The Incomparable Lesson
June 30th, 1957 @ 10:50 AM
THE INCOMPARABLE LESSON
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-30-57 10:50 a.m.
You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the morning hour’s message entitled The Incomparable Lesson. This morning, in the fourth chapter of Philippians, we begin at the tenth verse and read through the twelfth:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity.
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound, to overflow: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
I submit it: that would be a glorious thing for any man to say. Don’t you wish you could say it? “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” [Philippians 4:11]. Whether to be abased, or whether to abound: everywhere, in all things, to be positively, absolutely, actually indifferent to outward, external, peripheral circumstance. It doesn’t matter. Whether I am cast down in disappointment, or whether I am raised in the achievement of ambitious desire, either one, no difference.
Paul was a very learned man: taught in a Greek university the culture and the language and the literature of his day, taught in the greatest rabbinical school of all the long centuries of Hebrew story, and then finally taught at the very feet of Jesus Himself, from whom he received the revelations that he writes here in this Holy Book [1 Corinthians 11:23]. He was a very learned man. But of all of his intellectual acquisitions, in my humble persuasion, this is the greatest learning of all; this is the greatest degree in the humanities: “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” [Philippians 4:11].
He says he learned it: “For I have learned.” Well, I would suppose, by saying that, he did not naturally know it; he was not born into it. And looking at us, probing my own heart, that’s also my observation of our poor humanity. The ground by nature brings forth thorns and thistles and brambles. These are indigenous to the earth upon which rests the curse itself [Genesis 3:17-18]. But wheat and beautiful flowers must be cultivated. So it is with the human heart: by nature our hearts are filled with murmurings and jealousies and all kinds of unhappinesses and discontent; but peace, and contentment, and committal and yieldedness to God and the providences of life are things that are cultivated, they are things that are learned. “I have learned,” says Paul, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” [Philippians 4:11].
He could have said, “There was a time when outward circumstances greatly affected me. There was a time when disappointment tore through my heart. There was a time when failing visions and lost ambitions plowed under my soul. And there was a time when achievement and success raised me to abounding and dizzy heights. Not anymore.”
He could say, “Now I am absolutely indifferent to all of the vicissitudes of change and fortune that surround my life. If I am hungry, or if I have plenty; if I am in prison, or if I’m free; if I am acclaimed, or if I am cast out; if I am known or unknown, I am indifferent. These things reach not my heart; they touch not my soul.”
Oh, to be like that! Whether Paul was in a dungeon and in stocks [Acts 16:24], or whether he was raised in glory to the third heaven [2 Corinthians 12:2]; whether he was in the Philippian jail [Acts 16:12, 23], or on Mars’ Hill addressing the Athenian Areopagus [Acts 17:22-34]; whether he was stoned and dragged out for dead [Acts 14:19-20], or stood in the presence of kings who trembled at his words [Acts 24:25]; whether he was in prison, or in a palace; whether he was hungry, or full; whether in sorrow or joy, he continued the even tenor of his way, confident in the Lord, a glorious Christian. Don’t you wish you could be like that?—the incomparable learning: “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” [Philippians 4:11].
Then the next verse is a commentary upon that: “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” [Philippians 4:12]. “I know how to be abased”; what a wonderful incomparably blessed knowledge; “I know how to be abased.” He could have said, “I know how to turn aside from every personal ambition of my life and do it with absolute indifference! Every vision and every hope and every personal desire, everything I ever dreamed of, everything I ever wanted, everything I ever reached out to hold or apprehend, I have learned to turn aside from it with indifference. How does one do that?
It’s like John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease” [John 3:30]. How is it that one can come to the place and stand and see another servant advance to his own place and rejoice in it, in honor preferring the other? How is it you come to that place where you can see another hold the palm that your heart desired to lift high, and be glad that the honor has come to him? How do you do it? How do you come to the place where another man can be praised at your expense, and be indifferent about it, rejoice in it?
