Persecution & Suffering: 17

In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 Paul says, “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone.”

We see from this that one’s example in experiencing persecution and in responding to suffering are of value and encouragement for other followers of Christ who are undergoing the same. God’s people in the churches of Judea provided a model for the churches in Thessalonica in this regard.

Our suffering and our response to it, then, helps equip other believers. We can prepare them and support them in their future suffering by responding appropriately to our current suffering. We can give them solace and hope. Indeed, we can do this for all subsequent generations. Thus, our present suffering can have a cascading benefit for God’s people if we face it well.

Persecution & Suffering: 16

In 1 Thessalonians 1:6-10 Paul says, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

We can see from this passage that receiving the Lord and His message in the context of severe suffering, and doing so with joy, is how we imitate the Lord, and please Him. This is also how we set an example for other believers. Paul had done this for the Thessalonians and they had in turn done that for those in the provinces of Macedonia and Achaia.

Such perseverance through suffering is inextricably intertwined with one’s testimony of the gospel. It serves as irrefutable evidence of one’s sincerity in turning away from any other commitment to serve God alone. It also demonstrates that He alone is worthy, that He alone is worth any amount of suffering. It points toward our unshakeable hope for eternal reward in the Lord.

Persecution & Suffering: 15

In Acts 8:1b-5, Luke tells us, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.  But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.  Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.”

Interestingly, God had clearly told His followers, via the apostles in Jerusalem, to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). They had not gone. Now, persecution arises in Jerusalem causing His followers to go out to Judea and Samaria, and still the apostles do not go. At any rate, at that time, due to the persecution, the gospel began to be spread to Judea and Samaria. This was essential for the advance of the Kingdom.

Hence we see that God can use persecution and suffering to move people where he needs them to be. This can happen on an individual level, as we have seen in a previous look at Joseph, or on a larger level such as we see here. It can be done to move the messenger of the gospel or the receivers of that message. I believe that is part of God’s purpose in the massive refugee movements we are currently seeing around the world. I believe that may also be part of God’s plan in many natural disasters. He seems quite willing to use temporal suffering to create opportunities for eternal blessing.

Persecution & Suffering: 14

Acts 5: 40b-42 says, “They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.  Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

This is an example of the proper response to persecution. The enemy, Satan, has a purpose for persecution. It is to silence us. The proper response is to consider the persecution an honor and to persist in our faithful promotion of God’s glory and Kingdom.

When we are persecuted for the sake of Christ it is a great honor for we are being identified with Him. The best way for us to honor Him in this situation is to continue to obey His command, His purpose, His intention, for spreading the good news that He is the King. He is a good King, a gracious King, a righteous King, a powerful King, a saving King, a worthy King, a loving King. He deserves all our love and devotion and obedience and service. We are privileged to have the opportunity to know Him and to serve Him.

In light of this privilege to know and serve and love Him, any cost in terms of our convenience, comfort, safety, or survival is inconsequential. The importance of our relationships, our possessions or our lives is nothing in comparison to the opportunity to know and serve Him. This is the natural and normal attitude we will have toward suffering for Him if we truly understand Who He Is.

Persecution & Suffering: 13

In John 16:33 Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

The good news for children of God is that suffering and persecution are only temporary. For at most one hundred years we will suffer, but then we will share in Jesus’ victory over death and hell and evil for all eternity. Revelation 21:3b-4 speaks of a vision of the future when a voice from heaven announces, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

We can be of good courage, knowing this future hope is sure. We are to live in a state of peace, having this assurance. We are to be encouraged because we know how the story ends. In the end, we win with the Lord.

Persecution & Suffering: 12

In John 15:1-2, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

Being “in Christ” means we will bear fruit. Fruit is evidence of His life in us. Later in this chapter in verse 8 we are told, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” At the very heart of our purpose is glorifying God. Thus, bearing fruit, even much fruit, is an indispensible aspect of our core reason for existing.

