Triumph and Tribulation
March 19th, 1978 @ 8:15 AM
TRIUMPH AND TRIBULATION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-19-78 8:15 a.m.
And once again welcome the multitude of you who are listening to this service on the radio of the city of Dallas and on the radio of our Bible Institute, KCBI. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Triumph and Tribulation. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 14. In verse 22 is a text that I cannot overlook. The message this morning is built upon that text, Acts 14:22. The context begins at verse 19: “And having stoned Paul at Lystra, they dragged Him out of the city, supposing he had been dead” [Acts 14:19], and they dumped him somewhere outside of the city limits. “But as his disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and returned into the city” [Acts 14:20]. And as he came again to Lystra, “confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith” [Acts 14:21-22], and this is the text, “And that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22].
“Through much tribulation,” the Greek word is thlipsis. Thlibō means “to press upon.” Thlipsis means “pressure” and so came to refer to affliction, or tribulation. Our word tribulation used here in the text comes from the Latin Vulgate. A tribulum was an instrument that a farmer used to flail the wheat when he beat the wheat. It was a tribulum, so our word through the Latin, “tribulation,” a flailing, an affliction, a pressure, “that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22].
There is a tribulation [Acts 14:22], a sorrow, a pressure that is common to all men, everywhere. As Job said, “Man that is born of woman is a few days, and full of trouble” [Job 14:1]. All who live in this life experience that common sorrow. There is a sorrow in childhood. The tears of children are as real as any tears we ever shed. The tears of young people, their broken-heartednesses and disappointments, are as genuine as any we know in adult life. There is sorrow of manhood and womanhood. All have experienced it. And there is a sadness of old age that sometimes is unbearable and indescribable. All through life there is a common heartache and a common disappointment. All of us have known it from childhood. All of us feel it.
It’s a remarkable thing that the Lord closes His Sermon on the Mount with a man who builds his house on a rock, and the rains descend, and the floods rise, and the winds blow; and they beat on that house. Then the second one, who builds his house on the sand; and the same rains fall, and the same floods rise, and the same winds blow and beat upon that house [Matthew 7:24-27]. Well, a natural question would be, “Why do both men build their houses in a riverbed, in the path of a storm and of a flood?” Why? The answer is very apparent: there’s no other place to build your house except in the path of the flood, of the storm, of the rain, and of the wind. You cannot escape to any other land; that’s the life in which we live. It is a life of sorrow and age and death.
Then there is a tribulation, there is a sorrow that is peculiarly known to the world, to the people who live in it, whose hearts are in it, whose souls are in it, whose goals are in it, whose every vision is encompassed by it. There is a “sorrow of the world,” as the Bible calls it [2 Corinthians 7:10]. A typical sorrow like that would be a Hollywood beauty queen. And her fame, and her acceptance, and her notoriety lie in her youth and in her beauty. Then, inevitably and inexorably, as the days multiply into the years she sees her beauty begin to wane and to fade. And since that is her life, the chances are you will read of her suicide; unable to face the darkening and coming fact of heavy lines and crow’s feet, and all the other things attendant to the passing of temporal youth and beauty. That’s a sorrow of the world.
Another typical sorrow of the world would be one that brought heartache to me personally, and I would think to millions of other Americans, was the fall of the president of the United States. There is a proverb, “The way of the transgressor is hard” [Proverbs 13:15]. There is a sorrow of the world; there is a sorrow of those who live in the world. There is a sorrow that accompanies sin, and unrighteousness, and transgression, that is inevitable and inexorable.
But there is also a sorrow and a tribulation that belongs to those who are facing toward God, who are entering the kingdom of our Lord. And that is one of the most unusual revelations in human life and in the Bible. That’s what our text says, that “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22]. And this is a text, a saying that is expounded upon in the Word of the Lord endless numbers of times.
Paul will write in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, he says:
I am sending to you Timothy our brother, a minister of God, a fellow laborer in the gospel, to establish you, to comfort you; that no man should be moved by his afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto.
[1 Thessalonians 3:2-3]
That’s hard to believe that we who have found refuge and comfort in Christ 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 ye yourselves know.
[1 Thessalonians 3: 4]
Now that’s unusual but not unique. In his last letter to his son in the ministry, he wrote, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” [2 Timothy 3:12]. There is a tribulation, a sorrow, a pressing upon that comes to those who love God because they love the Lord.
