Kept By God

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 1:24-25 ESV

Technically, these two verses form the closing to Jude’s letter. But there is far more here than initially meets the eye. As Jude wraps up his heart-felt message to the church, he ends with a stirring tribute to God. In spite of the presence of false teachers and the ongoing need to stand firm in their faith, Jude wanted the believers to whom he wrote  to understand the glory and greatness of God.

The Christian life is anything but easy. Nowhere in the New Testament is it presented as a walk in the park or a trouble-free existence devoid of pain or suffering. Jesus Himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” but He went on to say, “take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 6:33 NLT). Paul and Barnabas preached a consistend message in all the churches to which they minisered:

They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:22 NLT

And Paul warned his young protegé, Timothy:

…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. – 2 Timothy 3:12 NLT

And Peter offered up a similar warning about the reality of suffering as a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life.

…if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:20-21 NLT

But suffering, while inevitable for the Christian, does not have to result in stumbling. The Greek word Jude used is aptaistos and it is made up of the negative participle “a,” which means “no” or “not,” and word that can mean ”falling” or “sinning.” So, Jude is reminding his readers that, while they will experience suffering as a part of their spiritual journey, it doesn’t have to result in them falling into sin. In fact, they can stand firm and remain blameless even in the face of outside pressures and intense forms of suffering. But the best news is that this thriving in the face of suffering is not up to them. It is the work of God.

Jude is simply reinforcing a statement he made earlier in his letter.

I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Jude 1:6 NLT

God is going to keep and complete. He is going to finish what He started in their lives. Their faith journey was going to include their salvation, ongoing sanctification, and future glorification. There are no halfway Christians. There are no partial saints. Everyone who is called by God is guaranteed the right to experience the consummation of their spiritual transformation. Paul made this point explicitly clear to the believers in Rome.

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:30 ESV

Paul spoke of all these things using the past tense. While their glorification had not yet happened, Paul wanted them to see it as guaranteed and as good as done. It was inevitable and unavoidable. Which is why he went on to encourage them to remember that they had been “prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9:23 BSB). Their future glorification would be the inescapable outcome of their salvation.

And Jude echoes this remarkable truth by stating that God is determined “to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24 ESV). But Jude seems to have more in mind here than the believer’s future glorification. He is reminding them that God has made it possible for them to stand before Him as blameless, right here, right now. He is not describing a state of sinless perfection, but of acceptance before God. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and our acceptance of His payment for our sins, we stand before God covered by the righteousness of Christ. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome, “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (8:1 NLT).

Our sins have been paid for. Which means our sin debt has been wiped clean. And while we will suffer in this life, we can rest assured that we will survive all this life will throw at us. We can be exactly what Paul said we should be: “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37 ESV).

And the best news is that, one day, all those who have been called by God and have placed their faith in His Son, will stand before the two of them in all of their glory with great joy. And the book of Revelation records John’s vision of that coming day.

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
    the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. – Revelation 19:6-8 ESV

And Jude seems to alluding to this very scene in the very last line of his letter. In fact, his words echo those of the saints who will be standing before God and the Lamb in the eternal state.

…to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 1:25 ESV

But these words of praise and adoration are not reserved for some future point in time, but are to be a part of each and every believer’s life as they live on this earth. Notice that Jude include the past (before all time), the present (now), and the future (forever). God deserves our praise at all times. He is and always has been worthy of glory, majesty, dominion, and authority. Our circumstances don’t change that reality. Our suffering does not diminish His glory, limit His dominion, or call into question His power or authority. Present affliction shouldn’t cause us to doubt our future glorification. God has it all under control. He who called us will keep us. He who saved us will sanctify us. And He who redeemed us through His Son’s death will one day grant us eternal life. It is a promise of God that was reiterated by the Son of God.

“I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.” – Luke 18:29 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.s

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Contentment in Christ

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

Verse 10 presents what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat awkward and misplaced transition. It seems as if Paul is jumping to a whole new topic: His recent receipt of some sort of gift from the Philippian congregation. But, while that is the topic, Paul seems to be bringing it up at this point because it has everything to do with what he has been discussing in this section. He is using their gift to make an important point about what it means to “think on these things.”

Remember, Paul has just stressed that they were to fix their thoughts on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. They were to fill their minds with thoughts of those actions and attitudes that reflect those kind of characteristics. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Paul brings up their recent gift to him. But notice that is it not the gift itself that Paul turns his attention to. It is what the gift represented to him. He tells them that he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly,” not because of the nature of what they gave, but because of the heart behind the gift – “you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10 ESV). 

The gift was a tangible expression of their love and concern for him. And, Paul lets them know that he always knew they cared for him, but was aware that they had been hindered in expressing their love in either word or deed because of distance and his own unique circumstance in Rome. For Paul, the gift was not the point. He doesn’t even mention what the gift was. It was simply a timely reminder of their love for him and, as he thought about that, he couldn’t help but rejoice. Their thoughtfulness to send him the gift was an example of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable.

Too often, we allow conditions and circumstances to determine the degree of our joy. When things go well for us, we react with happiness. When they don’t, we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, wondering what we did to make God mad at us. But circumstances were never meant to be metrics for measuring our joy or contentment. And neither were material things. But the truth is, far too many of us place excessive importance on stuff and things, seeking from them a sense of worth and using them as our primary source for finding satisfaction and significance in life.

The Philippians saw Paul as someone in need. He was under house arrest in Rome, so his circumstances were less than ideal. He had no source of income, so his financial situation was challenging. They may have heard that his housing was inadequate and his food supply was insufficient. From their perspective, it must have appeared that Paul was in dire straights, as he awaited trial before Caesar.  So, they sent him a gift. And it was only natural that they would do so. They wanted to do something to help alleviate any suffering he may be experiencing as a result of his conditions.

But Paul, while grateful for their graciousness and love, used this as another teaching moment, letting them know that, in spite of what he was going through, he really had no need. It wasn’t about the condition of his circumstances or the abundance or lack of material things. And Paul makes that point quite clear in what has become one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses from the Bible.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. – Philippians 4:11 ESV

Think about what Paul is saying. His mention of the delay in receiving their gift was not intended to convey that he had lacked in anything. He had not been sitting around waiting for someone to do something about his circumstances. He had not been longing for a gift of some kind that would lighten his load or improve his living conditions. No, he said that he was perfectly content. He was at peace. He appreciated their gift, as an expression of their love, but he didn’t need it. Whatever it was that they sent was not going to make him any more happy or satisfied than he already was.

