Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rights: Real but not grasped

Philippians 2:4-11 is a magnificent section of Scripture. In this passage, Paul further develops a thought that he began in Philippians 1:7 where he speaks of being a partaker of God’s grace “both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.” In this passage, Paul describes grace as being God’s work of transforming us through persecution into sacrificial givers to others, equipping us to sacrificial involvement in the cause of Christ and His gospel. Paul develops this thought even further in chapter 2 when he turns our attention to the example of Jesus and His willingness to sacrifice for us.

For many of us, the thought that persecution and suffering can be a gracious gift from God is foreign. We tend to think of grace as something that we freely receive. We are unaccustomed to think that grace is also something meant to transform us into being not only grateful receivers of the free gift of salvation but also sacrificial givers of this same gospel to others. But reflecting on the example of our Saviour, Paul wants his readers to see how self-centered living is the exact opposite of what Christ calls us to. We are to have the same mind or attitude as our Lord when, rather than seeing His equality with God as being something to selfishly grasped, Jesus understood that the nature of deity was to be self-giving (2:6). To be sacrificial to the point of suffering and dying is part of the very nature of who God is. We read that Jesus, being God, willingly emptied Himself, took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself to the point of death (2:5–8). This, Paul says, is to be the attitude of each of those who are Christ’s followers as well (verse 5).

While it is important and biblical to defend the rights of Christians to worship freely and to defend those who suffer unjustly, it is also vital to remember that the cost of following Christ usually means that we refuse to grasp on to these rights for ourselves. Jesus had every right to be treated with respect and honour, being God. We have every right to be treated with respect because we are created in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). The Hebrew word for image is the same term used for idol. Although Israel was forbidden to have any false gods or idols or to create an idol to represent the true God, God Himself designed a single living image (or idol, if you like) to represent him – humanity. We are God’s idols. Not to be worshipped but created to represent God to others as God’s living sculptures.

As His representatives, we are called to fulfill His purposes in the same way in which He does. And Jesus demonstrated God’s methodology in His life and death on the cross– sacrifice, self-giving, humility, and obedience even to the point of death. This means having a readiness to even give up anything – our possessions, priorities, rights, hopes, families, even our lives for God. When we focus too much on our own personal rights, we are looking backward rather than forward, inward rather than outward, focusing on the image rather than on the One we are to represent. Yes, we recognize the wrongs we suffer, the pains, hurts and violations, but we forgive and renew our focus on the task before us, on our responsibilities as God’s representatives in this hostile world.

Again, we need to emphasize that this does not presuppose that the rights we possess as human beings are not legitimate and that others can (and perhaps should) uphold them. Nor does this give us the excuse to not uphold the rights of others. If we have no rights, as some would say, then renouncing them would be meaningless. Giving up illegitimate rights can hardly be considered a sacrifice. But there are times (probably more often than we are comfortable admitting) when the call to follow Christ and to conform to His image requires that we renounce the rights that we may rightfully possess, even the right to life itself.

Similarly, to refuse to uphold the rights of others simply because we have personally chosen to renounce these rights for the sake of the Kingdom is unjust and a direct violation of scriptural commands to defend the weak and oppressed and to speak on their behalf. It would be a cruel person who says, “Since I refuse to uphold my rights, I will bind you to my decision as well by letting you suffer in silence and refuse to raise a finger to help you.” This is why The Voice of the Martyrs exists. We obey the biblical admonitions to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak, to defend the rights of defenceless because they have chosen to renounce these rights for the sake of Christ.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

thorns The conjectures as to what Paul’s "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7) was are legion. Many, if not most, commentators believe that was a physical ailment.  However, I think that the context in which this verse appears suggests quite a different answer, one that can provide tremendous encouragement to persecuted Christians.

The most extensive of all of Paul’s description of his afflictions for Christ’s sake is found in 2 Corinthians 11:23-12:10. It is at this point that Paul directly challenges those in Corinth who deny his credentials as a true apostle of God.

