Return to magazine page

The Triumph of Suffering

The story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, could be described as the story of God’s triumph over evil by means of the suffering of His Son.  

As we have already seen (Barnabas Aid, Nov-Dec 2021 pp.13-14), this triumph is first foretold in Genesis 3:15 where the Lord tells the serpent that a descendant of Eve “will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. Satan will be utterly defeated and destroyed (in this imagery, the crushing of his head) by our Lord Jesus, who will Himself suffer (the striking of his heel) in the encounter.

In Revelation we see the Lamb, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, with His armies triumphing in battle over the beast, the kings who followed the beast and their armies, and the false prophet (Revelation 17:12-14; 19:11-21).

Between the first prophecy and the last battle lies the Cross. 


Triumphing by the Cross

It is on the Cross that the Son of God both suffered and triumphed. The Apostle Paul tells us that “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). In the first century Roman Empire to “triumph” not only meant being victorious but also could refer to having a long and spectacular procession through the streets of Rome in honour of a victorious general. During this “triumph” the general, crowned with laurel, travelled in a chariot, preceded by civil dignitaries, musicians, prisoners-of-war and other spoils of war he had captured from the defeated enemy of Rome. Behind him came his troops. A triumph was the highest accolade that could be given to a military leader, and was granted by the Senate only after a decisive victory and subjugation of territory. This is the image that Paul and his first readers would have had in mind, when he wrote of first disarming and then making a public spectacle of the “powers and authorities”.

But what were these powers and authorities? Meyer calls them “the devilish powers”. Barnes describes them as 

   the formidable enemies that held man in subjection, and prevented his serving God … the ranks of fallen, evil spirits which had usurped a dominion over the world … The Saviour, by his death, wrested dominion from them, and seized upon what they had captured as a conqueror seizes upon his prey. Satan and his legions had invaded the earth and drawn its inhabitants into captivity, and subjected them to their evil reign. Christ, by his death, subdues the invaders and recaptures those whom they had subdued.  

We read of them elsewhere in the New Testament (see John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2; 6:12). 

The concept of the Roman triumph appears also in 2 Corinthians 2:14.

   But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

It is clear that, in this use of the triumph imagery, we Christian believers are the trophies of war in a triumphal procession that celebrates Christ’s victory. But we are not sullen and resentful captives, dragged against our will from our homeland to His city. Rather, we have submitted joyfully to His rule and lordship. As we have seen, Barnes explains that Christ has recaptured us from the powers and authorities who had had control over us. 

Charles Wesley must have had this verse in mind when he wrote his great hymn about the Second Coming of Christ:

   Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favoured sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears, on earth to reign.


Reigning from the Cross

The Cross, which seemed a place of defeat for Jesus, was in fact a place of triumph for Him and defeat for His enemies. From the Cross He reigned.  

The glorious Psalm 96, in which we sing of the Lord’s greatness, splendour and majesty, has a much debated wording in its tenth verse, which begins, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns.’” According to some sources, the verse should run: “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns from the tree.’” 

While scholars argue over this particular text, we can embrace the truth of the thoroughly Biblical idea that the disputed words express, for Christ did reign even as His dead body hung in ignominy on the Cross. 

Hymn writers have celebrated this wonderful theme. An ancient hymn, first sung in France on 19 November 569, affirms “how of the Cross He made a throne, on which He reigns, a glorious king”. 

Nearly thirteen centuries later, Henry Milman wrote:  

   Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, thy power and reign. 


 

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

The message of the Cross

The Cross and all that it means were very precious to the first Christian believers. The sign of the Cross was not considered a glorification of suffering in the early Church but a “sign of victory”, a tropaion. This was the term used by the Greek-speaking ancient world for a triumphal sign set up to mark the spot where the turning point in a victorious battle had occurred. It was usually a vertical tree trunk or post, sometimes with a pair of outstretched branches, like arms, on which the armour of the defeated foe was hung. For Christians, the Cross is a tropaion, marking the place where victory over death was won. 

After Christ’s “death, even death on a cross”, 

   God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ
is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:9-11)

What nonsense this seems to unbelievers. It is only through humble faith that the eternal truth can be understood. 

   For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

(1 Corinthians 1:18)

In Isaiah’s prophecy about the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12), the onlookers were astonished at the exaltation of the Servant who had been so appallingly disfigured and marred (52:14). The nations were startled (a better translation than “sprinkled”) and even kings were speechless with amazement (52:15). This is the same leap from utter abasement and degradation to highest exaltation described in the early Christian hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2. 

In the culture of the first century Graeco-Roman world, achieving “wisdom” was the highest goal. But this was not wisdom in the sense we understand it today; still less was it the Biblical wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). The wisdom that society at large sought was an arrogant mixture of scholarly learning, aloofness, self-confidence and nobility of bearing, which sought fame and recognition from other great people but despised the ordinary masses. Judged by these criteria, Jesus “failed” badly and therefore “Christ crucified seem foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  

The same verse tells us that, for the Jews, His death on the cross was a “stumbling block” (skandalon in Greek), which can also be translated as an offence, snare or scandal. In many ways he did not match up to what they expected of the Messiah foretold by the prophets. The most serious “mismatch” was His suffering and death. In Jewish belief a conquered Messiah or a crucified Messiah would be literally unthinkable. Prophecies such as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 were interpreted as the suffering of the people of Israel, or in other ways – never as the suffering of the Messiah Himself.  


