When you think of Christian persecution and suffering, what do you think of? Does joy come to your mind? Probably not, but it should; there is a connection in the New Testament between persecution and joy.
Let me ask you another related question, How do you feel about the health/wealth Gospel? Are you indifferent to it; are you tolerant of it? If you don't hate it, if it doesn't make you crazy with anger, then one of two things is true: 1. Either you don't understand what the prosperity Gospel is teaching, or 2. You don't understand the Gospel, because if you understand the Gospel, and you know what the teachers of the health/wealth Gospel are preaching, it should make you livid! And if it doesn't, you need to wake up; a false Gospel is sweeping our nation while we sit quietly by. And whether you want to admit it or not, we have all been affected by this health/wealth Gospel.
Let me give you a little test to show you that you have been influenced by this prosperity doctrine. What does God owe you? Does He owe you anything? If you have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, God owes you eternal life. He has promised it to those who believe. What else does He owe us? Health? Financial freedom? Justice? Friends? Good circumstances? No, no and no. Where in Scripture do you see any of those things promised to believers? What God does promise is:
And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12 NASB)
How is that for a promise? In our text this morning we see the disciples of Christ being persecuted for their faith, and we see their response to it. May God teach us from this text today.
Paul and Barnabus are in Antioch in the territory of Galatia. They went into the synagogue and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those in the synagogue liked what they heard and begged them to come back next week. On the following Sabbath nearly the whole city came out to hear the Word of God. This caused jealously among the Jews who contradicted what Paul taught, and they blasphemed the name of Christ. So Paul tells them that from now on he is turning to the Gentiles and quotes from Isaiah to prove that this was God's plan all along. The Gentiles rejoice, and those who "had been appointed to eternal life believed." This is God's electing grace.
And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. (Acts 13:49 NASB)
A revival was taking place. God's word was spreading everywhere but:
But the Jews aroused the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. (Acts 13:50 NASB)
Here again we see Jewish opposition toward the Gospel. They didn't have the support of the masses who flocked to hear the preaching of Paul and Barnabas and who rejoiced at their message. So if the Jews were to silence these men and get rid of them, they must gain the support of the political leaders of the city. They do this by arousing the prominent Gentile God-fearing women of high standing, that is, Roman women who are attracted to Judaism but have not received Paul's message. These women seem to have sway over their husbands, the leading men or magistrates of the city, and get them to take action against these preachers of the Gospel. They instigated a persecution and drove Paul and Barnabas out of the city.
This wasn't, "You know, you're going to have to leave now." Our text says it was a "persecution." Now we don't know the exact nature of it, but in 2 Timothy 3:11, Paul talks about his persecution in Antioch:
persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me! (2 Timothy 3:11 NASB)
Paul gives the Corinthians further detail of what this persecution entailed:
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. (2 Corinthians 11:24-25 NASB)
Paul tells us that there were three times in his life when he was beaten by rods, an official action of the Romans. Once was later in Philippi, and many scholars feel that here, in Antioch, was another occasion. Paul and Barnabas may have been brought before the Roman authorities and beaten with rods and thus driven out of the district. Luke does not say so, but this could well be the time when that first happened to Paul. They dragged them out, beat them with rods, and then threw them out of the city.
So one week these Jews had stood at the door of the synagogue saying, "We must hear more of this," begging them to come back and teach more. The next week they have them beaten for preaching the very same thing. That's people!
But they shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. (Acts 13:51 NASB)
This was not a childish act of resentment, but was actually taught to them by Jesus Himself:
"And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them." (Luke 9:5 NASB)
No Jew would ever bring Gentile dirt into Israel, because the Jews believed that Gentile soil was defiled, and so when a Jew arrived at the border of Israel, he would shake the dust off his feet because they didn't want any Gentile dirt in Israel. They thought it was soiled, and Jesus accommodated Himself to that particular view when He said, "Shake the dust off your feet," He meant treat those Jews like they were Gentiles. You don't want a thing to do with them. They're just as if they were pagan, and when Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet in the face of the Jews of Antioch, they were saying in effect, "We consider you heathen."
And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:52 NASB)
The identity of the "disciples" in verse 52 is not clear. They could be Paul and Barnabas or the new converts in Antioch. I tend to think the word refers to both groups. Both those whom they had left in Pisidian Antioch, and they themselves also, were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.