One of the greatest, sweetest—and I wish I could have seen some of these men—one of the finest, most Christian of all of the Baptist preachers who ever preached in our pulpits was named F. B. Meyer; he was a pastor in London. And in his day, in the very heyday of Dr. Meyer, in the very glory of his prime there came to the city of London a boy, nineteen years old, and overnight, I mean literally within a week, overnight that boy became the talk of the city and the talk of the nation and the talk of the world! And throngs crowded to hear him, and people pressed over one another to listen to his message, overnight! Charles Haddon Spurgeon, nineteen years old, became the rage of the whole city of London. And in one of these little things I read from F. B. Meyer, he said, “When that came and my own congregation spake nothing else but this young man Spurgeon, and my own congregation fell off, our people attending the young flaming star,” he said, “my heart was filled with envy and jealousy. But,” he said, “I took it to God in prayer.” And he said, “On my knees I made a covenant before God that I would pray for that boy preacher, and I would rejoice in the great throngs that waited upon his every word and in the great number of conversions that attended his ministry.” And he said, “You know, God came down and blessed my heart. And for the years that followed,” F. B. Meyer said, “I came to rejoice and to be glad in the ministry of young Spurgeon.” Oh, to be like that! No littleness in us, no jealousy about us; but the bigness of the grace of God. When another is praised, when another takes our place, when another is called upon, when maybe we are forgot, whether in abasement or in exaltation, just that the Lord may be praised. How do you do it?
Isn’t it noble in a man to lay down his honors in the same joyful way that he took them up? Isn’t it glorious in a man that can see himself abased, forgot? Maybe he stood before the great throngs at one time, or was a loved pastor one time, and the years passed, and now just a memory mostly, the people who once knew and loved him, and rejoiced in it. “I have learned,” said Paul, “how to be abased” [Philippians 4:12].
How much there was of promise in Paul. Had you lived in Tarsus of Cilicia, the capital city of that Roman province [Acts 22:3], and had you looked upon that young man, you would have said, “Oh, what a glorious future awaits that young man, brilliant, scintillating, a natural affinity for learning and lore, and a zeal for God, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee, a Zealot; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness of the law, blameless [Philippians 3:5-6]. That young man, what a glorious future awaits him!” And what happened? “But what things were gain to me, those I have counted loss for Christ [Philippians 3:7]. I turned aside from them, nothing, nothing”—oh, this man who had learned how to be abased, turning aside from all personal ambition.
Another thing, “I have learned how to be abased [Philippians 4:12], to give up, as though they were nothing, all of the material possessions of life, absolutely indifferent to them, absolutely indifferent; they are nothing.” So many men build their lives as a castle, as a tower; and they build it around them, material possessions. Then someday when the tower falls, it engulfs them, and it crushes them, and it buries them. In the providence of God, did you know that in the wisdom of the Lord, actually, many, many, many times the personal losses that are sustained in life are nothing but the chiseling away of the marble in order that the serene statue might appear in beautiful proportion? All of these accouterments, all of these embellishments, all of these material possessions, hanging onto which we cling, but hide our souls and drown our lives. When they’re taken away, many times a man’s soul really shines through.
One of the most interesting little fifty feet that I ever walked in my life was in the Institute of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy. And I just never had seen anything like that. From here, back there, oh, fifty feet, might have been two hundred feet, can’t remember, nice long way though; from here, back there, all the way through that long foyer, from here, clear back, on either side were the most unusual statues that I ever saw. There would be one here, they were large, way higher than I could touch with my hand, enormous blocks of marble, and here was a statue that would be just maybe one tenth out of that great chunk of marble. Then that one would be maybe half out, and then that one maybe just barely outlined, and then that one be almost out, and the same way on this side. And what they say is this: that these were works of Michelangelo, and for some reason, nobody knows why, either the artist was weary or tired, or it didn’t please him, or the marble didn’t chip just right or chisel just so, or he was interested in something else, nobody knows; but Michelangelo had begun all of those statues, lots of them, lining the foyer that way, and lining the foyer that way, some of them almost complete, some of them just barely begun. And I say that’s one of the most interesting things that I ever did, walking and looking at those, and looking at those, and looking at those. And as I prepared this sermon my mind went back to that, and I thought, “That’s our human lives and that’s our human souls.” By the cutting away, by the chipping away of the marble, the statue comes to life. And that’s what God does with us sometimes. These things we lose, and these possessions that are taken away, and these things that are lost, that’s just God’s cutting away the marble that the sublime proportion of the statue may be seen. We’re not to fret or to be cast down in the hands and in the providences of the Lord; but we are to learn how to be abased.
