COUNTED WORTHY TO SUFFER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-19-77 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Counted Worthy to Suffer. It is a message concerning the problem of human suffering. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in the fifth chapter [Acts 5] and the reading of the text is in the last verses:
And when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and then let them go. And they departed from the presence of the council—
you have it translated the Sanhedrin, the highest court—
And they departed from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.
And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus the Christ
Suffering can be outward, in the flesh. It can be inward, in the heart and in the soul. There are five kinds and five sources of suffering. One: the oppression of Satan; all of the agony that came upon Job, the best man in all of the world, came from the hand, cruel and merciless, of Satan [Job 1:1-3:26]. In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the Lord heals a woman who He says was bowed down eighteen years by the oppression of Satan [Luke 13:11-16]. In the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul refers to his thorn in the flesh: “a messenger from Satan to buffet me” [2 Corinthians 12:7].
Again, our suffering can be caused by our own human sin and dereliction. If a man has venereal disease, he brought it on himself. If a man dies of cirrhosis of the liver, most of the times he is a victim of drunkenness, alcoholism. There are times in our lives when we are the victim, and in great suffering of our own iniquity; the terrors that come in withdrawal symptoms for those who have given themselves to drugs. So many people now are afflicted with emphysema, a repercussion of constant cigarette smoking. These sufferings we bring upon ourselves.
A third source of our suffering lies in our common human nature. We are born the children of old man Adam; therefore we are introduced into a world of sickness and death. An innocent child, just come into the world, I have seen die with terrible convulsions. And if we live long enough, we shall grow old and finally die. We are heirs to all of the misfortunes that flesh has inherited from our forefathers.
There is a suffering also from the devoted self-sacrifice of those who give themselves for a great cause, the soldier who lays down his life for his country or who comes back from the war his eyes gone or both of his legs gone, crippled for life. Or someone who lays down his life for his family or for his friend; a mother who goes into the valley of shadow of death to bring forth a child into the world.
A fifth and a last kind of suffering lies in the spiritual devotion of those who follow the Lord unto death. And this is the suffering that is described in our text, “and when they had called them, and beaten them, and commanded them that they should speak no more in His name, they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for the blessed Jesus” [Acts 5:40-41]. And out of all of the suffering known to the human soul, there is none comparable to the nobility and grandeur of this suffering in the name of the Lord.
We are going to look at this text closely; because, as we read it summarily, casually, the import of it is largely lost upon us. It says here, “and they called the apostles and beat them” [Acts 5:40]. The Greek word is derō, and it literally means “skinning”; like you would skin an animal; like you would skin a cat, or like you would skin a cow. It literally means “to skin”; and thus it came to mean “to flay, to scourge, to beat.” And it is an apt description of the terror of that flagellation. What it refers to is a thong, and up and down the leather thong, there are sharp hooks or jagged pieces of metal and the victim is laid bare and a man in all of the strength of his arm brings down that—and they call it a “scorpion”—on the naked flesh of the one who is being beat. And I have read that many times, the first blow will lay open the flesh to the bone. Paul said, “Five times was I beaten like that” [2 Corinthians 11:24]. That is the flagellation that our Lord received before He was crucified [Matthew 27:26]. And I have read again many times that the one who was to be crucified died before he was nailed to the tree because of the awesomeness of that scourging.
So these disciples were beat [Acts 5:40]. If I could translate that word derō literally, “they were skinned alive, and they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin.” Some of them wiping the blood from their bodies; some of them barely able to walk; some of them halting, crippled; all of them mutilated. And just a few days after this, one of them stoned to death [Acts 7:58-60], the first Christian martyr. And a little after that, one of them beheaded, James, the brother of the sainted John [Acts 12:2], and thereafter the story of imprisonment, and suffering, and persecution.