Over the years, Paul had learned a valuable lesson, that he was not attempting to pass on to them.

I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:12 NLT

Paul refers to what he has learned as being a secret or mystery. The Greek word he used is myeō, and it means “to initiate into the mysteries.” He had been taught something that few people ever get to know on their own. And the lesson he learned was taught to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Remember what Paul stated earlier in this same letter: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5 NLT).  He was humble, obedient, selfless, sacrificial and obedient to God the Father, even to the point of death.

Paul was probably familiar with the story when the disciples had brought Jesus food and had encouraged Him to eat. But He had responded, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). While they debated among themselves how Jesus had gotten this food, Jesus told them, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). And it is likely that Paul was aware of the encounter Jesus had with a would-be disciple, to whom Jesus declared, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NLT).

For Paul, contentment had nothing to do with content. It wasn’t about things. Clothes, food, and living arrangements were not what brought Paul joy. The size of his personal portfolio was not a determiner of Paul’s contentment. The condition of his circumstances was not how Paul measured his sense of satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of material prosperity had no little or no impact on Paul. He didn’t allow the ups and downs of life circumstances to dictate his overall sense of contentment. And the key to this rather radical view on life was his relationship with Jesus. According to Paul, it was Jesus who gave him the strength to live as he did.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

Paul could survive house arrest, because of Jesus. He could put up with less-than-satisfactory living conditions, because of Jesus. He could do without comfortable clothes or good food, because of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just give Paul strength to survive want and neglect. Paul could survive all the temptations that come with material wealth, because of Jesus. He had remained undistracted by the allure of fame and notoriety, because of Jesus. He was not prone to envy other, more popular, ministers, all because of Jesus.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminded them that when he had arrived in their city, he wasn’t out to impress or to gain approval.

I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NT

His emphasis had been of Jesus. His strength had come from Jesus. He came to them, filled with fear and trepidation, but he found the power to do what he had been called to do – in Christ. And, in a second letter to the same congregation, Paul emphasized that the strength he received from Christ allowed him to endure anything and everything so that the gospel might be spread and the church of Jesus Christ might be strengthened.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NLT

For Paul, suffering and troubles came with the territory. They were just part of the job description of being a follower of Christ. And he was perfectly content to endure all that came with being a faithful servant of Christ. Life isn’t about ideal circumstances or the presence of material comforts. It is about contentment in Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unity in Diversity

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Philippians 1:18-2:4 ESV

Paul has expressed his desire to return to Philippi one day, and he has let them know that, while he would prefer to die and be with the Lord, he was of the impression that he would eventually be released from his house arrest in Rome. And that would be a good thing. It would allow him to continue his ministry of the gospel and to continue to encourage all the churches he had played a role in starting.

But, at the moment, Paul’s greatest concern was the spiritual well-being of his brothers and sisters in Philippi. And while he knew they would rejoice over the thought of him returning to see them one day, he had more pressing matters in mind.  It would seem from the content of this next section of Paul’s letter, that there was some serious disunity taking place in the congregation in Philippi. Paul is going to stress the idea of oneness. Three times in eight verses, Paul will use the word, “one.” He longs to hear that they are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 ESV).

Like any of the other churches of that day, the Philippian congregation was relatively new and trying to hold its own in the midst of a pagan and sometimes hostile culture.  They were constantly facing outside opposition. As a Roman colony, Philippi was filled with a plethora of false gods. One of the keys to Rome’s successful domination of the world was its willingness to accommodate and tolerate the gods of the nations they conquered. They allowed their subjects to continue the worship of their own particular deity(s). While this policy of tolerance made the management of Rome’s far-flung empire with its ethnically and religiously diverse populations much easier, it could also create an atmosphere of polarization and antagonism. In the atmosphere of forced pluralism, each group would go out of its way to maintain the distinctives of its religious traditions, resulting in a culture of conflict and competition.

And here was this fledgling congregation of relatively new believers trying to hold its own in an atmosphere that favored religious pluralism but actually fostered intolerance and open hostility. Christians were the new kids on the block. They were usually unwelcome and misunderstood. Some viewed them as a sect of Judaism, while others tried to portray them as a dangerous cult. And, each and every one of the members of the Philippian congregation would have been a convert to Christianity from some other and much older faith system. In accepting Christ as Savior, they had turned their backs on their former religion and, in doing so, alienated friends and family members who still held firmly to that ideology.

For Christians living in the 1st-Century, coming to faith in Christ was about much more than a decision to accept Jesus as their Savior. It could be an extremely risky and potentially deadly choice that had long-term and life-altering implications. And no one understood this better than Paul. His relationship with Christ had cost him dearly. And in his second letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul outlined all that he had suffered as a result of his faith.

Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.[c] I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. – 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 NLT

Being a follower of Christ was not easy. And Paul knew that the key to the Philippian church’s survival was going to be their unity. They had to see themselves as a family. They were in this together. And they needed to see themselves as distinct and different from the culture around them. Which is why he pleads with them to “live as citizens of heaven” and to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). This was a corporate call, addressing the entire congregation, not individual believers. They were to do this together, not alone. Their display of unity in the face of adversity and hostility would strengthen their faith and spread the news of the life-transformative nature of the gospel. That this diverse group of people from all walks of life and a variety of religious backgrounds could live together with one mind and one spirit would be a testimony to the power of the gospel.

And Paul commends them for “standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). He has heard of their unity, but he knows that the enemy is always seeking to divide and conquer. They must not allow that to happen. Paul flatly states, “Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies” (Philippians 1:28 NLT). There were outside forces pressing in on this young congregation and Paul wanted them to remain unified in their love for one another and their commitment to the cause of Christ. This unwavering display of oneness in the face of opposition would be proof of the ultimate victory Christ-followers will enjoy. As Jesus told promised Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV).

Suffering was going to be a normal part of their faith experience. In fact, Paul tells them that they should see their suffering as a privilege, on equal footing with the privilege of trusting in Christ. For Paul, suffering was a necessary part of salvation. It came with the territory. And a bit further on in his letter, Paul will boldly declare, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT). This was not an isolated statement by Paul. He held this view throughout his life and shared it frequently. To the believers in Rome he wrote: “if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17 NLT). He told the Colossian church, “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24 NLT). And the apostle Peter shared Paul’s sentiments regarding suffering.