It is interesting that two references to joy (vv. 48, 52) bracket the one mention of persecution in this passage (v. 50) suggesting a connection between persecution and joy.
We would think that the young disciples from whom Paul and Barnabus, their teachers, were violently driven away, would have been overwhelmed with grief and fear. They may have thought: If they treat them that way ,what will they do to us? But we are told that they were "filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit."
Adam Clark writes, "The happiness of a genuine Christian lies far beyond the reach of earthly disturbances and is not affected by the changes and chances to which mortal things are exposed. The martyrs were more happy in the flames than their persecutors could be on their beds of down." What this says to me is that if circumstances are rocking your world, then you are not a Christian. Is that true? No, circumstances rock the world of most Christians.
Notice that our text says they were, "filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit." The word "filled" here is the Greek word pleroo, which means: "to influence; controlled by; take over." We see this idea in such passages as:
"But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. (John 16:6 NASB)WW
The word "filled" here is pleroo. They were filled with sorrow to the point that it dominated and controlled them. What comes to your mind when you hear the statement, "He was filled with fear"? Don't you envision a man so controlled and motivated by fear that his every move and action is the product of that fear? Likewise, the Spirit of God is to so pervade all our being that He controls all our thoughts, affections, purposes, and plans.
Believers who have the Spirit are commanded in Scripture to be controlled by Him. So, the question is: How are we controlled by Spirit? The Spirit's control is not an automatic, mechanical control. The Spirit's control is brought about by means. We must take possession of the divine strength He has made available to us in Christ. We appropriate the controlling grace of the Spirit through the means of letting the word of Christ richly dwell within us.
Believers, we need more than a casual acquaintance with the Bible. God's word is to dwell in us abundantly--it is to saturate us. It must become part of our very being, transforming the way we think and act. To use an illustration from the area of computer technology, it must be the program always running that controls everything else. Everything depends on it.
When Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit, their circumstances do not matter. Bad things may happen to them, but the Holy Spirit gives them joy. It is joy that nobody can take away. When you are controlled by the Spirit, you will be controlled by joy.
Notice Paul's attitude toward suffering:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions. (Colossians 1:24 NASB)
Look at what Paul says about suffering, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings." Does that seem strange to any of you? It really shouldn't if you are familiar with the New Testament. But from a practical sense, that seems very strange. This verse has something relevant to say to the Church about suffering.
Whatever Paul's circumstances, he never lost his joy. If a Christian loses his joy, it's not because of bad circumstances, but bad connections. You do not lose your joy unless your communion with Christ breaks down, unless you are not controlled by the Spirit.
Let me give you another point about joy; Joy is generated by humility. People lose their joy when they become self-centered, thinking they deserve better circumstances or treatment than they are getting. That was never a problem for Paul. Like all of God's great servants, he was conscious of his unworthiness. Because of this, he always seemed to have joy. Facing the possibility of martyrdom, he wrote:
But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. (Philippians 2:17 NASB)
Beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, he sang hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25). Because he believed he deserved nothing, no circumstance could shake his joyous confidence that God was in control of his life.
In several passages Paul writes with the assumption that suffering and affliction are a necessary part of an apostolic ministry. But in other passages Paul does not limit suffering and affliction to apostolic ministries. He assumes that it is an essential part of the ministry of the word of God. This is the consistent emphasis of Scripture--that inseparably joined to a faithful ministry of the word of God are hardship, trial and difficulty, conflict and pain.
As the first converts came to know Jesus as the liberator of their bondage and demonic influence, it seems natural that they would surely look to Him to deliver them out of everything which hindered them, and would expect Him to cause His followers to pursue victory after victory as they followed after the will of God for their lives.
The God who created all things, was in control of all things, and who worked in all things to bring about the purpose of His will, could hardly have been logically expected to allow His servants to participate in any measure of suffering seeing as all that was needed for their salvation had been taken upon Himself on the cross by Jesus.
But suffering was exactly what the believers experienced in nearly every location in which they found themselves. And, interestingly enough, they had the same attitude as Paul did:
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; (Romans 5:3-4 NASB)
Notice what Paul says here about suffering, "We also exult in our tribulations." The NIV says, "But we also rejoice in our sufferings." The word "exult" is from the Greek word kauchaomai, which means: "to vaunt (in a good or a bad sense), boast, glory, joy, rejoice." And the word "tribulations" is from the Greek thlipsis, which means: "pressure (literally or figuratively), anguish, burdened, persecution, tribulation, trouble." This is a strong term and does not refer to minor inconveniences, but to real hardships. It was used in reference to squeezing olives for the oil, or squeezing grapes for the wine.
