This past week I have been reading Cornelis Venema’s The Promise of the Future. It is an excellent book and well worth a pastor’s read. It was in Part IV on how the future is marked with ‘Signs of the Times’ that got me thinking and writing of what has been a month of thlipsis that intensified this past week.
Thlipsis is the Greek word used most in the New Testament for the troubles that will attend the way of the Christian believer in the present age. Although most contemporary Christianity in the West may paint a different picture of the Christian life, it is clear the New Testament teaches otherwise.
The locus classicus is Jesus’ own words in Matthew 5.10-12, in the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus’ teaching provides a general description of the experience of the believer in the face of the world’s persecution and insults. It suggests that such persecution is the normal consequence of seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
It is crucial to notice that this tribulation results from the believer’s commitment to Christ. And therefore the many references to persecution and trouble always joins the experience with the believer’s union in Christ. So intimate is the communion of the believer with Christ that the affliction or persecution of the believer is a communion or participation in Christ’s affliction. This is the reason why Christ could confront the then Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9.4).
Tribulation in the life of the believer can take many forms. Often it takes the form of open persecution, in which the believer is exposed to the reproach and hostility of those who reject the gospel of Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 1.6, 2 Thessalonians 1, 2 Timothy 3.12-13, Acts 14.22, Revelation 1.9). It can mean imprisonment, something which the apostles and many believers ever since have experienced (Acts 20.23). Sometimes it means ridicule (Hebrews 10.33), poverty (2 Corinthians 2.4), illness (Revelation 2.22), or inner distress or sorrow (Philippians 1.17, 2 Corinthians 2.4).
They cannot be avoided! Each of them attests the genuineness of the believer’s fellowship with Christ, as well as a commitment and devotion to him and to his gospel.
Where can the believer turn for comfort in these times?
Consider how your tribulation confirms your union in Christ and participation with his rejection and affliction. And what a blessing for growth and maturity in your discipleship! Nowhere so much as affliction does the believer come to realize the depth and extent of his fellowship with Christ. In suffering affliction believers reflect something of that same pattern evident in the life of Christ himself, who entered into his glory only after the shame and suffering of the cross.
Indeed the rise of affliction this past week that served as a wonderful reminder to me of the centrality of the cross of Christ, not only as a means of atonement, but also as a call to self-denying patience under circumstances of suffering (1 Peter 2.21-25). Far from being a point of gloom, it reminded me that God’s kingdom will prevail. As the Apostle Paul declares: ” Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5.3-5).
But what of the ridicule, the allegations, the reproach, the assault on your integrity, and the hostility from which you are given no opportunity of defense because you are silenced while under an authority?
Christian believer, go to the Scriptures for your refreshment. You must remind yourself again of the truth of the gospel, the particulars of God’s saving work in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8.33-34). It is in a deeper understanding of where we stand in the gospel that we discover we need make no defense ourselves, we can put away any inner turmoil that may arise in an urge to respond, we have no need of anger or of redress.
For thanks be to God, Jesus Christ himself comes to be our perfect judge: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Romans 12.19) “For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’” (Hebrews 10.30).
Therefore as the Apostle Paul declares confidently in 1 Corinthians 4.3-5, we can also say with the same confidence what we have in our saving union with Jesus Christ:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
And make the prayer of the Apostles in Acts 4.25-30 your prayer:
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’-
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal,and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”