…be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.  – 1 Peter 4:13 NLT

Paul viewed the Christian life as a struggle. It was not meant to be easy. We are aliens living in a strange land. We are emissaries for the King and have been sent to declare the message of His Kingdom to a world that stands opposed to Him. We have the good news regarding Jesus Christ, but the majority of those with whom we share it will find it repulsive and simply reject it. And they will reject the messengers as well.

So, in order to survive in this hostile environment, we will need to remain unified and share a single-minded commitment to our mutual mission as the body of Christ. With all that the believers in Philippi were facing, Paul wanted them to understand that their shared faith in Christ had real value. Which is why he states, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy” (Philippians 2:1 ESV). Paul is not raising doubts concerning the efficacy of faith in Christ, he is doing just the opposite. There IS encouragement in Christ. There IS comfort that comes from Christ-like love. There IS real value in living together in the power of the Holy Spirit. There IS true affection and sympathy to be found in this thing called the body of Christ.

But all of this is available only when believers choose to accept the non-negotiable reality of their role as members of that body. Which is why Paul encourages the Philippian believers to be, “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). There was no place for selfishness or self-centeredness in the body of Christ. Pride was out of bounds and of no value. Conceit and ego were to be seen as deadly to unity.

In order to survive and thrive, the believers in Philippi were going to have to have a different kind of attitude about life. It was going to require a counter-cultural take on what it means to succeed in life. And, just so they don’t miss what he means, Paul spells it out for them.

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. – Philippians 2:4 NLT

And in the very next verse, Paul will provide them with the key to pulling all this off. It will not be accomplished in their own strength or according to their own standards of humility and unity. Christ is to be our model for living in Christ-likeness. He sets the standard for what it means to “live as citizens of heaven.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Keep On Keeping On

18 Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. Philippians 1:18-26 ESV

Paul opens this section by reconfirming his determination to rejoice in his circumstances. While news of his imprisonment had been disconcerting to the believers in Philippi, For Paul it was just another God-ordained opportunity to spread the gospel. And if others were attempting to take advantage of his situation by filling the role of messenger is his absence, so be it. As long as Christ was being lifted up, he was perfectly okay with it all, even if some of these people were motivated by envy and not a sincere love for the lost.

Paul knew that any success he had enjoyed in his ministry had not been because of his powers of persuasion, but it had been due to the power of the gospel. In writing to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul reminded them of the treatment he and Silas had suffered in Philippi because of their preaching of the gospel. Not long after their arrival in Philippi, they had cast a demon out of a young slave girl. With the exorcism of the demon, she lost her ability to act as a fortune teller for her masters and they lost a much-needed source of revenue. In an act of revenge, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates of the city, where the two men were severely beaten and thrown in jail. And Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that all of this had taken place just prior to his arrival in their town.

You yourselves know, dear brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition. So you can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else. – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-6 NLT

In spite of all that had happened in Philippi, Paul and his companions declared the Good News boldly in Thessalonica, even in the face of opposition. And they did so, not for money or the praise of men, but to please God as His faithful messengers. So, Paul was not concerned with the motives of others. As long as they were preaching salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, he was satisfied and could rejoice. Paul had never been in the ministry for what he could get out of it. For him, it was a calling, not a job. And He never saw himself as this gifted spokesman for God using his talents to further the Kingdom of God. He even describes himself as nothing more than a fragile clay jar containing the great treasure of the gospel message (2 Corinthians 4:7). And he wrote to the Corinthian believers, reminding them that their conversions were due to the power of the Spirit, not his own eloquence.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT

But as Paul writes to the Philippian believers from his house arrest in Rome, he shares with them the tremendous internal conflict he was having. It had nothing to do with a fear of death. He knew that was a possible outcome of his pending trial before Nero and he was perfectly at peace with that. In fact, he flatly stated, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23 ESV). He saw death as a reward, not a punishment. But he also struggled with the desire to continue his ministry among them. As much as he longed to be with the Lord, he felt that his work on Christ’s behalf was far from over. In fact, he told the Philippians, “I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith” (Philippians 1:25 NLT).

One thing motivated Paul’s actions and attitudes – bringing glory to the name of Christ. If he could do that through deliverance from prison and a continuation of his ministry, so be it. But if his trial resulted in a death sentence, he saw that as a gracious deliverance by God from this sin-marred world. When all was said and done, Paul simply wanted to honor Christ in all that he did, which is why he stated, “I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die” (Philippians 1:20 NLT).

Paul was not making much of himself. He was not bragging about his superior spirituality or attempting to set himself up as some icon of righteousness and religious virtue. He was attempting to encourage the believers in Philippi to share the same perspective on life that he had. He didn’t view his arrest and imprisonment as a setback or a sign of God’s disfavor with him. He sincerely believed that it was all a part of God’s will for his life. By maintaining his focus on Christ and trusting in the will of God for his life, Paul had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NLT). So, he was able to say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12 NLT).

He knew that the Philippian believers were facing their own set of difficulties. They were going to have struggles in their faith journey, just as Paul had. And Paul wanted them to stay strong, to remain committed to the cause of Christ, and to see the sovereign hand of God in all that happened in and around their lives.

Paul was convinced that he was going to be released and that he would one day see them again. But in the meantime, he wanted to encourage them to keep on keeping on. Later on in this letter, Paul writes these powerful words of testimony and encouragement.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us… – Philippians 3:14 NLT

Then he follows up this statement of personal conviction and commitment with a call for them to follow his lead.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. – Philippians 3:17 NLT

And in the following verses, Paul will provide the Philippians with specific details concerning the conduct of all those who claim heavenly citizenship as God’s children.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

We Will Sing.

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

“We have a strong city;
    he sets up salvation
    as walls and bulwarks.
Open the gates,
    that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.
You keep him in perfect peace
    whose mind is stayed on you,
    because he trusts in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.
For he has humbled
    the inhabitants of the height,
    the lofty city.
He lays it low, lays it low to the ground,
    casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it,
    the feet of the poor,
    the steps of the needy.”

