Tribulation and Triumph
March 19th, 1978 @ 10:50 AM
TRIBULATION AND TRIUMPH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-19-78 10:50 a.m.
As always, dear wonderful choir and orchestra, you bless our hearts and lift our souls heavenward. It is a sweet privilege for us in this First Baptist Church in Dallas to welcome a multitude who every Lord’s Day share this hour on television and on radio. There are many of you who will you able to be with us each day at high noon this week. Our pre-Easter services, this will be almost toward seventy years that our church has conducted those services. And as you can see from your Sunday Reminder, the theme this year will be “The Signs Of God”: tomorrow at high noon, The Signs Of The Times; on Tuesday, The Sign Of The Virgin Birth; on Wednesday, The Sign Of The Prophet Jonah; on Thursday, The Signs Of Our Lord’s Second Coming; and on Friday, the day He was crucified, The Sign Of The Cross. As announcement has been made, there will be a lunch here at the church served before and after, which gives you a wonderful opportunity, a gracious open door, to bring a friend or a family with you, and make it a high spiritual moment in our lives.
In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter fourteen [Acts 14]. And in the midst of the fourteenth chapter of Acts, there is a text that appeals to me in its infinite truth, and I pray God will help me to expound this sacred hour. The text is “… that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22].
The context would begin at verse 19, when Paul has preached at Lystra. They stoned him and dragged him out of the city, supposing he had been dead [Acts 14:19]; and they dumped him in some kind of a ditch. But as the disciples stood round about him, mourning him, he rose up and returned into the city [Acts 14:20]. And as he preached to them, exhorting them to continue in the faith, he said—my text, “that we must with much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:21-22].
The Greek word there is thlipsis, “tribulation,” “affliction.” The translation in English comes through the Latin Vulgate. Tribulation: tribulum was the Latin word for the flail that a farmer used when he beat out his wheat, thrashed his wheat, a tribulum. And from that beating of the wheat came our English word “tribulation”: “through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22].
There is a sorrow of the world. There is a common tribulation and heartache and oppression, disappointment, frustration that is known to all mankind. It is something we all have in common, all of us. There are tears of childhood; they are just as real as the tears of manhood. There are tears of teenagers; disappointments and frustrations that young people know. There are many struggles that manhood and womanhood endure; and of course, there is the inevitable and inexorable approach of old age and finally, death. All mankind are one in that tribulum. Job said, “a man’s days are few, and full of trouble” [Job 14:1].
It is an unusual thing how the Lord closes His Sermon on the Mount. He speaks of a man who builds his house on the rock, and the rains descend, and the floods rise, and the winds blow and beat on that house. Then, He says, there is a man who builds his house on the sand, and the rains descend, and the floods rise, and the winds blow, and beat on that house [Matthew 7:24-29]. A very logical question would arise: why do both men build their houses in a riverbed, where the floods rise and beat against the house? The answer is most obvious; there is no other place to build your house but in the path of the storm and of the flood of sorrow, and disappointment, and heartache, and age, and death.
There is a sorrow that is common, a tribulation that is shared by all mankind. There is also a sorrow and a tribulation that is known to the worldly [2 Corinthians 7:10], to the sinner, to the unrighteous, to these who have every hope and every dream centered in this life and in this world. They also know a terrible and tragic sorrow.
A typical example of that kind of a worldly sorrow would be a doll, a glamour girl in Hollywood. Her whole life centers around her youth and her beauty. And every dream she has, and every prospect for every golden tomorrow, lies in her being a sex symbol, or a movie star, or some glamorous creature that is coveted by those who exploit the movie world. Then one day she looks in the mirror and she begins to find evidences of the fading beauty, and the loss of her youth. And having no alternative, how many times do you read, that she commits suicide? A sorrow of the world.
Another example of it would be one that is poignant, at least to me. The great, noble president of the United States whom I admired so much, visited a few times, falls into cloud and darkness, and finally, resignation. That is what the proverb says, “the way of the transgressors is hard” [Proverbs 13:15]. There is a sorrow of the world that is undeniable, always present. They are linked together: sin, and unrighteousness, and judgment, and death.