So, Paul is saying, "We rejoice in the problems and pressures of life." Does that sound strange to you? Before we go any further, we must ask, "Who is the 'we'?" Paul says, "We also glory in tribulation." Let's back up a few verses:
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2 NASB)
Who is the first "we"? It's all those who have been justified by faith--all believers! Who is the "we" that has access by faith into grace? Again, it is all believers. So, who is the "we" in verse 3? Take a guess? Yes, you're right, it's all Christians. We could translate it this way: "Christians rejoice in suffering." How does that sound? Is it true of you?
Some have tried to interpret this, "We rejoice in the midst of suffering." That is, we rejoice in spite of our suffering. But it does not mean that we rejoice in spite of our suffering. Paul is saying, "We rejoice because of our suffering." Look at:
And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:11 NASB)
Does this mean that we rejoice in spite of God? This construction in the Greek is the same as verse 3. Paul rejoiced because of God, and he also rejoiced because of suffering, and he assumed that other believers participated with him in this rejoicing.
If this seems a little strange to you, let's remind ourselves that in the New Testament, suffering was the normal experience of a Christian and was viewed as a cause for rejoicing.
We see in our text in Acts 13:52, an entirely different attitude from that which we see in the Church today. We pity ourselves, and we pity others who are suffering. We moan, murmur, and complain when we suffer. This wasn't the case with Paul and the first century Christians. Their Master had taught them to rejoice in persecution:
"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 "Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12 NASB)
The persecuted are blessed, not cursed. Jesus taught them to rejoice in persecution! There is a connection in the New Testament between suffering and joy. That may seem like a contradiction, but that is what the Scriptures teach. Notice what the basis of rejoicing is; it is our reward in heaven. When we are persecuted, we are to rejoice.
So Jesus taught His disciples to rejoice in persecution, and they did, as we have already seen in our study of Acts:
And they took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them. (Acts 5:40 NASB)
When you are trying to share the Gospel, and someone slams the door on you or makes fun of you, how do you feel? Do you get your feelings hurt, or get discouraged? These men were physically beaten. Please notice their response:
So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:41-42 NASB)
They rejoiced! And they kept on preaching. Their suffering caused them to rejoice. They didn't get hurt feelings or get depressed or mad at God, they rejoiced.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:13-14 NASB)
Again we see the idea of suffering and rejoicing. I'm sure you've probably had enough, but let me give you one more:
But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, 33 partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. 34 For you showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32-34 NASB)
Not only did they have compassion on those in prison, but they also "accepted joyfully the seizure of your property." I would very much like to tell you that this is a textual error, but it's not! This is very convicting. This is the concrete action of the tribulation mentioned in verse 33. Their property was being confiscated because of their stand for Christ. The word "seizure" is from the Greek harpage, which most likely points to mob violence, the unjust seizer of their property--"They took it joyfully."
I don't think you could find a greater contrast between the American Church of the 21st century and the Church of the 1st century than in the area of suffering. As we study the New Testament and examine the attitude and perspective which New Testament believers took toward suffering and persecution, we should be ashamed. I am! We often hear today the attitude that suffering and persecution is not something that God wants for His people. Success and prosperity are the name of the game today, not only out there in the world, but inside the Church as well.
God told Paul from the very beginning that he was going to suffer for him:
But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake." (Acts 9:15-16 NASB)
The majority of Paul's sufferings occurred because he had brought the Gospel to the Gentiles, and a good illustration of this is seen in our text in Acts 13.
When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem on false charges, the Jews listened to his defense until he used the word "Gentiles." It was that word that infuriated them and drove them to ask for his execution:
"And He said to me, 'Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'" 22 And they listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, "Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!" (Acts 22:21-22 NASB)
The message that this apostle to the Gentiles preached declared that both Jew and Gentile would be co-equal heirs in the body of Christ through faith apart from works of the law; together Jew and Gentile believers would constitute one new man in Christ. It was this message of grace and co-equality that stirred up the Jews and angered them to relentlessly persecute the apostle and his co-workers.
Paul saw the sufferings that he was bearing as the sufferings that were directed toward Christ. Jesus said to His disciples:
"If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. (John 15:18 NASB)
That's the point. The hatred of the world toward the followers of Christ is because of the hatred of the world toward Christ. His followers are just experiencing what comes from being identified with Him.
