“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-25a NIV).
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1 NIV).
The Nature of our Struggle
Today is Palm Sunday and in our church, at least, we will be walking up and down the streets waving palm branches and inviting people to our services. The children love it of course. The adults are often embarassed and just smile. Not very many people come but we try. That’s what makes Palm Sunday special – at least in our church.
We’ve got it wrong of course. That’s not what Palm Sunday is about at all. But we shouldn’t be surprised. The Jews got Palm Sunday wrong right at the very beginning. Everybody heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. The streets were alive with speculation. Many had heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and now it looked like he was on his way for a final showdown with the Romans to establish his kingdom on earth once and for all. It was a time for celebration, a time to show their support for this rabbi king who would set their people free from the slavery and humiliation of the Romans. The Messiah had come. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We seem to think that they were actually celebrating Jesus and his ministry. That they got it. That they understood what the true battle was and what the true Kingdom of God was all about. But we would be wrong. The palm branches are a dead give-a-way. Two hundred years earlier more or less, the Macabees led a revolt against their overlords and were able to free the Jewish people for a time (although it didn’t last long since the Romans were on their way). The official coin from the time of the Macabean revolt had a picture of a palm branch on it. The palm branch was a symbol of political freedom using military might. That’s what the people were so excited about.
They believed that Jesus would confront the enemy and bring peace and freedom to their people. That’s exactly what Jesus did of course but not in the way the people expected.
Yes, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Chief Priests when they objected to the celebration but even that was for a different reason than most people think. The Pharisees and the Chief Priests were scared that the Roman authorities would see the celebration and recognize it for what it was – a political rally to stir up the people to revolt against the Romans. That’s what the people thought it was. That’s what the Pharisees and the Chief Priests thought it was. The only difference was that the people believed Jesus could pull it off but the leaders of the people did not. Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief.
But not only did Jesus rebuke them for their unbelief. There was more going on. Even the stones would cry out in praise to the Messiah who had come if the people did not celebrate. Perhaps the people were blind to his real battle, his real struggle in Gethsemane to come, the real significance of his death and resurrection. It didn’t matter. He had come to fight for them, just in a different way than they expected. They needed to celebrate his arrival for the final battle, even if it was a spiritual battle and not a military one. The celebration was perfect and appropriate even if it was misguided and based on ignorance.
That’s why Jesus wept over the city. They had no idea what was going on. They rejected the very Messiah that they had hoped for because he wouldn’t do things the way they expected. He would save them from their sins, not from the Romans. He would save them from the wrath of God, not the wrath of the Emperor. That would come within thirty years when Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed. Of course, he wept.
So, yes, most of us get Palm Sunday wrong. We call it the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem but within a few days everyone would turn on him and he would be sacrificed as an atonement for our sins, a substitute, and then, after three days, he would be raised from the dead.
In-between he would struggle, and sweat great drops of blood, and suffer physical and spiritual pain, be tortured and mocked and spit upon, that man of tears, that face of God, that body abused for you and me.
That is the nature of our struggle as well. We are no different than he. We must share in his suffering so that we can share in his glory (Romans 8:17b).
Just like Jesus we will suffer on behalf of others, for their salvation, as mid-wives of reconciliation through the blood of Jesus.
Just like Jesus we will not suffer for our own sins. We do not live under condemnation and punishment but we will suffer for others out of love for God, just like Jesus did. And that pleases God immensely and our reward is to share in his glory, his character, his integrity and love.
We become like him. We will also be mocked, persecuted, hurt, be in pain, rejected, perhaps even crucified (upside down like Peter if the legends are true).
But not for our own sins. Never for our own sins. We live under the “no condemnation” of Romans 8:1. God may discipline us for our own good, like he did to Jonah who tried to run away from his mission. He may allow unpleasant things to happen to us but always for our good (Romans 8:28), for our development in spiritual maturity, for our preparation for ministry. But never punishment. That has been taken care of by Jesus on our behalf.
But, you say, it looks the same. The suffering of Jesus and our suffering.
