The Power of Perseverance
Every other Tuesday, one of my church’s elders, Buz, and I head over to another elder’s house for Bible study in The Epistle to the Hebrews. If you have read Hebrews, you know that perseverance is a central theme to that written homily. The idea of perseverance has been heavy on my heart lately because the elder to whose house we go is John Black, a renowned architect and artist in Nashville, whose paintings of 19th century life and struggle in the Mid-South have been the envy of collectors. Not only is John an architect and artist, he is also fighting a courageous battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Our pastoral staff often checks in on him. Our Senior Pastor, Scott, has anointed him with oil and Pastor Todd and other elder have prayed with and for him. While we love being able to minister to John, every time we leave his house we recognize that we are the ones being ministered to!
I’ll never forget John’s astonishment when we reminded him that, although his body is weakening, it is being immediately held together, second-by-second, by the word of Jesus’ power--as is true of the whole of creation (Heb 1:3). At the very thought of this, John asked that we pause, so he could bask in the reality of this truth.
I’ll never forget John shouting out, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” when we considered that this Jesus is superior to the angels, superior to Moses and superior to the Aaronic Priesthood; and, that He went outside the camp to the place of most certain rejection, danger, and death, so that we could not just remain inside the camp, but enter into the safest, most sacred place of acceptance and life--the Holy of Holies (Heb 4:14-5:10).
At our most recent study, we considered Heb 5, where we discover that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. This led us to reflect on the fact that John’s own suffering with ALS was not some arbitrary bad luck that had come upon him, but was, instead, his loving Father’s means of conforming him as a son to the Son, who had suffered so much for him. We too are learning obedience as we witness John in his suffering and obedience.
John has confessed that he feels as though the focus is now for the battle for his mind. He expressed gratitude to the Lord for giving him a love for his Word because of this battle for his mind. After all, Paul calls us to be renewed by the transforming of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). With delight he received the assurance that, not only was he being renewed in his mind, he was also offering his body a living sacrifice as he walked through this valley of deep darkness (Ps 23:4). That is temple language! Only one united to the Great High Priest can make such sacrifice in the heavenly temple where even now John sits--not in a wheelchair--but raised and seated with Christ (Eph 2:6).
John is offering his body a living sacrifice. He is learning obedience, by grace, in his suffering is obvious to all of us. He recently sent an email out to a group of prayer partners. He told us that he is now too weak to lift his Reformation Study Bible. Yet, instead of complaining, he used this as an opportunity to express gratitude that Ligonier Ministries made the RSB app he has downloaded on his beloved i-Pad. He asked us to find someone to whom he could give his now-too-heavy print copy. He mentioned that eating was difficult because chewing is tiresome. Instead of complaining, he praised God that he now has a peg-tube in his stomach so that he can receive food. He spoke of his increasing difficulty with breathing. By now, you might guess his response. He thanked God for the technology of a BiPAP ventilator machine that assists him with breathing.
That his suffering, that your suffering and that the suffering of people you love is not arbitrary is borne out in that familiar assurance of Paul, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…” Usually, that is how the verse is quoted, cross-stitched on plaques in bookstores. However, the final words of that verse are key, “…for those who are called according to his purpose.” I reminded John of what he already knew – the purpose to which he has been called is made plain in v. 29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be firstborn among many brothers.” In other words, his suffering with ALS, while a dreadful manifestation of the fallout of the fall, is, nonetheless, a tool in the hands of his Sovereign Sanctifier, who assures him that, while in this world we will have trouble, we can be of good cheer, for he has overcome the world (Jn 16:33). How is this being used in his sanctification? How can this be for his good? Because the purpose to which he has been called is conformity to Christ – the true Suffering Servant. Everything that the Lord brings into our life – the good, the bad and the ugly– is ultimately mercy because nothing could be more gloriously merciful than to be drawn closely to our Savior. As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us to say: “All things must be subservient to my salvation” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 1)."
Sanctification is image restoration. We, who bore the shattered image of the first Adam, are being transformed from one degree of glory to another by the power of the Spirit as we behold the glorious face of the Second Adam (2 Cor. 3:18). Suffering has a way of re-focusing our view. At those times when John wonders if all of this is true, we rejoiced at the reality of v. 29, which promises, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” John’s sanctification is certain! In v. 29, there is glorification in the same tense as the other verbs in that verse. Glorified! Though we live between the already and not-yet, our glorification is as certain as money in the bank because God finishes what he starts. So, if our glorification is settled, then our sanctification is guaranteed! That’s why Paul can be confident in Philippians 1:6 that God causes our salvation, carries our salvation, and completes our salvation.
We delight together in so much more when we see one another--the reality of the bodily resurrection and life in the New Heavens and New Earth. John loves the Word. He writes e-mails, aided by one-finger typing, in which he says that (although he is bound to his wheelchair) when he reads the Word he “walks on water!”
Thank you, John, for being of good cheer, for helping us see Jesus overcoming the world in your very suffering. Thank you for turning your wheelchair (proud as you are of that Virginia Tech bumper-sticker on the back) into a pulpit from which you live out the message of Hebrews. Thank you for persevering as your Lord preserves you for all for us to see. Even now, there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on to glory.