Why do we suffer? Where is God when we’re in pain? What is the answer? These are questions that we ask ourselves, even subconsciously. They’re answered, at least in part, in the book of Job. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 26, 2020.
How do you respond when someone hurts you? How do you respond when someone close to you betrays you and violates your trust? If someone hates you and acts in a way that is unfair toward you, do you respond in hate and with unfair tactics? Or do you respond in a way that is different, a way that reflects truth and love?
How we respond to difficult situations reveals who we truly are. When the pressures of life come upon us and we feel like we’re being squeezed, the real me and the real you will be exposed. What happens to us when we’re attacked, when we’re hurt, when we’re treated unfairly?
Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see Jesus’ arrest. We’ll see that he is betrayed. His arrest isn’t conducted publicly and in the light, but in secret, in the dark. His disciples try to respond one way to this arrest, by striking back. But Jesus responds with love.
We’re going to read Luke 22:47–53 this morning. Before we do, here’s a quick reminder of where we are in this story. It’s the night before Jesus will die. He has spent the last few hours with his disciples. He has taken a Passover meal with them, taking the elements of the meal, the bread and the wine, to demonstrate what his death will accomplish. He has warned them that one of the twelve disciples will betray him. He has also warned them against seeking greatness, teaching them instead to be humble and to serve, for that is the way to true greatness in God’s kingdom. He has told Peter that he will deny knowing Jesus. He has told them that the Scripture about him will be fulfilled, that he will be “numbered with the transgressors.” And, as we saw last week, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, east of Jerusalem, that if there were any way possible, that he would be spared the suffering of the wrath of God that he would experience on the cross. Yet he yielded to the Father’s will.
Now, let’s read Luke 22:47–53:
47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”
I want to point out three things that we see here. The first thing we see is Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. We have already talked about this, when we saw that Jesus predicted this betrayal. But now it comes to pass. After Jesus prays, Judas, who had left the group at the last supper, comes back with a crowd. Luke says that among the crowd were Jewish religious leaders, “chief priests and officers of the temple and elders.” Judas was in front of the crowd, and he identifies Jesus by kissing him, probably on the cheek.
Why does Judas kiss Jesus? A kiss was a common greeting of respect and love. It might have been the kind of greeting the disciples gave Jesus after they had been away for a while. It seems that Judas had arranged to identify Jesus by some sign. It was dark, and perhaps the officers of the temple didn’t know what Jesus looked like. Today, the identifying sign might have been a handshake or a hug. But in that time, it was a kiss.
Yet the kiss is ironic. Instead of a sign of love, it was a sign of hate, a sign of betrayal. The man who had spend a couple of years with Jesus, who was part of his inner circle of twelve disciples, who had been the treasurer of the group, betrayed Jesus. He told these Jewish leaders how they could arrest Jesus away from the teeming crowds in Jerusalem. He knew that Jesus would be alone with his disciples, just outside the city. The leaders could arrest Jesus without any public backlash, without setting off a riot. Jesus sold Jesus out.
Think about that for a moment. We believe that Jesus is no ordinary man. He is the God-man, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being, one person with two natures, one divine and one human. That means that while Jesus had all the essential characteristics of a human being, he was still God. He was still omnipotent, all-powerful. Yet Jesus made himself vulnerable. He loved these men. He served them. He spent a great deal of time with them, traveling with them, teaching them, revealing truths to them that the rest of them would teach and preach and write down.
Though Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray him, it must have been something else to experience it. It’s one thing to know something is going to happen. That’s knowing a fact. It’s quite another to experience it happen. Jesus knew he would die, but it was quite another thing to experience a painful death and the spiritual suffering that came along with it. In a similar manner, Jesus knew he would be betrayed, but it must have been sorrowful all the same to see one of his friends betray him this way.
And what does that mean for us? Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed. I don’t know if you have experienced betrayal in your life, but you probably have. Of course, the betrayals that we experience are often not as dramatic; most people when they are betrayed aren’t put to death. But anytime someone we love, someone we have made ourselves vulnerable to, turns on us, that’s a betrayal. It could be a friend who has betrayed your trust. Betrayal can come from a co-worker. Betrayal can even come from a spouse. I know that I’ve experienced betrayal. There have been people that have been close to me, people I’ve trusted, who then surprised me by turning on me. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same thing. The fact that someone we wouldn’t expect to turn on us does is the worst aspect of betrayal. The loss of a relationship is worse than losing a job or experiencing some other bad consequence of betrayal. When people we love turn on us, we’re hurt and confused. We don’t know if someone else will turn on us, too.
When we finish the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to look at the book of Proverbs. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus reminds me of a passage in Proverbs. This is what Proverbs 27:5–6 says:
5 Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
Real friends will tell you the truth. They will “wound” you with things that you may not want to hear, but they will do that directly. The kisses of the enemy, however, might appear flattering at first. People who don’t truly love us will say things we might want to hear, things that will flatter us. Yet those same people will then turn on us.
The good news is that Jesus, the Son of God, knows what it’s like to be betrayed. Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakest moments. He knows what it’s like to have someone close to him turn on him. He understands. And Jesus was and is always a real friend. He doesn’t betray us. He rebukes us openly with his words. He tells us hard truths that we may not want to hear. We need to follow Jesus’ example in not betraying people by acting one way to them at one time, and then turning on them the next. Jesus is faithful, the one who never betrays but who was betrayed.
The next thing we should see in this passage is that those who betray, those who are aligned with the powers of darkness, don’t fight fair. At the end of this passage, Jesus says that those who came to arrest him were doing so with the power of darkness. They were doing what was evil. And evil doesn’t play by the rules. Jesus’ enemies should have arrested him in Jerusalem, during the day, in public. Jesus says that they could have done that. Every day that week, he was at the temple, teaching. They could easily have arrested him then if they thought he was a threat. Instead, they come secretly at night. And though Jesus never committed acts of violence against anyone, he was treated like a violent criminal. The word “robber” used here in verse 52 is one used of violent criminals, not mere thieves. Why are treating Jesus this way if he’s not a real threat? Because they want to get rid of him. Darkness doesn’t like the light. It hates light because light exposes the truth. Light reveals what is done in secret. So, the powers of darkness come upon Jesus. It is their hour.
The third thing we should see is that there are two different responses to Jesus’ arrest. One response comes from the other eleven disciples. They ask Jesus, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Before he answers, one of them takes a sword and cuts off one of the ears of the servant of the high priest. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that the disciple who did this was Peter. John also gives us the servant’s name, Malchus (John 18:10). We can understand why Peter would want to fight. He’s trying to protect his teacher, his leader.
But Jesus has a very different reaction. He says, “No more of this!” Then he heals the servant’s ear, which is the last miracle he performs before he dies. He refuses to fight back. Even though the people who come against him are wrong and want to do him harm, he refuses to run away from his mission. He must die. In John’s Gospel he says to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).
