Great Texts of the Bible
Perfect through Sufferings
For it became him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings.—Hebrews 2:10.
1. When we read a biography, when we study the plot of a novel or a play, or when we try to understand a character in history, the question we put to ourselves is—Is it true to life? Is this the man as he really was and lived? Does he fit together as a living whole? The profit and the pleasure of such books, and certainly the moral interest, lie largely in their setting forth a vital unity, in their assuring us of the reality and the individuality of the man or woman whom we are studying and giving us the assurance that we are following the true story of a human soul. Every great life comes to us as something of a surprise: perhaps the greater the life the greater the surprises are apt to be. We begin by saying to ourselves, “He could never have acted so. Why should he have taken that course? why risk that venture? why court that reverse? Now, if I had been he,” we say, and begin to reconstruct conduct upon the lines of instinct and of motive most familiar to ourselves. And then we turn back to our text and penetrate a little deeper into the secret springs of character, and incidents arrest us that do not square with our assumptions, and lights flash unexpectedly from words or acts which show that he was not the manner of man that we supposed, that after all it was humility not pride, it was courage not cowardice, it was simplicity not cunning, it was unselfishness not self-seeking, that made him act as he did. Little by little we discern a unity that was not there before, that removes inward contradictions, that makes the hero a consistent and intelligible whole, made up not of conflicting fragments but of a living and coherent self. And when we return to our first little criticisms and surprises, they look thin and hollow in presence of the truth, and we say to ourselves, “Now I know better; I understand more clearly what he was, by what lights he lived. Being what he was, he could not have said, done, acted otherwise. I have caught the secret; I hold the clue; I feel quite certain of the truth; all fits so perfectly that I must have hold of the right interpretation. It becomes him in a way that no other explanation does or could.”
2. The writer of this Epistle was addressing himself to Hebrew Christians, who had not yet quite reconciled themselves to a suffering Christ. They still shared in that Jewish conception of the Messiah which made the cross an offence. Why should the Anointed One, the chosen Messenger of God, pass through that wine-press of shame and agony instead of marching on in joyous triumph and planting His feet on the necks of His enemies? Why all that weakness and yielding and intolerable suffering, if He was indeed the beloved Son in whom the Father was well pleased? How could that awful and heartbreaking Calvary scene be the sign and seal of God’s approval? These questions, and questions like them, which are sometimes asked to-day, were answered in these words: “It became him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The writer here expounds to us the Divine philosophy of suffering, and declares that only by a suffering Saviour could God’s thought and purpose in redemption be expressed and fulfilled. It became Him. It was right and reasonable and necessary that He should take the way of suffering to reach His glorious end.
Two leading ideas emerge from this text:—
I. Suffering as a Means to Perfection.
II. The Necessity for the Sufferings of Christ.
The Discipline of Suffering
“Perfect through sufferings.”
“Perfect through sufferings”—we have grown accustomed to the phrase, but to any one who heard it for the first time, how strange it would sound! “Perfect through sufferings!” he would exclaim. Surely the writer must have made a mistake. He should have said perfect through joy. Suffering must be a sign and a cause of imperfection. Now, it is quite true that suffering is always a sign of present imperfection. But it may be the cause of future perfection, which could not be attained without it. On the assumption that the ultimate end of our existence is the development of a noble character, the necessity of suffering may be proved. For it can be shown that such a character could never be produced apart from the instrumentality of pain.
