ABSTRACT: The Christian understanding of suffering centers on the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross, Jesus fulfilled his Father’s plan, rescued his church, and ushered in the end of all suffering for all who believe. Christians still suffer as they walk through this cursed world on their way to glory, but they do so in hope. They pray not only, “How Long, O Lord?” but also “Come, Lord Jesus!” And until Christ returns, they follow him on the Calvary road.
Why do “bad” things happen to “good” people if God rules the world? Questions about suffering and loss such as this one have perplexed humanity for millennia. Some ancient philosophers reasoned that suffering isn’t really bad but offers people the opportunity to prove their true moral character.1 Modern secular thinkers conclude that God — if he’s out there — can’t keep good people from harm; we must make the best of suffering even if we don’t understand it.2 Hindus explain that the unfolding of karma brings physical and mental suffering that people must accept and endure.3 Ancient Jewish writers interpreted Israel’s sufferings as God’s chastisement for sins, which required repentance and sacrifice.4 Christians’ perspective on suffering — and all of life — is cruciform, cross-shaped.
Suffering and death have indelibly marked the human experience east of Eden. In the beginning, there was no cancer, coronavirus, or chronic pain — everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Everything changed when sin and death entered the world, and creation itself “was subjected to futility” (Romans 5:12; 8:20). Suffering, sickness, and sadness accompany the “thorns and thistles” of creation’s curse and humanity’s “dust . . . to dust” sentence.5 Into this world of sin, suffering, and death, Christ came to save his people and set things right. Stunningly, the divine Son redeemed us from the curse by “becoming a curse for us” at the cross (Galatians 3:13). The God who rules the world designed for the best man to suffer the worst fate to save bad people.
Christ’s crucifixion is the foundation and focus of the Christian understanding of suffering, which is strange and offensive to all other worldviews. The Qur’ān emphatically denies that Jesus was actually crucified,6 and Paul called his message about Christ crucified “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). But for Christians, the cross reveals Christ as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). The cross appeared to reveal Roman might and Jesus’s weakness, yet paradoxically Christ conquered in seeming defeat, he completed his mission in apparent loss, he saved his people when it looked like he couldn’t save himself.7 This is the cruciform power and wisdom of God that turns conventional wisdom on its head and offers true help and hope for all who believe. The Bible presents Jesus’s suffering as necessary according to God’s plan, saving as a sinless substitute, and vindicated in the resurrection.
Jesus embraced suffering as his necessary destiny. He taught his followers that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). The Greek word dei, translated “must,” here and often in the Gospels carries the idea of divine necessity.8 Jesus states plainly that his passion is God’s plan. This teaching so shocked the disciples that Peter began to rebuke his Lord, saying, “Never, Lord! . . . This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 NIV). Jesus neither avoids suffering as Peter demands nor minimizes the agony that awaits him. He sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem — “the city that kills the prophets” (Luke 9:51; 13:34) — because he follows the script of the Scriptures. On the night of his arrest, Jesus declared, “I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37, citing Isaiah 53:12).
Consider the manifold suffering that Jesus experienced as he faithfully fulfilled his Father’s plan. While he agonized in prayer, sweating blood as he readied to drink the dreaded cup of divine judgment, his closest friends snoozed (Luke 22:42, 44). The disciples betrayed, denied, and deserted their Lord during his arrest and trial. The Romans slandered, spit on, scourged, and shamed the Savior. The Jews mocked and maligned their King and clamored, “Crucify.” The Gospels state matter-of-factly, “There they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). First-century readers did not need elaboration; they knew exactly what “crucified” meant.
The cross is commonplace in our contemporary culture, appearing on church buildings, jewelry, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. But in the ancient world, crucifixion was a scandal, an unmentionable horror. The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion “the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.”9 It was a shameful, painful public spectacle in which a condemned criminal was suspended naked from a tree to slowly bleed or suffocate to death. The Romans crucified slaves and traitors to humiliate them and send a message that would deter others from opposing Caesar. This is the death that the divine Son suffered willingly and necessarily to fulfill the Father’s secret plan.
See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold.10
Jesus not only taught that he must suffer many things; he also declared that any would-be disciple must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). If the world hated Christ and hung him out to die, his servants should not expect VIP treatment. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). The troubles and trials we experience in this life remind us that we follow a suffering Lord and that the cruciform power of God is kept in clay jars and perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9).
Jesus suffered in order to save his people from their sins. His very name, “Jesus” — the Greek form of “Joshua” — identified him as the one who would bring about God’s long-awaited salvation for sinners (Matthew 1:21; cf. Psalm 130:8).11 In the Old Testament, Israel praised the Lord for saving them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:2), and the faithful continued to pray, “Save us, O God of our salvation” (1 Chronicles 16:35). They longed for the day of salvation when God would gather his scattered people, bind up their wounds, judge their enemies, and establish his righteous rule on the earth. Isaiah 52:7–10 sums up this hope well:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” . . .
