The Star Of Hope
December 25th, 1955 @ 10:50 AM
THE STAR OF HOPE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-25-55 10:50 a. m.
The title of the sermon this morning is The Star of Hope. It is a message on the overcoming providences of God, and the text is out of the Scripture that we read: "And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy" [Matthew 2:10] – that star of hope, that star of wonder, shining in a dark, dark sky.
We are so accustomed to the glory of the Lord that shown around the scene of the Nativity of our wonderful Savior until we are inclined to make a part of that glory and of that light and of that joy almost all of the names that are associated with it. It was so far and so different from that actually.
When we turn to the story of the birth of our Savior, almost every character that is named in it is a dark and bloody and sinister person on the stage of human history. But out of it, God wrought such wondrous and marvelous salvation; and that is the thesis of the message this morning: that we are never to lose hope, nor are we ever to be discouraged, for God’s star always shines in the sky. There is always a beacon light in God’s night. Always away and above and beyond what is dark and discouraging in this world is the ultimate promise of the ultimate victory of our living God. I say that is the thesis of the message this morning, and the sermon is its illustration.
Luke begins the story of the Nativity of Christ with the naming of a character, Caesar Augustus. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled" [Luke 2:1]. And according to the custom of the Jewish people, each one went to his own city to be enrolled. The census was taken, according to Jewish custom, by families and by tribes. "So Joseph, who lived in Galilee in the city of Nazareth, went into Judea, to his city, Bethlehem, there to be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child," [from Luke 2:4-5]. Now that’s the way Luke starts the story.
And the first personality named there is this one who makes a decree, and it blankets the world for he had it all in his hand: this decree from Caesar Augustus. Well, that word "Augustus" doesn’t mean much to us, but back there two thousand years ago, that word "august" was applied just to God and just to the ritual and worship of God. A temple was an august temple because it was dedicated to God. Certain rites and certain ceremonies were august rituals because they were used just in the worship of God, and an august personality was none other than the deity Himself.
Now beyond that word "Augustus," I see the blood of uncounted Christian martyrs. I see an illimitable persecution of the early church – that word "Augustus" – for Caesar applied it to himself. Augustus Caesar was the first one who proclaimed himself a deity among the emperors of Rome, and thereafter each one of the Caesars made his own effigy, and he placed it in the temples of the Roman Empire.
And the people were commanded by law to bow down and worship the image of the Caesar. They had a little test word: it was "Kurios Kaiser or Kurios Iēsous?" And if one said "Kurios Iēsous, Jesus is Lord," and not "Kurios Kaisar, Caesar is lord," why then the Christian was condemned to death, or to the galley slave, or to rot in a dungeon. But it meant always persecution and deprivation.
So the first thing that I see in this Christmas story is the name of Caesar Augustus. He was the world’s first undisputed fÃ¼hrer. He was the first world’s complete and absolute dictator. He held the entire civilized Mediterranean world in the palm of his hand, and he ruled it with an iron fist. This is Caesar Augustus.
And yet out of that, the Lord wrought those great providences that made possible the universal proclamation of the Gospel of the Son of God. Caesar Augustus, having one world under his domain, had no wars in it. There was the tramp, tramp, tramp of the Roman soldier everywhere, and they put down rebellion and the fires of independence with a ruthless and a merciless hand. It was a world ruled by one man.
Consequently, it was one world, and it made for a little era of peace in which time the gospel had opportunity to be preached everywhere. He bound his empire together by marvelous roads. Transportation and communication was easy. That made it possible for the Gospel of the Son of God to be preached everywhere in the world. The world was under one language. All of your educated people and all people of commerce and industry spoke Greek, and those who did not speak Greek were accustomed to the language of the Latins. And that made it possible for the people to hear the gospel in their own tongue.
It was a ruthless and a merciless – it was a cruel and an oppressive world ruled over by the dictator Caesar Augustus. But out of it, God wrought those great things that made possible the conversion of early civilization to the Christian faith and the Christian religion.
