“For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me.” (Philippians 1:29,30)
The Greek word “agon,” which literally means an arena, came also to mean a “struggle, contest, fight, or race.” (You can find it elsewhere in scripture: Col. 2:1; 1 Thes. 2:2; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:1) The word is translated “conflict” in Philippians 1:30, and sums up the very personal battle that each of us face.
We all have our arenas where we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We can compare our arena with that of another, and feel we have it better or worse than they do. But such is not wise. “… But they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” (2 Cor. 10:12) Whether we are fighting with beasts at Ephesus or dealing with the potential death of a vision, the heart knows its own bitterness.
We all have our arenas where we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
We don’t know what arena Paul was referring to, but we know it entailed suffering. (Phil. 1:29) In our “agon,” we feel agony. Facing the prospect of death, we read of Jesus: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Paul’s arena caused him agony as well. He told the Corinthians that he encountered a situation where he was “pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor.1:8) This seems to describe a situation where he (and his companions) were placed in some arena or colosseum where certain death stared them in the face. Prior to their fight to the death, doomed souls were forced to declare: “Those who are about to die, salute you.” Paul speaks of the death sentence that hung over him. “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
What if the way of escape is not an exit from the situation but a strength to bear it?
How appropriately does this fit our own experience. We feel trapped in some situation for which we see no escape. We are consigned to a fate that we dread. We can no longer trust in ourselves because the bars are too strong for us to break, the walls are too high for us to leap over. We need a power beyond our strength to get us out of our predicament. But what if the way of escape is not an exit from the situation but a strength to bear it? This is the way of escape Paul learned to take. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)
Paul speaks of the gift of suffering. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” Yes, some arenas of suffering are “given” to us, designed by God to glorify Himself. “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” (2 Cor. 12:7) At first it was no doubt galling to Paul that this messenger of Satan was able to beat him up. He rose up three times in righteous anger to rebuke the demonic rascal that was making life miserable for him. But then he heard from God: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) What had been a cause of misery became a cause for rejoicing. He would now “count it all joy” because what the enemy had meant for evil, God meant for good. “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9,10)
We are in an arena indeed, but we are not alone.
This transition from fighting for our life in the arena to receiving divine strength to endure it allows us to be made “perfect, entire, wanting nothing.” (James 1:4) Oh how we need to let patience have her perfect work! We are such slow learners. Repetition is our best teacher. We are in an arena indeed, but we are not alone. We have a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. They have fought the good fight of faith. They have finished their course and entered their reward. It is now our turn. There is a unique race set before each of us that we must run with patience. (Heb. 12:1) When we become weary with our arena, our hands hang down and our knees become weak. At such times, we are in danger of turning “out of the way.” (Heb. 12:12,13) We must continually look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, lest we become wearied and faint in our minds. (Heb. 12:2,3) What will our Savior do for us? He will enable us to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness.” (Col. 1:10,11)
God knows exactly when to deliver us from the mouth of our lion.
Our vision of life and our Father’s vision are quite different. We lean to our own understanding and have our simple categories of good and bad. Things that bring us pleasure are good; things that bring us pain are bad. But God’s thoughts are much higher than ours. He knows that life eternal is found in knowing Him and being conformed to the image of His Son. He is a wise God who works all things together toward that end. Who are we to tell the Potter that He is keeping us on the wheel too long? He knows exactly when to deliver us from the mouth of our lion. But may we say with the confidence of Christ who stood before Pilate, our lives are in the hands of our God. Nothing, and no one, has power over us but Him. And whether we live or die, we are His.