The godly disciple who faithfully bears witness to the gospel of Jesus will endure “tribulation” and persecution for his sake.
Our human tendency is to avoid trouble and conflict. Understandably, we prefer our daily lives to be characterized by peace, acceptance, and prosperity, a life devoid of difficulty, affliction, and certainly persecution. And the New Testament does promise believers peace now and everlasting life later. Yet it also exhorts us to expect and prepare for afflictions in this life.
Jesus warned his disciples – In this world “you have tribulation.” Nevertheless, his followers should be of good cheer “for I have overcome the world.” Telling them about troubles in this life was not new information. But exhorting them to remain at peace because he had “overcome” the world was something radically new. Just like the proclamation of “Christ crucified,” suffering cheerfully is contrary to human “wisdom” and experience, even when we do so for a noble cause – (John 16:33, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Nevertheless, his followers are reassured of their own victory because he has “overcome” the world already. He is the pioneer who blazed the trail for his disciples. Later, he said something quite similar in a very different context when he exhorted the members of the “seven churches of Asia” to “overcame, just as I overcame.” And it was by his perseverance through suffering and death that he qualified to sit on the divine throne – (Revelation 3:21).
In his words recorded in the gospel of John, “tribulation” translates the Greek noun thlipsis, the same term used elsewhere in the New Testament for the “great tribulation.” Originally, it referred to pressure, a “pressing together,” hence the sense of “affliction” or “tribulation” – (Matthew 24:21, Revelation 1:8-9, 7:9-17).
On the Mount of Olives, Jesus told his disciples that 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. More critically, opponents of the faith, including from within the church, would betray disciples “for tribulation… And they will be hated by all the nations.”
His followers must not expect acceptance by one-and-all. Instead, resistance to the gospel would be the expected norm. “You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake: but he that endures to the end will be saved.” Yet suffering for his sake was also 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 affliction [thlipsis], and with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” so much so, they became “examples” to the churches in “Macedonia and Achaia.”
In his praise, the Apostle included the same paradox found in the words of Jesus – joy in the midst of affliction. Likewise, in his second letter to this church, he boasted of its steadfastness, for its members had endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations”- (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
Paul did not call for the escape of the Thessalonians from their trials, nor did he blame them for provoking their persecutors. Instead, he praised them for remaining faithful through their afflictions. He expanded on this in the first two chapters of his letter:
- “For this cause, we also thank God without ceasing, that when you received from us the word of the message, you accepted it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also is working in you that believe. For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches 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 followers of Jesus. “We are going to suffer tribulation” translates the Greek verb related to the noun thlipsis or “tribulation,” thlibô. Christians have been appointed for this very thing. And Jesus himself foretold this very thing – rewards and compensation in this life (and in the next one), but also persecution and affliction – (Mark 10:29-30).
So, how are disciples to react when afflictions inevitably do come? Well, just as Jesus taught us. Likewise, 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).
Likewise, Peter declared it is 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. Christians “have been called for this” very thing. To suffer for the gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus, who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial sufferings and death. Disciples found worthy to “suffer for righteousness” are blessed, and this is in “accord with the will of God” – (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:14-18, 4:15-19).
Moreover, Christians are called to emulate Jesus in their conduct toward their persecutors, and in doing so, they become “perfect” children of His Father – (Matthew 5:44-48).
“Tribulation” is part of what it means to follow Jesus. Suffering for his sake is not punishment or aberration, but grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer persecution is the greatest “blessing” that any disciple can receive in this life.
Thus, Christians should not be surprised by the “fiery trial” that comes upon them, especially when they suffer for their testimony. Suffering for Jesus is part and parcel of what it means to be his disciple. After all, as Paul declared, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”