Now the man who said that; I would think that Paul was a most affluent, well-to-do, belonged to an affluent well-to-do family, wouldn’t you? For example, he was a Roman citizen because his father was a man of consequence [Acts 16:37-39]. As a young man he was able to make the journey from Tarsus to Jerusalem in order to enter the rabbinical school of Gamaliel, the greatest rabban of all time [Acts 22:3]. Almost certainly he was a man of affluence. Yet he came to the place where he says, “Mine own hand ministered to my necessities” [Acts 20:34]. And he speaks here, “I know how to be hungry” [Philippians 4:12]. He knew how to be in want. Everything that he had, his family and his friends and all that he possessed, all of it was gone, all of it; and he came to the place where, what occasioned this letter, just the church to give Paul something to eat was a boon and a blessing [Philippians 4:14-19]. “I have learned how to be abased, lose it all, let it go [Philippians 4:12]. I have learned to be indifferent toward it.”
Now I want to turn aside here to make two observations. First: poverty, want, penury, to be poor, is no curse and it’s no destruction. More and more I begin to see that. For example, I am glad now, though I wasn’t at the time, I am glad now that I was reared in a poor, poor, poor, poor family. I am glad now that for years and years and years, I preached in little, tiny country and village churches, ministering to people who toiled with their hands, who sowed and planted and chopped cotton, went to the store in the fall and hoped that they had raised enough to pay for the groceries that would sustain them in the winter. I’m glad for that now. There is no curse, and there’s no destruction in poverty, in want, in being poor.
They say that the brightest, sweetest spirit that ever lived in this earth, outside of the Scriptures, is Francis of Assisi, who was called “the poor little man,” who talked to his brothers and sisters, the birds. Martin Luther was born poor, and lived poor all of his life. I remember reading in the Bible about One who said, “The foxes of the fields have dens, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head” [Matthew 8:20]. There is no curse in being poor. If your father toiled on the farm, and worked with his hands, and barely eked out enough to buy you shoes and clothes and food, he at the same time doubtless was a great stalwart sun-crowned man unto God. That’s the truth.
Now, the other side of that observation: conquest, and victory, and wealth, and achievement, and acclaim do not by any means bring happiness or contentment or joy of soul. Did you know unhappiness and misery can sit on a king’s throne just the same way that it can brood on an old chair broken and disheveled in a hovel? Alexander the Great, after he’d conquered the world, sat down and cried, “Because,” he said, “there are no other worlds to conquer,” and then drowned his grief in drunken debauchery and died drunk at thirty and three years of age in an orgy in Babylon.
I think the Bible has some of the most revealing little touches about human nature. You look at these two. One: Ahab is the king; and he possess the realm. And his queen is the daughter of a king. And he has all in his hands, Ahab the king; that is, all except one little corner of ground right next to his palace at Jezreel. And he wants it for a garden of herbs. And it belongs to Naboth, who has a little vineyard there. And because Naboth won’t give him that little corner of ground for a garden of herbs, he goes to bed and he turns his face to the wall, and when Jezebel says, “What’s the matter with you?” he says, “I want that garden of herbs. And I can’t eat, and I can’t sleep, because I want that garden of herbs” [1 Kings 21:1-6]. Now isn’t that human nature? Isn’t that human nature? Ahab in bed, won’t eat, with his face to the wall, pouting like an adolescent because though he has the kingdom he doesn’t have that little garden hard by the palace at Jezreel. Isn’t that human nature? Or the other: though King Ahasuerus has lifted up Haman to be the head man in the empire, it is nothing to Haman as long as Mordecai sits in the gate and refuses to bow to my lord Haman [Esther 3:1-5].
