Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
We are nearing the end of the chapter, and are heading towards the summit and climax in which the apostle has been laying down the basis of our personal assurance of salvation in Christ. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones suggested that we are here ‘climbing a grand staircase’ with this question forming the very top step. However weak or fearful we are concerning the future and what may happen to us, here is another guarantee that Christians will never, under any circumstance, be separated from God’s love in Christ. The apostle Paul proceeds to provide a sample of seven trials or dangers which Christians may fear could separate them from Christ’s love. Let us seek comfort and assurance as the Holy Spirit speaks and applies this Scripture to us.
Three comments need to be made before looking at the list. First, Paul is a realist, recognising how Christians can feel battered, bruised, confused, and discouraged when facing problems and harsh circumstances which often face us. Second, Paul knew what he was talking about. He had already experienced six items on the list and would end his life as a martyr at the hand of the sword. You can respect therefore what he writes. Third, while the list is not comprehensive, yet it covers a wide range of different and common trials and circumstances we can all face at times.
‘Tribulation’ is the first to be mentioned. While the word is used forty times in the New Testament, Paul only uses it four times (see Rom 2:9; 2 Cor. 6:4, 12:10) which is surprising in the light of all he suffered. Other English translations of the word include ‘affliction’ and ‘trouble’, but capturing the force of the Greek word is difficult for it is used, for example, to describe the pressure of treading grapes to extract juice. Here it is a general term describing intense pressure that threatens to overwhelm individuals, including pastors and Christian workers.
‘Distress’ or ‘hardship’ is another general term but a compound word including the idea of a narrow space which creates difficulties with little room to move or make progress; perhaps a sense of being locked in providence with no obvious or immediate exit possible.
‘Persecution’ is a familiar word in the New Testament describing how Christians are called to suffer in various ways for their faith in Christ and the preaching of Christ. Stephen was the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60) but it was a common experience for many Christians and preachers, including Paul in the Early Church (2 Cron. 12:10; 2 Thes. 1:4; 2 Tim 3:11). Today there are fifty countries where Christians face the most severe type of persecution. Each day there is an average of thirteen Christians worldwide who are killed for their faith while twelve churches are attacked and many others closed down. Nigerian Christians face violent attacks from Islamic extremist groups while being a Christian in North Korea means death or being sent to a labour camp where about 70,000 Christians are held as political prisoners. The Chinese authorities are also increasing their surveillance and censorship of Christians and churches
‘Famine’ describes hunger when food supplies are reduced or precarious, sometimes due to poverty, long-term drought, climate change, corruption, or civil war. In Wales, Food Banks have become necessary to ensure that families and individuals with low income have adequate food while Tear Fund and Christian Aid are among the charities helping the hungry and homeless overseas.
‘Nakedness’ refers to a lack of adequate clothing while ‘peril’/’danger’ has reference to the many risks and dangers early Christians faced, sometimes in travel.
‘Sword’ is a reference to execution, a death which Paul eventually met with.
We need to take more seriously the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you’ (John 15:20) and not be surprised when we find ourselves in situations where we are opposed or rejected. Facing persecution in a politically correct and increasingly anti-Christian culture can range from being marginalised, excluded, sometimes rejected by family or friends, to receiving unpleasant remarks via social media or losing a job because of Christian convictions. Christian discipleship is costly! There are Christians in the UK who are being given a stark choice between forsaking Christ or being rejected by family unit, sometimes permanently. This occurs also in immigrant communities in the UK where a relative is converted to Christ and whose life is immediately endangered.
We must also continue to pray for believers worldwide who are facing persecution and martyrdom. My wife and I were challenged when Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2009) stayed with us in the 60s, following 14 years imprisonment in Romania. From a Jewish family, he had studied in Moscow, adopted atheism, and became a Russian agent. Back in Romania, he was converted through reading a Bible given by a German carpenter. Ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1938, he suffered under German occupation but insisted it was ‘only a taste of what was to come’. From 1945, Russian occupation of the country meant extreme persecution for Christians, so Wurmbrand helped establish an Underground Church but suffered imprisonment and torture. After one meal in our home, Wurmbrand pulled his shirt and vest off to show us all the scars he had on his back during his 14 years in prison. A horrible sight but it brought home to us vividly the challenge in Hebrews 13:3, ‘Remember the prisoners as if chained with them – those who are mistreated – since you yourself are in the body also’. Are we compassionate and prayerful towards other Christians, wherever they are?
The great comfort in this verse is that Christians can never fall from grace or be deprived of Christ’s love. No one and nothing can sever that relationship. This doctrine has been called the perseverance of the saints. But I love the way John Stott renames the doctrine as ‘the perseverance of God with the saints’ and adds the verse of a hymn to illustrate the point:
‘Let me no more my comfort draw
From my frail hold of thee;
In this alone rejoice with awe –
Thy mighty grasp of me’ (quoted in The Message of Romans, 260).
Dr Eryl Davies (Heath Church Cardiff)