Patterns in Acts: Sacrifice and Suffering
By every historical standard, we live in a culture of luxury. As a society, we have become so accustomed to ease that extreme sacrifice or suffering is considered a malady that must be remedied. As Christians, we are affected by this. If few around us are paying a price for their standards of faith, why should we? We are citizens of the United States of America, therefore we should enjoy the rights and privileges of our lifestyle. This mentality will be our ruin.
Why suffer? Why must sacrifice and suffering be a part of discipleship? It certainly isn’t because Jesus intended discipleship to be a quiet, non-invasive lifestyle. Jesus made this clear: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household…Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:34-36, 38). We are given a mission. We have a purpose that goes beyond our forgiveness. The gospel message, sent out through us into an evil world, will bring a sword, and a person’s enemies will be as close as those within his own family.
Patterns of Sacrifice and Suffering
Luke’s description of discipleship reflects this message. From the moment the resurrection of Jesus was understood and believed, men and women dramatically changed their outlook on life. They picked up their cross and brought a sword to the world. Thus, a key thread in Luke’s account is the growth of the kingdom through sacrifice and suffering. The spread of the gospel carried its power through men and women who “loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
Suffering in order to extend the kingdom message came early and strong. First, Peter and John were imprisoned and threatened (4). Then all the apostles were imprisoned, beaten, and threatened (5). Then Stephen grew bold in his preaching, which triggered not only his own death, but a widespread persecution that extended beyond the apostles to any who called on the name of Christ (7-8).
The twofold response of the disciples in 8:3-4 is significant. First, they were scattered. There was no reason to seek suffering, and if Jerusalem would respond violently to the gospel, there were other places to live. The Hebrew writer explains, they “joyfully accepted the spoiling of their goods” (Heb. 10:34). The second part of their response is surprising. Please think of what we would have done under similar circumstances. Certainly we would have fled the city, but what then? Find a new place to meet where we do not bring so much attention to ourselves? I’m afraid that would have been our decision. Not so with these disciples. “Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (8:4). The hardship of having to leave their homes, jobs, and possessions did not deter their exuberance in proclaiming that King Jesus was alive and reigning. Further, if King Jesus is truly enthroned, what is there to fear? Indeed, we sacrifice and suffer because we have been called to this purpose (1 Peter 2:21).
Though we struggle accepting suffering in discipleship because of our relatively comfortable lives, our lack of sacrifice and suffering may result from our desire to avoid boldness and confrontation in living and spreading the gospel message. It is certainly not that we ought to desire suffering, but Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are a direct reprimand to the opposite desire – to live a soft life of kings (Cf. 1 Cor. 4:8-15). Paul’s “boast” was a life of suffering and death so others might have life (2 Cor. 4:7-12). Acts gives us actual pictures of disciples embracing sacrifice in order to fulfill the purpose of Christ. During Paul’s journeys, Luke highlights the persecution he and his traveling companions received. But that does not mean the Christians he left behind did not also live sacrificially and suffer: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thes. 1:6-7). The Philippian church was also urged to imitate the sacrifice of Jesus, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul (Phil. 3:15-16).
This brings up a misconception we often have about the reception of the gospel in the first century. Too often we focus on the “thousands” that accepted the gospel without considering that with every success came a degree of persecution. In some cases it was violent, from either Jewish leaders (Acts 5, 7, 12) or idolators concerned with losing their income (Acts 16, 19). In other cases, as in Athens and Corinth, “suffering” was no more than being mocked (Acts 17). But in all cases, the spread of the gospel was accompanied with a level of resistance and the need for Christians to make sacrifices. As Paul said to the Galatian churches, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). While our culture is more like Corinth, there is still significant sacrifices that must be made for the cause of Christ. It may be that our lack of suffering results from our resistance to sacrificial living as we spread the message. Just as Jonah was extremely angry over the withering of a gourd over his head but cared little for the souls in Nineveh, rejection, inconvenience, and even suffering is an unwelcome interruption to our comfort.
The Character of the Servant of Christ
In explaining the character of a servant Christ to the soft, wealthy Corinthians, Paul said, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that Jesus’ life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. So then, death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor. 4:10-12, CSB17). Indeed, until death is at work in us, life will not be given to others. Again in 2 Corinthians 5:14-16, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves…” Paul’s sacrificial life was not a defense of himself (2 Cor. 12:27), but an explanation of the character of every disciple: “Christ died for all, therefore all have died.”
How easily we read over Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians for their objections to his life of sacrifice. Please carefully hear these words and note especially Paul’s conclusion:
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:8–16 ESV).
This is the message lived out in Acts. Sacrifice and suffering was not for a few apostles and evangelists. Jesus, and then Paul, plotted the course for us all: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”