For the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
The Old Testament repeatedly promised that God would save his people, but how would he do so? Some Jews expected this salvation to come through a great king in David’s line who would destroy the wicked and rule Israel with righteousness, fulfilling prophecies like Isaiah 11:1–10 and Psalm 2:9.12 Others awaited a messianic priest who would make atonement for sin or a great prophet to teach Israel the way of righteousness.13 No one expected a suffering savior. But only a few verses after Isaiah prophesies that God’s “arm” will bring salvation (Isaiah 52:10), he announces God’s Servant — high and lifted up, yet also despised and rejected (Isaiah 52:13; 53:3). Isaiah asks, “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Isaiah 53:1). The implied answer to this rhetorical question is no one — at the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, no one grasped that God’s glorious salvation would come through this inglorious Servant.14
The New Testament makes clear that Jesus is the Lord’s promised Servant who would save his people by suffering in their stead. Jesus’s own summary of his mission “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” closely mirrors Isaiah’s prophecy (Mark 10:45).15 This summary of his mission reflects Isaiah’s prophecy of the Servant who would pour out his life to death to bear the sins of many (Isaiah 53:11–12). The Servant prophecy in Isaiah 53 serves as “the hermeneutical key” for understanding the true significance of Jesus’s suffering and death.16 Peter makes this explicit: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24; cf. Isaiah 54:4–5, 12).
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, healed the sick, exorcised demons, stilled the storm, and fed five thousand. The crowds wanted to make him king, and his disciples expected him to redeem Israel.17 But no one expected the messianic Savior to be the “man of suffering,” who would bear our griefs, bring us healing and wholeness, and “justify many” (Isaiah 53:3–5, 11). The cross shows us that God didn’t send the Savior people expected, but the one we truly needed, who would willingly go as a lamb to the slaughter to redeem us from sin’s penalty and power. This is the glorious mystery that God reveals at the cross, where the sinless Servant suffered in our stead to save us from our sins.
Come behold the wondrous mystery
Christ the Lord upon the tree
In the stead of ruined sinners
Hangs the Lamb in victory.18
The apostles do not proclaim Jesus’s suffering and death as a stand-alone subject because the cross is not the end of the story. They preach Christ crucified and risen according to the Scriptures (Acts 2:23–24; 1 Corinthians 15:3–4). The resurrection reverses the world’s false verdict that Jesus was an imposter king who must be stopped; it validates Jesus as the Son of God, promised Messiah, and exalted Lord who alone can save sinners (Acts 2:36; 4:10–12; Romans 1:4). Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) — this is “the fullness of joy” that the risen Christ experiences seated at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11; 110:1).19
Jesus taught that he must rise on the third day, that it was necessary for him to enter glory after his suffering (Luke 9:22; 24:7, 26, 46). There are glimpses of glory beyond the grave in the Old Testament, in passages like Psalm 16:11, Isaiah 25:6–12, Ezekiel 37:1–14, and Daniel 12:1–4. Martha affirms the Jewish hope that her deceased brother “will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). But Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), and the apostles proclaim “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). Resurrection Sunday was the eschatological turning point from the old age to the new, the first installment of future resurrection glory.20
Isaiah’s great prophecy about the Servant’s suffering for sinners concludes with life beyond death: the Servant “shall see his offspring” and “prolong his days”; he shall “divide the spoil with the strong” in victory (Isaiah 53:10–12). J. Alec Motyer explains, “Isaiah does not use the word ‘resurrection,’ but these verses display the Servant ‘alive after his suffering’ (Acts 1:3).”21 God not only receives Jesus’s sacrifice for sinners but also vindicates Jesus after his suffering by raising him to unending life. Death could not hold the Author of life (Acts 2:24; 3:15).
Come behold the wondrous mystery
Slain by death the God of life
But no grave could e’er restrain Him
Praise the Lord; He is alive!22
As Jesus suffered then entered glory, so his follows endure present afflictions with resurrection hope. Paul reminds believers that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The apostle stresses that we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Jesus’s resurrection informs our future hope — our lowly bodies will be transformed to be like Jesus’s glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Yet resurrection is also a “present reality” for believers.23 Anyone in Christ is a “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We have been “raised with Christ” by faith and experience the life-giving power of the same Spirit who raised Christ (Colossians 3:1; Romans 8:11). We are being renewed in our weakness and conformed to Christ’s likeness as we behold his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:16). We even rejoice in various trials because Jesus has decisively delivered us from sin’s penalty and one day will completely deliver us from its reality.24
The End of Suffering
We have seen that Jesus’s suffering is necessary to fulfill the Scriptures, saving as a sinless substitute, and vindicated in resurrection glory. Christ dealt the death blow to death itself by dying on the cursed tree, then walking out of Joseph’s tomb. The risen Lord will return as the conquering king who will save his people and vanquish all his foes — including the devil and Death itself (Revelation 19:11–16; 20:10, 14). God will make everything new and put an end to our tears and troubles. We will see his face, experience his glorious presence, and enjoy full redemption from the curse (Revelation 21:1–4; 22:1–5). We are saved “in this hope” of enduring glory, which puts our present sufferings in their proper perspective (Romans 8:18, 24).
What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes.25
Christians suffer in hope. We pray not only, “How Long, O Lord?” but also, “Come, Lord Jesus!” He suffered to ransom us from our sins and reconcile us to God, and his resurrection is the first installment of the restoration of all things. We may still ask why when our bodies hurt and our hearts ache. We may wonder when God will make all things new. But we remember who suffered in our stead to secure our salvation. And until Christ returns, we follow our Servant King on the road to Calvary.