1. Suffering acts as a check upon our evil tendencies. Of course one may say that sin could have been prevented, and man saved from suffering. Yes, you can make a man of clay that cannot feel; you can forge a steel man that an avalanche cannot hurt. But when you have done, your men are only physical—not moral, not spiritual. They have no volition, no power of choice, no moral nature, no spiritual aspirations, and no functions that are fitting them for an eternal life of love. True, they have no capacity for joy either; and they are devoid of those higher attributes of sympathy and love that make God a Father and a Friend. Even so, if man had been intended to be only a physical being—a mere body, a machine driven by the resistless mandate of an overpowering will, God would doubtless have made him as hard and as unfeeling as the granite rock. But God’s purpose was to make a man—a being who by choice and will and struggle should remake himself, and become as like his Maker in the whole round of his higher nature as it is possible for him to be. And this purpose, manifest in creation, and reaffirmed in redemption, alone explains the processes of life through which He is conducting us, and it teaches us that every trial and every pang of suffering, if regarded aright, may bear us ever nearer to God. Evil, then, being a necessary fact, some suffering is also a necessity. It is the desire for present enjoyment that leads men astray; and they can be brought back only by the counteractive influence of pain. So far as suffering fulfils this purpose, it is manifestly the outcome of love.
God has His sanitary regulations as well as man. There are Divine cleansing forces at work, both in the material and in the moral world. And just as the tempest scatters the diseases that have gathered themselves together for deadly work, rendering them harmless, so the sufferings that follow guilt, and the revolutions of pain that overthrow the tyranny of an evil nature, are methods for securing the moral health of the race, and act as preservatives of man’s spiritual life. You have doubtless seen specimens of our English weaving machines. Those machines are so constructed and arranged as to let the machinist know when anything is wrong, and to call his attention to the fault in the piece that he is weaving, so that he may correct it before the whole fabric is spoiled. Constructed on a somewhat similar principle is God’s mechanism of human nature. You put your hand into the fire and you suffer; the pain makes you draw your hand out of the flame, and thus saves the limb from being burnt off without your knowing it. Your course of conduct is injuring your moral life, and your aching head and palpitating heart tell you so. Surely, then, there is wisdom as well as love manifest in the law that makes our physical sufferings teach us our moral dangers, and thus save us from them.1 [Note: J. G. Binney.]
(1) Suffering often acts as an intellectual and spiritual stimulus. The world’s greater teachers have usually been men of sorrow.
When Dumas asked Reboul, “What made you a poet?” the answer was “Suffering.” “If I had not been so great an invalid,” said Darwin to a friend, “I should not have done nearly so much work.” We do not know much about Shakespeare’s life; but we do know, from his sonnets, that he had suffered vastly. His heart had been wrung till it almost broke. And in Tennyson we have another striking illustration of the educative effects of suffering. In Memoriam is by far his greatest poem; there are single stanzas in it worth almost all the rest of his works put together; and this poem was inspired by a great grief—the death of his friend Arthur Hallam.
(2) Suffering is necessary for the development in us of pity, mercy, and the spirit of self-sacrifice—the noblest of all our endowments. Only those who have experienced calamity themselves can understand what it means. And unless we know what it is, we cannot sympathize with it; nor are we likely to make any efforts towards averting it. No character can be perfect which has not acquired the capacity for pity; for in the acquisition of this capacity we receive our highest development, and realize most fully the solidarity of the race to which we belong.
The Chili palm grows to a height of from forty to sixty feet, and bears numerous small edible, thick-shelled nuts, and yields after it is felled, a syrup called palm honey. “This honey,” Darwin tells us, “is a sort of treacle, and forms really the sap of the tree. A good tree will yield ninety gallons, though it looks dry and empty as a drum. The tree is felled, the crown of leaves lopped off, and then for months the vessels of the tree pour forth their stores, and every fresh slice shaved off exposes a fresh surface and yields a fresh supply.” And have we not often found something akin to this in human experience? Have we not all known men apparently cold and hard, and utterly unfitted for the gentler and softer ministries of life, looking as sapless and empty as the Chili palm when standing in its native soil, but when they have been felled by some unforeseen trouble, and the cold iron has entered their souls, they have become even womanly in their capacity for consolation, yielding sympathy and love and helpfulness in measureless amount. Ah, yes; it often takes the sharp axe of suffering to open up in us the fountains of sympathy and healing love. Chili palm-like, some of us need to be felled and well sliced before the honey will flow; but—
Unto the hopes by sorrow crushed a noble faith succeeds,
And life by trials furrowed bears the fruit of loving deeds.
