When you think of Christian persecution & suffering, what do you think of? Do you think suffering for Christ is when someone calls you a religious fanatic? Do think suffering for Christ is getting up to go to church? Or perhaps you think of persecutions as something that happened in Paul's day; you know, being beaten, thrown in jail, or perhaps being feed to the lions.
Well, the following statistics may come as a surprise to you. The number of Christian martyrs, those who have died for their faith in Christ, in the last century alone is greater then all the other centuries combined. Every year some 156,000 Christians are killed because of their faith. Also, nearly two thirds of the world's population lives under governments which persecute Christians for their faith in Christ. We should realize that while being a Christian in the United States is not a life threatening thing, for the majority of the worlds Christians, it is.
In our text this morning Paul talks about his suffering for Christ. Before we look at our text, let's review for a second to get the context. In verses 17 and following of chapter 1, Paul has unfolded something of the greatness of the work of God in reconciliation through Jesus Christ, who is the sovereign Creator and Lord of everything. He created everything. All things hold together in Him. In Him, as a human being, all the fullness of deity dwelt in bodily form. And this One is the One who came and suffered and died that He might reconcile all things to God. We saw last week that this reconciliation gives the reconciled the responsibility of living lives set apart to God:
Colossians 1:22 (NKJV) in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight;
This practical holiness is based on the believers continuance in the faith, they are to be grounded and settled and not moved away from the hope the gospel brings:
Colossians 1:23 (NKJV) if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Paul says it is this gospel "...of which I, Paul, became a minister." That word translated minister is from the Greek word diakonos, the word from which we get the English word deacon. Paul is saying, "I was made a deacon; I was made a servant." That is what the word basically means. A deacon is a servant. I was made a servant of this gospel, a minister in the sense of a servant. Paul mentions this a number of times in his letters. This causes him to elaborate about his ministry as an apostle and preacher of the word of God. This isn't just a digression so that we get to know something more about Paul. But it is foundational with what he has to deal with in chapter 2 when he comes to the false teachers and their teaching. Where does Paul get the authority to condemn these teachers? Where does Paul get the authority to condemn what they are teaching and to declare it a heresy? He gets his authority from God. He has been placed in this position by God. He has been entrusted with a message by God, and it is a message that can not be altered or changed, added to or taken away from. As such, it will be the standard which will be imposed on the teaching that the false teachers are bringing.
This discussion of Paul's personal ministry begins with verse 24 in chapter 1 and goes down through chapter 2, verse 5. These verses seem to naturally fall into two sections. The first dealing with Paul's unique ministry worldwide (Col 1:24-29) before he goes on to show how it relates directly into the lives of the recipients of his letter (Col 2:1-5).
Colossians 1:24 (NKJV) I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church,
Does anything in this verse seem strange to you? I think that most would say, "Paul sounds like he's saying that there were things lacking from the afflictions of Christ?" That is a troubling thought, and we'll get to that here shortly, but what is really strange is what Paul says about suffering. Look at what he says, "I now 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.
Paul says, "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you." Whatever Paul's circumstances, he never lost his joy. If a Christian loses their joy, it's not because of bad circumstances, but bad connections. You do not lose your joy unless your communion with Christ breaks down.
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:
Philippians 2:17 (NKJV) Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.
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:
Romans 5:3-4 (NKJV) And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Notice what Paul says here about suffering, "We also glory in tribulation." The NIV says, "But we also rejoice in our sufferings." The word "glory" 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:
Romans 5:1-2 (NKJV) Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
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:
Romans 5:11 (NKJV) And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
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 this text 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:
Matthew 5:10-12 (NKJV) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
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 is persecution and they did:
Acts 5:40 (NKJV) And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
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:
Acts 5:41-42 (NKJV) So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
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.
1 Peter 4:12-14 (NKJV) Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. 14 If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.
Again we see the idea of suffering and rejoicing. I'm sure you've probably had enough, but let me give you one more:
Hebrews 10:32-34 (NKJV) But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: 33 partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; 34 for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven.
Not only did they have compassion on those in prison, but they also "joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods". 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 "plundering" 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 then 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.
"I now rejoice in my sufferings for you." Now Paul had not personally visited the city of Colossea, but he realized his imprisonment in Rome, the trials he went through, and all the persecution he suffered were for the benefit of the Body of Christ, which included the Colossian Christians. They actually were benefitting from his ministry, because he even wrote a letter to them from the prison at Rome. We're benefitting from that ministry as well, because we're studying the message that God gave to Paul while he was imprisoned at Rome. His suffering was, indeed, on behalf of others.
God told Paul from the very beginning that he was going to suffer for him.
Acts 9:15-16 (NKJV) But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 "For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake."
The majority of Paul's sufferings occurred because he had brought the gospel to the Gentiles, and a good illustration of this can be seen in:
Acts 13:44-46 (NKJV) On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. 45 But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.
Acts 13:50 (NKJV) But the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.
Acts 14:1-2 (NKJV) Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.
Acts 14:19 (NKJV) Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.
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:
Acts 22:21-22 (NKJV) "Then He said to me, 'Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.'" 22 And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, "Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!"
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 goes on to elaborate: "...and fill up in my flesh..." - his physical body - "...for the sake of His body, which is the church,..." Paul is indicating that the physical pain he endures at the hands of Christ-hating persecutors is the result of what he does to benefit and build the church. It was not his personality that offended and brought hostile injury to him, but his ministry for the Body of Christ.
