THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
Dr. W.A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 1:18-21, 25; 2:1-2
4-12-63 12:00 p.m.
The series of sermons this week, the five, were built around the theme, “The Signs of God.” And the last one is today, The Sign of the Cross. Monday, it was The Signs of the Times; Tuesday, The Sign of the Virgin Birth; Wednesday, The Sign of the Prophet Jonah; yesterday, The Sign of Our Lord’s Second Coming; and today, The Sign of the Cross.
Now it may be a few minutes longer today, and this is a busy lunch hour, and all of you who have assignments and tasks to which you must return, we understand. And if you have to leave in the middle of a sentence, it is all right. We are just grateful you took time out to spend these few minutes today with us. And we pray that Easter will be a wonderful service in your church, among your people, and again if you have no responsibility next Sunday night at seven thirty in the great auditorium, we’d love to welcome you to that mighty, glorious, God-praising, Lord-worshipping, soul-saving hour.
Now today, in the first Corinthian letter, in the first and the second chapters:
For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God.
For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching—what a strange way—by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not in excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the oracles of God.
For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
[1 Corinthians 1:18-21, 25, 2:1-2]
Just to read those verses is to sense in apostle Paul a conflict in his life. “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” [1 Corinthians 2:2]. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that are perishing foolishness [1 Corinthians 1:18]; but I determined to preach its message nonetheless.” You can sense in those verses the conflict in his soul.
Now, where it arose can easily be found in reading the life of the apostle Paul as his beloved physician, Dr. Luke, wrote it in the Book of Acts. You see, everywhere Paul went he created unbelievable and pointed and bitter persecution. Some places they’d stone him, drag him out for dead [Acts 14:19]. Other places they’d beat him and put him in a dungeon [Acts 16:23]—all except one place, when he came to preach the gospel to the cultured and intellectual Athenians standing there in the court of the Areopagus, preaching the gospel of the Son of God [Acts 17:19-29].
When he began to speak of the cross of our Lord, of His burial, and of His resurrection, the Epicurean philosophers laughed out loud; the foolishness! The Stoic philosophers were a little more culturally gracious and kind. They smiled and bowed out saying, “Well, we will hear thee again of this matter” [Acts 17:31-32]. You know a man can meet persecution, opposition, and it will just strengthen him in his dedication to the faith. But when you laugh at him, and mock him, and make fun of him, and ridicule him it melts him down like wax. That’s human nature.
On the road as he walked across the Corinthian isthmus from Athens to Corinth, Paul reviewed the whole philosophy of and message of the cross. In the days of the intellectual, the academician, the philosopher, the wisdom of this world; what of this foolishness of the cross of the Son of God? He reviewed it all.
There’s not a preacher in the earth that does not go through that same experience. Shall I trade the old message and the old gospel for the new sophistry, and the new theology, the new psychiatrical approach? Shall I exchange it for these programs of economic amelioration? And all of the issues that lie in modern discussion, editorial comment, things you can read in any newspaper, buy it for twenty cents on any magazine rack; to my sorrow, most ministers do. They exchange the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God for the new intellectual approach.
It’s like a railroad whose engineer drove the freight train to a wreck, and when he was haled before the board of inquiry, they asked the engineer, “Why didn’t you stop? Did you see the flag?”
“Yes,” said the engineer, “but it was white.”
They called in the flagman and said, “The engineer here avows the flag was white.”
The flagman said, “No, it was red.”
They called for the flag. It had been red, but the rain had washed the color out of it.
That is so true with so much of the preaching of the gospel of Christ today. The color, the crimson atoning color has gone out of it. Here beneath the shadow of that cross, the apostles, the martyrs, the witnesses of Christ took their stand, “God forbid,” they said, “that I should boast, that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Galatians 6:14]. And in every leaf and in every syllable of the New Testament they left behind, every word is stained by His sufferings and inspired by His blood.
Now this noonday, may I speak what the preaching of the cross of the Son of God will do? First: you will find in it the key, the understanding, the explanation of the mission of our Lord into this world. Outside of that key, the life of our Savior is a cheap farce. It’s a divine comedy. It’s a burlesque. It’s a failure and a despair!
For example, this great humanitarian the world knows, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, whose hospital is in the French Cameroons in Africa, he’s a humanitarian of tremendous stature, but he’s not a Christian like I think of a Christian. For example, this is what he believes.
