering is real and hard and painful and sometimes lifelong.
We don’t live in denial of present suffering. But neither do we live in denial of future glory. And so Paul reminds the Ephesians that his sufferings for them have secured for them the glory to come. He is in prison for preaching the gospel, yes. But this preaching led to them receiving the gospel, by which they became fellow heirs, members of the body of Christ, and partakers of his promise in Christ (6). Note that Paul is not the least bit sorry that he has done this. The ministry, which led to his imprisonment, was not a matter of regret for Paul, it was an occasion of incredible and intense gratitude: “unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (8). And regardless of what Paul was suffering or would suffer, this reality could never be taken away from him: “in whom [Christ] we have boldness and access [to God the Father] with confidence by the faith of him” (12).
In other words, the key to not losing heart is to remind ourselves that we are heirs to unspeakable and incomparable glory in Christ. You see this emphasis all over the NT. For example, to the Romans, Paul writes, “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” (12:12). I don’t think it was an accident that Paul put those two things together. They who persevere in trials are precisely those who rejoice in hope.
You see this in the apostle Peter’s epistles. He writes that they have been born again to a living hope “to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness though manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious that of gold that perisheth, though it be tried by fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:3-7). I think it is very significant that Peter’s reflection on their sufferings are bracketed before and after by his reminders of the glory to come. I also want to notice the dual reality of rejoicing and heaviness that described the experience of these Christians. Faith in Christ does not make the heaviness disappear. But it is balanced by rejoicing in hope, and in that hope we can find the strength to persevere in the midst of trials.
Again, in chapter 4 of 1 Peter, we read, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad with exceeding joy” (12-13). We should not think it strange that those who follow Jesus Christ should suffer. He suffered. His whole live was marked by suffering. When he was born his parents had to spirit him away to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill him. When he began his ministry, his neighbors wanted to throw him off a cliff. And finally, he was arrested and crucified. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. So when we respond to his call, “Follow me,” it should not surprise us if we find fiery trials along the way. We are simply following our Savior. But this is not the whole story; our sufferings are his sufferings, and as his suffering gave way to immeasurable glory, so our trials will someday give way to indescribable glory. We may be in heaviness now, but there is coming a day when all will give way to “exceeding joy.”
And of course our Lord himself taught this at the end of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted the prophets which were before you” (Mt. 5:10-12). Why should you rejoice in the midst of persecution? Surely there is no reason to rejoice! And yet, our Savior tells us that it is precisely at that moment that we should rejoice: “for great is your reward in heaven.” It is only as we keep our eyes upon the reward that we will be able to be patient in tribulation.
The apostles lived this out. This was not merely theological discourse to them. When Peter and John were arrested and then beaten for preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, we are told that “they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41). And we see the same for believers throughout history. Men and women who were willing to undergo the most brutal sufferings for the name of Christ because they kept their eyes on the hope of glory. And there are millions of God’s people in heaven today who can testify to the reality that faith in Christ will never disappoint.
Many of the passages that we’ve referenced refer to believers suffering for their faith. The NT authors focus on this because the church faced violent persecution from the very start and believers had to be prepared for that. And the fact of the matter is that, even in the West, we will inevitably face some form of persecution if we are faithful to Christ. “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). But we should not think that only those sufferings which are the direct result of persecution for the sake of Christ are addressed by our hope in Christ. When Paul writes that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory,” there is no indication that he is thinking just of sufferings due to persecution. Rather, we should take his meaning in the broadest possible sense. When we lose someone very dear to us, that is suffering. We are not immune to it. The pain can be indescribable. And yet, we know that all our suffering is Christ’s suffering. And because it is his suffering, we can be sure that behind our suffering will come the grace and comfort of our Savior that bears us up and keeps us going until the day we are face to face with him in incomparable glory.
Now there are many people, especially in our day, who if they heard me say this, would simply respond by saying that I am just dishing up pie in the sky. They would say that all this nonsense about hope is simply wish-fulfillment for people who want to escape reality. The first thing I would say to that would be to ask, could it be possible that the desire for there to be no heaven and no hope beyond this world be nothing more than wish-fulfillment for those who have no desire to meet the God of heaven?
But the second thing I would say, and the more important thing, is that we have every reason to believe that this hope is not simply pie in the sky. This is because our hope is built on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Peter describes the hope of the Christian as a living hope “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). Our hope is anchored in an event of history that took place in Judea 2000 years ago. It was an event that was witnessed by every one of the apostles, who turned from fearful and trembling recluses to courageous and lion-like witnesses for Christ. It was witnessed, according to the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:6, by more than 500 eye witnesses. And then we have the testimony of Paul himself, who met Christ on the road to Damascus and turned the persecutor into an ambassador for Christ. There simply is no good explanation for the meteoric rise of the Christian church in Palestine if Christ did not rise from the dead. And of course, in some sense every believer in Christ has met the living and risen Christ. He has raised us from a death in sin and given us life in Christ. Jesus our Lord arose. And he did not rise simply as an individual but as the first fruits of all who belong to him: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20).
And for that reason, we have hope. We don’t have hope because we are good enough to deserve the glory to come. No, we have hope because Jesus Christ was good for us, because on the cross he paid the penalty for sin and invites all who know their sinfulness to embrace the forgiveness that he offers to those who believe. It is because of that we can have hope. It is because of our Lord’s triumph over the grave that we can have confidence that one day we too will triumph over the grave. “But thanks be unto God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).