This post, the eighth in a series on Revelation, looks at Christ’s letter to the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13). A recording of this session is available on the Shofar Durbanville YouTube channel as part of the Revelation Series.
During the reign of Domitian, emperor of Rome (AD 90-92), Christians were persecuted for refusing to worship him as “king of kings, lord of lords.” He charged the Roman army and Roman courts to cleanse his realm from any subjects who denied him this glory. Not only the state persecuted disciples of Jesus: the trade guilds of the day refused to do business with people who did not worship their pagan gods, claiming they were the cause for bad karma resulting in natural disasters. In addition, Jews especially hated the Christian “sect” who blasphemed their God by worshiping Jesus as his equal.
This left first century Christians generally poor (unemployable), persecuted by the state, hated by their Greek and Jewish neighbors, and pushed into the corners of society. These social pressures, in a world pursuing sensual pleasure and social power, filled with pagan spiritualism, left believers vulnerable to doubt, desertion and dualism (to believe in Christ and live like the pagans). After all, if indeed Christ is Lord of all, why should they suffer like this? Where was their God? Will he still return to reign?
These were the cries of the apostle John, when imprisoned on Patmos, Christ revealed himself as the One among the Lampstands – as present among his church. This letter to Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) is the fifth church Christ addresses in the opening section of the Revelation (unveiling) John received.
Philadelphia (“brotherly love”) is situated in the fertile Kuzucay valley between Sardis and Laodicea. The city was built by the Pergamon king Eumenes who named it in honor of his love for his brother Attalus. During the first century the city was renamed often, from Decapolis, to Flavia (in honour of Emperor Vespasian AD 69-79), to Neo-kaisaria. The city was also called “Little Athens” because its many pagan temples and public buildings were set on propagating Greek culture within Asia.
This city was known for its quality of wine, for the color of its “burnt soil” (volcanic ash) and the frequent earth quakes it suffered. These tremors caused many to flee the safety of the city walls, choosing to stay outside the city in fear of the big structures collapsing on them. The size of the pillars that remain today give some indication of the tenacity of the early settlers to build a civilization in this unstable place – and this sets the background for the letter to the church in Philadelphia.
Revelation of Christ (3:7). In this volatile, insecure environment, Christ reveals himself to this congregation as “holy” and “trustworthy (true)” – one without corruption who can be trusted. He furthermore reveals himself as the one “who holds the key of David” who, like Eliakim, the gatekeeper in Isaiah 22:20-23, wields the power of God’s eternal kingdom. Christ has received the right and responsibility to govern the earth in the interest of his father.
Commendation and promise (3:8-12). There is no condemnation or correction for this faithful church – only praises and promises. Note that this church chose to stay in this city – persecuted by its officials, betrayed by its big Jewish community, impoverished by its trade guilds, and terrified by its earthquakes – to witness Christ and his kingdom among them. Therefore Christ, the one who holds the Key of David, promises this faithful church is to “an open door.” This may refer to a favorable season to witness the Gospel among the gentiles (as in Acts 14:27), or simply access into God’s throne room (as in Revelation 4:1), into Christ’s eternal kingdom (thus, assurance of their salvation). Christ probably implied an open door into his realm, but the heart behind the promise is reward and goodwill from the Lord.
Christ commends this church for keeping his “word” (holding on in faith to the Gospel), for “not denying (his) name” (faithful allegiance under persecution) and for “keeping (his) command to patiently endure” (steadfastness). Therefore the Lord will bring the persecuting Jews “who worship at the synagogue of Satan” (compare Revelation 2:9) to bow down in honor of these saints. This is an ironic play on Isaiah 45:14, 49:23 and 60:14 where God promised to vindicate oppressed Israel when their Gentile oppressors bow down to them. This allusion is a reminder to the shamed church in Philadelphia that they are indeed God’s covenant people, and these Jews are Gentiles at heart (unbelievers in God’s chosen Christ).
Because this church has remained faithful under persecution, Jesus promises to keep them “from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” (3:10). As we will see of the two faithfulness witnesses (11:12) and the woman who bore the child (12:5), this church will be spared from the wrath of Christ that comes to a rebellious world, being “raptured” into God’s eternal kingdom.
In this comforting letter to the church in Philadelphia we see several parallels with Jesus’s prayer for his disciples in John 17. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (v6). “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name–the name you gave me… While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by thatname you gave me” (v11-12). “I pray not that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (v15). “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). The italics above indicate similarity with Revelation 3:8-10 “you have kept my word and not denied my name… they willacknowledge that I have loved you… I willkeep you from the hour of trial.” In reminding them of his prayer Christ comforts the church in his love and his grace which abounds towards them in their hardship.
The promise to this church is a dignity and security which they are denied in their world (3:12). Christ promises they will be as “pillar in the temple of my God” – a very strong image of prominence and permanence in ancient Philadelphia. He assures them that they “never again will leave it” as the citizens of this city need to flee the quakes; the eternal city “coming down from heaven” will be stable and be free of fear. Lastly, unlike their earthly city which changes names with every emperor, this city’s name is as unchanging as the Christ who will rule it forever.
Exhortation (3:11). The church is called to “hold” course, to patiently endure and faithfully witness as they do. Christ is “coming soon” and they will be rewarded with the prestigious Olympian wreath of victory (compare 2:10), reserved for those who endure in the race to the end.
Bringing it home
Creation is fallen. The fall of sin scarred society, human identity, and the earth itself. In our day we are as aware of the corruption of both society and creation as the Christians in Philadelphia were. Yet Christ promised them, if they remain faithful to the gospel, to him and the call as witnesses, they will share in his restored creation, his reign. In his kingdom there will be shalom – no division, no disaster, no dread.
Do you long for this restored creation, where the Prince of Peace reigns? Then “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:13) and patiently endure, hold on to Christ’s word and faithfully witness his coming reign in this passing age. There is a place prepared for you in the New Jerusalem among the saints through the ages.
On a recent trip to the East I had to declare all the identification marks or scars on my body during my visa application process. It reminded me of a humorous incident when I was 17 years old. My brother and I both applied for an engineering scholarship in the Navy which required a full medical check-up. During the check-up the Naval doctor asked me about my scar on my upper right arm, and also inquired about my hand which had been broken before. Embarrassed I had to tell confess that the scar was caused when my brother “accidentally” stabbed my during a dish-washing washing incident. “And about the hand?” I blushed. “Well… my brother ducked and I hit the wall instead…” (Three teenage brothers… these things happen!)
A few weeks later I found myself neatly dressed in a Naval board room, facing several officers of the selection committee. Very intimidating for a teenager! Near the end of the interview (which I thought went quite well up this point!) the one captain – introduced as a psychologist – asked me about my relationship with my older brother (who was interviewed by this committee just before me). “Very good!” I answered truthfully. “Are the two of you competitive with one another? Would there be striving if both of you are selected for the training?” “Not at all! We are very close … really no issues between us!” I assured the captain. He smiled knowingly and asked: “Ross, will you tell us how you got the scar on your upper right arm? And how did you break your hand?” I blushed… apparently the Naval doctor made very thorough notes of my medical exam. We all had a good laugh as I retold the stories of my scars, and the day ended with both my brother and I being selected for the Naval training program.
As I previously wrote, the rings and marks of a tree reveal much of the events that literally shaped the tree. We can discern much of the climatic and environmental events such as wet and dry seasons, forest competition, sickness or pestilence, animal damage, forest fires and even major earth quakes it lived through. We can never see the trauma the tree encountered – only the tree’s growth response to the events. We only see the rings and the scars – how the tree grew and healed through its encounters. These scars latterly tell the story of life of the tree – what the tree endured and survived.
