Suffering for the Sake of the Gospel

Dr. Brian Allison

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a speaker who is involved in full-time ministry to Muslims; and some of the things he had to share were disturbing. He shared that when a Muslim accepts the Gospel and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is often horrendous persecution that is leveled against him or her, especially by family and friends. This individual, having embraced the Lord Jesus Christ as his or her Saviour and Lord, is often disowned by the family, and his or her life may be threatened. To believe in the Gospel often invites and courts persecution. Often there is a hostile reaction from kith and kin, for in receiving the Gospel, and in living out that Gospel, these family members and friends feel judged and condemned by the Christian's witness. The new believer, in his new lifestyle, in his new pattern of living, makes these family members and friends more aware of their sin and guilt; and their reaction is persecution.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, the apostle Paul writes, "For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost." God has revealed His truth through human language. Through the vehicle of human speech, the Word of God is made known. That is a mystery – that God is pleased to reveal His Word through the human word. And those who receive in faith this communicated message as God's Word, experience the power of the Word in their hearts. They are changed. They are made new creatures.

Imitators in suffering

The apostle Paul describes one aspect of the effect of this mighty Word in the hearts of the Thessalonian believers. He says in 1 Thessalonians 2:14 that one aspect of this mighty working is that there is an imitation that occurs. He says, "For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea." Most likely these Thessalonian believers had not seen the believers in Judea, and yet unwittingly, not deliberately, their behaviour and conduct were similar to that of the believers in Judea. Gentile believers in Macedonia, who were many miles away from the Jewish believers in Palestine, "became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea." Do you see the point? In believing the truth of the Gospel, in embracing Christ as your Saviour and your Lord, there is a specific and similar result in behaviour and conduct in all who believe. There is a universally recognizable change in one's lifestyle. Regardless of cultural differences or social diversity, the power of the truth of the Gospel makes the same spiritual impact in the lives of all those who receive the Gospel. So, notice 1 Thessalonians 1:6,7,9, "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord. So that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia...For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God."

True Christianity looks the same wherever it is found, though there may be varying degrees of intensity and power. Now, Paul identifies a specific item of similarity in these Gentile believers' imitation of those Jews in Palestine – "For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews" (v. 14). The similarity is simply faithfully persevering in the face of persecution. These believers at Thessalonica had received the truth of the Gospel; their lives had been radically transformed, and they could no sooner deny the truth of the Gospel, they could no sooner deny the reality of Christ as Lord and Saviour, than they could deny their very existence. In embracing the Gospel, they were prepared to suffer for that Gospel; they had no other choice. We read in 1 Thessalonians 1:6, "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit." The apostle Paul could later write to this same group of believers, saying, "Therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure" (2 Th. 1:4).

So, these believers in Thessalonica imitated the faithful, suffering saints that had undergone persecutions in other parts of the world. Often enduring suffering is a concomitant with believing in Christ as Saviour and Lord. This past week I had the opportunity to show a group the slides that I had taken when I was in Romania this past summer. Prior to the revolution (pre 1990), there was incredible persecution, and hence suffering, of evangelical Christians in that country. The atrocities were unspeakable, and many Christians lost their lives. In fact it has been reported that more Christians have died in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined. Tens of thousands of Christians are purportedly being killed every year. I was recently reading some current information on the persecution of Christians. In Sudan, believers are being sold into slavery. They are being physically mutilated, deliberately starved, and even crucified. In Saudi Arabia, Christians are being arrested, tortured, and beheaded. In Egypt, Christian girls are being kidnapped, raped, and then being forced to marry their attackers. In Pakistan, Christians are being imprisoned, tortured, attacked on the streets, and have had their homes destroyed by mobs. In China, church leaders continue to be sentenced to long prison terms in harsh labour camps. All these atrocities are taking place right now. Our Christian brothers and sisters are being persecuted in different parts of the world.

