The Greek word for “tribulation” in the New Testament is thlipsis which means to press, squeeze, compress, and crush. It is to be pressed into a narrow place. It was used to describe the squeezing of olives in a press to extract oil and the squeezing of grapes to produce juice. It conveys the idea of being forcefully squeezed under intense pressure or crushed beneath a heavy weight. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia adds that: “Thlipsis derives from roots that graphically portray that in which a person is first limited, then walled in and gradually squeezed until something must give.”[i]
When you squeeze something, what is on the inside comes out. What is coming out of our hearts when they are squeezed and placed under crushing pressure? When mental distresses, difficult outward circumstances and troublesome afflictions press into our hearts with an enormous weight and burden, what happens? Do these intense pressures crush the life of God from our hearts? What flows from our hearts when the temptations of life powerfully squeeze us from the inside and the outside? How do our hearts respond?
The Lesson of Joseph
Thlipsis is the word to describe what Joseph went through before He was made governor in Egypt. This gives a vivid mind picture and also shows us what was in the heart of Joseph. What crushing pressure he faced mentally and physically, yet his heart remained steadfast to God and he never caved in to thlipsis.
Joseph’s own brothers hated him and when the opportunity arose, they thrust him into an empty pit. After this they sold him into slavery to a passing caravan. Joseph was bought and taken out of his homeland into Egypt. Imagine how this must have felt! The burden and sadness that must have pressed into his heart! His own flesh and blood despised him so much that they plotted his death. Only Reuben saved him from being murdered by his brothers. When he was cast down by his own family into this abandoned pit in the wilderness without food or water, he had no idea if he would get out. What crushing weight must have squeezed his heart!
His brother Rueben recalled the anguishing pleas of Joseph from the dungeon in Genesis 42:21: “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear …” Joseph soul was in anguish over the cruel actions of his brothers and he desperately pled with them to let him go, but they were silent. Joseph greatly loved his brethren and their betrayal of him was an overwhelming discouragement to his heart. How would our hearts handle this situation? How would hearts respond to this type of pressure?
The mutiny of his brothers was bad enough, but his life took another shocking turn. Suddenly he was sold as a slave to a traveling band of Ishmaelites. He no longer was a free man. In an instant he became a slave, a piece of property to be bought and sold. Joseph would be taken as a slave for a mere twenty pieces of silver into a foreign country away from everything familiar to him. His life would never be the same. He wandered if he would ever see his father again or his brothers whom he still loved.
Can you imagine the enormous weight of these life-changing circumstances? The mental pressure and trauma of slavery were added to the crushing pressure of betrayal by his brothers. How do you think his heart felt?
Are you beginning to get a mind picture of this word thlipsis? How would our hearts react to this thlipsis? Would we become offended in our God? Would we accuse God of unfaithfulness? Would we blame God in bitterness and frustration because of our overwhelming predicament? Would we lose faith and confidence in our God? Would our hearts wither under the scorching heart of betrayal and indifference?
On the surface, it looked like God had forsaken Joseph during this calamity, but nothing could be further from the truth. God was with Joseph every step of the way during this intense thlipsis period of his life. God blessed Joseph with his new master Potiphar and he found grace in his sight and was made overseer of all his possessions. Potiphar was a very powerful man in Egypt, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of his guard.
But he had an unfaithful wife who lustfully desired Joseph. She relentlessly pursued Joseph to have sex with her, but Joseph refused to sin against his God and dishonor his master. Potiphar’s wife was furious when she was rebuffed so she grabbed his garment and falsely accused him of attempted rape. She claimed he was mocking his master with such a detestable act.
Suddenly Joseph lost all favor with Potiphar and was thrust into a dungeon reserved for enemies of the state, those who were a threat to the kingdom of Egypt. Thlipsis had returned to the heart of Joseph with a vengeance as he felt the intense crushing pressure of being jailed in a dungeon over false accusations and losing his trusted position in Potiphar’s household. He was completely innocent, but no one would listen. Would he be freed from the dark captivity of this dungeon or see the light of day again?
