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Article 2019-06 Apostolic Suffering

Chapter 56: Apostolic Suffering


Like Jesus, Paul had a clear theology of suffering. No missionary on the field lasts long without the same. Much of Paul’s suffering came from strained relationships with church members and from false apostles who tried to break down Paul’s work. Paul emphasizes God’s compassion rather than the harshness of suffering. He welcomed God’s comfort, with which he could comfort others. The Kingdom cannot expand without apostles suffering for it. Apostolic suffering serves eternal purposes and yields eternal rewards.

Scripture reference

[Paul] sent … Timothy … to Macedonia … About that time there arose a great disturbance [in Ephesus] … When the uproar had ended, Paul … set out for Macedonia (Acts 19:22,23; 20:1)

… we go hungry and thirsty, … are in rags, … brutally treated, … homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when … persecuted, we endure it; when … slandered, we answer kindly … we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Cor. 4:11-13)

The story

When Paul met Timothy in Macedonia, months after they parted company, he shared his heart with him about his concerns for the Corinthian church. He told how Demetrius the silversmith caused problems in Ephesus that ended in a riot, but that before the man could bring the case to court, Paul had decided to leave town. Before he left he addressed the church in a good-bye speech. He explained to Timothy that he welcomed his suffering rather than try to escape it.


Paul explained to Timothy his ‘theology of suffering’. Any missionary should study that aspect thoroughly before he starts cross-cultural ministry.
Paul addressed many controversies in his first Corinthian letter. Relationships with some church members were tense. Paul shed many tears over this painful situation. Also, there were false apostles who opposed him and his ministry. Apostolic suffering is a major team in his second letter to the Corinthians. In its first chapter he gives a blueprint of this.

He emphasizes God’s compassion and comfort, not the harshness of suffering. Paul leaves no room for complaints about his suffering anywhere in his letters. He does not fight, withdraw from, seek to escape, or rebuke the devil for it. He encourages others to do the same. The mature way is to accept suffering is, so that it forms and shapes you.

Scripture reference

Praise be to the God … of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor. 1:3,4)

Comment, continued

Receiving God’s comfort served for Paul the higher purpose of comforting others in their suffering. The Corinthians also faced suffering, which Paul saw as a normal part of the Christian life of disciples. He had no affinity with the ‘other gospel’ of a trouble-free health-and-wealth message.
Their apostolic suffering in Asia Minor had been beyond human ability to endure, to the point of near-death; only God’s miracles of grace could save them. (We must not confuse apostolic suffering – sometimes beyond human ability to endure – with temptations, which are never heavier than we can deal with). Paul equates apostolic suffering with Christ’s suffering, as he would write to the Colossians later.

Scripture reference

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church  (Col. 1:24)

Comment, continued

In his suffering Paul maintained his eternity-perspective. He never complained about his bad circumstances, because he maintained that these served good, eternal purposes.

Later in the second Corinthian letter he elaborates on his suffering. He gives a list of troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, hunger, stoning, shipwrecks, dangers, thirst, cold, and nakedness. There are also texts in his first Corinthian and Romans letters where he speaks about suffering.

A major part of Paul’s suffering was to defend himself, his ministry, his apostolic authority and his doctrine against his opponents. Second Corinthians gives the strongest example of this. The opponents were Jews who tried to lure Gentile Christians into Jewish legalism and circumcision. These Pharisees opposed Paul and ministered on their own initiative. Paul combated these so-called believers, whom he ironically called ‘super-apostles’. They were ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ and servants of Satan, who also masquerades as an angel of light’. The fervor with which Paul opposed them can be compared with how he defends the new covenant at the expense of the old. With that principle the whole Christian faith would stand or fall.

Paul’s suffering is the mark of his apostolic calling from the moment that Ananias spoke with him in Damascus. Yet, in the eyes of his opponents his suffering disqualified him as an apostle. He was mainly criticized for three reasons: preaching free of charge, his sufferings and his refusal to boast about his spiritual experiences.

The consequence was that Paul’s very lifestyle called the legitimacy of the ‘ministry’ of these false apostles into question. They acted entirely differently from him. For Paul, weakness – not strength – was the sign of true apostolic ministry. An important difference between the problems in both letters is that those of First Corinthians were in the church and those in Second Corinthians had to do with the authority and legitimacy of Paul as an apostle, which caused strained relationships.

Discussion & dialogue

  • Tell your study group some of the ways in which you have experienced apostolic suffering yourself, and how the Lord helped you to endure it or saved you out of it
  • Discuss how a biblical theology of suffering can be taught to a younger generation of missionaries: how can today’s ‘Pauls’ teach this to today’s ‘Timothys’?

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