If you had been at the cross, you probably would have vomited, or screamed, or pulled your hair, or thrown yourself on the ground and pounded the dirt and ground your teeth and sobbed yourself into exhaustion. Putting spikes through people’s arms and legs, and hanging them on a cross with their full body weight tearing their flesh, and smashing their legs, or driving a spear into their side are all unbearable to watch — let alone endure.
Jesus volunteered for this. He chose it. It was not forced on him by any man. He said in John 10:18, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).
I’m not trapped, he would say. Do you think Herod and Pilate and the mobs and the soldiers are in charge here? They are but players in this drama. My Father wrote it. And he and I agreed: This is my role. I will be crucified. It’s my choice, not Pilate’s.
There’s a name for this. It’s called love. Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So here’s my question: The greatest suffering, in the service of the greatest love, for the least deserving — how do you do that? How did Jesus endure that?
Here is the answer of Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross.” The humiliation of being stripped and ridiculed. The lacerations of the scourging. The unbearable lightning bolts of pain from the spikes. Hour after hour, while at any moment he could have called on his Father for rescue, but instead chose the pain. All of it “for the joy that was set before him.”
And what was that? What was the joy beyond the horrors of crucifixion that made this endurance possible? What was the joy beyond this greatest act of love that made this love possible? Here’s Jesus’s answer:
- No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again (John 10:18).
- Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19).
- The Son of Man must suffer many things . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31). He must, and he will.
- I will never die again (Acts 13:34). I will be an eternal high priest by the power of an indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16).
- All authority in heaven and earth will be mine (Matthew 28:18).
- I will be the King over all kings and the Lord over all lords (Revelation 17:14).
- I will be alive forevermore, and have the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).
- I will sit with my Father on his throne (Revelation 3:21).
- I will have in my hand the check signed in my blood for the perfect, completed, irreversible purchase of my Bride (1 Corinthians 6:20).
- I will be surrounded by angels and saints crying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).
- And from my throne I will build my church on earth, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).
- And when the time is full, I will come again in power and great glory, and I will gather my elect from one end of heaven to the other (Matthew 24:30).
- And I will fill the new heavens and the new earth with my glory (Psalm 72:19).
- And I will say to my bride, “Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23).
When Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” this was that joy. This resurrection, this future, this hope, this joy streaming from the future into the horrible present was the power to suffer and love like this.
If he were here — and he is here — this is what he would say to you. I want you to receive this personally from Jesus himself: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
God intends that the joy that was set before Jesus and that gave him the power to endure the greatest suffering in the greatest act of love for the least deserving — God intends that joy to be your joy. This is what it means to be a Christian — to embrace the whole Christ: the suffering Christ, the risen Christ, the reigning Christ, the coming Christ, who says at every point, “I have come, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
The reason the resurrection has explosive power in our lives now is the same reason it had explosive power in the life of Jesus on Good Friday. In his case, the hope of resurrection was the joy that held him to the cross. And so it is with us: for the joy that is set before us in the resurrection, we endure the cost of love, no matter how high, for the least deserving.
Let’s take one crazy-glorious example of what this looks like in the life of a Christian who lives by the power of hope of the resurrection.
The apostle Paul was preaching in Philippi (Acts 16:16–40). A demonized girl — a slave who made money for her masters by fortune-telling (16:16) — was constantly crying out and interrupting Paul in his preaching. When he had enough of this, Paul turned and said to the demon, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour (16:18).
Now their money-making slave girl was free, and they were angry. Preach all you want, pastors, just don’t mess with people’s money (unless you want to be faithful like Paul). They seized Paul and Silas, dragged them into the marketplace, and accused them to the magistrates, who tore off their clothes and beat them with rods. They threw them in the deepest part of the prison, without a trial, and put their feet in stocks.
So here’s the picture: Paul and Silas have been shamed by being stripped, beaten with rods, and they are sitting in the deepest part of the prison, feet in stocks, sleepless at midnight. What are they doing? They’re singing. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). The word is not psalms. The word is singing hymns. These are songs probably written by believers. And Paul and Silas knew them by heart. Which meant they sang them a lot. These greatest of all men were singing men.
And then an earthquake struck! Watch out for what might happen when you sing at midnight with a friend in misery. The gates were thrown open. Paul and Silas could have vengefully watched the jailer commit suicide, which he was about to do (Acts 16:27), and walked away to Thessalonica triumphant.
Instead, they rescued him and offered him Jesus and baptized him and welcomed him — maybe the least deserving man in Philippi — into their eternal family.
Now, here’s my question: How did Paul and Silas sing to the Lord and love the jailer, after humiliation, beating, dungeon, stocks, and sleeplessness — when what you and I usually do is grumble and plan to sue somebody.
Four times in the book of Acts, Paul puts in one sentence why he endures persecution again and again in his ministry.
- Before the Jews in Jerusalem: “It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6).
- Before Felix in Caesarea: “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day” (Acts 24:21).
- Before King Agrippa: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8).
- And to the Jews in Rome: “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain” (Acts 28:20).
The resurrection of Christ, and the resurrection of all Christians at his coming, was the sustaining power of Paul’s song in suffering and his love for jailers.
In other words, for the joy that was set before Paul, he sang in the jails and loved the jailers. For the joy that was set before him, he sang hymns and saved sinners.
Here is how he described the power of resurrection hope:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
And Jesus himself draws the double connection between that resurrection hope and singing in suffering, and that resurrection hope and loving the undeserving. Here’s the link between hope and singing:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account [and strip you, and beat you with rods, and put you in stocks]. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven [in the joy of your risen Master at the resurrection]. (Matthew 5:11–12)
Here’s the link between hope and loving:
But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind [the jailers, the slave girls], and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just [in the joy of your risen Master at the resurrection]. (Luke 14:13–14)
I assume that I am surrounded in this room by people who love to sing. So do I. How will we, then, when our suffering comes, sing to the Lord and love the jailer?
I assume you know that lavish settings like the Bridgestone Arena and Gaylord Resort are temporary, opulent aberrations in the Christian life of love. Your suffering is coming. How will you sing in it? And love? The answer is: for the joy that is set before us.
This is the explosive power of the resurrection now. Singing to the Lord in suffering. And loving the jailer. This is not a personality trait. This is Christianity.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.