“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” — Romans 5:1-5
Polycarp was a second-century bishop who was burned alive for the sake of the gospel. His Roman persecutors attempted to persuade him to save his life by reviling the name of Christ. He answered them by saying, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The proconsul (Roman authority) continued his attempts to get Polycarp to renounce Christ by threatening to burn him alive. The brave bishop replied, “You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.” (Taken from “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Michael Holmes, 3rd Edition)
To those unfamiliar with Christian history, this may seem like an extraordinary tale of defiance and bravery in the face of unjust persecution. But the remarkable fact of Polycarp’s martyrdom is that it is quite ordinary. Throughout the ages, the history of the Christian Church has been the history of despising this world, glorying in tribulation, and rejoicing in the hope that awaits us. The Apostle Paul, who wrote the text cited above, was no stranger to tribulations. He was persecuted at Antioch (Acts 13:50); he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). At Philippi, he was beaten and wrongfully imprisoned (Acts 16:20-25). He spent the end of his ministry as a Roman prisoner, and was martyred in Rome for the sake of the gospel. The question is this: how is it that multitudes of Christians so willingly and joyfully surrender their lives for the sake of the gospel?
The answer is found clearly in the text above. Christians have the unique gift of being able to “glory in tribulations.” The root of this glorying is the glory of God. We have peace with God through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in this peace, we have access to the grace of God, and are able to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. There is profound joy that is found in the glory of God, because His purpose of glorifying Himself secures our salvation forever. But “not only so, but we glory in tribulations also.” Why?
Tribulation produces patience. There is only one thing that the saint of God can do when tribulations come upon him: “Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD” (Ps. 27:14). When the hour of darkness comes, we must learn to wait patiently for our Deliverer. This patience produces experience. Just as steel must be tempered and gold refined by fire, the faith of the saints goes through trials so that it “might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). On the other side of tribulations is the sweet experience of having been delivered by the Lord. There is nothing on this earth that compares with the experience of preservation through the fires of evil times. This experience in turn produces hope. We live in evil days (Eph. 5:16), but the Christian has hope that the world cannot explain. Have you had one of those weeks or months where there seems to be a never-ending sequence of ill events? There is always hope, even when we know that future trials are certain. Having been delivered in the past, we know that the Lord God will also deliver us and preserve us in the future.
This hope does not make us ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. That is a profound statement. I’m sure that the Romans believed that Polycarp’s hope was shameful and foolish. Yet his hope, and ours, does not make us ashamed. We know the love of God apart from the testimony of men or the world, because it has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. This teaches us what is true deliverance. Biblical deliverance does not always mean that the result of the tribulation goes the way we want it to go. Rather, it means that we are preserved through the trial, kept by the grace of God. Whatever the end of the trial is, we know that the love of God will still be ours on the other side. We know that the Creator of Heaven and Earth loves us even as He loves His own Son. And we know that whatever trial He brings us through will glorify His name. This is the hope of the glory of God, and this hope gives us strength to glory even in our tribulations.