Suffering: from Punishment to Promise

A Twilight Musing

A significant contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament is seen in differences in the divinely sanctioned relationship between what people do and what they should expect to experience as a result. In the Old Testament, God’s rewards and punishments were almost always temporal in nature and were the predicted result of obedience or disobedience to God.  Two exceptions to this pattern are instructive.  One is the book of Job, where the mismatch between actions and consequences is resolved only by acceptance of God’s sovereign right to violate the expected correspondence between what people deserve and what happens to them.   The second is in the climax of the “suffering servant” section of Isaiah in chapter 53, where we see the redeemer of God’s people suffering unjustly, but as a part of God’s great act of redemption in the future.  As in the case of Job, this picture of God’s afflicting His sinless servant runs counter to the normal expectations of people under the Old Covenant.

In contrast, what stands as an unexplained mystery in the Old Testament becomes in the New Testament a theological principle which is at the core of the message about Christ: the paradox that in this world of sin, doing the will of God finds its deepest fulfillment in patiently enduring undeserved suffering.  Jesus set the new paradigm for God’s dealings with His people.  As Peter expressed it, “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. . . .  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you. . . .  He committed no sin . . . , [yet] He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. . . .  By his wounds you have been healed” (I Pet. 2:19-24, passim; these last words, of course, reflect the language of Isaiah 53.).

In the New Testament, suffering is presented not only as an expected result of doing the right thing, but even more profoundly is seen as a part of the process of our growing spiritually.   Jesus Himself introduced this idea in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).   Paul tells Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).  James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3; see similar statements in Rom. 5:3-5 and   I Pet. 1:6-7).  Even of Jesus Himself it is said in Heb. 5:8-9, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”

What, then, are we to make of this radical new doctrine of redemptive suffering in the New Covenant?  It can be seen as God’s way of putting the spotlight on the Good News of salvation through the grace of God, in contrast to the Old Covenant, which depended on the willingness and ability of humans to live up to the standards set by a holy God.  It was a means to an end, but not God’s ultimate solution to heal the sinfulness of mankind.  It had some relative success in maintaining through ordered behavior the best society that could be achieved in a disordered, fallen world.  Its lasting benefit was to define a standard of holiness and perfect goodness against which the desperate needs of sinful humankind could be measured.  The book of Romans shows that the Law could not fully meet those needs, and the book of Hebrews demonstrates that the need of humanity to be freed from bondage to sin could be accomplished only by a final and archetypal High Priest who could also be the Perfect Sacrificial Lamb, and in that double role could willingly offer Himself to suffer in cancelling out the world’s debt of sin.  “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).  Therefore, we to whom the Lamb’s redeeming blood is applied must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).  In this experience, suffering is not merely punishment, but God’s way of bringing us into full fellowship with Him through identification with His Son.

In Paul’s discourse contrasting the Covenant of Law with the Good News of salvation through faith in Galatians 3, he describes the Law as a “tutor to bring us to Christ” (v. 24, NKJV).  This image aptly captures the wonder of God’s eternal providence in, first, teaching His people to fear God’s righteous judgment; and then building on that foundation to show, through the sacrifice of the Perfect Lamb of God, the mystery of going beyond temporal rewards and punishments to participate in the glorious mystery of redemptive suffering.


Image: "Brooklyn Museum - What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (Ce que voyait Notre-Seigneur sur la Croix) - James Tissot" by James Tissot - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008, 00.159.299_PS2.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)