Through Many Tribulations (Part 4): Persecution

Through Many Tribulations

As we continue looking at the apostle Paul, we will see that he did more than just sacrifice his time and effort in laboring for the cause of Christ, along with a degree of material and mental well-being. He also faced persecution for his faith.

He told Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:8-10). Not only did Paul suffer as a criminal, but he willingly endured this. Why? He said he did so “for the sake of those who are chosen” (2 Timothy 2:10). He also told Timothy later in this same letter, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). He endured persecution in order to obtain salvation – for himself and for others. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he described some of the ways he faced persecution.

  • Paul faced physical persecution for his faith – “Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned…” (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). It is difficult to imagine enduring the persecutions that Paul listed here. However, this list is not even exhaustive as he would face more persecutions after writing this letter.
  • Paul was in constant danger due to his work for the Lord – “I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea…” (2 Corinthians 11:26). Earlier in this letter, Paul told the brethren, “We had the sentence of death within ourselves” (2 Corinthians 1:9). This was indicative of the fact that he was constantly in danger.
  • Paul also endured attacks from false brethren – “I have been…in…dangers from false brethren” (2 Corinthians 11:26). Besides all of the other attacks, there were those who should have been his allies that had turned against him.

It is difficult to have to endure persecution. Many who are persecuted – or face the threat of persecution – give up serving the Lord. Paul would not do that. After facing all that he did, he was able to say in the end, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7).

The Persecution of Imprisonment and Abuse

Christians will face persecution for their faith. Paul told Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Therefore, we should not be surprised when it comes. Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). It may take different forms with varying degrees of severity, but persecution is a reality. Therefore, as Peter said, we should not think it is “strange” when we face persecution as if we were doing something wrong. In reality, we will be persecuted for doing what is right.

The goal of persecution is always to get Christians to abandon their faith. Sadly, this is accomplished too many times – even when the persecution is not as severe as what Paul had to endure. Yet we can face persecution and remain faithful, just as Paul did.

Why physical persecution is a challenge to our faith? There is a natural desire in each one of us to avoid suffering. When Paul wrote about the responsibility of husbands to their wives, he said, “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does for the church” (Ephesians 5:28-29). Jesus identified the second great commandment as this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; cf. Leviticus 19:18). The only way these commands work – to love one’s wife as his own body (Ephesians 5:28) and to love one’s neighbor as himself (Matthew 22:39) – is that there is a natural desire in us to avoid suffering whenever possible. We are to extend that to others and do good to them, treating them in “the same way [we] want them to treat [us]” (Matthew 7:12). Generally, people do not suffer needlessly when it can be avoided. This is why Paul “fought with wild beasts at Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). He allowed himself to be in that situation “for the sake of those who are chosen” (2 Timothy 2:10) and then responded in a way that was natural – to defend himself. Because we have this desire, it is tempting to do anything we can to escape persecution – even going beyond what Paul did in defending himself – and compromise or disavow our faith.

In addition to that, it can be tempting to focus on what we can see over what we cannot see (i.e. eternal life). This was the problem of the mockers about whom Peter wrote: “In the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:3-4). In their case, they rejected the promise of the Lord’s coming because they were looking only to what they could see. In the case of those who are facing persecution, there is a similar temptation to look only at what can be seen – the things of this life – and ignore the greater reward of heaven that is not yet seen.

How can we face physical persecution and remain faithful? First, we need to remember the reward for being faithful until death. Jesus assured the Christians in Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). The reward awaiting us for our faithful service to the Lord is “far beyond all comparison” when we contrast it with the “light affliction” we face in this life (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Second, we need to remember the sufferings of Christ and all that He endured. The Hebrew writer said, “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3). Very few Christians – even those who have been killed for their faith – experienced the degree of physical suffering that Jesus endured during His crucifixion. Yet He was willing to endure all of that for our benefit. If He was able to complete His mission, we can take courage and remain steadfast in the face of whatever persecution may come against us today.

The Constant Threat of Danger

Because persecution is a certainty, the threat of danger is always present. This also poses a challenge to us.

