Paul and Suffering
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
There is a comment made about Paul in Acts chapter nine that caught my eye recently. Turn to Acts chapter 9, verses 10 to 16. Saul has just seen Christ on the road to Damascus and he is blind in the house of Judas.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
I am reading as normal from the NIV.
It was the phrase “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name,” that caught my eye. It does seem odd. On the one had Saul is God’s chosen instrument. On the other hand he is going to suffer because of this role. You would expect, on a human level, that God’s chosen instrument would live a life of God given luxury. When one country sends an ambassador to another, the ambassador is given a very luxurious lifestyle, partly as reward for doing a very difficult job, partly as a way of showing his parent country’s status. An ambassador in a big luxurious embassy, with hundreds of staff, must come from an important country.
On the other hand, God’s ambassadors suffer – and it’s not just Paul who suffered as God’s ambassador, the other apostles, the prophets, and Christ himself all suffered.
This really makes you think of Matthew 5, verses 10 to 12:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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.
Following God leads, to a greater or lesser extent, to persecution. Now, an all powerful god, like our God, could easily organise things so that the faithful never suffered because of their beliefs. I suggest that that doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons, not just because people would follow Christ for the wrong reasons – material reasons, not spiritual ones – not just because it hasn’t worked in the past – the Children of Israel grumbled about the manna rather than thanking God for it.
Good can come from the sufferings of the faithful, as it so often did in the life of Paul. Turn to Acts 16, verses 22 to 43:
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God–he and his whole family.
Look at what Paul was able to gain from this experience. He had a very positive impact on his fellow prisoners – it seems reasonable to assume that he persuaded them to stay even after the prison door was opened. More than that, Paul’s example lead to the baptism of the jailer and his family. Although it was a pretty grim experience, Paul was able to use his imprisonment to further his role as God’s chosen instrument to carry His name before the gentiles.
As we know, Paul’s experiences lead him to Rome, and the book of Acts concludes with:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once again, Paul was able to use his imprisonment to further his role as God’s chosen instrument.
Particularly when he was in Rome, Paul’s experiences must have given him a certain notoriety that will have attracted a wider audience to him. If Paul’s life had been comfortable, with no trouble, then he could not have preached so effectively.
I think there is an important lesson for us here. If we have the right frame of mind and the right outlook we can always use our circumstances to preach to those around us, and it is almost easiest to do this when things aren’t going well. It would be difficult to preach if you could only say “I live in a big house and I have a huge income and I am confident that I will always be comfortable because the Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.” Even though that nay be true, it can come across as smug, alienating people rather than interesting them in your faith. People may think that you are only faithful because God has been good to you, just as they thought about Job.
On the other hand if you can say “I may have a five figure overdraft, a house in need of major repair, and only two weeks before I am made redundant but I know that I will always have what I need because the LORD is my shepherd and I shall not want,” people are much more likely to listen.
This could easily turn into one of those exhortations where I stand here and bash the comfortably off. I don’t want to do that, partly because many of us are comfortably off and there is nothing wrong with that, but mainly because there are so many other ways in which we can be suffering, other than materially.
There is another aspect to the suffering of the faithful that I want to look at. I’ve talked about how difficulties in our lives can help us preach. I now want to talk about how difficulty in our lives helps us develop our faith, and again I’m going to look at Paul’s life. Turn to 2nd Corinthians 11, verses 23 to 27, where Paul gives a brief summary of the physical hardship he has endured:
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 laboured 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.
How did Paul benefit from these experiences? He provides the answer to that question at the start of 2nd Corinthians, chapter 1 verses 8 to 11:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
Paul’s suffering taught him to rely on God. Human beings are headstrong, and we sometimes need to be taught a lesson. I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but sometimes we have to be taught to rely on God because that is all we are able to do. Rather than casting us aside, God cares for enough that he takes the time to teach us to rely on him. Having learned that lesson once, we become stronger, more confident. We learn what it means to know that the LORD is our shepherd.
We are here today to remember another messenger from God, another messenger who suffered terribly. Whereas Paul suffered to humble him and to make him trust God, Christ was always humble, and he trusted God more than any of us, including Paul. Why then did Christ suffer?
Hebrews 4 verse 15 answers that question for us:
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
We know that whenever we are going through any difficulty, Christ went through something similar, and that should make it easier for us to not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. Every time we feel tempted to lash out at those around us, either because of the problems they are causing us, or because they are simply an easy target for our frustration, we know that Christ was tempted in a similar way, and our High Priest knows what it was like.
Before we share the bread and wine, I want to read Hebrews chapter two, which says exactly what I want to say, but says it much better than I could.
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honour and put everything under his feet.” In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.