In verse 18 of chapter 1, reference was made that He, Christ, is head of the body, the church. So we're talking about the spiritual body of Christ. Those who have come to know Christ have been brought into His family and are now spiritually identified with Him. He is the head over the body of which they are a part. Paul's sufferings were on behalf of the body of Christ, which is the church. Paul's ministry of the gospel to the world was within the framework of salvation for the elect. He wrote to Timothy and said:
2 Timothy 2:10 (NKJV) Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Paul's life was consumed with a focus on the body of Christ. His joy came in seeing others by God's grace become part of that body through faith in Christ and then being nurtured and nourished to maturity as God's people.
In Colossians 1:24, Paul says, "...and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ..." When you first read that statement, it sort of jars you, doesn't it? This phrase has been the subject of much controversy. A statement like this, if taken without the context of the New Testament, could be employed to yield some strange teachings, which would undermine the all sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ. Catholics have taken this to mean that there is a treasury, a reservoir of the merits of the saints, that we can draw upon to make us more acceptable to God.
The Roman Catholic church taught that Jesus Christ's merit covered sin in a certain sense, but there also was a penalty that you must pay, and God punished you either in this life or in purgatory.
Catholic theology says, "By my deeds I can not only earn merit for myself, but if I earn more merit than I need to get into heaven, my extra merit goes into the treasury of merit to be applied to somebody else to get them out of purgatory." What that says is, "Not only can I by my merit earn my own salvation, but I can over earn it and apply what is left to someone else's salvation." This is salvation by grace plus works, and this is denying the sufficiency of Christ's work. Reconciliation was fully accomplished and provided for in Jesus Christ. That is a finished, completed work:
Hebrews 9:12 (NKJV) Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
It's the statement that it occurred "once for all" which demonstrates clearly that such an experience won't be repeated again - and that this special suffering of the Messiah, now that the work for man's salvation has occurred and been completed, cannot take place in a similar manner to that which has already transpired.
After all, if there was anything lacking in the provision of the cross, there might be a need for believers who come after Jesus to suffer as He also suffered in order that they might be made perfect through their tribulations and to perform some sort of self-redemption which makes up the lack.
It's clear, therefore, that the sufferings of the Messiah are meant to be an event in time and space which satisfied the demands of God the Father to secure a once and for all time salvation for the people of God. On the cross, sin has been dealt with forever and no suffering is able to pay that price - full payment is only to be found in Jesus so that no other person's suffering can be counted as expiatory.
In what sense were Paul's sufferings filling up that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions? In that Paul was receiving the persecution that was intended for Christ. Jesus, having ascended to heaven, was out of their reach. But because His enemies had not filled up all the injuries they wanted to inflict on Him, they turned their hatred onto those who preached the gospel. It was in that sense that Paul filled up what was lacking in Christ's afflictions.
The simplest and most logical explanation stems from the mystical union that exists between Christ and that of His people in the body of Christ, the church. When believers suffer, Christ suffers with them. Christ's substitutionary sufferings are finished, complete, but His sufferings in and through His people continue. Paul saw the sufferings that he was bearing as the sufferings that were directed toward Christ. Jesus said to His disciples:
John 15:18 (NKJV) "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.
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.
John 15:19 (NKJV) "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
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.
John 15:20 (NKJV) "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant 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.
See the connection? Those who have rejected Christ will reject His followers. Those who have received Christ will receive His followers.
John 15:23 (NKJV) "He who hates Me hates My Father also.
There is an inseparable link between Christ and His Father and between Christ and His followers.
So Paul readily took on the afflictions that were directed towards Christ. 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 - who became the Apostle Paul - was persecuting Christ while he was persecuting the church. There is an inseparable link.
2 Corinthians 1:5 (NKJV) For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.
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 be 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.
Galatians 6:17 (NKJV) From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.
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 I come to this church. 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 Colossians, Paul is talking about suffering because of his relationship with Christ. This is suffering for righteousness sake. 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's look at a few:
1. Suffering can be because of sin.
1 Corinthians 11:29-30 (NKJV) For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
Many of the Corinthians were sick and dying because of their sinfulness.
Romans 13:2 (NKJV) Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
Suffering can come as a result of breaking the law, which is sin.
Caution: We must be careful here not to conclude that we can measure the sinfulness of a person by the degree of his or her suffering. All suffering is a result of sin; had Adam not sinned, there would not be suffering in the world, but not all suffering is a result of personal sinfulness.
2. Suffering matures us in our practical Christian lives.
We suffer because it is a training tool. God lovingly and faithfully uses suffering to develop personal righteousness, maturity, and our walk with Him:
Hebrews 12:5-6 (NKJV) And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; 6 For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives."
The word "chastening" is the Greek word paideia, which means: "tutorage; education or training; by implication disciplinary correction." God uses suffering and pain in our lives to train us.
Under this heading of maturing us, we can put several ways that suffering helps us to mature:
A. We suffer to develop our capacity and sympathy in comforting others:
2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NKJV) 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 tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.
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.
B. We suffer to keep down pride:
2 Corinthians 12:7 (NKJV) And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
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, because of the special revelations he had seen as one who had been caught up to the third heaven.
C. Suffering weans us from self-reliance:
2 Corinthians 1:9 (NKJV) Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,
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.
2 Timothy 3:12-13 (NKJV) Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 13 But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.
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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