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Called to Suffer?
Throughout the history of the Christian church, the incredibly practical subject matter of suffering has brought division and confusion to many Christians. It’s really a sad thing, but it’s true. We serve a Lord who suffered for us—and, who clearly calls us to suffer. “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me [i.e., in suffering] is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). “You’re not worthy of me”, Jesus says, if you don’t follow him with a certain cross on your back. Yet—given how intensely personal suffering can be, it’s often been cause for debate.
As many get sucked into the health, wealth, and prosperity teaching—they’ll often say “my Jesus doesn’t want me to suffer”. Then, they end up questioning Jesus when they do suffer. Suffering will break into their lives unexpectedly, and their faith is shattered. Or, they might think Jesus is angry with them, judging them. Biblically, that could be true if they aren’t trusting him for his grace and salvation. It also may not be the case—Job suffered as a righteous man. Jesus himself suffered as a righteous man. God has all sorts of reasons why he inflicts his own people with suffering. So generically, the question “are Christians called to suffer” is sadly a debated question around the world. I remember asking the pastors in Ethiopia this question, and many of them said “no”. Health, wealth, and prosperity teaching is really prevalent in Ethiopia—and, it’s far more prevalent in America than we often think.
There’s another way the discussion of suffering has historically brought trouble and disagreement into the church. Should a godly Christian ever do anything that would necessarily cause suffering? That’s a whole different question, isn’t it? It’s one thing for suffering to just happen—for it to break down your door rather than simply knock. Perhaps you to get cancer, or get into a car wreck, or into financial hardship. The door of suffering was just broken down—and you trust that God is testing you—he’s disciplining you—for your good. Although, should we do anything to cause—or provoke—suffering to ourselves or to others? Perhaps suffering knocks at the door, rather than barges in. Should you open it? What if there are two doors knocking, and you have to pick one. What do you do? Should you open one, or both?
Paul’s Decision to Suffer
That’s the struggle we see in our passage, this morning. In the last several weeks, we’ve seen Paul making his round-about journey through Macedonia, Greece, then back up through Macedonia and into what is today the western shoreline of modern-day Turkey, all en route to Jerusalem. Paul is making headway to Jerusalem in order to encourage the hurting and marginalized church there, and deliver all the financial assistance that he gathered from the churches he visited.
To go to Jerusalem meant persecution—possibly death—to Paul. There’s a reason why the church needed the financial and spiritual help that Paul was delivering to them. The Jews in Jerusalem persecuted and marginalized the Christians to economic and social ruin. When I was in Arizona, I remember hearing stories of what parts of Arizona was like only a few decades back. The Mormons had control of cities in such a way that if you weren’t Mormon, you wouldn’t be able to get a job or services delivered to you. You’d end up living in poverty. You’d have to become Mormon, or leave town in order to make a living.
That was the Christian church in Jerusalem. The message to Christians was “come back to Judaism, or else!”—and, Paul especially had a massive target on his back. As we have watched Paul travel from town to town in his missionary journeys, he’s been persecuted and driven out of cities throughout all of Rome almost exclusively by the Jews of any given city. The Jews hated Paul, and wanted him dead. So, to Jerusalem Paul goes.
It was a controversial matter. Paul was an incredible asset to the church—should he take a suicide mission to Jerusalem? In verse 4 of our passage, we see Paul’s companions plead with him not to go. The verse even says, “through the Spiritthey were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem”. There’s a troubling verse for you. Was Paul ignoring this Spirit-inspired word from other Christians? Was he disobeying the Spirit’s instructions? In the next little story of our passage, we even see the prophet Agabus give a prophetic warning to Paul, “thus says the Holy Spirit”.
Given all this urging from the believers—and even spirit-inspired and prophetic warning—why did Paul go? Was he being disobedient? Some very respected commentators and ministers of the Scriptures have argued just that—Paul was disobedient to go to Jerusalem. The very respected James Montgomery Boice talks about this in his commentary on Acts. He entitles this section: When a Good Man Falls. One minister quotes Boice, “What Paul did at this time of his life was wrong. This is the exercise of a strong, obstinate, determined personality. He was out of the will of God.”