But there is also a tribulation that is peculiar and unique to the child of God; just the opposite of what you might think. We can easily see and understand how God links unrighteousness and iniquity with judgment and trouble and tribulation, but how is it that the child of God also falls into that like category of trouble, and trial, and sorrow, and affliction, and tribulation? Yet the Bible plainly presents it. It is not just in this text, “that through much tribulation we enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22], this is a teaching of the Holy Scriptures all the way through.
For example, in the first letter that Paul wrote, addressed to the church at Thessalonica, he says, “We are sending Timothy, our brother, minister of God, our fellow laborer in the gospel [of Christ], to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith: That no man should be moved by his afflictions: for ourselves know that we were appointed thereunto” [1 Thessalonians 3:2,3]. What an unbelievable avowal, that we are appointed unto afflictions. “For verily, truly, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation: even as it came to pass, and as you know” [1 Thessalonians 3:4]—as you experienced. These are God’s people. These are fellow Christians in the church at Antioch; in the church at Thessalonica. So he sends Timothy “to comfort them, that they should not be moved by their afflictions whereunto they are appointed. For we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; as it is come to pass, and as you know” [1 Thessalonians 3:2-4].
Now that’s the first letter that Paul wrote. Now look at him in the last letter; this is 2 Timothy, the last letter that he wrote: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” [2 Timothy 3:12]. Why, you would think we who are Christians, who have found refuge in Christ, that would be the first thing God would do for us; we would have no trouble, and no sorrow, and no tears, no trials, no tribulations, no afflictions, no suffering. That would just be what you would think. We are Christians now, and we have given our lives to God. Therefore, we are delivered from these trials and troubles.
It’s just the opposite, which is a startling and an amazing revelation in the Word of God, and in our own experience. Because I am a Christian by nowise means that I do not weep in trial, and that I do not feel the afflictions and oppressions of the world; that I do not fall into sorrow and frustration and disappointment.
Mrs. Criswell and I were visiting in the home of a godly deacon and his wife. They had one child. She was a girl, then, of about sixteen years of age. While we were there, she went through the living room, all dressed up. There was a car of young people out in front, and she had a date. And so, trippingly, and lightsomely, and gladly, and laughingly, and happily, she went out the room, and out the door, and into the car, and away with the young people, on that date.
We stayed late that night. And sometime late in the evening, that same girl came by. She walked through the living room, looking neither to the right nor the left, not speaking, and went down the hallway and opened the door into her bedroom. I was seated on that side of the living room; and in a moment, I could hear her sobs, her cries, her tears. Evidently the mother, possibly everybody heard it, as I did.
So the mother stood up and excused herself for a moment and went down the hall and opened the door of the bedroom into which this sixteen year old girl had entered. And after a while she came back; and, seated with us in the living room, apparently feeling compelled to explain what had happened, she said this: “My sweet girl tells me that in the car, and out with those young people, they hit upon some kind of promiscuity. And because she would not enter into it, they shoved her out of the car and made her walk home; and that’s why she is crying in the bedroom.” That is Christian, and that is Christianity.
There is not a businessman but will know what it is to pay a price for integrity and honesty. And there is not a Christian who grows up in the earth but that knows what it is to face trial and compromise. Is that not my text: “in the world, you will suffer tribulation”? [Acts 14:22; John 16:33].
Now the difference lies in how we meet it. How does the worldly? How does the sinner? How does the one who does not believe in God? How does the one who rejects Christ? How does he face trial and trouble and inevitable tribulation? He does it in despair. He has no other alternative. There is no other choice. He does it in absolute darkness and frustration in giving up. There is nothing that remains. Disraeli, who fashioned the British Empire under Queen Victoria, said, “Youth is a mistake. Manhood is a struggle. Old age is a regret.”