Jesus could have defended himself. He certainly had the power to do so. Look at what happens in Matthew’s account of this episode. This is Matthew 26:51–54:
51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Jesus could have responded by calling upon thousands of angels. Twelve legions could be as many as 72,000. He could have struck down all of the Jewish leaders opposed to them and all their servants and soldiers. But he didn’t. He let himself be arrested so that Scripture would be fulfilled. He knew that he had to drink the cup of wrath that his Father had prepared for him.
Not only does Jesus refuse to fight back or run away, but he heals his enemy. He doesn’t respond to hate with hate. He doesn’t respond to swords with swords. He responds with love. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, he taught about loving one’s enemy. This is what he says in Luke 6:27–29:
27 But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.
We could believe that what Jesus does here is extraordinary. We know that he has to be arrested, because he has to die. He has to die and experience God’s wrath in order to pay the penalty for sins. Of course, Jesus never committed any sins. He is the one perfect human being. So, he’s not dying for his own sins. He’s dying for the sins of all who will come to him in faith, those whom the Father draws to him, those who cling to Jesus because he is their only remedy for sin. If Jesus didn’t die for sins, we all would have to die for our sins. And we wouldn’t just have to die a physical death. We would have to die a spiritual death. We would be condemned, cast out of God’s creation, cut off from all of God’s blessings.
So, we could easily say, “Yes, of course Jesus didn’t fight back. He had to die.” And then we could act quite differently when we are attacked. But we can’t just write off Jesus’ actions as something that he had to do, but something that we don’t have to do. We just read his words: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” When someone mistreats us, we will be tempted to strike back. If someone lies about us, we may be tempted to lie about them. If someone calls us a name, we might be tempted to call them names. If someone does something unethical towards us, we might think we’re allowed to do the same to them. But Jesus says, “No.”
Jesus’ message is reiterated by the apostles. Let’s look at what the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. Turn to Romans 12:14–21:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If someone persecutes you, you must bless them and not curse them. Do not repay evil with evil. Instead, do what is honorable. Don’t avenge yourself, but leave it to God to deal with those who have wronged you. God will deal with all evil. In the end, all evil will be punished. Those who have turned to Jesus in faith have already had all their evil punished. Those who reject Jesus will stand before him in judgment and they will have to pay for what they have done. We must trust that a final day of justice will come. We don’t have to try to right every single wrong in this life. Instead, treat people kindly. Overcome evil with good.
Paul can say those things because the Spirit of God led him to write those things. And Jesus spoke through his apostles by means of the Holy Spirit. So, Paul’s words are no less authoritative then Jesus’ words. His message is the same as Jesus’. Paul can tell us not to repay evil with evil, but to love and bless those who hate and curse us, because he knows that justice will be done. He can also say those things because God has instituted an authority that does provide justice. Paul goes on to say in Romans 13 that the “governing authorities . . . have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). The government is “God’s servant” who “bear[s] the sword.” The government “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). According to the Bible, the main role of government is to punish evil and to protect those who do good from those who do evil. Obviously, governments don’t work perfectly. The Roman Empire wasn’t the perfect model of justice in Paul’s day, but Paul realized that the role of government was to punish evildoers. And if the government failed to punish evil, as it so often does, then evil would ultimately be punished by God. And that means Christians do not have to pick up weapons to avenge themselves.
Why does this matter? There’s a great temptation today to rely on power to get our way. It seems like all kinds of people are obsessed with politics because they realize that if their party has control of the various branches of government, they can then enforce their will on all the people. It seems like hardly anyone cares about truth and doing what is right. Instead, they cheer on the party that can enforce their agenda, regardless of whether that agenda is entirely good or not.
Christians have been caught up in this. I think we have been led to think that if only we could get control of the government, we could enforce our views on the nation. Now, that’s understandable. It matters who is in power. And it matters what laws are made and enforced. Laws cannot enforce virtue in the hearts of people. But laws can restrain vice. And laws are teachers. When the government says that something is legal or illegal, it is saying that something is acceptable (even if it’s not entirely moral) or that something is beyond the pale and is entirely unacceptable. So, we cannot pretend that politics doesn’t matter.
But I think there are some things that we fail to think about. One is that Christianity cannot be enforced or spread through power. We can’t make people believe in Jesus, or accept the doctrines of the Bible. Christianity can only be spread through persuasion and through the power of God.
Think about this: the early church had no political power. Christianity was an illegal religion. And it was considered a threat to the Roman Empire because Caesar, the emperor, was regarded as Lord. But Christianity said, “No, Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is the real King. The Roman Empire had many, many gods. Christianity teaches that there is only one true God. So, Christianity was at odds with the Roman Empire. And for about three centuries after Jesus died and rose from the grave, the Roman leaders were not Christians. Eventually, in the fourth century, Christianity became a legal religion and then even the official religion of the Roman Empire. But that was not the case in the early years. The first Christians had no political power. They weren’t the richest people. But Christianity spread through persuasion. Christians stated what Jesus did and how he fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. They explained how all the other gods couldn’t save them, and that they were in fact false gods. They pointed out the beauty and the coherence of the Christian faith while pointing out the inferiority of other beliefs.
You simply can’t spread Christianity with force. To try to do so is wrong. Enforcing religion is more or less the way of Islam. Islam started in Saudi Arabia in the early seventh century. After Mohammed died, in 632, the alleged revelations of God that he received in his life were written down and codified in the Qur’an. And before long, the first Muslims engaged in military conquests in the Middle East and across northern Africa, all within the seventh century. By the early eighth century, Muslims invaded Spain.
Now, it’s technically true that people didn’t convert to Islam through violence. We don’t have accounts of people being told, “Confess Allah or you will die!” But Islam wouldn’t have spread without violence, force, and great social pressure. Those people who were not Muslims and who lived in lands that were conquered by Muslims were treated as second-class citizens. They were forced to pay taxes that Muslims didn’t have to pay. There was enormous social pressure to convert to Islam. And that is still true today in Islamic countries in the Middle East.
But that is not the way of Christianity. It can’t be, because you can’t force someone to have a change of heart. When we try to enforce what we believe, it simply doesn’t work. And it often creates a backlash. People resent being forced to live in a way they disagree with. Powerful social movements in our country have not been achieved through power. Part of the reason why the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the last century worked so well is because it was accomplished through persuasion and through people being willing to be arrested and even to suffer mistreatment. Of course, Christians can and should agree that treating someone poorly based on their skin color or ethnicity is wrong. It’s a failure to treat someone as an image bearer of God, regardless of what they believe and how they live.
But there have been social movements in our country that do not align with Christianity. And they, too, have been spread not with violence or power, but with persuasion. We can think about homosexuality and now transgenderism. These movements have been spread through subtle means of persuasion. I don’t think there are good arguments to state why homosexual desires and behaviors are acceptable. I don’t think there are good arguments to say why we should believe that a biological man can be a woman, or a biological woman could be a man. Logic and truth are not on the side of people who advance such causes. But these movements have learned how to play upon the emotions of people. They have used media well, introducing characters in television shows and movies who were non-threatening, appealing to people’s sense of freedom, to the idea that we should be free to love whomever we want, however we choose.
