When I read through the Gospels and think about the opposition and challenges Jesus encountered, I picture Him as resolute, always standing strong and never neglecting His “going about the Father’s business” while in the midst of adversity.
At least I thought that was what Jesus was going through…until I looked up references to the word “adversity” in the New American Standard translation and found out that there is not one single New Testament use of that particular word. This unexpected discovery stimulated the word-nerd part of me to investigate more thoroughly: Would I find it in the NIV? No. The Message? Once. King James? Once. Holman Christian Standard? No. The Living Bible? No.
Well…the New Testament translated word is “tribulation.” Hmmm. That gives me reason to pause, to ponder.
So here are some parallel word stats on the word “tribulation”: In the New American Standard, “tribulation” ranks this way: New Testament, 20; Old Testament, 0. NIV? NT-2, OT-0. The Message? NT-1; OT-0. King James? NT-21, OT-4. Holman Christian Standard? NT-10, OT-0. The Living Bible? NT-4, OT-0.
I find that really fascinating and maybe – just maybe – genuinely significant.
Thefreedictionary.com describes “adversity” as a noun meaning “a state of hardship or affliction; misfortune; a calamitous event; distress, affliction, hardship.” The same online reference defines “tribulation” as “great affliction, trial, or distress; suffering; an experience that tests one’s endurance, patience, or faith.” Likewise,vocabulary.com has the take on “adversity” as “a noun which has been part of the English language for 800 years, comes from the Latin adversus, literally ‘turned against,’ and figuratively ‘hostile or unfavorable.’ When things seem against you – circumstances or a stroke of bad luck – you are facing adversity.” This, compared to “tribulation,” which is given much more complicated verbiage by the same online source: “Grievous trouble; severe trial or suffering; 1175-1225, Middle English; Latin tribulation (stem of tribulation) distress, trouble, equivalent to tribulat (us) (past participle of tribulare to press, squeeze, derivative of tribulum threshing sledge, equivalent to tri-, variant stem of terere to rub, crush + -bulum noun suffix of instrument).
That’s really sort of complicated….but it seems logical to me that, when Jesus entered humankind in tangible, huggable, touchable form…certain dynamics of the universe, itself, became really sort of complicated. And it is the pressing, squeezing, threshing-sledge aspect of difference between the two words that seems most significant.
Let me touch for a moment on the phrase “threshing-sledge.” It is referenced several times in the Old Testament. Only once, however, is it used in a personalized way. In Isaiah 41:15, God promises Israel, “Behold, I have made you a new, sharp threshing sledge with double edges; you will thresh the mountains and pulverize them, and will make the hills like chaff.” (Isaiah 41:15, NASB) One online source defines “threshing” as, “an ancient process used to separate grain from the straw. The process was usually performed on a threshing floor which was out in the open and usually on top of a hill. This was important so that the wind would assist in the separation process…”* And, on another webpage, “When a threshing sledge is pulled on the threshing floor by one or two donkey…it sets the plant material in motion in such as a way as to rapidly thresh the grain and cut up the straw into tiny pieces.”**
“Adversity,” then, appears to be static, existing within itself, having no specific end result. In Deuteronomy 30:15-17, God stated to the Israelites: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, anddeath and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes…” (NASB, italics added)
To experience “tribulation,” however, is to experience a process. A process with an end result in mind….the separation of the chaff from the wheat, in the natural…as well as having a parallel effect in the spiritual.
The question that entered my mind, then, is this: since Jesus, Immanuel – God with us – needed no “chaff” to be removed, why would the word tribulation be more a more appropriate choice for describing difficult external circumstances than adversity?
This is only a guess…but I think it was in His embodiment of that clash-of-realms that His Life, death, and Resurrection represents, in fact – dramatically brings onto the earthly scene. He emerged victorious…and sets the example for us.
This would be consistent in the way Paul often spoke about “tribulation”: “…we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance…” (Romans 5:3, NASB) In a mindset that equates “adversity” and “tribulation” as more-or-less interchangeable terms (except for a degree of magnitude) Paul seems to infer that the greater the depth of difficulty, the more certain we are that perseverance will be established in our lives. But consider the added nuance and strength expressed in an interpretation that might be read, “we exult in the process that separates the spiritual ‘wheat’ in our lives from the deceptive ‘chaff’…”