"If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19 NASB)
Now we get confused, "Oh, we must be doing something wrong. We must be too dogmatic; we must be too aggressive, we must be. . ." No! It is because we are identified with Christ. That is why the world hates us:
"Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. (John 15:20 NASB)
See the connection? Those who have rejected Christ will reject His followers. Those who have received Christ will receive His followers.
"He who hates Me hates My Father also. (John 15:23 NASB)
There is an inseparable link between Christ and His Father and between Christ and His followers. Remember when Christ confronted Paul on the Damascus road as Paul was in the process of persecuting the Church? Did Christ say, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the church?" No. He said, "...Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?"Because the Church is the body of Christ, Saul was persecuting Christ while he was persecuting the Church. There is an inseparable link.
For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:5 NASB)
Paul didn't get mired down in the idea that his sufferings must be the result of his personality or his preaching. No. He said it is because of the attitude of unbelievers toward truth, toward Christ. So Paul saw his afflictions, his sufferings, as those that were directed toward Jesus Christ. Let's face it. If Paul hadn't been identified with Jesus Christ and the preaching of the Gospel, he wouldn't have been imprisoned in Rome, would he? He wouldn't have been beaten times without number. He wouldn't have been stoned. This all had to do with the fact that he was identified with Christ and the truth that Christ had entrusted to him.
From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus. (Galatians 6:17 NASB)
Would you like to complain about your suffering in the company of Paul? We could say, "We have suffered, too, Paul." He'd say, "You have? Let's compare scars." "Oh, well, I mean, my friends left and I felt bad about that." "Okay," he'd say, "Go on." "Some of my family don't speak to me." He'd look at us and say, "Well, go on." "Really? You want us to tell you more?" "Yeah," he'd say, "I mean that is just preliminary. Those are sufferings, but I'm talking about when it really gets bad. How many times have you been in prison for preaching?" "Well, none." "How many times have you been beaten?" "Oh, none." "Well, uh, we have a different concept of suffering." The danger is we have become acclimated to a comfortable Christianity. But that is a Christianity devoid of the power of God.
I want to give you a word of encouragement. If we are faithful to Christ, our suffering can only get worse. You say, "I have lost friends because of some of the things I believe. I have family members who don't speak to me." Praise God. Do you not count it a badge of honor to be identified with Jesus Christ, to suffer in the context of Him and His truth?
In our text in Acts, Paul and the disciples are suffering because of their relationship with Christ. This is suffering for righteousness sake. And they have joy.
There are other reasons why Christians suffer, but no matter what the reason, there is a purpose in it. I think that if we understand the purpose of suffering, we will be able to rejoice in it. There are all kinds of lessons to be learned from our suffering. Let me give you a couple of the purposes for suffering before we quit this morning: We suffer to develop our capacity and sympathy in comforting others:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 NASB)
Often God sends suffering to give us an opportunity to minister to one another. How can I help those in need, unless God causes someone to be in need? In the midst of the suffering of others, we must see an opportunity to minister in His name.
We suffer to keep down pride:
And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me-- to keep me from exalting myself! (2 Corinthians 12:7 NASB)
The Apostle Paul saw his thorn in the flesh as an instrument of God to help him maintain a spirit of humility and dependence on the Lord.
Suffering weans us from self-reliance:
indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; (2 Corinthians 1:9 NASB)
Many men and women have testified that God taught them this lesson; that they are dependant upon Him by taking away all the things they had mistakenly depended on. We suffer to bring about continued dependence on the grace and power of God. Suffering is designed to cause us to walk by God's ability, power, and provision, rather than by our own. It causes us to turn from our resources to His resources.
In the Western world, suffering has almost been ignored as a logical necessity for a group of believers who are moving in the power and provision of Jesus Christ, but the early believers were assured that if God was real in them and through them out into the world, the consequence was that they would be rejected in the same way as Jesus had been.
And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:12-13 NASB)
The inference here appears to be that godliness is not compatible with the ways of the world and will, therefore, reap its rewards from a society that's set upon achieving their own ends at any cost. In light of this verse, could we say that if you are not suffering persecution, you are not living godly? It's something to think about. If you are suffering persecution, are you rejoicing in it? Are you like the 1st century disciples rejoicing that you are counted worthy to suffer shame for His name?
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