If Christianity is going to counter such movements, it cannot do so through political power. That won’t succeed. We must engage in a battle for hearts and minds. We must present Christianity as a more beautiful alternative. We must persuade people that truth is on our side. We must show them through our acts of love that we care for them and want what is best for them. And I trust that what the Bible teaches about sex, sexuality, gender, and the family will be shown to be true and wise in the end. That may take a long time. In the interim, we must love and persuade.
The other reason why we can’t fight spiritual battles with political power and literal weapons of war is because, ultimately, this is a spiritual battle. This is what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:3–6:
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
Paul’s message was opposed by many people. It was opposed by Jews who refused to see that Jesus was their Messiah, the one who fulfilled the promise of the Hebrew Bible. It was refused by Gentiles who didn’t want to turn from their idols to the true God. And it was even refused by people who claimed to be Christians yet who taught false things about Jesus. Paul realized his battle was not against people. Ultimately, it was against spiritual forces of evil, led by Satan himself. The weapons he used were not swords and clubs. He used reasoning and persuasion. He clung to the truth. He didn’t destroy people, but he destroyed arguments and opinion that were against the knowledge of God. His punishment wasn’t physical, but conducted through church discipline, using the censure of the church as a way of telling people they are wrong.
If you’re familiar with Ephesians, you may recall that Paul told Christians to “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:10–20). It’s a metaphor for finding our protection in Jesus. Most of the elements of that armor are purely defensive. The only weapon is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). And right after that, he tells us to pray (Eph. 6:18). Our weapons to fight against evil and darkness are the Bible, prayer, faithfully obeying God, reasoning with people, and trusting in the power of the only One who can destroy darkness.
We need to learn how to fight against spiritual darkness with spiritual light. Instead of relying on political power, we must draw on God’s power by using the resources he has given to us. That’s why it’s so important to know the truth of the Bible and understand it well. It’s our “sword.” We don’t use the Bible to beat people up, but to show that what they believe is false. We must learn how to reason and persuade, and to do so in love. We must rely on God’s power, and ask him, through prayer, to deliver us from evil.
And we must be willing to suffer if that’s what God has called us to do. According to Paul, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” by dying on the cross (Col. 2:15). He defeated evil through suffering. He triumphed by dying. Martyrdom has often been a powerful way of persuading people, because when people see someone dying for a cause, they start to consider that such a cause is worth dying for. Who would die for something they believed to be false? Who would die for something that they didn’t believe was important? The word “martyr” literally means “witness.” When we suffer for the sake of Jesus, we’re bearing witness to the world that Jesus is worth more than the world’s pleasures and comforts.
So, let us follow Jesus. He knows what it’s like to be betrayed. He knows that the forces of darkness are real and that they don’t fight fairly. Yet he knows that we can’t respond with hate and evil. We must respond with love. We must respond with blessings, not curses. And we must respond in faith. The gospel message teaches us that evil isn’t something outside of us. It teaches us that we have evil within us. And it also teaches us that Jesus died for evil people, that those who come to him in faith have their evil defeated, and that those who come to Jesus can love others who act in evil ways toward them. Trust in Jesus and follow in his footsteps.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
When Jesus was arrested, he refused to fight back. He was treated unfairly, but he was willing to suffer to fulfill God’s plans. Find out what we can learn from Jesus. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 16, 2020.
Many people claim to be Christians. And if you ask these people questions about different issues, whether those are ethical or doctrinal, you’ll likely get very different answers. In fact, if you ask people who claim to be Christians some very basic questions about who Jesus is and what he achieved during his time on earth, you’ll likely get different answers, too. That’s sad.
There are many truths about Jesus that are quite clearly expressed in the Bible. It’s rather clear that he was a man, a human being. Though he was conceived in a unique way, he was born, grew up, ate, drank, got tired, slept, felt emotions, experienced pain and suffering, and he died. If you pay attention to what the Bible says, I think it’s also clear that he’s the Son of God. He claims to be divine and equal to God the Father, he claims to forgive sins not committed directly against him, he says that people will be condemned if they don’t believe in him and follow his words.
Yet there are some aspects of Jesus that are harder to understand. How is that he could be both God and human at the same time? How could Jesus be tempted if he’s God? If he’s God, how could he really suffer? What exactly did his death accomplish?
These issues aren’t just intellectual issues. These theological issues have an impact on how we live. Knowing who Jesus is and what he came to do will shape our lives in dramatic ways, particularly as we deal with issues of sin and suffering.
Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’ll consider some of the more difficult aspects of who Jesus is and what he did. We’ll be looking at Luke 22:39–46, the passage that describes Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died. We’ll think about why Jesus prayed, what he prayed for, and the results of his prayer. And we’ll consider his words to his disciples, that they should pray that they may not enter into temptation.
So, with that in mind, let’s read today’s passage. Here is Luke 22:39–46:
39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Just to give us a bit of context: As I said, this is the night before Jesus will die. He is about to be arrested. He has already taken one last Passover meal with his disciples, he has told them something about the meaning of his imminent death, and he has warned them that one of them will betray him and one of them will deny him. Then, he and his followers left Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron Valley, just east of the city, and came to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the western slope of the Mount of Olives.
Jesus tells his disciples to pray that they may not enter into temptation, and then he withdraws a relatively short distance from them to pray on his own. In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, we’re told that Jesus took his inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him (Matt. 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42).
Now, I want us to see why Jesus prayed. Why, at this moment, does Jesus pray? In fact, why does Jesus need to pray at all, if he’s God? Well, Jesus prayed throughout his time on earth because he was also a man. He came to live the perfect human life. Most of the time, he didn’t rely on his divine power. There were times when he performed miracles and didn’t pray beforehand. But as a human being, and as the perfect human being, he relied on God the Father’s provision. A perfect human being realizes that he or she isn’t God, that God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Provider of all things. So, a perfect human being doesn’t rely on his own strength, but instead he relies on God.
Prayer isn’t simply asking God for things. We’ve read through most of the Psalms on Sunday mornings, and in those poems, those prayers, you see that the psalmists often express emotions to God. They simply talk to God. They praise him. They tell him how they are feeling. They express their concerns, their sorrows. They confess their sins. They dare to command God to rise up and defeat their enemies. They ask God where he is and how long it will be before they are vindicated. Prayer is quite simply spending time with God. Prayer is taking whatever you’re going through and processing it in the presence of God. God already knows whatever it is that you’ll say. You’re not going to tell something new to God. He knows everything, even what is going on in your heart and mind. God doesn’t need your requests to act. But what prayer does is it helps us to focus on God. In our time of need, it reminds us that God is there, that God is in control, and that he is our ultimate source of help and hope. Prayer realigns us to God.
So, why does Jesus pray? He knows what’s happening. He knows he’s about to die. He already has clearly predicted his death. He knows his body will be broken and his blood poured out. He knows Judas Iscariot is telling the Jewish leaders right now that where they can arrest him away from the teeming crowds in Jerusalem. Jesus knows that what he is about to endure isn’t just physical suffering, as bad as that will be. He is going to experience something far beyond physical pain. So, he prays.