In 1 Corinthians, he has shown how God’s weakness in the cross of His Son, a weakness of suffering and self-sacrifice turned out to be God’s strength and power. He has maintained that his sufferings are linked with Christ (1 Cor. 1:3-11) and it is the world that rejects the method by which God has chosen to reconcile the world to Himself and sees only the shame and apparent defeat. In contrast, those who are being saved see it as fragrant offering to God (2:14-17). Paul contended that his sufferings are necessary to manifest the life of Christ (4:5-15) and argued that the messengers of the gospel must live lives in accordance to the gospel (6:1-13). Christ died on the cross for man’s salvation and cross-bearing messengers are those who will bear this message to mankind. God’s methods are consistent with His message.

Yet, the Corinthians persist in listening to teachers whose message and methods are at odds with the cross of Christ. In verse 23 Paul asks, "Are they servants of Christ?" The Greek wording used here does not concede that he believes that the "super-apostles" really are servants of God. The wording is more: "Servants of God are they? Well, if they are such (and it would be absurd to say such), I am more!"

The term "servant of Christ" is reminiscent of Isaiah's reference to the suffering Servant and the servants of the suffering Servant. One cannot call himself a servant of God if he denies the need to sacrifice and suffer for Christ’s sake. Suffering defines the servant of God.

In verse 23-30, Paul spells out the credentials he points to that prove that he is a servant of God:

…with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.[1]

Then in verse 31-32, Paul gives an example of the things that he will boast of

"The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands" (2 Cor. 11:23-33).

As we noted in our study of Acts, immediately following his conversion, Paul began to preach the gospel. As a result, a plot to kill him was hatched and he was forced to flee Damascus through a hole in the wall in a basket (Acts 9:25). This experience drove home to him an incredible truth that he never forgot.

Paul might have been tempted to feel proud of his revelation from Christ, his dramatic testimony of conversion, from persecutor to messenger of God. But then he remembers that his first attempt to share the gospel resulted in his being lowered out of a window in the wall in the middle of the night in a basket that was probably used to dump rubbish outside of the wall. Paul learned that this is what the messenger of God can expect!

What did you expect following Christ would be like when you first started following Him?

In chapter 12:1, Paul goes further. The super-apostles boast of the great visions that God has given them. "Well," says Paul, "let me break a 14 year silence and tell you about visions and revelations from God that I have received."

I suspect that at this point, the Corinthians would have leaned forward in eager anticipation of what Paul was about to write. This was the kind of message that they liked to listen to.

Paul refuses to go into too many details, however. He talks about having received a vision of heaven in verses 2-5, but Paul is clearly embarrassed at having to boast at all (verse1). He refers to himself as "a man in Christ" (in the third person) in order to emphasize that receiving this vision did not make him any special type of Christian.

All that Paul feels comfortable boasting about is his weaknesses (verse 5). And so he immediately discredits the wonderful vision that God had given him in verse 7: "So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated" (2 Cor. 12:7)

The Thorn in the Flesh

Given what Paul has just discussed in the passages just prior to this verse and that which he will refer to again in verse 10; a context of opposition and persecution for the sake of Christ, I would suggest that in verse 7-10 that Paul has not changed topics.  He is still talking about persecution.

The early church theologian Chrysostom took the term "Satan" in its general Hebrew sense of "adversary", and understood this "messenger of Satan" by which he was buffeted to signify "Alexander the coppersmith, the party of Hymeneus and Philetas, and all the adversaries of the Word, those who contended with him and fought against him, those that cast him into prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death; for they did Satan's business".[2] Augustine, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, Photius, and Theophylact and other early church fathers also saw this in the same light.[3]

More recently, R.V.G. Tasker wrote in regards to this passage "As there is nothing which tends to elate a Christian evangelist so much as the enjoyment of spiritual experiences, and as there is nothing so calculated to deflate the spiritual pride which may follow them as the opposition he encounters while preaching the Word, it is not unlikely that Chyrsostom’s interpretation is nearer the truth than any other."[4]

However we understand it, the fact is that this "messenger of Satan" was sent by God; Satan has only a limited freedom of action. God is ultimately in control. Nothing comes into the life of the believer that does not first pass through the sovereign hands of God.

That is not to say that Paul did not want this suffering removed from his life:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (12:8-9a).

How exactly God said this to Paul, we are not told. The use of the perfect tense here, however, is illuminating, indicating that this was a past action with continuing results. In other words, what God told Paul regarding His grace being sufficient is still true for him at the time at which he is writing this letter. This was God's answer to Paul's prayer then and it still stands. And it is not a matter of accepting "second best." In Paul's mind, God’s grace in the midst of affliction is just as much an answer to prayer as deliverance because he declares, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

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. 12:9b-10).