When Matthew begins his story, he starts with this man named Herod: Herod the king of the Jews [Matthew 2:1]. And who is Herod? Herod is a petty tyrant. Herod is a bloody monster [Matthew 2:16] who has in his hands, under the will of Augustus Caesar, the little kingdom of Judea [Matthew 2:1]. And he rules it just like a ruthless dictator would rule a country. Anybody who might by any means challenge his throne is immediately and heartlessly destroyed [Matthew 2:13]. In his own household, he slew his own wife; he slew his uncle, he slew his brother; he strangled his two children, Aristobulus and Anthony.
He was so bloody and he was so cruel in his life until Caesar Augustus said about him, "In Herod’s household, you are no better off being a hunos than a huios." The Greek word for "pig" is hunos, and the Greek word for son is huios. And Caesar Augustus himself said about Herod the Great that in Herod’s household, you’re no better off being a pig than you are being a son, or no better off being a son than you are being a pig.
It was a ruthless, and a bloody, and cruel tyrant who ruled over the land of Judea. And yet, out of that land and out of that country, and in the kingdom of Herod himself, and below his bloody hand, there was born the Savior of all the world [Matthew 2:1-23]. No wonder Isaiah described him as "a root out of a dry ground" [Isaiah 53:2] – a part of the overcoming, overwhelming providences of God.
As Luke begins his story, he also speaks of the high priests. In those days, when the Word of God came to men through John and through Jesus, the high priests, who were they? Never in the history of humanity has religion ever fallen into the decadence, into the simony, into the corruption that religion fell in the days of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. Religion was instrumental as a manipulation in the hands of men to gain personal interests and to achieve personal aggrandizement.
Religion was taken away from the true spirit of humility and the worship of God, and it was nothing other than an instrument by which some people sought to gain for themselves great merit [Matthew 23:5-7], and for other people, to keep the poor and the ignorant in oppression [Matthew 23:4, 25]. That was religion in the days when Luke began this story: "In those days, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the Word of God came" [Luke 3:2].
Yet out of that religion, and out of that faith, and out of that decadence came the most startling of all of the sermons, and of the ethics, and philosophies, and salvation, and redemption – everything that a man who is intellectual or a man who’s hungry for God – there’s no limit to the depths of the sea of the revelation of God that came to us out of that day and out of that faith and out of that religion in the days of Annas and Caiaphas who were the high priests.
And that same story: out of the darkness of the night, and out of the merciless cruelty of humanity, and out of discouragement and slavery and oppression, God has wrought His tremendous triumphs and His great victories. And that great truth has never deviated under the hand of God from that day of the Nativity until this.
As the story followed through, Nero came to be Caesar Augustus, and he cruelly persecuted the Christians, putting them to death. And yet, out of that persecution, came the letter of Paul the apostle who died in that persecution. Out of that persecution came the letter of the apostle Paul to his young son, Timothy, in the ministry:
For the time of my departure is at hand.
I’ve fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.
[2 Timothy 4:6-8]
Paul was not discouraged. His spirit was not fallen, but he was lifted up. And out of his dungeon, out of his mamertine prison, he wrote the incomparable letter Second Timothy: the climax as well as the swan song of his glorious preaching and missionary labors.
Then the day came when [Domitian] [51-96 CE] was the Emperor Augustus, and he banished John to the isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9]: an old man, aged, aged, placed on a stony isle to die of exposure and privation. You would have thought that was an hour of absolute despair and despondency. Not so. There on that barren isle by himself, left to die of exposure and famine, there John saw the heavens open, and he wrote the incomparable Revelation [Revelation 1:1-3] that ends in the triumph of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of all heaven, and the Lord of all the earth [Revelation 21:1-22:21]. That’s the faith. That’s Christianity. That’s the Gospel of the Son of God.
Then the days went by, and under the terrible persecution of Decius [c. 201-251], the church was wasted and destroyed. But out of that came the Nicene Conference, the Nicene Council [325 CE]. And the pastors from all over the Roman Empire, when they gathered together to frame the Nicene Creed, they were a motley looking group. They were there, some of them with their eyes punched out, some of them with their tongues cut out, some of them with their fingers cut off, some of them with their feet cut off, some of them so beaten until they were never able to stand up straight again.