What does Jesus pray for? Here is his prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Jesus is asking to be relieved of something. But what? He wants a “cup” to be removed from him. Since he’s not literally drinking anything, this cup must be a figurative or symbolic reference. What is this cup? I’ve heard some people refer to this as a cup of suffering. It is that. But the cup refers to more than just suffering. You and I suffer in various ways. But the cup that Jesus had to drink wasn’t just any suffering.
To understand what “this cup” refers to, we must go back to the Old Testament. As a Jewish man, Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament. He often quoted and alluded to the Old Testament, just as the early Christian writers like Paul did. The cup is a reference to something we find in the Old Testament. It’s best to look at some passages that mention this cup to understand what Jesus is talking about.
First, we’ll look at the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied over seven hundred years earlier, at a time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms. During his ministry, the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrian Empire, and later, the southern kingdom of Judah would be defeated by the Babylonian Empire. The division and defeat of Israel happened because the Israelites turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and love him as they should have. They disobeyed him, broke his commands, and also started to worship false gods, idols. So, God gave them over to their sins and to their enemies. But God promised he would deliver a remnant, whom he would call back to himself and save.
In Isaiah 51, God says he would comfort his people, thought they had forgotten him (Isa. 51:12–13). Because they had forgotten him, God gave them over to punishment. Look at verses 17–23:
17 Wake yourself, wake yourself,
stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl, the cup of staggering.
18 There is none to guide her
among all the sons she has borne;
there is none to take her by the hand
among all the sons she has brought up.
19 These two things have happened to you—
who will console you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword;
who will comfort you?
20 Your sons have fainted;
they lie at the head of every street
like an antelope in a net;
they are full of the wrath of the Lord,
the rebuke of your God.
21 Therefore hear this, you who are afflicted,
who are drunk, but not with wine:
22 Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more;
23 and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you,
‘Bow down, that we may pass over’;|
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to pass over.”
Jerusalem had once drunk the cup of God’s wrath, the cup of staggering, the bowl of his wrath. But now God says he will take that cup from them and give it to their enemies. The cup symbolizes God’s judgment against sin, his righteous anger and punishment against rebellion. Sin is a destructive force, wreaking destruction in God’s creation. God has every right to get angry against sin and to cast sinners out of his creation. If someone came into your home and started tearing things up and harming your family, you would want them to be removed and punished. So it is with God. To face God’s righteous punishment against sin is a dreadful thing.
There are other passages that talk of this cup of wrath. Consider Jeremiah 25:15–16:
15 Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”
God told the prophet Jeremiah to give the nations, including Judah, the cup of his wrath. What he means is that Jeremiah was supposed to warn the nations of God’s judgment. A day of judgment, the Day of the Lord, will come upon the whole earth. All who have rejected God and rebelled against him will drink this cup.
God sends a similar message through the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 23 of that book, God describes in a somewhat metaphorical way how both Israel and Judah, the divided kingdoms of Israel, rejected him and went after other gods. He tells Judah that what happened to her “sister” shall happen to her. Here is Ezekiel 23:31–34:
31 You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. 32 Thus says the Lord God:
“You shall drink your sister’s cup
that is deep and large;
you shall be laughed at and held in derision,
for it contains much;
33 you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.|
A cup of horror and desolation,
the cup of your sister Samaria;
34 you shall drink it and drain it out,
and gnaw its shards,
and tear your breasts;
for I have spoken, declares the Lord God.
Drinking from that cup sounds like a terrible thing, something that brings shame, horror, destruction, and pain.
Another passage that speaks of the cup is Psalm 75:6–8:
6 For not from the east or from the west
and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
7 but it is God who executes judgment,
putting down one and lifting up another.
8 For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.
Again, the cup is associated with judgment.
There are a few other passages that mention the cup, but this is enough to see that the cup is something dreadful. It is a cup of God’s judgment, his wrath against sin. It brings destruction, horror, pain. It’s like drinking the worst poison that first makes someone crazy before killing them in the worst possible way. This is the cup that Jesus was referring to.
Why does this matter? Because there are some people who say that Jesus was referring to a cup of suffering. The cup does entail suffering, but it’s not just suffering. Jesus didn’t just suffer. You and I suffer, but we don’t face what Jesus faced. He didn’t just experience physical pain and death. He bore the wrath of God on the cross. Some people refuse to believe that. They say Jesus died as an example of how to lay down your life, or that he died because he was oppressed by a class of oppressors. There’s truth to those statements. But Jesus’ death wasn’t just an accident. It was planned by God. And his death accomplished something. He died to pay the penalty of sin for his people. If his death didn’t accomplish something, it wouldn’t be a good example. But we know that Jesus came to save his people from their sin (Matt. 1:21), and that his death ransomed his people from sin (Matt. 20:28; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 1:17–19; 2:18–25).
So, why is Jesus asking for this cup to be removed? Jesus knows he must die. He has already predicted his death. He realizes that it is part of the divine plan. But Jesus also knows that experiencing the wrath of God is something he hasn’t experienced before. He has to this point experienced unbroken fellowship with God the Father. He has only experienced the Father’s love and approval. Now, he knows that the experience of the Father’s love will be overshadowed by the experience of the Father’s wrath. He will experience a psychological, spiritual torment—what can best be described as hell on earth—and this is not something that Jesus wants to experience.
To understand what’s happening, we must first understand that Jesus has two natures. He is one person who has always had a divine nature. The Son of God has always existed as the Son. He is eternal. God the Father created the universe through him. But when Jesus was conceived, he added a second nature to himself. He also became man. Jesus doesn’t just have a body. He also has a human mind, a human soul, a human will. He needed to have these things in order to redeem them.
An early Christian theologian named Gregory Nazianzen wrote the following of Jesus:
If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole
The point is that Jesus had a human mind as well as a divine mind. Jesus’ divine mind knows everything, every fact, past, present, and future. But he often only used his human mind, which didn’t know everything. Praying as a human, Jesus might have thought that there could be a way for him to avoid drinking that terrible cup of wrath. His divine will desired to go to the cross. But his human will, quite understandably, didn’t want to suffer God’s wrath.
We might say that Jesus was tempted not to drink this cup of judgment. We may wonder how the Son of God could be tempted. God, after all, has a perfect character. He can’t be tempted. But Jesus, as a human being, could be tempted. Yet Jesus had a perfect character. We’re often tempted to do the wrong thing because want to do things that are inherently wrong. Jesus could be tempted to do the wrong thing—to do what wasn’t the Father’s will, or the divine will—but not because he desired to do things that were inherently wrong. Not wanting to suffer and die isn’t inherently wrong. Wanting to kill an innocent human being or wanting to steal something is inherently wrong. But not wanting to drink the cup of God’s wrath isn’t wrong.
