Paul as a Suffering Servant of Jesus

Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.

First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”

Statue Representing Paul at St. Paul Outside the Wall - RomeSecond, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countlessly and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!

Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).

What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times!  Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.

In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.

Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.

I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”

So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?

16 thoughts on “Paul as a Suffering Servant of Jesus

  1. Didn’t the Lord say that he would suffer for Him? Sort of makes up for all his murderous actions before, like his Salvation included a fee or tax, and that price was suffering.

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    • Yes, that is true! But all the apostles were told they would suffer on account of their testimony for the Lord. I am not sure it “makes up for” his persecution, but I do wonder if Paul thought of his troubles as a due punishment for kicking against the goads….!

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  2. “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
    someone else, and not your own lips.”
    Proverbs 27:2

    “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid.”
    Words of Jesus, recorded in [John 5:31]

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  3. Paul’s feelings and experience:

    As “Bible-believing Evangelicals,” we tend to look down on “Liberals” who “spend most of their time talking about their own “Feelings and Experience” rather than “The Word of God.”

    Through tradition and the hearing of many inaccurate voices repeatedly, we have been trained not to think. We use many terms like “The Word of God” as if they all mean the same thing, like synonyms, when they are NOT synonyms at all.

    The words written by The Apostle Peter late in his life are instructive, to give us a sense of priority in the written words. [2 Peter 3:1-2] Peter never said his own words, or the words of Paul the Pharisee’s autobiography, were “The word of God.” Peter’s short statement is so rich, and concise, it doesn’t need to be improved on. But in a quick practical sense, in terms of books of the Bible, it is clear to me that it means the Gospels of Matthew & John are top priority.

    Just as Eve in the Garden of Eden made a vague inaccurate reference to “the tree that is in the middle of the garden” and was then easily deceived by the serpent, so modern “Evangelicals” are easily deceived. (Try reading Genesis 2:9. “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of….”
    He who has an ear, let him hear.

    Eve forgot about the first, most important tree, and vaguely referred to the second tree as “THE tree in the middle.” Just as today, people listen to the teachings of the Pharisees Hillel and Paul teaching that love your neighbor is the “One Commandment”, while they forget the first, most important commandment to Love God, which includes prayer, worship, and obedience, in addition to loving your neighbor. Jesus said love your enemies too – but not pray to them, worship them or obey them.

    So before you start with “If you say you love God but don’t love people, you are a liar,” acknowledge that loving God first involves much more than simply loving people, and many unsaved pagans, such as the The Beatles, think that “all you need is love” without God at all. Sadly, Jesus will tell them “I never knew you.”

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  4. Paul’s suffering is a model for Christians today because he had a strong passion for Christ, so strong that he wasn’t afraid to get hurt and to get people’s attention. In our society today we are often so afraid of offending someone or challenging their beliefs that either nothing is said or very little is said to avoid confrontation. Paul’s scars and physical changes from the punishments he received are from sharing the good news–he received them because he was a servant of Christ who was not afraid to stir up dust. Longenecker and Still support Paul’s physical imprints because he received them as a servant of God– for Paul is a “enfleshed” example of the “theological principle of ‘Christ is in me’” (94). As stated in the blog, Paul continued to go to the synagogues first (Acts 17:1-2,18:19) whenever he reached a city to preach to the Jews, even though he knew the risk before entering them. Paul knew the potential risks and he continued anyway (even after nearly being stoned to death, Paul went back into the city! (Acts 14: 19-20)). Paul’s suffering is a model for Christian’s today because of his passion and willingness to go wherever God’s mission took him; even if that meant stoning or beatings. I am not proposing that we prepare ourselves to be stoned, beaten, or arrested (for times are different today), but I am stating that WE need that passion and trust that Paul had for God and for Christ, and the courage to go out into society and preach it.

