THE TEARS OF PAUL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-8-71 12:00 p.m.
What a glorious, triumphant gospel! Jesus died for our sins, He was delivered for our offenses, but He was raised the third day for our justification.
Now remember as the service continues, this is a busy lunch hour for many of you, and when you have to leave you feel at liberty to do so. We all understand. Stay as long as you can; but when you have to leave, it is understood by all of us.
The theme for this year, "God’s Witnesses to the World": Monday, The Fire of Elijah; Tuesday, The Baptism of John; yesterday, The Preaching of Peter; tomorrow, the last day, the day our Lord was crucified, The Blood of Christ; and today The Tears of Paul. In the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, the ship upon which Paul was returning to Palestine stopped at a seaport called Miletus. And he sent from there up to Ephesus, where he had been used of God to turn all Asia, the Roman province of Asia, to the Lord, he asked the elders of the church, the preachers, the pastors of the church, to come down; and he reviewed before them and with them his ministry of three years in the Asian capital city of Ephesus. And three times in this brief address does he mention his tears. "Remember how from the first, when I came unto you in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and trials" [Acts 20:19]. Then again, "Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" [Acts 20:31]. And then concluding, "And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. And they all wept, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him" [Acts 20:36-37].
In the providence of the Lord there are more things revealed about the personal life of the apostle Paul than of any other man who is presented in these holy pages. There is a reason for that: for Paul in encouraging his people to faithfulness in the Lord sought to display before them his own life, saying, "Be thou a follower of me, as I am a follower of Christ" [1 Corinthians 11:1]. Consequently, we have in the Bible a portrayal of the whole life, inward life, of this apostle. His mind, his heart, his soul, his emotions, his feelings all are writ large on the sacred page.
He is a combination of such opposite qualities. He is a man of tremendous energy, but of sweet gentleness. He is a man of great conviction, but ready to weep and to cry upon most any occasion. He has the hard drive of a man, but the soft gentleness of a woman. He is a Christian and not a Stoic. He is not ashamed to feel and to express those feelings. He does not seek as a Stoic to stifle his emotions. He is human. He is like our Lord: our Lord would weep at the tomb of a friend, cry over a lost city, agonize in tears in a Gethsemane; and so Paul, like the Lord, was not ashamed of his emotions, of his feelings, and of his tears.
Against the background of the life of the apostle, however exuberant and ebullient and triumphant and victorious he may appear, yet in the background always are those scenes of sadness and sorrow. Look at him for just a moment. In the jail at Philippi, where he’s been beat and cast into an inner dungeon, at midnight he and his fellow missionary Silas break into praises to God. They pray, they sing. And yet, when the jailer, having heard them, was converted and was baptized, in the same water where he was baptized, he began washing the blood off of the stripes of the back of the apostle [Acts 16:25-33]. In the Mamertine dungeon, just before he was executed, he writes so gloriously, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness" [2 Timothy 4:7-8]. Oh! you just feel the uplift of the triumph of this glorious man. Yet in the next sentence he will say, "The cloak that I left with Carpus in Troas, when you come, bring it with you; it is cold and damp in this dungeon" [2 Timothy 4:13].
Or again, he will write to the church at Philippi, "Rejoice in the Lord: and always I say, Rejoice" [Philippians 4:4]. But as he writes the letter, you can hear the clack of the chain by which he is tied down in that Roman prison. And when you look at his wrists, there are great callouses there; for he has spent years and years in prison. Or take again: he was capable of such infinite blessing to the people to whom God sent him as a witness of His grace and goodness. Even from his person, handkerchiefs, aprons would be blessed and placed on those who were sick, and they were healed. Yet, with all of the miraculous healing that God bestowed in his person, he himself could not heal himself: he had a thorn in the flesh that God refused to remove [2 Corinthians 12:7-10]. Back of the life of that apostle, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils by false brethren, in hunger, in weariness, in watchfulness, and in pain he lived his entire life of servitude to Christ [2 Corinthians 11:26-27].