There’s a claim, for you. Most disagree with it, and rightly so. I think there’s a very reasonable answer to this—and, I’ll explain it to you in a moment. At this point, I simply want to point out that sadly enough, suffering is a deeply matter that Christians disagree about. Sure, most Christians agree that God calls us to suffer (let’s lay the prosperity teaching aside for a moment). Most Christians acknowledge the Biblical teaching that God designs and calls us to suffer for our good. However, then the question is when should we suffer? If suffering is knocking at the door, should we open the door? What if there are two doors, and we need to pick one? Or, what if suffering isn’t even knocking—and, we’re so eager to suffer that we go and find a door to open?
Some of you more bookish people might say, “Ah, Peder, now your getting into situational ethics. We know that we’re called to suffer, but how can we know the right situation—the right time, place, and occasion?”. Just because we know that we’re called to suffer doesn’t mean we intuitively know how to suffer rightly. This can get complicated.
We’re faced with this every time we feel the urge to tell someone about Jesus. “Should I do it?” Well, what’s holding you back? You know it could be painful. Or, perhaps it’s not the most prudent time. How can we know?
The church was also recently faced with this during all the COVID lockdowns. Should we suffer not holding church for a season, or should we suffer the risk of spreading a potentially deadly infection? Should we suffer potential persecution if we disobey mandates, or should we obey the mandates for any given reason?
Where, When, and How to Suffer
I wish this stuff was easy—but, it’s often not as easy as it seems. So, let’s walk through the passage this morning with an open eye toward Paul’s example inChrist. How did he process a situation like this, as the Spirit led him?
From Paul’s example, we’re going to see where we should suffer, when we should suffer, and how we should suffer. This is the classic “where, when, and how” sermon, applied to suffering (and we may learn a few tangential things along the way).
Where Should We Suffer?
So, where should we suffer? That’s the first question before us, this morning. Where was Paul, throughout this passage?
Geographically speaking—Paul is still very much on the move. We’ve seen him traveling from city to city like this for a few weeks now, as we’re making our way through Acts. He’s finishing up his third missionary journey, en route to his final stop in Jerusalem. He’s traveling hundreds of miles by foot and by sea. In this one passage alone, we’re talking well over 400 miles as Paul is hopping from ship to ship much like an old western hobo on trains. You might think of Jonah catching a ride on a trade ship in order to run away from Nineveh. That’s how Paul sailed, it seems. He found cargo ships that permitted him and his companions to board. Starting in verse 1, we read that Paul and his companions “came [from Miletus, think the western shoreline of Turkey] by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes”—where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood—“and from there to Patara.” So, those are smaller puddle-hoppers, if you will, from one island to the next. It might seem that Paul was ultimately looking for a bigger ship that could stand the bigger seas, to take him to Tyre or Caesarea, the port cities closest to Jerusalem. Well, it was in Patara that he found that ship. In Patara, we read in verse 2, “and having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia we went aboard and set sail”. Phoenicia, if you’re wondering, is generally where Paul wanted to go. It’s the northern part of modern-day Israel. So, Paul makes the long sail east to Israel, and verse 3 we learn that the cargo ship lands in Tyre in order to unload its cargo.
So, where does Paul go from Tyre. Does he make a bee-line to Jerusalem? It’s not like he planned to spend time in Tyre, necessarily. That’s where the cargo ship dumped him off. Does Paul have any business there? I absolutely love Paul’s example, in moments like these. Verse 4—"And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days.” Why do you think Paul “sought out the disciples?”. I suppose in some ways, we can’t really know for sure. Maybe he had friends there. We don’t know. What we do know is that he had family there—Christian family, whom the heavenly father adopted and claimed as his own just as he had for Paul himself. You see, everywhere Paul went, he had family. He was a sojourner. He was an outcast with a target on his back. Yet, he was never without—never without love, affection, peaceful and joyful fellowship, and even wisdom. Do you think Paul simply sat down with these disciples and talked about how “da packers beat da bears last Sunday”? (Yes, I’m from Wisconsin.) Not at all. Paul consumed his time and his days with fruitful discussion about Christ’s kingdom and the gospel. Paul has been doing this ever since he started his journey to Jerusalem from Greece, on the other side of the Mediterranean sea. For seven days, he stayed with the Christians at Troas where he worshiped with them on the Lord’s day, and broke bread with them, and taught them about Jesus through the entire night. That’s when Eutychus fell out of the window, and was raised.
Then, of course, when Paul’s cargo ship stopped at Miletus, he made the best use of his time there by calling for the nearby Ephesian elders, to exhort them. No doubt, Paul’s seven days in Tyre must have been likewise productive and encouraging. However, it was also heart-wrenching. Most of these stops were—we read that “there was much weeping on the part of all”, when Paul left the Ephesians. Everywhere he went, Paul was likewise telling the churches that it was the last time they’d see him. He’s going to Jerusalem.