Our scars – visible and invisible – tell a similar story. My experience is that people want to hide and even forget their scars, being ashamed of the imperfections and afraid of the memories. In contrast, the apostle Paul boasted about his scars[i] and listed the events which caused these scars (inside and outside) with gratitude and dignity, claiming that these scars are something to be cherished, even honoured. [ii] Why? How could our pain and the scars it left be something to be thankful for, something to be cherished and even paraded? What can we learn from Paul about our scars and the trauma which caused it?
Firstly, my scars are a witness to my weaknesses, and therefore they are signs of grace. Paul boasted in all his weaknesses[iii] because during these weaknesses and the sufferings which revealed the end of his strength, he experienced the grateful strength and intervention of God. These traumatic events scarred Paul’s body because of violence and accidents; it scarred his soul because of betrayal and abandonment; and it scarred his spirit due to accusations and torment. Yet these scars were cherished by Paul because each scar – visible and invisible – reminded him of God’s sustaining grace. Without God’s grace Paul would have died, given up, or turned back from God’s call for his life.
Like the rings and marks on a tree, our scars are reminders of God’s faithful care, intervention and sustaining power during each situation that left its mark. The scar says “If it had not been for the Lord,[iv] this would have been my end… but God carried me through and restored me!” As such these scars bring me daily comfort that God is always with me, and can turn anything and everything I face today for my good.[v] Whenever my strength fails, I can be sure of His strength.[vi] When fear wants to overwhelm me, my scars remind me that stronger is He that is in me than what I may face in the world today.[vii] I never face anything alone.[viii]
Secondly, my scars are witness to tests I have passed. Like the marks that give character to the tree, every scar – visible or invisible – tells the story of pain that I endured, of hardship that I was not spared. And therefore, as a believer in Christ, these scars are signs of faith that remind me that I was tested and purified as through fire. [ix] In spite of the troubles I kept on believing that God is good and a rewarder of those who diligently serve Him[x]. Through the pain, loss, or shame I kept on trusted God, believing that he has overcome the world.[xi] My faith was proven and found to be real because I have come to trust God’s character more than my experience.
Looking at my scars as marks of faith bring me daily confidence. My scars remind me that nothing can separate me from God’s love, and that in every hardship I endure I am more than a conqueror through Christ who gives me strength.[xii] In this sense each scar is an affirmation of my faith, each adding confidence in the face of adversity.
Thirdly, my scars are witness to a fading, fallible world. We only get scars on earth because the rule of sin and its decaying effect is limited to this fallen world of ours. Our scars are caused by things like violence, sickness, calamity – and these have temporal freedom here. The driving forces that brings the pain and leave scars are often hatred, jealousy, greed, betrayal, or abuse – and these are only at work here and now. But when Christ returns to reign there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more calamity[xiii] – there will be no new scars in heaven.
Every scar reminds me that our world is fallen, and it stirs my longing for the day when Christ will come to make all things new.[xiv] As such our scars are signs of hope, reminders that Christ will bring an end to sin and suffering and establish His reign of shalom. Looking at my scars in this light brings me joyful endurance, knowing that whatever I might face is today temporal; it cannot compare to the eternal glory that awaits me.[xv]
Lastly, our scars are reminders of Christ’s scars on his body. CHRIST HAS SCARS BECAUSE WE HAVE SCARS. Moved by love the Eternal Perfect One exchanged his pain-free heaven for our pain-stricken existence. He vicariously suffered everything mankind endures to redeem us to Himself.[xvi] This sacrificial love left the Eternal Perfect One scarred forever – as a Lamb having been slain.[xvii]
Our scars point us to His scars, a visceral reminder that we are greatly loved. My scars are signs of love. He was scarred in body, soul and spirit for our healing, peace and forgiveness.[xviii] In this – His scars – His love for us is demonstrated.[xix] O, how He loves us! Looking at my scars in this way stirs my gratitude and devotion to Christ.
Through what did you grow this year? What scars did the past year leave in your body, soul and spirit?[xx] How do you feel looking at the marks life left on you? Like the rings and scars in a tree, we our character is shaped by our response to what life throws at us. We too are known by our scars. How you relate to your scars shape your reality, relationships and ultimately your destiny.
Reframing how you view your scars will realign your reality, relationships and your destiny. Ask yourself: How do these scars remind you of God’s sustaining grace? Can you see the scars as affirmation of real faith? Do the scars stir your hope in Christ’s return? And do the scars remind you of God’s immense love? How does all this make you feel at the prospect of another year? Comforted? Confident? Joyful?
Now you too can look at your scars and say with Paul: “We we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.These light afflictions, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…”[xxi]
The growth rings of a tree trunk intrigue me. These contours compile the life story of the tree in the lines left by nature’s faithful seasons of wet and dry. Years of plenty leave thick lines, years of lack leave thin lines. Yet more than mere rainfall history is recorded in these contours: forest competition leave elliptical lines of asymmetrical growth, while the trauma of forest fires, animal damage, pests or sickness leave permanent stains or scars in the tree trunks. These lines, scars, stains and blotches portray the life of the tree: it is the record of events the tree witnessed, what it encountered and what it survived. Just like our fingerprints these contours distinguish one tree from another – what a tree lives through lends it its distinguishing marks; its experience lends it its beauty and character. As these pictures show[i], each tree is known and valued by its marks.
But note that the lines and marks in a tree are the trees response to its environment – not the environment itself. We don’t see the rains, droughts, fires, bugs or animals. The contours only record the tree’s growth because of a wet season, and its hardening because of a dry season. We only see the elliptical contours because of the tree’s self-adjusting growth for a few years in its fight for better sunlight. We only see the darkening as it healed from the heat and flames, the recovery scars left from animal damage and the discolouration caused by other environmental conditions. In essence, the trunk of the tree is a witness to how the tree coped with its experience, how well it adjusted to survive in its environment and how it was strengthened through it. Indeed, these contours are aptly called the “growth rings of a tree”.
If your character could be dissected as a tree trunk, it might reveal similarly distinguishing “growth rings” – the marks that show how each season has impacted you.
As I reflect on the past year I am struck by how deeply it influenced me – both for the good and the bad. A few family traumas of people within our church community has left a heightened appreciation for my family and my health, with a deliberate response to cherish the precious time with those I love and make the best use of my health and fitness. Frequent reports of leadership failure have heightened my awareness of my own fallibility and the traumatic impact it has on many; this sparked renewed study and intentional growth in Christian leadership practice as well as intentional accountability as I see the need to allow others to speak into my life. The development and facilitation of a marriage intimacy course has made a lasting impact in my attention to and intention for growth in marital intimacy. A demanding season has highlighted the dangers of isolation resulting in purposeful pursuit of healthy friendships for me and my family. But the business has also caused me to reevaluate my life, reconsider my efforts and remind myself where I should be heading, so I can readjust my course now.
Sadly I am also aware of some less noble responses to events in the past year: I recognise a mounting degree of cynicism due to frequent disappointment by certain people, coupled by latent anger and even bitterness in my heart. I notice a resistance to spontaneous generosity because of perceived entitlement and misspending of some with whom I have supported. I note the signs of compassion fatigue because of seasons of overextending myself. And sadly I am aware that I laugh and play less because of the impact of the serious things that I deal with. These responses are not good for my soul, my family and my relationships.
Thus the events of the past season has touched me personally and impacted my character. I have grown grateful and humble, more relational and accountable, vulnerable and intimate, and more purposeful. Yet I have to acknowledge that I have grown more cynical, less innocent and less generous, less compassionate and less joyful. My growth through the last season has been both good and bad; in some ways I have grown to resemble Christ my Lord better and in some ways I have grown to represent him less.