How rich, how sweet, how full of strength, our human spirits are,
Baptized into the sanctities of suffering and of prayer.1 [Note: J. G. Binney.]
(3) Suffering appears necessary for the development in us of self-reliance, self-respect, and all that is implied in the expression “strength of character.” And it is only saying the same thing in other words to maintain that, without suffering, we could not attain to the highest happiness of which we are capable. Just think of the advantages to be derived from the struggle for success in life, painful as that struggle must often of necessity be. We cannot be born successful, and it would be a great pity if we could. Good fortune and prosperity are worth most when they have been achieved in spite of hindrances and difficulties. The happiness that we have obtained by effort is far sweeter than that which we have inherited, or that which has come to us by chance; and the very effort we have made to acquire it has tended to our own self-development. And what is true of individuals is true of races. It would have been a grievous disadvantage had they been created fully developed. The possibility of developing themselves is their grandest and noblest prerogative.
John Stuart Mill argues in his Posthumous Essays that this would be a better world if the whole human race were already in possession of everything which it seems desirable they should have. But surely it is infinitely better for races to struggle up to material prosperity and to spiritual perfection than to have been created incapable of progress. In the latter case they might have been comfortable and satisfied: but their comfort and satisfaction would have been no higher than a brute’s.1 [Note: A. W. Momerie, The Origin of Evil, 22.]
I am one of those bright angels
Passing earthwards, to and fro,
Heavenly messengers to mortals,
Now of gladness, now of woe.
Might I bring from the Almighty,
Strength from Him who maketh strong;
Not as alms I drop the blessing,—
From my grasp it must be wrung.
Child of earth, I come to prove thee,
Hardly, sternly with thee deal;
To mould thee in the forge and furnace,
Make thine iron tempered steel.
Come, then, and in loving warfare
Let us wrestle, tug, and strain,
Till thy breath comes thick and panting,
And the sweat pours down like rain.
Man with angel thus contending,
Angel-like in strength shall grow,
And the might of the Immortal
Pass into the mortal so.
2. The virtue of suffering lies in the spirit of the sufferer. There is nothing in suffering itself that can bring a sense of its use or its nobility. It will strengthen the will, test the endurance, call out the pity, quicken the sympathy, serve the love of men only if men carry into it a conviction of the moral purpose with which it is fraught. Suffering itself, as we so often see, is unable to ennoble; suffering of itself often dulls, and blunts, and stuns, and exasperates the nature which suffers. What gives the power of suffering is not suffering itself, but the faith that discerns the purpose which lies behind it. So, then, if that faith were put to the strain and were lost, if anything were to happen to us that would make it reel when most we wanted it, then suffering alone might only cripple or overwhelm our characters. We want to know then where is the warrant for this faith that behind our suffering there is a purpose of the love of God. Where is the warrant? It is written in the cross of Jesus Christ. The sufferings of Jesus, we are prompted to think, went far beyond what was necessary as an acceptance of punishment of sin. It seems that He meant to go out into the very farthest reaches of human pain and to know and to understand them. It was part of that long self-sacrifice by which humanity in Jesus was learning to offer itself again in perfect obedience to the will of God. He was learning obedience through the things He was suffering, and not only accepting punishment of sin; He was perfecting His human life by the bearing of pain and sorrow. He was being made perfect through sufferings. Each pain of body or of mind was an offering of a Son’s love to God, and of a Brother’s sympathy to His fellow-men.
The most useful agents in nature have sometimes the most deadly effects. The atmosphere, which is essential to life, is the chief source of putrefaction and decay. The sea, which bears one mariner safely to the desired haven, buries another in a watery grave. Electricity, which carries a message across the world at the bidding of one man, strikes another dead. So the very circumstances of which a good man makes stepping-stones to heaven, a bad man will turn into a pathway to hell. The responsibility for this, however, rests not with God, but with men.1 [Note: A. W. Momerie, The Origin of Evil, 52.]
