I learned the term “pain reflex” while I was in seminary; it refers to the witness of the early Christian church. It is said that some of the most powerful Gospel preaching came through the “pain reflex” of the early church. For many in the church today, especially in the United States, this term is somewhat foreign; we don’t have to deal with much pain regarding our faith! But the early church certainly did, as have many throughout the world during the past 2,000 years. Here are just a few examples of how the early church suffered under the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, as recorded by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus:
- Christians were thrown to voracious wild animals to be torn apart while crowds of thousands watched and cheered the mauling
- Fully alive and alert, Christians were covered with pitch and set on fire to provide lighting for nightly parties at Nero’s gardens
- Christians were crucified by the hundreds and sometimes thousands along the main highways in and out of Rome as a lesson to all those observers who might desire to claim any lord other than the emperor
The horrific stories of the affliction of the saints are as numerous as they are atrocious. The extent of their persecution was only limited by the depraved imagination of their persecutors. But it was not the suffering that drew unbelievers to the claims of Christ; it was the way they suffered that did. It was their pain reflex that preached a clear, compelling message and caused the watching world to take notice of their claim of a crucified and risen Christ.
Christians could be heard singing hymns and spiritual songs as they were being torn apart by snarling beasts. As they were brought to the stake to be burned alive, Christians were overheard telling their executioners there was no need to tie them to the post, because their faith in Christ would keep them there. One of the most remarkable biblical stories regarding the pain reflex of the early church is recorded about the death of Stephen.
When they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at [Stephen]. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
Here we read the biblical account of the first Christian martyr, who followed the model of his Master, who, as He hung on the cruel cross, prayed: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” Jesus prayed (Luke 23:34).
What does all this have to do with you and me? After all, it’s not likely that you or I will ever be thrown to the lions; what should we take away from the sterling faith of the early Christians? The answer is that you and I are given many opportunities to preach Christ to a watching world through our own pain reflex. Though we don’t face violent persecution here in America, we do deal with a great deal of pain on this side of the grave. With every trial and every season of suffering, we are given the opportunity to testify to the truth of what we say we believe—very much like our first century brethren.
We always have two different ways to respond to the struggles of life. We can shrink back from them and demonstrate a pain that points to the self. Or we can embrace our trials and demonstrate a pain reflex that points to the One who suffered for us and with us. This is the pain reflex of the redeemed. Is it yours?
This is the truth of what it means to preach the Gospel with both our lips and our lives. This is the truth of what it means to preach the Gospel with both the profession of our faith and the practice of our faith. And this truth shouts the loudest when we find ourselves in the furnace of affliction; we demonstrate to those who are watching a confident faith that points straight to Jesus!
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!