APOSTOLIC SUFFERING

CryingPMT 2014-095 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In my last blog article I introduced the question: “Is the church called to suffer?” The suffering church motif is widespread in evangelical theology. And one reason it is so is because the church is suffering and has long suffered. Another reason though is that there are numerous verses in the New Testament that seem to confirm this perception.

In the opening article I cited several well-known theologians who make this argument. How can the postmillennialist respond? I am dealing with this question in several articles because of its significance — and because of confusion regarding postmillennialism itself.

In this article I will point out that we must remember that Scripture is occasional and historical. But what does this mean? And how does it help our reply?


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The New Testament epistles are speaking to real people in their original settings. Historically, the early church to whom the apostles write exists in the throes of a rapidly expanding and increasingly deepening persecution. Consequently, warnings of persecutional suf-fering apply to the original recipients in a direct, relevant, and important way. We misconstrue them if we universalize them so as to require the continued persecution of the church until the second advent. Of course, on those occasions in which God leads us today through similar circumstances, the New Testament directives, principles, and examples certainly apply. Let us specifically consider Gaffin’s main texts.

2 Corinthians 4:7–8

This passage reads: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are per-plexed, but not in despair.”

Gaffin comments that Paul “effectively distances himself from the (postmil-like) view that the (eschatological) life of (the risen and ascended) Jesus embodies a power/victory principle that progressively ameliorates and reduces the suffering of the church.” He then informs us that “Paul intends to say, as long as believers are in ‘the mortal body,’ ‘the life of Jesus’ manifests itself as ‘the dying of Jesus’; the latter describes the existence mode of the former. Until the resurrection of the body at his return Christ’s resurrection-life finds expression in the church’s sufferings. . . ; the locus of Christ’s ascension-power is the suffering church” (Gaffin, “Theonomy and Eschatology,” 212).

Gaffin is overlooking the context. Most exegetes note that Paul is here giving an historical testimony of his own apostolic predicament; he is not setting forth a universally valid truth or a prophetically determined expectation. [1] Consider the passage’s wider context. A major point in this portion of Paul’s letter is to defend his apostleship against false apostles (2Co 2:14–7:1). Notice the shift between the apostolic “we” and the recipient “you” (2Co 4:5, 12, 14–15) (F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 194; P. E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 135).

Gaffin himself admits that “strictly speaking, [Paul’s statements] are autobiographical” (Gaffin, “Theonomy and Eschatology,” 211). That is my point: these statements are personal observations not prophetic expectations.

Furthermore, Gaffin’s comments are far too sweeping: “Over the interadvental period in its entirety, from beginning to end, a fundamental aspect of the church’s existence is (to be) ‘suffering with Christ’; nothing, the New Testament teaches, is more basic to its identity than that.” Is suffering (persecution?) throughout the “entirety” of the interadvental period a “fundamental” aspect of the church’s existence? [2] Is there absolutely “nothing . . . more basic” in the New Testament? If we are not suffering (persecution?), are we a true church? Is Gaffin suffering greatly?


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Two hour public debate between on the Olivet Discourse.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com


Strimple makes similar observations: “When the apostle Paul thinks of this present time, he thinks of suffering as its characteristic mark (Ro 8:18, see also Jn 16:33; Ac 14:22; Ro 8:36; 2Co 1:5–10; Php 1:29; 3:10; 1 Peter 4:12–19).” In fact, Christ himself “tells his disciples that in this present age they cannot expect anything other than oppression and persecution and must forsake all things for his sake” (Strimple in Bock, Three Views on the Millennium, 63). Surely these overstate the case.

But this is not all of our response. Stay tuned! I will continue this response in the next article.

NOTES

1. For example, see the commentaries on 2 Corinthians by Philip E. Hughes, F. F. Bruce, A. T. Robertson, John Calvin, Marvin R. Vincent, Albert Barnes, E. H. Plumtree, James L. Price, and F. W. Farrar.

2. If persecutional suffering is not in Gaffin’s mind here, then all other forms of suffering are irrelevant to the argument against postmillennialism.

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