Paul and the Suffering Servant

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.”

Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countless times 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?


11 thoughts on “Paul and the Suffering Servant

  1. When you ask the question “how does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of missionary strategy?” it comes to my mind that we should be prepared to suffer extensively if it comes down to it. We see Paul suffered many different beatings and trials for the name of Christ, and I feel like this is an example to us to be willing to do the same. Now, I’m not completely saying that we should all go looking for the level of suffering, but more that if it came to that extreme we, as Christ followers, would willing go through it for the name of Christ. As a strategy, I think it also shows how truly faithful Paul was to Christ. Most people would not go through that amount of suffering if they did not fully believe in it.

    I think this is a model for us today because we do not know what the future holds for us. Some of us may be sent to the dangerous overseas mission fields, and others may deal with ridicule where they are. No matter what, every servant of Christ will suffer in their own way, in my opinion. This is a model for us because it shows us that our faith needs to remain strong. It needs to stay consistent even through the trails and sufferings that we experience.


  2. You said that this kind of strategy in the modern perspective might be seen as “counter-productive”, but I do not necessarily think that would always be the case. In our world today, with everyone connected and always wanting to be in the know, something like this could possibly be used to our advantage. People love a good victim story. They love to see someone who fights so passionately for their cause, that they would get hurt or thrown in prison for it. I’m not saying our aim should be to purposefully go and get beaten and thrown in jail to get the attention, but rather, that we should have the mentality that if that is what it took, we would do it. With the Internet and social media, things like a person speaking about their beliefs getting thrown in jail for it, spread like wildfire. This method will not win everyone over, none do, but Paul was our ultimate example of how suffering can be used as a powerful evangelism tool even in the modern world today.


  3. Paul suffering for Jesus to this level and writing about it often and telling those who he is writing to about the suffering he has experienced in the different places he has gone functions as a “missionary strategy” in a way due to the fact that he can then talk about the suffering that he knows future Christians will experience and the suffering they could experience in that time. It also works as a strategy to talk about growth and how He is stronger as the stoning in Acts 14 he talks about. Also he spends time talking about how to be a suffering servant for Christ and how to fully serve Him there will be suffering. This works as a missionary strategy essentially to show what those he is writing to will be getting into. He can use his own experiences to relate to others and to help them understand what it means to truly serve Christ. Paul’s suffering for Jesus can be a model for Christians today in the sense that Paul is explaining how the suffering has made him stronger. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Paul talks about how the suffering produces strength and that is something that we can hold onto in modern Christianity. Paul talks about how the suffering he went through made him better and that is something we can hold onto. As he writes in Romans suffering makes people stronger and that is an example we can use as modern Christians in our own evangelism to others and as we experience suffering and trials in our lives we can use the attitude that Paul had to remind us that our suffering can make us stronger as he writes and implies in many other letters that he writes.


  4. Roth Smith:

    “So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles” (Long, Paul and the Suffering Servant). The intense levels of suffering that Paul went through for Jesus’ sake can be thought of as a type of missionary strategy. Now, it is logical to think that Paul did not necessarily seek out or create suffering just for suffering’s sake. However, he did suffer many hardships and beatings for the truth he was preaching about Jesus. I think that those sufferings gave Paul another avenue in which to give God the honour and glory for His grace that is made perfect in his [Paul’s] weakness. “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 1 Cor. 12:9-10. I think that God used the sufferings in Paul’s life to be testimonies to His grace and truth. Paul was able to use his experiences in his sufferings to challenge and encourage people in the Church.


  5. I wanted to point out how it is extremely interesting the connotation of both the words slave and servant in the English language. According to the dictionary definition a slave is “a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another; a bond servant” while a servant is “a person employed by another, especially to perform domestic duties”. Both sound slightly similar, but have completely different bindings. A servant sounds more like someone who has a choice in the matter of labor while a slave does not and is held against their will. So when it comes to Paul and his pursuit of Christ it is safe to say that Paul was both a servant and a slave to christ. Paul was willing to go through everything for Christ and preach about it. This functions as a huge missionary journey because it goes to show how strong Paul’s faith is. That he will go through any suffering for the sake of Christ and his mission. I think Paul tell his hardships not to only explain what he is going through but also the life that he choose and how these earthy riches aren’t worth anything compared to heaven. Paul being at the top, a Roman citizen, a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin and a very well educated Jew he was probably high up in society and had everything (earthly comfort) taken care for him. Yet he decided to turn his back on that life and follow God where he suffers all the time 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. Paul also goes on to reach out to the people that no matter what your station we must boasts in our weaknesses “God triumphs amid human weakness, embodying the principle of Christ’s crucifixion” (Hafemann, 2238).


