Suffering Precedes Glory This well-known principle of God’s Word, that suffering precedes glory, was enunciated by the Lord Himself in Luke 24:26. Another one, perhaps even better known, is that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7). We certainly see these principles illustrated in the life of Paul, that outstanding servant who regarded suffering for Christ’s sake as a gift from God (Phil. 1:29). As Saul of Tarsus he had been a ringleader in persecuting the followers of Christ, a fact he later deeply regretted (Phil. 3:6-9; 1 Tim. 1:12-16). He had been present at the stoning of Stephen and had then proceeded to make havoc of the Church, beginning at Jerusalem and reaching even to foreign cities. Punish Jesus’ disciples, imprison them, and even put them to death; nothing had been too much for Him in his misguided zeal!
Then the Lord appeared to him on the Damascus road. His life was completely turned around – the persecutor became the persecuted. His proving that Jesus is the Christ, and preaching that He is the Son of God confounded the Jews at Damascus. They plotted to kill him and had the city’s governor on their side, but Paul escaped, lowered by the disciples in a basket through a window to escape the soldiers guarding the gates (Acts 9:1-25; 2 Cor. 11:32-33).
Whether Paul realized it or not, the Lord was going to show this former proud Pharisee, how many things he would suffer for His name’s sake. Returning to Jerusalem and speaking boldly in the Lord’s name, he soon became the target of murderous attempts against his life. For his safety’s sake, the brethren, who initially did not trust him when he came (this must have hurt, too!) brought him down to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus, the city of his birth (Acts 9:16,26-30). There he evidently remained for several years until he was called to help in the new work at Antioch. Whether he may have experienced loneliness in the province of Cilicia – whose capital was Tarsus – we don’t know, but he was not lax in the Lord’s service; in Acts 15:23 we read of “the elders, and the brethren” in Cilicia. The origin of these assemblies is never detailed for us.
As we go on in Paul’s life, we find his sufferings increased. Just as in His dealings with us, the Lord had not initially told him how much he would suffer for Him. The Lord knows the end from the beginning, but if we were to know in advance all that awaits us, it might overwhelm us. So He kindly veils our eyes. “As your days, so shall your strength be” (Dt. 33:25), is still His method of dealing with us. He wants us to trust Him, and He assures us too that His grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor. 12:9). Ananias had reservations about going to the dreaded persecutor whose reputation had gone before him. In reassuring him, the Lord let him know both that Saul was the vessel He had chosen to bear His name, and that Saul would have to suffer many things for His name’s sake (Acts 9:16).
As we read through Acts we see some of these many sufferings, but in 2 Corinthians 11:22-33 Paul detailed the sufferings he had endured up to that point. Earlier, in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10, he summarized the often-paradoxical things that were part of his ministry from the Lord. Later, he wrote to the saints at Colosse: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24). Not only in these passages, but repeatedly in his writings Paul mentioned his sufferings without complaining. He realized they were simply a part of the Christian life, and he used them to illustrate the principle he taught to new converts. “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
When we look at the inventory of Paul’s sufferings (2 Cor. 11:22-33) we are amazed that any one man could endure so much and still go on undaunted. Let’s look briefly at some of them.
- “In labors more abundant” – The Holy Spirit presented Paul to us as a man constantly on the move, always abounding in the Lord’s work, whether publicly or from house to house.
- “In stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often” – Here we get an inkling of what happened in the many towns he passed through between visits to the prominent cities mentioned in Acts. Dangers and afflictions were a constant feature of his life.
- “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one” – Forty stripes was the maximum penalty short of death God permitted the Jews to give a wicked man (Dt. 25:2-3). Lest they should miscount, the Jews stopped at thirty-nine. Five times Paul received this maximum penalty as a wicked man.
- “Three times I was beaten with rods” – This was a severe Roman penalty. The Jews were not his only antagonists.
- “Once I was stoned” – Acts 14:19-20 tells us how this was done at Lystra and that his persecutors had felt satisfied they had killed him.
- “Three times I was shipwrecked” – In Acts 27 we read of still another shipwreck after a frightful storm.
- “A night and a day I have been in the deep” – This must have been a dreadful experience, far worse than the shipwreck in Acts 27 when all could either swim to shore or float in on broken pieces of the wrecked ship.
- “In journeys often” – Such journeys, sometimes for days on foot, were far more arduous than our journeys by plane, train, bus or car today.
- “In perils of waters … of robbers … of my own countrymen … of the Gentiles … in the city … in the wilderness … in the sea … among false brethren” – We can hardly imagine what Paul must have experienced as he encountered perils of every description in his travels in the Lord’s service.
- “In weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” – His travels were not comfortable; he did not stay in nice motels and did not eat in good restaurants. Hunger and thirst are involuntary, while fasting is deliberate and often associated with prayer.
- “Besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” – This suffering was no doubt deeper than all others that came upon him from without. Paul was lovingly gentle with believers, as a nurse with her own children, and yet he also encouraged, exhorted and comforted them like a father does his own children (1 Th. 2:7,11-12). He prayed for them constantly (Col. 1:3), wrote them letters, with tears (2 Cor. 2:4), longed to hear how they were (1 Th. 3:5-8), and sent others to them when he could not go himself. There were no telephones, e-mails or a reliable postal service in those days, so he prayed and waited anxiously for news from them. And the news, when it came, was not always good.
We could say much more about Paul’s sufferings. Enemies, even among the believers, besmirched his name and character. He felt keenly the depredations of the Judaizing teachers who dogged his footsteps and sought to subvert the truth of the gospel he taught. Eventually the bulk of the very brethren who had wept when he told them they would not see him again (Acts 20:38) turned away from him (2 Tim. 1:15), and not merely from him personally, but from the special teaching about the Church that had been committed to him.
Paul, who had been able to boast of being a Hebrew of the Hebrews and blameless concerning the righteousness which is in the Law (Phil. 3:4-6), was compelled during most of his latter years to wear chains. He was a prisoner, moved from Jerusalem to Caesarea, from Caesarea to Rome, and eventually brought back to Rome for a second more severe imprisonment. While conscious of his dignity as an ambassador for Christ, he was an ambassador in chains – a dreadful mistreatment of any ambassador. He mentioned his chains as he spoke to King Agrippa (Acts 26:29), and referred to them in his epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and to Philemon (Eph. 6:20; Phil. 1:7,13,14,16; Col. 4:3,18; Phile. 10). While burdensome, he did not complain. In fact, he referred to himself as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:1; 4:1; Phile. 1,9). All who knew him realized that his chains were not those of an evildoer, but were badges of honor of one worthy of the gospel of Christ.
For God’s Glory
Ultimately even these chains were laid aside when Paul gave his life for his blessed Lord. He referred to his approaching death as “being poured out as a drink offering” (2 Tim. 4:6). In a sense, wine is the product of suffering, for it is made of juice that has been trampled out of grapes and allowed to ferment. In Israel, the drink offering was a certain quantity of wine poured out with every burnt offering. Being poured out, it was nothing conspicuous. In fact, unless one looked closely, one might not notice it at all, while the burnt offering might well be noticeable for hours as it burned on the altar as a sweet aroma to God.
May we, like Paul, bear patiently whatever sufferings God sees fit to give us. May we be content also to be poured out as drink offerings, not calling attention to our own sufferings, but rather to the sacrifice of Him who was wholly devoted to God, and whose life and death are a lasting sweet aroma to God the Father.
By Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org