Some years ago, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who himself is a great German theologian and rationalist, he wrote a book entitled, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, after the historical Jesus. And in that book he says that the Lord Jesus looked for the apocalyptic descension of the kingdom of heaven from God; and when it didn’t come and when it didn’t happen, that Jesus died in frustration, and in defeat, and in despair, a ruined, and a helpless, and a defeated man. That is the theology of Albert Schweitzer.
What is the teaching of the Word of God regarding the meaning of the suffering and the death of the Lord Christ? It is this; that He came into this world, that there was a body prepared for Him in order that He might die a sacrifice, an atonement for our sins [Hebrews 10:5-14]. And from the beginning of this Book to the end, that same great atoning sacrifice of Christ is invariably and always presented. He is called in eternity the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world [Revelation 13:8]. All of the great prophets like Isaiah, “He is led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opened up not His mouth” [Isaiah 53:7].
All prophets spake of His coming death, a sacrifice for our sins. In the announcement of His birth, “Call His name Iesous”—that is the word JESUS, Savior: “for He shall save His people from their sins” [Matthew 1:21]. In His introduction by John the Baptist, “Behold,” said John, “the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. In His great Galilean ministry, He spoke of the fact that He must suffer and die in Jerusalem [Matthew 16:21]. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus speaking to Him concerning His death, which He should accomplish at Jerusalem [Luke 9:28-31]. When the Greeks came to see Him at the Passover Feast He said, “Except a corn of wheat fall in the ground and die, it abideth alone [John 12:24]. And if I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me” [John 12:32]. And when Mary anointed Him at the feast in Bethany, He said, “She hath done it for My burying” [Mark 14:8].
On that night of nights when they celebrated the Passover, “He took bread, and blessed it, and said, This is My body given for you. And He took the cup, and blessed it, and said, This is My blood of the new covenant, shed for the remission of sins” [Matthew 26:26-28].
And when He died on the cross, He bowed His head and said, “It is finished” [John 19:30]. What is finished? The great atoning sacrifice, the product of which you have found in all of the blood shed on all of the altars of all the world [1 John 2:2]. “It is finished,” the atonement of God for the sins of the world. The purpose of His coming is to be found in His tears, in His agony, in His sobs, in His cries, in His suffering, and in His death. “This is a faithful saying, Christ Jesus came into the world to die for sinners, to save sinners; of whom,” says Paul, “I am chief” [1Timothy 1:15], and we’d say, “No, Paul, I. Of whom I am chief.”
A second thing about the preaching of the cross of the Son of God, first: it is an explanation, it is an understanding of the purpose of the ministry of our Lord in this earth; not by His pure and holy life, but “by His stripes we are healed” [1 Peter 2:24]. Second: in the preaching of the cross we are given a divine revelation of the meaning and the significance of human suffering.
By and by, by and by, every soul that lives shall repeat that heart-broken agony of our Lord as He was nailed to the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” My God, My God, why, oh why?” [Matthew 27:46]. If you have not come to that dark valley of agony and suffering and despair, you shall. And you will cry like Jesus cried and like all humanity ultimately cries. “O my God, why, oh why?”
We had in one of my pastorates a young doctor, missionary’s son, whose brother I went to school with, loved them like my own family. They had a little child, another little child, and then a third little girl was born. When I went to see the mother and the little baby, the child was plainly mongoloid. To my horror, instead of recognizing it, the mother made as though the child were actually perfectly altogether normal. And the days passed, and the months passed, and when I’d visit in the home, always that attitude, always; the child normal, not ill, nothing wrong.
Then upon a time, visiting in the home, she said, “Would you sit down by my side?” And I sat down. She went into another room and came out with that little girl so evidently mongoloid. She held her in her arms, turned to me and said, “We have received our last and final report from the doctors in New York City, and my child is forever mongoloid.” Then that inevitable question, “Why? Why? Why? What have we done? What has happened? Why? Why our little girl? Why? Why?”
Before I continue the message; what do you say, what do I say? And I meet it often. This is what I say: “God knew a little afflicted girl was coming into this world, and the Lord searched through all of the homes and families for a sweet couple who would receive the little life so hurt and afflicted. God searched through the earth to find a little couple who would be dear, and precious, and sympathetic, and kind to the little hurt life, and God chose you, a compliment from heaven.”
