Christian Unity in the Midst of Suffering

Christian Unity in the Midst of Suffering – by Brady Tarr

Philippians 1:27-30

Only let your manner of life be worthy[a] of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

When I reflected on our passage today the story of Adoniram Judson came to mind as person who let his manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.  He was a missionary to Burma for about 38 years.  During those years, he lived a life of sacrificial devotion to God who ordained that his life be filled with suffering.  The following is a brief summary of some things he and his family experienced during his ministry there:

  1. In 1812, Adoniram Judson and Ann Hasseltine got married and 12 days later moved to Burma as Missionaries
  2. They didn’t see any conversions among the people of Burma until they had been there for 7 years
  3. In the 8th year of their mission, Ann got desperately ill and sailed home by herself to try to get better…Adoniram and Ann were separated due to her sickness for 2 years and 4 months
  4. Shortly after she returned to be with Adoniram, he was accused by the government as being a spy and was arrested.  He spent 17 months in jail and was tortured regularly. During this time, his wife got deathly ill and died 11 months after he was released. 
  5. His daughter got sick and died 6 months later
  6. 8 years after Ann died he married Sarah Boardman.
  7. They had 8 children four of which died
  8. Sarah died after 11 years of marriage
  9. He spent a total of 38 years in Burma

We can praise God that his faithful ministry resulted in a Bible being translated into Burmese, a Burmese dictionary was completed, and hundreds of converts were leading the church in Burma.  Today there are close to 3,700 congregations of Baptists in Burma because of his sacrificial devotion to God and the Burmese people.

When I finished reading about the life of Judson, his suffering was not the only thing that stood out to me.  It was also a great encouragement to hear of his faithful devotion to Christ.  He lived a manner of life that was worthy of the gospel.  It is my prayer that the Lord would help us to the same when we face trials and suffering.

In our verses today, Paul continues exhorting the Christians in Philippi by encouraging them to walk worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He then describes some practical things that the Christians should do in order to live in such a way.  First, Christians strive together for the faith of the gospel.  Second, Christians suffer for the sake of Christ.

The first point, Christians strive together for the faith of the gospel, is found in verses 27 and 28: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”  Paul is writing this letter from jail, but it is apparent that Paul is not focused on his less than ideal circumstances.  Instead, we see Paul taking advantage of the opportunity he has to exhort and remind the Church of Philippi that what must matter most to Christians is that we live our lives in such a way that is worthy of the gospel.  He goes on to challenge them to be unified in thought and in action by standing firm in one spirit for the faith of the gospel.  

What exactly does Paul mean by the phrase for the faith of the gospel?  He uses this phrase to refer to the body of truth found in the gospel message.  This body of truth consists of the historical reality that Jesus Christ came and died as a sinless substitute.  His death was for every sinner who will genuinely repent of their sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ.  A person’s salvation is dependent on his/her genuine repentance and faith.  Salvation is in no way dependent on works (Eph. 2:8-9), but rather the Bible teaches that good works are a result of a person being saved by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:10).  Paul’s exhortation in this verse is for the Philippians to be unified as they contend for the truth of the gospel by promoting and protecting the message of Christ.  We are called to protect the gospel as well!

In verse 28, Paul explains that one of the beneficial results of being unified with other Christians is that strength is gained to withstand the fear caused by their opponents.   Paul understood that, when Christians join together in unity and encourage one another with the assurance of the gospel, their unity provokes a fearless trust in God.  Unity increases the hope of a Christian’s faith in Christ while revealing the despair of unbelievers as they hope in themselves.   

Unified Christians will naturally tend to provide accountability and encouragement to one another.  God designed these things to protect us from the temptation we have to fear man more than we fear God.  Being a part of each other’s lives forces accountability which causes mutual protection against sin and an increased sanctification among believers.   

A unified body of believers also serves as a great source of encouragement to each other because they are able to see the evidences of God’s grace that are pictured in the lives and actions of each other.  The various gifts that individual Christians receive from God are most effectively used when they come together and unite with one another.  Membership within the local church is the way God designed unity to be lived out among a group of Christians.  Professing Christians who don’t join a local church, put themselves in the dangerous shark infested waters of the world.  Their isolation from other believers is disobedient to God (Heb. 10:25) and removes them from the protective unity of membership in the local church which God designed to protect them. 

The second point of our passage today is – Christians will be suffer.  Verses 29-30 say, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  In these verses Paul states that both belief in Christ and suffering are ordained gifts of God for a Christian.  It is significant that Paul rightly understands suffering as a good gift of God because the suffering that he endured for the sake of Christ was frequent and intense.  Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians while he is suffering in jail where his freedom had been taken away, he was in uncomfortable circumstances, and was separated from other Christian fellowship.

We learn more about the persecution Paul faced throughout his Christian ministry in 2 Corinthians 11 which says he was stoned and left for dead; He received 39 lashes on 5 different occasions, was shipwrecked, imprisoned, and the list could go on.  Paul took advantage of every opportunity he had to proclaim and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what the consequences were.  This brought him much suffering which he counted as a blessing from God. 

There are so many hypocrites in the church today who say one thing but do another, but this was not Paul.  Even through great suffering, Paul was tireless in his mission to honor God through his life and eventually with his death. 

Now let’s think about how this applies to us today.  While many of us will never face the type of suffering and persecution that Paul faced, suffering is something that is guaranteed for a Christian.   The suffering of persecution is not an “if” but a “WHEN” according to 2 Timothy 3:12 which says, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 

Suffering is not limited to persecution though.  Suffering is experienced when a loved one dies, or a marriage ends in divorce, or we could be called away from the comfortable life we live to serve God somewhere else, or when you get made fun of for sharing the gospel with your co-workers, or when you get fired from your job because you won’t do something unethical that your boss wants you to do.  In the midst of the suffering we face, we must fix our eyes on the hope we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We must also remind ourselves that this earth is not our home because the blood of Christ earned all those who repent and trust Christ a citizenship in heaven where sin and suffering will be no more. 

In the introduction, we briefly considered the life of Adoniram Judson who lived a life that was worthy of the gospel in the midst of great suffering.  I would encourage each of us this next week to reflect on how you will be remembered by meditating on the following question:  Is your manner of life including the way you conduct yourself in public and in private one that is worthy of the gospel and that you would encourage others such as your spouse, your children, or an unbelieving stranger to follow? 

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