Although the memories of our experiences remain with us, it is our own responses to those experiences that ultimately impact us and those around us greatly, because how we respond shapes us for the long run. Our responses to life’s significant moments and seasons lay the contours that make up our character – and our character shapes both our consciousness (how we view life) and our course (where we end up in life).
That is why we need to “guard our heart above all things, for from it flows the issues of life.”[ii]We cannot control or undo what life’s seasons throw at us, but we can and should control our response to those moments.
The Bible teaches that one is “blessed” (or better off) when in spite of injustice one remains kind and merciful; when in the midst of cruelty and betrayal one remains pure in heart; when in the midst of conflict one pursues reconciliation and peace; when in the midst of hardship one remains faithful and true to God.[iii] In fact, the Bible shows that regardless of what life throws at us, a godly response always leaves one blessed – in this life and the life to come.[iv] And that although everything seems hopeless, there is a very real reason to be optimistic, because God can and will bring beauty out of every situation.[v] Although there are things that challenge us in every season of life, God’s grace in that season is enough to carry us through.[vi]
It’s a new year. Another year is over and it left its marks on your life. Was it a year of plenty or of want? A season of vigorous growth or a tough season of hardening? A festive time or fiery trial that left its stains? Regardless of what the year brought you, its impact on your life will prove significant in the shaping of your heart.
How will you allow your experiences to impact your character for good or bad? Consider it carefully, because your response to this season will determine your consciousness in the next season and ultimately your course in life.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the 2006 film In Pursuit of Happyness based on the true story of how Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) endured being homeless for nearly a year while pursuing his dream and caring for his
toddler son Christopher (played by eight-year-old Jaden Smith). In the film Chris is a struggling salesman who invested all his life savings in new portable bone-density scanners. His wife leaves him due to mounting financial pressures and he is left alone to care for their five-year old son Christopher. His life reaches an all-time low when Chris loses his last bone-scanner, gets arrested for unpaid parking tickets, his bank account gets garnished by the revenue services for unpaid income tax and he gets evicted from his apartment. Homeless and penniless Chris manages to land an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm, competing against 19 others to win the only paid position at the end of six months. In the post-script we read how Chris continued to eventually own his multi-million-dollar brokerage.
This emotion-laden real-life drama each of us can identify with because it speaks about the sacrifices needed to realize one’s dreams, and the tremendous joy that comes from the fulfillment of the dream. We were created to pursue the things that give us joy, and therefore joy is indeed one of man’s chief motivators especially in enduring difficult times.
An ancient Hebrew song dating around 400 BC has this same theme.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.” 3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the South! 5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy! 6 He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
This psalm was sung against the dark backdrop of Jews who returned from exile, being oppressed and enslaved for seventy years first by the Babylonians and thereafter the Persians. They were slaves who had no value or dignity, no sense of identity or value, with no rights or power to steer their own destinies. They felt flawed, forgotten, worthless, powerless, and essentially hopeless. Then suddenly Cyrus had an urge to send them back to rebuild their temple and their city, and these slaves were set free – a day of great rejoicing!
The first half of this psalm sings this prayer of gratitude, looking back at how God had graced these exiles to come home and rebuild the temple and its walls, and the people “were glad”. The second half is a prayer for restoration of the nation that had been scattered and their land that had laid desolate for 70 years. Now that Zion (verse 1, pointing to the temple and its worship) had been restored, the psalmist prays the nation and its land be revitalized like the annual winter rains transform the arid dessert in the South of Judah (Hebrew “Negev” in verse 4) into a flowery garden bustling with life.
“Sowing in tears”
Sowing is not a particularly sad or even hard job. Why then would the psalmist write of “weeping” and sowing “precious seeds”? The context of the Psalm is of Jews returning to a dilapidated Jerusalem and barren land, to a city and land that have been unoccupied and uncultivated for 70 years. They brought food with them what they were able to carry, but that would not last long. So they would soon need to live off the land – they needed to sow. And when you sow the food you want to eat, when you sow the seeds your children hunger for, your sowing is accompanied by tears of anguish. These are costly seeds that mere money can’t buy – these are “precious seeds” that get its first watering by the tears of the sower.
How to reap joy
This ancient song teaches us how to cultivate a life of joy amidst suffering – a valuable lesson for each of us.
Firstly, a life of gratitude makes for a glad heart even amidst hardships, as the psalmist teaches: “3 The Lord has done great things for us [and] we are glad.” In looking back, remembering the good things the Lord has done for you, the hard times in which God has preserved you and later from which he has delivered you, the anguished heart is refreshed with joy, hope and faith. When you relive joyful times your heart relives the past joy and your faith is stirred by hope as you remember how God has delivered you from similar hardships in the past – he will do the same again. Indeed, gratitude makes you cheerful, and “the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” which no fire can quench (Proverbs 15:15).
Secondly the psalmist says that sowing needs to be “continuously”, not impulsively or sporadically. You keep on sowing until you reap a harvest. Considering the context then the psalmist probably had in mind how his people had been restored to joy from a life of slavery and exile through “sowing in tears” like recorded in the prayers of Daniel (Daniel 9), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1), Jeremiah (Lamentations 1-4) and some of the Psalms (eg Psalm 137). These prayers give us a view into the anguish of the exiled Jews, and how they lamented bitterly and continuously petitioned God for return and restoration – a true sowing in tears that resulted in the joy expressed in half of this psalm.
This is a great lesson to never give in to hardship, and never give up because of disappointments. We continue to sow in tears because of the expected joy in the harvest. In fact, the great anguish is the great motivator to continue sowing in tears as we long for the great joy. So do “not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9).
Thirdly, the sowing of “precious seed” (KJV) especially results in “shouts of joy”. And this is the main teaching in this psalm: sowing seeds which makes you weep will ensure a harvest accompanied by shouts of joy. In other words, a life of selfless sacrifice results in joy. The giving up of what you deem precious so that there is enough for others to share will result in joy. This first generation of returned exiles made the big sacrifice to re-cultivate the farmlands from their own meagre food-packs to ensure that there is enough food for other returning exiles and their coming generations. Their sacrifice resulted in joy for all. The joy is multiplied when the precious seeds you sow results in bundles of sheaves – enough for everyone.
When the sacrifice is rewarded with breakthrough and the effort was worthwhile – then there is great joy. But without sacrifice – without the sowing of precious seed – there will be no reaping worthy of great joy. Playing it safe does not result in great joy. Only sowing in tears results in a harvest of joy.
Lastly, although accompanied by anguish, the sowing is very hopeful. The farmer knows that for every single seed he sows he is sure to reap thirty, sixty or even a hundred-fold (Matthew 13:8). His tearful sowing can be done confidently and hopeful, because “heshall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” And our confidence in sowing is not misplaced! God himself oversees the principle and process of sowing and reaping: “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:8). Sowing in tears is never in vain.
The psalmist teaches that persistent, sacrificial and hopeful sowing will result that results in a joyful harvest.
Bringing home the joy
Each of us are in pursuit of happiness. We are all driven by a longing for joy: we run away from things that might cause us harm (fear) and we run towards the things that we belief will bring us pleasure (joy). But many times we exert effort on what does not produce true delight or lasting joy (Isaiah 55:2).
The wisdom of this world says self-serving efforts (or selfishness) produces joy: “SPEND EFFORT FOR MORE COMFORT AND CARNAL PLEASURES TO INCREASES YOUR JOY.” Self-serving pleasure is the chief motivator behind most of the marketing campaigns that dominate the media: “Buying [this] – it will give you joy.” “Living [here] will give you joy.” “More of [this] will increase your joy.” “Doing [this] will give you joy.” This philosophy is the heart behind every temptation that lures us into sin, yet it still leaves us unsatisfied and without lasting joy.