When we preach the cross, we are given an understanding, an inside from God into the meaning of human suffering. Out of death is life. Out of suffering is salvation. Out of our weakness is God’s strength, and out of the death and the blood and the agony of the cross is our hope for the forgiveness of sins, and of heaven. And all of life, in the providence of God, is explicable in the terms of the sufferings of our Lord. Out of the sufferings of humanity come our richest, and our most incomparable, celestial, and heavenly gifts.
It is a blind Milton that will write of the very throne of God. It is a deaf Beethoven that will hear the angels sing. It is an imprisoned John Bunyan that will make that allegory journey pilgrimage from earth to heaven. It is a broken-hearted Tennyson who will write an “In Memoriam.” It is by the blood and the sacrifice of our forefathers that we have a great and free nation today.
When I visit the foreign mission fields, you’ll see where the missionary is buried. You’ll always see around him those who have come to trust in the preciousness and in the blessedness of the gospel of the Son of God through their tears, and through their sacrifice, and through their lives. Out of suffering our richest and greatest gifts; out of suffering, our understanding and our sympathy. To a man who has never suffered, never been hurt, never been in a doubt, never had his head bowed, how could he sympathize or understand? Oh, the rest of us who know what it is to weep, and to cry, and sometimes to wring our hands in hopeless despair-sympathy, understanding.
I lay at ease in my little boat,
Fast moored to the shore of the pond,
And looked up through the trees that swayed in the breeze.
At God’s own sky beyond,
And I thought of the want and the sin in the world;
And the pain and the grief they bring,
And I marveled at God for spreading abroad
Such sorrow and suffering.
Evening came creeping over the earth,
And the sky grew dim and grey
And faded from sight;
And I grumbled at night
For stealing my sky away.
Then, then, then out of the dark just a speck of a face
Peeped forth from its window bars;
And I rejoiced to see it smile at me;
I had not thought of the stars!
There are millions of loving thoughts and deeds
All ripe for awakening,
That never would start from the world’s cold heart
But for sorrow and suffering.
Yes, the blackening night is somber and cold,
And the day is warm and fine;
And yet if the day never faded away,
The stars would never shine.
[“The Stars,” Edward Everett Hale, 1906]
Out of our sufferings, the sympathies, the kindnesses, the understandings of human life, I know. I’ve bowed my head and wept. I understand. I understand.
And again, our hope of heaven, the comfort God can be to us, is always defined, it is described, it is framed, always pictured in the background, in the surrounding of tears, and suffering, and agony, and separation, and death, bereavement, heartache.
It’s like this; heaven is described as a place where there are no more tears [Revelation 21:4], but what would that be to someone who had never cried? Heaven is a place where there’s no more pain, but what would that be to someone who had never suffered? Heaven is described as a place where there’s no more separation, but what would that be to someone who had never bid goodbye to someone you loved with all your heart? Heaven is described as a place where there’s no more death [Revelation 21:4], but what would that be to someone who’d never stood by an open grave and have watched the hope of their lives buried, lowered beneath the sod?
You know what I’ve often thought? Were it not for pain, and suffering, and grief, and bereavement, and death, men would forget the name of God altogether, and no man ever would lift up his heart to heaven. But it’s sorrow, and bereavement, and agony, and separation, and death that make us lift up our faces in the hope of a better world and a more precious reunion.
I was riding across this continent on a plane and happened to be seated by a famous seminary professor. I had heard of him. I didn’t know him. And it was a delight to me to have the privilege to sit by him as we crossed the continent on that plane. I asked him if he had any children. He said, “No. There’s just my wife and I,” then he added, “but we once had a little boy.”
“Oh,” I said, “what happened to the little fellow?”
“Well,” he said, “God gave him to us until he was about ten years old and then took him away.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m so sorry.” I said, “How did it come to pass?”
“Well,” he said, “it was strange.” He said, “The little fellow came home one evening afternoon from school, and he said, ‘Mother, if you don’t mind, I don’t think I’ll go out and play.’ So he stayed in the house. And the next morning the little fellow, instead of getting up and dressing and going to school like he always loved to do, he said, ‘Well, Mother, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll just stay in bed.’ And by that evening the boy had a raging fever.”