When I read this portrayal, I think of the first worldwide Christian council, the Nicene Council of 325 AD. Those pastors and bishops who gathered there in Nicaea, in Asia Minor, had just gone through the last and terrible Diocletian persecution. And I have read an historian’s description of the pastors, the bishops who gathered for that Nicene Council. Some of them had their tongues cut out, some of them had their eyes gouged out, some of them had their ears cut off, some of them had their hands cut off, some of them their fingers cut off—mutilated, persecuted—these pastors of the church of the living God gathered in that first worldwide Roman Council. But the most astonishing thing of the text is this: “As they left the presence of the council, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” [Acts 5:41]. Why, these men, they must have lost their minds! They have. As Paul says, “We are fools for Christ’s sake” [1 Corinthians 4:10]. This man wipes the blood from his beaten body and looks at it and says, “Bless God”; and this man, looking at the stripes, says, “Praise God”; and this one, so hurt that he halts, blesses the name of God. “Counted worthy to suffer shame”—antimayo tima, “to be honored, to be of great price”; atima, “to be dishonored”; antimayo,”to be looked upon as refuse,” like an enemy to society, like an animal, like a dog. “Rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame,” and dishonor and disgrace, “for the name of Jesus the Christ” [Acts 5:41]. When I read these things I am so humbled. Who are we to name the name of our Lord, following in the train of these holy disciples who suffered for His cause, and His kingdom, and His gospel?
Now that brings to my heart the deep, profound, theological meaning of “suffering.” First, we speak of it in the life of the apostle Paul. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts, the Lord said, “he is a chosen vessel unto Me . . . For I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:15, 16]. So the apostle writes in the first chapter of his letter to the church at Colossae, verses 23 and 24, “I Paul . . . Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you” [Colossians 1:23, 24]. Usually, the word n-u-n—nun is an expletive. It is a little transitional word like de–d-e—just a word put there to further the thing along until the next thought. But not here; the word nun is first in the sentence. It is emphatic, “I Paul . . . who now rejoice in my sufferings for you” [Colossians 1:23, 24]. Evidently, he is like every other minister of the gospel; there are times when he just dies in his soul, when he repines that he was ever called into the service of Christ. And evidently, in the life of the apostle, undergoing and enduring such awesome sufferings, he somehow wondered at the purpose and plan of God in his life. But writing here to the church at Colossae, however the past may have been, full of repining at the awesome assignment God has given me, he says, “I Paul . . . now rejoice in my sufferings for you” then he writes one of the most amazing, theologically-filled sentences in the Bible,: “And I fill up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh for His body’s sake, which is the church” [Colossians 1:24]. How is it that the apostle says that “in my sufferings I fill up what is lacking”—that’s the Greek word literally—lacking in the sufferings of Christ for His church? How could such a thing be? What is the thought of that? There is something lacking, he says, in the afflictions and the sufferings of the Lord. What could that be? Is the atonement not complete? Are Gethsemane and Calvary failures? Is there yet just a partial payment of the debt of our sins that we owe to God? He says, “what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, I rejoice in filling up in my own sufferings for the church” [Colossians 1:24]. No, there is no thought in it as though the atonement were not complete. When the Lord cried, “It is finished” [John 19:30], He made full expiation of our sins. The apostle is referring to this: that in the gospel message, in its declaration, in its heralding, in its preaching, there is yet other sufferings to be laid in dedication at the feet of Almighty God. The Lord did not exhaust these sufferings to be experienced by His church. The Lord paid the penalty for our sins on the tree [1 Peter 2:24], and the Lord fully expiated all of our sins—yesterday, today, and for ever [1 John 2:2]. But there must also be the filling up of the purposes of Christ in the earth. His servants must carry through that message of atonement. And Paul suffered for the church at Ephesus. He suffered for the congregation at Corinth. He suffered for the saints at Rome, and at the cost of his life, preached the gospel of the grace of the Son of God [Acts 23:11, Romans 1:15]. And so are we thus called to fill up that which remains in the sufferings of Christ for His people [Colossians 1:24].
