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The Thorn of Persecution

THE THORN OF PERSECUTION
John Sonn

“Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” — Galatians 6:17

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” — 2 Corinthians 4:8-12

The opinion that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was persecution has been a widespread one. Persecution could explain 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, but it would not fit very well in Galatians 4:12-15. Would Paul pray three times for persecution to be removed? Did not Paul write, “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12)? Was not Paul surely aware of the teaching of Jesus on the blessings of persecution: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of
heaven” (Mt. 5:10)? Did not Paul say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10)? The proximity of this last verse to the passage telling of the thorn in Paul’s flesh might imply that Paul’s thorn was persecution (2 Cor. 12:7). If persecution was Paul’s thorn in the flesh, though, it certainly could not be Paul’s “bodily ailment” (Gal. 4:12-15). Persecution is something one might boast about, yet Paul’s bodily
ailment was something for which the Galatians would normally have scorned or despised him.

Whether or not Paul’s thorn in the flesh was persecution,persecution is a problem for many today. Much time could be spent in this chapter telling of the persecution of the early church, but no one in America has to face this type of problem. Much space could be devoted to telling of the persecutions that Christians are having to face in foreign countries, especially those under Communist domination or right-wing dictators. Again, though, few readers of this book have to face such problems. The main type of persecution that the average Christian faces today is little more than slander or rejection from one’s peers. Although this is much easier to bear than persecutions such as Paul faced, it is, nevertheless, a problem with which to
contend.

When faced with persecution, slander, or opposition in living the Christian life, the first thing to do is to remember that persecution is common to God’s people. From the early days of Old Testament history to the end of the book of Revelation, from the events surrounding the beginning of the church to present day newspaper headlines, God’s people have had to face persecution. Stephen, whom himself was martyred, asked, “Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered”(Acts 7:52). The church in the early days was everywhere “spoken against” (Acts 28:22). To quote Paul again, “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Peter told his readers, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). John wrote, “Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13).

Persecution has been the common lot of God’s people for centuries. The Old Testament prophets were persecuted. The New Testament apostles were persecuted. Jesus himself was persecuted and crucified. Throughout history the church has suffered many different waves of persecution. Throughout these difficult times, Christians have realized that they were following in the footsteps of Jesus and declaring their devotion to him by their sacrifices. Peter explains the example we should look toward: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

John, maybe more than any other New Testament writer, brings out the relationship between Jesus’ sufferings and those of his disciples. He quotes Jesus as saying, “If the world hates you, know that it has
hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:18-19). Later Jesus prays, “I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world … They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (Jn. 17:14, 16). Later John himself writes, “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 Jn. 3:1).

The truth of these verses has been summarized well by William Barclay: “The world suspects people who are different. That comes out in the simplest things. One of the commonest things in the world nowadays is an umbrella; but when Jonas Hanway tried to introduce the umbrella into England and walked down the street beneath one he was pelted with stones and dirt. He was in fact persecuted. In the early days of the Boy’s Brigade, the boys who marched down the street in uniform were often attacked and pelted with stones and garbage. Anyone who is different, who wears different clothes, who has different ideas is automatically suspect. He may be regarded as an eccentric or as a madman or a danger; but life will not be comfortable for him.”

“The world acutely dislikes people whose lives are a condemnation of it. It is in fact dangerous to be good. The classic instance of that is the fate which befell Aristides in Athens. He was called Aristides the Just; and yet he was banished. When one of the citizens was asked why he had voted for the banishment of Aristides, he answered: ‘Because I am tired of hearing him always called the Just.’ That was why men killed Socrates; they called him the human gadfly. He was always compelling men to think and to examine themselves, and men hated that and hated him and killed him. It is dangerous to have and to practice a higher standard than the standard of the world. Nowadays a man can be persecuted even for working too hard or too long.”

“To put it at its widest – the world always suspects nonconformity. The world likes a pattern; it likes to be able to label a person and to classify him and to put him in a pigeon- hole. And anyone who does not conform to the pattern will certainly meet trouble. It is even said that if a hen with different markings is put into a hen run where all the hens are the same, the other hens will peck her to death.”

“The basic demand on the Christian is the demand that the Christian should have the courage to be different. To be different is dangerous, but no man can be a Christian unless he accepts that risk, for there will be a difference between the man of the world and the man of Christ.” 1)

Since persecution is certain to be the fate of those who seek to be truly Christian, what should you do to face it? Totally avoiding it would take a sacrifice of your principles, so that solution is not appropriate. The answer, then, would seem to begin with your realization of the blessings of persecution. Jesus himself taught, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men 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 men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:10-12; cf. Lk. 6:22-23; 1 Pet. 3:14-17; 4:14, 16; Jam. 1:12). “How,” you may
ask, “can persecution be considered a blessing?”

