Christ and the Seeking Rulers
June 21st, 1970 @ 7:30 PM
CHRIST AND THE SEEKING RULERS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-21-70 7:30 p.m.
If you are listening on WRR, you are sharing with us the First Baptist Church evening worship hour. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Christ and the Seeking Rulers, of His day and of our day.
For some time now, we shall be reading together portions of the third chapter of John, so you turn to it. All of us, and on the radio if you can, get your Bible and turn to the third chapter of John. We will read the first thirteen verses; John, chapter 3, the first thirteen verses. I would think that most of us memorized this when we were children. Now let us read it together out loud, John chapter 3, the first thirteen verses:
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen; and you receive not Our witness.
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.
As the chapter begins, I am immediately intrigued. I am riveted in interest. There was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus [John 3:1]. He has a Hellenistic name. He must be a Hellenistic Jew, a Greek-speaking Jew. “A ruler of the Jews, the same came to Jesus by night, and said. . .” [John 3:2]—I’m interested in that. I’m intrigued because we have here a confrontation between the Lord God who came down from heaven [John 6:38], the Son of Man who came down from heaven, and one of the great intellects and sophisticates and rulers of his day [John 3:1].
To us, the word “Pharisee” is identified with hypocrisy, but that’s because of the denunciation you find in the twenty-third chapter of this book [Matthew 23:1-36]. But the Pharisees were the doctors of the law. They were the learned intellectuals of their day. Gamaliel, the far-famed rabbon, Gamaliel was a Pharisee [Acts 5:34]. Saul of Tarsus, who is possibly, with Moses, the greatest mind that ever lived outside of the incarnate Son of God, Saul of Tarsus [Acts 21:39], was a Pharisee [Acts 23:6, 26:5]. They were devotees of the law. They were men who had gone to school. They had learned the answers of the day in the forensics, in the debates, in the confrontations of heathenism, of Hellenism, of apostasy, of Greek and Roman philosophy. They had entered the arena of every facet of intellectual life. Just to start off with, this is a man that intrigues me. Now he is a ruler of the Jews [John 3:1]. He is a member of the Sanhedrin. He is high in office. We would call it—he was a partner in the Supreme Court. He sat on the highest bench of jury.
Now this man is coming to Jesus. He is coming by night [John 3:1-2]. Some say that because of his high position, he could not be seen in the presence of so lowly a peasant and so despised a prophet as this Galilean from Nazareth, so he came by night in the order that he might not be seen. Some say that he came by night in order to be uninterrupted. He had a burden on his heart. This man is from the schools. This man has listened to the debates and the discussions of the great intellects of his day. And he’s coming to Jesus by night, some say, in order that he might be uninterrupted, to talk to the Lord out of the depth of his soul. But for whatever reason, there he is. And his introduction is something that shows the dearth and the depth of the famine and hunger in his life. “Lord, I have come to Thee because I am seeking an answer from somebody who knows God. We know that Thou art a rabbi, a teacher come from God, for the signs that You do are authentications from heaven” [John 3:2].
Isn’t that an amazing thing? This man knows all the answers of the schools. This man has been introduced to the finest theology that theologians could present, systematize, teach. This man has heard the finest discussions in the world, and yet after the years of his experience, and after his elevation and choice among his peers, there’s a hunger in his heart.
I think of another young ruler [Matthew 19:16-22], a rich young man who lived across the Jordan in Perea, and when Jesus came by in whatever town he lived in, when Jesus came through that town, this rich young ruler among the Jews came out in broad daylight, and there where everybody could see him, knelt down in front of this despised Prophet and asked what he might do to inherit eternal life [Matthew 19:16].
And when the Lord said, “This is the commandment, and this is the commandment, and this is the commandment, you know the commandments: keep them and thou shalt live” [Matthew 19:17-19]. And the young man answered and said, “All these have I been taught, and all these have I obeyed from my youth up. What lack I yet? I still find an emptiness and a dearth in my soul. What lack I yet?” [Matthew 19:20].
And that is an exact picture of this Pharisee, this Sanhedrinist, this ruler of the Jews: there was still, with all of his elevation, and with all of his education, and with all of the years of his forensic experience, there was still a dearth and a hunger in his soul. So he came to Jesus as somebody from God who had an answer from heaven [John 3:1-2].
Now we’re going to take that, and we’re going to apply it in three ways. This man, Nicodemus, represented—and he did it well, you could not have found a better one—he represented a devotee of repetitive, formulistic, ritualistic religion. He had been born in it. He had shared in it all of his life. He knew no other thing. And a strange thing about ritual and ritualistic religion, it’s pretty much the same all over the world, wherever you find it. The accouterments and the embellishments will be pretty much alike. There’ll be processions, there’ll be priests, there’ll be robes, there’ll be litanies, there’ll be all kinds of rites and ceremonies. There’ll be a temple, there’ll be an altar. There’ll be all kinds of common denominators that you’ll find in ritualistic religion.
