I have great appreciation for The Swans are Not Silent series by John Piper. Each volume includes 3 character sketches of significant figures in church history. Each volume has a particular focus that determines the material Piper included and excluded from the volume. They were originally presented at Bethlehem’s Pastors’ Conference. So they are meant to be encouraging as well as convicting.
The 5th volume, which I finally made time to read, is focused on a passage from Colossians 1. It is appropriately called Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: the Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations… .
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
I was preaching on this passage and decided it would be a good move to read it. In the introduction, he asserts that Paul’s point is not merely that we suffer on account of the gospel, but for the benefit of the proclamation of the gospel. The introduction has some good material to help you think through this passage.
“One of the most sobering discoveries of my life is that God spreads the life-giving news about Jesus Christ by means of suffering and martyrdom.”
He then illustrates what he asserts thru the lives of William Tyndale, John Paton and Adoniram Judson. Piper keeps to his focus, so there are some things about these men (like their childhoods for the most part) that we don’t learn. That is okay- there are important things going on in this book.
“Suffering was not just a consequence of the Master’s obedience and mission. It was the central strategy of his mission.”
William Tyndale was the scholar and preacher who spent the last eight years of his life in exile because he wanted to translate the Scriptures into English (Wycliffe had translated it from Latin). This is the first time the New Testament would be translated from the Greek. He would depend on Erasmus’ work. Piper spent some time comparing Tyndale with Erasmus. They were alike in many ways, but Tyndale had a passion for God’s Word and the gospel. He desperately wanted the people to be able to read it for themselves and receive the grace of God. Erasmus was more content to complain about the Church, he didn’t really want to see it thoroughly reformed.
Wycliffe’s work had prompted the passing of a law that made translating the Bible into English a heresy punishable by death- burning at the stake. At the time Parliament was supporting the Catholic Church’s ban on such translations.
Tyndale was not a proto-reformer like Wycliffe. He would benefit from the work of Luther. But he wanted to receive official authorization for this translation. Denied, he had to flee England for the Continent. He would spend most of his time in Brussels. But he watched as many people he knew and worked with persecuted. Young men converted by reading the Tyndale Bible or some of his books were also being burned alive. Eventually he would be betrayed into the hands of his enemies and suffer the same fate.
“God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the sufferings of his people.”
John Paton was a Presbyterian minister who left the relative comfort of Scotland to bring the gospel to the New Hebrides islands. The people there were known as cannibals and had killed other missionaries. He would encounter great suffering over a lengthy career there. His young wife and newborn child would die within months of arriving there. For 4 years he sowed seed, and was often threatened with physical violence or death. Finally they drove him off.
He would return to the New Hebrides, though a different island, with another wife. They would spend most of the next 41 years serving the people of the island. Though they continued to meet with great opposition, the gospel eventually prevailed. Eventually nearly all the islanders professed faith in Christ. His autobiography aided the cause of missions greatly, particularly among Australian Presbyterians who traveled to other islands in the New Hebrides.
In those difficult times, he was sustained by the reality of the indwelling Christ, who was with him. He continually entrusted his life into the hands of his Lord. While he often saw colleagues struck down, his life was preserved.
Adoniram Judson was a New England Congregationalist turned Baptist who spent his life bringing the gospel to Burma. In the process he buried 2 wives, 7 of his 13 children and numerous colleagues. His reformed roots, with a strong and healthy view of providence, sustained him through these difficulties and more. He would suffer many illnesses and an imprisonment. Yet he would translate the Bible into the local language and assemble a dictionary to be used by other missionaries. It was six years before he saw his first conversion there. But eventually there was a great outpouring of the Spirit that resulted in many coming to faith in Christ.
All three of these men suffered greatly in the course of fulfilling their gospel mission. Their suffering was not in vain. God used their suffering to bring many people to faith in Christ, whose afflictions alone are sufficient to save us. This book will cause us to soberly wonder if the reason we aren’t effective is that we do not suffer.