When we therefore listen to the address that he makes to the elders at Miletus, and when he speaks of his tears, he is but reflecting the true apostle Paul himself. First he speaks of the tears of his dedicated ministry: "Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and trials" [Acts 20:19]. The Lord had said to him when He called him, "I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake" [Acts 9:15-17]. And his entire life in Christ was one of suffering and trial. When he was converted, Aretas the king in Damascus sought to seize him, and he escaped with his life, having been let down over the wall in a basket [2 Corinthians 11:32-33]. When he came to Jerusalem and was introduced to the brethren there, the Judeans immediately sought to destroy him, and he was sent away into Cilicia where he’d been born and reared [Acts 9:26-30]. When he went on his first missionary journey, at Iconium, at Pisidian Antioch, at Derbe, and at Lystra he was grievously persecuted; in Lystra stoned and dragged out the city for dead. When he crossed over the Hellespont and preached the gospel in Europe, the first thing the Roman authorities did was to arrest him and place him in the dungeon.
Wouldn’t you have thought a man who was so mistreated and manhandled as that would have quit his ministry? Well, he writes of it: he says, "Though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For this I have an oikonomia, a dispensation, a stewardship from God" [1 Corinthians 9:16-17]. It was something God placed upon him. In it he was gloriously happy and triumphant; but in it also were human tears and suffering.
I think all true discipleship in Christ is like that. I think it always carries with it sorrow, and tears, and trial. It isn’t easy to follow Christ and to be a true Christian. I remember in western Oklahoma in the years gone by, I remember the story of two pioneer missionaries out there working with those blanket prairie Indians, and with those frontier people, seeking to preach the gospel and to establish churches in those communities. It was hard; it was difficult. There were two of them, John Hogan and Bradford Hayes. And in the dead of winter, when those two men were under a tent and a howling blizzard had blown out of the north, John Hogan said to his friend, "I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. I’m quitting. I’m going back home across the Mississippi River. I am giving up this task. I’m quitting. It is too hard. It is too difficult. I’m going home!" And Bradford Hayes said, "John, I don’t blame you, and I understand. But just before you leave, would you sing a song with me?" And Bradford had a guitar, the only instrument by which they had their services out there in that pioneer West. And he said, "John, will you sing this song with me?" And the two men in that howling blizzard, under that tent, sang:
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I pause to own His cause,
And blush to speak His name?
Am I a soldier of the cross? Am I?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the cross, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.
["Am I a Soldier of the Cross?"; Isaac Watts]
And when the two men finished singing the song, John Hogan was in tears, and said to his friend Bradford, "I’ll stay. I’ll not leave" – the tears of a dedicated ministry.
I do not hesitate to tell any boy who says, "God’s called me to preach, or to be a missionary, or to be a full-time worker for Jesus," I do not hesitate to tell the lad or the lass, "That means blood, and tears, and sacrifice, and cost. But it also means glory, and triumph, and victory!" The tears of a dedicated ministry.
The tears of a shepherdly seeking heart: "Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" [Acts 20:31]. It was a burden to him that men rejected his message – "By day and by night, for three years, pleading Christ with many tears."
Once in a while I’ll hear someone describe a gifted minister as, quote, "He’s the greatest preacher since Paul," end quote. I know exactly what they mean, "the greatest preacher since Paul": they have in their minds the image of a man who is tremendously majestic in person and appearance, who speaks with a stentorian voice, and who has a marvelous delivery and presence. I know exactly what they mean, "the greatest preacher since Paul." Well, what kind of a preacher was Paul? He describes, in 2 Corinthians the tenth chapter and the tenth verse, what the people said about him when they saw him and when they heard him, he quotes them, and he says, "They say, his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible!" That’s what they said about him when they looked at him and when they heard him: "His bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible." Then how is it that this man had such an incomparable ministry in Asia, in Ephesus? That’s when the seven churches of Asia were founded: out of the ministry of the apostle Paul in Ephesus; in Philippi, when he brought the word to Europe; to Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia; to Athens; to Corinth, the capital of Achaia; and finally to Rome. How is it God blessed this man so marvelously, unbelievably, incomparably? He tell us how he did it: "By the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one day and night with tears, from house to house, pleading repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" [Acts 20:31, 20-21] – the shepherdly seeking heart, with tears.