The path of the righteous is level;
    you make level the way of the righteous.
In the path of your judgments,
    O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and remembrance
    are the desire of our soul.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
    my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.
For when your judgments are in the earth,
    the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. – Isaiah 26:1-9 ESV

The prophet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, continues to reveal a future day when a remnant of Israel will be restored to the land and Jerusalem will once more be the city of God. While some aspects of this prophecy have been fulfilled, in part, through past events, the majority of what Isaiah reveals in these verses speaks of “that day” – a reference to the end times. By the descriptions given in this passage, it would appear that Isaiah is speaking of the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, spoken of in Revelation 20. In God’s great redemptive plan, there is a day coming when His Son will return and set up His Kingdom on earth, ruling from the throne of David in Jerusalem.

And Isaiah is given a glimpse of what that great day will mean to the Jews who survive the seven years of the Tribulation, and are alive when Jesus returns. They will sing a song of joy, praise and thanksgiving.

“Our city is strong!
    We are surrounded by the walls of God’s salvation.” – Isaiah 26:1 NLT

Unlike their ancient ancestors, the Israelites will recognize God as the source of their strength and salvation. It will be readily apparent to them that the walls of Jerusalem were not what had kept them safe and secure. During the second half of the Tribulation, a period known as the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist will turn his hatred against the people of God, even desecrating their temple by erecting an idol to himself in the Holy of Holies. He will put an end to all sacrifice and begin a pogrom of extermination aimed at all those who follow God, having refused to take the mark of the Antichrist and worship him as a false god.

So, when Christ returns and defeats the kings of the earth and Satan, the prince of this world, the Jews will rejoice. And they will call all the righteous to join them in the city of Jerusalem where the Messiah has set up His throne. It will be a time when all who have remained true to God will be able to rejoice over the faithfulness of God.

“You will keep in perfect peace
    all who trust in you,
    all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” – Isaiah 26:3 NLT

This verse, which has been quoted by so many of God’s people over the centuries, would have been meant to provide encouragement to the people in Isaiah’s day. It was intended to be a reminder that they remain faithful and true to God, no matter what was happening around them. They were in the midst of their trials and tribulations, but God was with them. All He asked in return was that they trust in Him and keep their thoughts fixed on Him. The song of the saints who come out of the future tribulation makes this point perfectly clear.

“Trust in the Lord always,
    for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” – Isaiah 26:4 NLT

The whole purpose behind Isaiah’s vision of Jerusalem’s future restoration and Messiah’s ascension to the throne of David was to challenge the people of Judah to remain true to God. He wanted them to trust God, rather than put their hope in an alliance with another nation. Their circumstances were intended to turn them back to God, not to false forms of hope and pseudo-salvation. And these prophetic visions of future salvation were meant to remind God’s people that He was, is and always will be faithful.

He humbles the proud and arrogant. He destroys the powerful cities of the enemies. But He cares for the downtrodden and poor. He avenges the oppressed and restores the fortunes of the faithful.

“But for those who are righteous,
    the way is not steep and rough.
You are a God who does what is right,
    and you smooth out the path ahead of them.” – Isaiah 26:7 NLT

The difficulty every child of God faces is the seeming disconnect between the promises of God and the nature of our circumstances. Because, too often, the road we walk seems extremely steep and rough. And it does not always appear as if God is doing what is right. We question Him constantly, doubting His goodness and love because we have a difficult time seeing Him in the midst of all our trials. Rather than a smooth path, we see a rocky road, filled with faith-jarring potholes and seemingly pointless twists and turns that serve no purpose.

But Isaiah would have us remember that God is there, and He has a plan. That plan, much to our chagrin, goes far beyond our immediate need for relief from suffering. God has far more planned for us than simply our immediate happiness. A big part of what Isaiah was trying to get across to the people of Judah was their need to be obedient to God. Their suffering was due to their disobedience. They had allowed their love for and obedience to God to wain. Love of the world and love of self had replaced their love for God.

But the saints who weather the storm of the Tribulation will sing of their obedience to God and their desire to glorify His name, even in the midst of the worst suffering this world will ever know.

“Lord, we show our trust in you by obeying your laws;
    our heart’s desire is to glorify your name.
In the night I search for you;
    in the morning I earnestly seek you.
For only when you come to judge the earth
    will people learn what is right.” – Isaiah 26:8-9 NLT

Notice that last line. It says it all. We will never fully understand the ways of God until He completes His grand plan for this world and all who live on it. One of the reasons the Bible is filled with prophetic visions of the future is so that we will keep our eyes focused on the entirety of God’s redemptive plan. As human beings, we have a severely limited perspective on life. It tends to focus on our immediate context and produces in us a myopic sense of self-importance. It ends up being all about us. Our problems. Our suffering. Our pain. Our loss. Our desire for happiness and our demand that all our troubles be eliminated right here, right now.

But the apostle Paul, like Isaiah, would remind us to look up and look forward.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 NLT

As he told the believers in Rome:

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.
 – Romans 8:18 NLT

And Peter adds his words to the mix, encouraging us to see our present suffering as a natural part of our life as followers of Christ. But there is a day coming when God will make all things right.

…be strong in your faith. Remember that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are. In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. – 1 Peter 5:8-10 NLT

And, once again, Paul reminds us to keep our eyes focused on the larger plan of God. This world is not all there is. What we see now does not represent the full scope of God’s redemptive plan.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossian 3:1-4 NLT

And like the saints in the Millennial Kingdom, we will sing and rejoice as we share in all His glory.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Remain Faithful.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:8-11 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapThe city of Smyrna was only about 35-miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, it was a wealthy and prosperous city, but also had a reputation for its wickedness and strong resistance to the gospel at the time John would have written this letter. The name Smyrna actually means “bitter.” It is translated from the Hebrew mor or myrrh, which was a fragrant perfume used in the embalming of dead bodies. The fragrance of myrrh is released when it is crushed, and this will prove to be an accurate metaphor for the little congregation of believers trying to exist within the confines of this immoral city. Jesus introduces Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8 ESV). This designation is intended to provide the members of the church in Smyrna with encouragement, relating to them the eternal nature of the one whom they worshiped. Jesus had died, but He was alive. He had risen from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He had returned to His rightful place, where He has existed for all eternity. These people were experiencing tribulation and poverty as a result of their faith, and Jesus lets them know that He is fully aware. He reminds them that they are actually rich, having received the gift of God’s grace in the form of His Son’s sacrificial death. The apostle Paul had a lot to say about the richness that comes from our restored relationship with God the Father made possible through the death of Jesus, His Son. He described he and his fellow ministers as, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV). He also told the Corinthians that Jesus had graciously taken on human flesh and offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of men, “so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). And James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminded his readers that God had chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5 ESV).