Have you ever been falsely accused? Have you ever been thrown into prison when you are innocent and without any fault? How would your heart respond to this squeezing and what would come out?
Joseph remained in this dungeon for at least two years and despite this daily thlipsis, Joseph never lost his faith in God. How rooted his heart must have been in God and His faithfulness to deliver! God was with Joseph and showed him mercy, giving him favor with the keeper of the prison. Joseph was in charge of all the prisoners because God made him prosper. Joseph had the joy of the Lord overflowing from his heart even in the midst of all his trouble. Thlipsis never stole his joy. Joseph even asked the chief butler and chief baker why they were so sad. Joseph was not miserable in prison as the presence of God was a living reality in his heart.
After interpreting both the baker and butler’s dreams, Joseph asked the chief butler to remember him and tell Pharaoh he did nothing wrong to merit prison. However, thlipsis returned as Joseph was forgotten by Pharaoh’s butler, and he never brought up Joseph’s injustice to the Pharaoh for two years. Each day Joseph waited, but nothing happened. Joseph felt the crushing pressure of being forsaken again, yet he did not uproot his heart from God.
Imagine the thlipsis that Joseph endured! He was stolen from his homeland, subject to the cruelty of his own flesh and blood. He was cast into a political dungeon as an innocent man, and forgotten by a friend who failed to take any action to get him out of prison.
Although the exact amount of time this thlipsis lasted is not known, I believe it was in the neighborhood of 10-13 years! Could our hearts remain faithful God and rooted in His promises during 13 years of extreme thlipsis? Would we be crushed into the ground by this relentless pressure?
Throughout this long period of intense pressure, Joseph never wavered in His love for God. He did not complain to God or become overwhelmed by his circumstances. Joseph never allowed a root of bitterness to grow in his heart because of the injustice, unfairness and cruelty that he faced in life. Joseph did not become offended against God because everything seemed to be working against him. He did not believe he was forgotten, forsaken or abandoned by God. He did not allow thlipsis to destroy his heart for God. His faith in God was never shaken.
God honored Joseph’s steadfastness. He blessed, protected, and prospered Him for his heart was fiercely loyal to God. God was alive to Joseph in his daily living. Acts 7:9,10 declares that “God was with him (Joseph) and delivered him out of all his afflictions (thlipsis).” God gave Joseph grace even in the midst of thlipsis’s most trying circumstances.
No matter how crushing the pressure, or how hard we are being squeezed, or how heavy the burden, God can deliver us from every thlipsis. Joshua 10:14 boldly declares that no idol can rescue us from thlipsis. Only God’s power and strength can be victorious over any thlipsis that grips the heart. The Parable of the Sower and the Seed makes it clear that how we respond to thlipsis is determined by the deepness of our root in God’s Word.
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation (thlipsis). But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33, ESV)
The world specializes in thlipsis. As long as we live in this world, our heart will have to deal with thlipsis. Our heart will be tested with thlipsis to determine the genuineness of our faith and the deepness of our root system in Christ. Will our heart withstand the test of thlipsis and stand strong on the Word or when the blistering heart of the sun comes, wilt away?
Jesus Christ: Our Example in Times of Thlipsis
Thlipsis is nothing to Jesus Christ. He endured the worst thlipsis ever known to mankind in the ordeal of the crucifixion. His sweat was like great drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane in intense prayer to his Heavenly Father. The weight of our sin became a deep and crushing weight to his soul. He was about to go through forty hours of beatings, mocking, torture, physical disfigurement, and unbearable pain. He would not even resemble a human being, but a bloody pulp of flesh. He endured this brutal physical punishment to pay the price for our sin and crush the power of the kingdom of darkness, ushering us as citizens into his kingdom.
Thlipsis never turned the heart of Jesus Christ from his Heavenly Father. He accomplished salvation and eternal life for all those who will come to Him because he did not allow thlipsis to squeeze the life of God out of his heart. He did not permit thlipsis to offend him. He did not allow his heart to melt under the sweltering heat of thlipsis as he became the captain of our salvation and accomplished the greatest triumph the heaven and earth has ever seen.
