Through Many Tribulations (Part 3): Sacrifices

Through Many Tribulations

When we first read of Paul in the New Testament – then referred to as Saul – he was looking on with approval as Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:58-8:1). Following that event, he began a zealous campaign against the church that took him to Damascus in order to find “any belonging to the Way” and “bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). While on the road to Damascus, the Lord appeared to him and told him to go to the city where he would be told “what [he] must do” (Acts 9:6). The Lord then instructed Ananias to go to Saul to deliver His message to him (Acts 9:10-12; 22:12-16).

Paul was “a chosen instrument” of the Lord’s (Acts 9:15). Specifically, this meant that he was “called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1). However, this did not mean that the Lord was going to see to it that Paul had an easy and comfortable life as he served Him. Instead, He told Ananias, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). When we think of the sufferings of Paul, we typically think of the persecutions he endured [we will discuss these in the next lesson]. Yet there were other sacrifices that Paul made that would be included in the things he was going to “suffer.

  • Paul sacrificed time and effort in his labors for the gospel – “Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors…” (2 Corinthians 11:23). “I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights…” (2 Corinthians 11:27). Paul told the brethren in Thessalonica, “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:9; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:8). Paul spent a considerable amount of time in his work preaching the gospel – even more than others who were doing the same (2 Corinthians 11:23).
  • Paul sacrificed material well-being for the cause of Christ – “I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:27). Prior to becoming a Christian, Paul was on his way to becoming a leading member of the Jewish Council. He told the Galatians, “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:13-14). Paul would have been very well off if he continued on his former track. Yet he was willing to “count all things to be loss” for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:8).
  • Paul sacrificed a degree of mental well-being for his brethren – “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Corinthians 11:28-29). Generally speaking, non-Christians are not concerned with the spiritual condition of Christians and do not spend time thinking about it. However, Paul was concerned for the spiritual condition of his brethren.

The losses and hardships experienced by Job and Jacob that we discussed in the previous lessons are tribulations that anyone – Christians and non-Christians – can experience. While it is certainly true that all people – including non-Christians – can make sacrifices, the ones that Paul made were specifically for a spiritual purpose.

The Sacrifice of Labor

The Lord expects us to be diligent in our service to Him. Peter wrote, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence…knowledge…self-control…perseverance…godliness…brotherly kindness…love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful… Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:5-10). We must be diligent in adding to our faith and diligent in putting those qualities into practice. This is true regardless of the capacity in which we serve. Peter wrote in his first epistle, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies” (1 Peter 4:10-11). Whatever talents we have to use in the Lord’s service, we are to use them to be best of our abilities.

Jesus illustrated this in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which He described three servants being given different amounts of money to manage from their master. The man with five talents gained five more; the man with two talents gained two more; the man with one talent did nothing but return the single talent. The man with two talents was not condemned or criticized for not gaining as much as the man with five talents. Instead, he was commended along with the man with five talents because both were faithful with what had been entrusted to them. The man with one talent was not condemned because he had the least, but because he did not put in any effort. The lesson for us is that all of us need to be diligent to obey the Lord in whatever role we occupy in His kingdom.

Why is laboring a challenge to our faith? As we labor, it is possible for us to grow weary and lose heart. This was what Paul told the churches of Galatia, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9). This is true for any type of labor. The more diligent one works, the more likely he will become tired and be tempted to quit. We will notice how we can keep from quitting in a moment.

Another challenge is that when we are engaged in labor for the Lord, Satan will tempt us with an “easier” way. This was what he did when tempting Jesus: “Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). Regardless of whether Satan could deliver on his promise or not, it is important to note that he promised Jesus control over all of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus was already going to rule over a kingdom that would fill the earth and never be destroyed (Daniel 2:35, 44). However, in order to rule over this kingdom, Jesus would have to go to the cross and endure “the suffering of death” before He could be “crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:9). Satan promised an “easier” way – ruling over the kingdoms without suffering through the crucifixion. Today we continue to be tempted with “shortcuts” to obtaining divine blessings and promises that do not involve the diligent effort that the Lord requires.

How can we continue to labor and remain faithful? First, we need to remember why we are laboring. Paul wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25). There is a purpose behind our efforts. When we lose sight of the reward, our labor will seem meaningless and not worth the effort; but we have hope through the Lord. This is why Paul told Timothy, “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (1 Timothy 4:10). We have “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4). We need to keep our eyes focused on that goal (cf. Philippians 3:14; Colossians 3:1-4).

Second, we need to remember that we will have rest from our labors if we remain faithful. John wrote, “And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, ‘Write, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!”’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them’” (Revelation 14:13). We must continue to be diligent in our efforts to serve the Lord, but there is a time when we will enjoy rest – after our time on earth is over. We should remember the example of Jesus who was described as “the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2-3). Think of all that Jesus endured in order to complete His mission and return to the Father. Since He came from the Father (John 8:42; 16:28), He knew exactly what heaven was like and that it was worth every effort to return. Regardless of what labors are before us, the rest promised to us in heaven will be more than worthwhile.

