The Shepherd Heart
December 29th, 1963 @ 10:50 AM
THE SHEPHERD HEART
Dr. W.A. Criswell
12-29-63 10:50 a.m.
On radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Well, I wanted to talk about my own heart’s desire and ambition for the year that lies ahead and for the years beyond, if God gives us length of days and the grace of the presence of His Holy Spirit among us. In the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts:
Paul called from Miletus, down on the seashore, from Miletus to Ephesus; for the pastors of the church. And when they were come, he said to them…
Then follows one of the most moving of all of the appeals to be found in literature and in the Word of God. And as he describes to them their assigned work, he says in verse 28:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers—
shepherds to take care of—
to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.
And the admonition strikes such a deep and responsive chord in my own soul. “Take heed,” addressing the pastor of the church, “Take heed to yourself and, to all the flock, over the which God hath made you a shepherd, to feed, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood [Acts 20:28].” I have three things that I would love to do more than anything in the world, as the shepherd of the flock, three things I would love to do.
One: first, I would love to try to be the best pastor in the world. I wish I could be that. I began preaching when I was seventeen years old, and I preached furiously, like a cyclone, like a tornado, like a hurricane. I preached all over the place. I preached loud. You could hear me three, five miles on any clear evening. I was just born that way. That was just I. And in those days, people coming to tabernacles and schoolhouses and street corners hearing me preach, after they’d listen awhile, they’d all say, and there was great unanimity in this verdict, they would all say, “He’s going to be an evangelist. He’s going to be a fiery evangelist.”
Yet, when I was seventeen years of age and began to pastor my little country congregations, my heart was in that shepherdly ministry. That was thirty-six years ago. And after thirty-six years, in my soul, I am as committed to being a shepherd of the flock as I was in the days of my youth pastoring my little country churches. I’ve never deviated from that commitment, nor has the love for it ever changed in my soul. I lived with the people for the first ten years, almost ten years of my ministry. I knew them so well. I stayed in their homes. I broke bread at their tables. I knew their children. I entered into all of the vicissitudes and fortunes and exigencies that overwhelmed them in their daily lives. I loved that kind of a ministry. I still do. And I feel no different about this church than I felt about the first little church God gave me to pastor that had maybe thirty-five or thirty-eight members. The same spirit that I knew among God’s sainted people in that little congregation is the same spirit that I recognize in this congregation today.
When Dr. Forrest Feaser was executive secretary of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, he was somewhere in this state addressing an associational meeting. And after his address, a pastor came up to him, introduced himself and said he was pastor of the second largest country church in the world. Dr. Feaser got to thinking about that, and he went back to the pastor and said, “Just interested me. You said you were pastor of the second largest country church in the world. Well, who is pastor of the biggest country church in the world?” And that fellow replied, “Criswell there in Dallas.”
Oh, I like that! I like that. If there is any “better than thou-ness” in this congregation, if there is any aloofness, if there is any starchiness or stiffness, if there’s any, “I’m not interested in you-ness, nor am I wanting to know you-ness,” if there is any of that in this congregation, I could pray God would dissolve it and wash it away. We’re all just fellow Christians, sinners saved by grace [Ephesians 2:8], trying to serve our Lord, only that He give us ableness to do it better.
Dr. Truett, forty-seven years the pastor of this church, and the greatest Baptist leader and spokesman and preacher our Southern Baptist Convention has ever produced, Dr. Truett one time was invited to be president of Baylor University. And when he gave his reply, he said it in a sentence that is as beautiful as it is typical of the heart of the great pastor. He replied to the committee from Baylor University, “I have sought and I have found the shepherd heart,” and he remained as pastor of the church here; but what a beautiful way to say it, “I have sought and I have found the shepherd heart.”
As you know, Dr. Truett was greatly admired by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. The senior Mr. Rockefeller was the superintendent of the Sunday school at the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. And when they became pastorless there in Rockefeller’s church, they sent a committee down here with instructions to bring back George W. Truett to Cleveland, Ohio and give him anything that he asked.