They were the preachers. They were the pastors of the churches who had gone through that terrible, terrible persecution under Decius. But out of it came the great Nicene Creed which is the creed of orthodoxy for the Christian churches and the Christian people of all time. It has never failed. It doesn’t fail: God’s overwhelming providences – the star of hope.
The story goes on. In those centuries of the 400’s and the 500’s and the 600’s, there came out of the north hordes. We know them as Goths and as Visigoths and as Vandals. And they came – great masses of humanity driven by war mongering masters. They were an unusual people those Germanic Teutonic Vandals and Goths. They carried their families with them into battle. It was to live or to die with them. There was no retreat. There was no lessening of the hand. When they marched, they marched all together. And they fought, they fought to live or to be totally destroyed; and they overwhelmed the Roman Empire. They sacked the city of Rome. They carried the people into slavery.
By the seventh century, the proud Latin language was spoken and heard no more. They destroyed the classics; they burned the libraries; they set the torch to the cities. They overwhelmed and destroyed the Greco-Roman civilization. It never recovered again. It never flourished again so completely was it destroyed.
And yet in the story of the savage attack and the ruthless burning and pillaging of the Goth and the Vandal, there came the most miraculous and unbelievable thing. First, they never touched a church of the Lord Jesus Christ, not a one. With awe and in reverence, they found the true God in Jesus Christ and in the churches of the Roman Empire.
I’m talking about our ancestors. I’m talking about these Germanic tribes from the north of Europe. They found Jesus. They never burned the church. They never destroyed a church. With a feeling of awe and of worship, they themselves were converted to the faith.
A second thing: they never burned a Bible. They destroyed the classics: Virgil, Ovid, Sapphos, Demosthenes, Virgil, Homer – name all of them. They burned every classic they could find. They destroyed every library they could lay their hands upon, but they never touched the Bible. Every Bible they kept sacred and alive. They kept it inviolate just as they found it.
And then, one other thing: out of those dark and tragic days, when Rome was sacked and burned and when the whole Greco civilization was falling apart and being destroyed by those great masses of humanity that were coming down from the north, in those days, there arose the greatest Christian and the greatest intellectual exponent of Christ since the Bible days. His name was Augustine [Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 CE]. And when the world was in despair, and when people were bowed down in oppression and in slavery everywhere, Augustine wrote the incomparable book calledThe City of God [426 CE]. It is a Book of the holy and the New Jerusalem that is yet to come: the great city of God [Revelation 21:1-2].
It never fails. Out of its darkness and out of its night, God always places that star, and it always shines. And His overwhelming providences bring out of defeat and destruction and slavery and oppression the incomparable victories by which our world is immeasurably blessed [Acts 2:22-24; Romans 8:28].
So the story goes on, and soon after – reading down through these pages – soon after, there arose on the back side of the Arabian Desert, there arose Mohammed [570-632 CE] and his caliphs. And those men began to conquer the entire civilized world. The Mohammedan overran Africa. The Mohammedan overran the Levant. The Mohammedan overran the eastern part of Europe; and he came and conquered Spain and was overcoming Gall, France, the central part of Europe, until he was met by Charles Martel [688-741 CE] in 732.
But out of that terrible vice and destruction of the Mohammedan Islamic faith, there came the fervor of those marching Knights Templar of the Crusades, going back to the great holy places – Bethlehem being one of them – in Palestine. And out of the fervency of those Crusaders, there came the Renaissance; and out of that Renaissance there came the great Reformation of the Christian faith: men learning again the true gospel message of the Son of God, men reading the Bible as it was written in the Greek language and in the Hebrew language, and men translating it into the vernacular of the people – the Germans reading it in German, and the Englishmen reading it English, and the Frenchmen reading it in French, and the Italian reading it in Italian. Out of those dark, dark and oppressive days came God’s overwhelming gifts to humanity.
Then the story goes on. It always goes on, and it follows that same and undeviating pattern: a world of oppression, and night, and slavery, and out of it, God bringing to pass His great triumphant victories – His star that always shines in the sky.