But over against this the psalmist says “Those who sow in tears you will reap with shouts of joy.” In other words, selflessness produces real joy: “THE GREATEST JOY IS FOUND IN THE GIVING OF YOURSELF FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHERS.” Just as the endurance athlete gets joy from completing the race, so the self-emptying mother of a disabled child reaps love and joy from any response the child may give. The couple who walked through their dark valley together reaps tremendous joy in their relationship at the end. But for the one who quits or gives up or gets distracted during hardships, there is no reaping of joy. If you wish to reap in joy, you need to sow the precious seed in tears.
The context of “sowing in tears” in this psalm as sketched above is to “restore [Judah]” (verses 4-6) – not only for yourself only. “Shouts of joy” comes when your anguished efforts for another results in an end of their suffering, their hardship. Ironically your joy overflows when you give of your precious time, share of your precious belongings, and give of your very life for the betterment of another. It is truly “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35; see also Hebrews 12:3).
So consider your life, your pursuit, your prayers.
Can you recall what you have sacrificed a great deal to achieve or complete, and when it was fulfilled you were joyful, satisfied, ecstatic, and fulfilled?
Where are you currently “sowing in tears” – i.e. where are you sacrificing your own comfort for the benefit of another, so that joy may come?
Can you remember why? What do you hope to achieve with this “sowing in tears”?
And as you go out again tomorrow, pouring out of what is precious to you, let this verse encourage you as it did the Jews who first sang when they rebuilt Jerusalem and their nation (400 BC):
“6 He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Our world is scared, and increasingly so. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US today according to the National Institute of Mental Health affecting one third of the North American population, with a staggering 37% and 50% increase in occurrence among children (ages 4-10 and 11—19) over the last decade. It is estimated that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, nearly one third of the country’s total mental health bill.
Our world is a scary place. Our society is characterized by a sense of anxiety and vulnerability, daily fueled by images of terror and rumors of impending disaster. But we are not the first generation passing through these shadows of uncertainty, uproars and unrests. Like the generations before us we need to overcome the urge to panic.
This is a call to courage. It’s not the time to be anxious, to be intimidated, to succumb to terror. As we see the climate is changing, the shadows drawing longer, we need to look back and find courage from the accounts of others that have navigated similar moments in history. During Nero’s reign Paul urged the anxious, persecuted believers to look into the the Scriptures for “learning… encouragement… comfort… [and] hope” (Romans 15:4). And what examples of courage does the Scripture not have!
Abraham left all he knew for promise from God in his spirit. Later he pursued five kings with their armies to save his nephew Lot from slavery. Noah, a preacher of righteousness had courage to confront a perverse generation and build the ark amidst their mockery for 120 years. Young David stood up to Goliath the giant. JoshuaandCaleb were not intimidated by the giants in walled cities and trained armies that occupied their Promised Land, patiently waited forty years and in their old age lead the nation to possess this land. Daniel walked into a den of lions, and his three friends into the fiery oven because they would refused to bow to another god. He did falter to fear but told Darius straight-up “God found you too light!”Moses confronted the terrifying Pharaoh demanding release of all his slaves, and then led the entire nation into. Queen Ester risked her life when she approached the Persian king to save her generation from annihilation. Nehemiah did the same to rebuild the holy city. Gideon and his small army walked unarmed into a Midianite camp with 15’000 soldiers. Samson single-handedly took on 1’000 Philistine warriors. Jehoshaphat led the whole nation into the dessert against three massive armies. Elisha was besieged by the entire Syrian army but walked right up to them and led them into siege. Elijah challenged all the Baal prophets to a public showdown asking “Who is the real God?!” Jonah walked into the most violent city of his day as a foreigner, demanding repentance and submission to his God. Prophets like Isaiah,Jeremiah, Malachi, Amos, Hosea, Nathan and John the Baptist willingly chose a life of mockery, poverty and pain as they confronted kings, rebuked hypocrisy, and exposed the injustice of the day.
Jesus, son of God, left the comfort of heaven, the honor of the throne, the worship of the angels and the power of divinity to enter a life of pain, poverty and persecution – ultimately to suffer brutally and die shamefully. All because “God so loved the world.” And his courage set the pattern for his followers, as we see in the first beatings of Peter and John, the first martyr Stephen, the hardships of the Apostle Paul history of the church throughout the ages.
How do we grow in courage?
In Joshua 1:1-9 we see the Lord giving a pep-talk to the new leader called to lead the Hebrews to occupy their land inhabited by Giants in secure cities. We learn much from this instruction about how to “take heart” when times are tough.[i]
Courage must rise in the face of fear.There is no need for courage when everything is plain sailing, when all is as it should be. But in the threat of pain of discomfort, loss or death, when the natural inclination is to hide or run away, that’s the que to take heart! The Lord told Joshua to be courageous because the situation was terrifying. A sense of fear must trigger the response to courage.
Courage has a cause. When there is no need, no urgency, no mandate, there is no need for courage. When one puts his hand into a lit furnace for no reason he is rightly labelled a fool. But a woman who runs into a burning house to save her daughter is a hero. Joshua had to be courageous to fulfill his mandate. Bravery is called upon when the fight is worth it. Courage is needed to uphold the righteous purposes of God.
Courage is gained in the knowledge of God. Joshua was told to not forget “The Book of the Law” which Moses left Israel. Today we have it as the first five books in our Bible. Why would that help Joshua to grow in courage? Because it records – from Creation to Exodus – the accounts of God’s wisdom, power and loving faithfulness with his people. Joshua would be “encouraged” every time he reads how faithfully and powerfully God had preserved and delivered his people in desperate times past. Thus courage is gained as we become convinced and get reminded of God’s power and might – that truly “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Courage grows as we learn from these accounts who God is: that God is good, righteous, faithful and merciful. This revelation of God’s power and character is preserved in Scripture as records of his interaction and decrees, so we get to know God and are encouraged as we read these accounts of divine intervention (Romans 15:4). Indeed, “but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.” (Daniel 11:32)
Courage is gained in the assurance of God’s presence. The Lord encouraged Joshua with the promises of his personal presence. More specifically “as I was with Moses” – thus Joshua was promised the same intimacy with the Lord, the same faithfulness in preservation and the same powerful interventions which Moses experienced as he lead these people. What an encouraging promise! The Lord made that same promise of companionship his ascension (Matthew 28:20), and that companionship we experience in the empowering presence of His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:11). We grow in courage as we grow in revelation of the Lord’s personal presence, declaring with David “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)
Courage is infectious. The Lord encouraged Joshua. Before these words of encouragement Joshua was intimidated and anxious. But the words of encouragement put the necessary strength into his heart to go on and fulfill his mission. That’s why we are repeatedly called to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) – literally “put courage and strength into the heart of another”. We get encouraged through deliberate effort to be built up, but also indirectly as we see others or hear their stories as they continue courageously amidst hardship, thinking “If another can do it, so can I.” Courage is infectious, as we can see in this video
Courage is a choice. The Lord’s repeated commands of courage implies a choice to succumb to fear and intimidation or to take heart and continue with his commission. We either choose to allow fear to dictate our actions, or we choose to allow courage to reign in our hearts. So Jesus told his disciples – as he is saying to us today “Let not your heart be troubled…believe in me” because “In the world you will have trouble. But TAKE HEART; I have overcome the world.” (John 14:1; 16:33) These exhortations from the Lord demand a response, a resolve to not allow fearful situations to “trouble your heart” and dictate your actions. So when there’s a choice to fight or flight, choose to fight and persevere.
