Yesterday, I posted the first part of the sixth reason of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s impact on twenty-first preachers and preaching: the grace of living well and dying well. Today, I want to lay more of the Biblical foundation and personal application. My next post will highlight the poetry of Bonhoeffer while he was in prison.

 

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Biblical Foundation:

 

During the Apostle Paul’s final days before his execution, he penned a second letter to his dear friend, Timothy. Paul knew that death was just around the corner. On reflecting on this, he wrote: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteousness Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

 

Paul referred to his life as a “drink offering.” This was a metaphor to describe his death. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the priest would pour wine in the sanctuary as an offering of gratitude to God. Paul saw his imminent death as an offering to Jesus and approached his final departure as a sacrifice of thankfulness. In verse seven, Paul used three other metaphors to point out that even in his final days of life; he was faithful to the Lord: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” John R. W. Stott comments:

 

So the work of the apostle, and to a lesser extent of every gospel preacher and teacher, is pictured as fighting a fight, running a race, guarding a treasure. Each involves labour, sacrifice and even danger. In all three Paul had been faithful to the end.[1]

 

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer faithful in life and in death? In his short life, he achieved the reputation of radiating the love and joy of Jesus to the people around him. For example, in 1931, he taught confirmation classes to fifty teenagers at Zion Church in North Berlin. Bonhoeffer made a point to spend time beyond the classroom with his students and with their parents. His goal was to build Christian community among them. He even lived in the neighborhood of the church for two months so that he could have easier access to the families[2]

 

When Bonhoeffer was in prison for two years, he realized that he was just like the imprisoned Apostle Paul who was physically separated from the believers in the church of Colosse, yet was present with them in spirit (Colossians 2:5). This connection with other followers of Jesus enabled Bonhoeffer to press on.     

 

Bonhoeffer’s approach to death was similar to the outlook that the Apostle Paul possessed when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Under house confinement in the city of Rome, and uncertain of his future, he wrote: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your joy and progress in the faith” (1:20-25).

 

To Paul, his whole life could be summed up in one word: Christ. Gerald F. Hawthorne comments:

 

To say “living in Christ” is to say for him “life means Christ”. Life is summed up in Christ. Life is filled up with, occupied with Christ, in the sense that everything Paul does—trusts, loves, hopes, obeys, preaches, follows, and so on—is inspired by Christ, and is done for Christ. Christ and Christ alone gives inspiration, direction, meaning and purpose to existence. Paul views his life in time as totally determined and controlled his own love for and commitment to Christ. Overpowered by Christ on the Damascus Road and overwhelmed by his majesty and love and goodness and forgiveness, Paul can see no reason for being except to be “for Christ”.[3]

 

            Life, for Paul, was Christ; and death was seen as gain:

            Since for Paul “living is Christ,” meaning that life for Paul had no significance whatsoever without Christ, it follows that he never would have renounced Christ to save himself from those things that wearied him and hurt him and made life a burden for him. Therefore, for him to go on and say that “dying is gain” required a firm belief on his part that death, although it had the power to free him from “lingering out his days in misery,” could not in any way separate him from Christ. He was certain that even in death the Christian was still in vital relation with Christ.[4]

 

Paul was torn between living and dying. In life, he could continue to minister to his fellow believers and see the Kingdom of God advance. If he was put to death, he would experience the joy of being with Christ; yet Paul was convinced that in life there was still “fruitful labor” for him.

 

The Apostle Paul’s ministry also proved that suffering for Jesus is a mark of a true minister. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul established that his ministry was authentic because of the suffering he had endured for the sake of Jesus. This was in contrast to the “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11) who were undermining Paul’s ministry. In 11:23-33, he wrote:

 

Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.

 

I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?

 

Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

 

What was the purpose of Paul’s boasting? Tasker points out that Paul counter attacked his opponents “qualifications” and “achievements”[5] through listing his own sufferings and weaknesses:

 

Paul claims superiority over his opponents as a ‘minister of Christ’ on four points: (1) He has undertaken more numerous and arduous evangelistic campaigns than they… (2) He has been the victim, as they have not, of excessive corporal punishment…(3) He had been more frequently in prisons than they…(4) So constantly is he in immediate danger of death that he can say ‘I die daily’ (1 Corinthians 15:31). He would appear to have been face to face with death recently at Ephesus (see 2 Corinthians 1:9).[6]

 

Paul’s boasting continued into chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians where he described how he was “caught up to the third heaven” (verse 2). To keep Paul humble, God gave him a painful “thorn” in his flesh: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given to me a thorn in my flesh. A messenger of Satan to torment me” (verse 7). What was this thorn? It is impossible to determine: “Scholars have made many suggestions about the nature of Paul’s ‘thorn’. Was it persecution, sensual temptation, a speech defect, an ophthalmic disorder, epilepsy, or one of the many further possibilities?”[7] 

 

Philip E. Hughes writes that it is not important to know exactly what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was because the spiritual purpose of it was the most significant reason for it, and if that was true for Paul, then it also holds true for the followers of Jesus since then:

 

Is there a single servant of Christ who cannot point to some “thorn in the flesh”, visible or private or psychological, from which he has prayed to be released, but which has been given him by God to keep him humble, and therefore, fruitful in His service? And is not this the case to a special degree with those who have been called to be ministers of the gospel? Every believer must learn that human weakness and divine grace go hand in hand together. Hence Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is, by its very lack of definition, a type of every Christian’s “thorn in the flesh”, not with regard to externals, but by its spiritual significance.[8]

 

Application:

 

Regardless of our circumstances in the twenty-first century, we are to live for the glory of the Lord Jesus: “So whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Gordon Fee points out that “One’s whole life must be to God’s glory…Certainly Paul intends that this ‘rule’ dictate the appropriateness of behavior as well. What is not, or cannot be, for God’s glory probably should be excluded from ‘whatever you do.’”[9]

 

Our lives on earth are just a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Tasker writes: “The only certain factor about human life is that it will end sooner or later in death; and the refusal to face up to the inevitableness of death, or the failure to remember that it may come at a time unexpected and in a manner unforeseen, is a sign of human arrogance.”[10]

 

We do not know when our time in the life will end and the Lord will say to us: “Time to come home.” Yet, in the meantime, “we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (2 Corinthians 5:9).

 

 



[1] John R. W. Stott, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of 2 Timothy, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 114.

 

[2]Kelly and Burton, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 15-16.

[3] Hawthorne. Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians, 45.

 

[4] Ibid., 46

 

[5] R.V.G. Tasker: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 156.

 

[6] Ibid., 161.

 

[7] Ibid., 177.

 

[8] Philip E. Hughes, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 442-443.

 

[9] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 488.

 

[10] R.V.G Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: James, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 102-103.