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  5. It is interesting that you talk about Paul boasting about his suffering and his ministry. It is interesting because we are not supposed to boast about it. Paul had many reasons to boast, but he considers all he has as loss compared to knowing Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:7). This suffering that Paul went through was not for him to get attention from people and to brag about what he had to go through. Everything he went through, everything he suffered through, was advancing the gospel. (Phil 1:12). He also says in Philippians 1, “I am in chains for Christ.” He was trying to show the people he was preaching to that it is worth the suffering because you would be advancing the gospel which is what God calls us to do. He was showing that he would do anything he could for Christ. It was bold of him to do and you would think that the way he was presenting the news would do the opposite of what he wanted. In some ways it did. There was always opposition. When Paul left Thessalonica, he was “no longer able to cope with not knowing how the Thessalonians were faring in the faith in the face of ongoing affliction” (TTP 69). But he knew that them going through this would strengthen their faith and help them to further the gospel. The way they went about it was aggressive and authoritative which showed that they were serious and not willing to compromise their beliefs.He says in Philippians 1, “The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.”

    Christians today don’t stand up the way Paul did in the New Testament. People don’t want to have to suffer, however, being a Christian comes at a cost. Suffering will bring us closer to God and, like it did for Paul, advance the gospel more than we think. Paul was put in chains for the defense of the gospel. People need to follow his example and start standing up for the gospel and realizing that it is worth the suffering.

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  6. It is shown that Paul suffered many beatings in the name of sharing the Gospel. We as Christians are called to share the Gospel as Paul did. In my opinion I feel that if many of us in this generation were put into Paul’s situation we would back away because of the opposition. In our day and age, and especially in the culture of the United States, we have become very soft when it comes to opposition. We are a passive nation that may feel uncomfortable with things, but are never willing to stand up against any opposition that stands against our beliefs. Like you were saying in the article, “In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered” speaking about Paul of course. My question is, what would it look like if we faced such opposition as Paul did? Would we be able to continue on in faith of our creator? Or would we back down with fear of man over fear of the Lord? In Acts 14:19 Paul preaches to the point where he makes people hate him enough to stone him to the brink of death! Do we profess our faith that strongly? In TTP the author describes Paul being worried about the Thessalonians and how they were doing in their faith (TTP, 69). This shows that persecution is something that should concern us all, it can bring down people of faith, but it also can grow your faith greatly if you persist through it!

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  7. Even though Paul suffered so much in the name of the Lord, and he definitely used his suffering to get several of his biggest points across, in regards to how Christians ought to evangelize. He showed other Jesus followers that despite all the suffering here on earth that Paul went through, he still had a responsibility to share the Gospel with his fellow Jews and the Gentiles. In fact, in Philippians 3:7-8, Paul said this, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” He wanted to make the point that us suffering for Christ now, and him suffering back then on earth, are really nothing compared to the rewards waiting in Heaven for those who have suffered or been martyred in the name of Jesus Christ. I have never really felt that Paul was pridefully boasting about his suffering, so much as trying to emphasize that suffering can be a part of being a servant of Christ, just as much as there is joy in the forgiveness the Lord offers to all willing to repent. The fact that Paul did list so many beatings and whippings, and near death experiences, I think was meant to make an impression on other Christians. People often sympathize, empathize, and identify with people more when they share about suffering that has gone on in their lives, and I believe that Paul having written about his different hardships that occurred would have impacted a lot of people, especially back then. The Jesus followers would have felt more compulsion to listen to what Paul was saying, and to grow closer to the Lord and experience a relationship that made them also so devoted to the Lord.

    I think today’s society of Christians, at least those who are modern-day Americans, have lost sight of what it really means to be a fully devoted servant of God. Most are content to just sit idly and pray, be a nice person, and go about their day loving God. Most in the U.S. do not even realize that there are actual living Christians around the world being persecuted, and that to be a servant can also mean hardships will come their way. I think Paul is a good example of how a person can still serve the Lord so fully and faithfully, despite an incredible amount of suffering that happened to him in his life after converting into a Christian. Modern-day Christians often want to avoid making waves in society, when in reality we should all be willing to serve God to the best of our abilities. There is a lot we can learn from Paul, and hopefully more of us will follow Paul’s example somewhat more closely. I am not saying we all need to suffer for Christ in order to share the Gospel, but I do believe we should not allow fear of suffering to keep us from sharing when a situation calls for it.