Add courage to your faith
Life in the kingdom of God is not for the faint-hearted – it never was, it never will be. The kingdom suffers violence” said Jesus (Matthew 11:12). Our world is unfriendly and uncertain. But so it was in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Their society was oppressed by the Roman army and heavily taxed by Caesar, plagued by perpetual civil unrest and terrorism, divided by extreme classism. For that reason Peter exhorted the church to “add to your faith COURAGE“ (2 Peter 1:5). Mere saving faith does not make you fit or fruitful to fulfill your mandate. Our mandate is clear: peacemakers, Kingdom-bringers, heralds of the Good News.
So “don’t be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt 6:34), don’t live a life pacified by fear or paralyzed by what can go wrong. Fear steals your joy and taps your strength. Reflect on this truth: if God is for us, who can be against us!? Then look up, shape up, sign up and step up. TAKE HEART, finish the job, then we can go Home.
[i]Note the incredible similarity in form of the appeals to courage to complete the divine mandate with assurance of the Lord’s power and presence in the following texts: Solomon’s charge to build the temple (1 Chronicles 28:20), Joshua’s command for conquest (Joshua 1:1-9), the disciple’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the angel’s warning about Paul’s shipwreck and appointment with Cesar (Acts 27:24-26) and the Corinthian’s church charge to not fear death but continue in their faith (1 Corinthians 15:57-8).
Writing to a congregation of predominantly Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign, the author of Hebrews repeatedly exhorted believers to not renounce Christ in fear of the mounting persecution. And that is necessary, because suffering moves one to re-evaluate what you believe. At some point in life we all walk through the fire – but how do you remain faithful to God amidst suffering? How do you endure the fires of life.
Brief background to and outline of Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers (1:1 “spoken to our fathers”) probably in Rome (13:24 “those from Italy greet you”). After hearing the gospel confirmed with signs and miracles (2:4), they were converted (3:16), were baptized and had partaken of the Holy Spirit (6:1-5). This was a long-established church (5:12) whose members have lived exemplary lives of faith and good works (6:10), and have experienced persecution, imprisonment (13:3) and the loss of property (10:32-33), but have not yet suffered martyrdom (12:4). The congregation were capable of charity and hospitality (13:2,16), and previously had great teachers and leaders (13:7) who grounded them in foundational Christian teaching in the Jewish Scriptures (6:1-2).
But their faith had been outlawed and these ostracized believers became discontent and discouraged and longed for earthly property and a sense of belonging in their society (13:5, 14). So they started questioning their beliefs, considering other avenues to God so they could be reintegrated into society; they were on the verge of walking away from their Christian convictions. In response the author of Hebrews wrote this “word of exhortation” (13:22) to bolster the faith and perseverance of this wavering Christian community, reminding them how to correctly “draw near…” (10:23) to God.
The recipients seems to have been influenced by the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria who mixed Judaism with Greek philosophy and wrote that there were several ways for sinful man to approach God. He mentioned the Logos (elsewhere “the word or reason of God”), Sophia (elsewhere “the wisdom of God”), the angels, Moses, Melchizedek the high priest and the Jewish sacramental system were all avenues (or mediators) to bridge the divide between man and God. Reading Hebrews, it appears that the first recipients of this letter were considering these alternative avenues to avoid persecution, yet still worship God. In response to their searching the author writes how Jesus Christ is better than Philo’s Logos and Sophia (1:1-3), better than the angels (1:4-2:18) and Moses (3:1-6), and better than the Aaronic priesthood (7:1-24), presenting a better offering (9:14) in better place (8:2). Jesus has also secured a better, eternal covenant by his sacrifice “once for all” (10:14) that he can guarantee fulfillment on behalf of both man and God (7:22). Our author shows this superiority to deter readers from turning to these “alternative mediators” to escape the pressures of persecution and to exhort readers to hold fast to their confession if faith in him amidst difficult times.
Faithful in the fire
How does this 2000 year old letter to Jewish believers suffering under Nero’s persecution help us today to “hold fast to your confession” (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23) in the midst of our own hardship and suffering? How can we be prepared to remain faithful in the fire and joyfully endure the suffering as these early believers who remained true to Christ through Nero’s fires?
The answer lies in the pivotal point of this letter, Hebrews 10:19, where the author moves from orthodoxy (or correct thinking) to orthopraxy (or correct living). Here the epistle shifts from theory to practice, with the transition “Therefore” meaning “based on our argument up to here” and then follows with three powerful exhortations that appeal to the required response of the hearers. These three exhortations contain the keys that will help the readers through the mounting persecution they feared. The author encourages readers to “draw near… in faith” (v22), “hold fast to … hope” (v23) and “to stir one another in love” (v24-25). Then he unpacks real faith in chapter 11, hope for endurance in chapter 12 and lovein practice in chapter 13. Like so many times in the letter he again reminds them that they need to remain faithful to Jesus, because of the coming judgment of Christ (v25-31).
These three exhortations to continue in faith, hope and love apply as much to us during times of hardships today.
Draw near in faith
These wavering believers were graciously encouraged to “draw near in full assurance of faith” (v22). Even although they considered renouncing Christ they were encouraged to “have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace through the blood” (4:16; cf 10:19). God has not written them off! Amidst their suffering and wavering they can be assured that their confidence before God was not based on their track record, but based on Jesus’ shed blood (v19). This also implies that their suffering was also not due to their failures. Rather they were encouraged that Jesus, their perfect High Priest has also “suffered when tempted, [and is therefore] able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18). He “is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15-16) – so draw near to get help!
Hold on to hope
Poor and pushed aside, mocked and outlawed, their current circumstances were very uncomfortable. And their immediate future looked even bleaker as the Roman persecution was escalating. Therefore the author encouraged these fragile believers to hold onto their Lord who promises their share in his eternal inheritance! He is their “forerunner” (6:20) who went to announce their coming and the High Priest who secured their confidence before God (6:20). There is no room for doubt: Jesus secured their access and inheritance in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. And “this hope is the anchor of the soul” (6:19) – it settles the emotions and keeps the believer on course to, not swept away by the circumstance. So the believer is encouraged to endure suffering the way their Lord did – joyfully anticipating his reward (12:1-2). This hope is the reason to remain faithful amidst the fire; their endurance will be rewarded!
Assemble to grow in love
Thirdly the author exhorts this congregation, fearful of being hurt or ostracized, to not neglect their assemblies (10:25). In effect he tells this fragile congregation “I know that you are afraid of being identified as a Christian, and I know that you will suffer and might even die when you are seen to gather with other believers – but do it!” Why the urgency? Why should they assemble? Could they not practice their faith in private?
The author motivates that their primary purpose of assembly is to “stir one another to love and good works” – to grow in godly character and excel in good works (10:24). More specifically, each congregant should make it their goal to think about how to help another excel in character and good works. As he did earlier in the letter he encourages them to continue love and service for the saints (6:10-12).
Enduring the fire today
How do we endure suffering? What was true for the Hebrew congregation in Rome suffering under Nero’s reign is true for me and you. First, hold on to your faith: you are loved by God, approved by God, sanctified by God and preserved by God ford God. Not the suffering nor your doubts or fears can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). So boldly approach of throne of grace to receive help in time of need! (Hebrews 4:16).
Second, let hope stir your joy and calm your fears, motivate you to continue in faith, work for your reward and find purpose in all you do. God rewards faithfulness!
Thirdly, “never walk alone!”Join in the assembly to grow others “in love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), and see how you are strengthen and encouraged yourself. Indeed, “it is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 10:35)
References for understanding the letter to the Hebrews
Nash R.H., The Notion of Mediator in Alexandrian Judaism and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 40 (1977), p89-115.
Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1998).
Gutrie D., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Hebrews (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).
