“Therefore, I ask that you not become discouraged in my tribulations for you, for this is your glory.”
How is it that Paul’s tribulations are for the glory of the Ephesian church? True, it has been through Paul’s sufferings that the Gospel has come to the city. Yet, there is more to this statement if we read a little deeper. The term θλῖψις (thlipsis) always refers to severe times of trial and distress — persecutions and affliction in the life of the church. Paul faced persecutions throughout his ministry and the Ephesian church, if they proved faithful, would face persecutions as well. And, it is often the model of those who have gone before us that encourages us to face those trials that we find in our paths.
Our temptation, of course, is to presume that we are the first persons to encounter the kinds of persecutions that we face. Yet, truly, there is nothing new under the sun and the saints of the past have seen what we have seen (and in many cases, far worse). And so, by looking back at their lives, we can draw encouragement for the awful trials that lie ahead of us. Yet, when we neglect to take courage from the past, then we often sacrifice the benefits that come from their example on the altar of our own vanity.
We must make one more note here in terms of the idea of trials and tribulations. Somehow we have fallen into the trap of assuming that the Christian life is one removed from trial. Yet, Jesus said just the opposite (John 16:33). In fact, God has always strengthened his church through times of persecution. Though it does not feel like a blessing when we are enduring such times, it is one of His blessings to the church. The notion that some Christians hold, that God will remove the church in the end times to spare them from tribulation is the notion that God would withhold the blessings of His refining fire. To borrow the language of C.S. Lewis, to ask for less tribulation is to ask God for less love and not more.
God promises the blessings — even the glory — of rule with Him as His grand bride to those who overcome. Yet, to overcome, there must be something for you to overcome. And such are the tribulations that God permits to strike us. Take courage, Christian, from those who have walked this road before you and from the one who has ultimately paved the path on which you walk. It is a path to glory, but this path can only be traversed while bearing the cross that has been placed upon you.
“And the Sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choice of our graves bury your dead. Not one of us will withhold his grave from you for the burial of your dead.”
At the onset, the offer that is made sounds quite generous and Abraham’s insistence on purchasing the plot of land may seem a bit rude. Yet, as with other things in God’s design, there is a reason and a purpose behind Abraham’s refusal, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. It should be noted that some modern translations render “The Sons of Heth” as “The Hittites” in this passage. Simply that is a result of scholarly inquiry which has suggested that the nation we now refer to as the Hittites has their origin with this particular Canaanite tribe. Literally, their name means, “The Sons of Terror,” which is an appropriate name for any ancient pagan tribe, needless to say, it is with these that Abraham is now negotiating.
What we ought to take note of, though, is the attitude that these “Sons of Terror” have taken with Abraham. They refer to him as a “Prince of God” and generously offer to him any choice grave site that they have prepared and reserved for themselves. There is nothing left over to doubt that these pagans can see that God has given favor to Abraham and that they (even as pagans) have been blessed by Abraham’s presence.
Such an attitude in the life of unbelievers is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3, that the nations of the world will find their blessing in the children of God. How far, it seems, that we have fallen from that mark. How rarely do the unbelieving neighbors of our churches speak of our presence in their community with thanksgiving. Biblically, our churches should be seen as a place of good blessing to all around us. How far so many of our churches have fallen. How easy it is to begin turning our focus on ourselves (building our programs, our membership, our buildings, and our resources) instead of being focused outwardly on the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. How often we fear taking a stand for the Truth for fear that people won’t like what it is that we have to say, where if we were to speak truth in love and grace we would instead be respected for holding with integrity to our views. When we compromise the gospel we also compromise the blessing we are to be to the non-believers in our midst.
Loved ones, may we live intentionally in such a way that the pagans in our midst would say, like the Sons of Heth, that we are “princes of God” and that they would sacrifice to preserve our presence in their midst. How differently our communities would look were we to live in such a way that it produced this response amongst unbelievers? How different the work of evangelism would look were this the case as well.