The believers in Smyrna were poor according to every measurable standard of their day. But Jesus wanted to remind them of the value of their relationship with Him. They had something money could not buy: a right relationship with God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Along with their poverty, these Christians were having to endure slander from Jews living in the city. But Jesus describes these people as not being Jews at all, but instead, labels them as “a synagogue of Satan.” The apostle Paul provides us with additional insight into what Jesus is saying about these people.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

The local Jewish population was attacking the fledgling church, slandering its members in the community. In his commentary on Revelation, Charles C. Ryrie notes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 155, and “these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation). The animosity against Christians was intense in the sophisticated society of Smyrna. Even other religious minorities like the Jews treated the believers there with contempt.

But Jesus warns them that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

And yet, He tells them not to fear. He encourages them to remain faithful even to the point of death. In essence, Jesus is giving the church in Smyrna more bad news. They were already suffering persecution, poverty and slander. Now, He was letting them know that Satan himself was about to unleash his full fury on them, resulting in some of them ending up in prison. And Jesus lets them know that it will all be a test. This is an indication that the entire ordeal will pass through the sovereign hands of God Almighty. Satan has no power to persecute them without God’s divine permission. Satan’s intentions would be to test their faithfulness to God, using ever-more intense persecution in an  attempt to get them to abandon their hope and trust in God. But Jesus wants them to remain faithful. God will use this same test to prove their allegiance to Him. Again, the apostle Paul, who was well-acquainted with suffering and persecution, wrote:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 ESV

Jesus lets them know that their tribulation will be short in duration. It will last only ten days. There is no way to know if this is to be taken literally or figuratively. But it would seem that Jesus is attempting to juxtapose the short-term nature of their suffering with the long-term benefits of the eternal glory awaiting them.

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

Even if their persecution should result in death, Jesus reminds them that death is followed by eternal life. The crown of life is not an additional reward reserved for those who go through martyrdom for their faith. It is a reference to eternal life itself. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be faithful even to the point of death. For the believer, death is not something we are to fear. As Paul put it:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.
 – Romans 8:38 NLT

Our suffering in this life is temporary in nature. Even if that suffering should result in death, it is not the end. And our death will only result in our immediate transfer into God’s presence. Which is what led Paul to state, “we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT).

And Jesus closes His message to the church in Smyrna with a reminder to every church in every age:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. – Revelation 2:11 ESV

The “second death” is a reference to the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.

11 And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. 12 I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. 15 And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna and every other believer who has ever lived, that we will not have to worry about this judgment. We won’t be there. It is reserved for those who have refused to accept the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who suffer and die as a result of their faith in this life, don’t have to worry about suffering eternal death in the next life. Our eternity is secure. Jesus wanted these believers to remain strong, even in the face of persecution. He wanted them stay faithful, even if it resulted in their deaths. Jesus was not making light of their troubles, but was attempting to remind them of the magnitude of their eternal reward.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The God of Eternity.

1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Solomon believed in the sovereignty of God. He sincerely believed that the lives of all men were in the hands of God, whether they were righteous or wicked, good or bad. His view was that God acted as the divine arbiter over the fate of all, including their lives and inevitable deaths, leaving man no option but to make the most out of the days he had allotted to him by God. But this view of God’s sovereignty has a feel of resignation and resentment to it. He clearly states that “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God”, but he doesn’t come across as all that pleased about it. In fact, he views this sovereignty as some kind of divine whim, where God metes out love and hate as He sees fit. Solomon almost paints it as some kind of arbitrary decision on God’s part, lacking any kind of reasoned explanation. He puts it this way:  “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him” (Ecclesiastes 9:1 ESV). In other words, from man’s earth-bound perspective, he can never know if God is going to show him favor or disfavor. If good things happen, it is the will of God. If bad things happen, it is the will of God. That appears to be his somewhat pessimistic conclusion regarding God’s sovereignty.

As far as Solomon can tell, all people share the same fate. They all die. And even while they remain alive, they all experience their fair share of ups and downs, blessings and curses, successes and failures. And he points out that it really doesn’t seem to matter how you live your life. He compares the righteous with the wicked, the good with those who commit evil, the ceremonially clean with the ceremonially impure, and finally, the one who offers sacrifices to God with the one who does not. The individuals represented by these polarized comparisons all face death at the end of their lives, and the sole factor determining the day of their death is God. And Solomon expresses his opinion about the matter, concluding, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Solomon saw death as some kind of divine exclamation point at the end of man’s life sentence, ending any hope of experiencing joy and fulfillment. And it was that belief that led him to write: “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 ESV). From his perspective, it was better to remain alive, even if you had to struggle with the apparent injustices of life. Solomon clearly saw life as preferable to death.

Solomon has made it clear that this life can be difficult and meaningless. Here, he states, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Men do evil things. They commit acts of violence against one another. They oppress and abuse one another. And yet, Solomon would prefer to put up with all that than face the final day of death. Because, as far as he can see, that day has a finality to it. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV). Do you see how he views death? He sees it as an end, almost as a form of divine penalty doled out by God on all who have ever lived. It’s as if he’s saying that life is this hit or miss, futility filled existence, completely dictated by God, and then it suddenly comes to a screeching, abrupt end – all based on God’s divine determination. It’s no wonder he preferred life over death. For him, whatever existed beyond the grave was unattractive and undesirable. As far as he could tell, the destiny that awaits us on the other side of death was unknowable and, therefore, unwelcome. Concerning those who die: “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6 ESV).

Those are the words of a man who sees this life as the only source of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. In fact, Solomon seemed to believe that the only way God could bless human beings was through the physical pleasures associated with life on this planet. He saw man’s identity completely tied to his earthly existence. All rewards were relegated to this life and this plane of existence. There was nothing beyond the grave. And it is that world view that dictates the decision-making of just about every person who occupies this planet – unless they have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, there are other religions that teach an afterlife where there are rewards. But Christianity is particularly future-oriented, placing the real emphasis of mankind’s existence not on this world, but on the one to come. Our reward awaits us in eternity, not on this earth. That does not mean God withholds blessings from His children while they remain alive, but that His greatest reward is yet to come. The words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount, confirm this.