Crosses are blessed to us only in so far as we give ourselves up to them unreservedly and forgetting self. Seek to forget yourself, else all suffering is useless. God does not lay suffering on us merely that we may suffer, but that we may die to self by dint of putting it aside under the most difficult of all circumstances, viz., pain.2 [Note: Fénelon, Spiritual Letters to Men.]
Suffering borne in the Christian temper has often incidental effects upon character. For it induces tenderness, and strength, and spirituality of life. The man who has suffered much has a keener insight into the sufferings of others, and therefore a more appreciative sympathy for them. His very voice and glance and touch gain a magnetic power from his pain. Nor is this tenderness purchased at the cost of weakness, for suffering indurates and strengthens the entire person. Under all his apparent weakness, the man of sorrows is strong. And thus his own sorrow helps him to alleviate the sorrow of the world; while, besides thus enhancing his social efficiency, suffering refines and purifies the inner man, as a necessary consequence of the closer communion with the spiritual world to which it calls him.1 [Note: J. R. Illingworth.]
But if, impatient, thou let slip thy cross,
Thou wilt not find it in this world again,
Nor in another; here, and here alone,
Is given thee to suffer for God’s sake.
In other worlds we shall more perfectly
Serve Him and love Him, praise Him, work for Him,
Grow near, and nearer Him with all delight;
But then we shall not any more be called
To suffer, which is our appointment here.
Canst thou not suffer then one hour, or two?
And while we suffer, let us set our souls
To suffer perfectly; since this alone,
The suffering, which is this world’s special grace,
May here be perfected and left behind.2 [Note: E. Hamilton King, The Sermon in the Hospital.]
The Necessity for Christ’s Sufferings
“It became him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things.”
1. The phrase, “it became him,” speaks of a moral necessity lying upon God, a necessity springing from the requirements of the Divine nature and government. Of course the word is one of much broader application. We can speak of a comely face and of a becoming dress, as well as of “that which becometh saints.” There is a physical as well as a moral fitness. We may also say of anything that it becomes a man of wisdom, righteousness, truth—meaning by this only that it is not opposed to, though not absolutely required by, such a character. But, manifestly, that which in any circumstances is perfectly suited to the requirements of perfect wisdom and spotless rectitude is absolutely obligatory. To do anything else than this, while circumstances remain unchanged, would be folly and sin. Moral fitness runs speedily into moral obligation. Christian propriety is strictest law. How much more, then, Divine propriety—that which becometh God!
2. The statement here is not “it became God,” or “it became the Father,” but, with impressive emphasis, “It became him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things.” The sufferings of man’s Saviour fit into the whole character of Jehovah and all His infinite perfections: they form an essential element of the Divine counsels and operations. Either the whole scheme of the Divine creation and government is loose and contingent, or the perfecting of the Captain of salvation is based on a Divine necessity of wisdom, righteousness, and love. The question has sometimes been put, whether or not sinners might have been saved in some other way than through the incarnation of the Eternal Word, and the atonement of the cross. Here we have an answer to the question, as direct as the occasion calls for: “It became” the All-Perfect, that the work should be accomplished even so.
3. The revelation of His Fatherhood required it. Humanity was His own child. Humanity was a child of many sorrows, familiar with tears, and the tears were, in part at least, of His own ordaining. Sin had enormously increased the sorrows; but apart from sin there were the pangs and travail of creation, there was everywhere the pain and struggle and bereavement, and the bleeding and breaking heart. How could He join Himself to humanity without sharing human tears? If He really loved and pitied His sad and guilty world, how could He send His saving message to us otherwise than through the life of a suffering one? How could He prove to men His Fatherhood except by bearing their infirmities? How could He become incarnate save as a Man of Sorrows?