Suffer in God's Family
Paul was seeking to suffer—although, where did he seek to suffer? In the comfort and encouragement of his family, the church. It reminds me much of our Lord and Savior, who dramatically pulled himself away from the crowds during his last week of ministry in order to spend intimate time with his disciples. When great suffering is at hand, the Lord has given us the church to be a spiritual ministry—a spiritual support. Brothers and sisters, suffering is always at hand—and possibly great suffering. I cannot imagine weathering the storms of suffering outside intimate, close fellowship with the church. Paul didn’t do it. Jesus didn’t do it. It’s not what we were made for, much less what God intends. If you’re to be ready to suffer, situate yourself firmly within Christ’s church. The church is where the gospel is proclaimed. It’s where you’ll hear from other brothers and sisters, “the Lord has redeemed you from the curse, this doesn’t define you.” Or, “the Lord promises that this suffering isn’t meaningless. He’ll use it for his glory, for your good. He died for you, to forgive you and glorify you—he won’t let you go.” The church is where you’ll hear a brother or sister speak God’s word to you— “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Don’t you need that?
The church is also where you’ll find prayer. That’s especially what you find highlighted in Paul’s journeys. When Paul left Ephesus, they prayed for him on their knees, weeping. When Paul left this city in verse 4, Tyre, we learn in verse 5 that they knelt down on the beach and prayed. Is there no greater blessing than to lift up a hurting brother or sister to the Lord, through a blood-bought prayer of faith? God hears those prayers, you know. They are precious to him. Paul says in Second Corinthians 1:11, “you must help us by prayer”. In fact, a bit closer to home is Romans 15:30. Paul wrote the book of Romans during this time—when he was en route to Jerusalem. He closes the letter with an appeal that they’d pray for him—
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints….
Yes, Paul was a diligent, determined man. Yes, he was an apostle with a unique blessing. Although, he felt helpless without the prayers of his fellow churchmen. Where did he suffer? He suffered in fellowship with the church. If you’re ever to be ready to suffer, you’d do well to ensure you’re well situated, folks. Paul didn’t go looking for disciples in Tyre for nothing. He wanted to be with family.
Alongside this, however, the church does provide spiritual wisdom and insight. In verse 4, we read that the disciples in Tyre had some insight for Paul. We’re told “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” Paul went anyway. Again—was he disobedient? Is this a passage that confirms the habit of many, to disobey or ignore the church’s counsel? We’ll circle back to that question when the same issue comes up later in our passage.
Suffer In Your Calling
Now, there’s another insight I see in this passage that concerns the matter of where we should suffer. At this point, I trust you understand that I’m not speaking geographically at all, when I’m referring to where we should suffer. I’m speaking in terms of context—in what context, or sphere, should our suffering be situated. If you’re situated in the church, you’ll be ready to suffer. But as we all know—our whole life isn’t situated in the church. God calls us to be more than devoted church members.
God calls us to be moms and dads, employers, and employees. More uniquely, God called Paul to be an apostle. So, that’s where he was called to suffer. He had a unique calling—and, therefore, a unique lot of suffering. “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16), is what Jesus said at the occasion of Paul’s conversion. Paul knew it well, and he owned it well. As an apostle, he was called to plant churches and build them up—encourage them, strengthen them. Generally, that’s why he was going to Jerusalem, to build up and encourage those struggling Christians. For reasons I won’t go into today, I think he regarded it as part of his apostolic duty. So, he sought to fulfill that duty at the cost of his life, to the glory of king Jesus.
If you’re a mother, then suffer willingly and joyfully in your motherhood. That’s where you are called to suffer. If you’re a father, that’s where you are called to suffer. If you’re a son or daughter, or if you’re a technician or a lawyer or in retirement with an old, aching body—that’s where you are called to suffer. Take your calling seriously, and receive the mark of suffering well. Jesus died on the cross so that you can rejoice over your suffering, with the peace of his Spirit and fellowship, and with the hope of future glory.
So unless you’re in a sinful situation—then I can say fairly generically that right now you are exactly where God wants you, because that’s where you are in his good and sovereign providence right now. It’s good to know and rest in his providence like that, isn’t it? That’s literally the advice Paul gave to slaves in Ephesians—“slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling… as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man”. Even if you’re in a tough situation, there’s freedom in knowing that you’re ultimately serving the Lord, and that through the forgiveness of Jesus, he will accept you. He will protect you. He will help you, and bless you.
