Connections 10.16.2016: Suffering. Praying. And…

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Hebrews 4:4–5:10

A parishioner had liver cancer. One day, as we sat talking in his den, he told me that he had recently attended a service conducted by an evangelist who claimed to be able to heal the sick.

“I’ve been healed,” my church member said.

He was gaunt. His skin was yellow.

I guess he saw the look in my eyes.

“Oh,” he said, “I still have cancer. It’s going to kill me. But really, Mike, I’ve been healed. Everything’s going to be all right.”

He believed that God had answered his prayers.

I presided over his funeral service a few months after that conversation.

The focus of this week’s Scripture text is on the way Jesus experienced his suffering, but it also has something to say about how we experience ours.

“In the days of his flesh,” the writer of Hebrews says, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (5:7).

He’s referring to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, Jesus prayed that, if it was the Father’s will, he might be spared his coming death. His prayer was fervent; it was “offered up . . . with loud cries and tears.” He prayed it to the only one who could deliver him from his impending crucifixion.

And, the writer of Hebrews says, “He was heard because of his reverent submission.”

So the next day he died.

Let’s recap: (1) Jesus prayed not to die. (2) God heard Jesus’ prayer. (3) Jesus died.

The writer of Hebrews then says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered . . .” (v. 8).

It stands to reason, then, that, although we are the children of God, we may learn obedience through what we suffer.

It is the way of Jesus, and so it is the way of Jesus’ disciples.

That doesn’t make suffering easy. But it does make it meaningful. . . .

Discussion

1. How would our faith be different if we had “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14) but who couldn’t “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15)? How would it be different if we had a great high priest who could “sympathize with our weaknesses” but hadn’t “passed through the heavens”? Why is it important that both things are true of Jesus?
2. What kind of “mercy and grace” do we find when we “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:16)?
3. What are the risks in not appropriately stressing the role of suffering in the Christian life? Is it possible to stress the role of suffering in our lives too much? What might be the dangers in that?
4. How did Jesus become the “source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:9)? What does it mean for us to obey a suffering Savior?
5. In light of this week’s lesson text, how would you define the term “answered prayer”?

Reference Shelf

Readers today, no less than the original readers, must fill in the gaps between the description of God as “the one who was able to save him from death,” the declaration that “he was heard,” and their awareness of the death of Jesus. Were the earliest readers questioning the strength of Jesus, wondering whether the weak and suffering Jesus could also be the divine Son? Is the writer, then, deliberately affirming that Jesus’ death in no way means that his offering was ineffective, but quite the reverse? Of course readers are free to accept the expression “the one who is able to save him from death” as a simple circumlocution for God without any conscious relationship to Jesus’ death. They are also free to conclude that Jesus’ prayer was answered in that he was led out of the realm of death through resurrection, that his prayers were answered in that he was exalted and seated at God’s right hand.

The text does not demand one particular reading or way of correlating the affirmation that Jesus’ prayer was heard by “the one who was able to save him from death” and that Jesus died. The various readings are all valid. The one that is most relevant depends upon the perspective of the reader. What is clear is that Jesus was heard “because of his reverent submission.” The words “reverent submission” translate a Greek word… that means “caution” or “circumspection.” It can be associated with a caution growing out of fear in general or out of awe and reverence for the divine. In Hebrews the word group from which the particular word comes is used where awe before the power of God is in view (see 11:7 and 12:28). The picture presented by Hebrews, then, is one of a righteous person at prayer. Readers could not fail to view Jesus’ experiences “in the days of his flesh” in light of their situation. The picture of Jesus’ “reverent submission” and his learning of “obedience through what he suffered” is an indirect exhortation to readers to submit amid their suffering.

Edgar V. McKnight and Christopher Church, Hebrews-James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 122–23.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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