When Following Jesus Leads To Suffering
Topic: Discipleship Passage: John 21:15–21:23
We are in a series on discipleship that we’ve called Following Jesus and this morning I want to talk about adversity in the life of a disciple. Following Jesus doesn’t exempt us from suffering – in fact, often it’s just the opposite: following Jesus will lead us into suffering. As Christians we need to be prepared for adversity and as your pastors Matt and I want to prepare you for suffering so that when storms come our faith is not shipwrecked. So if you aren’t going through a trial right now, it’s important for you to know what God’s word teaches about the believer and suffering. I know that there are several people and families in the congregation this morning who are going through a difficult season and it is our prayer that from His word the Lord will bring strength and comfort to you this morning.
Please turn with me to John 21:15. I can sum up the point of this message in one sentence:
God has a good plan and a strong promise for His children in times of suffering
John 21:15-19 (let's pray)
Setting the context
We’re familiar with the story and I’m not going to take a lot of time with the first half of it. After their lunch on the beach, Jesus pulls Peter aside to talk with him privately. Peter had denied Jesus three times and three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. It’s a touching and redemptive moment as Jesus restores Peter and commissions him to faithfully pastor the Lord’s flock.
And then, in verse 18 Jesus gives Peter a cryptic prophesy:
Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (vs. 18)
John then adds commentary: This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God. By the time John is writing this gospel, Peter has already been martyred – early historians record that Peter was crucified – and John now understands that Jesus was prophesying to Peter that he would glorify God by a martyr’s death. And then, after giving this prophesy of coming suffering, Jesus says to Peter, follow me. In other words, this suffering isn’t coming unless Peter follows Jesus, its coming because he follows Jesus.
I. God has a good plan for His children in times of suffering
We know that God’s will for His children sometimes includes suffering. Peter himself would acknowledge this in 1 Peter 4:19: Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
Jesus is telling Peter that one day he will be helplessly carried where he doesn’t want to go – and it will all be a part of God’s will for his life. It will happen as he follows Jesus.
Ever find life going where you don’t want to go? I have a good friend who moved with a company he didn’t love working for to a city and state he and his wife didn’t want to live in. He figured it was just a temporary situation that he would change before long. 22 years later he still works for the same company in the same city. It wasn’t what he planned for his life – but it’s what his life became.
There are so many ways that the path of our lives can lead us to places we didn’t want to go: find ourselves stuck in a job we don’t like. Financial struggles that seem to have no end in sight. Conflict in our marriage that never seems to be resolved. A call from our doctor telling us the biopsy came back positive. A child is wandering far from the fold and nothing you say or do can bring them back. A loved one has cancer, a beloved parent dies and you can’t believe that the rest of your life will be lived without their love, their counsel, without the sound of their voice.
And there are many other places we don’t want to go but feel carried helplessly to: a reoccurring struggle with depression, a constant fight with worry and anxiety, the night time enemy of insomnia, the pain of being betrayed or rejected by a friend. Trials come in so many forms – and we are all vulnerable to unique types of suffering. David Powlison says no one suffers in general – our suffering comes in specific ways into our lives and carries us to specific places we really don’t want to go. We can feel bound and carried and helpless.
Peter would one day be bound and carried to a place he would not want to go. But ultimately it was the Lord who was sovereignly taking him there. It was as he followed Christ that he would be led to this place of suffering. That reassures us that God has a good plan for that suffering in our lives.
a. God uses suffering for good in our lives.
God uses suffering for good in our lives and the primary good that God uses suffering to produce in our lives is to conform us into the image of His Son. To make us more like Jesus. Suffering does a work on our character like nothing else.
When we first come to faith in Christ, we may have a zealous faith, but it is a proud and immature faith – just like Peter. He was white hot in his zeal for Christ – and so when Jesus foretold of his coming arrest and death, Peter first said “no way will you ever die on my watch!” and then when Jesus rebuked him for that, he arrogantly declared, “then even if all these other disciples fall away, I’ll never fall away. I am uniquely committed to you and I alone will die with you Jesus!”
The Peter now walking with Jesus on the beach is a humbled Peter. His claim that he would be unique among the disciples strangely fulfilled, only he is unique, not in his courage and loyalty to Jesus, but in his cowardly denial of Jesus. No other disciple did that. No doubt that Peter suffered as he wept bitterly not only at Jesus’ death but at his own betrayal of the one he loved most.
But Jesus used that failure and suffering to produce good in Peter’s life and through Peter’s life. And he foretold that he would in Luke 22, spoken just before he predicted that Peter would deny him:
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you (plural – the disciples), that he might sift you (plural) like wheat, 32but I have prayed for you (singular) that your (singular) faith may not fail. And when you (singular) have turned again, strengthen your brothers." Luke 22:31-32 (ESV)
Jesus would use Peter’s suffering to deepen and strengthen his faith and afterward he would use that strength to strengthen other disciples. It’s no accident that Peter’s epistles are specifically written to believers that are suffering and they are written with the maturity and understanding of a man who himself has suffered.
When we come to Christ we have an immature faith. I cringe when I think of how in my zeal I was quick to judge others, quick to think I understood a lot more than I really did, and quick to give trite and superficial advice to others – and to think it the wisdom of the ages.
