The Most Tragic Words in the Bible
February 18th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
THE MOST TRAGIC WORDS IN THE BIBLE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-18-79 10:50 a.m.
Now I am deeply conscious that on a day when the weather is inclement, that there are far more people listening to the pastor than at any other time when he seeks to bring a message from the Lord. There are added to the thousands who already listen on radio and television many other thousands, who, being at home, are sharing this hour in the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Welcome, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Most Tragic Words in the Bible. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 24, and the text is verses 24 and 25. Paul is a prisoner in the Praetorium in Caesarea, the Roman capital of the province of Judea. And the Roman procurator is named Felix. And he is married to Drusilla, the youngest and beautiful daughter of Herod Agrippa I. Now the text:
And after certain days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess, he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ.
And as Paul reasoned—
and isn’t that a fine description of a good sermon?—
. . . and as Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will . . .
And that is the text, and those are the words I have described as the most tragic in the Bible. “Some other day, some other time, not now, but tomorrow; when I have a convenient season, I will” [Acts 24:25].
It is a strange thing, the presentation of two men in the Book of Acts who responded in the same emotional way to the preaching of the gospel of Christ; they trembled before it. One of the men is in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Acts: the Philippian jailer. The story says that he trembled and fell down before Paul and Silas. His reaction was one of immediate fear. He trembled before the preaching of the gospel [Acts 16:29]. The same reaction emotionally is found in this Roman procurator Felix. Listening to the message of Christ, he trembled [Acts 24:25]. But the final response of the two men is so very different.
The Philippian jailer, as he trembled before the message of God, cried, saying, “What must I do to be saved?” [Acts 16:30]. And that night he received the Lord Jesus as his Savior and brought into the faith all the members of his household, and that night he was baptized into the communion of God’s redeemed people [Acts 16:31-34]. Bless the name of the Lord for that Philippian jailer, who has been a paragon and an example for us through all of the years and the centuries since.
The other is Felix, this Roman procurator of Judea. Hearing the gospel message, the story says that he trembled also, but answered, “Not today, not now; when I have a convenient season, a more opportune time, I will” [Acts 24:25], some other day, some other time, not now.
There are many dangerous words that you will find in the Bible, fearful and terrible and frightful things that people say. For example, in the wilderness wanderings, the people cried, saying, “Would God we had died in the land of Egypt!” [Numbers 14:2]. That’s a tragic word for a people to say. After all that God had done for them, and was doing with them, the people say, “Would God we had never known Your name [Exodus 3:13-14]. Would God we had never seen Moses [Exodus 4:28-31]. Would God we had never marched through the Red Sea [Exodus 14:21-31]. Would God we had never drunk at the water that flowed from the rock smitten by the rod of Moses [Exodus 17:5-6]. Would God we had died in the land of Egypt” [Numbers 14:2]. What a tragic response! Take again tragic words that are said in the Bible: the wife of Job says to her husband, after he was so afflicted [Job 1:13-19, 2:7-8]—she says to him, “Curse God, and die” [Job 2:9]. What a sad response to the providences of life, however hurtful and sorrowful they might be. Curse God! Double up your fist in rebellion against God. Curse God, and commit suicide [Job 2:9].
Or take again in the story of our Lord, they who watched Him heal said, “This Man casteth out devils by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” [Luke 11:15]. And the gospel story says that that is the unpardonable sin, the wrong that we commit that is never forgiven in this life nor the life that is yet to come [Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30]. To refuse to accept the Emissary from heaven that God placed in this world to live our life [Hebrews 4:15], to die for our sins [1 Corinthians 15:3], and to be raised for our justification [Romans 4:25], to say that His ministry and His life is not of God but of Satan: that, says the gospel, is the unpardonable sin [Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30]—and, of course, that is awesome and frightful, those tragic words.
And yet, as I review all of the tragic words that I read in the Bible, there are none to me that are as tragic as this: “Not now, but some other day, some other time; when I have a convenient season, I will” [Acts 24:25]. On the face of them, they are not that dangerous, but hidden in their innocuous appearance is a latent threat and menace that is almost universal. And that’s the sermon this morning. Why are these the most tragic words in the Bible?