4. The rôle of “Captain” which Jesus assumed necessitated suffering. The word translated “captain” in the Authorized Version, which occurs only four times in Scripture, means literally one who leads or begins any course or thing; hence it comes to mean a commander (or a prince, as it is twice translated); and then again, with a very easy transition from the notion of leading to that of origination, it comes to mean cause (or author, as it is once translated). The conception of author is the dominant one here, but the word is probably chosen as prolonging the metaphor in the previous clause. This great procession of sons up into glory, which is the object and aim of God’s work, is under the leadership of Him who is the Captain, the foremost, the Originator, and, in a profound sense, the Cause, of their salvation. So, then, we have before us the thought that God brings, and yet Christ leads, and that God’s bringing is effected through Christ’s leadership.
This Captain needs to be made perfect through sufferings. We are not to suppose that the perfecting through sufferings which is here declared to take effect upon our Lord means the addition of anything to, or the purging away of anything from, His moral nature. We are refined by suffering, which purges out the dross if we take it rightly. We are ennobled by suffering, which adds to us, if we submissively accept it, that which without it we could never possess. But Christ’s perfecting is not the perfecting of His moral character, but the completion of His equipment for His work as the Captain of our salvation. That is to say, He Himself, though He learned obedience by the things that He suffered, was morally perfect, ere yet one shadow of pain or conflict had passed across the calm depths of His pure spirit; but He was not ready for His function of Leader and Originator of our salvation until He had passed through the sufferings of life and the agonies of death. Thus the whole sweep of Christ’s sufferings—both those which preceded the cross, and especially the cross itself—is included in the general expression of the text; and these equipped Him for His work.
It may be that under other conditions the discipline of suffering would have been unnecessary. To be a perfect king of angels, for instance, there would have been no need for Christ to suffer. To be the joy and bliss of unfallen spirits there would have been no need for Christ to suffer. To be the light and life of a sinless heaven there would have been no need for Christ to suffer. But to be a perfect leader for broken, stricken, sinful men, Christ had to suffer. To be able to emancipate them from their bondage and to lead them out of the prison-house, Christ had to suffer. To be an adequate Saviour and Redeemer, Christ had to suffer. The suffering was meant to fit Him for leadership. It was as the Leader of men’s salvation that Christ was made perfect through sufferings.1 [Note: J. D. Jones, The Unfettered Word, 209.]
It is recorded of Captain Hedley Vicars that he singularly won the hearts of the soldiers under his command. Whilst keeping his own position he put himself into theirs. An incident in connexion with his life in the Crimea will illustrate the verse before us. In those bitter winter nights, which even now we can hardly bear to think of, when our brave soldiers slept out in an almost Arctic cold, they naturally gave way to some murmurs; but when the men under Captain Vicars learned that he absolutely refused to avail himself of special protection and comfort so long as his men suffered, and that he preferred to share their trials, all murmurings ceased. How could they complain when their captain for their sakes volunteered to share their hardships! As regards his sympathy with and his relationship towards the men, their captain was “made perfect through sufferings.”2 [Note: J. W. Bardsley.]
(1) The Deliverer of man must be a Man.—The leader must have no exemption from the hardships of the company. If He is to be a leader, He and those whom He leads must go by the same road. He must tramp along all the weary paths that they have to tread. He must experience all the conflicts and difficulties that they have to experience. He cannot lift us up into a share of His glory unless He stoops to the companionship of our grief. A man upon a higher level cannot raise one on a lower, except on condition of himself going down, with his hand at any rate, to the level from which he would lift. And no Christ will be able to accomplish the Father’s design, except a Christ who knows the fellowship of our sufferings, and is made conformable unto our death. Therefore, because He “took not hold to help angels, but the seed of Abraham, it behoved him to be made in all things like unto his brethren.” And when the soldiers are weary on the march, footsore and tired, they may bethink themselves, “Headquarters were here yesterday.”