Because of the great number of young people here this morning, may I illustrate that in your life? We were visiting in the home of one of our deacons, and spent the evening. They had a girl sixteen-years old, and while we were there a car came up, she [bid] her father and mother goodnight, and she went on her date. After the passing of a few hours—we were there a long time in the evening, in the home—the girl came in. And without looking to the right or the left and without speaking, walked through the living room and down the hall to her bedroom and shut the door. And I could hear her crying, sobbing. And I’m sure all of the rest of the company could hear her crying in her bedroom. So the mother, after a while the mother stood up, excused herself, and I saw her go down to the hall and open the door into her daughter’s bedroom. And after a while the mother came back into the little group where we were seated. And she said, “I know that you have heard her cry, and I think I ought to explain. She was with a group of young people on this date, and they proposed some promiscuity, and she, being a Christian, refused to enter into it, so they summarily pushed her out of the car and left her on the road, and she has walked back home and into the bedroom. And you hear her crying.”
That arises out of a Christian commitment, out of a holiness for the love and name of Jesus. But what that girl experienced is not unique or unusual. There’s not a businessman, but that will face a like situation when pressure is brought to bear on him to compromise honesty and integrity. There is no Christian who lives, but who will face some kind of choice as between God and what is expedient and compromised. The Book says so. “Through much tribulation we enter into the kingdom of God” [Acts 14:22], and it is in my experience as I pastor and shepherd the flock.
Now how do we face this inevitability? It is not just we. It is common to all mankind. And it is inescapable. First of all, how does the world face it? They live out there in the same planet that we live on, and the same age, and the same sorrows, and the same illnesses, and the same frustrations that assail us assail them. And they have to answer. They have to face it too. How do they do it? This is the way the world faces it. They do it in hopelessness and in despair. There’s no other way. They have no other choice. There is no alternative for them.
In my reading for example, let us take some of the most brilliant of minds of all time, such as Jean Paul Richter, a great German philosopher and skeptic. Now you listen to him as he writes, “I have traversed the world. I have risen to the sun, I have pressed athwart the great waste places of the sky; I have descended to the place where the very shadow cast by being dies out and ends . . . We are orphans, you and I. Every soul in this vast corpse-trench of the universe is utterly alone” just the inevitable death and nonexistence.
I remember Pascal, the great scientist, saying, “The silence of the universe frightens me.” Disraeli, the architect of the great British Empire under Queen Victoria said, “Youth is a blunder. Manhood is a struggle. And old age is a regret.” If you are acquainted with modern philosophy, the acceptable rage of modern philosophy is existentialism. Its great exponent is an atheist and a vicious one by the name of Jean Paul Sartre. He’s a Frenchman. He lives there.
The thesis of modern philosophy called existentialism is this: the only thing you know is your own existence. That’s where it gets its name, “existentialism.” That’s all. And it has absolutely no purpose in it whatsoever; none at all, none. You don’t know where you came from. You don’t know where you’re going to. You don’t know why you’re here. There is no reason back of it. It is the philosophy of absolute despair.
And I see that in every expression of modern life. I go through a modern art gallery, and I look at those things that are supposed to be so magnificent and bring such marvelous, astronomical prices. They are confused, muddle-headed masses that could have been drawn by apes and by monkeys. One of the greatest of them all, Picasso, could draw you a picture in five seconds, five minutes. What I’d like to know is this. If these modern artists are so great, why don’t they draw a picture like a Raphael, or a Rembrandt to demonstrate that they can do it? And then let them draw a picture that they paint in five seconds or five minutes and sell it for half-a-million dollars. You know why they paint those sorry muddled-up pictures, is because they can’t paint any other kind. And their minds are as sorry and as vaporous and as misty and as thin as the picture they paint on the canvas. That is the modern world.
Leo Tolstoy wrote this in My Confessions and My Religion: he summarized the four attitudes that men take toward life’s problems. He made all of life under four classifications. Number one: Tolstoy said, “There are those who view life as all bad and get drunk to forget it.” There’s a second classification: he says, “Those who view life as all bad and struggle against it.” There’s a third classification, “Those who view life as all bad, and by suicide remove themselves from it.” And there’s a fourth one: and Tolstoy says he includes himself in this one. “There are those who view life as all bad but who live on, irrationally accepting it as it comes.” Did you ever think for or see such absolute negation and despair as for this incomparable novelist and philosopher to look at all of life and make it into those tragic four categories?
Now the purpose of the sermon this morning is there is something more to it than that. We do have our sorrows, all of us. We have our heartaches, all of us. We have our vales and our valleys, all of us. We have our tears that fall sometimes like rain. All of us know the inevitability of life. The day is coming. Age is coming. Death is coming; the break-up of our homes and of our families. All of us experience these inevitabilities.
But there is another alternative. If I could add it to Tolstoy—a fifth one, and that is this: there is also the possibility that there could be purpose and God in the troubles, and the trials, and the tribulations that we suffer.