The fashion of modern philosophy is existentialism. You know what existentialism is? It is the philosophy, and it is a modern philosophy of this modern world—all that we know is our bare existence, the consciousness of our existence. So the word “existentialism.” That’s all. We don’t know where we came from. We don’t know where we are going to. There is no purpose. There is no meaning. There is no tomorrow in life. It is a philosophy of indescribable and infinite despair. And that is the philosophy of this modern world.
Tolstoy, the incomparable Russian novelist and philosopher, in his My Confessions and My Religion, he summarized four attitudes men take toward life’s problems. He classifies all men into these four categories. Number one, there are those, he says, who view life as all bad, and get drunk to forget it. Number two, there are those who view life as all bad, and struggle against it. Number three, there are those who view life as all bad, and by suicide remove themselves from it. And four, and this is the one which Tolstoy includes himself, he says there are those of us who view life as all bad, but we live on, irrationally accepting it as it comes. Now that is your finest mind and the finest definition of the purpose and meaning of life. Its either to get drunk and forget it; its either to struggle against it hopelessly; its either to commit suicide and get out of it; or it is to accept it irrationally as it is, as it comes—no meaning, no purpose; just enduring it until the grave swallows you up.
According to the Word of God, there is also a fifth alternative that Tolstoy does not name, namely this: there could be a divine reason and a divine purpose in life. There could be in life God, who has infinite reason and infinite plan, infinite sovereign grace for us who have found refuge in Him. It could be, it might be, it may be, could be, that there is yet another: namely, God.
Alfred, Lloyd Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle were looking at two busts. One was of the German poet Goethe, and the other was the Italian poet Dante. And Tennyson said to Carlyle, “What is it in the face of Dante that one misses in the face of Goethe?” And immediately Carlyle responded, “God.” It is God that makes the difference as we face life in all of its vicissitudes and fortunes and trials and troubles and tribulations.
So God, in the revealed Word and in this blessed Book that I hold in my hand, God says that in our trial and in our trouble, we glorify Him. In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Lord said to Simon Peter he should die by crucifixion, by the stretched-out hands [John 21:18]. Then the next verse avows, “This spake the Lord, signifying by what suffering, by what death, by what crucifixion Simon Peter should glorify God” [John 21:19]. The glory of God is found in the fire, and the flame, and the trial of His people; singing songs in the night, praising God in the midst of indescribable sorrow and heartache. There is a reason, maybe, in the trials and the troubles and the sorrows that we know in life; maybe God is teaching us, and training us, and maturing us, and preparing us for a glory that is yet to come.
In the fifth chapter of the Book of Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “We glory in tribulations” [Romans 5:3]. Could you imagine a worldly saying that? “We glory in tribulations”—in trials, in troubles—“knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope” [Romans 5:3-4]. And hope lifts up our souls, and our hearts, and our faces, and our minds, and our prayers heavenward, and upward, and God-ward. Tribulation does that. Trial does that. It lifts a man’s soul upward to God.
In the days of the deep, and dark, and desperate Depression in which I began my ministry as a pastor—in those days when men committed suicide, having lost all that they possessed, there was a rich merchant who went into bankruptcy, lost everything that he had in the world. And he was bemoaning and lamenting, “I have lost everything. Everything is gone. I have lost everything.” His pastor came to visit him, and to comfort him, and to console him. And the rich merchant who had descended now from affluence to poverty, and from riches to rags; the rich merchant, now so poor, lamented to the pastor, “I have lost everything. Everything is gone. I have lost everything.”
And the pastor said, “Oh, how sad, how sad, how tragic, how sorrowful. You have lost everything. You have lost your good name, and you have lost your reputation.”
“Oh no,” said the man. “No, pastor, no. My name is unsullied, and my reputation is above reproach. I have not lost my name or my reputation.”
“Oh,” said the pastor, “now I understand. Now I understand, you have lost everything. Your wife has turned her back upon you and she treats you with disdain and contempt.”
“No, no,” said the man. “My wife is an angel standing by my side; a true trooper and warrior with me. No, my wife is so faithful. No, pastor, not my wife.”
And the pastor said, “I understand. I understand now. You have lost everything—your children. You have lost your children. Your children have turned their backs on you, and they treat you in sordid disgust.”