Persecution can help you to truly know yourself. Peter apparently thought he was a tower of strength until persecution revealed just how weak he really was. Especially illustrative of this, though, is the story of a young man in training for the Army reserves. He and others were out in the wilderness for days on half-
starvation diets. Previously he had thought that if he had only one can of rations left, he would surely share it with a friend who had none. When this situation actually came up, however, he decided against sharing his last can of food. He would keep it for himself and would eat it in privacy later. As it turned out, his friend stole it from him before he could eat it. A real test will show our strength or weakness and help us to know ourselves.

Persecution will help you to know the real values in life. Moses affords us with an example of one who in the face of persecution chose true riches: “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward” (Heb. 11:24-26).

Persecution gives you a special opportunity to demonstrate your faith. Paul said he commended himself in every way as a servant of Christ. Among those ways he listed afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, and imprisonments (2 Cor. 6:4- 5). These trials were evidence of his devotion to Christ. The story is told of a man who enlisted in the army after having been the preacher of a small church. Because of this background he was often ridiculed. He was purposely assigned the task of cleaning latrines. Instead of
returning evil for evil, he did his work cheerfully and well. When he was provoked, his attitude was not one of resentment. Eventually the men began to turn to him with their problems. He finally taught many of them about Christ.  Persecution can make you depend more upon the Lord. Paul said,

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). When we see our own weaknesses, it should cause us to depend more upon the power and strength of Christ. Once Paul even felt that death was near for him, but after being delivered he concluded, “…that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on
God” (2 Cor. 1:9). As Abraham Lincoln said, “I have often been driven to my knees in prayer because I had nowhere else to go.” Often it takes persecution or some sort of difficulty to make our stubborn hearts realize that we need God.

Persecution is a blessing for one special reason more than any other. In persecution we are showing our corporate affiliation as a part of the body of Christ. Peter said that when persecutions come our way, we should “rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet. 4:13). Paul said we are fellow heirs with Christ, provided “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17; cf. Phil. 3:10). Everyone, as our Lord told us, must pick up his own cross in order to follow him.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for ev’ry one,
And there’s a cross for me. 2)

And it was Isaac Watts who wrote,

Must I be carried to the skies,
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Sure I must fight if I would reign:
Increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy word. 3)

One of the most fascinating statements in the Bible that speaks of our sharing in the suffering of Christ is Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Upon first reading the verse one is almost shocked.  You may wonder, “In what manner is Christ’s suffering incomplete?  What could be lacking in the death of the one who paid it all for my sins?” You wonder in what way the work of atonement needs
supplementing.

The difficulty is resolved if we consider the sufferings of Christ from two different points of view. As Lightfoot words it, “They have their sacrificial efficacy, and they have their ministerial utility.” 4) Certainly what is lacking in Jesus’ sufferings has nothing to do with their sacrificial efficacy. On the other hand we
should not go to the extreme of some in opposition to Catholic thought and try to “wrest the sense of the words.” 5) They plainly say that in some manner Paul makes up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings.

The only viable alternative is the ministerial utility of Christ’s sacrifice. From this aspect the atonement is incomplete and lacking. It is necessary for the church to spread the good news of the death of Christ to the world. Otherwise the cross is ineffective.  As the church grows, as the gospel is spread, and as the truth of the love of God shown at Calvary is proclaimed, there will be repeated acts of suffering on the part of Christians in order to attain these goals. The words of a popular poem express the thought very well:

Christ has no hands but our hands
To do His work today;
He has no feet but our feet
To lead men in His way;
He has no tongue but our tongues
To tell men how He died;
He has no help but our help
To bring them to His side.
We are the only Bible
The careless world will read;
We are the sinner’s gospel,
We are the scoffer’s creed;
We are the Lord’s last message
Given in deed and word–
What if the line is crooked?
What if the type is blurred?
What if our hands are busy
With other work than His?
What if our feet are walking
Where sin’s allurement is?
What if our tongues are speaking
Of things His lips would spurn?
How can we hope to help Him
Unless from Him we learn? 6)

These, then, are some of the blessings you can receive from persecution; the opportunity to really know yourself, the encouragement to know what is of real value in life, the opportunity to demonstrate your faith, the prompting to make you depend more upon the Lord, and the privilege of sharing in the sufferings of Christ.  If you must face persecution for the cause of Christ, you should rejoice that you “were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). Now that we have examined why persecution can be a
blessing in disguise, let us review some things to do in order to overcome persecution.

First, you should study the great passages in the Bible that deal with persecution. The greatest of all of these may be the book of Revelation. It was written to Christians at a time when the Roman Empire was persecuting Christians just for being Christians. The whole theme of the book of Revelation is that good will eventually win over evil, although at the time it may appear otherwise. The message is to remain faithful even to the point of death (Rev. 2:10).