There is another tremendous theological import to be found in sufferings, and that is illustrated also in the life of our Lord as He was raised and glorified in heaven. There is no dramatic scene in human literature that rivals the tremendous panorama of what the sainted apostle John saw in heaven in the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse [Revelation 5:11-14]. There is nothing in Aeschylus; there is nothing in Euripides; there is nothing in O’Neill; there is nothing in Shakespeare; there is nothing in Johnston; there is nothing in literature to rival the magnificent imagery scene of the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse. The great apostle John sees the Lord on His throne and in His right hand is a book sealed with seven seals [Revelation 5:1]. And a search is made in heaven, in earth, and in the nether world for one who is worthy to take the book from the hand of Almighty God and to break the seals, to loose the seals, and to look thereon [Revelation 5:2-3]. And John says, “I wept much” [Revelation 5:4], for there was none in heaven—saint, angel, seraphim, cherubim, archangel—none in heaven, and none in earth, none who has ever lived, and none of these who have lived before us and who are in the nether world, no one was able, was worthy to loose the seals and to look upon that book. Then an elder came and laid his hand upon the apostle and said, “Weep not,” dry your tears; lift up your heart! “Weep not: for the Lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed to loose the seals, to open the book, and to read thereon [Revelation 5:5]. And I turned to look,” at what did he see? A Lion of the tribe of Judah? No! He turned to look and what he saw was “a Lamb [Revelation 5:6], as it hath been slain, and He went to the throne and took the book, from the hands of Him that held it [Revelation 5:7], and loosed the seals and read thereon [Revelation 5:3-5]. A Lamb as it had been slain,” and that gave occasion to the glorious song of heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to open the book and to read thereon.” [Revelation 5:6-12]
What is that book? And what is the tremendous spiritual theological meaning that lies back of that incomparable scene in glory? Why, the meaning is this: there is none who can interpret for us the mind and purpose of God except that One who was slain on the tree [1 Peter 2:24]. Nor is there any other interpretation of the suffering and sorrow of this life except through Him who suffered and died. It is a Lamb that has been slain, that interprets for us the meaning and the mind of God in human suffering. That book that He holds in His hand, the seals of which seven He breaks [Revelation 6:1-17, 8:1], that book is the book of the Old Testament. It is the book of the Scriptures. There is no understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures apart from the suffering and the sacrifice of the Son of God. The twenty-second Psalm has no meaning [Psalm 22:1, Mark 15:34]; the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah has no meaning; and all of the types and sacrifices of the Old Covenant have no meaning except as they are interpreted by the suffering, the cross of the Son of God [Matthew 27:26-50]. That book that He holds in His hand, the seal which is broken, and He reads thereon is the book of nature. How do you explain the ferocity of this world? How do you have any answer for the savagery of the storm, the awful havoc that we find in the unbridled forces of the impersonal nature? The ancient Greek poet and Roman philosopher looked at the savagery of nature, and crying, and cringing before it could not but wonder without explanation at the mystery of sorrow, and suffering, and death. But in Christ we have our answer, our interpretation. Out of suffering comes our salvation; and out of that death comes our life; and out of the sorrows and tears of this world comes the sweetness, and the glories, and the blessings of heaven [Isaiah 53:4-6]. What would heaven be to someone who had never cried? What would heaven be to someone who had never sorrowed? What would heaven mean to someone who had never laid in the heart of the earth one who had died? For it is a place where there are no more tears, and no more sorrow, no more pain, no more suffering, and no more death [Revelation 21:1-4]. The interpretation lies in Him who suffered and died [1 Corinthians 15:3].
That book that He holds in His hands is the book of history. In the sixth chapter of the Revelation is a panorama of human history; these conquerors who come riding on white horses, followed by the red horse of war and blood, followed by the black horse of famine and hunger, and followed by the last fourth pale horse of death [Revelation 6:2-8]. And it seems to ride for ever. We read every newspaper with fear and foreboding what the tomorrow may bring. But in the nineteenth chapter of the Revelation, He comes, He intervenes whose garments are “washed in blood: and His name is called The Word of God” [Revelation 19:11-13]. And all history is in His hands, and He brings it to a marvelous and indescribable consummation [Revelation 19:14-20:15].