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

The apostle Paul had a future-oriented mindset. He had his eyes set on his future reward, his glorification that was tied to the return of Christ.

13 …but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

The author of Hebrews also provides us with powerful words of encouragement, using Jesus as an example of the way in which we should live while we exist on this earth.

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. – Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT

Jesus suffered. He knew what it was like to endure rejection and ridicule, injustice and oppression. He even endured the pain of the cross, knowing that it was all part of God’s divine will for His life. It was a necessary part of the redemptive plan God had put in place before the foundation of the world. Jesus ran His life’s race with endurance, keeping His eyes focused on the will of God and the future reward of God. And now He sits in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

And the apostle Paul would have us remember that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we face a similar reward.

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT

Regardless of what Solomon believed, there is something beyond the grave. Not only does an afterlife exist, it holds blessings beyond anything we can imagine. The pain, suffering, oppression, and injustice in this life that Solomon has so eloquently described, will not exist in the next one. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, eternity awaits and a life free from pain, suffering, sin, sorrow, and the looming threat of death. John writes of this wonderful reality in his letter to the seven churches.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NLT

Solomon was a wise man, but he reveals his inability to comprehend the ways of God. Over the years, he had developed an earth-based, temporal perspective that limited the sovereignty of God to the here and now. He saw life as an end all, which explains his obsession with experiencing all that life had to offer. And when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in this life, he deemed it all meaningless, like chasing the wind. But he failed to see that God had much more in store. The best was yet to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Let the Will of the Lord be Done.

1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.

When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”

15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge. Acts 21:1-16 ESV

pauls-third-missionary-journey

 

In his gospel account, Luke records the following statement regarding Jesus: “Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 NLT). Jesus had begun to reveal to His disciples the fate that awaited Him in Jerusalem. He told them, “Take these words to heart, for the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44 NLT). As time went on and the day of His betrayal and death drew closer, He became more specific regarding the details surrounding what awaited Him in Jerusalem.

31 Then Jesus took the twelve aside and said to them, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; he will be mocked, mistreated, and spat on. 33 They will flog him severely and kill him. Yet on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But the twelve understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what Jesus meant. – Luke 18:31-33 NLT

Jesus had been resolute and steadfast in His commitment to carry out the assignment given to Him by God the Father. He knew why He had come to earth and His work would not be complete until He had finished what He had been sent to do. And, at one point, He spoke the following statement in the hearing of His disciples and to those who had claimed to be His followers, but who had been distracted by worldly concerns: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62 NLT).

Here in Luke’s retelling of the history of the church, he seems to be comparing the determination and dedication of Jesus to that of Paul. We see in this passage, some striking similarities between the two men, as Paul, making his way to Jerusalem, displays a strong sense of calling and commitment to complete the journey, even in spite of the warnings of those who loved him. Paul had no idea what awaited him in Jerusalem, but he knew from experience that the potential for death was a reality everywhere he went.

22 And now, behold, j, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. – Acts 20:22-24 ESV

Paul wanted to finish well. He wanted to be faithful to the assignment given to him by Jesus. And his attitude was that, as long as the Lord allowed him to live, he would share the gospel faithfully and boldly. His goal in life was to please the Lord, whether in life or in death.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 ESV

And Luke, using geographic locations as a sort of measurement device, tells of Paul’s unwavering commitment to return to Jerusalem as the Spirit had directed him. Luke describes their journey from Miletus to Cos, then to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. Their next stop was Phoenicia and from there they sailed to Tyre, passing by the island of Rhodes on the way. There are not stops mentioned. At no point does he describe Paul taking time to minister along the way. This was not normal behavior for Paul. You can sense in Luke’s description of this leg of their journey that there was a certain determination on the part of Paul. Like Jesus, he had set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem.

It was only when he had arrived in Tyre that Paul took time to meet with the disciples there. He stayed for seven days, but this was only because he was forced to wait for this ship’s cargo to be unloaded. During the delay, Paul was once again bombarded with dire warnings from those who cared deeply for him. Luke records that the brothers and sisters, under the influence of the Spirit of God, “were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4 ESV). This begs a question: If these believers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem, why did he do so anyway? Was he being disobedient to the Spirit? Does this just display a stubbornness on Paul’s part? It is important to remember that Paul had also received word from the Spirit of God. In fact, he had made that plain when he had said, “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22 ESV). It would seem that some of the disciples in Tyre had been given a divine insight into Paul’s fate, provided to them by the Holy Spirit. Upon hearing the news, their natural conclusion had been that the Spirit was telling them these things so they could warn Paul and keep him from going. But it much more likely that the Spirit was simply confirming what He had already told Paul. Out of their love for Paul, they were trying to prevent any harm from coming to him, but what awaited Paul in Jerusalem was the sovereign will of God. What what we seen happening here is the very same thing that happened when Jesus had informed the disciples about the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem.

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” – Matthew 16:21-22 NLT

Peter had meant well. He loved Jesus and was simply trying to protect him from what he believed to be an undeserved and unnecessary death. He didn’t understand what was going on, but was seeing things from his limited human perspective. And what Jesus said to him provides us with a telling and sobering warning.

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” – Matthew 16:23 NLT

The disciples in Tyre were guilty of the same thing. They were setting their minds on their own interests, rather than those of God. They couldn’t bear the thought of losing Paul. It made no sense to them that God would allow anything to happen to someone so vital to the well-being of the church. But that kind of attitude was dangerous. Jesus described Peter as acting like Satan, attempting to stand in the way of God divine will for the redemption of mankind. And the disciples in Tyre, while trying to keep Paul from having to suffer, were unwittingly doing the same thing. They had no idea what God had planned for Paul and what was going to happen as a result. They could not see into the future. All they knew was that something dire was waiting for Paul in Jerusalem and they wanted to prevent it from happening.

But Paul remained determined. He departed from Tyre and made his way to Ptolemais and then on to Caesarea, where he and his traveling companions stayed in the home of Philip the Evangelist. While there, Paul was once again confronted and warned about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem. This time, it came from the lips of a prophet named Agabus, who had come all the way from Judea. Using a visual illustration, he revealed to Paul that he would arrested by the Jews, bound up and delivered to the Gentiles. It is obvious that Agabus had also received a word from the Lord. And the text does not indicate that Agabus tried to dissuade Paul from going to Jerusalem. He simply presented the facts as given to him by God. It was the disciples in Philip’s house who heard this news and attempted to persuade Paul to change his plans. And Luke, out of love for his brother, Paul, included himself among those who tried to change Paul’s mind. “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12 ESV). 

