The story of Stephen is a brief one. As quickly as he enters the book of Acts, he exits. In chapter 6, we find him full of the Spirit of God, performing signs and wonders (Acts 6:8). Unfortunately, some conspirators rallied against him causing an uproar. Stephen, responding to the people, gave the longest discourse in all of Acts and what you expected was the greatest proclamation of the gospel. But, in a sudden turn, he said this:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”Acts 7:51-53
And, with that, Stephen was swiftly and violently killed, validating his accusation. He wasn’t the first prophet to be killed by his audience. Jesus admitted this year prior to Stephen being killed, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matt. 23:37).
Sadly, this was the pattern for God’s messengers. They were sent to the people of God with the message of God, but were repeatedly rejected and persecuted instead of being received with gladness. Now, James dips back into this history to draw from their examples of patience during suffering.
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.James 5:10-11
The Example of the Prophets
Before we look to the examples, a small comment ought to be made about why James might have described the prophets as the ones “who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Ja. 5:10). Such a description was unnecessary. His audience was largely Jewish and well-rooted in the rich history of God’s prophets. They knew that the prophets spoke in the name of the Lord.
It seems that James was emphasizing the intensity of evil behind their affliction. He means to point out that the suffering of the prophets was more severe than the suffering we experience, primarily because they were God’s mouthpiece. For example, we can appreciate that it is wrong to steal, but to steal from a homeless person is terribly wrong. We understand that it is wrong to vandalize property, but to vandalize the president’s property is a severe violation. In the same way, it is evil to persecute, but it is even worse to persecute the messenger of God.
Prophets carry the words of life—the most valuable treasure man could possess. No one who ever lived, except for Christ Himself, ever carried such a gracious gift. They were the last who deserved hardship and the first who deserved honor. However, history shows us that they were the first to be dishonored and the last who deserved it. Their suffering was the worst kind of suffering. And yet, they were patient through it all.
Some of the prophets that might have come to mind were Moses. He suffered 40 years with stiff-necked Hebrews in the wilderness and yet, he exercised patience. Maybe David came to mind. Although he is generally not considered a prophet, he is responsible for most of the prophetic poems of the Old Testament. He suffered the hatred and envy of his king and yet, he expressed patience even when the opportunity arose to easily put an end to his suffering. Elijah suffered the brutality of the king who wanted him dead. Jeremiah suffered the rejection of a nation who hated his ministry. Ezekiel suffered the death of his wife as a providential sermon illustration. Hosea suffered a disastrous marriage to a prostitute. John the Baptist suffered ridicule and was beheaded as a party favor. The writer of Hebrews mentions plenty more:
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”Hebrews 11:32-38
James tells us, “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast” (Ja. 5:10). In other words, look to these prophets who exemplified great patience during a time of great suffering. They exemplify the joy of obedience to God. Patience during suffering is a hallmark characteristic of true faith.
The Example of the Sufferer
Most would agree that, of all the Old Testament characters, no one exemplified patience more than Job since he experienced the most suffering. “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Ja. 5:12). Job was a righteous man, but Satan didn’t think so. He set out to afflict Job in every way possible. God used it as a test for Job—to validate and mature his faith.
One day, Job’s servant ran to him with tragic news. The Sabeans mercilessly slaughtered Job’s servants, oxen, and donkeys while they were eating. Mid-sentence, another servant ran to him with more tragedy. The Chaldeans raided the camels and killed more of his servants. Again, another servant interrupts. All of Job’s children were crushed to death when a wind blew the walls of their house over. It was bad news after bad news.
Emotionally torn, Job ripped his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped God. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed by the name of the Lord.” Job was patient. Recognizing that God is sovereign, he trusted God’s wisdom (Job 1:13-22).
This was not the end of his suffering. Satan struck Job “with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,” which hurt so much that “he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.” He was physically and emotionally full of grief and pain (Job 42:6). Then, his wife antagonized him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” Still, he held his patience, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:1-10).
It still wasn’t over. Job’s friends surrounded him to give him worldly wisdom, stupid advice, and unspiritual reasoning for days on end. And yet, Job established his heart and held onto patience. “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). He understood “the purpose of the Lord” and “how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Ja. 5:11). So, he waited patiently in his distress.
“Look to Job,” James says. “Look to his example of suffering and patience and follow in his footsteps.” Job, as well as the prophets, were models of long-tempers. They exemplified true faith by their patience in suffering. They were steadfast and unwavering. Their hearts were established (Ja. 5:8). And, in the end, they were blessed with unsurpassed joy.
Would you look to their examples and express patience when you are afflicted? Those who remain steadfast receive the crown of life (Ja. 1:12). Are you long-tempered? Does patience characterize your walk? Prayerfully consider your sufferings. Ask the Lord to help you be more like Him.