  6. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”?
    As Christ’s missionaries, we constantly enter battle fields where the persecution of others causes us suffering. Doctor Long’s blog post mainly focused on Paul’s physical suffering. Today there are still many missionaries who are victims of physical suffering as a result of their faith; more commonly, we as Christ’s missionaries experience suffering from emotional and verbal abuse. We suffer everyday for Jesus every time someone mocks us for praying, when our friends and family pressure us into ungodly behaviors, or when our public schools and are jobs silence our testimonies because they are faith based. When Jesus told us to “take up His cross daily” (Luke 9:23, NASB), He was commanding us to follow His even when facing the sufferings of the world persecuting us. When we suffer for Jesus we are choosing to stand up for Him even when it is easier not to. This suffering is a testament to our faith in Him, which can be use as a missionary strategy. As nonbelievers obverse our dedication to our faith even through suffering, they can know that what we are living for is something worth suffering for, our Lord and Savior.
    -Chloé P.


  7. A lot of critics ask if Paul even had a missionary strategy. But, the part they forget is that missionary strategies are not specific and I think that Paul was an example of that. His suffering was intentional, and God knew what he was doing when he created him.(all of us). As you stated above, Paul might not have had a specific strategy but he managed to bring the Gospel to both the Jews and the Gentiles. The level of suffering that he acquired was in itself a missionary strategy because he wanted to show followers that sometimes believing in God meant you would have to suffer and maybe even become a martyr.

    I think that it is more acceptable to fight for what/who you believe in, and normally when you rebel or step out of the box, that is when people listen. Paul was an example of doing whatever it takes to spread the gospel. I don’t think modern day Christians work as hard, and I don’t think enough “suffer” to spread the gospel as much as we should. What would the church look like if we all “suffered” a little bit more to spread the gospel?


  8. Though Paul’s suffering for Jesus is an obvious portrayal of his dedication to persevering, my initial thoughts on how his suffering could have affected Christians today, were not as positive as others’ viewpoints. Pain typically causes individuals to do one of two things: give up or start fighting. I see Paul’s sufferings in the same way. Many individuals could hear of the pain Paul experienced and be encouraged—ready to follow his lead and start fighting for what trials may come their way. Others, on the other hand, may read Paul’s story and be completely discouraged—knowing that they have not and probably cannot tolerate what he went through. Acts, which states “…We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God…” could shut those already discouraged individuals down even more—making them feel like they will not go to Heaven until they suffer (Acts 14:22).

    While I do not have any eloquent answers, I end up with one underlying thought in my mind. As Christians, we must be utterly careful to not base truth off of our feelings. Whether we are encouraged by Paul’s suffering or completely disheartened, the truth of God’s plan unveiling in the end, will never become less true.


  9. It’s unfortunate that in the instance of reading Paul’s list of endurance at first-glimpse, I can see why a certain man would say that Paul throws a pity-party for himself constantly. However, when we recall that Jesus DID say Christians would be persecuted, we can understand that Paul is trying to orchestrate a point.

    We don’t normally count sufferings as “ministry experience”, more the witnessing of suffering of others. Perhaps this is why he lists his “accomplishments in a way we don’t expect” — is suffering an accomplishment if we’re just enduring the trials of life? And, as Paul shows us, some people have it more ravenous than others when it comes to spreading ministry and having to go through the trials of ministering to a world outside of Christ. Someone may want to do Prison Ministry, but they usually don’t want to be doing ministry… while in prison.

    I connect whenever Paul talks about his suffering to when Jesus says that Christians will be persecuted for following him. Sure, it’s not something a lot of the apostles boast about — but through the bible, we have such a clearer look at Paul and his life, and this is one of the many ways he communicates to us (and the people he originally wrote to).
    But what do I know, I’m just a Jew on the internet.


  10. When I hear about someone suffering, obviously it rubs me the wrong way. In the end, though, Paul’s suffering bettered the kingdom. God can use you at any point in your life. To see that Paul rejoicing in the prisons changed lives shows me that I need to choose joy. When my joy comes from Christ it is going to be a great witnessing opportunity. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying,” (2 Corinthians 11:30-31). Paul boasted in his weakness to glorify Christ, that shows his character like no other. If his strategy was to suffer for Christ, so Christ could win more people, it worked. Paul is the example of someone who loved God so deep, that he did care if he was in pain. Nowadays, I think that a story like this would go viral. I think that a person like this would get so much praise for fighting the good fight. If this was a strategy, I think it worked very well and would be effective today. Maybe, even more so, because the news of his suffering would be known so quick with our media. God’s love is sufficient, even in our suffering, so showing how Christ wins will help others see the light even more.


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