The key word here is, of course, "for the sake of Christ." Paul did not purposely go seeking for persecution. His only preoccupation was the cause of Christ, the spreading of the gospel, and these sufferings came to him as consequences of his pursuit after the purposes of God. There is nothing special in suffering for the sake of suffering. Suffering and persecution are only the inevitable results of spreading the gospel in a world that is hostile to God, the gospel, and His messengers.

Persecution reminds us who we belong to and proves that we truly are messengers of God.


[1] Emphasis added.

[2] Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1962 : 443. cf. 1 Tim.1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14

[3] A. Plummer, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Cambridge University Press, 1903: 141

[4] Quoted by Hughes: 443-444

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Thursday, April 2, 2009


In Revelation 4, the apostle John was given a glimpse into the throne room of heaven itself. This revelation was given to remind John and his readers that God is still in control, that in His presence chaos is stilled and that their persecutors ultimately have no authority at all. In chapter 5, the revelation continues and deepens. John notices something else about the One sitting on the throne. He is holding a scroll with writing on both the inside and the outside and sealed to insure its security. It is a book containing God’s plan for and contract with the world. History is not out of control. The lives of God’s persecuted people are not unaccounted for and the persecution they endure is not something He did not anticipate. Nothing has come into their lives that did not first go through His hands. God has not lost control, even though life may seem that way, especially in the midst of suffering.

This truth needs to be revealed to the world and so the cry goes out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” Who is worthy to reveal God’s plan, to show forth God’s perspective on reality? The cry goes out and echoes throughout heaven and earth. But no one answers. No one is worthy. God has not entrusted any earthly ruler or representative with the right to accomplish His purposes. For a moment all seems lost and John breaks into tears, overcome with the knowledge that no one is worthy to reveal God’s purposes. But then he is told to look and see the One who is worthy. "Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals " (verse 5).

There is one who is worthy! The Lion of Judah! John looks for this Lion, this symbol of strength and power, confidence and might. He looks and there close to the throne John sees the Lion. Except that it is not a lion! It is a lamb, small, helpless, and wounded, looking like it had been slain. This cannot but have been a surprise to John. When one looks for lions, one does not expect to see lambs and bloody ones at that! There cannot have been a greater contrast in images. Lambs have no resemblance to lions. But it is the Lamb who is worthy in its weak and wounded state, not as a lion in his strength and majesty. The Lamb is a symbol of power, but it is a power that has been demonstrated in sacrifice.[1]

You see, this is how God wins His great victories. Not through strength and power, roaring as a lion and scattering His foes through fear and intimidation. But it is through weakness, woundedness, suffering, and death that God conquers. To the persecuted Christians who first read Revelation, this had to have been a source of tremendous encouragement. The purposes of God are accomplished through suffering and sacrifice, even to the point of death. This is how God works. It is His death (not His resurrection) that makes the Lamb worthy! “The greatest power in the universe is the ‘weakness’ of sacrificial love. The greatest wisdom in the universe is the ‘foolishness’ of sacrificial love.”[2]

With this understanding, the Church’s call is to do more than survive in the face of persecution; it is called to sacrificially witness to the salvation of God, of the worthiness of the slain Lamb, proclaiming the fact that God, through the death of the Lamb, has ransomed those held prisoner by sin from every tribe and nation (5:9) and inviting others to join this throng that sings His praises by accepting His death on their behalf and putting their trust in Him. Our God reigns and we reign with Him (5:6), even though, from a worldly perspective, we are despised, shamed, beaten, and weak. But we are on the winning side! God’s purposes will be accomplished because of the sacrifice of the Lamb. His death has bought our salvation both now and forever.

Our call is now to sacrificially take this message to a hostile and resistant world, to Canada and to the ends of the earth, even at the cost of our lives. After all, this is how God accomplishes all of His great victories. May I ask, how is God accomplishing His purposes of reconciling the world to Himself through you? Is your life marked like that of a slain lamb? Is marked by sacrificial love that accepts any cost?


[1] Martin Kiddle, 1940, The Revelation of St. John. London: Hodder and Stoughton:98

[2] Darrell W. Johnson, 2004. Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing: 150.

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