So the committee came down here to Dallas to visit with Dr. Truett, and they offered him one fabulous salary, and a higher salary, and another fabulous salary, and the preacher said, “No.”
Then they finally said, “Well, name your salary, any salary.”
“No,” said Dr. Truett, “No.”
Then the committee finally said, “Well, Dr. Truett, can you be moved?”
“Oh yes,” said Dr. Truett, “Yes, indeed. Yes, I can be moved.”
And with that glint of hope and expectancy they eagerly then said, “Well, what would it take? What would it take to move you?”
And Dr. Truett humbly replied, “Just move my people.” His heart was here. His life was here. His voice was here. His ministry was here. “I have sought,” he said, “and found the shepherd heart.” And he loved this holy place.
I am in no wise seeking to lift my voice as though I could follow so illustrious and so world famed a pastor. I am just saying that that kind of a thing, though in far humbler degree, that kind of a thing is the thing I have felt in my heart all the days of my life. Since I was a small, small boy sitting in the congregation by my mother, looking at my father singing in the choir, and listening to those old time preachers who were our pastors, since those days I have never had but one longing, and one desire, and one ambition, “Lord, that I might be the pastor of a church.”
Oh, there are so many things I wish I could do in this ministry. There are wives who belong to our church whose husbands are lost, children in families who belong to our church and their parents are lost. I wish I had length of hours in the days to go to visit, to knock at the door, to open God’s Word, to try to lead them to a saving faith in Christ. I wish I could share in all of the problems, and sorrows, and despairs, and disappointments of our people and kneel down and pray when those dark hours come.
I wish I could share the gladnesses of our people. Whether they’d want me or not, I’d like to break bread in every household, and look at the children as they ate, and stuff myself just as they do, get to weigh two hundred pounds, listen to the doctor as he inveighs against it, but tell him I’m having such a good time I’d rather die like this than live any other way. I’d like that. I’d like that. I don’t think there is any life in the earth so personally rewarding as the shepherd of a flock seeking to be the pastor of his people.
All right, I have a second thing I would love to do. You may think, “Well, you know our preacher studies all the time anyway. Why would he mention this second thing?” Because I think, I am persuaded there is more to the power and the presence of God than I have ever seen or known or felt. I would love to pore over this Book and to ask God to teach me, to open my mind that I might understand, and then with this blessed Holy Book in my hand, tell our people the great truths that God hath intended and purposed for us.
Sunday week, the twelfth day of January, I am beginning two long series of sermons. Sunday night, that Sunday night, I shall begin preaching on the life of Christ, and every Sunday night thereafter for a long time, I shall preach on the life of Christ, telling about Jesus, telling everything I can find about the Lord, everything my mind can grasp; His coming [Matthew 1:20-25], His ministry [Matthew 11:4-5], His atonement [Matthew 27:32-50], His glorious resurrection [Matthew 28:1-7], and triumphant ascension [Acts 1:9], and His coming again [Acts 1:10-11]; preaching on the life of Christ. Then at the morning hours, I’m going to turn myself and my heart to the delivery of messages I’ve been working on already for a long time.
As you know, for seventeen years and eight months, I preached through the Bible, started at Genesis clear through the Revelation, finished it; finished preaching through the Bible after more than seventeen years, the first Sunday of last October. Heretofore, in preaching, I have looked at a text, maybe a word, maybe a paragraph, maybe a chapter and so on through the Bible, but I have never studied and I have never tried to preach what God says in the whole breadth and sweep of the Word of God, and I want to do that. What God says; what God says about the Holy Spirit, not so much the word and the language, but O God, in the power and demonstration of His presence.