Of our own people and of our own kind, of our own church and of our own faith, its story is written in oppression and in blood. Hubmaier [Balthasar Hubmaier 1480-1528] is burned at the stake in the little center square of ancient Vienna – burned there because he was a Baptist preacher. And his wife was drowned in the Danube River because she refused to recant her Baptist faith.
John Bunyan [1628-1688] is placed twelve years in Bedford Jail. "Any minute," said Charles I [1600-16] to John Bunyan, "Any minute that you will say, ‘I’ll preach the Gospel of Christ no more,’ the door will be opened and you’ll be at liberty."
But John Bunyan said, "I’d rather die and rot in this prison than to recount that faith," and he’d preach it through the bars of his prison door. And he made lace inside of his cell in order that he might support his family; and his little blind daughter, Mary, stood outside the prison door and sold the lace that her Baptist preacher father, John Bunyan, was making inside of his prison cell.
Roger Williams [c.1603-1683] was driven out from the face of the white man here in the United States of America because of his great principles of religious freedom: an unfettered conscience and the right of any man to speak for whatever faith or no faith at all.
Yet out of the devotion of those men of God in whose train we today are hardly worthy to follow, out of the suffering and privation of those people came these incomparable blessings that hallow our days and our times in this hour and generation in which we presently live.
Now we come, in this brief story of our human history since the days of the Nativity of Christ, we come to our day and to our generation. This world is so different in its two halves. I cannot understand how it could be the same globe and we so different here and they so different there. There are brethren of our faith, there are brethren of our church, there are brethren of our religion who this day, as for years and years past, are this Christmas day in prison, bound in prison. There are people of our faith and of our church – there are people of our religion and of our Christ who do no other thing than weep over the slain members of their family who have been put to death for no other reason than that they embrace the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. One half of this world, one half of this world is under oppression and slavery even now, and there is no such thing as going to bed at night without apprehension of what any tomorrow may bring.
I have been twice in Jerusalem. The first time I was there, I looked out of my window staying in the Saint Andrew’s Hospice just this side of the old walls of Jerusalem. I looked out my window, and there I saw something that was so typical of this world. When I went back this last summer, I stood in the same place and saw the same thing again. The five years that have intervened have made no difference. And the five hundred years make no difference. And the five thousand years make no difference.
That scene that I saw is typical of the ever-recurring story of this human world. What was the scene that I saw? This is it. Jerusalem is right here, and Bethlehem is just right there. You can stand here and see the great city of Jerusalem there and see the little city of Bethlehem there. They’re just five miles apart. From where Jesus was born to where Jesus died is so short a journey. From the Nativity at Christmastime to the crucifixion at Easter time, from His birth to His resurrection, is just such a little distance, just a little way. It’s just five miles.
And the road from there to there in that country that is so rough and rocky, the road follows a smooth ridge; and it is so easy, so easy, to go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. They’re just right there. The only thing is, you cannot do it. They’re just that close. They’re just there and there, and it’s smooth all the way, and it follows a ridge. And on each side are tremendously great and deep ravines and mountains and wildernesses. But it’s so easy to go from one to the other. But you can’t. Why can’t you?
Because the Bethlehem road is cut in two; and there where it is cut in two, there are men on this side with muskets and cannon and gun, and there are men on the other side with musket and cannon and gun. And the road is cut in two. And there you’ll find barbed wire. And there you’ll find what they call dragon’s teeth, those concrete pyramids, in order to stop the advance of onrushing tanks. And you can hear the crack of the rifle.
And since coming back home, you read of those tragic clashes that go on endlessly, go on endlessly between the Ishmael, the son of Abraham [Genesis 16:15], and Isaac, the son of Abraham [Genesis 21:3] – men who come from the same family, men who call Abraham their [father], but there is no surcease. There’s no stopping. There’s no way out. There’s no hope. There’s nothing but abject despair and what seemingly is a final resolution in bloody and merciless war.
