“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment I received of my Father.” (Jn. 10:17-18)
It’s hard for us to imagine choosing suffering.
Who chooses to hurt? Who signs up for pain? Cancer, miscarriage, barrenness, the humiliation of job loss, strained and broken relationships, rebellious children, betrayal, misunderstandings that just don’t seem to go away, disappointment, death of our parents, a spouse, a child, not to mention the painful consequences and shame of any number of our own mistakes and failures.
Even the sturdiest of Christians often find themselves saying something like this: I wouldn’t have chosen this path, but I can see God’s grace in it. I wouldn’t have told the story this way, but I can see how the glory of God has shone through. How many of you have said something like that?
But Jesus is saying something different than that. Jesus is not saying that a series of unfortunate events will befall Him but God His Father will work them out for good. Jesus is not saying that. We know that God does in fact work all things out for good. God is working all things out for good. But Jesus is not passive in that work. Jesus is not merely being acted upon. Jesus doesn’t just have things happening to Him. Jesus is not a victim of circumstances. Jesus is not a victim of bad luck. Jesus is not even the victim of the plotting of evil men.
Jesus says that no one can take His life from Him. Jesus is not a victim. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus did not come to feed the sheep and somehow He got caught in the middle of a wolf attack. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep. That’s not a possibility, not a potential hazard, that’s the plan. That’s what the Good Shepherd does. That’s what the Good Shepherd is for. That’s how you know He’s the Good Shepherd because He gives His life for the sheep.
Jesus describes this as power. He has the power to lay His life down, and He has the power to take it back up again. And our knee-jerk response is: easy for Him to say. He was God! He made the world. He could walk on water. He could turn water into wine. Of course He had the power to lay His life down. Of course He could take it back up again.
Around the year 110 A.D., during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, the pastor of the church in Antioch named Ignatius was arrested and sent to Rome because he proclaimed Jesus. Along the way to Rome, tradition says that He preached Christ and encouraged the churches in every city he passed through, escorted by soldiers. In Smyrna, he wrote a letter ahead of him to the church in Rome, and he pleaded with them not to try to deliver him from death because he said that would deprive him of that which he most longed and hoped for. He said: “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing of visible or invisible things so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ.”
And when he was sentenced to be fed to the lions and could hear their roaring, it is said that he was filled with the desire to suffer for Christ, and said, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread.”
Ignatius could have made other choices. He could have piped down a bit. He could have been less vocal about his opinions. He could have looked for an out. Were there no other options? Instead, he chose suffering. He chose pain. He chose death.
But this was not an anomaly. This was the legacy of the first disciples. When Peter and some of the other apostles were arrested for preaching Jesus they were rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.
Or when Jesus interrupted Saul, breathing murderous threats on his way to Damascus, and sent him into the city blind, the Lord said he had plans for Saul that he would bear the name of Jesus before Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel, “for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” For Saul to submit to the call of Jesus was to choose suffering for the sake of Jesus.
It will not do to say that you are a follower of Jesus and you understand that you might be called upon to suffer. And if God calls you to suffer, you trust that He will give you the strength to persevere. Absolutely not. There is no “if” about it. There is no “might” about it. If you follow Jesus, you will suffer. It will hurt. He said, if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Jesus said that to follow Him meant choosing suffering, choosing pain, choosing death.
But there’s something crucial that we must not miss in the call of Jesus. Jesus does not call us to suicide. Jesus does not call us to become victims of our circumstances. He does not call us to become victims of the system, victims of our genetics, victims of our dysfunctional families, victims of injustice or wrong done to us or even victims of our own sin and folly. This is because Jesus is not a victim, and He does not call us to become victims.
This is because to know Jesus, to trust Jesus is to be given the same power He has. He said that He has the power to lay His life down and the power to take it back up. This is the commandment given to Him by His Father. But this is the thing: He came to His own, and his own did not receive him. But as many as received Him, to them he gave the power to become the sons of God, to them that believe on His name (Jn. 1:1-12).
