By Grant Hawley
The Apostle Paul wrote about the trials he went through in detail only one time. It's in 2 Cor 11:22-29 and it is staggering:
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?-I speak as a fool-I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews 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. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?It's hard to imagine going through everything he went through for the gospel, but I know he's not alone in these struggles. Throughout the world, people suffer for Christ. The thing about this, though, that strikes me the most is that in his list of trials, the trial that he puts in the place of emphasis (in Greek, emphasis is shown by word order) is, "my deep concern for all the churches."
Paul was "in deaths often." I take that at face value (Acts 14:19-20). He was beaten and stoned (a means of execution). He was "in fastings often" and that means that he didn't have food to eat, not that he was abstaining. He was shipwrecked three times, and everywhere he went he was in danger. But the trial that was most severe to him was his "deep concern for all the churches."What caused such concern? Some might be surprised to know that perhaps his biggest concern was about doctrine. In Acts 20:17-38, Paul met with the Ephesian elders to say goodbye. He was headed to Jerusalem, where he was ready to be arrested and killed (Acts 20:22-23; 21:11-13), and he wept with the Ephesian elders, not because of fear for himself, but because of false teachers who would come in to the flock (Acts 20:29; compare Matt 7:15-20; 12:33-34).
Paul had a deep and abiding love for the churches and he gave up comfort, safety, and eventually his own life in their service. But Paul also knew the terrible impact of false doctrine, especially legalism of all kinds. Legalism is weak and beggarly (Gal 4:9; Heb 7:18-19) and traps people in slavery to sin (Rom 6:14; 7:5-11), it causes bitter divisions (Gal 2:11-18; 5:13-21), and unsettles the brethren's souls (Acts 15:24). And perhaps worst of all, it cheats those who are deceived of their reward (Col 2:18; see all of 2:11-23).
Paul only once wrote that he was afraid in all his letters. After writing that the Galatians were going into legalism, which he compared to returning to pagan idolatry (Gal 4:8-10), Paul said "I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain" (Gal 4:11).
All who believe in Christ have everlasting life and will enjoy God forever. But, we must also all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ to be rewarded or not for our works (2 Cor 5:10). The believer who has no rewardable works is still saved, but he will suffer loss (1 Cor 3:15). Paul had a glimpse of what is to come (2 Cor 12:1-4, 7), so he knew what glories lay ahead for those who are faithful; that they are so far beyond our comprehension that even Paul's intense suffering is "light" and "but for a moment" by comparison (2 Cor 4:17). Paul's fear was that false teachers would deceive the churches and they would end up throwing it all away.
I have a son who is four-years old as I write this. As a father, I see all kinds of wonderful possibilities in his future and I would die for him in a heartbeat. I am sure that all parents who read this feel the same way about their children. But what heartbreak it would be to see him throw it all away for drugs or some other harmful activity. If I saw this beginning to happen, I can imagine that it would be difficult to think about much else, no matter what was happening in my life. I think that's how Paul felt about the churches and that's why he called the Galatians, "My little children" (Gal 4:19) as he expressed his fear for them. He loved them like a father.
What we believe is a big deal. It's a big deal to Paul, to our Lord, and to all those who have labored for us. I am so thankful for Paul and for all those who have followed him in faithfully teaching God's word.
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