God is using the trials in your life to work on your character. He is deepening your faith, strengthening your trust, enlarging your compassion for others, loosening your grip on the things of the world. And there’s something else we learn from Peter’s talk with Jesus on the beach: God has a unique and personal plan designed just for you. Look with me at verse 20-23:
b. Don’t compare God’s plan for your life with others
This is classic Peter! As they are walking on the beach, John was following at a distance. And Peter points at John and says, what about him? If I’m gonna suffer, at least can I be comforted by knowing he’s gonna suffer too? I mean, Jesus, fair is fair!
Jesus’ answer is good for us to remember: what if I want him to remain (alive) until I return? What is that to you? You follow me!”
I’ve noticed as a pastor for many years that Jesus doesn’t have a “one-size-fits-all” plan for His children. One person loses their job and we pray that God will provide and twenty minutes later they’re getting a call offering them a better job at a better salary with a better benefits package. Someone else loses their job and we pray that God will provide…and a week goes by. A month goes by. A second month goes by. A third month goes by.
Don’t look around and compare. How come they aren’t going through the trials I’m going through? How come their life always seems to go smoothly and my life is hitting every pot hole on the road? It’s like Jesus has them on a four lane highway, and he’s gone off-road with my life. What’s up with that? Or it might be that others go through seasons of trials but they come to an end fairly quickly, and you’re going through a trial that is made so much worse because it goes on and on and on and on. Days you could take, weeks, even months. But it has been years.
Don’t compare your trials with others trials. Following Jesus will mean different things for different people. Hebrews 11 acknowledges this disparity when it says that “by faith” some escaped the edge of the sword (vs 34) and by faith others were “sawn in two” (vs. 37). Same faith – very different results.
Personally I’d prefer the “escape the sword” plan. But Jesus doesn’t call us to follow a plan. He calls us to follow Him – and He chooses the path for our lives sovereignly but also lovingly with our best in mind. God has a good plan for you in times of suffering, and it’s a personal plan. Trust Him and follow Him. And don’t compare. (And this works the other way too. If life is going smoothly for you – be careful you aren’t drawing unwise conclusions from that that somehow you are doing things better than others and Jesus is happier with you. Just thank God and pray for others who are going through rough times. Don’t be a Job’s companion.)
II. God has a strong promise for His children in times of suffering
In the middle of the suffering, in the middle of the fear, in the middle of the trial, God gives us a strong promise – and it’s not that the trial will be quickly removed, that the thing feared won’t happen, that the suffering will end soon, that the financial trial will end, the cancer will be healed, the conflict will be resolved.
The promise is this: I will be with you. And that gives us courage and strength to face the trial and walk through the suffering.
So as Joshua is about to take over leadership and fill the shoes of Moses, God says, be strong and courageous. I will never leave you or forsake you.
Psalm 23 – so often turned to at a believer’s deathbed – gives this strong declaration of trust: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Isaiah 41:10 – Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you by my righteous right hand.
Writing to believers who were in the midst of severe suffering, Peter would write:
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4:19
This verse echoes Christ’s work on the cross. There on the cross, Jesus, who Peter reminds us is our example in suffering, accomplished the greatest good we could ever know by suffering. He died on the cross in order to save us from our sins and redeem us back to God – and that glorious pinnacle of good could only be attained by the Son of God suffering. The cross reminds us that God can bring great good from suffering.
1 Peter 4:19 echoes the cross. The word “entrust” is the same word Jesus used on the cross when he cried out to God, “into your hands I commit my spirit”. When we are suffering, we should entrust our souls to God the same way Jesus entrusted his spirit to God. This isn’t some cold, stoic, emotionless kind of resignation to God and His will. It is passionate – at times loud – crying out to God and asking God for strength and help and deliverance and comfort – and entrusting your soul to His care while you are in the trial. It is knowing this: God is with you in the midst of your trial. He is with you in the crucible of suffering. He is with you while you hurt, while you cry, when you are confused or discouraged or fearful or lonely. He is with you, and that is enough. In due time, He can and will lift the trial. But His strong promise is “I am with you.” And that’s enough.
Close by talking to someone who might be thinking – this would be helpful if I were in the trial I’m in because of following Jesus. I’m here because of sinful choices. I failed to follow – that’s why I’m here. I made foolish decisions – and I’ve made them over and over again.
I want you to picture yourself sitting with a group of believers around a fire. In the crowd of believers you feel like you are the biggest failure. You are the misfit, the humiliated one, the one who has least claim on Christ’s affections because of your failure.
Jesus calls you to walk with him alone. And he asks you, do you love me? And your heart answer, for all my failures, for all my foolishness and sin, Lord I do love you. You know I do.
Here’s what we learn from Peter: we may fail Jesus, but He will not forsake us. Jesus promises I will never leave you or forsake you. You. He restores, he recommissions, and he calls you to strengthen other believers with the same strength and comfort that He has given you. We all fail him – he does not forsake us.
He gives us all this strong promise in the midst of suffering – I will be with you. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace had a fourth walking in the fire with them and his appearance was like the Son of God, so too while we walk in the furnace of trial and suffering – whether it be because of our sin, or because of our following, His promise is strong: I will be with you. And that is more than enough.