Number one: because everybody is saying them. This is almost an universal response in human life. Everybody says them: “Not now, but tomorrow; some other time, some more convenient season, I will.”
The lost man is saying them: “I don’t intend to be lost. I don’t intend to be damned. I don’t intend to be sentenced to hell. I intend to be saved, to make it to heaven, but not now. It isn’t quite convenient. Some other time; some other day; tomorrow!” [Acts 24:25].
An evil man says that. He does not purpose to continue in his vile and unspeakable iniquity. He’s going to change. He’s going to do better, but he’s not going to do better now. It’ll be tomorrow; some other day, some other time.
The drunk says that. We don’t call him a drunk today. We call him an alcoholic. But a drunk says that; he’s going to reform. He’s going to quit his aberration. He’s going to stop his excess. He’s not going to be drunken anymore—that is, some other day, some other time; tomorrow!
The whole lost world says that: “We’re not going to continue in our iniquity. We’re going to do better. We are going to reform. We are going to change. But we are going to do it tomorrow; some other day, some other time” [Acts 24:25].
Not only does the lost world respond to the gospel like that, such as Felix did—”When I have a more convenient season, I will” [Acts 24:25]—but the Christian people also follow the Lord like that. How many of us put off what we know we ought to do? “I’m going to be a better man, tomorrow! I’m going to dedicate my life to Christ really and truly, tomorrow! I’m going to take time for God’s work, tomorrow! I’m going to serve the Lord faithfully and well, tomorrow!” And all of these duties that we know we owe to God and to others, we intend to do them, but we are going to do them tomorrow!
He was going to be
All that a mortal should be,
No one would ever be
Better than he,
Each morning he stacked up
The letters he’d write.
Each evening he’d recount
The battles he would fight,
He was a man who’d
Would work like a fiend.
The world would have known him
Had he ever seen,
But the fact is he died
And faded from view.
And all that was left
When living was through,
Was a mountain of things
He intended to do,
[“Tomorrow,” Edgar Albert Guest]
So many of us are like that, the words are well nigh universal; “We are going to serve God, and we’re going to do these things that we know we ought to do, tomorrow. It’ll be a better me, tomorrow; not today, but some other time.” The words are tragic because they are universally said.
Number two: why are these the most tragic words in the Bible? Because they paralyze our souls and our volition and our wills; by the lack of doing, by the lack of achieving, by the lack of moving, by the lack of response, we finally come to the place where we cannot respond. We cannot move. We are paralyzed in our volitions and in our wills. That’s one of the most astonishing developments in human life that I have ever observed, and that also is universal! I have an arm that is perfectly sound, and I can use my arms; but you bind my arm to my side and leave it there bound for a certain length of time, and I don’t use it, then unbind it, take the thongs away, and I can’t raise it, I can’t use it anymore. The nerves have atrophied and the muscles have withered. My arm has become useless, for the lack of response.
I have good ears; but you stop my ear and leave it stopped for a certain length of time, and I cannot hear out of it. It is deaf! The nerve, the auditory nerve has ceased to function, and the apparatus that makes my hearing possible ceases to exist. I am deaf for the lack of the use of my ear.
I have good eyes. I inherited my teeth, and my eyes, and my ears from my father. When he was seventy-five years of age, the only glasses he ever had were little things that he bought at a dime store just to magnify the print. He had all of his teeth in his head when he died. And I just thank God for all of those gifts that came to me from my blessed father. But if you were to close one of my eyes and leave that eye closed for a certain length of time, I couldn’t see out of it. The nerve atrophies. The very vehicular apparatus by which my eye is able to respond to these wavelengths of light ceases to exist. I remember looking at those fish in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; they’re just like all of the other fish, just made like the other fish, except where they have sockets for eyes, they don’t have any eyes in them. They just have sockets. Down there in that endless, immeasurable cave where it is dark forever and they’ve lived their lives and generations not seeing, they can’t see anymore. They are blind. They don’t have eyes.