“Oh no,” said that man, “not my children. Pastor, I never really did know my children until the disaster and misfortune and sorrow had come. They are standing by my side. They put their arms around me and say ‘Dad, we are for you, and we will be marching with you. And we understand.’ I never knew my children until this disaster came. I have not lost my children.”
“Oh,” said the pastor, “I see now. I understand. You have lost everything. God has turned His back on you. And you have lost Jesus, and you have lost your faith, and you have lost your salvation, and you face nothing but damnation and hell. I understand now, says the pastor, you have lost God and you have lost Jesus.”
“No,” said the man to his pastor, “I have not lost God. I have been praying to Jesus, and He has never been so dear and so precious to me. My faith is all that I have. I have not lost God, and I have not lost heaven.
Then the pastor said, “You have lost everything? What have you lost?”
And the man confessed, “Pastor, I have just lost some money. I have just lost some money.”
The Book of Hebrews says God shakes heaven and earth; that that which cannot be shaken may remain [Hebrews 12:26-27]. It may be that the sorrows, and the trials, and the frustrations, and the losses that you experience in life may be that you might come into the true riches. To know what God calls eternal values, the gold that does not perish, that moth and rust cannot corrupt [Matthew 6:20-21]. There is a godly purpose in every trial and every trouble that the Christian endures. There is a reason in it. God is framing you and preparing you for the upward life and the upward look, one of faith and one of glory.
May I speak of one other? God says, the Lord says, this is the last verse, the thirty-third verse of the sixteenth chapter of the Book of John; He says, “In the world ye shall have tribulation”—and that means me, that means us—“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” [John 16:33]. In the twelfth chapter of the Book Luke, the Lord says to His disciples, “Fear not . . . it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. We shall inherit it. God has purposed it in sovereign, elective grace for us. We shall possess it. Now, I just pray that God could make this as meaningful to you as it is to me.
Above the mantel in our home, in the parsonage of this dear First Baptist Church, above the mantel in our home is a beautiful oil painting of blind John Milton. He is seated there in an armed, high-backed chair, with the light from the window flooding over him. He is dressed in a black velvet suit, with the hose coming up to the knees and a large white Puritan collar around his neck. To the side is a table. Beyond sits one of his daughters, sewing. At the corner stands a second girl, looking at her father. And at the end of the table is the third, with a quill in her hand, writing down the dictated words of her father.
He has lost his eyesight. And that against the admonition—of the physicians. He has lost his eyesight contending for the cause of religious liberty—for the Puritan commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. And now, everything is lost. Oliver Cromwell is dead; Roger Williams, who taught him the Dutch language, is in exile; his fellow Baptist, John Bunyan is in prison in Bedford; every institution that he despised is now restored. He fought against the tyranny of kings, and now the king has been restored. He fought against the empty shallowness of an authoritarian state church, and now the church is more authorized, established than ever before.
All of his peers have been executed; and why he was not sent to the scaffold in the four years that he was a refugee, nobody can understand. All England has failed. It has fallen into sordid distress. But he has not failed. John Milton sits there in his blindness, in the company of the Hebrew prophets, and the Hebrew psalmists, and in the presence of the Lord and His apostles, and in the presence and company of the great poets and philosophers of all of the ages.
And in his blindness, he sits there dictating. What is he dictating? Could it be the “Sonnet on His Blindness,” that closes with this last verse: “They also serve who only stand and wait”? Could it be the opening lines of the greatest epic in human literature, Paradise Lost?
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heav’nly Muse . . .
. . . what in me is dark
Illumine; what is low, raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify God’s ways to men.
[Paradise Lost, John Milton]
Is that what he is saying? And then follows after Paradise Lost—and then the equally great epic, Paradise Regained; and then Samson Agonistes, out of his own blindness.
Who is that monarch that supplanted him? Who is the king that placed John Bunyan in prison? Who is the regency that placed on the scaffold his peers? Who is it that has been restored to kingship in England? It is Charles II, the scum of the earth—hired governmental employees to scour all England to bring him an endless succession of mistresses; never had a legitimate child in his life, but flocks of illegitimates; and he brought England down to its sordid promiscuity, to filth and dirt!