Persecuting Jews

The early Church, of course, experienced horrendous persecution. It began with the Jews in the land of Palestine; and Paul himself experienced this persecution first hand. He suffered "at the hands of [his] own countrymen" (2:14b). We can have friends one day; but in receiving the Gospel, they become enemies the next. Now, in referring to the Jews persecuting their own countrymen in Judea, Paul launches into a vehement condemnation of the Jews. He gives a fivefold indictment against them. Notice what he avers in verses 15 and 16, "...the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out [harshly persecuted us]. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved." Paul here presents a litany of charges against the Jews; and these are not simply crimes against the state, they are crimes against God.

Notice again the apostle Paul's first charge, "The Jews...killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets" (2:15a). He squarely puts the blame for the death of Christ on the doorstep of the Jews. They were responsible for murdering Christ. Now, we know that the death of Christ was predetermined – He was offered up according to the foreknowledge and foreordination of God – but it was the Jews, "by wicked hands," who crucified the Lord. Pilate issued the death sentence, through public pressure, but it was the Jews who were responsible for the death of Christ. Matthew 27:15ff. reads, "Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the multitude any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they were holding at that time a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, 'Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?' For he knew that because of envy they had delivered Him up...But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and to put Jesus to death. But the governor answered and said to them, 'Which of the two do you want me to release for you?' And they said, 'Barabbas.' Pilate said to them, 'Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?' They all said, 'Let Him be crucified!' And he said, 'Why, what evil has He done?' But they kept shouting all the more, saying, 'Let Him be crucified!' And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude, saying, 'I am innocent of this Man's blood; see to that yourselves.' And all the people answered and said, 'His blood be on us and on our children!' Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he delivered Him to be crucified."

In making this indictment against the Jews, Paul should not be charged with anti-Semitism; nor should those who agree with what he says here concerning the Jews. It is simply a matter of fact. Paul's heart was for the Jews. He wanted them to be saved. He could write, "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (Rm. 9:1-3). Paul, in effect, says, "If I had the choice, I would sooner see myself in hell rather than my countrymen." Could you say that? Paul yearned for the salvation of his kinsmen; and yet he could lay squarely on their doorstep the blame for the killing of the Lord Jesus.

The Jews also killed the prophets. Recall, for instance, that Stephen said to the Jews, in giving his final testimony, before he was stoned, "Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become" (Acts 7:52). In addition to killing the prophets, the apostle says, "The Jews...drove us out [of Jerusalem, of different cities; they harshly persecuted us]" (2:15b). Paul may have been referring to recent events in his life. He and his companions had recently been driven out of Thessalonica and Berea.

Paul further says, "They [the Jews] are not pleasing to God" (2:15b) – a rather disturbing statement. They did not conform to the will of God; they knew very little of the ways of God. God had become angry with them, and even despised them. How ironical, for these Jews believed themselves to be the privileged, chosen people of God. They had received the covenants and the Law. They had been given a special land. They saw themselves as God's unique possession. And yet, Jesus Christ identifies the Jews as "a synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9). The apostle also describes the Jews as being "hostile to all men" (2:15b). They looked down upon other peoples because of their superior and self-righteous attitude.

Furthermore, the apostle Paul states, "[They] hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved" (2:16a). Not only did the Jews reject the Gospel, they wanted to prevent other people from hearing, and receiving, the Gospel. What a tragic situation! These Jews were blind, evidencing cruel hatred and prejudice. They believed that they were the people. Again, their crimes were crimes against heaven. Though they were a covenant people, those chosen by God, redeemed from the land of Egypt, who were brought into their own land and allowed, by the grace of God, to enter into a special relationship with Him, and thus enjoying special privileges, they 'blew it'.

Exhausting the grace of God

Now, here is the critical point: with experiencing all that blessing (and not responding appropriately to it), Israel had arrived at the point where their sins were so many and so grievous, that they had exhausted the grace of God. Think about that for a moment. God had put up with His people year after year, decade after decade, century after century, coming to them again and again, through His prophets, rising early and speaking with them, continually calling them back to covenant faithfulness; and for all that expression of grace, they rejected God and His Word. Again, they had arrived at the point where their sins were so many and so grievous, that they had finally exhausted the grace of God – "With the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins" (2:16b). That is, their iniquities had reached the brim of the cup; it was impossible for Israel to fill the cup any higher; they had 'maxed out'. Prior to that point, of course, there was room for grace. There is always room for grace when the level has not reached the brim. But Israel's sins had reached the limit. They were now ripe for judgement – "But [the] wrath [of God] has come upon them to the utmost" (2:16c).