Where are we called to suffer? We’ve given two answers. (1) In the fellowship and gospel ministry of the church, and (2) In whatever worldly vocation God has us in, according to his good providence. Paul was an apostle, so he suffered like one. Consider your calling, brothers and sisters.
When Should We Suffer?
Now, this all leads us to the when question. When should we suffer?
Let’s keep walking through the passage, into the next story where Paul makes his way to Caesarea. In verse 8, we’re told that Paul and his companions “entered Caesarea and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”
A Quick Tangential Observation
Now, before we answer the “when should we suffer?” question, there’s a bit of a tangential point that I want to observe real quick. It’s not a huge point—it’s interesting at the least, encouraging at best.
In this passage, you likely noticed that it’s told in the first-person plural, “we”. So Luke, who wrote Acts, is with Paul during this voyage. Luke is writing this for us as an eyewitness of these things. What a number of people have pointed out is the significance of Luke being in the same house with Philip and four of his prophesying daughters. Why is that significant?
If you’re going to charge the book of Acts as being historically false or unreliable, one of the charges you might bring pertains to the author of Acts. Charge Luke as being an unreliable historian. Certainly, Acts covers far more history than what Luke saw as an eye witness. Luke didn’t see Pentecost. Luke didn’t see Stephen martyred. How can we know Luke is giving us an accurate, detailed account? Here, we see Luke spending several days with Philip—a godly Christian who had been involved in the church since the very beginning. More than this, some of suggested the that the prophesying daughters may have provided some prophetic insight for Luke, as he was gathering the historical data to write Acts. Interesting? Yes. Do I find it encouraging? I certainly do—to have an example of what it may have looked like for Luke to gather information to write Luke and Acts certainly helps to confirm what Luke himself said in Luke 1:1–3, that he sought to compile and write “an orderly account” of these things “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” In the end, of course, it was the Spirit who inspired the words. Although, the Spirit was pleased to use ordinary conversations like the ones that were had over Philip’s dining room table in Caesarea, here in our passage.
Back to “When Should We Suffer?”
Now, let’s put this tangential observation aside. The question before us is when should we suffer? Based on the way this story is going, you might think this passage tells us to not suffer when God tells us don’t go to Jerusalem, Paul!
We had the disciples in Tyre telling Paul “through the Spirit” not to go on to Jerusalem. Then now, here at Philip’s house (verse 10)—
a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Might this sound like a passage telling us when we shouldn’t suffer? Not so fast. It’s really a predicament, here. If you recall what drove Paul to Jerusalem in the first place, it might seem that the Holy Spirit is contradicting himself in this who Jerusalem journey. Do you recall what drove Paul to Jerusalem in the first place? It wasn’t simply to collect money and provide aide to the church, there. It was the Holy Spirit himself! Chapter 19 verse 21, ‘Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem”. Chapter 20:22, Paul says “behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit…”. The Spirit himself is driving Paul to Jerusalem. When should you suffer? When God tells you to suffer. That’s pretty easy, isn’t it?
Now, you might say “wait, Peder, that does sound like the Spirit is contradicting himself”. The Spirit tells Paul to go to Jerusalem, but it was “through the Spirit” that these believers urged him not to go How do we resolve this? The easiest way to answer that is to discern exactly what the Spirit was revealing to these Christians. In the case of Agabus’s prophesy, all the Spirit revealed was that suffering awaited Paul. In fact, Agabus’s prophesy revealed that this will happen. It’s not an “if-then” prophesy, to say “if you go, then you’ll be bound up by chains”. It’s a “this will happen” prophesy. It was then, with this sobering revelation which Paul already knew about, that the Christians urged Paul not to go. It’s the same, I suspect, with the folks in Tyre who “through the Spirit” told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. The Spirit impressed the weightiness of Paul’s journey upon them, and so they encouraged Paul not to go. I don’t suspect they thought of themselves as telling Paul to disobey the Spirit. They were simply responding to the Spirit’s revelation and struggling to swallow it whole.
When should we suffer? When God tells us to suffer. Again, sometimes its obvious. The door of suffering simply gets broken down. Other times, however, God tells us to obediently open the door. those are tricky moments that we like to second-guess, and evaluate. “Is this really God’s calling? Should I really do this?” For Paul, it was easy. He was an apostle, with apostolic revelation through the Spirit who told him what to do. We don’t have that infallible guidance from the Spirit, as Paul seemed to have.
