Obviously, not all suffering is of God, nor does it mean one is held in his favor. However, I have read, and I believe it to be true, that suffering in the midst of one’s devotion to God is not only a sign one is in the narrow path to glory but also a sign of divine favor. Certainly we exalt those men and women who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to risk life and limb for their country. So, there is reason to believe that suffering for one’s country or out of devotion to God is worthy of praise.
When Jesus called Saul to go to preach the Gospel to the gentiles (Acts 9:15), it was also told him the great suffering he must endure in order to accomplish the will of God (Acts 9:16). Just as Saul mauled believing Messianics before his call to the Gospel (Acts 8:3-4; 9:1-2), Saul, himself, would be mauled by becoming a Messianic and doing the will of Jesus!
Luke chose the word: hupodeiknumi (G5263) which according to Thyare means to show by “placing under or before the eyes;” or to show “by words and arguments” (i.e. to teach); and finally to show “by making known future things.” What Saul would have to experience couldn’t be shown to him by placing the “experience” before his eyes, so most likely the Lord told Ananias that he intended to both “teach” and “warn” Saul of these experiences he would have to endure for Jesus’ name sake, just as he often taught and warned the Twelve. Jesus told Ananias Saul must suffer (patho – G3958), and this is what Saul had to learn by “teaching” and / or “warning”. But how was this done?
Luke doesn’t mention it, but Saul spent the next 2 ½ to 3 years in Arabia. Paul tells us this in Galatians 1:17-18. His intention there was to explain to the Galatians that his Gospel was not dependent upon what the Apostles at Jerusalem taught him, but his Gospel was given to him by the Lord himself. Certainly, Saul had to learn the oral traditions (i.e. the full story of Jesus life’s ministry) and he did this by spending a little over two weeks with Peter (Galatians 1:18), but Saul spent three years in Arabia and Damascus. What occurred there?
Luke tells us that after Saul was healed by Ananias and baptized he spent at least a short while with the brethren in Damascus (Acts 9:17-19), and while he was there he preached in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God (Acts 9:20), which confounded the Jews there; for they knew he was sent there to arrest those who held to this Way and bring them back to Jerusalem to be punished (Acts 9:21). In verse-22 Luke tells us that Saul “increased in strength” proving that Jesus was the Messiah, confounding the Jews there so much that they desired to take his life (Acts 9:23). How was Saul’s strength “increased”? Apparently, Saul’s stay in Arabia was not a relaxing and serene retreat where he studied the Scriptures, permitting the Holy Spirit to guide him in understanding how he would present his Gospel to the gentiles. On the contrary, Paul later tells us that the Nabataean ethnarch at Damascus waited at the city gates to take Saul into custody and bring him to Aretas, the king, for questioning and probable death (2Corinthians 11:32), for the king was presently at war with Herod, ruler of the Jews in Galilee over a border dispute.
It seems that Saul’s learning his Gospel was more like on-the-job-training. Some of his later teaching seems to come from his experiences during this 2 ½ to 3 year period (see my blogs: Paul’s Visit to Arabia; Paul’s Theology and the Children of Abraham; and Paul and the Doctrine of Circumcision). I had written that Saul probably didn’t do much preaching in Arabia (Paul’s Flight from Damascus), but, lately, I am reconsidering my position on this point. A fiery personality like Paul would most certainly not stand by while he knew something that should be stated. He must have preached in the synagogues in Arabia, probably was beaten often and hated for his argument that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God and the Messiah. How else would he “increase in strength” (Acts 9:21)? His argument came by practice. He observed the Jews and the Arabians (relatives), noticing inconsistencies in circumcision as the sign of righteousness; he was reminded of Hagar when visiting the city named for her and saw how the Jews were persecuting Messianics without cause and noticed the parallel with them and Esau. However, if Saul brought this up, both the Jews and the Arabians might have become very angry with him and become violent. Certainly, Aretas wanted to question him over this King that Saul preached.
This is the hard and narrow path that has been chosen for us to experience in one manner or another and, paradoxically, a sure “sign” we are in the favor of God (cp. Matthew 5:10-12). Certainly, Ananias questioned what the Lord wanted him to do, but he went ahead in obedience. Saul the persecutor would also have had some very uneasy feelings being healed by a man who only days ago he would have despised, and both men knew this to be true. Again Saul would have had to face, in the meeting place of the brethren, some of the very men and women whom he may have beaten in Jerusalem. Indeed, he may have caused some of their friends and family to be killed, but they called him brother! Surely, this is not the “broad” and “easy” way, but a hard and narrow path. It is the less travelled road for both the forgiven and those who do the forgiving. There is suffering (patho – G3958) involved even here, and day by day we learn what it is like to be devoted to Jesus and the path of salvation
In time the suffering becomes bittersweet. Although he had suffered most of his adult life, usually at the hand of his countrymen, Paul could later say, if it were possible, he would exchange his position before Christ for that of the Jews, making himself accursed and them accepted in Christ, if this could save his countrymen from the destruction that awaited them (Romans 9:1-5). Enduring contempt and violence in the name of Christ and forgiving and appreciating one’s own need for forgiveness is, indeed, a hard and narrow way, but at the same time we can be certain that divine favor is upon our lives.