Still, we see in this passage that Jesus yields to the Father’s will. He says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” He’s saying that his human will isn’t to suffer God’s wrath, but he realizes this is the divine will. It’s the Father’s will. But it’s also the Son of God’s will. The divine plan that is jointly held by the Father, Son, and Spirit, is that Jesus, the God-man, must be the one who drinks this cup of wrath. Jesus, in his humanity, yields to the Father’s will, because Jesus is the perfect human being. A perfect human being is obedient. And Jesus was, as the apostle Paul says, obedient even to death on the cross (Phil. 2:8).
Why is it the plan that Jesus must drink this cup of wrath? Why must Jesus die and suffer great physical and spiritual pain? It’s God’s plan to spare sinners from God’s wrath. Jesus drinks the cup of wrath so that you and I don’t have to. And that’s the amazing thing. We deserve to drink that cup. We all have sinned. God would be right to let us receive that punishment for our sin. But God is merciful. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. God is gracious. He gives us good things we could never merit. God gave us a way to be forgiven, to have someone else take our punishment. That way is Jesus. If we put our faith in Jesus, trusting that he is our hope and salvation, trusting that he is who the Bible says he is and that he is has done what the Bible says he has done, then we are forgiven. We will never drink that cup of wrath. We are put back into a right relationship with God, adopted as his children, and we will never be disowned.
And that was made possible because Jesus didn’t give into temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. The first man, Adam, along with the first woman, Eve, gave into temptation in another garden, Eden. The last Adam, the one who came to redeem human beings, didn’t give into temptation.
I’m sure many of us saw the movie The Passion of the Christ, which came out in 2004. The movie, made by Mel Gibson, famously depicts Jesus suffering great physical pain. I don’t think it’s a great movie. It doesn’t contain a lot of theology. But there are some good moments. At the beginning of the movie, Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays, but his prayers are met with silence. And he falls to the ground. Then Satan appears alongside of him. Satan appears as a woman, dressed in a dark cloak. Satan tries to make Jesus doubt that he can actually bear the sins of the world. Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt that God is really his Father. Then, a serpent comes from the bottom of Satan’s cloak and slithers toward Jesus. But Jesus resolves to do the Father’s will. He gets up and stomps on the serpent’s head, crushing it.
That is sort of what Jesus is going through here. He expresses his reluctance to drain the cup of wrath, but he also says that he will do the Father’s will.
What is the response to Jesus’ prayer? Well, the Father did not take the cup from him. Jesus would have to suffer. But notice that something happens. An angel comes to strengthen Jesus. Something similar happened when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. (See Luke 4:1–13.) Jesus turned away Satan’s temptations to receive a kingdom without first suffering. And after Jesus resisted temptation, angels came to minister to him (Matt. 4:11; Mark 1:13). Here, Jesus resists temptation, though he isn’t spared the cup. But what God the Father does is give him the strength to drink it. In fact, the angel apparently gave Jesus the strength to continue praying. He was in such agony that his sweat was like blood. Luke doesn’t say that Jesus was sweating blood. But his sweat was like blood. Perhaps the drops of his sweat were heavy like drops of blood. Or perhaps he was sweating profusely: sweat was pouring out of him the way blood pours out of a wound. Jesus was doing battle through prayer, and God gave him the strength to do that. God strengthened him to suffer.
Now, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with you. If you’re a Christian, it has everything to do with you. This is what Jesus endured to save you. He battled through temptation and agony. In distress, he cried out to the Father, asking if it were possible for there to be some other way. But he yielded to the Father. Jesus obeyed for you. He suffered for you. He died for you. It’s important to be reminded of this.
And if you are not a Christian, I hope that you would see the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice. Look at what he was willing to endure. The weight of the world was upon his shoulders. The destiny of billions of people depended upon his actions. And Jesus triumphed by being willing to suffer so that he could save people. If you put your trust in him, you will be spared God’s wrath. But if you reject Jesus, you reject God. And the reality is that you will have to drink that cup of wrath yourself, and it will be greater suffering than you can imagine.
But there’s something else to see in this passage. Jesus twice tells his disciples to pray that they may not enter into temptation. At that moment, they would be tempted to abandon Jesus. Next week, we will see how Jesus is arrested. Judas and some soldiers and officers of the Jewish leaders were on their away to arrest Jesus. The temptation would be to run away, to abandon Jesus, to deny every knowing him, all to save their own skin. If they were coming to arrest and kill Jesus, they might do the same to Jesus’ followers.
Now, we will likely not be put in such a difficult situation. But there will be temptation to deny Jesus in situations that aren’t full of so much pressure. We may be tempted to abandon Jesus when our friends and family members don’t follow him. We may be tempted to abandon Jesus when it seems like the way of the world is more fun and satisfying. In other words, we may be tempted to abandon Jesus in order to pursue sin, to do things that Jesus forbids us to do. We may be tempted to abandon Jesus when we suffer, when things in this life don’t go the way we want them to go. When we endure physical pain, perhaps an injury or a disease, we may wonder if this God of the Bible really exists. When we suffer in our relationships, we may be tempted to give up on Jesus. There are many different situations that might lead us into temptation. And Jesus tells us to pray so that we wouldn’t give into temptation.
When you’re suffering, don’t run away from God. There’s always the temptation to ignore that suffering, perhaps to numb your pain with drugs or alcohol or to just avoid it through things like entertainment. Instead of dealing with the problems of our lives, we may tune them out by turning on the TV or binge-watching shows and movies on Netflix. Jesus asked the disciples to stay awake with him, but we’re told that they were “sleeping for sorrow.” They were so emotionally spent that they slept. That could literally be what happens to us. Instead of facing our problems, we might just want to sleep. I think that’s what people who commit suicide believe. It’s better to have to “sleep,” to be done with this life, than to deal with the sorrows and sufferings of this life.
But Jesus asks us to wrestle with God in prayer. When we suffer, we should cry out to God. When you’re hurting, talk to God. When you’re in distress, express your emotions to God. You can do that through tears and even shouting. Prayer doesn’t have to done in this hushed, polite, “religious” tone. Jesus prayed with great emotion. This is what the author of Hebrews writes: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). It’s perfectly acceptable to pray in loud cries, to pray through your tears. You can tell God how you really feel. You can ask him questions. You can beg him to spare you suffering.
But when we pray, we must realize that God may not answer us the way we want him to. When we’re hurting, our first instinct is to ask God to remove the thing that’s hurting us. That’s not a wrong thing to ask of God. Jesus did it. Paul did it, too (see 2 Cor. 12:1–10). Bringing that request to God makes us aware that God has the power to remove suffering from our lives. It reminds us that God is in control. And that’s a good thing. But we must also be willing to say, “Not my will, but yours.” God’s answer might very well be “no.” His plan might be for us to continue to suffer. But if that is the case, God will give us the strength to endure that suffering. God strengthened Jesus through the help of an angel. Luke doesn’t tell us what the angel did to strengthen Jesus. We’re not even sure that Jesus could see the angel. Perhaps when we’re suffering, angels minister to us in ways that we can’t see. I don’t know. But if God plans for us to suffer, then he will give us the strength to suffer.