Last of all, that book that He holds in His hands [Revelation 5:1], which is opened by the suffering Christ [Revelation 5:5-7]; is the book of our lives. It is the meaning of our ministries before God. And they are offered unto the Lord out of suffering, and out of tears, and out of agony, and out of our dying. Look, our prayers—our real prayers, not these little ditto things that we say just speaking words; but our real prayers always arise out of the agony of the human spirit. Look at Paul in the second chapter of the letter that he writes to Colossae, “I would that you knew with what great,” and the King James Version has, “conflict I have for you” [Colossians 2:1]. The Greek word is agona, “I would that you knew what great agony I have for you.” That is praying, there is no other kind. The Book of Hebrews says of our Lord that in the days of His flesh, “He offered unto God supplications and prayers with strong crying and tears” [Hebrews 5:7]. Reading in the Life of David Brainerd—he died in the home of Jonathan Edwards, died in his twenties; no young man of Christ ever made a greater impression upon the world than David Brainerd—this passage that I read out of his journal is still hot with the tears of his supplications and prayers. Listen to him:
I think my soul was never so drawn out in intercession for others as it has been this night. I hardly ever so long to live to God and to be altogether devoted to Him. I wanted to wear out my life for God. I wrestled for the ingathering of souls, for multitudes of poor souls in many places. I was in such an agony from sun half an hour high to near dark that I was wet all over with sweat. But, oh! My dear God Lord did sweat blood for such poor souls. I long for more compassion.
Can you imagine that? Why, I hardly know what he is talking about. Did I ever all day long wrestle in an agony for souls that they might be saved? But that is prayer. Out of the agony of soul, out of the sorrows of life, come our real intercessions and supplications before God. And may I say also the same thing obtains with our ministries and our work that we offer unto God. It is said of our Lord that, “though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered” [Hebrews 5:8]. Luke says, “He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” [Luke 9:51]; that is, to die on the cross [Luke 23:26-46]. The apostles said to Him, “Lord, they lately sought to stone Thee there, and returnest Thou thither?” [John 11:8]. This is the ministry of the faith. It arises out of sacrifice and suffering.
In the Book of Acts, it is said in the fourteenth chapter that they stoned Paul and dragged him out of Lystra for dead [Acts 14:19]. And the next verse says, “And he arose, and went back into the city” [Acts 14:20]. And the next verse says again, “And he returned to Lystra” [Acts 14:21]—returning to the stones; back to the stones. In the sixteenth chapter of the First Corinthian letter, Paul writes, “For a great door and effectual is opened to me”—in Ephesus—“and there are many adversaries” [1 Corinthians 16:9]. It is our work like that; the power in it always is the blood and the tears and the sacrifice that we pour into it. And if there is no blood, and no tears, and no sacrifice, there is no power of God in our ministries before the Lord.
Just once again let me read out of the life of a wonderful missionary. His name was James Chalmers, sent from London to be a missionary to the cannibals that live in New Guinea, that great island north of Australia. After long years of hardship and difficulty, he returned to make a report to the London Missionary Society, and I read from his report:
Recall the twenty-one years, give me back all its experience. Give me its shipwrecks. Give me its standings in the face of death. Give me surrounded with savages with spears and clubs. Give me back again with spears flying about me, with a club knocking me to the ground. Give it to me back, and I will still be your missionary.
And he returned to New Guinea. And that time he lost his life. The cannibals slew him, killed him.
Did you know that in this last World War, I talked to young American airmen who were shot down over the South Pacific, washed ashore on islands that they dreaded to see, but no cannibals there; no heathen and pagan there. I have talked to American airmen who were won to Christ by those natives in those South Pacific islands, such as New Guinea. The airmen washed ashore, listening to singing—creeping for fear through those dense jungles, listening to singing. What singing? “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound”; “What a Friend we have in Jesus”; “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” That is filling up the sufferings of Christ! [Colossians 1:24]. That is our part in the heralding of the gospel of the grace of the kingdom of God.
The Son of God goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar:
Who follows in His train? . . .
A noble army, men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Before the Saviour’s throne rejoice
In robes of life arrayed:
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train.
[“The Son of God Goes Forth to War”, Reginald Heber]
Counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ [Acts 5:41]: Lord, Lord, if ever anybody in this earth was unworthy even to speak such a text and to preach about it, it is I. God bless us as into these ministries before the Lord and into our intercessions for the lost; we might pour our lives, our tears, our blood, our concern, our very lives. Our time is much spent.
On the first note of the first stanza, if God hath spoken to you, would you come and stand by me? A family you to give your heart to Jesus [Romans 10:8-13], a family you to come into the fellowship of the church [Hebrews 10:24-25], a couple you, “This day, I decide for Christ. The Lord has spoken to my heart and I am answering today and here I am, pastor, here I come.” Make that decision now in your heart, and on the first note of the first stanza, come. Walk down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, “Here I am, pastor. I’m on the way.” Do it now, make it now, come now. May angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.