And they called for their finest specialist and the doctor shook his head. They sent from a far city and that doctor when he came, in a little while he said to the father, he said, “Sir, your boy has spinal meningitis in its most virile form. And within a few hours your boy will be dead.”
So the professor said, “I took my place by the side of the bed and waited. And in a little while my boy said, ‘Daddy, its getting dark.’ In reality,” he said, “my boy was going blind. ‘Yes,’ I replied.” The professor said, “it’s getting dark.”
Then the little fellow said, “‘Well, Daddy, night will soon be here won’t it?”
“Yes,” the father said, “night will soon be here.”
Then the little boy said, “Well, Daddy, if it’ll soon be night, I’d better get ready to go to sleep, hadn’t I?”
“Yes,” said the father, “You’d better get ready to go to sleep.”
He said, “My boy had a little habit of raising his pillow and putting his hands underneath the pillow and his face upon his hands.”
So he said he raised his pillow and his hands, the little boy laid his face just so and then turning to his father said, “Good night, Daddy. I’ll see you in the morning.”
And the father replied brave as he knew how, “Good night, my son, I’ll see you in the morning.”
He was seated next to the window, and he looked out of that airplane for a long time, and then turned around and said to me, he said, “Preacher, I’m living for that day when I see my little boy in the morning.”
That is God in the hope and the promise of heaven. And it is suffering, and separation, the tears and the agony, the bereavement of this life that makes that hope sweet and precious to our hearts.
I conclude now with a brief word, the sign of the cross: not only our understanding of the ministry of Jesus; not only our understanding of the place of suffering in our lives; but a last and concluding word; the sign of the cross is a sign of our ultimate and final triumph; both in this world and the world that is to come. When they nailed our Lord to the tree, and the wags walked up and down in front of Him, and they shook their heads and said, “You, You, You come down from the cross and we will believe Thee” [Matthew 27:39-42].
Oh, when you read that, your blood boils and you want to say, “Lord Jesus, do it. Do it. In superhuman strength tear Yourself from the wood and come down from the cross and strike terrified conviction in their hearts. Do it, Lord. Do it.” No. It will not be a superman who will be coming down from that cross. It will be the body of a limp, and helpless, and lifeless corpse that they wrap in a winding sheet and lay in a borrowed tomb [Matthew 27:59-60].
But, O God, but, O glory; but it will be also in the power of God, a Man, made in the likeness of our flesh [Philippians 2:7], who shall be raised by the power of God from the dead [Romans 1:4, 8:11], and in whose name forever and forever the bonds of death are destroyed! [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. And the sign and the signal of that hope and that triumph and that resurrected victory is found in the cross of the Son of God [Galatians 6:14].
“If in Flanders fields the poppies blow, it will be between crosses row on row” [from “In Flanders Fields,” Jon McCrae, 1915].
Wherever in this earth there is death, and sorrow, and bereavement, and separation, there will you see the cross raised high above that mound of defeat and despair. Wide as the world is wide, the arms of the cross extend to either side. There are no frontiers; as far as the east goes east, and the west goes west, there is the hope, and the love, and the grace, and the mercy of the Lord God poured out in the love and tears, in the blessing and invitation of Jesus Christ our Lord. This world can never be the same again because Jesus suffered in it and died for it [John 3:16; Hebrews 10:5014; 1 John 2:2]; the signal of our triumph and of our ultimate victory [1 Corinthians 15:55-57].
O, Jesus, keep me near the cross
There a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream
Pours from Calvary’s mount.
In the cross, Near the cross,
I’ll watch and pray,
Hoping, trusting ever.
Till I reach that golden strand
Just beyond the river.
[front “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” Fanny Crosby, 1869]
O blessed cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
The angels from the stars come down
And bear my soul away.
[front “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” Thomas Shepherd, 1693]
And our Lord this day, of all the days, when our hearts are turned to that hill called Golgotha, “the place of a skull” [Matthew 27:33-35], the green hill outside the city gate [Hebrews 13:12; John 19:20], where our Lord poured out His life into this earth that we might be saved, O that we might love Thee more, remember Thee the more tenderly, preciously, affectionately, devotedly. And however the valleys of life may yawn and open before us, “Yea, yea, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; Thou art with me” [Psalm 23:4]. O blessed Jesus, the preciousness of the hope, the comfort, the promise we have in Thee [John 3:16], we praise and bless Thy name forever. Amen.