Suffering is a Gift of God! (2 Cor. 11:24-25)
The first time I can remember being struck repeatedly by an instrument was in the fifth grade at Fannin Elementary School in Midland, Texas (yes, my father spanked me, but always with his open hand). Mr. Holmes, my teacher, was a short, but powerful man, who seemed at times to relish the opportunity to discipline rowdy young boys like me. And yes, we certainly deserved it (or at least I did).
Mr. Hensley, my seventh-grade shop instructor and coach in all sports, had his own custom made paddle in which he drilled multiple holes to reduce wind resistance, ostensibly to increase the pain of each swat. I don't recall being hit in this way again until I was initiated into the Lettermen's Club in 1968 while in high school in Duncan, Oklahoma. I will spare you the details of that ordeal, most of which was motivated by a perverse sort of sadism so often present in young men of that age.
I mention these odd incidents only to draw attention to the fact that I have never been subjected to anything remotely approaching what the apostle Paul endured, described for us in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25. In v. 23 of this chapter he said that he was "often near death," a statement that he now begins to unpack in more detail. Thus we read,
"Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea" (2 Cor. 11:24-25).
Once again, let's not lose sight of his purpose. Paul is not citing these experiences to gain sympathy for himself or to demonstrate his manly endurance under severe circumstances. He is actually describing those instances that illustrate his weakness, his frailty, as well as the multiple occasions on which he was publicly humiliated. It was embarrassing when Coach Hensley lined us up for a group whipping. No one relished the experience of being subjected to what was both a physical and social indignity, especially when the girls we hoped to impress were allowed to witness the punishment.
Paul's point in describing these beatings is to provide content for what he meant in saying he was a "servant of Christ" (v. 23). Such a high calling didn't necessarily entail first class travel accommodations or unlimited room service. More likely were savage beatings and scourgings and the bruising effect of stones hurled against one's body.
There are five experiences noted here by Paul, each of which is utterly distasteful, but deserving of our close consideration.
Paul first mentions that on five separate occasions he "received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one" (v. 24). This practice among the Jews finds its origin in Deuteronomy 25:1-3, where we read that "if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight" (vv. 2-3).
In the first century, blows were administered with a three-strapped whip on both the chest and the back. The victim would first lie on his back with both arms stretched out, bound by two pillars on either side of him. Thirteen blows would be inflicted. He would then be turned over and the procedure repeated, this time with twenty-six blows.
This was the official punishment of the synagogue about which Jesus had warned his disciples in Matthew 10:17. Neither in Acts nor in Paul's other epistles does he refer to these floggings, once again an indication that much of his ministry experience is not recorded for us.
As indicated by Deuteronomy 25:2b, the number of lashes was determined by the gravity of the offense. Some argue that the limit was later set at 39 lest a person inadvertently break the law by losing count.
The reason for these floggings is not stated by Paul, but it is not hard to identify the possible cause. It may have been due to his practice of consorting with Gentiles or his violation of Mosaic dietary regulations or perhaps profaning the Sabbath or working on the Day of Atonement. Most believe that some charge of blasphemy would have been brought against Paul for his preaching of the deity of Christ and that salvation comes only through faith alone in a crucified messiah (see especially 1 Corinthians 1:21-25). Whatever Paul did to warrant this treatment, the Jews obviously regarded it as a great offense, for Paul received all 39 blows each time.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this. In the first place, although often portrayed as weak and physically challenged, Paul was in sufficiently good health to survive these beatings. It was not uncommon for a person to die in the course of a scourging.
Second, there is considerable irony that would not have been lost on Paul that he should receive the very punishment he inflicted on Christians in the early days of the church (Acts 22:19; 26:11). On numerous occasions he either personally inflicted such punishment on the followers of Jesus or stood witness to it while giving hearty approval.
But third, and most important of all, this is witness to the depth and sincerity of Paul's love for his kinsmen according to the flesh. The fact that he received such treatment once bears witness to his evangelistic efforts, but that he continued to reach out to the Jews, resulting in four subsequent floggings, is proof of his undying concern for the state of their souls.
How much do you and I love the lost? What are we willing to suffer that they might hear the gospel? What price are we willing to pay? Upon rejection, perhaps ridicule and even persecution, would we quickly justify our retreat into silence? Nothing short of death itself could prevent Paul from proclaiming the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
Yet additional near-death encounters came when he was three times "beaten with rods" (v. 25a). If scourging was a Jewish punishment, this one was Roman (Acts 16:22-23). Although a Roman citizen, such as Paul, should have been exempt from this treatment, it was not uncommon for the law to be ignored. Unlike the Jewish scourging, there was no limit to the number of blows that might be inflicted with rods and the beating could be applied to any part of the body.
The third potentially fatal encounter occurred in Lystra where Paul was stoned and dragged out of the city (Acts 14:19-20). This was not a formal punishment but the spontaneous action of an angry crowd. After all, if it had been a Jewish execution, Paul would not have survived.
Three times Paul endured and survived shipwreck. Since he wrote this before the shipwreck recorded in Acts 27, we can assume that he suffered at least four such frightening experiences.
Fifth, and finally, as a result of one of these shipwrecks, he spent a twenty-four hour period in the sea clinging to wreckage and in danger of drowning.
Only in our day would anyone dare ask the scurrilous question, "Where was Paul's faith? Had he sinned? Was he guilty of a negative confession? Surely this is no way for God to treat one of his most honored and precious servants!"
I can't be sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if, during these many life-threatening incidents, Paul often thought back on the words spoken by Jesus: "For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:16). To those who might question Paul's integrity or his sincerity or his commitment to the cause of Christ, he would remind them of what he wrote to the church at Philippi: "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (1:29).
Little wonder, then, that Paul could say to the Colossians, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake" (Col. 1:24a), or to the Romans, "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3-4), or to the Galatians, "From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Gal. 6:17).
Such suffering is not the exclusive domain of those who are called as apostles, but is the inheritance of all who are "servants of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:23). Indeed, we are "heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17).