Daily Bible Studies & Sermon Notes

When Believers Suffer
Pastor Steve Schell
Acts 28:11-16
So much of our testimony about what we believe is given in moments when we don’t realize we’re doing it, to people we don’t even know are listening. When we think about proclaiming Christ to others we usually picture someone talking about Him, but actually some of the most effective preaching is done wordlessly. It’s what people see when they watch us go through life. And you might assume that in order for someone to want our Savior, we would have to lead lives that are prosperous and trouble-free because if things went badly for us surely no one would be attracted to our faith. But amazingly, that’s not the case. In fact, you could almost say it’s the opposite, that it’s the way we suffer hardship that makes the most powerful impression of all.

The reason is probably quite simple. When things are going well it’s easy to believe in God; it’s easy to be happy; it’s easy …at least it’s easier… to be nice to others. After all, you’re prosperous, you’re successful, you’re a “winner,” you can afford to be nice. But when we suffer, when we hurt, when we’re afraid, when we’re criticized the hidden things of the heart are exposed. We don’t have the energy anymore to hide our weakness. The depth of our faith gets tested. In this way suffering exposes the deepest, truest attitudes in all humans. And we all know that. So when someone suffers patiently, faces death fearlessly, treats their tormenters kindly, everyone notices. It’s unusual, it’s remarkable, it’s the most powerful witness of all.

Watching Julius (Ac 28:11-16)
It would be easy to read these few verses but miss seeing the impact Paul made on the soldiers who were transporting him to Rome. Luke is simply describing the final leg of their journey. From Malta they sailed north to a harbor on the island of Sicily. Then the ship worked its way up the Strait of Messina with the Italian mainland on one side and Sicily on the other. They put in at a small harbor about half way up and waited until a south wind could carry them the rest of the way to their port on the north side of the bay of Naples. But then Luke says this:
“There we found some brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days; and thus we came to Rome” (v14).

Apparently, a Roman centurion named Julius (Ac 27:1) agreed to wait in Puteoli for an entire week so that his prisoner could fellowship with a church in that city. That can’t be standard procedure. It can only mean that this Roman officer has become, at least, an ardent admirer of Paul, if not a believer himself. He adjusted his schedule so Paul could stay and minister, and then when they finally arrived in Rome, he allowed Paul to stay in what was likely a friend’s home (Priscilla and Aquila?) with a soldier assigned to guard him. He clearly trusted Paul. He clearly respected him and considered his ministry important enough to make place for it. He could so easily have reported to the barracks, thrown Paul into a cell and moved on to his next assignment. But instead, he placed him in the care of friends. Surely, at some point he had to turn Paul over to his superior officer and carry on with his duties, but whatever he told that superior officer about Paul must have been very favorable because Paul was allowed to stay in a rented house or apartment for the next two years with no restraint placed on what he preached or taught. Basically, Paul was allowed to set up a ministry center for two full years… as a prisoner. What did Julius say that caused Rome to treat Paul like that? He must have said, “He’s a good, trustworthy man who should be treated with respect.” No other scenario makes sense.

Watching Paul
So, the question is: What was it about Paul that so impressed Julius? Was it the accurate prophecies? or the healings? or the snake hanging harmlessly from Paul’s hand (Ac 28:3-6)? or Paul’s fearlessness when the ship was foundering in that terrible storm? Of course, undoubtedly, it was all of those things, but I think there is one more element that’s not specifically mentioned but which was the most powerful witness of all: Julius was watching an innocent man suffer injustice graciously, even willingly, because of his genuine faith in Jesus Christ. He knew what was in Paul’s heart because he was watching him under pressure.

The way we suffer
It’s when we’re under severe pressure that what’s hidden in a person’s heart is truly revealed. Our victories and successes make for great stories, but what sets true believers apart from unbelievers is how we suffer. Real believers suffer differently than most people. We don’t curse our captors. We aren’t terrified of dying. We’re strangely peaceful even in our greatest sorrow. Listen to how Paul describes this:
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not ourselves. In every way put under pressure, but not confined (trapped, restrained); perplexed (as to which way to go), but not despairing [that we’ll find a way out], hunted down, but never abandoned; thrown down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who live are constantly being given over to death, because of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be revealed in our mortal flesh” (paraphrase; 2Co 4:7-11).

Paul doesn’t say the successful Christian life is a life without suffering; he says just the opposite. He says suffering is an unavoidable part of the Christian life, but then he points out that when we suffer, Jesus is glorified, because we suffer differently than people without Him.

Watching Jesus
One of the greatest proofs that Jesus was truly our Savior was the way He suffered. Sure, He taught well and did miracles, but what sets Him apart is the way He died… and yes, the fact that He didn’t stay dead. Those who watched Him suffer were profoundly affected by it. Listen:
“Now when the centurion saw what had happened he began praising God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And all the crowds who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return beating their breast” (Lk 23:47-48).

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were so moved by what they saw they were willing to give up their places in the Sanhedrin to take His body off the cross and bury Him properly. Why did people react this way? Because Jesus suffered…
“…like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth” (Isa 53:7), except, of course, to say things like “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). In the midst of such agony no man could have hidden what was inside him. So in His darkest moment, who Jesus really is, was shown the brightest. And everyone saw that light.

What makes the difference?
Real believers don’t suffer alone. Real believers don’t suffer without hope. Real believers don’t expect a life without suffering. Even when all is going well we experience an ongoing dying to our ambitions and lusts, and the Jesus we follow keeps leading us on a downward path into a life increasingly lived for others. Dying, itself, isn’t such a foreign idea to us, and it isn’t such a bad idea either. To us it’s the door that leads to an existence of pain-free joy, and finally, to be with Jesus forever. In fact, for many, staying here feels harder than going. Our soul is grieved like Lot’s when he lived in Sodom. We long to be in a place where righteousness prevails. Choosing to stay here and serve with all our might becomes something we do because we know people need us; this earth is still our assignment. Paul felt that way too. Listen:
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better, yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith…” (Php 1:21-25). He says this same sort of thing again in another place: “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord… we are of good courage, I say, and prefer to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2Co 5:6-8).

His attitude is not the result of depression. This is not someone who’s grown tired of living, it’s someone who has a different perspective on life… and death. In the middle of that verse we just read, he tells us his secret: He said, “…for we walk by faith, not by sight…” (2Co 5:7). To him the spiritual world had become as real as the physical world: He wasn’t a victim, he was a soldier on assignment; he wasn’t alone, Jesus was with him, watching over him every moment; he wasn’t afraid, the worst they could do to him was to send him into the arms of his risen Lord, back to a place he’d already been once before (2Co 12:1-4). So every day became precious to him, it gave him one more opportunity to take someone with him to heaven, and he didn’t care if it was the emperor or the soldier chained to his wrist. And you simply can’t hide an attitude like that. What’s inside you is talking loud and clear.

Watching us
How do you and I suffer? Do we angrily accuse God of being unfair or unfaithful? Do we curse our attackers? Do we hate the days we have left to live? Or will we choose to suffer like a true believer, walking through our trials by faith and not by sight, seeing what we’re enduring from God’s perspective and even embracing it as one more opportunity to glorify our Lord? In other words, will we suffer in such a way that in our darkest moments our faith shines the brightest. Because if we will, there will be many watching us who will be more convinced that Jesus is real by our weakness than by our strength.
“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2Co 12:9-10).

1) Have you ever watched a real believer suffer, or maybe even die? What was different about them? What impact did that have on you?
2) Are you in the middle of a trial right now? How have you responded? Are there people watching you? How has the Lord helped you in this? 

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