Schenck K., Understanding The Book Of Hebrews (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003)
What will your kids imitate (either intentionally or unintentionally)? Or what are they learning from you now?
What is your influence right now? When you leave the office today, or the dinner party tonight or the Bible study group this evening, what do people say of you after you’re gone? What are you known by?
I WANT TO BE A BARNABAS
Imagine being known and remembered primarily for being an encourager. I want to be that guy! Joseph, a Levite of Cyprus, got the nick-name “Encourager” (“Barnabas”) by the apostles and the early church (Acts 4:36-37). His ability to encourage was so influential that he is still remembered today by that name. What a legacy! This Encourager had much influence in the early days of the church and missions. For instance after the zealous persecutor Saul of Tarsus had his life-altering encounter with the Lord Jesus and became Paul, the Encourager was the one who went to look for him, encouraged him and brought him to the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28). When the believers fled from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom and resulting authority, witnessing as they travelled, they “accidentally” established a big church in Antioch with Gentiles (Acts 11:19-24). The Encourager was delegated by the Apostles to discover what was going on; he saw God was at work and encouraged them to continue what they were doing. Afterwards he went to look for Paul, and encouraged him to join him in Antioch and to pursue the ministry he received from the Lord – the ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 11:25-26). Years later, while the church was praying, the Holy Spirit set apart two people for missions to the Gentiles – Paul and the Encourager (Acts 13:1-3). Again we read of the Encourager when he and Paul had an argument over John Mark (Acts 15:36-40); Paul considered him to be fickle and untrustworthy, but Barnabas could see God at work in and through him, so he encouraged him and took him along on his ministry trip. It seems whenever there was a new thing or a big change about to happen, God positioned the Encourager right there in the middle of the crisis, to put strength in the hearts of his people so they might press on amidst uncertainty and difficulty.
PUT STRENGTH IN THE HEART
To encourage literally means to PUT STRENGTH INTO THE HEART (en = into, courage = strength). Fear does the opposite; it takes away the will to fight. So in times of uncertainty or hardship with much opposition, people lose the will to press and as their hearts close up or cower away. In times such as this people need to be strengthened in heart, they need to be encouraged to press one.
Everyone needs encouragement at times. And a need for encouragement is not a sign of weakness just a desire for water is not a sign of weakness.
SCRIPTURE AS ENCOURAGEMENT
It is helpful to keep in mind that the Old Testament history, poetry as well as prophesies were written during times of tremendous uncertainty and hardship. The intent of the writings is to remind the reader of God’s promises, God’s power, God’s proximity and God’s personal commitment to his people. Every book in the Old Testament is very encouraging. That’s why Paul referred to it when he said “whatever was written in former days was written for our learning, thatthroughendurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
Likewise most of the New Testament was written during the three periods of most severe persecution of the first century (around AD 45, 60 and 92). Many of these communities also suffered from internal conflict, so understandably the Apostles wrote with the intent to encourage the believers to remain faithful to Christ in their worship, witness and works.
Thus the New Testament is a great place to learn about this skill much-needed ministry skill of encourage. So how do you encourage another?
DELIBERATE INTENT IN MEETINGS
When the author of Hebrews moves from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxis (right practice) in the 10th chapter, he encourages the scattered, persecuted church to maintain “full assurance of faith” (10:22) in Christ while “holding on in hope” of eternal reward (10:23). These instructions come as no surprise, but he goes on to instruct this fearful group to “not neglect to meet together” (10:25). These believers may die when they meet together openly in their hostile environment! Why should they risk the public association as Christians? He writes says believers should meet together to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:25). He says “think about ways to encourage one another to greater love and more good works!” Continue to come together so that you may effectively encourage one another!”
VERBAL CULTURE OF UPLIFTMENT
We look for gold within the dust.
Such a deliberateness requires a disciplined community that – amidst personal hardship – have trained itself to only speak words that are encouraging and leads to the edification of another (Ephesians 4:29-31). Therefore there is no room for complaining, criticizing, slander or gossip in their communal verbal culture. Rather, the tone of conversation is always one of affirmation, thanks, recognition, exhortation – always encouraging, even when correcting.
Notice the way the apostles start and end their New Testament letters with affirmation, thanks and encouragement. Jesus speaks the same way in Revelations to the seven churches around Ephesus, starting and ending each message to these congregations with affirmation and praise, and ending each letter with hope – a promise of reward. What an example of verbal encouragement!
ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THE GOOD
The verbal encouragement obviously stems from eyes that have been trained to be “light” and not “dark” as Jesus taught (Matthew 6:22-23), in other words they have trained themselves to recognize whatever is good and godly, and not to fixate on what is negative and evil. As a pessimist sees the glass “half empty” an optimist sees the same glass “half full”, so one who has trained his eyes to see good can see goodness in great difficulty and thereby become an exceptional encourager when everyone else complains.
Eugene Person’s paraphrase of Proverbs 11:27 (MSG) sums up this disciplined attitude well: “if anyone can find the dirt in someone, be the first to find the gold!” An encourager always seeks what is good and Godly in someone, and when he finds it he praises it, drawing attention to it so others can also see and celebrate it. Because, as Andy Stanley puts it, “whatever gets celebrated gets repeated!”
RELAYING GOD’S MESSAGE OF ENCOURAGEMENT THROUGH PROPHESY
New Testament Prophesy is exactly that – a message from the Lord that reveals and affirms what is good and even praiseworthy, meant for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:4). Prophetic words from the Lord – whatever the message – communicates to the receiver that “I, the Lord know who you are, what you are going through. I care and I am for you!” Indeed very uplifting, encouraging and comforting! That’s why Paul encouraged this very charismatic but persecuted church in Corinth to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy…” (14:1). Everyone needs encouragement, and the Lord wishes to encourage His church (also) through prophesy!
LET NO-ONE SUFFER ALONE
One of the best ways of encouraging one who goes through hardship is by simply being with them in their times of hardship, and to encourage them to not give up. Paul wrote to the Galatians that they ought to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), or more literally to “stake yourself to” the one suffering, using the imagery of strengthening an injured leg, to prevent it from folding under the load. Whatever the hardship, your presence with one suffering is encouraging and helps preserve the person’s spirit.
The affirmation that “you are not alone, you are not forgotten” is an extremely powerful motivator to press on through hardship. Community, love and a sense of belonging is in itself a reason to live and not give up. Jesus knows that, and therefore, in various forms we find these words of comfort to persecuted congregations “Behold, I am with you! I will never leave you or forsake you.” (see Hebrews 13:5; Matthew 28:20 etc). May times our presence and ministry to hard-pressed people reaffirm this encouraging truth: “God knows about you and He is near to you.”
ENCOURAGED TO PRESS ON THROUGH HOPE
One of the primary ways in which believers are encouraged within the New Testament writings is through hope – the certain promise of reward that give sense and meaning to the current suffering. As for the athlete, the student, the pregnant mother and fighting soldier, anyone who undergoes suffering will hold on if they know that what they go through is rewarded in some way. Like Paul says “these light afflictions do not compare with the glory that awaits us” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The most common hopeful encouragement in the New Testament is the promise of rewards on “the Day of the Lord” – Judgment Day or the Return of Jesus, where the Lord will reward faithfulness and obedience amidst suffering, and judge the wicked. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:2-14 as example). But even temporal hope is a strong encouragement, and the Bible abounds with examples of encouragement to push on with the promise of reward in this life, such as David’s prayer “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen [encourage] your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)
THE GOD OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Just as long-distance runners need water and cheers throughout the race, so the people around you need encouragement to go on. God is “the God of Endurance and Encouragement” (Romans 15:5) who wishes to encourage his children, cheering them on as they do good, comforting them with his presence, promising that their efforts are worth it.