One important purpose and reason for suffering in our lives is to “prune” us so we will bear more fruit. For a time, I was a blackberry farmer. You have to be a heartless person if you are a successful blackberry farmer. Each year from each blackberry plant you allow only to shoots (canes) to grow. You cut off all the rest. Then you regularly prune off all branches or shoots that grow off of those two. What is left you tie off to the stake and the two wires between stakes so that all that remains is tied to those supports. That means you end up pruning about 90% of the growth. In the end, the entire plant is covered with large, luscious, delicious blackberries. The plants couldn’t possibly produce that amount of fruit if the plants had not been brutally pruned. Also, the plants couldn’t possibly support that amount of weight if they weren’t tied inextricably along the supporting wires and stakes. The “extreme” pruning is necessary if you want to maximize fruitfulness.

I no longer farm blackberries. We do have wild blackberries in our area, however. My wife goes out each year to harvest some of them. They are much smaller and do not taste as sweet. They are also not nearly as fruitful. What takes my wife all day to harvest from wild blackberries could be harvested in five minutes from well-cultivated blackberry bushes.

In the same way, God’s pruning us, through difficulties and suffering, is for our good and His glory. Therefore, we can rejoice in it.

Persecution & Suffering: 11

Jesus speaks to His followers in Luke 9:23-25, “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?’”

Part of the very definition of being a follower of Christ is that we do not follow our own desires and preferences. By choosing to follow Jesus, we are choosing (in this earthly life), to live in a way that is uncomfortable and difficult and sacrificial and selfless. This is how Jesus lived and how He asks us to live as well.

In Philippians 2:3-8 Paul exhorts us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!’”

Jesus then, is to be our model. One of the reasons we are left on earth after we choose to follow Christ is in order that we can be made more like Him. A major part of being conformed to His image is us learning to emulate Him in sacrificial service and humility. In suffering, if we do it willingly and with joy, we are made more like Him and are identified with Him.

Persecution & Suffering: 10

Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

The things we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ reveal where He ranks in our priorities. It demonstrates our level of commitment. Is He truly the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46) in our estimation? Do we value Him more than any relationship and more than our own lives?

If we do, then the loss of anything for His sake will be met with pure joy because we have all we desire in Him. In Philippians 3:7-8 Paul says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.”

This means we can constantly rejoice because Christ is in us and we are in Christ. No external circumstance can change this all-important reality. As Paul says elsewhere, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

In fact, it is us actually suffering loss of lesser things that proves we are His. It is in dying to ourselves that we are able to live in Him. It is in seeking Him that we lose everything else, including our own lives. The result is life – eternal, abundant, and true life.

Persecution & Suffering: 9

Matthew 5:38-45

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

This is probably one of the least popular passages in the Bible. It is clear but it is not what we want to hear. In fact, in our own strength it is nearly impossible. Obedience to these commands, at least with joy, is only possible through the Holy Spirit within us.

Jesus modeled this for us, even to the point of death. In fact, even down to the details, this could be a commentary on His crucifixion. He did not resist. He turned the other cheek during His trial and its aftermath. He gave up all His clothing. He carried the cross to the point of collapse. He loved His enemies and prayed for them even while on the cross.

Jesus tells us in doing these things we will be like our Father in heaven. He demonstrated these characteristics as well, showing love to the evil and the good, regardless of their hearts or their behavior. We are to respond with this sort of equanimity and blessing as well. Our universal response to others is to be pure love regardless of how they treat us. This is how we demonstrate we are God’s children.

Persecution & Suffering: 8

In Matthew 5:11-12 Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Therefore, our suffering for the sake of Christ results in our great reward in heaven.

Of course, this does not apply to suffering because of our own foolishness or wrongdoing. There are many cases, however, when the Lord asks us to do something that will result in our being maligned or mistreated or slandered or opposed. The question in those situations is whether we will obey and face the consequences or shrink back for the sake of our own reputation and well-being.

This is much the same situation as Jesus speaks about in relation to doing our righteous acts in order to be seen by men in Matthew 6:1-8: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

You cannot have your cake and eat it to. Either you live for reward in this world or in the coming world. You cannot have it both ways. Living for the coming Kingdom means you will not be welcome in this one. Seeking the coming Kingdom means actively opposing and seeking to change the present world. That will result in opposition if we are pursuing it as we should. The wonderful news is that we will be abundantly rewarded. This is why we are told to rejoice greatly when we suffer in this way.