Word Study #94 — Persecution, Tribulation

In both of the previous two studies, the concept of “giving thanks” and/or “rejoicing” occasionally referred to persecution, tribulation, suffering, or, as some want to call it, “sacrifice”, on behalf of Jesus and his Kingdom.
None of these four words appear frequently in the New Testament, but their prevalence in “accepted Christian teaching” requires an examination of what really is said in Scripture regarding these subjects.
Contrary to popular assumptions, not one of them is ever presented as having been instigated, caused, or commanded by God, in the New Testament.

Since they represent somewhat different concepts, we will deal with these words in two separate posts. “Persecution” and “tribulation” are used together four times (Mt.13:21, Mk.4:17, Rom.8:35, II Thes.1:4), almost as synonyms, and often assumed to be a normal consequence of faithful living. Persecution and tribulation are not a matter of choice. Both are externally imposed. The only choice is how one will respond.
Jesus described persecution / tribulation as one reason for the falling away of many who had initially been enthusiastic about the Kingdom (Mt.13:21, Mk.4:17), and Paul reminded the converts in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that the violent opposition they were experiencing was “only normal” (Ac.14:22).

Classically, dioko had more frequently referred to a chase, as in a war or a hunt, or the eager pursuit of an object, person, or goal. This latter is seen also in Rom. 14:19, I Cor.14:1, Phil.3:12,14; I Thes.5:15, II Tim.2:22, Heb.12:14, I Pet.3:11.
It is also used of haste, of the wind driving a ship (Homer), or avid pursuit of an argument (Plato), as well as “to drive away” (Herodotus). Not until the New Testament did the idea of pursuit or legal prosecution acquire the flavor of being abused, driven away, or attacked because of one’s faith commitment, but after that, it appears to be the dominant idea.

Jesus gave careful instructions regarding the response of his disciples to persecution: from “rejoicing” in the confidence of the confirmation of their Kingdom citizenship (Mt.5:10-12, echoed by Paul in Rom.12:14 and I Cor.4:12), to prayer and kindness toward the perpetrators (Mt.5:44), and prudent advice that when it gets too hot in one town (Mt.10:23), it’s time to move! He matter-of-factly warned that persecution would come (Lk.21:12, Mt.23:34), explaining that disciples could expect the same treatment that he himself was encountering (Jn.15:20).

Paul, interestingly, speaks more of his own past record of “persecuting the church” (Ac.22:4, 26:11;  ICor.15:9, Gal.1:13,23; Phil.3:6) than he does of the persecution he personally endured (Gal..5:11, 6:12; II Cor.12:10, II Tim.3:11). And please remember: this “persecution” was not merely social exclusion, financial hardship, or being “talked-about”. Beatings and stonings, prison and death were harsh realities, and not uncommon.
We should not neglect II Tim.3:12, which has often been mis-used, leading some to try to provoke opposition, under the banner of “Everyone that wants to live in a godly manner in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Such people need to be reminded of Peter’s warnings regarding “suffering”, which will be treated in the next post (I Pet.2:19-23, 3:14-18, and 4:15).

Thlipsis, classically “pressure, oppression, affliction” (L/S), “distress brought on by outside circumstances” (Bauer), seems to focus more on the affected person, than on the particular circumstances of the persecution. Only five times does it clearly refer to anything but the price of faithfulness: Jesus used it (Jn.16:21) of a woman’s labor in childbirth, James referred to the desperate condition of widows and orphans (1:27), Paul, of final retribution for the unfaithful (Rom.2:9, II Thes.1:6) and the Corinthians’ complaint (II Cor.8:13) of being “burdened” by the expectation of a relief contribution. Elsewhere, 39 times, the reference is to being hassled – sometimes more, sometimes less severely – as a direct result of faithfulness to Jesus’ Kingdom. The one probable exception is the description of political turmoil in Mt.24 and Mk.13 (similar account in Lk.21). A careful reading of these passages reveals that here it is the earlier classical understanding of thlipsis that is intended, as whole nations and kingdoms are disrupted (Mt.24:6-8 and Mk.13:7-8), providing a context for more specific attacks upon the faithful, and a fertile field for perpetrators of deception. (Remember, when you hear predictions by self-styled “world-enders” in times of political unrest, that Jesus himself warned against that very thing in Mt.24:23-27 and Mk.13:21-23).
Please note also that in no case does thlipsis, translated 17x “affliction” and 21x “tribulation”, refer to a single, historical or future event, but consistently to the conditions under which the faithful need to enter the Kingdom (Ac.14:22), to receive the Word (I Thes.1:6), to support one another (Phil.4:14) with joyful generosity (II Cor.8:2), to endure patiently (Rom.12:12), and to encourage one another’s faithfulness (II Thes.1:4).

Jesus put it very realistically (Jn.16:33): “In the world, you have (present tense, not future) hassles (KJV – tribulations). But take courage! I have conquered (perfect tense!) the world!” Notice that this statement occurs even before either his death or his resurrection!
This is why Paul could write (Rom.5:2,3) “We revel in the hope [confidence] of the glory of God! Not only this, but we even appreciate our hassles [tribulations], knowing that hassles produce endurance …”
Read, and soak up, his confident description in II Cor.1:4-7, of both the comfort and the responsibility conferred by the Lord’s presence in the midst of those hassles. Later in the same letter (4:17), amid stress that would probably have crushed most of us, he can declare, “Our temporary, insignificant hassles are producing for us a fantastically overwhelming, eternal amount of glory!” and in 7:4, “I’m overflowing with joy, in spite of all our hassles!”

Please notice here: in no case does Paul attribute the “hassles / tribulations / afflictions” to “God’s will” (see W.S.#12), or to God’s causative action!
The Lord knows (Rev.2:9) and limits (v.10) them, and “coaches” us through them (II Cor.1:4), refusing to allow them to separate us from his love and care (Rom.8:35). He does not deliberately hassle his own!

Thanks be to God!

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