Get this: To trust in Jesus, to believe in His name is to have His Father as your Father. And that isn’t just a status, that’s a power. What’s the power for? It’s the power to follow Jesus, His beloved Son, to imitate Him. What did He do? He laid His life down and then took it back up again on the third day. And this is why the Father loves Him. The Father loves that trick. The Father loves that move. The Father loves how Jesus lays His life down for His sheep and then takes it back up again, because He can.
And this is why we love Him too. We do not love Jesus because we feel sorry for Him. We do not believe in Jesus because we feel bad that He had such a terrible, excruciating, undeserved death. We do not follow Jesus out of pity. Jesus is not a victim. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid His life down for His sheep. And He laid His life down in order to save His sheep, to rescue His sheep, to destroy the wolves and every threat. Jesus is not a victim. Jesus is the victor. Jesus was not conquered. Jesus is the conqueror.
No one took His life from Him. No one bound Him. No one held Him down. Not a bunch of spikes in his hands and feet. Not a crown of thorns. Not a big rock in front of a cave and a regiment of soldiers. Jesus laid His life down. He bore our sin, bore our guilt, bore our curse, bore our shame, bore the justice due our rebellion, and then three days later He took His life back up again. Because He can. To know Jesus is to know this power. To know Jesus is for that power to dwell in you.
This is why Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:21). To know Jesus is to be crucified with Him. To know Jesus is to have already died, is to be already dead, and yet living only by the power of Christ living in you, His faith enlivening you.
But Peter says that we are called to suffer for obedience because Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, to follow in His steps. There was no threatening in his mouth, no reviling, no bitterness, no resentment because when He suffered, He committed Himself to Him who judges justly. Who bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we being dead to sin, should live for righteousness, by whose stripes we have been healed. For we were sheep going astray, but now are returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Pet. 2:21-25). To know Jesus is to know the Good Shepherd who gave His life freely for His straying sheep, to conquer our sin, to heal our brokenness, so that we might imitate Him.
But here’s the thing. We live in a day that has enthroned victims. If you can get victim status, there is a fleshly, pitiful power granted to you. If you feel bad, and you can get enough people to feel bad for you feeling bad, then you can get whatever you want. You can manipulate. You can demand. And if anyone starts to protest, you can play the victim card, and everybody better cower and come along quietly. But this is false power, and it always backfires. It always comes up empty handed. And this is because it is built on a lie. Jesus was not a victim. That was not His power.
And so as our culture increasingly plays this power game, we must refuse to play along. When you speak the truth and get fired at work, when you humbly take up the mantle of leadership and get attacked, when your body is racked with pain and disease, when you fall on your face in complete failure, what will you do? Will you call it defeat? Will you play the victim? Will you feel sorry for yourself? It will look like you’re a fool. It will feel like shame and condemnation. It may feel like God has turned His back on you.
But we, with Paul, ask defiantly: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or persecution? Or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? We may be even killed all day long, and it looks like we’re just a bunch of sheep being slaughtered by divisions, by sin, by sickness, by pain, by death.
But Paul shakes his head and he looks into our eyes, and he says, No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Jesus was not a victim. He was a conqueror. His life was not taken from Him. He had the power to lay His life down and the power to take it back up again. And this was the command of His Father, and this is why His Father loved Him. And now where does that leave us who have been gripped by that love? Why does the Father love us? Because we have been given the power to lay our lives down and take them back up again. This is the commandment we have been given. And our Father loves that move.
Where will you lay your life down? Where will you fight? How will you obey? How will you give up your reputation? Where will you confront sin? How will you risk misunderstanding? Where will you walk into the fray? How will you rejoice to suffer for the sake of His Name? You are not a victim. You are more than a conqueror through Jesus.
And this is because Jesus was not a victim. He is the Good Shepherd who freely chose to become the spotless, slaughtered lamb to bring us back to God.
The reason this is not suicide is because we have no intention of staying dead. And we have no intention of staying dead because our God is not dead. He’s alive.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.