The Suffering Servants of God
Life for all of us living in a fallen world will involve, to a lesser or greater extent, aches and pains, joys and disappointments. We all grow older and while for some the aging process is easier than for others we all find our energy levels dropping and our recovery times drawing out. The small print is harder than ever to decipher and we wonder why it is that those around us seem to be talking more and more quietly.
Such is life.
Such is life for the Christian and for the non-
But there is a kind of suffering that is known and experienced only by the Christian: the Christian will suffer because of his allegiance to Jesus and he will suffer because he has decided to serve the Living God. For some this suffering may be slight and of only minor inconvenience but for others it may be long in duration and serious in intensity.
This evening, as we consider Paul's specific experience as a servant of God, I want to encourage you to think of the persecuted church. For many simply to name the name of Jesus invites the brutal attention of the authorities who relentlessly oppose anything that smacks of the gospel.
The goal of Christian ministry is to see God glorified as the good news of Jesus Christ is made known and as men and women are converted and turned into disciples of Jesus Christ. If this goal is to be attained then the servant of God will want to avoid acting in a manner which makes such a response of faith more difficult. This is why Paul writes to the Corinthians describing his determined efforts to ensure that his ministry was not open to accusations and criticism.
6:3 "We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,"
Despite all his best endeavours Paul's ministry life did not secure for him a trouble free existence. The troubles he encountered did however give him the opportunity of demonstrating a consistency of purpose as he did not give up in the face of opposition or difficulty. Paul demonstrated a "great endurance" – he was patient and that in a whole variety of trying circumstances.
Now it is perhaps one thing to pass on a message when everything is favourable but to keep on passing on the same message when everything seems to be going wrong highlights the importance of the message. Paul as a Christian minister was exemplary in this – endurance is something that goes on over time.
Just as Paul had to endure in very trying circumstances so too do numbers of our brothers and sisters in various parts of the world today. Let us remember them.
In spite of the fact that he tried hard not to cause needless offence Paul's faithfulness led him again and again into difficult and trying situations. He lists some of these vv.4-
"afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger;"
If we were to comb through the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters we might be able to identify at least some instances of this type of suffering but in doing so we might miss the point. Paul speaks of all these situations in the plural form. Suffering was a characteristic of his ministry and it was a suffering for which he was not responsible.
If Paul had been deliberately obnoxious, if he had used underhand methods, if he had been dishonest and immoral, then we might say that he had brought his troubles upon himself – there are sadly obnoxious, dishonest and immoral Christians who do just that – but Paul had not behaved like that, he had always acted well.
Why am I insisting on this? Simply to point out that suffering is no mark of failure or of guilt. In fact it can be quite the reverse. We have the expression "no smoke without fire" but that is simplistic and not Biblical. If we applied it to Paul's case we might conclude that he had definitely done something wrong and that was what had brought such trouble down upon himself. In truth the troubles were sparked by others who, because of their guilt and sin as they opposed the message of God brought to them through the messenger of God.
Christians are being persecuted and accused of all kinds of things in many countries of the world. The Christian Agency Open Doors keeps a watch on 50 countries where persecution ranges from Moderate through Severe and Extreme to Absolute. Persecution is currently worst in North Korea, Somalia and Iraq. We need not suspect Christians of anything other than faithfulness when we hear of persecution in these countries. Let us remember them.
Further Marks of Christian Ministry
Not only did Paul endure with great patience and stickability to the task of making Christ known he also ordered his life in such a way that he lived according to Christian principles of morality, integrity and spirituality.
This is of course important too. How Paul would have undermined the message of the gospel that he preached had he been careless about how he lived. Had his life been filled with ungodliness and ungodly reactions others would have concluded that his message wasn't really all that great because they would have failed to see it having had any great effect upon his own life. If Paul's life was not fundamentally different from the life of anyone else why should anyone pay attention to what he had to say?
But Paul's life had been transformed by the gospel he was now preaching and he is able to explain just how.