 

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

(1 Corinthians 1:18)

The Suffering Servant

We, however, with the Holy Spirit’s illumination, can see in Isaiah 53 the whole story of our beloved Saviour’s suffering and death. Verse 2 sets the scene with an ordinary-seeming childhood, a carpenter’s son growing up with nothing obviously special to distinguish Him. But in verse 3 we discover that in adulthood He became “a man of sorrows”, despised and rejected (by both Gentiles and Jews, as we have seen).  The Hebrew poetry, with its near repetitions, underlines the contempt He endured. But this first rash and superficial reaction gives way to an understanding that God’s Servant is suffering in our place. He is suffering for sin – not His sin, but ours. For the Man of Sorrows is carrying our sorrows and is bearing our griefs (v4 AV). 

One of the most poignant, powerful and revolutionary verses in the Bible follows: 

    … he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

(Isaiah 53:5)

What can we do but throw ourselves face down and worship Him? Voluntarily He allowed Himself to be pierced and crushed, taking our punishment. He was wounded that we might be healed and made whole (“peace” in verse 5 is shalom). The wounds at the end of verse 5 (chabbûrâh in Hebrew, often translated “stripes”) are weals or welts, the streaks of severe raised bruising that result from being hit with a lash. They are the wounds created by flogging, that is by punishment, as indeed our Lord did endure (Mark 15:15).

The early Church historian Eusebius wrote of Jesus in words that are either an unconscious or a deliberate quotation from Hippocrates, the founder of Greek medicine:

   He was like some excellent physician, who, in order to cure the sick, examines what is repulsive, handles sores, and reaps pain himself from the sufferings of others.  

The Suffering Servant was innocent of all wrongdoing (v9) and it is we who have sinned and gone astray (v6). God laid on Him the iniquity of us all (v6), the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). For – incredible as it may seem – it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer. 

We can never understand the crushing weight of the sins He bore for us. 


 

We may not know, we cannot tell

We may try to imagine Gethsemane where such was the agony of the knowledge of what lay ahead for Him that the Bible tells us He sweated “as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44 AV). Then followed His betrayal, arrest, detention, several trials (unjust and partly illegal) and physical assault. This may be more within the grasp of our minds, or even within the personal experience of some. Then we can try to imagine the pain of what Isaiah calls being pierced: the multiple wounds of the mocking crown of thorns rammed down on His head, the nails tearing through His hands and feet. Finally, after death, came the spear in His side. 

Yet even if we were to experience all this ourselves, we could never understand the far greater spiritual agony of the sinless Son of God, cut off from His beloved Father by the sins of humanity, as He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Therefore we can never understand the depth of Jesus’ suffering for us and for our salvation. Sometimes this profound mystery, at the very heart of our faith, is overlooked or trivialised today, but in the past it was rightly emphasised. A well-loved hymn reminds us that:

   We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

Another hymn, less often sung now, says:

   But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord
passed through
Ere He found His sheep that was lost. 

Joseph Hart began a hymn with this verse:

   Much we talk of Jesu’s blood,
But how little’s understood!
Of His suff’rings, so intense,
Angels have no perfect sense.
Who can rightly comprehend
Their beginning or their end!
'Tis to God, and God alone,
That their weight is fully known.

Hart was apparently inspired by Lamentations 1:12, “Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?”


 

We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

The victory of the Cross

That suffering achieved its purpose. “It is finished,” cried Jesus as He died (John 19:30). His work was done. The victory was won. We guilty sinners are justified, that is, declared righteous before God
(Isaiah 53:11): 

   God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

(2 Corinthians 5:21)

This is the victory of the Cross, the triumph of the suffering of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Out of death and seeming defeat came victory and exaltation to glory, where the Lamb on the throne still looks as if it had been slain (Revelation 5:6). And so we sing: 

   Crown him the Lord of love!
Behold his hands and side,
Those wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends its burning eye
At mysteries so bright! 

One Person’s suffering saved the world. As we shall see in the next article, our suffering too can be a pathway to glory. 

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director, Barnabas Aid

1 Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Epistles to the Philippians and Colossians and to Philemon (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1885), p.308.

 2 Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistles of Paul to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855), p.305.

 3 Charles Wesley, “Lo! He comes with clouds descending”, 1758.

 4 Henry Hart Milman, “Ride on, ride on in majesty!”, 1827.

 5 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 10.4.11. Eusebius (c. 260-339) was Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.

 6 Cecil Frances Alexander, “There is a green hill far away”, 1848.

 7 Elizabeth Clephane, “There were ninety and nine that safely lay”, 1868.

 8 Joseph Hart (1712-1768) “Much we talk of Jesu’s blood”.

 9 Matthew Bridges, “Crown him with many crowns”, 1851.