Confronting Conflict with the Gospel 7: The Community of Suffering
This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. Philippians 1:28-30 (NIV)
Like many of you, I pray regularly for our brothers and sisters suffering persecution in China, in the Middle East, Pakistan and in African nations such as Kenya. I know that God reigns over and knows their situation completely. Those who are martyred are included in the uncountable multitude of Revelation 7. And, as Tertullian noted in his Apologeticus, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’
These people whom I have not met are my family as a result of the gospel. But here is the thing I want you to grasp in light of Paul’s response to the Philippian church conflict. I have no way of knowing if I would agree with many of these family members theologically. They may hold on to beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, and church polity that I would reject out of hand. They might disapprove of how I live my life as a follower of Jesus and wonder at some of the things I teach.
Does this make them any less my family in Christ? Any less a concern for me that they are being persecuted, even losing their lives for the gospel?
Why is it easier to care about the family members I do not personally know than those that I do?
When Paul tells the Philippians that “This is a sign,” he is referring to their side-by-side unity. What testifies about the truth of the gospel to lost people is not believers’ fair-weather friendships or necessitated political alliances. It is our ongoing willingness to stand together in the face of possible suffering, rejection and hate. Paul is in jail for the faith. He knows the Philippians are potentially sheep to be slaughtered as well.
But notice that Paul is not talking about suffering as an unavoidable outcome, but as a gift. “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” This is not what people usually think of when speaking of persecution. We tend to see the unfairness of it, the lack of tolerance in those perpetrating it, the pain it inflicts. All of these points are true, but we are guilty of missing the main point.
Jesus suffered. Jesus was unjustly beaten, spit on, denied justice. Jesus was nailed to the cross by the Roman government, aided by his own countrymen—people who had been waiting generations for the coming Messiah. But this suffering was God’s plan (Acts 2:23) to accomplish an eternal purpose that was powerfully put on display on the day of Pentecost. In the words of Peter:
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
After Peter finished this impromptu message, God’s full reason for Jesus’ suffering made its impact. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:32-37 NIV)
As followers of Jesus, we follow in his steps. While we are not the one who paid the death price of sin, we share in his sufferings for the sake of the gospel. We are the delivery boys and girls, bringing the good news about Jesus to a lot of people who do not want to hear it and even do all they can to stomp it out.
They abuse believers because they lack the Spirit. They do not have a worldview shaped by God creating the world or a humanity that rebelled against His reign over them. They resent anyone who would suggest that their belief system is fatally flawed and that their continued allegiance to their own way is death.
Paul puts the Philippians in the same camp as himself. “We are suffering. Our suffering is a gift from God, as a sign that we are part of His proclamation of the reality of the gospel.”
And his point of saying this? Paul is subtly making it clear that their common suffering is a reminder of God’s reign over them. They have so much more in common than the small differences that are dividing them.
I remember the day when someone told me that we all have our private heresies. At the time, I was a bit taken aback. But I have lived long enough to know some of my beliefs, as dearly as I hold them, may be wrong. Nor are they as important as the Church. At the coming of Jesus, all of it will get sorted out. In the meantime, as family we suffer together for the sake of the gospel.