What a lovely list it is that Paul pens to describe the manner in which he fleshed out his great endurance as a servant of God. These are characteristics that should mark all who name the name of Jesus Christ:
I wonder whether you could write a letter to others declaring that this was the way in which you always lived your life as a disciple and especially in trials and difficulties which pressed you to the very limits of your endurance.
We might want to write that this is the way we want to live but Paul went further than that – this was not a mere wish but a reality for Paul though he would attribute the ability to Christ who by his power enabled Paul to do all things.
When we consider such a list we recognise how difficult it is to maintain such a life even when the condition of our lives is very favourable – how much more so when the heat is really turned up! This is the lifestyle and these are the characteristics that the Christian undergoing persecution must aspire to and we recognise at once that this will not be easy.
So let us pray for them.
And here is how this passage can help us to do so:
Let us pray:
that the Holy Spirit will fill them,
that the power of God will strengthen enable and keep them,
for their moral purity
for their growth in grace
understand more of the gospel and of their Lord
kindness and genuine love
for boldness to hold on to the truth and to sharing it
And this is surely an appropriate way for us to pray for one another as well even if we are experiencing no persecution at all.
Paul had two hands and the next thing he tells the Corinthians was that both of them were filled with what he called "the weapons of righteousness". He is referring to being completely armed ie. well-
How important it is that no hint of wickedness, of compromise, be found in a believer's life! Elsewhere we are encouraged to hate "even the garment stained by the flesh." Jude 23. Similarly we are well advised in to 1Thess.5:22 to "Abstain from every form of evil." Or as the AV puts it to "Abstain from all appearance of evil."
This goes against the grain. Most of us like to imagine that we are spiritually strong or at least stronger than we actually are. We like to think that we can cope, we can sail close to the wind without getting into difficulty. Let us learn the meaning of this proverb:
Prov.6:27 "Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?"
Continuing to look at what Paul had to say about the manner in which he carried out his ministry and the various conditions in which he had to serve we come now to v.8 where we read:
"through honour and dishonour, through slander and praise."
Temptations can come from any one of a number of directions and Paul at this point again highlights the need for constancy and consistency. What Paul is basically telling us is this: his conduct did not vary depending upon the kind of reception he personally received. If he was welcomed and honoured he preached the gospel and conducted himself with honesty, integrity and endurance. On the other hand he didn't change what he had to say and how he had to live if he was met with hostility and dishonour. I wonder whether Kipling found some inspiration here when he wrote his famous poem "If" which contain the following lines:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
How difficult it is not to let human plaudits influence us, how tempting it can be to speak what we know will be appreciated by men and hold back on that which is likely to offend.
To conclude this section of his letter Paul refers to the painful experience of being constantly treated as though he were something different from what he actually was. It is not pleasant to be dealt with in this manner. We naturally want to be recognized for who we truly are – I suppose we could call this an early form of identity theft as others related to Paul as though he were indeed someone else.
Christian ministry, living as God's servants, is and always will be exacting and indeed we may well want to cry out in words Paul has already employed back in ch.2:16 of this very letter: "who is sufficient for these things?"
Paul Makes an Appeal
Why has Paul spent such a time explaining in such personal terms the way in which he has carried out his ministry? He has opened his heart to the Corinthians because he wants them to know that he has never played favourites – he has done nothing that would warrant them turning away from him. Instead he invites them to demonstrate an openness of heart and spirit towards him once more.
How important Christian relationships were to the apostle Paul – he will actually continue his letter by developing the theme of relationships further – but for now let us stop and ask ourselves how we match up to the apostle here.
Our persecuted brothers and sisters may be cut off from fellowship with other believers and some may feel that they have been abandoned by the wider church. Let us remember them and pray for them, let us open our hearts to their needs.
May God help us to judge by right judgments and to be men and women who seek to commend the gospel of our Glorious God by the very tenor of our lives.
And may God be glorified.