“I have learned,” says Paul, “how to be abased, absolutely indifferent. I have learned how to be abased” [Philippians 4:12], as he faced the inevitable trials and sorrows of life. For man that is born of woman is born unto sorrow [Job 14:1]. It will follow as certainly as this coming night will press upon this day. Sorrow; you can’t escape it; it’s yours, it’s your lot, and it comes. The sorrows that overwhelmed Paul; his persecutions were almost beyond what any man could think one could bear—when he lists them they are incredible [2 Corinthians 11:23-33]. And the toil of preaching the gospel, oh how slow and with what effort; and the great host of this world pass the message by, and there he is pouring out his soul, and so few, so few turn.
And the passing of time, of life, wasting away; when Paul wrote this letter to the church at Philippi, he also wrote one to Philemon, over there at Colossae; and he refers to himself as “Paul the aged” [Philemon 9]. When you’re young you feel time is indefinite; we have forever, we can do anything! But when you get older, you can see the end, and the time is short, and so much to be done. And we’ve done so little. And there’s a sadness of life that presses upon the soul. “I have learned how to be abased” [Philippians 4:12]. Lord, Lord, the constriction of this valley, this narrowed path, but that I might hope in the great vale beyond the hills. This valley, that I might learn to look up to the glorious sunlight in God’s heaven; looking at Him to whom a year is as a thousand, and a thousand years is as a day [2 Peter 3:8]—looking to God. “I have learned how to be abased.”
Now, dear people, I do not know what comes of the time. I am half way through this message. “I have learned how to be abased, I know how to abound: every where in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” [Philippians 4:12]. I close with this one observation: the difference in people is never a difference in outward circumstance; the difference lies in the heart, it lies on the inside. For example, to one the ground on which they walk is just common clay; to another it is holy ground. Pompey in 63 BC conquered Jerusalem, made it a part of the Roman Empire. And against the appeal of the Jews stalked into the temple, into the Holy Place, and to their horror took hold of the veil and pulled it aside and walked in to the Holy of Holies; the first man that had ever stood in that sacred place without blood of atonement, the high priest once a year [Hebrews 9:7]. And when Pompey walked in to the Holy of Holies and around, he stalked out and said, “Why, it’s empty! There is nothing in it. It’s just darkness!” That’s what Pompey said. Yet that is the place where Isaiah said, “And I saw the Lord high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple” [Isaiah 6:1]. The difference is in the men.
There are some to whom the church is an added account of respectability; to sit there, to take time out, the songs, the hymns, the message, another burden in another organization. And yet there are some of us to whom it is the very house of God, the very gate to heaven. And there are those to whom the trials and the burdens of life are intolerably born, and weight down the soul in bitterness and in frustration. Then there are those, God bless you, and it’s you, and there are those who face the trials of life and the fleeting of time and the waste of the years in quiet confidence; the Lord is able, and our hearts are fixed in Him, and our eyes are upon Him. That is the incomparable learning. “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know how to be abased, cast down; I know how to abound, still humble when I am lifted up. Every where and in all things I am instructed, I have been taught, both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” [Philippians 4:11-12]. It is incidental in the life of a pilgrimage who is making his way from this world to the world that is to come.
Now while we sing our song, somebody you, to place his heart and life in the faith of Jesus, would you come and stand by me? A family of you to put your life in the church, in this balcony around, coming down these stairwells and here to me, in this press of people on the lower floor; God is so good to us, should you come today. Placing your trust in the Lord, putting your life in the church, as God shall say the word and lead the way, into the aisle and down here to the front, would you come? “Pastor, I give you my hand; I’ve given my heart to the Lord” [Romans 10:9-10]. Would you so, while we stand and while we sing?