Tennyson and Carlyle one time were standing before the busts of two men. One was the bust of the German poet, Goethe. And the other was the bust of the Italian poet, Dante. And Tennyson turned to Carlyle and said, as he looked at the two busts, he said, “What is it in the face of Dante that is missing in the face of Goethe?” And immediately Carlisle responded, “God.”
That also is true of people who face inevitable sorrow, and heartache, and tribulation, and death. There is a difference in them. And the difference is God. There is a way that God is glorified in suffering and in tribulation. The Lord said so in the twenty-first chapter of John, when He prophesized that Peter should die by the outstretched hands; that is by crucifixion [John 21:18]. Now listen to the next verse. “This spake He,” the Lord Jesus, “this spake He, signifying by what death, by what suffering, by what crucifixion, he should glorify God” [John 21:19]. It is possible that God can be glorified in the sorrows that we know in human life.
You have a magnificent example of that in the story of Job. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]. Then when he was afflicted, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” [Job 13:15]. In all of his afflictions did Job magnify and trust in the Lord to whom he had committed his soul. That is great. That is noble. And that magnifies the name of the great Lord God who made us.
Now if God will help me, may I show two things that come to the child of God in sorrow, in tribulation, in heartache, in disappointment, in all of these things that sometimes blow contrary to us in our lives? First of all, it may be that God has a purpose in our sorrows and our disappointments that work for our blessing. Paul will write in the fifth chapter of Romans, “We glory in tribulations.” What an amazing attitude! “We glory in tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed” [Romans 5:3-4]. What an amazing definition of a purpose in tribulation! Tribulation we glory in, because it brings us to an ultimate hope in God. It raises our hearts and our faces upward from this life to the life that is to come. That’s an astonishing thing!
And then I came across this: I remembered it especially, because the first years and years of my pastoral work were in the Depression. That was in a day when men who didn’t have God committed suicide, jumped off of buildings. Everything they had disappeared overnight. All right, this was a rich merchantman in one of our great cities. And he lost everything that he had: bankrupt, went to the wall, from affluence to poverty, from riches to rags, lost everything. And he was bemoaning it. “I’ve lost everything. Everything have I lost, everything!” And the faithful pastor went to see him. And the rich merchantman, now poor, said to the pastor, “I have lost everything. Everything is gone. I’ve lost everything.” And the pastor, commiserating with his sheep, with this businessman said, “Lost everything? Oh, I am so sorry! I am so sorry. You have lost everything—you’ve lost your good name and you’ve lost your reputation.”
“Oh! No, no, no,” said the man. “No, I haven’t lost my name. I haven’t lost my reputation. My name is unsullied. And my reputation is above reproach. No, I have not lost my reputation or my good name.”
The pastor said, “Oh, I understand, now! You have lost everything. Your wife has turned her back on you, and she has renounced you, and she has left you.”
“Oh, no!” said the man. “No, not my wife; she is an angel. She is standing by me. Never did I find such true comradeship as I have found in my wife. Oh, no, no I’m not speaking of my wife!”
“Oh!” said the pastor. “I understand now. You have lost everything. Your children, your children have treated you with contempt and with distain. You’ve lost everything.”
“No,” said the man. “Pastor, you don’t understand, I never really knew my children until this happened. But my children have stood by me, put their arms around me, ‘Dad, we’re marching with you in this trial. We’re with you.’ I never knew my children,” he said, “until this tragedy happened.”
“Oh!” said the pastor, “Now, I know what you mean. You have lost everything. God has turned His back on you, and you have lost your hope, and you’ve lost your salvation.”
And the man said, “No, pastor. I prayed as I’ve never prayed before. And Jesus is nearer to me than He ever was before. No, pastor, my salvation is in Jesus, and He never fails.”
And the pastor said, “Well, what do you mean? You have lost everything. You’ve lost everything. What have you lost?”
And the man said, “Pastor, I’ve just lost some money, that’s all. I have lost some money. That’s all.”
It may be that the sorrows we know in life are those that come from God, that we may come to realize that the great eternal things are not this and here, but they are there and in Him.
As the Book of Hebrews says, “God will shake heaven and earth.” And that includes us because we’re in it. “God will shake heaven and earth that the things that are not shakable may endure” [Hebrews 12:26-28]. And the troubles that come into our lives may have in them an infinite and godly purpose, when the Lord is purifying the gold in you and raising your hearts upward and heavenward [Job 23:10; Titus 2:14].