So, if you’re facing something difficult today, something you wish were different in your life, tell God about it. Cry out to him. Tell him how you’re in pain, or you’re confused, or you don’t know what to do. Wrestle with him. Cry, shout, wail. Tell him what you would like to happen. But then be willing to do God’s will. When you pray, you will more than likely never hear an audible reply. You have to wait and see what God’s answer is. There are times when he removes the suffering, when he improves our situation, when he heals us. But there are many times when our circumstances don’t change, when we continue to suffer. If that is the case, take heart. God will strengthen you, perhaps in ways that you can’t sense, ways that you don’t see. He will give you the grace to endure. God will not ask us to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders. Only one person could do that, and he already did. But you will bear some weight. Just know that God will strengthen you to bear it. As Jesus told his disciples on that same night, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 440. ↑
Jesus resisted temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane by praying to the Father. Though the cup of God’s wrath was not taken from Jesus, he yielded to the Father’s will and was strengthened for his mission. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 22:39-46 on February 9, 2020.
The following sermon was preached by Chris Anderson on February 11, 2018.
(Click the play button above or visit this link to download the MP3 file.)
Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.
As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.
But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?
I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.
Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.
Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.
“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.
Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.
Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.
Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.
Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.
The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.
Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.
Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.” Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.
That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger. Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses. You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious. Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.
Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.)
John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.
Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”
When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.
Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).
Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.
The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.
Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.
It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.
If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.
If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.
If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.
So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.
God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.
We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.
If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.
To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.
In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).
But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons. Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.
That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus. If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed. So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.
And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.
We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).
Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.
Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Χριστός. ↑
- ἐμβριμάομαι. ↑
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 415. ↑
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), 1:442. ↑
- See my sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” preached on January 4, 2015, available at https://wbcommunity.org/Jesus. ↑
- Though he did raise two other people back to life (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–26; Luke 7:11–17). ↑
- See https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- This is the essence of 2 Peter 3:9. ↑
- In the new creation, there will be no more marriage and no more children born. ↑
- See Luke 13:1–5. In that passage, some people tell Jesus about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, killed. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He doesn’t say that the Galileans died for their sins, but he doesn’t rule that possibility out. He simply instructs those present to turn from their sin to God. We don’t have to speculate as to why those people in Las Vegas were murdered, or why people in Houston or Puerto Rico died as a result of hurricanes. When we see evil, we should turn to Jesus. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36. ↑
- Ibid., 36. ↑
- Ibid., 83. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.
One of the biggest questions that people have about God, and one of the main reasons why people have a hard time trusting God or believing that he exists, is the presence of evil in the world. A few weeks ago, we collected questions that people would like to ask God, and many of them involved pain and suffering. Here were some of the questions:
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” [This was asked twice.]
“Why is there so much suffering in foreign countries?”
“Why are you letting so many people suffer in this world?”
“Why are young children diagnosed with cancer?”
“Why do the people we love die when they are not old?
“Why do bad things continue to happen to me in my life?”
These questions often cause people to doubt God. In fact, the so-called problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism,” because the very existence of bad things in the world is supposed to challenge the existence of God.
There are various problems of evil. One is called the logical problem of evil. This states that the very existence of evil is incompatible with a God who is omnipotent and good. Those who believe God and evil can’t coexist assume that God would never allow evil to exist in the first place, or that he would remove as quickly as possible. David Hume (1711–1776) captured this problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.” In other words, if God is good and loving, he would not allow misery, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to end misery. So, either he is one or the other, but not both.
However, if a good and all-powerful God has good reasons for allowing evil to occur, there is no reason why this God and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps God allows evil in order to realize some greater good. Even if we don’t know what exactly this greater good is, this idea shows that there is no logical contradiction involved in God’s existence and evil’s existence.
A second problem of evil is called the evidential problem of evil. In this argument, people accept that God may very well have a good reason for allowing evil to occur, but they believe that a good, all-powerful God wouldn’t allow so much evil to occur in the world. In other words, some people say there simply is too much evil in the world for there to be a God, particularly the God of the Bible. But how could we possibly know how much evil there should be? What is the right amount of evil necessary to produce greater goods?
Then there is a third problem of evil, which we might call the existential problem of evil. This isn’t a philosophical argument regarding the existence of God. This is a problem that we all face, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. This is the question of how we cope in a world full of pain, misery, suffering, heartbreak, and, yes, evil.
Today, I want to begin to explore this issue of evil. Because it’s such a big question, I’ll continue thinking about it next week. Here’s what I want to claim today: any system of belief or worldview that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil is false; but Christianity does acknowledge that evil is real; the existence of evil is evidence that God exists, because to acknowledge evil is to acknowledge that a standard of good and evil exists; and while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about why evil exists, it tells us that God will fix the problem of evil forever.
Before we get into this discussion, I want to define evil. Today when I use the word “evil,” I don’t just mean evil people like Hitler, or evil acts like murder or rape. I’m using the word in a very broad sense. When I say “evil,” I mean everything that isn’t the way things out to be. We all sense the world isn’t the way it ought to be. We feel out of sorts. We witness natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes, and also diseases and death. We witness human evils, like theft, rape, and murder. And then there are all kinds of smaller-scale suffering that we endure, like loneliness and depression. So, what is evil? Evil is anything that keeps us from being truly happy. We all want to be happy. Augustine once wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.” Anything that disrupts true happiness is evil. I would define “true happiness” as “the way God intended the world to be,” or “the way things ought to be.” I’ll come back to that idea.
Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s evil in the world. A lot of people aren’t happy. There are many times when we aren’t happy. What worldview, religion, or system of thought can make sense of this state of affairs?
There are some religions or beliefs that maintain that evil is just an illusion, or that suffering can be eliminated through eliminating our desires. These concepts are found in eastern religions and in New Age spirituality. My understanding of Buddhism is that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, taught that life is an illusion. Our problem is getting wrapped up in this illusion. Or, as one writer puts it, “The problem with existence, Gautama decided, lies in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of everything. . . . It is sometimes said that self-extinction is the goal of Buddha’s philosophy; it would be better to put it as realizing one’s self-extinctedness. Nonexistence is the reality; one simply has to become aware of it.” All our suffering comes from thinking that we actually exist as persons, and through cravings that come with such thinking. The key to removing suffering is to realize that all is an illusion. If that is true, then evil itself is an illusion. It’s not real. Can we really say that life is an illusion? That death isn’t real?
Some forms of Hinduism are pantheistic. They hold that the individual soul (Atman) is equal to the soul of the world (Brahman). In other words, all things are one. Enlightenment consists of realizing this truth. New Age spirituality is very similar. Several years ago, a New Age teacher named Eckhard Tolle was very popular, in large part because he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. His two famous books are The Power of Now and A New Earth. In the first book, he writes, “[Y]ou are one with all that is.” Tolle believes we are all connected to the Source. For him, the only evil is not to realize this. So, you and death are one. You and a malignant tumor are one. Why fear anything then? All is one. You and Hitler and HIV are one. Does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really live that way?
Buddhists, pantheists, and New Age gurus aren’t the only ones to deny the reality of evil. Some atheists do, too. I’ve recently mentioned that Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and neo-Darwinist, has said that in a world that is the product of chance, where there is no god, there is no such thing as good and evil. Michael Ruse, another atheist and Darwinist, says,
Unlike Christians, Darwinians do not see that natural evil is a problem. Obviously they do not like it and may feel one has a moral obligation to reduce it, but it is just something that happens. No one causes it, no one is to blame. Moral evil is something fairly readily explicable given Darwinism. We have a natural inclination to selfishness. That is to be expected given that selection works for the individual.
If the world isn’t guided by God, why should we expect it would be good? How can we say it’s good or bad? It just is. And what we call evil, such as death, is part of the way large-scale, Darwinian evolution works. A rather unorthodox Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who advocated the theory of evolution, said, “Evil appears necessarily . . . not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.” Without the winnowing fork of death and extinction, natural selection wouldn’t work. Species with new and superior traits wouldn’t emerge from old ones. So, given what these atheists believe, what we call evil really isn’t evil. It’s just the way things are. We may not like it, but that’s life.
These religions and worldviews want us to believe that evil is an illusion, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t so bad. But we know better. Evil is real and it’s really evil. Death is an outrage. So is murder and rape, and theft. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people aren’t the way things ought to be. So, if a religion or philosophy says evil isn’t evil, they’re asking you to deny reality. Really, they’re asking you not to take them seriously. So, don’t.
But Christianity is different. It affirms that evil is a reality. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13), not from an illusion or something that we simply don’t like. Evil is something that intruded into God’s good creation when the power of sin entered into the world. That is, when human beings started to ignore and reject God and disobey him, evil came into the world. In fact, we might say the presence of evil started with the existence of the devil, Satan. This is somewhat mysterious, but it’s very much a part of reality. It is not an illusion.
And the Bible not only describes the reality of evil, it even has many protests against evil. Throughout the Bible, God’s people cry out to God and say, “This isn’t right! This isn’t fair! How long before you remove evil from this world?” Consider some of these verses:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1–2)
3 O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps. 94:3)
They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)
These are but a few of the many passages in the Bible that show how evil is something to be mourned, something to be outraged by. In fact, there are whole books of the Bible that take up the theme of evil and injustice. And that is quite interesting because we believe that the Bible is the word of God. Yes, human beings wrote the Bible, but it was God working through these human authors to write what he wanted. So, God himself acknowledges the problem of evil and suffering, and he gives voice to our protests against evil.
This alone, I believe, is actually evidence that Christianity is true. These complaints against evil and injustice match our experience of life. They resonate in our soul in a way that the claims that evil is an illusion don’t.
And, strangely, though evil is a problem for Christians, it is also proof that God exists. To know that something is evil, we must have some kind of standard to indicate what is good and what is evil. According to Christian thought, God is the standard of goodness. He is completely and truly good. And everything contrary to God is evil. Atheists have to cope with evil, but they not only have the problem of evil; they also have the problem of good. Why should an atheist expect goodness in a world of chance and chaos? How can an atheist say something is evil? How can they say genocide is evil? Isn’t that just evolution at work, the fit competing against the unfit, the strong preying on the weak? I don’t think we can discover good and evil. I believe the reality of good and evil need to be revealed to us. The first human beings got into trouble by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to determine what was good and evil on their own, instead of letting God interpret that reality for them. To know what is good and evil, we need a trustworthy, objective, transcendent standard to measure such realities. In other words, we need God.
With the rest of the time we have this morning, I want us to consider two stories from the Bible that shows how God’s people complain about evil, and how God responds. The first is in the Old Testament. It is the story of a prophet named Habakkuk. We don’t know much about this prophet other than he was in Judah shortly before the Babylonians came in and attack Jerusalem. If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is what is important to know: In the Old Testament, God called a people to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of slavery and Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. He had given them his law and told them how to worship him and how to live. But they often rebelled against God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. Because of their sin, God judged them in various ways, eventually bringing in foreign armies to conquer them.
Habakkuk begins with this complaint. This is Habakkuk 1:1–4:
1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk, like the Psalmists and like Job, ask God, “How long?” He was complaining against the injustice of the Jews in his day. The law, God’s commands, had no power to restrain their evil. They were doing wicked things, and Habakkuk thought that justice would never come. He was wondering why God didn’t respond to his cries.
Then God spoke. Look at verses 5–11:
5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
God tells Habakkuk that he was going to do something that would astound him. In fact, he was already at work doing thing. God was raising up the Chaldeans, better known as the Babylonians, to punish the idolatrous and rebellious Jews, the very people God had called to himself. Babylon was becoming the superpower of the world and their warriors were fierce. God was telling Habakkuk that justice was coming soon.
But this news caused Habakkuk to complain about something else. We see that in the next section, Habakkuk 1:12–2:1:
12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?
1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,|
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
Habbakuk’s complaint is found in verse 13. He basically says to God, “You are too pure to even look upon evil. How can you then use the wicked Babylonians to judge those who are less wicked? This isn’t fair! These Babylonians capture people like a fisherman captures fish. They continue to kill and kill your people! Where’s the justice in that?”
God answers again. We’ll just look at the first three verses of his response, verses 2–4 of chapter 2:
2 And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.
3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
Then God delivers a series of “woes” to the Babylonians, saying that they will be put to shame, made to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and put to destruction (verses 15–17). He also says,
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (verse 14).
The point is that though God was using wicked people to judge Israel, he would judge those wicked people, too. Justice would be done. And, in the end, the whole earth will be filled with God’s glory. Everyone will one day know the true God and one day all things will be made right.
In the meantime, God’s people must trust that God will make things right. That is why God says, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The one who is in a right relationship with God must trust that God will make all things right, even when everything now seems wrong. For Habakkuk, things seemed very wrong. Most of the world didn’t acknowledge the true God. Even the people who were supposed to be God’s people, the Israelites, weren’t acknowledging God. They were doing what was wrong. And Habakkuk complained to God. But God told him, “Son, just wait. I have this under control. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. I will judge everyone and all things will be well. Just trust me and you will live.”
In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet responds with a psalm, a song or prayer. He says that he will wait for that day. He trusts God. He ends with these words, in verses 17–19:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
Habakkuk says, “Even though things look bleak now, even if there’s famine now, I will rejoice in God. I look forward to the day of salvation. I will take joy in God, for he is my strength, and he will take care of me.” That is faith.
You see, Christianity is not really an explanation of every single thing that happens in the world. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia that gives us all the answers. What it is a story about God and his world, and about his people. While it doesn’t give us all the answers, it tells us a very important story. God made a good world, and sin corrupted it. Somehow, all the evil in the world is related to the power of sin at work in the world. When the first human beings disobeyed God, the relationship between God and people was fractured. Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from one another. Sin separates us from the creation, in the sense that there are now natural disasters and life is difficult. And sin even separates us from the people we ought to be. All the bad things in this life are a result of sin. That doesn’t mean all the bad things that happen to us are a result of our sins. Christianity is not karma. Sometimes, we suffer for reasons we don’t understand. Sometimes, other things are happening, things that we couldn’t possibly understand. I think the book of Job illustrates that quite well.