Where are our instructions? We have the Word of God, Godly counsel in the church body, the Spirit’s internal conviction, our conscience, and grace. Those are all incredibly important in our decision making. The Word of God provides the ten commandments—love God and your neighbor. Those are positive commands that, at times, might mean you have to open the door of suffering. Do not murder—or, on the flipside, honor and preserve life. Do not commit adultery—or, on the flipside, honor and preserve God’s design for sex and marriage. Those are two hot-button examples, today, that if you stand up for them, you may suffer. In exactly what situations should we stand up for God’s truth in these ways? That takes wisdom, and prayer. Although, we don’t have the option to disregard the matter entirely.
By the way, our instructions are not only to stand up for these things, but also for the gospel. Our marching orders are fundamentally to love people by telling them that they are sinners, under God’s wrath, in need of redemption. We’re to tell people that Jesus offers them forgiveness of sins through the blood he shed to satisfy God’s wrath—and with that forgiveness, there’s peace and fellowship with God. There’s eternal hope and security, all to be received through repentance and faith. Every time you do that, you are potentially opening the door to suffering, broken relationships, or some kind of persecution.
It takes wisdom to know exactly how to approach these matters, and when. When should we open the door of suffering—when should we make ourselves vulnerable by standing up? It really does take wisdom. But here’s the beauty in it. “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain” (First Corinthians 15:58). “In the Lord”, the Spirit can use foolish decisions. “In the Lord”, you and your service to him are still acceptable before God. So make a decision, commit, and obey God’s calling upon your life.
When should we open the door to suffering? When God calls us to it. It was obvious for Paul. It’s sometimes obvious for us, sometimes not. But there are two more quick insights on this.
First, we should suffer when the church blesses us in our suffering. In verse 14, the church conceded to Paul’s wishes and blessed him. “Let the will of the Lord be done”. They let him go, without charging him with disobedience or foolishness. They committed him to God’s will. Had they—a credible and respected church—charged him with disobedience, I trust Paul would have thought twice. That said—if you’re not sure if you should open any given door to suffering, seek the church’s wisdom and blessing (even if it’s from a close brother or sister in the Lord).
But then, second, we should pursue suffering when it builds up the church and her mission. That’s the whole point of Paul’s mission, here—to build up the church in Jerusalem.
So let’s recap all this. Where should we suffer? (1) in the fellowship of the church, and (2) in whatever worldly vocation God calls us to. Then, when should we suffer? (1) when God calls us to through his word, (2) when (if) the church blesses us in it, and (3) when it builds up the church.
How Should We Suffer?
Now, the last question. How should we suffer? With this, I simply refer you to verse 13, where Paul expressed his love for God’s people and his confidence in God’s promises. Verse 13—
Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
That’s how we should suffer. We should suffer with a deep love and respect for God’s people, and with an unshakable commitment to God’s glory. It pained Paul to say goodbye to all these beloved Christians—yet, he knew he was suffering for them, and ultimately for God’s glory. He also suffered with a radical confidence in God’s promises. He was ready to die. As he said in Philippians, on house arrest after all this happened,
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Do you want that sort of confidence in your suffering, that it will always turn out for your glory and gain? The only place you’ll find that confidence is in Jesus. That’s how we’re called to suffer.
Are You Ready to Open the Door?
As we close, I’m reminded of the door keepers of the Higgins boats on D-Day. As soldiers approached the shores of Normandy, the only thing protecting them from certain death and misery was that metal door that was already clanging from all the enemy fire. Then, the cockswain says “Johnny, open the gate!”. What do you do? Are you ready?
I encourage you to root yourself in the gospel which frees you to die. It frees you to repent from your sins, to humble yourself, to give yourself over to your kids and to your aging parents and to your community. Your hope isn’t here. It’s in glory, which Christ secured by his grace. So, don’t hesitate to open the door of suffering. Stay rooted in a church, and serve in the worldly calling where God has you. Suffer joyfully and hopefully when God’s word calls you to it. Suffer confidently in gospel.
 From Rev. William Shishko’s 11/12/2006 sermon, Was Paul Out of the Will of God? Accessed 7/22/2022 at https://www.sermonaudio.com/solo/wshishko/sermons/2907163749/