“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.
“to know him and the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his sufferings, sharing in the sake kind of death as his —”
What does it mean to be “found in Christ”? It means that in the context of his imputation of righteousness to us, we come into relationship with him — we know him — and that knowledge gives us a promise of the resurrection to come. He who was raised from the dead will also raise us that we may indeed experience the power of that resurrection firsthand.
Yet, the power of the resurrection also comes at a cost. Paul writes of a fellowship of suffering and entering into a death that is “like his.” How are we to understand this death? Certainly, one must not die on a cross to enter heaven? So, what does Paul mean by this? As you continue to read the flow of Paul’s language, he explains exactly what he means by this — Paul means the putting to death of his sins and the things of the world that he might boast in. That means suffering, when God calls him to suffer, that he might be found faithful in service and grow more like Christ.
Yet, this notion of suffering is something that often is difficult for us to hear. We have been accustomed to the notion that we are to seek the comforts of life and that suffering is somehow undesirable. Yet, did not our Lord choose to suffer for us? Did not our Lord choose to die on the cross for us? And did not our Lord enter into glory through the pathway of suffering? If it was good enough for our Lord’s entrance into heaven, is it not good enough for us? Is not suffering often the way that God refines those who are most precious to him? As C.S. Lewis wrote in his Problem of Pain, if we ask for less suffering and not more, are we not asking God for less love and not more?
We live in a world where many Christians are dying for their faith. And, these Christian brothers and sisters count it their privilege to “enter into” our Lord’s sufferings. At the same time, in the west, we live in a world where, while there is comfort for those who believe, people and churches are apostatizing faster than can be counted. While it is quite true that the freedoms we enjoy in this western world have been a great and profound blessing to the church, particularly in the realm of discipleship (formation of Christian Schools, Colleges, Seminaries, Book Publishers, etc…), with that freedom there has also been a fertile seedbed for false teachers and lazy believers. Let us be neither, even at the cost of persecution, that we may guide the church in a way that willingly enters into Christ’s sufferings — internally as we put sin to death and externally as we face persecution.
“For to you it has been given, for Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, having this struggle, one such as you saw in me and now you hear is in me.”
“For to you it has been given…” The term in Greek that we translate as “been given” refers to the granting of a privilege. But wait just one minute…this “privilege” that Paul is speaking about has to do with suffering for one’s faith. In fact, as he writes to thank and encourage the Philippian believers, he is essentially saying that persecution is coming and it is a good thing…a privilege to endure for the sake of Christ.
How radically different that mindset is from our own mindset in the west. For us, blessing is comfort and any form of suffering is met with distaste. We go to lengths to remove any form of discomfort from our lives (we air-condition our homes and our vehicles, we take medicines that remove the discomfort of sickness even if they don’t stop the cause of our sickness, we like easy and shy away from hard, it is not good enough that we have clothing and shoes but instead, people want the most comfortable clothing and shoes to wear…it is all about removing sorts of discomfort from our lives). In contrast, Paul is saying that the church should be excited. They have been faithful and because of their faithfulness, God is granting to them the privilege of suffering for their faith. While we might balk at the idea, the idea is intensely scriptural.
Doesn’t John the Apostle say, that if we are of God, the world will not listen to the things we say (1 John 4:6)? Didn’t Jesus say that the world would hate followers of Jesus (John 15:18)? Should we then not see persecution from the world as a sign that we are doing something right? In turn, should we not see comfort as a sign that we have compromised something that we ought not have compromised? How we have allowed ourselves to get things backwards in this modern age.
So, why does God bless his church with suffering and trial? Because that is the tool that God uses to refine his people (see James 1:2-4). Should that surprise us? It better not. If you want to excel in a specific sport, can you do so by laying back on a comfortable chair? No, you work hard and discipline your body, training it until you have mastered the sport in question. When you want to master a now academic subject, can you do so by ignoring the text book and playing games? Clearly not. Hours of long and intense study are involved. Growth does not come when we are at ease, it comes when we are challenged. The same holds true with faith. May we not shy away from the privilege of suffering for that faith when God so deems we are ready.