Human life is like that! You don’t respond, you say no, you put off to another day, and the day will come when you cannot respond. You just don’t have the ability to make decisions in you; it’s gone. It’s dead. I have seen that all the years of my life: a man will be moved by the gospel as Felix—maybe tremble before it. But he doesn’t respond. “No!” put it off: “another day, another time.” And the next time he is not as moved, and then the next time he is less moved, and finally he’s not moved at all. He can sit there and listen to the gospel forever and never be moved! He is paralyzed in his will, in his volition.
My brethren, this is a statistical fact, and this is something you can observe; very few older people you’ll see walk down that aisle and accept Jesus as Savior; very few. So many, as it is almost nonexistent. That’s a tragic thing!
There was a family that said to me, “Our father is dying, and he’s not a Christian. Would you talk to him?”
I went to see him, and I sat down by his bed, and I said to him, “You know that you will not be up. You’ll not live. You’re going to die.”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
“And you’re not a Christian?”
“And you’re not prepared to meet God?”
“No, I’m not prepared to meet God.”
“You’re not saved?”
“No, I’m not saved.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m here to tell you how to be saved and to lead you to Christ, so you can meet God when you die.”
So I talked to him; and after I had talked to him in every way that I knew how—”We must repent of our sins [Acts 3:19]. We must ask God to forgive us. No man who dies in unrepented, unforgiven sin shall see God’s face [Hebrews 12:14]. We must repent of our sins. We must ask God to forgive us [1 John 1:9-10]. We must accept the atoning grace and blood of Christ [1 Corinthians 15:2-4]. You must believe, and trust Him, and give your heart to Him” [Acts 16:30-31; Romans 10:9-10]—I just pled with him, and finally he said to me, he said, “My brother, I seemingly cannot believe. I cannot. I seemingly cannot believe.”
And he died in that state of unbelief. When you see that, you marvel at how human nature and human life is constructed, how it’s put together. When we say “no” to the Lord, and we say “no” to the Lord, and we put off, and cast out, and disregard, and procrastinate—”some other day, some other time, some other hour, when I have a convenient season” [Acts 24;25]—doing that, the day will come when you are paralyzed in your heart, and you don’t respond. You can’t reply. You can’t believe. You can’t trust. You can’t repent. You are like a rock! It’s sad beyond any way that you could describe it.
These are tragic words, the most tragic words in the Bible: “When I have a convenient season, I will” [Acts 24:25]. To put off what I know I ought to do, they paralyze our hearts and our wills.
Why are these the most tragic words in the Bible? Because they prove us unfaithful to God. We don’t have to go out here and rob a bank, commit murder, be a terrorist, bathe our hands in human blood in order to be guilty of the souls that are lost. All we need to do is to do nothing. As that poet or doggerel writer said:
The Lord will forgive your mistakes, my friend.
Or He will pick you up when you fall.
But the one big sell that surely means hell
Is simply to do nothing at all.
Some of the most judgmental of all of the things for which we could be guilty are simply don’t do anything, and this is one: we are proved unfaithful to God when we say these words—something we ought to do, something God has given us to do, “And I’m going to do it, but not now; some other time, some other day, tomorrow.”
There was an evangelist who was asked to hold the funeral service of a little girl, and being an evangelist not living in the community, he asked about the child. So he started with the father and the mother, and he asked the father and mother, “Is the little girl—was she saved?” And the father and mother said, “We intended to talk to our little girl about Jesus, but we put it off, and we don’t know whether she was saved or not. But ask her Sunday school teacher. Her Sunday school teacher will know.”
So the evangelist went to the Sunday school teacher and asked the Sunday school teacher “Was the little girl saved?” And the Sunday school teacher said, “I meant to talk to the child about the Lord, but I put it off and just waited, and I don’t know, but ask the superintendent, he’ll know.”
The evangelist went to the Sunday school superintendent and said to the Sunday school superintendent, “Was the little girl a Christian? Was she saved?” And the Sunday school superintendent said, “I meant to talk to the child, but I put it off. I don’t know. I don’t know. But ask the pastor. He’ll know.”
And the evangelist went to the pastor and asked the pastor, “Pastor, was the little girl a Christian? Was she saved?” And the pastor said, “I meant to inquire, I meant to ask. I meant to talk to the child, but I put it off. I do not know.”
And the evangelist conducted the service. Parents, father, mother, teacher, Sunday school superintendent, pastor—nobody knew whether she was saved or not.
Those are tragic words! And they so lie upon my heart, that we are even now beginning, with God’s help and God’s blessings, to work out a way whereby we can confront every soul, and every family, and every house, and every home, and every apartment in this city: “Are you saved? Are you a Christian? Do you belong to the household of God’s redeemed? Are you in the church? Do you worship the Lord?”
Now, when we do that, from house to house, all through this vast metroplex, you’re going to have many insults. There will be many times that those on the inside of the house will slam the door in your face. There’ll be some who will curse you. There will be some who will insult you. There will be some who will mock and ridicule you—good, fine.
It will humble us to have the door slammed in our faces. It will humble us to be ridiculed for our invitation to come to Christ. It will bring us—bow us down on our knees, for, you see, we don’t convert anybody; we don’t regenerate anyone. That is the work of the Holy Spirit [John 15:26; 16:8-15].
I am humbled by the request of a little child, “How can I be saved? Show me how I can meet Jesus,” for I can’t regenerate the heart, that’s God’s work [Titus 3:5]. My task and my assignment is not to regenerate, it is not to save. My task and assignment is to bring the message of Christ. “This is the way, walk in it [Isaiah 30:21]. Here’s the road to heaven; look at it. Be a fellow pilgrim with us.” That’s my assignment: to witness and to testify. It is His assignment to regenerate, to draw unto Himself, to make a new creation [John 6:44].
And that we are going to do by God’s help, beginning now, beginning now. Already we are starting, and may the Lord bless this effort on the part of all of our people. For us not to do it, is to be guilty of the most tragic response found in the Word of God. It proves us unfaithful to the Lord. As God gives us length of days and strength and ableness, Lord, bless this work of testimony—witness—under Thy hands and ours.
Last: why are these the most tragic words in the Bible? Not only because everyone is saying them, not only because they paralyze our souls and wills, not only because these words prove us unfaithful to God, but, last, these words lead others into death. Far beyond the repercussion in our own lives do you find it in the lives of others: “Not now, but some other time, some other day, tomorrow” [Acts 24:25].
You can see this letter that I hold in my hand, very evidently written by a poor somebody—cheap lined paper out of a tablet—and it is addressed to me:
Dear Brother, will you please call on my brother and talk to him about Christ? He is seriously ill with but few days left to live. Our parents were Baptists, but he was grown before they were converted. They were beyond fifty years old when they were saved. I have often heard our mother express her sorrow for not rearing us in a Christian home. Do call upon him, as his days are few. Thank you,
and signed by the sister of that stricken man.
I went to see him. I did all that I knew to do to get him into the kingdom of God. But how hard is the assignment, when father and mother have lived the days of their lives before their children, and father and mother have not called upon the name of the Lord, and now the children are grown. How difficult is the assignment! And most of the time, practically all of the times, I fail in it completely.
Poignantly, poignantly do I remember a revival meeting that I was conducting in New Mexico, and in the revival an old man named Ben Victor, an old man, was saved. He had a boy who was a big rancher in that part of the world. The boy was about forty-five years of age. And the old man said to me, “Would you go see my son and talk to him about the Lord?”
“I will.” And I drove way out, and then finally came to the ranch house, which was miles and miles beyond the front gate; asked his wife—”He’s down at such-and-such road,” she said, “working on a windmill.”
So I went down there and found him. He was very gracious to me, like a big rancher would be—hospitable, open-hearted, and seemingly was deeply moved by the fact that I had driven so far just to talk to him about the Lord. Under the shade of the windmill we spoke about Jesus and about all of the things that He means to us, and I pressed the appeal. And he shook his head, “No, not now. Not now.”
In the last day, the last night of that revival meeting, while I pressed the appeal to come to Christ, to accept the Lord as Savior, that old father went to that boy, and in words that I couldn’t hear, but by the expression on the father’s face, I could just see his pouring his life and soul and heart into that appeal. “Oh son, come to Jesus. Give your life to the Lord. Accept Him as your Savior.” Well, the boy would shake his head, shake his head, shake his head. And after a length of time, the old man went back to his seat on the other side of the house, and while the rest of us were standing, singing the appeal and pressing the cause of Christ, I saw the old man sit down, bury his face in his hands, and I could see the tears fall between his fingers, as he sat there sobbing like a little child.