Let's think about that for a moment, as professing believers. I am not denying the sovereignty of God, nor the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. There are different perspectives given to us in the Word of God, and ultimately we are faced with a mystery in this matter; but note, there can come a time, my friend, when we exhaust the grace of God, we 'max out' because of our persistence and defiance in our sins (we can expect continual grace only when we evidence a spirit of humility, confession, and repentance); and God says, "That is it! No more overtures of mercy, no more visitations of grace, no more wooing back to Me." Now, this truth hit me in a fresh way this past week as I considered the situation of a particular brother. This brother has continued in his rebellion, in his sin, in his pride. And God apparently has come time and again, even bringing physical discomfort at one time, in order to get his attention, to bring him to his senses; bringing crisis after crisis into his life, and for all that, to date there is no change; and I wonder whether the brother is close to 'maxing out' and exhausting the grace of God. He is not listening to what God is saying to him. Proverbs 29:1 reads (tuck this verse away, especially you who are resisting the grace of God), "A man who hardens his neck [i.e., remains stubborn, resistant] after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy."

As a covenant people, Israel had passed the point of no return. Even God, in His inscrutable wisdom, was no longer able to reach them. They had overstepped the limits of His grace. Israel had reached the point of irremedial retribution. God had rejected them, not as individuals, but as a privileged nation. In their resistance, in their rebellion, in their stubbornness, God was pleased to turn away His face, resulting in irrevocable punishment. So, they were ripe for judgement; they had filled up their sins to the brim. In this connection, Genesis 15:16 records God's promise to Abraham, "Then in the fourth generation they [your people] shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." God, in effect, said, "Their iniquity has to reach a certain level, their sins have to be filled up to the full measure, then they are ripe for judgement, then I am prepared to unleash My wrath." God said that the Amorites had a few more years before they would exhaust His grace. And so it was with the Jews here.

Do you see what that tells us, my friend? We need to always be in a mode of confession and repentance. I hope that you are not reading this message smugly, resting on your spiritual laurels, thinking back to a time when you walked the aisle or signed that card to accept Christ. I hope you are not thinking, "Well, that could never happen to me, I could never exhaust the grace of God." "Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). Your pride ought to alert you to the fact that something is desperately wrong. We are saved by grace, and there are some (maybe I should say that there are many) who are falling short of the grace of God. They are receiving the grace of God in vain; and they are on the road to exhausting that grace.

The wrath of God

Finally, consider the latter part of verse 16 – "But wrath has come upon them to the utmost." I believe this wrath came upon the Jews in 70 A.D. It was at that point in history that Jerusalem was sacked and the temple was destroyed. Israel was no longer considered the covenant people of God. Consider Matthew 23:29-36, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Consequently you bear witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell? Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Able to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation." Consider also Luke 19:41-44, "And when He approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, 'If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies shall throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation'." And consider Luke 23:27-31, "And there were following Him a great multitude of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him. And Jesus turning to them said, 'Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed." Then they will begin to say to the mountains, "Fall on us," and to the hills, "Cover us." For if they do these things in the green tree, what will happen in the dry?'" Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. He used the language of the vengeance of God; and that came to pass.

My final word is to you, my unbelieving friend. You are reading this message because of another overture of the grace of God. You are not reading it by chance, but you are reading it by divine appointment. God is extending mercy to you again. You are again being exposed to the Gospel. You are again being warned of your condition, and the inevitability of hell and damnation in your rejection of the Gospel. Are you on the verge of exhausting the grace of God? How many times must God come to you? How many times must He nudge you? How many times must He convict you? Listen, continuing on in that way, the time will come when you no longer feel the nudge, you will no longer feel the conviction. You will no longer feel that you need to make things right. The time will come when God will say, "Enough is enough," and He will stop calling, and stop extending His mercy; and you will have 'maxed out' His grace. The result will be judgement. My non-Christian friend, I encourage you, I implore you, to respond to the grace of God today. Respond right now, while the Lord is again presenting to you His salvation, and calls you one more time to accept Christ as Saviour. "Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2b). Won't you believe now in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord?