This morning the Lord was with us in Sunday School in a special way. The teacher was describing from Jeremiah the dangers of false inferences: The Jews inferred from the presence of the temple that God would not destroy His holy city. The inference seems safe. God would surely protect His house; therefore, how could the city be destroyed, as Jeremiah was prophesying? In response, God reminded the Jews about Shiloh, where His tabernacle first dwelled before the temple was built. Due to their wickedness, the Lord destroyed Shiloh; therefore, the Lord would also destroy His temple in Jerusalem (Jer. 7:1-15).
The lesson was: Do not let an inference from Scripture trump a plain Scripture.
Two applications came up in class—and I will treat them in reverse order. First, regarding guidance, one member noted that we often infer God’s will from an open door. In response, a clear Scripture tells us that Paul had an open door in Troas, said to be “in the Lord,” and yet he had no rest in his spirit due to the Corinthian crisis and so pressed on to Macedonia, being led “always…in the triumph in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:12-14). Conversely, we often infer something is not God’s will if we encounter a lot of opposition or suffering (calling it a “closed door”); yet Paul knew that a true prophetic word about suffering in Jerusalem did not indicate God’s will for him not to go (see Acts 19:21; 20:22-24; 21:10-14). Again, let the clarity of Scripture guide us. Suffering is appointed for us, as it was for Jesus (1 Pet. 2:21).
Second, regarding suffering itself, we are often told that God will not give us beyond what we can handle. In one sense, this statement is true: God has promised not to tempt us beyond our ability, but instead, to provide “the way of escape” that we may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13). He is faithful. Please note, however, there is no promise here of not entering into deep trial. We are simply promised that we will never be completely trapped by any circumstance, but will have a way of escape. We treat this verse as a promise regarding strength, not escape. In response, the same church heard the same apostle testify of his team being burdened “beyond our strength,…so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). Again, a clear Scripture checks an inference.
Death is definitely an experience beyond our strength. Unless Jesus returns soon, we will all be given a trial beyond our strength. True, this trial will not surpass our faith, which overcomes the world, nor will it lack a “way of escape.” After death comes resurrection. Hence, Paul describes the object of his faith as “God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
Here is another lesson: God often pushes things up to or beyond death, so that we would trust in Him who raises the dead. For example, Abraham received Isaac from “the deadness of Sarah’s womb” and then had to offer him as a sacrifice, believing that God was able to raise him from the dead (Rom. 4:19; Heb. 11:19). In the New Testament, Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, but then let him die before coming to raise him (John 11:1ff). In the future, God will let the bones of the scattered Jews become “very dry” before raising them again to national life (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Even the tabernacle at Shiloh and the temple in Jerusalem are followed by the temple-less presence of God in the New Jerusalem. In class, the teacher called this creation, de-creation, and re-creation. In truth, we could also call it creation, death, and resurrection. It was the road of Jesus on earth. It is now the road of every believer, ever since (Mt. 16:24ff; Rom. 8:17, 29-30).
According to the apostle Paul, this sequence of creation, death, and resurrection defines our faith. Like Abraham, who believed God would give life to his body, which was “as good as dead,” we too believe in this life-giving God “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom. 4:19, 24). For this reason, our faith is truly an Easter faith. It is at the heart of genuine piety, both before and after the cross. Moreover, like Abraham, our Easter faith is the means of our justification (Rom. 4:22-24). It is also the means of our sanctification, as seen in the example of Paul. God regularly makes us weak, and then perfects His power in our weakness; as a result, we should not be surprised if we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 12:9; 4:10).
This Easter faith gives us great hope! There are no limits to the power of God who raises the dead. We can say with Jesus, “Stop weeping, for she has not died, but is asleep” (Luke 8:52). We can say at every Christian graveside, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep,” and, “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thess 4:14). We live without boundaries, in a wide open place (cf. Ps. 31:8). Truly in every trial, there is a way of escape!
Now, given these limitless possibilities for an Easter faith, Paul tells us, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). God will not let our toil in the Lord go to waste—even if we die. Two promises seem entailed. First, we must live again, if we are to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The entire context drives in that direction (1 Cor. 15). Second, our toil must bear fruit—in a sense, it cannot die either. So how does that happen?
At this point, I grant that I am in danger of inferring things, so I invite you to add explicit Scripture (as was said earlier); however, there seems to be a link between the death of one Christian and the life of another. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). We die, but our death will bring life—not simply in our own resurrection someday, but even now in the empowerment given to other believers (2 Cor. 4:11-12; cf. Ph. 3:10). As Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
In 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake for rebelling against the authority of Rome. Within a generation or two, several independent groups of “Brethren” joined together to form the independent Czech church of Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren). This church lasted until the 1600s, when the religious fighting of the Thirty Years War scattered them like seed into the nations of Europe. One of their leaders, Jan Amos Comenius, heart-broken and mourning the loss of his beloved church, prayed that a “hidden seed” of this church would once again flourish. In 1722, some Moravian pilgrims from this remnant church found refuge on the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Germany. Just five years later, a revival came to this group, aided in part by the disciplined structures given through the writings of Comenius. In answer to his prayers, offered one hundred years prior, this “hidden seed” sprouted and became the first Protestant mission movement of the modern era, predating William Carey’s travels to India by half a century.
No Christian, therefore, should ever assume that his life was a waste due to death. Death works in one, and life in another—and the chain of links continues to the end of the age, until all the world is covered by the gospel. We have an Easter faith in God who raises the dead, and it will not disappoint. Hallelujah!
Sources: Drew French, “Biblical Theology” (Search Class, Countryside Bible Church, Winter 2015-16); Christian History 6:1 (1987) on Jan Amos Comenius; and Ron Davies, A Heart for Mission: Five Pioneer Thinkers (Geanies House, Fearn, Tain, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2002), 27-46, 97-130.