Our natural 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. Moreover, the New Testament does promise believers peace now and everlasting life later. Nevertheless, it also exhorts the assembly of God to expect afflictions and even persecution in this life on account of its witness in a sin-darkened world.
Jesus confirmed that in this world his disciples will have “tribulation.” But at the same time, they can be of good cheer, “for I have overcome the world.” Indeed, they are to rejoice when they are accounted worthy to suffer for his sake.
|[Photo by Frans Ruiter on Unsplash]|
Telling us about troubles in this life is nothing new. Exhorting us to be at peace while undergoing tribulation and persecution because he has “overcome” the world is something radically different. Rejoicing while we suffer is contrary to human “wisdom,” experience, and nature even when we do so for a noble cause - (John 16:33, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Disciples are reassured of victory because Jesus has “overcome” the world. He is the pioneer who has blazed the trail for us. He said something similar in the Book of Revelation when he exhorted the “Seven Assemblies of Asia” to “overcame, just as I overcame.” And it was by his own perseverance in suffering and death that he “overcame” and thereby qualified to sit on his Father’s Throne – (Revelation 3:21).
In the passage in the Gospel of John cited above, the English noun rendered as “tribulation” translates the Greek term thlipsis, the same word used elsewhere in the New Testament for the “Great Tribulation.” Originally, it referred to pressure, a “pressing together,” hence it denotes the sense “affliction, tribulation” - (John 16:33, 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. Opponents of the faith, including many operating in the church, would betray them “for tribulation… And you will be hated by all the nations.”
His followers must expect resistance to the Gospel. “You will be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that endures to the end will be saved.” However, suffering for the sake of the Gospel is 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 praised the young congregation because its members “became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much TRIBULATION [thlipsis], and with joy of the Holy Spirit,” so much so they became “examples” to the assemblies in “Macedonia and Achaia.”
In his praise, Paul included the same paradox found in the words of Jesus – joy amid tribulation. Likewise, in his second letter to the Thessalonian assembly, he boasted of the congregation’s steadfastness as its members endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations”- (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7, 2 Thessalonians 1:4).
Paul does not call for believers to seek escape from tribulation, nor does he blame them for provoking their persecutors. Instead, he praises the Thessalonians for remaining faithful in their tribulations. He expands on this idea in the first two chapters of his first letter to the Assembly in Thessalonica:
- “For you, brethren, became imitators of the assemblies of God which are in Judaea…for 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 the disciples of Jesus. His statement, “We are going TO SUFFER TRIBULATION,” translates the Greek verb related to the noun thlipsis or “tribulation,” thlibô.
The followers of Jesus have been APPOINTED to this very thing as he foretold them - rewards and compensation in this and the next life, but also persecution and affliction - (Mark 10:29-30).
So, how should his disciples react when afflictions and tribulation do come? 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).
Similarly, 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.
His disciples “have been called for this” very thing. To suffer persecution for the Gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial sufferings and death. The disciple who is found worthy to “suffer for righteousness” is blessed, and this is in “accord with the will of God” - (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:14-18, 4:15-19).
His followers are called to emulate him in their conduct toward their persecutors, especially by showing them mercy and praying for them. In doing so, the disciple becomes “perfect” like his Father in Heaven who sends his rain “on the just and the unjust” - (Matthew 5:44-48).
“Tribulation” is an integral part of what it means to follow the “Lamb wherever he goes.” Suffering for his sake is not punishment or aberration, but grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer persecution for the Kingdom of God is the greatest “blessing” and honor that any disciple may receive in this life.
Thus, his disciples should not be surprised by the “fiery trial” that comes upon them, especially when they suffer for their testimony. Suffering persecution and tribulation 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.”