What they failed to realize was that their passionate pleas for Paul to refrain from going to Jerusalem were actually making things more difficult for Paul. He responded: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 ESV). What Paul needed were words of encouragement to stay the course, not emotion-filled pleas to disobey the will of God for his life. His friends meant well, but they were operating out of a sense of selfishness. They were not seeing the bigger picture. For Paul, the plans of God far outweighed any personal aspirations he might have. He was much more interested in seeing the sovereign will of God accomplished than doing whatever he could to keep his life as trouble-free as possible.

Luke, along with all the others who had tried to dissuade Paul from his seemingly ill-fated plans to go to Jerusalem, resigned himself to the inevitable. He simply stated, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14 ESV). There is a certain sense of failure in Luke’s words. He doesn’t sound convincing. He even admitted that “since he would not be persuaded, we ceased” (Acts 21:14 ESV). They had tried, but had failed. So, they were forced to accept what happened as the will of God. But is that the way we should face the future? Does God want us to simply give up hope and face what may happen with a sense of resignation? What a contrast we see between the words of Luke and those of Paul. “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 ESV). The will of God didn’t intimidate Paul. It didn’t depress him. He didn’t feel compelled to resign himself to it. He willing and eagerly embraced it as preferable to any other alternative, because he was fully convinced that God knew best. Paul lived his life in keeping with the words of Peter: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The Incredible Non-Shrinking Man.

13 But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. 14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15 And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. 16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Acts 20:13-27 ESV

pauls-third-missionary-journey

After having miraculously raised Eutychus back to life, Paul and his traveling companions left Troas. Luke indicates that he, Timothy and the other six men who were accompanying Paul back to Jerusalem, took a ship from Troas and headed for Assos, while Paul determined to go by land. Traveling by ship required that you sail around Cape Lectum, which added considerable time to the journey. It was only 20 miles by land from Troas to Assos, so Paul’s decision to take the overland route allowed him to extend his stay in Troas. But eventually, he and the others met up in Assos, where he joined them aboard their ship and continued the journey, arriving some days later in Miletus. For whatever reason, Paul made the determination to sail past Ephesus, perhaps worrying that it would present too lengthy of a delay in his travel plans and prevent him from reaching Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Pentecost.

Paul still had a concern for the well-being of the church in Ephesus, so he came up with an alternative plan, sending for the elders of the church and inviting them to join him in Miletus. It had been in Ephesus that the gospel had made a huge impact, transforming the lives of many who once worshiped false gods and dabbled in the occult. Luke records:

19 A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars. 20 So the message about the Lord spread widely and had a powerful effect. – Acts 19:19-20 NLT

These changes had not set well with all those living in Ephesus. The local tradesmen, who made their living selling statues of the god, Artemis, had whipped the people into a frenzy, inciting a riot and causing “no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19:23 ESV). The situation for the believers in Ephesus had become intense and potentially dangerous. So, Paul had invited the elders to come and meet with him so that he might encourage them. But Paul used an interesting tactic to accomplish his goal. He most likely knew that those in Ephesus might have viewed his leaving of them as a form of abandonment. Just when things had gotten hot, he had bailed on them. So, Paul reminded the elders that he had spent a great deal of time in Ephesus, ministering to them, even in the face of the hostile threats of the Jews, who opposed his teaching.

19 I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. 20 I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. – Acts 20:19-20 NLT

It’s important to remember that, at this point in his ministry, Paul had already been stoned and left for dead. He had faced tremendous opposition and intense hatred. But he had refused to shrink back. Even in the face of adversity, Paul had stood his ground and remained faithful to his calling by Jesus.

21 I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus. – Acts 20:21 NLT

That had been Paul’s persistent passion and he had pursued it with an unwavering commitment. And his departure from them had not been driven by fear or self-preservation, but by the Spirit of God. He was convinced that Jerusalem was the next stop on his itinerary, and he was going there, even though he had no idea what awaited him when he arrived. He knew that the Judaizers, those Jewish Christians who had been demanding that all Gentiles be circumcised and adhere to the Mosaic Law, would be there. He was well aware that they would still be questioning his ministry and accusing him of violating both the law and the religious heritage they held so sacred. Paul informed these men that “the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead” (Acts 20:23 NLT). If you recall, when Jesus had instructed Ananias to go to Paul, then known as Saul, and minister to him immediately after his conversion, He had said:

15 “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” – Acts 9:15-16 NLT

Paul was well aware that his ministry was to include suffering. He had experienced it. And he knew that every trip he took could be his last. He had been an eye-witness to the stoning death of Stephen. He had been stoned himself. And, on more than one occasion, he had been forced to flee for his life, sneaking out of a city in the dark of night, like a common criminal. And in the very next chapter, we will see Paul receive numerous warnings from others, prompted by the Holy Spirit. When he met with the disciples in Tyre, Luke records that “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4 ESV). While in Caesarea, a prophet from Judea named Agabus, came to visit Paul and warn him. Luke writes that he “took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles”’” (Acts 21:11 NLT). The disciples who witnessed this event begged Paul not to go to Jerusalem, but he responded: “I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 NLT).

Paul told the elders from Ephesus, “my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God” (Acts 20:24 NLT). Paul was more than willing to suffer for the cause of Christ, and he already had. He was also willing to die, if necessary. He would later write to the believers in Philippi:

16 Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless. 17 But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God – Philippians 2:16-17 NLT

And Paul would encourage the Philippian believers to have the same attitude, seeing their relationship with Christ as of more value than life itself.

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. – Philippians 3:8-9 NLT

10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT

Paul had no regrets. He felt no compulsion to apologize for his efforts or to excuse his actions. He had been faithful.

26 I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, 27 for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know. – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

If someone died without knowing Christ, it was not Paul’s fault. He had done his job. He had faithfully declared the gospel and clearly articulated God’s plan of salvation. He had preached the Word of God unapologetically and fearlessly. And now, he was going to be heading to Jerusalem knowing that he might never see these brothers in Christ again. He had no idea what the future held. He lived with a sense of dependency upon the Spirit of God, that allowed him take one day at a time. He took nothing for granted. He savored every moment and made the most out of every minute given to him by God. Paul’s views regarding his ministry can best be summed up in the words he wrote to the believers in Philippi.