Sweet people, you tell me now. You tell me, had that father with those tears, those same tears and that same heart of deep concern, had that father gone to that boy when he was ten years old, eleven years old, twelve years old, had that father gone to that son when the lad was small and tender, and the father had cried tears of concern and burden for the sake of his boy, tell me, don’t you think that boy would have been saved? Wouldn’t he? Seeing the tears of his father, listening to the earnest appeal of his father, don’t you think he would have accepted Christ and would have been saved? You see, all the years, and the years, and the years, and the years of his upbringing, he had seen his father say no to Jesus, no to the Lord, no to the Spirit, no to the pastor, no to the preacher, no to the church. And after forty-five years, the boy is a product, tragic, of the dereliction of the father who now weeps and cries in pitiful sorrow and disappointment. He succeeded; the father said no to Jesus for seventy-five years or more, and he succeeded, he was saved. But as he succeeds, he fails! It is that way forever.
When you say no to God, if you succeed, you fail. It may be that you will meet the Lord as Savior and walk through those gates into glory, but behind you are the years and the years and the years of an influence, of an example, that leads others into judgment, and loss, and damnation, and hell. If I’m going to do anything for God, may the Lord help me to do it now! If I’m ever going to be saved, Lord, save me now! If I’m ever going to be a Christian, help me to be a Christian now!
“If I’m ever going to say yes to Jesus, help me to say it now! If I’m ever going to answer a call of the Lord, help me to say it now! If I’m ever going to come down that aisle, Lord, walk with me now! I’m coming! If I’m ever going to take my stand for Jesus, Lord, stand by me now! I’m going to stand by You! If I’m ever going to make a decision heavenward and God-ward, I’m going to make it now! Lord, as You give me life and length of days and strength and my mind is still intact, and I still can walk and talk, Lord, I’m going to walk and talk for Thee! I’m going to speak words of commitment to Thee. Lord, I’m coming to Thee.”
And that is our appeal to your heart this day, this moment! Some of you: “Today I’m accepting Jesus as my Savior, and here I stand.” Others of you: “Today I’m putting my life in the fellowship and communion of this dear church, and here I stand.” Others, maybe: “The Lord has called me, and I’m answering with my life today.” As the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, make that great decision now; not tomorrow, not some other day, not some other time, not a more convenient season, but now! “Here I am, Lord, here I come. Here I stand, so bless me and help me,” and may angels attend you and God’s Holy Spirit strengthen you as you answer with your life. In just a moment we shall stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family, a couple, or just one somebody you, down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles: “Here I am pastor, I’ve made that decision for Christ, and here I am.” Do it now. Make it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.
IS TOO LATE
I. The scene in that palace
A. Roman procurator Felix
sitting on his throne, Paul in chains below him
1. He holds the
power of life and death in his hands, yet he trembles
B. Felix and Drusilla
expected to be entertained
reasoned of righteousness, repentance and judgment to come(2 Corinthians 5:10-11)
answer – “When I have a convenient season.”(Acts
E. But tomorrow is too
II. His answer destroyed him, his life,
A. Convenient season
B. All that it ever
takes is to just do nothing
1. Drifting into
eternity without God
a. Poem, “The Derelict”
III. It destroys us
B. Something happens in a
man when forever he says no to the call of God
1. Sunday school
teacher’s husband – “It’s too late!”
2. Those who beat
on the door of the ark
Five foolish virgins beating on the door(Matthew 25:10-11)
God’s Spirit will not always strive with men (Genesis 6:3, Mark 3:29, Hebrews 12:16-17)
IV. It destroys any hope or opportunity we
have of serving God
A. Coming to the end of
life having given whole life to the world
1. How wrong to
bring a shell, a carcass to Jesus
B. Man leaves wife and
two young daughters, only to come back in age, illness, bearing the marks of
sin and iniquity
C. God calls for our best
1. We will give an
account of how we responded to the Lord’s invitation
2. The time is now (Isaiah 55:6-7, 2 Corinthians 6:1-2)