You and I have the privilege to imitate this loving, encouraging God who cheers his children on. You and I have the privilege to put strength into the hearts of fatigued, faithless and fearful people. And for that, you will also have your reward!
So look up. Chances are the first person you meet now will need a cool cup of encouragement. Be ready!
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to THRIVE; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style” ― Maya Angelou (American poet, actress and activist in the American Civil Rights Movement).
Reading through the gospel John, one cannot escape the promise of LIFE, of flourishing and thriving, in Jesus. Over and over Jesus promises that “I have come that you may have LIFE… and that you may have it in overflow” (eg John 10:10). In fact, the over-arching identity and mission of Jesus (at least from John’ Gospel) is one of LIFE-GIVER.
Jesus is LIFE. He said “I am THE BREAD OF LIFE” (John 6:35), “I am THE LIGHT OF LIFE“ (John 8:12), “I AM THE DOOR” for the preservation of life and access to life (John 10:9), “I am THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who lays down his life for the sheep, that they may have life (John 10:11), the “I am THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live” (John 11:25), “I am THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE” (John 14:6) and lastly “I am THE VINE” though whom we have access to and power for life, for “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
I share Mark Hall’s philosophy on this video of Casting Crown’s album THRIVE:
THRIVE in spite of hardships
This promise of LIFE is not defined as an easy life, overflowing with worldly goods and void of suffering. Jesus did not promise his followers a life void of pain, suffering and difficulty; rather, he promises “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
The apostles echoed his words when they wrote to the suffering churches “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12) and “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12). In essence, the New Testament says “don’t just SURVIVE hardships – THRIVE in spite of it!” The LIFE Jesus promised is not snuffed out through suffering.
THRIVE in spite of lack
It is difficult for us to think that it is possible to THRIVE in spite of financial difficulty. Yet it is true that most of the New Testament Church was really poor, being marginalized and persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Yet the church had power and grew rapidly; they knew to be true what Jesus taught: “life does not consist in the wealth of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
Just like some plants flourish in the harsh conditions in a dessert, so a LIFE OF THRIVING is not dependent on abundance of wealth or material success. In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul nor the other apostles had much possessions.
THRIVE in spite of imperfections
Just as a THRIVING plant may not be void of imperfections, so a THRIVING life is not a perfect, faultless life either. Paul likened the full LIFE of Christ contained in human imperfections to a fire shining through the cracks of a clay pot “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)
Thriving therefore is not dependent on worldly comfort, prosperity or perfection. So, Biblically speaking, how does one move from a life of mere SURVIVING to THRIVING?
A Place to Belong: LIFE flows through receiving and giving love
Using the metaphoric language of a tree, the Psalmist writes “They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” To THRIVE, one needs to be “planted in the house of the Lord” – to find your space in church community which one calls “home”, a place of belonging. To THRIVE one has to open your heart to people, and be received into theirs.
It’s common to not feel part of a community, to feel like an outside. But Paul writes that – regardless of our background – Jesus has “made us accepted” into Christ’s beloved community through adoption (Ephesians 1:5-6). If this remains “cognitive truth” at best we will SURVIVE; but once this adoption and acceptance becomes “realized or incarnated truth”, once we experience the blessedness of unconditional acceptance in the community of love we THRIVE in life. We thrive in a community where love is evident both in our giving and receiving of one another.
Jesus refers to this THRIVING as the GLORY we share in wherever we living in unity, in harmonious, Christ-centered community. He said to his followers that THRIVING LIFE or GLORY will set us apart from the world, so that we will be recognized as Christ’s followers, sharing in his LIFE (John 17: 21-23).
Thriving happens in Christ’s community, in God’s family (Ephesians 3:14-19) within the security of unconditional love and acceptance, and space to grow and be yourself. A place where there is no need for presence, where we can live in truth.
Community of Truth: LIFE flows where the LIGHT shines
David observed that it is not financial prosperity that causes one to be blessed but rather by “delight in the law of the LORD” leading to a life devoted to its perpetual study and mediation. He concludes this person “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:1-3). As trees flourish and bear fruit next to a flowing stream, so humans THRIVE in a life devoted to the way God intended – a life directed by “the Law of the Lord”. The “Law of God” or “Truth” is the manual for how God has ordained life, and the pursuit thereof promises a THRIVING LIFE (James 1:25), although not without opposition or difficulty.
One thing that the “Law of God” (or “Word of God”) does for the sincere reader is to search one’s heart and show what is true and what is false (Hebrews 4:12). This shows what is dynamic and of God (truth), what is destructive and of the sinful self (selfish ambition), or deceptive and from Satan himself (a lie). That which is from God causes eternal THRIVING LIFE in self and others; that which is from self or Satan causes death and destruction (James 1:13-17). The Word of God brings to light the veracity of motives, thoughts and feelings. It causes one to LIVE in Truth.
One prospers in the Truth: an environment of honesty without deception, of sincerity without pretense. Such a community that embrace truth in love cultivates tremendous vigor – it leads to THRIVING LIFE. Where there is freedom in unconditional acceptance to either confess faithlessness or failure, or to lovingly confront and correct destructive behavior or beliefs so that one’s life may be directed in Truth and be set free to THRIVE (Romans 8:32).
Hope – a reason to LIVE on
As mentioned earlier, a THRIVING LIFE is not void of trials, tribulation or temptation, but rather this resilient life THRIVES in spite of hardships because of hope – the confident expectation that good will come. Like the tree shoots out its roots, even splitting open solid rock because it follows the scent of water beyond it, so THRIVING in hard times requires the hope of reward. There must be a reason to push on. There must be a promise of THRIVING life beyond this hardship.
Paul was a man that endured much: “imprisoned frequently, in [danger of] death often… five times I received forty stripes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). But he did not give up, and he did not just settle to SURVIVE, but pressed on to THRIVE in spite of these hardships. How? Through hope! He writes “we do not lose heart… For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Paul always kept his eye on the promise of ETERNAL LIFE, not being phased with temporal hardships. Paul THRIVED on hope.
His life philosophy was that “all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28), and reasoned that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-5). He stressed the fact that this hope is not an empty dream, because already the Holy Spirit is living in the believer as a guarantee of ETERNAL LIFE (Ephesians 1:14) and what he calls “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) – the promise to share in the GLORIOUS LIFE in Christ. Therefore Paul rejoices in these hardships, because it helps him produce godly character and reminds him long for a life without sin and suffering in Christ’s Kingdom. He does not want to forfeit that prize by giving up now!
THRIVING amidst hardships means we push on in hardships in faithfulness to God, because we know “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23) – our perseverance has promise of the prize. Although itit is much more costly! To hold on, to break through, to push forward in hope leads to a better LIFE. THRIVING in hardships requires hope – a clear picture of what the reward for perseverance is.
David writes on hope: “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” and concludes “wait in the Lord; be of good courage and he will give strength to your heart” (Psalm 27:13-14).
Jesus – the source of LIFE
Earlier we wrote that Jesus us the SOURCE of ENDURING LIFE: He called Himself “THE BREAD OF LIFE” (John 6:35), “THE LIGHT OF LIFE” (John 8:12), “THE DOOR” to LIFE (John 10:9), “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who preserves and leads us on in LIFE (John 10:11), ” THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” (John 11:25), ” THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE” (John 14:6) and “THE [LIFE-GIVING] VINE” (John 15:5).
Jesus is the source of LIFE. This thriving life is found in Him. He told his followers to “Abide in me… for apart from me you could do nothing” (John 15:5). How do we “live” and THRIVE in him? Simple
Jesus said “came that we “may have life abundantly” (John 10:10) – not just life to survive but LIFE in overflow, in excess: THRIVING LIFE. This LIFE is found as we “abide” or live in Him (John 15:5) – in communion and prayer with Him; as we study his will and live in obedience to his Word (John 15:7); and as we participate and share in his loving community (John 15:12).