20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. – Philippians 1:20-21 ESV

Paul was encouraging these men by sharing with them his personal outlook on life. He knew that their ministry would be difficult, just as his had been. He realized that they would face times of uncertainty and fear. He had as well. He was well aware that they would be going back to Ephesus where they would face opposition of all kinds, both inside and outside of the church. But he was well acquainted with these things. These men were the God-appointed leaders of their local congregation. They had a huge responsibility and Paul wanted them to take it seriously. And his words would echo those of the apostle Peter, who also delivered strong words of encouragement and exhortation to the elders of the churches to whom he had ministered.

1 And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. – 1 Peter 5:1-4 NLT

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

An Open Door of Faith.

19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples. Acts 14:19-28 ESV

Popularity is a fickle and fleeting thing. Paul and Barnabas had found themselves the unwilling recipients of the worship of the people of Lystra. After having seen Paul and Barnabas restore a lame man’s ability to walk, the crowds had mistakenly declared them to be gods come to earth. They even tried to offer sacrifices to them. And, even though Paul and Barnabas vehemently denied any claim to deity and tried to point the people to Yahweh, it did no good. But then, a contingent of Jews from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, who stood opposed to the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, convinced the crowd that they had been deceived. They pleaded with the people of Lystra to see Paul and Barnabas as what they were: Fraud. These individuals had traveled a long way, just to keep Paul and Barnabas from doing what God had called them to do. They so opposed the message of these two men that they had plotted to stone them when they had been in Iconium, but Paul and Barnabas had left before they could do it. So, these men had followed them all the way to Lystra and now, they turned the crowds against them. We are not told how long it took them to persuade the people of Lystra that Paul and Barnabas were dangerous heretics and not gods, but they must have been convincing. The very same people who had lauded praise and honor on Paul and Barnabas and tried to lay wreaths at their feet, picked up stones and hurled them at Paul. Luke tells us that their efforts were so thorough that they believed Paul to be dead. And yet, Paul miraculously survived. Luke states that “he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20 ESV). Luke’s description of this entire scene comes across as so matter-of-fact, almost flippant. It begs for more detail. We want to know more. Did God somehow heal all of his wounds? When Luke says that some of the disciples gathered around Paul’s broken body, had they prayed for his healing? Did they lay hands on him? Luke doesn’t elaborate. He simply tells us that Paul stood and and went back to work. He entered the city, and then he and Barnabas went on to Derby. There’s a question that naturally arises out of this story. Why did Stephen have to die as a result of his stoning, while Paul was allowed to live? Neither Luke or God provide us with an answer. But we have seen time and time again, that God always has a reason for what takes place. Obviously, God was not done with Paul. He had more for him to do. And Paul would learn a great deal from this experience. In fact, after having ministered in Derby, Paul and Barnabas would make a return trip through Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, where they gathered all the believers and encouraged them “to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NLT). Paul would become a living example of the trials and tribulations that come with faithful service to God. He would even provide a detailed description of his many sufferings on behalf of Christ.

23 “I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. 24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” – 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 NLT
And Paul would go on to conclude that all of this, the pain, the suffering, beatings, and deprivations, were valuable because they revealed his own weakness. Which is what led him to say, “I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am” (2 Corinthians 11:30 NLT). And in the very next chapter of that same letter, Paul would clarify his thought even further:
9 “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT
Paul would suffer greatly, but he would also believe strongly. He would find strength in his weaknesses. He would discover the reality that His God was greater than anything he might have to suffer or endure. Paul was not motivated by success or popularity. He didn’t measure his effectiveness by how big the crowds were or how well his message was received. What is really fascinating about this story is that Paul never asks God the “why” question. He doesn’t shake his fist at God and demand an explanation for why he had to be stoned almost to death just for doing what he had been told to do. You don’t hear Paul complaining or whining about his circumstances or wondering why Barnabas escaped without a mark. No, instead, Paul saw his suffering as a privilege. Which is why he could tell the Philippian believers: “For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him” (Philippians 1:29 NLT). No doubt, Paul had been told by his fellow apostles about Jesus’ sermon on the mount and had heard the words He spoke that day.

11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way. – Matthew 5:11-12 NLT

And Paul, who would go on to suffer a great many trials and tribulations on behalf of Christ, would become an expert on the topic, providing him with the right and responsibility to instruct other believers about this vital topic.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 NLT

When Paul told the disciples in Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”, he knew what he was talking about. But what was he teaching? Is he saying a person must undergo suffering before they can become a Christian? Is he teaching that suffering is a necessary part of our salvation? The answer to these questions would be, “No.” Paul believed in salvation based on God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. There was nothing we were required to bring to the table. Our salvation is, completely and entirely, the work of God, But between the point at which we come to faith in Christ and when we stand before Him in heaven, there is that period in which we are required to live out our faith in this world. At the point of our conversion, we become citizens of heaven, but we remain inhabitants of this earth. We have a inheritance reserved for us in heaven, but are required to live as aliens, strangers and sojourners in this land. And Jesus Himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT).]

Living as a believer in this world is not easy. Paul knew that truth well. And he wanted all those who came to faith in Christ to understand that this world is not our home. We are on loan here by God, with an important task to perform: To share the good news of Jesus Christ with all those who find themselves living in darkness. We are to be ambassadors and witnesses to the resurrection power of Jesus Christ.

So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. For we live by believing and not by seeing. Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 NLT

Our goal is to please Him, not ourselves. Our ambition should be to do His will, not our own. Paul saw clearly that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27 ESV). And he realized that God had chosen to use Barnabas and himself to lead countless Gentiles to that open door. If they had to suffer in the course of doing their part, so be it. If it meant they had to endure some pain and rejection along the way, it was worth it. Paul had a long-term perspective. He was in it for the long-haul and realized that his reward would come in the future, not the present. He didn’t seek or expect accolades and rewards in this life, but in the one to come. He wasn’t surprised by trials and tribulations, but fully expected them. In fact, he actually rejoiced in them. They became proof that his efforts were not in vain. He had the enemy’s full attention. He had smacked the beehive and upset the order of things. And he would gladly do it again.

 

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson