The Knowledge of God Through Suffering

He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints…Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. – Revelation 13:10;14:12 NKJV

Revelation 13:10 contains one of the more difficult statements for the saints in the entire book of Revelation, but understanding and receiving it opens us up to the knowledge of God. If we do not understand it, then we lack the knowledge of God and risk being offended and alienated from Him in times of trial and persecution. If we understand it but do not receive it, then we register an offense with God which separates us from Him. When we are offended with God, the natural result is either turning away completely or embracing a modified God, an idol of our making devoid of those elements of God that we find offensive.

The main thrust of the passage is that God actually decrees and approves of the persecution of the saints at the end of the age. Before you move on quickly to read the rest of the book, consider very carefully what was just said. The beast will be the agent of persecution against the saints at the end of the age—and make no mistake, he hates them with a perfect hatred—but God is actually the one decreeing and assenting to the persecution. The heart must then ask, how is it that God will allow His own saints to be executed? Why is it that He will give them into the hands of the most cruel man who will ever have lived? How can the God of infinite love, who desires His saints, be content to speak of the saints as those to be taken captive and those to be slain?

This question is not just for the end times, but it is fundamental to our understanding of God now. Jesus Himself promised the saints tribulation (Matthew 24:9, John 16:33). The history of the saints ever since Jesus’ ascension proves His prediction to be true and must provoke us to answer the question that clearly arises from this text.

Is God uncaring? Is God an accomplice of evil? Why does God not act? If we do not answer this question and answer it well, we will either live in superficiality, ignoring a significant question about the nature of God, or we will become offended with God and devoid of any real relationship with Him; even if we continue religious practices and appearances, deep within we will deeply distrust Him.

The issue of the persecution of the saints is a fundamental issue for the saints past, present, and future. First, we must ask why the saints are persecuted. The saints are persecuted because this age is under the delusion of rebellion, and the saints are the sole witness of light against that darkness. Jesus left the saints as His witness in this age (Acts 1:8). The earth is content to remain in darkness, but God is not content for men to perish in their darkness without a witness and thus the saints are witnesses of the light. The same world that executed Jesus to eradicate His witness is then constantly confronted by that same witness in the saints. The saints are the salt in the earth’s wound, constantly declaring the knowledge of God both in their living and in their speaking (Revelation 12:11).

The earth would prefer to forget the ruler of the heavens and succumb to the inebriation of the rebellion. The saints alone stand firm as a reminder that this present age is temporary and is headed for a comprehensive judgment at the end of the age at the hands of the Messiah. The saints spoil the party by being the constant reminder of the judgment to come. While the witness of the saints accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit will lead many to repentance, history shows that most men would prefer to silence the voice of the saints and the reminder of the judgment to come rather than to repent and receive life. This animosity will reach its zenith at the end of the age when the planet is under the sway of the beast. Answering this question, then, is critical to understanding the events that John is describing.

The answer to this question is found at the end of the verse. This declaration is written as a call for the endurance and the faith of the saints (the saints are also called to endurance in Revelation 14:12). Endurance and faith will be the two primary qualities the saints need to match the intensity of the persecution at the end of the age. Endurance will be needed because the persecution will be so intense that the natural response of the human heart will be to give up and succumb to the pressure. The temptation to compromise will never be stronger due to the unique dynamics of that time.

We often think that overcoming is a glorious thing, but there are dynamic times in history when overcoming is simply enduring.

The second call to the saints is the call of faith, or trust, and this is really the core issue. As has been noted several times, God Himself is the architect of the events of the end of the age. He is going to put wickedness on full display so that sin might be fully revealed and Jesus might be fully glorified. The saints will be tempted to feel offense at God when they begin to endure massive persecutions that are actually part of His plan. So many are going to fall away, unable to cope with the present persecutions because of their insufficient understanding of God.

John calls us to have faith, or trust, in God despite the events we endure. We have to have full faith and confidence in the perfection of God. He will judge rightly at the end of the age. So many saints are offended because they expect God to administer immediate rewards as well as immediate punishments and so they have no capacity either to endure or to trust. How many fall away because they perceive their good words to go unrewarded and because they perceive evil to go unpunished? How many cannot deal with what they perceive to be the triumph of evil and tragedy? How often has it been heard amidst wars, disaster, calamity, or personal loss, “how could a good God exist and allow this?” The problem is that our hearts are quick to accuse God when our sense of right and wrong is not satisfied.

Our horizon is so narrow that we desire immediate rewards and immediate judgments rather than God’s ultimate judgments and rewards, which exist outside of the brief span of this age.

Ever since the garden of Eden, the heart of man has been deceived to the point that man believes that he can rightly judge God. We believe that we are capable of determining when God is acting justly and when He is not. While the message of the garden is that man is not sufficient to actually judge what is good and what is evil, we continue in our deception and constantly judge God Himself, weighing His actions according to our own understanding of what is permissible and good.

When faced with a persecution of the magnitude of what is coming at the end of the age, men’s hearts are going to be unable to consider that a good God would allow such violence against the saints. A root of offense will grow in many hearts, and they will ultimately fall away from the faith, completely unable to reconcile their own conviction of right and wrong with the actions of God.

The call to the saints, then, is found in the obedience of Jesus. Faced with His Father’s call, Jesus sweated great drops of blood and even asked that the cup of His Father’s wrath might be avoided. But after offering up intercession, He set His face like flint to obey the Father. He had full confidence that He could trust God.