The Sacrifice of Material Well-Being

The desire for many people in our society is to want more – money, cars, gadgets, vacations, etc. Generally, a faithful gospel preacher (like Paul) could have more if he directed his efforts toward secular pursuits. In fact, any Christian might have more if he was not limited by the Bible (lie in order to advance his career, engage in “social drinking” in order to build network connections or close a business deal, forsake the assembly in order to earn extra money, etc.). If one decided to ignore his spiritual responsibilities, it is very possible he would get ahead materially and financially. Many have done this.

Why is a sacrifice of material well-being a challenge to our faith? It is tempting to envy what others have. Paul listed “envying” as one of the “deeds of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21). He told the brethren in Colossae that “covetousness…is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). If we focus so much on the material things of this life – even if we do not have them, we just wish we had them – they become an idol that pushes the Lord out of our lives.

Related to that, it may seem “unfair” to be “deprived” of what others have. Consider the example of the older son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). After his brother asked for his portion of the inheritance, wasted it in a foreign country with sinful living, and returned home, the father welcomed him and threw a celebration. When he heard what had happened, the older brother “became angry and was not willing to go in” (Luke 15:28). He explained to his father why he upset: “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (Luke 15:29-30). In his mind, it was “unfair” that his brother got to live in the way that he chose and now was enjoying a celebration in his honor while his own efforts over the years had been seemingly overlooked. Of course, the older brother ignored the suffering his brother endured as well as his own inheritance; but this does illustrate a tendency for people to think it is “unfair” when others get to enjoy what they think they have “earned.”

How can we sacrifice material well-being and remain faithful? First, we need to remember that we are storing up treasures in heaven. Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). This was why Paul was willing to sacrifice what he did: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ…in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11). Paul knew that the reward was worth far more than anything he could have gained in this life.

Second, we need to remember that, even now, we are rich in Christ. The church in Smyrna was told, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Revelation 2:9). Materially, they were poor. Spiritually, they were rich. The same is true for us. God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).

The Sacrifice of Mental Well-Being

Life is stressful enough as it is. Job said, “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil” (Job 14:1). We already noticed the losses experienced by Job as well as the hardships endured by Jacob. All people – Christians and non-Christians – will face these. However, Christians will also have concern for the spiritual well-being of others. This will often weigh on our minds.

Why is a sacrifice of mental well-being a challenge to our faith? The reality is that having too many things on our mind can cause us to feel overwhelmed. The wise man said, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, but a good word makes it glad” (Proverbs 12:25).

As we noticed with the examples of Job and Jacob, we need to be mindful of what Jesus said in the parable of the sower: “The seed which fell among thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries…of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14). The worries of this life can choke out the word. One of the things that can cause us to worry is the spiritual condition of those we care about – those who are spiritually weak, those who have fallen away from the faith, and those who have never obeyed the gospel in the first place.

How can we sacrifice a degree of mental well-being and remain faithful? First, we need to be consistent in prayer. Paul told the Romans that they were to be “devoted to prayer” (Romans 12:12). To be devoted to prayer means we are doing it continually and consistently. Peter said we are to cast our “anxiety on Him, because He cares for [us]” (1 Peter 5:7). Paul wrote, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). The spiritual condition of those around us is a legitimate concern, but we need to be regular in our practice of prayer so that we are not weighed down with anxiety over it.

Second, we need to know our limitations. There is a balance we must have between bearing others’ burdens and bearing our own. Paul wrote, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2). It is commendable to have the desire to “spend and be expended” for the souls of others (2 Corinthians 12:15). However, in order to be provide any real help – especially over an extended period of time – we need to maintain our spiritual priorities, look to ourselves in order to keep ourselves from sin, and “bear [our] own load” (Galatians 6:5). We need discipline so that we might not forfeit our own soul. Paul said, “But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). It was possible for him, after helping so many people learn about and serve the Lord, to fall away. We need to know our limitations. Ultimately, we cannot be of any real help to anyone if we are not taking time to make sure we are healthy spiritually.

Conclusion

Paul was willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christ. He told the brethren in Philippi, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Philippians 2:17). This sacrifice was something in which Paul rejoiced, rather than feeling upset about it. Toward the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy and said, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). From the time when he first obeyed the gospel in Damascus, he was willing to make sacrifices for the gospel and for his brethren.

We also need to be willing to make sacrifices. Like he did with Jesus, Satan will tempt us with an “easier” way; but we need to be willing to follow the “difficult…way which leads to life” (Matthew 7:14).


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