How well do you handle trials? I mean, when things get tough, or when you start to lose control a little bit? When the kids are about to drive you nuts, or when your boss is breathing down your neck about the deadline at work? When you’ve been falsely accused, or treated unfairly? When the doctor gives you some bad news, or when your spouse says something unkind that cuts you deep? What do you think in these situations.
Let’s examine a bit of Christ’s high priestly prayer and see how it might help us as we look at trials and suffering in this life. Jesus prays in John 17:15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
The first thing that I’d like for us to focus on is that: Christ does not ask for our removal from the world.
Jesus prays to the Father saying “I do not ask that you take them out of the world.” Why does he pray that? Why does he want his chosen ones to remain in the world? Doesn’t Jesus know what is coming for the Apostles?
The desire to be taken out of the world, to be removed from suffering and pain, is not something new. Consider the stories of three OT prophets of God: Moses, Elijah, and Jonah.
Moses in Numbers chapter 11 is dealing with a continually whiney and grumbling group. They keep coming back and complaining about how much better they had it when they were slaves in Egypt, how at least they had meat and fish and vegetables, but that Moses had led them into the wilderness to die. So Moses is at the end of his rope: he cries out to God and says, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” Moses desperately wanted to be taken from this world. He was burdened beyond what he could bear and pleaded that the lord would just kill him.
Elijah too made a similar prayer in 1 Kings 19. After having just called down fire from heaven and slaughtering the prophets of Baal, Elijah hears that Jezebel wants to kill him. Then in verse three we read that: “he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’”
Likewise, in his anger, Jonah, who had just seen Ninevah respond to his message and repent, prayed to God: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah, Elijah, and Moses all pleaded with the Lord to be taken out of this world, to have their pain and frustration removed, to be taken immediately to the divine presence. Yet, God did not grant their wish, he wanted them to remain in the world.
Similarly, let’s consider the Apostles. When Jesus was praying that his chosen ones would remain in the world, he was speaking most directly of the apostles, each of whom would face terrible pain and suffering becausethey remained in the world.
Peter’s death was foretold in this very gospel. John 21:18 reads: “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.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.)” Peter, and also Paul, were both killed in the mid 60’s AD, in Rome under the persecution of the wicked Emperor Nero. Peter is said to have been crucified upside down, because he considered himself unworthy of being killed in the same manner as our Lord.
The apostle Andrew was said to have been an evangelist in what is now Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and was crucified in Asia minor. Thomas preached as far east as India, where he is said to have been speared by four soldiers. Phillip is said to have had a powerful ministry in Carthage in North Africa and then in Asia Minor, where he saw the conversion of the wife of a Roman proconsul. But, in retaliation, the proconsul had Philip arrested and cruelly put to death. Matthew ministered in Persia and Ethiopia. Some of the reports say he was stabbed to death in Ethiopia. Bartholomew had widespread missionary travels attributed to him: to India with Thomas, back to Armenia, and also to Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. He was eventually killed for his faith too. James the son of Alpheus, ministered in Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that James was stoned and then clubbed to death. Simon, so the story goes, ministered in Persia and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god. Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas. Tradition sends him to Syria with Andrew and put to death by burning. The Apostle John is the only one to have died a natural death from old age. During the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian and his terrible persecution of Christians in the middle 90’s, John was exiled to the island of Patmos. There he is credited with writing the last book of the New Testament– Revelation. But even John was not unable to avoid pain and suffering. An early Latin tradition has him escaping unhurt after being cast into boiling oil at Rome.
Each of the Apostles bore terrible suffering. Why would Jesus pray that they would remain in the world? It initially seems more loving if he would had instead prayed that they would be immediately taken FROM this world, immediately taken into the blessedness of the divine presence, removed from the pain and suffering of this world. Why would Jesus pray this for them? And why does he pray this for us?
Do you ever feel this way? Why does he keep me in this world? Why Lord would you keep me in this trial? Why Lord won’t you deliver me? Why lord must I continue to suffer? Why lord won’t you remove this thorn in my flesh? How long oh lord must this pain remain? Please Lord, take me from this world!
The question of why the father keeps us in the world is a very big question, but I want to offer a few reflections on that topic.
The Apostles were kept in this world because they had work yet to do. The exact nature of that work is not clear in verse 15, or even in verse 18 where Jesus says he has sent them into the world. But, back in 15:27, Jesus makes clear that the Apostles’ task was to testify to Jesus, to bear witness about Jesus, that he is from the father, that he has come to do the father’s will, that he is the one through whom live eternal may be found, that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that he is the bread of life and the light of the world, that he is the resurrection and the life, that no man can come to the father except through him. Jesus prayed that the apostles would remain in the world because they were tasked with telling the world about him.
Similarly, the church has the same work to do: to bear witness to Christ. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 tells us to Go into all the world, to teach the world all that Christ has commanded, to make disciples, and to baptize believers. None of that could be done if we were not in the world. The chosen people of God could not be born again if there were no one left in the world to testify to Christ. There is work to be done, that is one reason why Christ prayed that we would remain in the world.
Do you view God’s providence in this light? When you face trials and suffering, do you thank the Lord that he still has work to do through you? Do you turn to Him in gratitude for the daily provisions he grants you, and the means that he has provided for you to use to love other people? Or are you like Moses, Elijah, and Jonah? Do you seek to flee from persecution and suffering as quick as possible? Do you run from hardship, run from our calling, and run from the work just as Jonah toward Tarshish? If we are honest, even on our best days we are tempted to disdain God’s work of providence in our lives, to lament the hardships that come, to complain to God for the trials that he puts us through.
Well the good news is that there was another prophet in the bible that did not turn away from his calling. He knew exactly what suffering laid ahead of him, and yet, “for the joy set before him willingly endured the cross.” Christ was the faithful son who never blamed the Father for hardships, never grumbled about suffering, never once waivered in his faithfulness to the mission set before him. With complete resolve and love he set his face toward Jerusalem to die for sinners like us that so easily buckle under the pressures of this life. Trust in that Christ, the one who grants us strength to endure because He has already endured. Look to that savior, who has left us in the world, but has not left us out of his care. He knows where we are, what we are feeling, and he will give us the strength to persevere.
Martyrdom info taken from a couple of sources, but mostly adapted from Ken Curtis’ “Whatever happened to the Twelve Apostles?”: https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/whatever-happened-to-the-twelve-apostles-11629558.html(Accessed 6/29/2018).