And the blind poet sits there with every cause that he loved dashed to the ground—blind, outcast, living in disgrace and repudiation. But he writes—he is a great Protestant, Baptist individualist and idealist—he writes. He dictates. He writes about the authority of an infallible Bible, the inspired Word of God [2 Timothy 3:16]. He writes treatises on scriptural baptism and on the sacredness of the Lord’s Day. He writes doctrinal studies about the deity of Christ and about the Holy Spirit. And facing the sunset of life, in obscurity, and in repudiation, he sits there dictating in his blindness.
You be the judge. How many men do you know—how many times have you ever read in any history where men have searched through the pages of the story of our people seeking what Charles II said or didn’t say? How many people have you ever heard of that sought to emulate the life of the contemptuous and degraded Charles II? How many? But contrariwise, how many of us have looked in faith, and in encouragement, and in blessing to the life, and the example, and the epic poetry of that blind Puritan who wrote of God, and believed in the faith and in the ultimate and final triumph of the sovereign grace of the Almighty? “Raise me,” he says,
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence.
[Paradise Lost, Book 1, John Milton]
God lives and God reigns, and the sovereign destiny of the world is in His Almighty hands. And for the moment, it may appear that atheism, and communism, and secularism, and materialism, iniquity, sin overflood the whole world. It looked that way in the days of John Milton. And in his blindness that Puritan poet and fellow Baptist saw the glory of God and gave himself to the faith. And we today reap the rich inheritance and reward of his great godly mind and his incomparable spiritual commitment.
All of which is to say, my, brethren, we will not lose. “Do not be afraid, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. It shall be ours. God hath purposed and He cannot fail, and He cannot lie, and He is never discouraged. It is unto a like faith and a like commitment that we invite you to pilgrimage with us. I am not an infidel; I believe in God. I am not an atheist; I believe in Christ. I am not a world-ist; I believe that, in all of the providences of life, God’s hand moves in grace, in pity, and in goodness. I am one of those who have found refuge and comfort in the presence and goodness of the blessed Jesus. In every sorrow I should seek His face. Through every tear I shall find strength in prayer. And I am giving myself for that upper and better purpose that God hath promised to those who place their faith and their trust Him [Hebrews 11:40].
And with those who walk down that pilgrim way I want to be numbered. Lord write my name in the Book of Life [Luke 10:20; Revelation 20:15, 21:27]. In the hour of my need, stand by me. And someday Lord, welcome me into the glory of the glory Thou hast prepared for those who love Thee [1 Corinthians 2:9]. If that is your heart, would you come and stand by me?
“Today I take Jesus as my Lord and Savior” [Romans 10:8-13]. Or, “This very hour I place my life in the company of God’s people [Hebrews 10:24-25]. We all are coming; my wife and my children. We are all coming.” Or just a couple or just that one somebody you, in the balcony round, on the lower floor, down a stairway, down an aisle, “Here I come, pastor, and here I am. I give you my hand. I have given my heart in faith to the Lord God in heaven” [Ephesians 2:8]. May angels attend you as you come on the first note of the first stanza, while we stand and while we sing.
– Latin word for the instrument used to flail the wheat
B. A tribulation common
to all men(Job 14:1, Matthew 7:24-27)
C. A tribulation common
to worldly living, the sinner, the unrighteous
glamour girl sees her fading beauty, commits suicide
tribulation unique to the child of God(1
Thessalonians 3:2-4, 2 Timothy 3:12, Revelation 1:9)
II. The lost man meeting it in despair
C. Tolstoy’s four
D. A fifth alternative
from the Word of God
III. The saved man meeting it in hope and
A. Glorifying God through
it(John 21:18-19, Job 1:21, 13:15)
the true value of life(Romans 5:3-4, Hebrews
Merchant who “lost everything”
in tragedy(John 16:33, Luke 12:32)