God handed Him over to the Romans and they promptly humiliated Him beyond the humiliation that any other man has endured. They flogged Him and tortured Him. He was left marred beyond any other man and unrecognizable. They nailed Him, naked and humiliated, to an excruciatingly painful instrument of death. To top it off, He was openly ridiculed by the religious leaders. Through it all, God stood silent as the Son endured agony. The silence was so deafening that Jesus cried out, “Why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Have we fully considered the Son there in agony and humiliation, so devoid of the Father’s presence that He cried out as One totally forsaken? Can any imagine what He was enduring? Now, tell me who among us can nod amen to that agony and humiliation and say that it is the wisdom and beauty of God?

Years and years of Sunday school stories have sanitized the whole incident to the point that Jesus dying on the cross is now thought to be the most logical thing possible.

Saints, to the human heart Jesus’ execution on the cross is not the most logical thing, but rather the most offensive thing possible. The very idea that it was the perfect plan of God to so humiliate and torture Himself is preposterous to human reason. It is no wonder that the Jews rejected the idea of a Messiah who had endured such humiliation. Our lack of understanding of what the Son actually endured is what makes us so quick to embrace the message of the cross. If we could actually see and feel what He endured, our hearts would wrestle much more with the reality of the cross. We would keep asking why God would do such a thing to His own Son until we came into a greater knowledge of God through the offense of the cross.

Because we have not entirely understood the cross, fully appreciating the torment and humiliation of it, we are greatly lacking in the knowledge of God. We are required to consider the man hanging from the cross. We must face the humiliation of God Himself, not just the victory on the other side of the cross, if we are to truly know God as God.

The understanding of the cross in its full human reality is not just a theological significance on our outlines; it contains the revelation of God. To go deep into the very revelation of who God is, we must go deep into the cross and we must go deep into the human reality of it, not just the victory of it. We must plumb the depths of the man whose flesh was shredded before He was nailed to the cross.

The knowledge of God as God on the cross gives the saints the perspective necessary to trust God in the midst of the persecution of the beast. Just as God authorized the agony of the cross, so too God has authorized and decreed the persecution of the saints. Just as the cross ultimately brought glory to Jesus, so too the persecution of the saints will ultimately bring glory to the saints and prepare them to be God’s companions.

The message of the cross is that God even orchestrates pain for our own benefit. We must rest in Him, knowing that He is the perfect Father and the perfect Judge. The perfect Father allows sons to endure pain in order to prepare them to mature them in the image of their Father. The perfect Judge is going to judge all the earth only when iniquity is ripe. He delays judgment to give men time to repent, because once God judges, He is going to judge completely. That is going to be the most catastrophic event in history.

Trust is the root issue. The enemy attacked us in the garden with it by questioning the Father’s motivation in limiting humanity. If the enemy could deceive man amidst perfection and open fellowship with God, how much more will the enemy tempt us as fallen men in a fallen world on the issue of pain, suffering, and evil, in the absence of God’s full presence?

How much more will he tempt us to question the goodness of the One upon the throne when we find ourselves in the midst of tribulation and find that God is actually the author of our tribulation?

This is not just an issue for those who will endure the final tribulation. In every generation, there have been saints who have endured horrific persecution at the hands of wicked men. From the beginning, saints have endured loss and heard silence from heaven in answer to their loss. Western believers are often anesthetized from the reality of life, but loss, suffering, and evil are very real for saints all over the earth now, and so the question that John raises in this verse must be answered within the heart of the believer in order to have an authentic knowledge of God and to not ultimately be offended with Him.

Saints, His wisdom is beyond ours. His love is beyond ours as well. We are incapable of truly judging right and wrong. We must embrace the love of our Father and have confidence in it even through the deepest nights. If we had just a glimpse of what He is preparing us for, our souls would be overwhelmed with the glory that God desires to put on us. He is preparing His saints that they might be His prize companion in all the universe. He is using every trial to fashion for Himself a companion who has shared His own sufferings. If we could clearly see the judgment that is coming, we would never doubt that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25). The prophets trembled at the visions of the end they saw. Truly, we can be confident that judgment is coming.

So, while God is engineering great glory for the saints and preparing great judgment for the wicked, we are called to endure and have confidence in God in advance of these events. Why? Because when God reveals the fully glory of man and unleashes His judgment against the wicked there will be many, both captivated by the glory and in terror of the judgment, who will cry out to Him with hollow words of commitment and worship.

God is looking for those who love Him now. He is looking for those who can trust Him without having received the full revelation of either the glory or judgment to come.

Those who have confidence in God in this present wilderness will be in the company that trusted and loved God to the point of enduring great tribulation. In a perfect garden, a sinless man and woman were easily persuaded to doubt God’s goodness, even though they had never experienced anything but good at God’s hands. What kind of companion for Himself is God going to produce with the fallen saints who chose to love Him and trust His promises, even though His own hand allows their pain and they have only a small measure of revelation concerning the goodness of His promises?

Oh, saints, God has something magnificent in store for us. He is testing and perfecting us. This earth is the potter’s wheel of our formation. God is going to produce a glorious vessel, and we will dwell with Him forever in glory. In the meantime, at this moment and especially in the tribulation to come, the test of endurance and trust will determine whether we experience great glory or great loss, even to the point of being cut off because of our offense.

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