PAUL’S PROMISE TO TIMOTHY
In the books of 1 and 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes to his friend in the faith who was facing challenges as a young minister of the gospel. Timothy's ministry was being met with challenges, opposition, and difficulty. Paul wished to offer instruction, encouragement, and exhortation for his young spiritual brother. One of the things that Timothy needed to know was that the struggles he was coming up against were par for the course. In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul tells Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (NLT).
Suffering for the sake of advancing
the gospel is normal Christianity.
Paul needed to help Timothy understand that experiencing persecution was not a peculiar phenomenon; suffering for Christ is the paradigm. Everyone who is seeking to live for Jesus will at some point suffer for the cause. If you are a Christian seeking to make Jesus known and to advance his Kingdom, then persecution is to be expected. Suffering for the sake of advancing the gospel is normal Christianity.
Paul doesn’t say exactly what that will look like. He doesn’t say what type of suffering to expect. It could take many different forms. And he doesn’t say when it’s coming…he just says that at some point it will.
If you're like me, the immediate response is, "Why?" Why does suffering have to be the common course for Christians?
Currently our church is working through the book of Philippians together. As I've explored how the church at Philippi came into existence and considered Paul's purpose for writing a letter to them, the theme of joy in suffering has emerged as one of the major ideas Paul wished to convey to this group of believers. He wanted to exhort his Philippian friends to joyfully endure the trials they were experiencing. Similar to his message to Timothy, Paul wanted them to understand that endurance is necessary because suffering is inevitable. But he also wanted them to know that such endurance didn't have to be drudgery; it could actually be filled with joy because suffering as a result of following Jesus is never meaningless. Pain and persecution is always purposeful. God is sovereign over our suffering.
I see this promise illustrated in the life of the apostle Paul throughout the book of Philippians. Let me offer three ways God was at work amidst Paul's suffering, in hopes of helping us see some reasons why God allows suffering in our lives as well.
1: THROUGH SUFFERING, PAUL WAS PLACED IN PROVIDENTIAL POSITIONS TO SHARE ABOUT CHRIST
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. Philippians 1:12-13 (ESV)
As Paul wrote Philippians, he was under house arrest in Rome. From the outside looking in, his imprisonment would seem debilitating to his gospel ministry. He was stuck at his house with a guard posted up at the door. But in God’s wisdom, through his imprisonment, the gospel spread like a virus among the Roman soldiers. It became known to the entire imperial guard why he was arrested in the first place...for talking about Jesus.
Pain and persecution is always purposeful...
God is sovereign over our suffering.
Apparently, Paul actively shared the gospel with the soldiers who stood watch over him. He probably invited them to be part of his Bible studies. Paul's ministry was actually increased through his arrest. Don't miss this key point: these soldiers would've likely never heard the gospel without Paul being arrested. It was through his suffering that they came in contact with the message. Though Paul would've never chosen to be arrested, he was able to see God's providence in it, and because he knew God was at work, he found joy in his suffering.
The same is true for you and me. In God's perfect wisdom and providence, he may take us into painful places that we initially do not understand–situations we would've never chosen for our selves. But what we will soon discover through the eyes of faith is that this is a perfect setup for the good news to go forth. God is leading us into prime opportunity to make Jesus known.
2: THROUGH SUFFERING, PAUL WAS PROVIDED A PLATFORM TO DEMONSTRATE THE PRECIOUSNESS OF CHRIST.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. Acts 16:25-32 (ESV)
The church in Philippi came into existence during Paul's second missionary journey. Originally intending to go to Asia, Paul was redirected by the Holy Spirit to Macedonia. When he made it to the city of Philippi, Paul began proclaiming the gospel. First, a woman named Lydia came to faith as Paul shared with a group of women about Jesus. Next Paul cast out a demon from a servant-girl, but this act landed he and Silas in prison. (The demon gave the servant-girl divination and fortune-telling powers, which her masters were leveraging to make a profit. Once the demon was gone from the girl, they could no longer use her to make money. This angered them, so they had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown in jail).
So imagine it: Paul rescues a young girl from demonic oppression, and this gets him beaten and thrown in prison. If I were Paul, I would've oscillated between feeling sorry for myself, feeling angry at God, and feeling defeated. I would've been saying to God, "I'm trying to do your will, and this is what it gets me? What gives?!" But Acts 16:25 tells us that instead of complaining, at midnight Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God while in stocks in the prison.
It is uniquely in our suffering that we
get to show the world that Christ is
supremely precious and satisfying to us.
Nothing makes Jesus look more
glorious than when, in our suffering,
we say, "I'd rather suffer with Christ
than have comfort without him."
At a very low moment, when they could've griped and complained, Paul and Silas demonstrated to the other prisoners and to the jailor that their satisfaction was found in Christ, not in comfort. They illustrated amidst their suffering the joy they had in Jesus.
It is uniquely in our suffering that we get to show the world that Christ is supremely precious and satisfying to us. Nothing makes Jesus look more glorious than when, in our suffering, we say, "I'd rather suffer with Christ than have comfort without him." Through their joyful endurance, Paul and Silas were ultimately able to lead the jailor and his family to faith in Jesus!
3: THROUGH SUFFERING, PAUL EMPOWERED OTHER BELIEVERS TO JOIN IN PROCLAIMING CHRIST
And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Philippians 1:14 (ESV)
As Paul joyfully endured suffering for the the sake of Jesus, other believers were watching. As they saw Paul persevere in the face of persecution, they were emboldened to proclaim the gospel as well. They gained courage to get in on the action and to make Jesus known through Paul's boldness.
On July 6, 1415, John Hus (whose name means "goose" in Czech) was led to the stake for his beliefs. Hus would be martyred for his faith, but he was unafraid to die and actually predicted that through his death a movement would arise. Some of his last words were: “You are going to burn a goose but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” In other words, Today, you’re going to kill me, but there will be others who come in my footsteps that you cannot silence.
Boldness in the face of suffering is catalytic.
Hus’ courage emboldened others to stand up to the broken doctrines and systems of the church, one of whom was Martin Luther, who amazingly came along about a 100 years after Hus, just as Hus predicted. As we know, Luther’s 95 Theses were a catalyst to the Protestant Reformation and the advancement of the gospel. Through Hus’ boldness in the face of persecution, others, like Martin Luther, were given courage. And the same could be said of Luther's boldness.
Boldness in the face of suffering is catalytic. When we endure suffering for Christ, other believers will see it, and the Spirit of God will use this to embolden them to be courageous as well. The African church father Tertullian famously said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Attempts made to silence and squelch the church only strengthen the movement and scatter the seed of the gospel further. The gates of hell cannot prevail against Christ's Kingdom.
John Piper concludes: "God rules over the sufferings of the church and causes them to spread spiritual power and the joy of faith in a lost world. It is not his only way. But it does seem to be a frequent way. God spurs the church into missionary service by the suffering she endures."