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  8. Paul suffered greatly for the cause of Jesus throughout his life. If i were a bystander who just saw Paul witnessing all the time and then getting arrested time and time again, it would make me wonder what he is thinking. He clearly is very convinced of what he is telling all of these people. Or else why would he endure all the punishment he receives? I think it would make me interested if i had no idea what he was talking about but he just kept on getting in trouble for it. It can be a model for us as Christians because WE can prove that we are convinced of the truth of Jesus. In our culture, it wouldn’t be getting arrested that proves it, but being embarrassed sometimes or maybe getting kicked out of the mall a couple times. Or it could even look like helping people when we can barely help ourselves. All we have to do is tell the person, plant the idea in their head, then let the Holy Spirit do his work. All the while we should continue being the Christian witness that people saw in the first place, but showing our undying faith in God is a way to witness to people who just see us get shut down again and again.

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  9. I am not so sure that this level of suffering could be seen as a kind of “missionary strategy”. In a way, I guess it can be, but I can also see it as a strategy that would not work well. It can work as a strategy because a person can see a person being beat day after and wonder why and want to understand and know why they care so much. A person may want to know why that person cares so much about what they are trying to say. On the other hand, it can be seen as a strategy that does not work. I think this because a person can look at that person and be like why, you are dumb. Why would you keep coming back here to get beat day after day? Another way that this can be seen as a strategy that does not work is because a person could say, if all of what you are saying is true, why are you getting beat every time you say this, wouldn’t your god save you? That is why I think it can both be seen as a good strategy as well as a not so good strategy.

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  10. I would say that because Paul was willing to suffer from Jesus, that it drew peoples’ attention. Perhaps, they could see the truth because they could see how real it was for Paul- that he would go as far as being whipped, beaten, and put in prison for Jesus.
    It worked for Paul. Once the Thessalonians took Jesus as their savior, they did very well, despite knowing suffering would come for them, too. “Paul offers prayerful thanks to God for the Thessalonians’” faith, love, and hope in Jesus Christ (TTP 65). The Thessalonians also “welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thes 1:6). So, we have to remember that this suffering for Jesus “missionary strategy” worked, but is because of the Holy Spirit.
    “[T]he Thessalonians became an exemplary assembly, a “model” congregation for other believers living in Macedonia” (TTP 66). As a Christian today, I should find comfort in that if I were persecuted, others were, too, yet they still were bold. But being an American, I shouldn’t really be scared to say what my beliefs are anyhow. This serves more as an encouragement and comfort for the persecuted church today.

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  11. I think that Paul used all of his sufferings as a way to show that he was entrusted by God and that he would remain persistent to what Jesus had told him to do. If I thought about seeing someone going around and suffering so greatly and still continuing on, I would at least know that this person whole- heartedly believes that what they are doing is extremely important. I feel like Paul’s sufferings would have at least been a way to get his foot in the door so that people might take the time to listen to what he had to say. Today, we all use our testimonies to show what God has done in our lives and also to show the direction that we believe God has pushed us in the direction of. I think that our testimonies function as a way to catch someone’s attention. Not everyone who is listening to your testimony will connect with it but there will be people who will hear something similar to what they are going or have gone through and they are more open to listen. I think Paul’s suffering and will to keep moving forward is a great model for us today. No matter what we go through, we need to not let ourselves get weighed down but we need to press on so that we can continue to live our lives for God.

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  12. Suffering for Jesus shows to others that we think it is worth it. Serving Christ is worth it because through our suffering, something good can come out of it. 1 popular place to see it is in testimonies. Someone suffers, but becomes strengthened by it thorugh Christ. It can also be shown as an example to others who are going through the same things that they are not alone. Doing God’s work can be glorifying to him, but sometimes the way we see it, is in a negative light because we don’t know God’s plan in the end. Right now there is a family from my church in Angola as missionaries. The husband is there to build runways for planes to land so ministries can get supplies to villages that are far far away from any civilization. Currently they’ve had to put the project on hold because of sudden “fines” from the government that claim that they didn’t file all of the proper paperwork. Although this has put a huge damper on things for them, they still find God’s glory in it & working on other things for the community. Back here in Michigan, we are still called to live for Christ every day. It may be Monday, but there might be a school-mate that needs someone to sit down with them for 2 minutes & pray for them.

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