12But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, 13so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; 14and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Throughout the history of the Church of Jesus Christ, it has been in the times and places where brothers and sisters suffer persecution that the Church has been the strongest and most effective in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are two important lessons to be taken from the fact of suffering among the saints…
John 15:55I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
God sometimes needs to use hardship, and even severe suffering to break the pride of the believer. We must learn that we have nothing of value to offer within ourselves. We must become wholly reliant upon God. Only then can God truly use us to serve Him, and proclaim His Gospel.
2 Corinthians 12:7-107And 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. 8Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We need not dwell here on what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. We can leave that for our fellowship time later. What’s important is that whatever this “thorn” was, it brought Paul to the place of total reliance upon God. Once he learned this lesson, Paul was able to endure and even be joyful in any circumstance. Paul will expound much more deeply on this later on in this letter.
Proverbs 3:5-6Trust in the LORD with all your heart,And lean not on your own understanding;In all your ways acknowledge Him,And He shall direct your paths.
2. The witness to unbelievers found in the way a Christian reacts and perseveres in the face of persecution and even death.
Think of the impact that the unjust and incredibly harsh imprisonment in Iran of Pastor Saeed Abedini has had on both believers and unbelievers worldwide. Meanwhile, our dear sister Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag still refuses to recant her witness of the Gospel even under threat of death. The story of her outrageous treatment along with her toddler son and newborn daughter in a barbaric Sudanese prison has sparked outrage around the globe, even among people who otherwise would not have given the Gospel a second thought. And these are just two of thousands of powerful Christian testimonies made manifest in the suffering and martyrdom of the saints that has gone on day-in and day-out ever since Jesus’ ascension.
Certainly, we would never want our Christian brothers and sisters to suffer in this way, and continually pray for their rescue, but the point is that this suffering, brings a powerful witness of the Gospel to the entire world, as no sermon ever preached by Pastor Saeed, and no personal testimony of sister Meriam among fellow believers ever could. God’s Spirit uses these outrages to convict the unbelieving world of sin, righteousness and judgment to His eternal glory.
Consider Stephen’s testimony as he faced death for his profession of faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ…
Acts 7:51-6051“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.“54When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”57Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Furthermore, in Paul’s case, we see an amazing testimony of the truth of the Gospel…
Acts 8:1-41Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2And devout men carried Stephen [to his burial], and made great lamentation over him.3As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing [them] to prison.4Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
Acts 9:1-181Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” 6So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. 8Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. 12And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” 13Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” 15But 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. 16For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” 17And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.
After this amazing conversion from Saul – the zealot Pharisee who took part in Stephen’s stoning, and made it his business to persecute the infant church to the utmost of his ability – into Paul, the tireless slave of Jesus Christ, God’s Holy Spirit used him to give us more than half the New Testament. This new man, Paul, dedicated the entire remainder of his life to telling the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, and promise of salvation throughout the Mediterranean basin.
How the remembrance of Stephen’s death must have resounded down the years in Paul’s (Saul’s) heart, and driven him forward in his mission to proclaim the Gospel, as he thought of how Stephen had faced his death in joy and strength. Even though we have virtually no record of Stephen’s ministries in life, his faithfulness and perseverance in the face of persecution and death have echoed down through the ages, and continue to impact lives powerfully even today.
The suffering and martyrdom of the apostles is one of the things that I personally find the most compelling “proof” of the truth of the Gospel.
Take a look at the handout – Martyrdom of the Apostles – Excerpts from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. All of the twelve apostles except John and Judas Iscariot were killed for their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m not going to take the time to go through all of these stories in detail, and I would caution that we only have Scriptural affirmation of two of these stories.
It seems to me that if the testimonies of these men weren’t true then most, if not all of them would have recanted in the face of persecution. As Paul says in Romans,
Romans 5:77For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.
The fact that none of these who were eye witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection ever changed his testimony despite tremendous persecution, torture, and even violent death is for me strong circumstantial evidence, if not a rigorous logical proof, that they all truly believed in their hearts the Truth of the Gospel message. That only leaves two remaining possibilities…
1. They all suffered some sort of mass delusion from which none of them ever recovered.
2. The Gospel actually is true.
The idea that all of these men were deceived is just as implausible as the idea that they all conspired together to promulgate a lie for some reason that remains unknown even 2000 years later. Therefore, the Gospel must be true!
Millions more have given everything for the testimony of Gospel truth in the nearly 2000 years since Jesus’ ascension. Today, Christians around the world continue to suffer and die for their testimonies every day. Indeed persecution of the believers is at an all-time high.
Even while we study His Word tonight, brothers and sisters are being tortured and murdered, their churches burned, their possessions stolen. Thousands and millions are suffering all manner of unspeakable persecutions for the sake of the Gospel, right now. It’s humbling to think of how easy we have it here in the USA (at least for the time being), and what we consider persecution for our profession of faith is ridiculous. May God strengthen our faith and resolve when (not if) the serious persecutions suffered daily by our brothers and sisters around the world come to our own communities here at home. As Jesus said,
John 16:22They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.
The chains that Paul speaks of here in Philippians were not the first that Paul had endured for the sake of the Gospel. Remember, as we saw in Acts 16, that Paul was unjustly imprisoned at the time of the founding of the Philippian church. Nor were these chains the last of Paul’s suffering for the Gospel. Who could fail to be moved by his words to Timothy…
2 Timothy 4:5-85But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
May these stirring words move us not merely to emotion, but to action – bringing the Gospel that drives our brothers and sisters to such extreme sacrifice to a lost world that so desperately needs to hear it.
By the way, Timothy apparently took these words of Paul’s to heart, as witnessed by his own death some 30 years later…
Timothy was the celebrated disciple of St. Paul, and bishop of Ephesus, where he zealously governed the Church until A.D. 97. At this period, as the pagans were about to celebrate a feast called Catagogion, Timothy, meeting the procession, severely reproved them for their ridiculous idolatry, which so exasperated the people that they fell upon him with their clubs, and beat him in so dreadful a manner that he expired of the bruises two days later. – Foxe, John. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
It is also interesting to note that the Greek word for “witness” is μάρτυς martys, from which we derive our English word martyr. Finally, before we leave this wonderful passage, consider that Paul’s suffering was not deserved. It had become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ.
1 Peter 3:14-1714But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.” 15But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; 16having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. 17For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
Furthermore, the fact that Paul’s suffering was unjust, and the manner in which Paul endured it only served to strengthen his brothers and sisters, just as it should us…
Philippians 1:1414most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
So, we’ve seen in this brief passage, that the Church is strengthened, and its effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel is sharply honed by the suffering that God allows it to experience.
The cautionary corollary is that when the Church is comfortable, history shows that it becomes prideful, corrupt, ineffective, and apostate, as we see in almost the entire Church throughout the so-called “developed” world today.
Revelation 3:1-61“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 3Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. 4You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.6He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”‘