It took ten plagues for God to deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt. I remind myself of this truth often. Imagine with me: Moses meets God at the burning bush, takes off his shoes and falls on his face in fear of this Great I Am. God sends him to Pharaoh to command the release of his people (he tries to get out of the job, unsuccessfully). (See Exodus 4, 7)
Moses walks into Pharaoh’s palace (where he grew up and from where he fled some 40 years earlier) and stands face to face with the ruler of Egypt who believes he is a god; Moses’ confidence is in Aaron his spokesperson and the two wondrous signs in his hands, given by God. “Let God’s people go!” says Moses. As a sign that he is sent by the One True Living God, he throws his shepherd-staff on the ground and it becomes a snake. But then the court magicians did exactly the same with their sticks – what an unexpected surprise! The magicians could do the same sign God gave as proof of His divinity and supremacy!
When Pharaoh did not let God’s people go to worship the Lord, Moses performed the first plague by turning all the water in Egypt to blood (Exodus 7:20-21). Yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and unwilling to let God’s people go.
We know the history. It took nine more signs before Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go. The one sign was not enough. Two plagues could not do the job either. Did Moses miss God when he turned the water into blood and Pharaoh did not release the slaves? No. Did he do something wrong that caused the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? No. Moses had to go to Pharaoh ten time and instruct him to release the slaves ten times and call down ten plagues upon the Egyptians. It simply took ten plagues for Israel to be delivered from Egypt – Moses needed to be persistent in obeying God. There is a need for endurance.
This Biblical account is not unique in illustrating our need for persistence. During Israel’s battle with the Amalekites they had the militant advantage for as long as Moses kept his hands in the air (Exodus 17:11). Noah was persistent in obeying God to build an ark for 120 years and preach repentance to his generation, yet only his household was saved (Genesis 6:22; 2 Peter 2:5). Abraham’s persistent faith for an heir is commended by God, so that he was called “friend of God” (Genesis 22:18; Romans 4:17).
More contemporary examples of persistence, its needs and rewards are captured in the memories and legacies of William Wilberforce who dedicated his life to the abolition of the British slave trade, and Thomas Edison for his persistence in the design of the light bulb. Persistence pays off!
The Bible has much to teach us on a need for persistence. It is fueled in prayer before God and results in faithful acts of obedience.
Persist in prayer
I have heard many people teach and encouraged demotivated individuals to pray once, believe and “leave it with God”? Yet the Biblical text is full of examples and instructions regarding persistence prayer. Jesus himself once prayed for a blind man, but afterward he could not see clearly. So Jesus persisted in prayer and the man’s sight was fully restored (Mark 8:23-25). He instructed and encouraged his disciples likewise to persist in prayer, saying that they “always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He taught them “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). Although less clear in the English, this instruction in petitioning, acting and persevering for a desired outcome is given, implying persistence until the desired outcome is achieved. His own life was one of persistent, passionate prayerfulness (Hebrews 5:7; ). The disciples followed Jesus’ example of persistent prayer and modeled it to the early church (Acts 1:14; 2:42), also instructing them to “persevere in prayer” (Ephesians 6:18), “be steadfast in prayer” (Romans 12:12) and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Examples of persistent prayer also abound in the Old Testament. Abraham persisted in prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23-33). Jacob’s persistence in wrestling with the Angel of the Lord secured him with the blessing of God and a changed identity (Genesis 32:24-31). Moses persisted in prayer on behalf of God’s grumbling, unthankful people for forty days so that they were spared (Deuteronomy 9:25). Hannah was shamelessly persistent in her petitions for a son, and Samuel was born (1 Samuel 1:10-12). Likewise Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s persistent prayers were heard, and John the Baptist was born (Luke 1:12). Simeon persisted in prayer for Israel’s Savior and he was rewarded to lay his eyes on Jesus before his death (Luke 2:25-32). Elijah persisted in prayer and the draught over Israel was broken (1 Kings 18:42-45). Daniel had a disciplined prayer life (Daniel 6:10-11) and persisted in prayer for the restoration of his nation until he was heard (Daniel 9:1-3; 10:2-3, 11-12).
But persistent prayer must be accompanied by persistent faith in action. In the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture, “waiting on God” and “hoping in God” are typically used as synonyms for persistence in prayer and obedience while waiting for God’s intervention (e.g. Psalms 88 and 130; Isaiah 26:8 and 40:30-31). There is a need for persisting in doing good as well.
Persist in doing good
Jesus’ life is the perfect example of persistence in doing good (Acts 10:38), of doing the Father’s will (Matthew 26:36-45; Philippians 2:5-8). His disciples followed his example and instructed the church to do the same, and “not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13) but remain “steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Joseph’s life is an example of someone who persisted in doing good, even though he was victim to much betrayal an suffering. (Genesis 41:43, 44) Although he suffered unjustly at the hands of his brother and as slave to Potiphar and as prisoner in jail, he persisted in doing good, and God continued to bless him, until later he was appointed as ruler in Egypt. (Genesis 39:10, 12, 23). Because of his persistence and faith God entrusted much to him.
Nehemiah’s life is one of persistence and faithful endurance. Amidst great resistance from without and within (Nehemiah 2:19-20), even in the face of war (Nehemiah 4:7-9), he obeyed the burden of God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, to remove the shame of his people and to restore true worship in Israel (Nehemiah 8:1-3). Likewise, the lives of the David, prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea as well as the early church serve as inspiration to us of persistent faithfulness to God, suffering ridicule and rejection, imprisonment, beatings and even fatal martyrdom in faithful obedience to God.
Is there something you are “waiting” or “hoping” for in God? Have you tried but failed, even though you did what God commanded you? Then remember: it took ten plagues to deliver the slaves from Egypt. Don’t give up!
So what are you trusting for? Do you have unfulfilled dreams or unanswered prayers? God has not forgotten you – he cannot (Isaiah 49:15). He hears your prayers and is willing and able to intervene (Isaiah 59:1), but you have need for persistence, so pray and work until your bucket is full (Revelations 8:4-5).
Follow the example of our Biblical heroes. Remain determined in your dream. Do not wobble due to residence, do not yield to pressure. Be not spineless in the face of the impossible nor waver when the wait is long. Are you weak or battle-worn? Then “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14; see Isaiah 40:31)
But be steadfast in your faith, tenacious in your pursuit, unshakeable on your course. Be relentless in your prayers and unremitting in doing good. God honors persistence!
“Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him. They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies. After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days. On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.
Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected. Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.
The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce. On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again. The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.
The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds. The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest. They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.
Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!) After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted. This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.
The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island. To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget. During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening. The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.
Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself. They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.
This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together. Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible. He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.
Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence. Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?
(1) Comfort of Scripture
As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they. Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.
New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God. Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11). The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3). Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.
The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve, and that he is willing and able to save. Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.
(2) Companionship in community
Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community. That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together. These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times. He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive. If no-one gives up, the group endures.
In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.” For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.
(3) Celebration of life
Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.
Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant. Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.
Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances. This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.
Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
(4) Continuing in hope
Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up. They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow. In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England. He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance. If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on. But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.
The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example “you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3). Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.
Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). In another place he records “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.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). How did he endure these hardships? He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24). Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord. He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.
(5) Courage from God
Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31). I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up. I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations. With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.
Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10). Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God. From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us. Strength is found in God’s community.
Making it personal
If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12). Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19). He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).
And in the words of Paul: “Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) “strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).
It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914. Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years. On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners. Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!