In this life, the disciple of Jesus will endure “tribulation” and persecution for his sake – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4.
Our tendency is to avoid trouble and conflict. Understandably, we prefer to live lives characterized by peace, acceptance, and prosperity, and devoid of all affliction and persecution. And the New Testament does promise believers peace now and everlasting life later. Yet it also teaches us to expect afflictions in this life, and how to react when they do occur.
Jesus warned that in this world “you have tribulation.” Nevertheless, his followers should be of good cheer, “for I have overcome the world.” Telling them they have troubles in this life was not new information; however, exhorting them to remain at peace because he had “overcome” the world was a radically new idea. Just like the proclamation of “Christ crucified,” suffering cheerfully is contrary to human “wisdom” and experience – (John 16:33, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
His followers are reassured of their own victory because, already, Jesus has “overcome” the world. 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 thereby, he qualified to sit on his Father’s throne – (Revelation 3:21).
In the passage from John, “tribulation” translates the Greek noun thlipsis, the same term used elsewhere for the “great tribulation,” including in Revelation. 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).
In his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ 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; however, 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 itself, 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 is 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 is 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, that 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 same church,he boasted of its steadfastness, for its members endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations”- (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
Paul did not recommend escape from their predicament, nor did he blame them for provoking their persecutors. Instead, he praised them for faithfully enduring afflictions. He expanded on this in the next two chapters of his first 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” – (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).
- “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 3:1-3).
Paul’s words assume that suffering for the gospel is an expected experience. “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. “Appointed” represents the Greek verb with the basic sense “laid out, set,” thus, believers are “set” for persecution. Jesus himself foretold this very thing – rewards and compensation in this life (and in the next one), but also persecution and affliction:
- “There is no man that has left house or brethren or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake…but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time houses and brethren and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions; and in the age to come, everlasting life” – (Mark 10:29-30).
So, how are disciples to react when afflictions do come? Just as Jesus did (“Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven”), 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” – (Matthew 5:12, Romans 5:3, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4).
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 for us an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” – (Romans 8:35-39, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4, 4:17).
Likewise, Peter declared 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. And like Paul, he taught that 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 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).
Exiled on Patmos, John called himself a “fellow participant” with the “churches of Asia” in the “tribulation [thlipsis] and the kingdom and the endurance in Jesus.” For him, suffering for Jesus was a matter of honor, not shame. To the already afflicted believers in Smyrna, Jesus summoned them to remain “faithful unto death” in the coming “tribulation,” even if doing meant martyrdom. In that way, they would “overcome” and escape something far worse, the “second death” – (Revelation 1:9, 2:8-11).
And Christians are called to emulate Jesus in their conduct toward their persecutors, for in that way, they become “perfect” children of His Father:
- “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors the same? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”- (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 affliction 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” – (2 Timothy 3:12).