Let’s consider for a moment a feature in which Paul is to be distinguished from all his predecessors: his sufferings.
It is recognized that no mere human sufferings are to be compared with the sufferings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He bore the judgment that would have sunk a world to hell. But among mortal men in God’s service none suffered more than Paul.
Once more we have at least an inspired intimation of this in the record of our Lord’s own words regarding Saul:
“…I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).
But again, this fact is more amply confirmed by a comparison of the record of Paul’s sufferings with that of the sufferings of all his predecessors.
How can we begin to cite all he went through from his escape over the Damascus wall (Acts 9:23-25) to those hours of waiting in the Roman prison for his execution as a criminal (II Tim. 4:6)? Suffice it to say that even by the time he had written two of his earlier epistles, those to the Corinthians, he had already surpassed others in the persecutions and sufferings borne for Christ. Writing to the Corinthians he says of himself and his associates:
“…we are made a spectacle unto the world… to angels, and to men.
“We are fools for Christ’s sake… we are weak…we are despised.”
“Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place;
“And labor, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it:
“Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day” (I Cor. 4:9-13).
That this “we” refers mostly to himself is clear from the long list given in his next letter (II Cor. 11:23-33) of all the sufferings he had personally borne up until that time. That list is always read too hurriedly. A bit of meditation upon the details: the scourgings, the beatings, the stoning, the shipwrecks, the wearisome journeys, the perils from floods, robbers, Jews, Gentiles; the perils in the city, in the desert, in the sea, among false brethren; the fatigue, the pain, the watchings, the hunger, the cold, the nakedness, and then “the care of all the churches”—a bit of meditation on these particular details in his life of persecution and suffering will soon explain why he cries out:
“Are they ministers of Christ (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft….Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not?” (II Cor. 11:23,29).
This view alone would, of course, be one-sided, but to show the brighter side of the apostle’s sufferings we must first learn why he suffered all this.
It must be remembered that he had led Israel and the world in rebellion against the Son of God. As the flaming leader of the rebellion, he had “made havock of the church”1 (Acts 8:3), had “persecuted” it “beyond measure” and “laid it waste” (Gal. 1:13) until his hands dripped with the blood of martyrs.
In this he but represented the world’s attitude toward Christ; but when the world was ripe for the prophesied judgment, God intervened, saving Saul and sending him forth to offer reconciliation to His enemies by grace through faith.
In the nature of the case, Saul, as an ambassador of grace among enemy aliens,2 would now have to bear the same sufferings which he had inflicted upon others. This constant suffering which Paul bore, however, was in a real sense the sufferings of Christ, the continued expression of the world’s enmity against God’s Son. This explains an otherwise difficult passage in his letter to the Colossians:
“[I] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind [which remains] of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).
Such sufferings are sweet! Little wonder he rejoiced in them as they brought him into closest fellowship with the rejected Christ Himself. Little wonder it was his deep desire:
“That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death” (Phil. 3:10).
Thus, even in his sufferings, Paul stands out as the apostle of God’s grace, chosen to proclaim the love of the rejected Christ to a world of sinners.
It is only as we recognize these Scriptural distinctions between Paul and all his predecessors that we will be enabled to proclaim the gospel of grace with real clarity and power. It is only in this way that we can become workmen approved of God, not needing to be ashamed.
- The Pentecostal Church, not the Church of this present dispensation.
- See the writer’s booklet: “Ambassadors for Christ.”