Likewise you can study the lives and examples of others like Old Testament prophets who had to face persecution. Most of all study the life of Jesus Christ. Seeing how others have been victorious against
evil will inspire you. As Bruce Barton said, “Before you give up hope, turn back and read the attacks that were made upon Lincoln.”  Another way to respond to persecution is to pray for the one persecuting you. Jesus gave the command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). Luke records him as saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28). 7)

A Christian is expected to make sacrifices for the cause of Christ. Paul writes, in almost shocking language, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things” (1 Cor. 4:12-13). Paul uses two words here that are extremely intriguing and illustrative. First, he says Christians are the “refuse” of the world. The term “refuse” refers to the dirt or refuse that is removed from a vessel when it is cleansed
on the inside. The term “offscouring” refers to the dirt or filth that is scraped or scoured off a dirty vessel. 8) Barclay translates it very graphically: “We have been treated like the scum of the earth, like the dregs of all things.” 9) The TEV renders it: “We are no more than this world’s garbage; we are the scum of the earth to this very hour!” 10) Other translations are very similar.

What does Paul mean by such degrading terms? The latter word “had become more and more a term of polite self-deprecation, common enough in everyday speech.” 11) These words, then, could very well mean little more than any common term of humility. There is a history behind these words, however, which could have influenced Paul’s usage here. There was an ancient custom among the Greeks of Athens to throw the most worthless person into the sea to avert the plague, a famine, or other troubles. It became an annual custom to make a human sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the people, saying, “Be our
offscouring.” Thus, the word can mean “ransom, scapegoat, or sacrifice.” 12) In fact, one of the words is used in the sense of a “ransom” in the LXX of Proverbs 21:18.

Paul is teaching Christians that because they are suffering persecution for righteousness sake in order to spread the gospel, they are a ransom or sacrifice for the rest of the world. By this we should not think that this suffering has any atoning value in the sense that Christ’s suffering did, but through the suffering of the
church, we complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24). Christ’s mission is to “reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:20); and this is being done not only through what he has already accomplished, but through the mission of the church. It is “through the church” that God’s plan is being revealed. Without the church, Christ as the head is incomplete, for he has no body. The church as the body of Christ is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Our sufferings and afflictions in persecution are an extension
of what Christ has already done, not in their efficacy, but in their ministerial utility.

Persecution can be a blessing to the church. As a result of persecution the early Christians scattered everywhere preaching the word. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” we have often heard. Persecution, though it may deplete the ranks of the church at times, usually results in an increase in dedication and strength. It is a necessary test in this life. Persecution and suffering are an essential part of God’s plan for the church. Just as Christ showed the love of God to the world through his sacrificial suffering and death, the church as the body of Christ must follow his example. Such a call is not an easy call, but it is the call of eternal life.

The only real problem with this discussion is the one we mentioned at the outset. Most middle class American Christians do not really know what persecution is except in a very minor way. This could be considered a wonderful blessing, but it also might be a reason for the absence of power within the church. Pierre Berton has asked some troubling questions in this regard: “Why is it that the Church today is afraid to speak loudly and with a radical voice?  Perhaps it is because the Church, like too many of its members, is
afraid to look ridiculous. It ought to be making front-page headlines regularly by advocating what is absolutely counter to the general thrust of society; but it does not do so. How many Christian ministers today go to jail for their beliefs? How many make the kind of physical protest that puts them outside the bounds of the social order? …The institution of religion, which once generated its own values, now merely gives its blessings to the majority-held values of the community around it.” 13) The church can become merely a preserver and conserver of the status-quo rather than being on the cutting edge of change for truth and justice. When Christians are what they should be, there will be persecution and rejection by the
world. It may begin with joking or making fun of Christians or their beliefs, but persecution will come.

When I feel that scornful glare,
When a wrong I’m made to bear,
E’en from those I know in prayer;
Sweet Spirit comfort me!

Footnotes

CHAPTER 4 – THE THORN OF PERSECUTION PAGES 40-51

1) William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 2, pp. 216-17. Used by permission.

2) Thomas Shepherd, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?”

3) Isaac Watts. Title unknown to the author.

4) J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan and Co., 1879), p. 166.

5) Ibid., p. 167.

6) Annie Johnson Flint, “Christ–And We.”

7) The phrase “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” is added from Luke 6:27-28 and is not present in the earlier manuscripts of Matthew 5:44. Also the phrase “despitefully use you” is a later addition. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 14.

8) This information is from Arndt and Gingrich, Lexicon, pp. 653, 659; and Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, pp. 506, 510.

9) William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), p. 43. Used by permission.

10) Good News for Modern Man. Third edition (New York: American Bible Society, 1971), p. 406.

11) Arndt and Gingrich, Lexicon, p. 659.

12) Ibid. Also Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, p. 510; and Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, in. loc.

13) Pierre Berton, The Comfortable Pew (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1965), p. 80.

The preceding is a chapter from ‘A Thorn in Your Flesh’, a book by Steve Williams, published by J. C. Choate Publications. This book can be ordered from Choate Publications, Rt. 2, Box 156, Burton Drive,
Winona, Mississippi 38967. It is paperback, 100 pages, and costs only $3.00. Please include 75 cents for postage and handling. All profits from this book go to a mission literature fund for Asia where Choate
has been working for over 25 years, primarily in India. The book has one chapter on Paul’s thorn in the flesh and then a discussion of various problems (thorns) people have today. You may also order from
the author c/o Robinson Church of Christ, 428 Chado, Waco, TX 76706.

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