Afflicted Disciples

The godly disciple who faithfully bears witness to the gospel of Jesus will endure “tribulation” and persecution for his sake

Storm Clouds over field - Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash
Our human tendency is to avoid conflict. Understandably, we prefer our daily lives to be characterized by peace, acceptance, and prosperity, a life devoid of difficulties and afflictions. And the New Testament does promise believers peace now and everlasting life later. Yet it also exhorts us to expect afflictions in this life - [
Storm Clouds over field - Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash].

Jesus warned his disciples – In this world “you have tribulation.” Nevertheless, his followers should be of good cheer “for I have overcome the world.” Telling them about troubles in this life was not new information. But exhorting them to remain at peace because he had “overcome” the world was something radically new. Suffering cheerfully is contrary to human “wisdom” and experience, even when we do so for a noble cause - (John 16:33, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

TRIBULATIONS

Nevertheless, disciples are reassured of their own victory because Jesus has “overcome” the world already. He is the pioneer who has blazed the trail for us.

And the Risen Christ said something quite similar in the book of Revelation when he exhorted the members of the “seven churches of Asia” to “overcame, just as I overcame.” And it was by his perseverance through suffering and death that he did “overcome” and thereby qualify to sit on the divine throne – (Revelation 3:21).

And in the passage in the gospel of John, “tribulation” translates the Greek noun thlipsis, the same term used elsewhere in the New Testament for the “great tribulation.” Originally, it referred to pressure, a “pressing together,” hence the sense of “affliction” or “tribulation” - (Matthew 24:21, Revelation 1:8-9, 7:9-17).

On the Mount of Olives, Jesus told his disciples they would see wars, earthquakes, and famines, but they must not be “troubled.” Such things occur as a matter of course, but the “end is not yet.” At most, they are “a beginning of sorrows,” harbingers of the inevitable end of this age. And opponents of the faith, including from within the church, would betray disciples “for tribulation… And they will be hated by all the nations.”

His followers must not expect acceptance by everyone. Instead, resistance to the gospel is the expected norm. “You will be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that endures to the end will be saved.” Yet suffering for his sake is also a “blessing… for great is your reward in heaven” - (Matthew 5:11-12, 10:22, 24:4-9).

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul praises the young congregation because its members “became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction [thlipsis], and with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” so much so that they became “examples” to the churches in “Macedonia and Achaia.”

Lighthouse in storm Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash
[Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash]

In his praise, the Apostle includes the same paradox found in the words of Jesus –
joy in the midst of affliction. Likewise, in his second letter to this church, he boasts of its steadfastness since its members have endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations”- (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

APPOINTED

Paul does not call for the escape of believers from their trials, nor does he blame them for provoking their persecutors. Instead, he praises them when they remain faithful in and through their afflictions. And he expands on this idea in the first two chapters of his first letter to the Thessalonians:
  • For this cause, we also thank God without ceasing, that when you received from us the word of the message, you accepted it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also is working in you that believe. For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judaeafor you also suffered the same things by your own countrymen, even as they did by the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove out us Wherefore, no longer concealing our anxiety, we were well-pleased to be left in Athens alone; and sent Timothy, our brother and God’s minister in the gospel of the Christ, that he might confirm and console you over your faith, that no one might be shrinking back in these tribulations [thlipsis]. For you yourselves know that for this we are appointed. For even when we were with you, we told you beforehand, we are going to suffer tribulation [thlibô] - (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, 3:1-3).

Paul’s words assume that suffering for the gospel is an expected experience for disciples of Jesus. “We are going to suffer tribulation” translates the Greek verb related to the noun thlipsis or “tribulation,” thlibô. Christians have been appointed for this very thing. And Jesus himself foretold this very thing - rewards and compensation in this and the next life, but also persecution and affliction - (Mark 10:29-30).

REJOICE

So, how are disciples to react when afflictions do come? Well, just as Jesus taught us. Likewise, Paul encouraged his congregations to rejoice in suffering. We are to “exult in our tribulations because they bring about endurance, and our endurance a testing, and our testing hope.

In “tribulations,” we must “continue steadfastly in prayer.” It is God who “comforts us in every tribulation, so that we ourselves may be able to comfort those who are in any tribulation.” Tribulations “prepare us for an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (Romans 8:35-39, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4, 4:17).

Likewise, Peter declares it thankworthy to suffer for the sake of “conscience towards God.” There is no glory if one suffers for sin, but if a man suffers patiently for the gospel, it is praiseworthy.

Christians “have been called for this” very thing. To suffer for the gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial sufferings and death. Disciples found worthy to “suffer for righteousness” are blessed, and this is in “accord with the will of God” - (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:14-18, 4:15-19).

Moreover, Christians are called to emulate Jesus in their conduct toward their persecutors, and in doing so, they become “perfect” children of His Father - (Matthew 5:44-48).

Tribulation” is part of what it means to follow Jesus. Suffering for his sake is not punishment or aberration, but grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer persecution is the greatest “blessing” that any disciple can receive in this life.

Thus, Christians should not be surprised by the “fiery trial” that comes upon them, especially when they suffer for their testimony. Suffering for Jesus is part and parcel of what it means to take up the Cross and follow him.  After all, as Paul declared, All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”



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