Why is the mere threat of persecution a challenge to our faith? We desire to have security. When Simeon and Levi tricked and killed Shechem and his men for the way their sister had been treated, Jacob rebuked them: “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and my men being few in number, they will gather together against me and attack me and I will be destroyed, I and my household” (Genesis 34:30). Jacob was concerned because the security he had been enjoying in the land was in jeopardy. Everyone wants to be able to feel secure where they live. This is why the Lord told the Israelites that one of the blessings they would receive for faithfully serving Him was that they would “live securely” in the land (Leviticus 25:18). This is also why Jesus used the illustration of the man who would “not have allowed his house to be broken into” when he was able to take the necessary steps to prevent it (Matthew 24:43).

It is possible to be intimidated into inaction. The wise man said, “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside; I will be killed in the streets!’” (Proverbs 22:13). The text did not say if there was actually a lion outside. However, the mere thought of a lion possibly being outside was enough to keep this individual from doing anything. In the same way, if we think that persecution might be a possibility, we could be tempted to refrain from serving the Lord openly “just in case.”

How can we live under the threat of persecution and remain faithful? First, we should take reasonable precautions to avoid unnecessary dangers. Again, Jesus talked about the man who would “not have allowed his house to be broken into” (Matthew 24:43). Shortly before His arrest, He told His disciples, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one” (Luke 22:36). We know that the swords were not to defend Jesus because He told Peter to put his sword away when he tried to do so. They were for the same purpose as their money belts – to provide them with a degree of security after they would be scattered. After Saul obeyed the gospel in Damascus and the Jews plotted to kill him, the “disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket” (Acts 9:25). The common link between all of these examples is individuals taking reasonable precautions to prevent harm against them.

Second, we need to remember that God is on our side. Paul told the Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). Though we may face tribulation, persecution, peril, or sword (Romans 8:35), Paul said that “we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

Third, we must put on the full armor of God. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:10-13). Because of the threats against us, we must equip ourselves with the armor that the Lord has provided. Each piece of armor that Paul described – our loins girded with truth, the breastplate of righteousness, our feet shod with the preparation of the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:14-17) – has to do with either the word of God directly or what is derived from the word of God. Therefore, to prepare for the dangers that we will face in this life, we must be firmly grounded in God’s word.

The Persecution from False Brethren

We know that persecution is inevitable. Sadly, it is sometimes directed toward us from false brethren. Those who should be our allies have turned against us. Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16). Unfortunately, there will be brethren at times who will not appreciate our strong stand for the truth, teaching the whole counsel of God, and opposing error. Because of this, they will turn their attacks against us.

Why are attacks from false brethren a challenge to our faith? These attacks are often unexpected. We ought to be able to expect our brethren to be a source of encouragement to us. This was what Paul wrote to the brethren in Thessalonica: “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Because this is our expectation, we could be unprepared to deal with attacks from our brethren. We recognize the need to be “on the alert” for “the devil, [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8); so we remain watchful for him. Yet Paul wrote, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). Sometimes those who would appear on the surface to be our brethren will be the ones who are doing the devil’s work in attacking us and trying to undermine and derail our faith. These unexpected attacks can often be difficult to handle.

How can we endure persecution from false brethren and remain faithful? We need to remember that the Lord is with us. Paul told Timothy, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16). While these brethren may not have been actively persecuting Paul, they were passively allowing him to endure persecution without offering their support. Paul explained how he was able to endure this alone: “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:17-18). Paul knew that even though he was “being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of [his] departure [had] come” (2 Timothy 4:6), the Lord would rescue Him and save Him. The same is true for us. We have the hope of eternal life if we will remain faithful to the Lord. No one – not even false brethren – can prevent the Lord from saving us.

Conclusion

The Lord knew that Paul would suffer when He called him (Acts 9:16). As we noticed, Paul willingly endured the persecution that he faced (2 Timothy 2:10). Peter told the Christians to whom he wrote, “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Peter 4:16). When he and John were beaten for preaching Christ, they “went on their way…rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).

We will face persecution for our faith (2 Timothy 3:12). It may take different forms, but it will come. When it does, we must “not be ashamed” but be willing to “join…in suffering for the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:8). Let us glorify God and rejoice in Him when we are persecuted for His name.


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