Oh, my sweet, dear friends, I do not gainsay theological argument, and I would be the last to say that the minister ought not to bolster up what he says with great reason and factual information; but I am saying that in my humble opinion, I think very few people are won by it.
I remember one time a young woman coming to me, she’d been saved and I had baptized her. And she said, "Oh, that my brother could be won to Christ. Would you come and speak to him?" We made a date, and at the appointed hour I knocked at the door of the home, and I met the young fellow. And I told him why I had come. He invited me in, and I sat down by his side in the living room; and I talked to the young fellow about Jesus. It was like talking to an image: no matter what I said there was no repercussion, no response in his heart at all. And I talked, and I asked God to help me in wisdom, and I said everything I knew to say, pleading with that young fellow for the Lord to no avail. That sister, his sister, had been listening, and she saw the impervious attitude of that boy. She came into the room. I was here, the lad was there; she drew up a chair on the other side, just a little away, and just sat down. She buried her face in her hands, like this, in silent prayer. And as I talked to the boy, that girl silently praying, began also silently to cry. And you could see the tears drop between her fingers as she’d bowed her face in prayer.
That young man looked at his sister, and those tears, and then at me; and back to his sister, and at me. It was no time at all until that lad’s heart was broken, and in contrition, and in confession, and in repentance, and then in faith he gave his heart and his life to Jesus. There is a ministry in emotion, there is a ministry in feeling, there is a ministry in tears that to me reflects the true human heart and human life. All of the great, moving, driving forces in our lives are felt: emotion; love for mother, or home, or wife, or child, or family, or cause, or Christ, or church, or God! It is something you feel! And you can’t help but feel it if it’s real, if it’s in your soul – the ministry of the shepherdly, interceding heart.
And last of all – and I must conclude, and will – the ministry of a deep, personal, loving affection. "And they all wept," Paul and those Ephesian elders, "and they fell on Paul’s neck," they hugged him, "and they kissed him, sorrowing because they should see his face no more" [Acts 20:37-38]. There is a love of the true brotherhood in Christ that is like that to God above. As David said of Jonathan, "It is a love that surpasses that of woman" [2 Samuel 1:26] – the fellowship of God’s people.
I do not hide the confession; I feel that across every denominational line. I feel that with my brethren who love Jesus in truth, though they do not belong to my denomination. I feel that across lines of race. In that pilgrimage of February a year ago in East Africa, I have never at times there been more exulted than with those black people, loving Jesus and singing the praises of the Lord. I felt it with them, rejoiced with them, praised God with them. There is a covenant of grace that including us all who love Jesus is sweet and precious and dear beyond description. The song can’t quite say it all, nor can the poet quite include it all; it’s something of heaven.
Some of you who have been at the communion service in our church know that at the end of it we stand up, join hands, and sing, "Blest Be the Tie that Binds." I since have found that that’s done in many places all over the earth; but where I first saw it and brought it back here to our church in Dallas was in Munich, Germany after the war. I was there in Munich soon after the war. Their church had been bombed out, blasted. And the little band of Baptist people in that broken and torn and ruined church were meeting in some kind of an improvised shelter. They were so wretched, they were so poor. When I went back, not long after that, they had built them an incompleted church house. It was finished enough to keep out the weather and the elements. Their pastor, the war was over now, their pastor was crippled, very much crippled; he’d been in the war and had been severely wounded and hurt in the war. And after the service of sermon and appeal, they had the Lord’s Supper. And then after the breaking of bread, they all stood up and joined hands, and I was in the midst joining hands with them; and they sang the whole song.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
If not in this life, then in the life that is to come – my brethren and sisters in Munich, in East Africa, in Hong Kong, around the world, there is an affection, there is a tie, there is a covenant of grace and love that binds us together and to our Lord forever and forever. It’s the sweet preciousness of the Spirit of Jesus that makes us one in God.
And our Lord, grant to us that same holy, heavenly affection for one another and for Thee that so deeply moved the apostle Paul, in the preciousness, and nearness, and dearness, and sweetness of Thy name, amen.