It’s not the most comforting discipleship lesson, but it’s exactly where the Apostle Paul starts as he wraps up his first missionary journey with a pitstop to encourage new believers in Galatia.
“Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.” -Acts 14:21-22
If you’re anything like me, you may be thinking, “Really, Paul? This is where you’re going to start? You’re going to scare them from the faith!” And yet, the apostle wasn’t teaching something new. Jesus Himself taught on the cost associated with following Him.
Following Jesus is a call to die.
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’” -Luke 9:23-4
In this hard saying, Jesus isn’t calling His disciples to do anything He wasn’t willing to model Himself. When Jesus took up His cross, He voluntarily submitted to the authority of God the Father. This is where we discover the core meaning of Jesus’ command to “take up your cross.”
To walk this out, we must submit to authorities, realities, and circumstances in our lives that are unchangeable. Most importantly, this command is a call to imitate Jesus by submitting to God’s authority.
The cross all believers bear is the denial of our flesh to pursue the Spirit-led ways of Jesus. This is a spiritual death to our old ways to pursue a better, holy way. It’s the putting off of immorality, impurity, idolatry, hatred, jealousy, anger, and selfishness and replacing them with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:19-23).
But for others, especially those living in the spiritually darkest areas of the world, their cross-bearing at its greatest extreme is a literal death. For them, following Jesus can truly mean following Him to their own grave.
And today 255 Christians are killed each month because of their faith in Jesus. In their discovery of saving faith in the gospel, their lives are lost.
Because persecution is a reality, discussions on hardship are critical.
It is this extreme reality of global persecution that makes Jesus and Paul’s messages on suffering and hardship so important in our discipleship efforts. Our brothers and sisters around the world who are pursuing Jesus where it’s not culturally acceptable need to know the call to suffering, and even death, early in their faith journey.
A topic we’d prefer to avoid is critical in these settings. They need to know and be ready to endure great trials for the faith. They need these hard teachings from the Scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit to stand firm in their new beliefs. And they also need to be reminded that as they pick up their cross and face what looks like sure defeat, there is a victory that is promised.
There is eternal hope in hardship.
“All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them […] I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” -John 16:1-4, 33
In His own death and resurrection, Jesus overcame the evil schemes that fuel torment against the faithful. Death doesn’t have the final say. The Enemy is defeated. And the grave is not the final resting place for those martyred for their allegiance to Jesus. Those in Christ will one day rise and reign alongside King Jesus.
And that’s not where the promises stop.
In the midst of hardship, believers are never, ever alone.
When Jesus commands us to continue His ministry, He gives us resting assurance of His never-ending presence.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” -Matthew 28:19-20
He is the Good Shepherd who is with believers in the valley of death (John 10:11; Psalm 23). And you and I are called to be with them too.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that if one part of the Body of Christ suffers, the whole Body suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26). The author of Hebrews commands us “to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:10).
So how do we do this today?
There are resources today that help educate us on the state of the global Christian movement, including trends in persecution. Each year, Open Doors produces the World Watch List to give believers insight into where the Church is suffering greatest so that we can remember and pray for them.