But God doesn’t leave us with the story of a broken world. If that were the end of the story—things are bad because people sinned instead of trusting God, and then you die—it would be a bad, bad story. But that’s not the end of the story.
No, God had a plan to make things right, to remove the evil in the world. And that story centers on Jesus. As I said last week, God himself entered into the world. The author of life entered into his own creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God became a human being. He did this in order to live the perfect life that we don’t live. God’s design for humanity was for people to represent him, rule the world under his authority, reflect his character, worship him, and love him. But we don’t do those things. We tend to act as if we are the center of reality. We try to be our own little gods. This is rebellion. But Jesus always represented and reflected God the Father perfectly. He always came under the Father’s authority and worshiped and loved him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. But Jesus did something else. Jesus also took the punishment that we deserve for that rebellion. Jesus took the penalty for our crimes against God. To put it more precisely, Jesus took the sins of everyone who trusts him, so that they can have their evil removed and their sins forgiven.
During Jesus’ life, he experienced pain, suffering, loss, and evil. The very people who should have known who he was rejected him and mocked him. They called him names. Then they arrested him on false charges, they tortured him, and they killed him. Jesus, the Son of God, very God and very man, knows evil firsthand. And he suffered willingly, even though he was innocent, in order to rescue us from pain, suffering, and evil.
And when Jesus was approaching the time when he would voluntarily take on God’s wrath against sin—as he was approaching the time when he would experience hell on earth—he protested. The night before his death, he told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Then he cried out to God the Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus’ “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Then, after being arrested and beaten, Jesus was crucified, which was an agonizing way to die. His suffering was beyond the physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer until he could no longer breathe. His true pain came from feeling as though he were separated and abandoned by God the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yet though Jesus protested his suffering, he trusted God. When he asked whether it were possible for the cup of God’s wrath to pass him, he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:38). And when he died on the cross, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God, though his pain was great.
Jesus was able to trust God because he knew that all things would be well. He knew his story didn’t end in death. He knew he would rise from the grave victorious, to show that he paid the penalty for sin and to show that one day God will restore his creation. All who trust in Jesus, though they may die, will rise from the grave in bodies that can never die again, and they will live in a renewed world, one without sin and suffering, one without murder and war, one without death. And then, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. There will no longer be evil, but only peace and love.
I’m going to say more about Jesus next week, because I think the story of Jesus lets us peer into the mystery of evil. If we can say why God would allow evil to emerge in this world, we are only able to do so because of Jesus. But for now, I want us to understand the following truths.
First, the Bible says that God is good. He is the very definition of goodness and love. And he made a good world.
Second, though the origin of evil is a bit of a mystery, evil in the world is connected to the presence of sin in the world. But evil is not eternal. If the world were always evil, then I think that would pose a significant and possibly insurmountable challenge to Christianity. But evil is not the perfect match to God’s goodness. In the end, evil has a limited lifespan. And evil has limited power.
Third, Christianity views evil as an outrage. Death is described as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), one that will be destroyed. Injustice of all kinds is an outrage. The cries against evil in the Bible resonate with the cries against evil that rise up in our own throats and that pour out in our own tears.
Fourth, though the Bible doesn’t answer every question about Evil, it says that God is not aloof. He’s not distant and uncaring. He does care about evil. He cares so much that he sent his own Son to experience evil. And the Son, the co-creator of the universe, entered into his own creation and subjected himself to human evil. The Bible also says that God is all-powerful and good. He is able to remove evil from the world and desires to do so. In fact, we’re promised that he will do that in the end. But the way that God removes evil from his people is by experiencing that evil himself. We may not understand everything about evil—in fact, that’s what makes evil so evil, because it’s irrational and confusing—but we can understand that Jesus experienced evil to save us. This is a God you can trust, even if we can’t understand everything about him.
Fifth, the Bible also says that one day God will finally and conclusively remove all evil from the world. For those who trust Jesus, who are united to him by faith, their evil has already been paid for. When Jesus returns, he will utterly transform us so that we won’t sin anymore. And we will live forever. Indeed, those who have faith in Jesus will live because they have been declared righteous and they will be righteous. But those who don’t trust Jesus will be removed from God’s good creation. Those who don’t trust God and his Son, who complain without faith, who claim that, if God exists, he’s evil, or who don’t claim that he exists at all, will be condemned. So, evil has an expiration date, but love, goodness, and justice don’t. God invites us to trust his promises and have eternal life. He asks us to trust his Son and his work on our behalf.
In the end, Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. He is the only answer. And we must put our trust in him, even when things look bleak. We trust that things will not always be that way.
I can affirm that there simply is no other satisfying response to the problem of evil. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no evil—and there’s no good! If everything is an illusion, or if death is simply part of the engine of evolution, there’s no hope. This is how things are and this is how things will always be. But if goodness triumphs over evil, and Goodness himself took the worst evil, absorbed it, and then rose from the grave, and if he’ll come again to crush evil finally and ultimately, then there’s hope. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to tell you more about Jesus. He is the only key that will unlock the riddle of evil. Put your faith in him and live.
- The German playwright Georg Büchner (1813–1837) so described the problem of evil, according to Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9. ↑
- David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.” ↑
- We might add that if God is perfectly wise, he would know how to end all misery, pain, suffering, and evil. ↑
- Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 10.1, quoted in Stewart Goetz, “The Argument from Evil,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 467. ↑
- Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 223. ↑
- Eckhard Tolle, The Power of Now (Novata, CA New World Library, 1999); Idem., A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006). ↑
- Tolle, The Power of Now, 15, quoted in Richard Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 51. ↑
- “If evil has any reality—and it has a relative, not an absolute, reality—this is also its definition: a complete identification with form—physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms. This results in a total unawareness of my connectedness with the whole, my intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source.” Tolle, A New Earth, 22, quoted in Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception, 146. ↑
- “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85. ↑
- Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 192–193. ↑
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Collins, 1959), 313, quoted in Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 23. ↑
- “Evil becomes a kind of auxiliary motor of the progress that has given rise to it. It acts as a goad to prevent us from getting stuck at the present stage of Evolution, to detach us from a world that is still imperfect, and to project us and throw us out of our own centre into God.” Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 24. ↑
- If we had more time, I would discuss the story of Job. To understand that powerful story from the Old Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- To learn much more about Jesus, visit https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the so-called problem of evil. He examines the issue of how there can be pain, suffering, and evil if God is good and is omnipotent. Some people think this is an argument against the existence of God. But perhaps evil is actually evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. After all, some religions and worldviews tell us that evil isn’t real or so evil. However, all experience tells us that evil is real and is an outrage. Christianity says evil is real, it’s a problem, and that Jesus is the solution.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the book of Job, chapters 22-27. He focuses on the question, “Where is God?” Why does God seem hidden? Why does God seem absent when we’re hurting?
Pastor Brian Watson begins a sermon series through the book of Job. He shows what happens in the first two chapters, which give us some indication of why there is evil and suffering in the world and how we can respond to it.