Only in Jesus Christ can we be victorious over thlipsis. Only in Jesus Christ will our root system flourish. Only in Jesus Christ can we endure and overcome the blistering heat of the kosmos, the entire system that the Devil has set up as the Prince of the Power of the Air.
We do not belong to this world. We are citizens of another kingdom. The world hates Jesus Christ, who as the light of the world, exposed its love and worship of evil. The world hates the Word of God, which exposes the error of its ways and the lies it so adores. The world will pursue with intense hatred all those rooted in Christ, relentlessly pressuring them to denounce Christ and reject His Word. The spirit of the world is fierce and it will come at us with persistent pressure to squeeze our hearts into its mold. The spirit of the world is out to destroy our growth in Christ and eradicate the living Word from our hearts. We must withstand its thlipsis if we want our hearts to shine forth with the beauty of Christ.
Can your heart stand the pressure of being labeled a bigot, a fool, an idiot, a religious nut, a deceiver, a fanatic and an extremist? Can you stand the heat of standing against this world system that defies the living God and become a spiritual rebel against all the forces of darkness that embrace every level of our culture. Only in Jesus Christ can we withstand this pressure and emerge triumphant over every burden and weight thrown at our heart.
Thlipsis and the Birth of the Extraordinary
God always births something extraordinary in the heart when we come through a season of thlipsis still firmly rooted in Christ and the Word of God.
Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish (thlipsis) because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. (John 16:21, NASB)
God uses the word “thlipsis” to describe the anguish the female body endures in labor. There is intense pain as she tries to squeeze and push the baby from her body, but nothing compares to the joy of giving birth to a new child. The woman is pregnant with something extraordinary and amazing with a wonderful, beautiful baby forming in her womb. But she has to go through a period of thlipsis before the child is born into the world.
Likewise our heart is pregnant with the extraordinary plans, purposes and works of God Almighty, but it is only when we come through the labor pains of thlipsis that the heart gives birth to something extraordinary. So many Christians never give birth to the extraordinary, because in the time of thlipsis, they get scorched. How tragic that we never give birth to God’s amazing plans and purposes for our life because under the crushing pressure of thlipsis we have a miscarriage. We fail to give birth to God’s breathtaking fruit because our root system is shallow in God and cannot endure the labor pains of childbirth.
Look what was birthed out of the heart of Joseph when he passed the thlipsis test. Joseph became ruler over all of Egypt and second in command only to Pharaoh. What an extraordinary thing God birthed in the heart of Joseph to go from a slave, condemned in prison, to a ruler of a mighty kingdom.
Jesus Christ endured the intense thlipsis of the crucifixion and bearing the sin of the human race, but now he is seated at the right hand of God having obtained eternal redemption for all those who believe. He obliterated the power of Satan’s kingdom, conquered sin and death, and will establish forever his kingdom as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
David remained faithful to God during the relentless thlipsis caused by King Saul who used the might of his kingdom to try to assassinate God’s chosen king. God birthed an extraordinary calling and work in the heart of David as he became the greatest king in the history of Israel and a man after God’s own heart.
The Apostle Paul was deeply rooted in Christ and the Word of God and endured great thlipsis during his journeys to spread the gospel. He suffered beatings, stoning, false accusations, imprisonment, shipwreck, hunger, weariness, riots and persecution. He proved himself a minister of God through thlipsis and became one of the most influential Christians who has ever lived. He penned, through the inspiration of God, a great part of the New Testament and established the gospel in many parts of the world. His ministry turned the world upside down, and he shook the gates of hell with the truth of the gospel. God birthed such an extraordinary thing in the heart of Paul as he turned people from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.
We must never allow thlipsis to cause a miscarriage of God’s extraordinary plans and purposes for us by allowing its crushing pressure to scorch the seed of the Word of God from our hearts.
[i] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 1988), 913.