We can go through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
and where He has stretched Himself on the cold ground and bivouacked, we need not be ashamed or afraid to lie down. The Captain of our salvation has shared all our hardships, and plodded with bleeding feet over every inch of the ground over which He would lead us.
(2) He must learn compassion in the midst of suffering.—Before He suffers, He has the pity of a God; after He suffers, He has learnt the compassion of a man. And though in the fight the general seems to have gone up the hill, and left the army to struggle in the plain, He has gone, like Moses to the mount, to lift all-powerful hands of intercession, and bearing in His heart tender compassion, a fellow-feeling of our pains. No Christ is worth anything to us, suffering and bleeding and agonizing here, unless it be a Christ of whom we know that His heart is full of sympathy because He Himself has felt the same, and that He has learnt to haste to the help of the miserable, because He himself is not ignorant of misfortune.
A German theologian finds the unparalleled power of Jesus in the unlimited range of His sympathies. He stands apart from and above all men in greatness. He is absolutely unique. He is, as Bushnell said, unclassifiable. But is not His uniqueness this, that He is not provincial, local, and narrow, but universal; that He knew what is in man as no other has known, and that He had power and sympathetic union with men and women of any nation and any religion? He whose uniqueness made Him the Son of God was He whose universality made Him the Son of Man 1:1 [Note: George Harris, Inequality and Progress, 147.]
Every believer realizes by experience that Christ is the only perfect sympathizer. “I’m not perfectly understood,” says everybody in fact. But if you are a believer you are perfectly understood. Christ is the only one who never expects you to be other than yourself, and He puts in abeyance towards you all but what is like you. He takes your view of things, and mentions no other. He takes the old woman’s view of things by the wash-tub, and has a great interest in wash powder; Sir Isaac Newton’s view of things, and wings among the stars with him; the artist’s view, and feeds among the lilies; the lawyer’s, and shares the justice of things. But He never plays the lawyer or the philosopher or the artist to the old woman. He is above that littleness.1 [Note: Letters of James Smetham, 297.]
It was the need of a Divine assurance that there is a heart of sympathy at the root of things which Christ came to satisfy. He not only declared the Divine sympathy, He entered the human struggle. It was not enough that God should declare the Divine sympathy in a word: He chose also to declare it in a Life. There can be no doubt of a sympathy which issues in self-sacrifice; and we see the Heart of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. He who ordained the hard law of the Cross, Himself submitted to it, to prove by His self-sacrifice that it came from a will of love: and He transformed it by bidding us not only to take it, but to take it after Him. It is through the fellowship of the Cross that He comes most closely to us. When we see and greet Him there, supreme and calm, He gives us His own supremacy and calmness. We conquer our crosses by bearing them with Him.2 [Note: Cosmo Gordon Lang, The Miracles of Jesus.]
In Christ I feel the heart of God
Throbbing from heaven through earth;
Life stirs again within the clod,
Renewed in beauteous birth;
The soul springs up, a flower of prayer,
Breathing His breath out on the air.
In Christ I touch the hand of God,
From His pure height reached down,
By blessed ways before untrod,
To lift us to our crown;
Victory that only perfect is
Through loving sacrifice, like His.
Holding His hand, my steadied feet
May walk the air, the seas;
On life and death His smile falls sweet,
Lights up all mysteries:
Stranger nor exile can I be
In new worlds where He leadeth me.
Not my Christ only; He is ours;
Humanity’s close bond;
Key to its vast, unopened powers,
Dream of our dreams beyond.
What yet we shall be none can tell:
Now are we His, and all is well.1 [Note: Lucy Larcom.]
Perfect through Sufferings
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Bushnell (H.), Christ and His Salvation, 219.
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Christian World Pulpit, liii. 22 (J. G. Binney); lv. 235 (C. G. Lang); lxxxiii. 49 (R. J. Campbell).
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Homiletic Review, lx. 404 (N. D. Hillis).