There’s a theological word that’s much used nowadays, “confrontation.” I would like personally to have a confrontation with God, and to describe the experience and the power of meeting the Lord. And the breadth and the length of those endless subjects, what God says about heaven, what God says about the everlasting states of the righteous and the wicked, what God says about atonement, what God says about repentance, what God says about the new birth. O Lord, may God touch my mind and my soul and give me understanding as I study and seek to deliver these messages Sunday by Sunday.
Then I have another thing I would like to do. I would love, if God would give me strength, I would love to teach division by division, age group by age group, I would love to teach the faith, the doctrine, the truth of Almighty God! The Latin word for “to teach” is docere. The Latin word doctor is “teacher,” “doctor,” like sensei in Japanese, like rabbi in Hebrew, “doctor,’ “teacher.” And doctrine, doctrine is the thing taught. Oh, that we had opportunity and that God would help me to teach our people the doctrine, the truth of the faith.
We are living in a day of watered-down compromise beyond anything I have ever thought to see in my wildest imagination; coexist with anything, anything, anything! If we had devils, and rattlesnakes, and cobras coexist with anything, as though truth, and fact, and revelation were malleable and pliable, like a man made out of putty; pull his nose this way, yank his ears that way, extend his legs the other way! I have often thought as I read and listen, I have often thought what the martyrs would think if they look upon us today in our time and in our generation.
John Leland, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and a thousand others who poured their lives, and their blood, and their fortunes in behalf of the truth of Almighty God; I wonder what they would think. In one of those old musty dust covered history books years ago, I read this story.
The Christians were being fed to the lions. Tier upon tier in the vast arena the spectators were gathered as the Christians were being fed to the lions. And they were called out in this particular arrangement; they were called out, one at a time, and thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.
And this particular Christian, called out as his time came to face those cruel and ferocious and carnivorous beasts, and as that Christian walked with his head up and his heart strong, as he walked with the guard to the gate that led into the arena, he met a Christian friend coming back. And the Christian being led to the iron grate and into the arena spoke the Christian greeting to his Christian friend returning and said, “Maranatha, maranatha,” which was the ancient Christian greeting, “Maranatha, the Lord cometh, the Lord cometh, maranatha, maranatha.” And then he added, “I will see you in the morning on the other side of the river, maranatha, maranatha,” and was led into the arena, fed to the beasts. What he didn’t know; what he didn’t know was that the friend returning from the arena had denied the faith! He had recanted his profession in Christ. And as his reward for his denial he was given his life.
I wonder what the martyrs think of us today, who will deny any truth, who will compromise any doctrine in order to coexist with people who throw their energies into a denial of everything we hold dear. I don’t think a human body can stand up without a skeleton for a structure. And I don’t think a faith can exist without the truth, the doctrine, the teaching of God to sustain it. And I would love, please God in someway, I would love to instill into the souls of our children and our youth and our young people these sublime and heavenly revelations by which God someday shall judge the earth and by which now, even now, God makes this world and nation to stand.
“To you,” said young men in the poem, “to you,” said young men who had laid down their lives for us,
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If you break faith with us who die,
[“In Flanders Fields,” John McCrae, 1915]
And the end of the sentence is inconceivable, inconceivable. We follow in their train. Our lives, our fortunes, our commitments, our souls and whatever we are to God and to the world, Lord, we dedicate it, our utmost, our finest and highest and best to Thee.
May the Lord speed us in strength and in His holy presence as we enter the most memorable and epochal of all of the years we have ever faced together. Now we’re going to sing our invitation hymn. And while we sing the song of appeal, somebody you, to give his heart to Christ Jesus [Romans 10:9-10], you come and stand by me. A family you, putting your life in the fellowship of the church, as God shall say the word, shall open wide the door, shall make the appeal, come, make it now, make it today. “Preacher, I give you my hand. I have given my heart to God.” Or, “Pastor, this is my wife, these are our children, all of us are coming today.” As God shall press home the word of the appeal to your heart, make it now. “Here I am. Here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.