Yes, but looks are deceiving. It is the same but it is not the same. It is not the same in the sense that we do not suffer because of our sins, even though we continue to sin. But it is the same in the sense that we suffer as Jesus did, as an innocent who volunteers to suffer for the sake of others to bring them to salvation. That is our purpose. That is our glory. To be like Christ in his suffering.
Paul tells us that he “considers that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18 NIV). He also tells us that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV). We have a purpose and that purpose is to suffer with Christ in our efforts to bring salvation to the lost people of this world. There is no greater calling or glory than that.
But in order to understand the nature of our calling and glory, we need to understand the nature of our struggle.
Even Jesus struggled with his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane. His temptation was without sin. It was a temptation not to do evil but, in fact, the exact opposite. His temptation of the cross was to maintain his love relationship with God, his Father, and avoid the cross altogether. The cross meant that he would become what his pure soul abhorred, sin itself. He became sin who knew no sin, Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Of course he wouldn’t like that.
Even more, as the embodiement of sin, he would also receive the wrath of God on the sin of the whole world. How could he bear the wrath of the one person in all the universe that he loved with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength? Why would he want to bear it? It was his perfection, his righteousness, his holiness that made the temptation so difficult for him. It was the depth of his love for God that made his holy temptation create great drops of blood-like sweat pour down his face in that garden. Don’t tell me that he didn’t understand what temptation was like. That is what makes him such a great High Priest, says the author to the Hebrews (Hebrews 4:14-16). And yes, we will struggle with the same thing.
Jesus was tempted to do what pleased him rather than what was pleasing to his Father. It was a natural and holy desire that he had and no one else in all of history will ever be asked to become a substitute for sin like Jesus was. But Jesus chose the way of obedience as the best way to show how much he trusted his Father even in this dark night of the soul. Hebrews 5:7-9 tells us that Jesus “learnt obedience” through what he suffered. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t obedient before but rather that he learnt the value of obedience as the highest form of love for God as a human living in a sinful and rebellious world.
To obey God out of love (loving obedience) is the one thing that God desires from us. Let God be God. Trust him with our lives. Do his will out of a heartfelt desire to please him and you will have discovered the secret to our struggle, to Jesus’ struggle and, even more, to his victory in the midst of temptation and suffering.
Paul tells us that there are two struggles that we have as believers. Within and without. In Ephesians 6:1 he tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. That is true. We are not fighting other people even though Satan may use other people against us. We understand that the battle goes deeper and is more important and that it has eternal consequences. The Westminster Confession tells us that our struggle is against the flesh, the world and the devil. That is pretty accurate. The world is just the aggregate “flesh” (sinful rebellion of people against God’s rule) of a lot of people often systematized into rules and laws and cultural mores (like abortion, homosexuality, the sexual revolution etc) that are against the loving will and law of God. But behind it all is the Devil manipulating the “flesh” of the world and of individuals like ourselves, even as Christians.
That is what Paul is talking about here in Romans 7. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (vs. 15b). It’s enough to make your head spin. But there is an internal battle for the Christian and it is meant to teach us how to get rid of the old habits and ways of the “flesh” and learn to walk in the spirit. It is a necessary battle that we must all go through.
Without learning to fight that battle, we cannot learn the power of the cross (which is the only way to win) and therefore we cannot become spiritually mature. Without spiritual maturity, learning to be controlled by the Spirit, we will never enter into our purpose, our glory, our suffering for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of the salvation of others.
Paul tells us in Romans 12:1,2 “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” But there is no way to get to Romans 12 without going through Romans 7 and 8 first. That is the foundation of everything else that comes after it. It is a glorious journey. No fear. No regrets. Just glory. But easy? No, of course not. All the best things in life cost us everything, remember? Marriage. Babies and, most certainly, our walk with God.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. It scares me to think that there may be suffering and pain in my future. I know that it is for others, for my family, my children, my friends, my fellow church members, perhaps, even for a stranger or two. So I accept this mission, in Jesus’ name. I know that you will be by my side and that you will help me through every step of the way. Thank you for that. In your name I pray. Amen.