I want to close with something that I don’t know whether I can make it mean anything to you or not. But it is just something that in God means so much to me. In our living room in the parsonage, in our living room is a beautiful oil painting of John Milton in his blindness dictating to his daughters. He sits there, that great Puritan poet, in a high-backed chair, arms on either side and the light from the window streaming in and flooding him. To the side is a table. On the other side sits one of his daughters, sewing. At the corner stands one of his daughters with her face toward him. And at the end of the table is the third daughter with her books, writing as the Puritan poet dictates.
Many, many things have been rearranged and changed in the house, but through the years and the years that painting stays just there. And I look at it a thousand times, a thousand times have I looked at that painting. He sits there facing the sunset of life. Everything is lost. Everything has crumbled around him. He lost his eyesight. When the doctor warned him against his labors, he lost his eyesight defending the Puritan cause of liberty in England. He lost his eyesight working for the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. He opposed the tyranny of kings, and He opposed the empty establishment of the church. He gave the energy of his great mind and life in behalf of religious liberty.
And now he sits there, and everything he has found has turned to dust and ashes. Cromwell is dead. His friend Roger Williams, who taught him the Dutch language, is in exile. His fellow Baptist John Bunyan is in prison in Bedford. His friends and compatriots have been executed, and how he himself escaped in his four years of hiding, nobody is able to explain. The restoration has brought back the tyranny of the king and with it, the establishment of an oppressive and empty church. And amidst the ruins, he sits there in his age, blind.
But as he sits there in that chair, he is a companion of the great prophets of the Old Testament, and of the psalmists, and of the Lord, and of His apostles. And he writes and dictates as the daughter pens it down. And I think as I look at the painting, “I wonder what he’s dictating?” Could it be the incomparable sonnet on his blindness that ends with this verse, “They also serve who only stand and wait”?
Or is he dictating the introduction and the first verses to 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 our woe, with loss of Eden, until one greater
Man restores us, and regain the blissful seat. Sing, Heavenly
Muse. What in me is dark, illuminate. What is low, raise and Support; that, to the highest of this great argument, I may extol Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man.
[from Paradise Lost; John Milton]
And then following after Paradise Lost , and Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, who is it that surplanted him; who is the monarch that washed off the face of the earth, those great souls who gave their lives for religious liberty and the Puritan commonwealth? The king restored is Charles II; he is a contemptuous and contemptible reprobate! He hires men in government to scour all England for an endless series of mistresses. He never had a legitimate child, just a flock of illegitimates. And he brought England down to the depths of sordidness and failure. And as he sits triumphant on the throne, blind Milton sits in obscurity, dictating the great visions of his soul.
What is he dictating? He’s dictating pamphlets on religious liberty. What is he dictating? He is dictating treatises on the inspiration of the Scriptures and the infallible Word of God! What is he dictating? He is dictating documents on scriptural baptism, like the Baptists administer today. What is he dictating? He’s dictating treatises on the sacredness of Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and on the deity of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit of God!
Now you decide; I leave it in your judgment. How many people today seek out the life and the words of Charles II? I never heard of anybody doing it. Who wants to hold up to the world and to emulate the sordid, sorry, contemptible life of Charles II of England? Or who seeks out what he said or why he said it?
But there are those of us by the millions and the millions who still thrill to the great, centurion Miltonic verse of John Milton, and who look upon his life of dedication as an example and a beacon to every man of God, who walks in this dark and dreary world.
Truth, crushed to earth shall rise again,
The eternal years of God are hers:
While Error, writhing, lies in pain,
And dies among her worshipers.
Back of the tribulations of life and the apparent defeats of life—back of it all is the omnipotent hands of the living God, and we will not lose! Death, disappointment, discouragement, age, sorrow, disillusion, and overwhelming flood of atheism, communism, secularism, materialism, unbelief—we will not fail. Remember the word of the blessed Jesus, “Fear not, little flock; it is your Father’s good will to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. We shall inherit God’s infinite purposes of grace and love; bless His name [Acts 20:32].
And Master, if I’m ever discouraged, forgive me. And if I ever think life is hard, Lord, overlook it. And if I ever think we may lose, in pity Lord, lift us up to see the mighty arm of God, who cannot fail, who is never discouraged, and who shall bring salvation to the ends of the earth [John 3:16; Acts 13:47].
I have preached once again far, far too long. But these things, when I read the Book, crowd upon my soul. Sweet people, decide for God, any other commitment inevitably ends in sorrow and distress, in despair and disappointment. But there is light, and life, and hope, and glory following in the way of the Lord.
Upon the first note, of the first stanza, come. Make it now. Do it now. Out of the balcony, in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, down one of those stairways, make the decision now in your heart and come. Bring your family, your wife and children. Or just the two of you or just that one somebody you to whom God hath spoken, on the first note of the first stanza, come [Romans 10:9-10]. And may angels attend you in the way, 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)