That same picture I see between us and our Soviet enemies. They smile for a moment at Geneva [Geneva, Switzerland], and we sometimes are so gullible as to think they have repudiated all of those old doctrines of Karl Marx [1818-1883] and Friedrich Engels [1820-1895]. They’re not for world revolution any longer. They’re for peace. They’re our friends and our neighbors, but all of the time they are our sworn and our bitter enemies, and they do nothing by day and by night but plot our ultimate destruction. Every weapon that they fashion is fashioned against us, and every diplomatic victory they win is against us. And every maneuver that they make is against us. And any little old brief respite that we might have is at their choosing that they might have time the more certainly to vanquish and to destroy us. That’s the kind of a world we live in, and I am telling you nothing but God’s truth.
But I say, it says here in the Bible: "And it came to pass, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus" [Luke 2:1]. But what does God care about a decree from any Caesar Augustus? What is that to God? And I read in my Bible, "And Herod said, ‘You tell me where He is that I may come and worship Him also’" [Matthew 2:8], but he drew his sword to slay the Child [Matthew 2:13]. But what is Herod to the Lord God Almighty? And it says over here that "In those days, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priest" [Luke 3:2]. But what is a decadent and corrupt religion to the great Lord God? These things are nothing in His sight [Matthew 23:27-36].
The Lord has willed and the Lord has decreed the victory of His people [Romans 8:35-39; 1 Corinthians 15:56-57]. The Lord has decreed that His Son shall reign [Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10]. God has decreed that the kingdom ultimately, and finally, and everlastingly shall be ours! [2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 12:1-6] We are to inherit it [Romans 8:17].
When I read the paper, therefore, I’m not to be discouraged. He wasn’t discouraged. When I see these things develop upon the human stage, I’m not to fall into despair. He did not fall into despair. When I live as a contemporary and become conversant with China and what China is doing, and India and what India is playing with, and Soviet Russia and their designs, and all of those things that enter into this international scene, I am not to be weary. I’m not to be fallen down. I’m not to be discouraged. I’m not to be shaken in my faith [Psalm 27:1-3].
However this thing turns, it turns under the permissive will of God [Job 2:3-7]. However this thing develops, though it is on so vast a scale I cannot see it or understand it, but out of it God shall once again bring those incomparable and matchless victories by which He blessed the world in ages past and by which He shall bring us to our final and eternal home. We’ll never lose, not we. That star always shines; it ever does. Our Savior will always reign: He does in heaven [Matthew 28:18-20], and someday He will in earth [Revelation 20:1-10].
And God’s people are a triumphant people [Romans 8:37]. We’re a victorious people. We’re a marching people. We are a people with Christmas in our hearts in December and in January and in July and in August. And when the next Christmas comes again, it’s His world. We’re His people, the sheep of His pasture [Psalm 95:7], and the victory is already decreed. It is ours – God said so – fixed in heaven [1 Peter 1:3-5]. And someday we shall rejoice in Him and in one another and in this faith, world without end [Revelation 5:8-10].
So sing a song! Why, certainly sing it. Read this Book. Why, certainly read it. Come to church, yes sir. Come to church. Live in this faith, yes sir, living in the faith. Facing the future, yes sir, facing the future: pressed forward, face lifted high, hand in glorious salute to the living God [Philippians 3:13-14]. It is ours, eternally decreed. That’s the star of faith that goes before that leads us to where Jesus is.
Now we’re going to sing our song. While we sing the song, somebodyyou, give his heart to Jesus. Somebody you, put your life in the church. "Preacher, my lot and my fortune is not to be with those who live in the cynic’s house. I’m with those who believe in God, and I believe in His Son, the Lord Jesus. I believe in the victory that pertains to Him. My heart shall be God’s. However, my life in this flesh may turn, my faith, my heart, my hope is in Him. He is my Savior."
If you’d give Him your soul and your life, come and give me your hand. "This is my token, pastor, that my heart and faith is given to God this Christmas day, this glorious, triumphant day. Here I am, and here I come." Or into the fellowship of His church, a family of you, or one somebodyyou: while we sing the appeal and while we wait, would you make it now while we stand and while we sing?