It was so in the heathen faiths in the day when Nicodemus lived. It’s been the same through all of the centuries. For example, had you gone to Athens when Nicodemus lived, you would have found on the Acropolis the beautiful, beautiful temple of Pallas Athena the virgin and the Parthenon. Isn’t it a tragedy that that Venetian gun powder exploded and destroyed that most beautiful heathen temple the world has ever looked upon?
And there you would have seen, had you attended the worship, you would have seen the beautiful idol of Pallas Athena, the Athenian virgin who was the patron saint of the city. It was made by Phidias, the greatest sculptor the world has ever known. And marching in and marching out, with their sacrifices, those gorgeously robed, priestly attendants. And with chants, and with ceremonies, and with the worship of the people, you would have seen the most gorgeous pageantry the world has ever looked upon; formal, ritualistic, repetitive religion.
Now outside of the idol, take out the idol, you would have found the same thing in the religion in the temple there in Jerusalem. You would have found the sanctuary, you would have found the people in attendance, you’d have found the gorgeously robed priests, you’d have found the sacrifices, the altars—all of it repeated again, and again, and again, and again.
And this man Nicodemus is a fine representative of that repetitive, ritualistic religion. Yet, after he had for the years of his life seen the sacrifices slain, and seen the priests pour out the blood, and watched the processions, and heard the words, he comes to Jesus and says, “But is there not something else? Is there not something more?” [John 3:1-13]. And all ritualistic religion has that lack in it. You can genuflect forever, and you can reply in litanies forever, and you can look upon gorgeous ceremonialized worship forever, but there is in it a sterility and an emptiness that the human heart cannot deny. It is one thing to share in an oracular confession, but it is something different to repent of your sins. It is one thing to watch a gorgeous pageant of adoration and praise. It is another thing to have God in your soul.
Somehow pageantry, and somehow ceremonies become vehicles of grace to the people who expect them, and they identify the religion and the worship of God with them. And somehow, their repetition becomes sanctified, when actually they carry no grace at all. There’s no efficacy in them at all. You can do the same thing over and over again forever, and still there would be no grace in the soul and no repentance in the heart, and no real coming to God. Nicodemus was that: “What lack I yet?” [Matthew 19:20].
Second: Nicodemus is a fine specimen of formal morality. You know, that is something that is so much seen and witnessed in the life of America. Formal morality, that is, to be prudent, and temperate, and honest, and just in all of your ways. It pays to be honest. And a fine, upstanding, moral man is one who works diligently, and he keeps his word, and he pays his debts, and he prospers, and he enters heaven.
Let me show you that. You think, man, isn’t that fine? I’m not talking about my preaching, I’m talking about what I’m saying. Man, isn’t that fine? Temperate. Prudent. Honest. Just. Hardworking. Affluent. Successful. Entering heaven.
Why, what’s the matter with that? I’ll tell you what’s the matter with it! There is something very deep and fundamentally wrong with it. This simply is what’s wrong with it: it identifies the deed with the spirit of the man who does the deed. I am going to illustrate it, and then I’m going to talk about it.
In 1956—that’s 14 years ago—in 1956, the committee met, as they do every year, to select the outstanding young man in America. Like, you’ll have the outstanding young man in Dallas; you’ll have outstanding young man in Texas. They’re chosen and presented. Well, this committee met, and they were picking out the outstanding young man in America. And as they eliminated and eliminated, they finally came down to two men, two young men.
Both of them were named Billy. One was named Billy Graham. The second one was a Texan and one of the most successful Texans. His name was Billy Sol Estes, who now for these years has been in the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Guess whom they chose. Say it with me. They chose Billy Sol Estes. That’s the world. That’s the world; prudent, temperate, hard-working, successful, philanthropic, generous, liberal, the outstanding young man in America. All right, we’re going to take that thing down as you see it in American life, formal morality.
In the days of the Depression, I was in Cicero, which is south of Chicago. It’s a suburb of Chicago. And in those days, Al Capone was the hero of Cicero. All those bread lines, bread lines, bread lines, soup lines. All that food was prepared by Al Capone. All those soups and breads were given by Al Capone. He was the most generous. You couldn’t touch him in Cicero. They all swore by Al Capone—he fed them.
And until recent days, Tammany Hall controlled the Democratic machine in New York City. And those precinct chairmen, those bosses of the wards, they went around and saw to it that every widow had plenty of coal, or now you’d say, turn on the gas; paid the rent, paid the light bills. And they kept the votes by doing those many marvelous things, taking care of the people. And they came down to the polls and voted like Tammany said, “Doing good for a price; running the sixth race for charity.”
Go out here to the parimutuel window and buy your tickets. I don’t know how I know these things, but I do. Go out here and buy these tickets. And the sixth race is run for charity; they give it to the crippled children. Or the curse of the whole earth, selling liquor by the tons and the barrels and the tanks full, and taking the taxes and using them to support the public school system. That is formal morality. And what Jesus said upset the whole system. It’s not the deed, the Lord said, but it’s the spirit in the heart of the man back of the deed [Mark 7:21].
The Lord would say, not honest because it pays to be honest, not honest because it is good business to be honest, but honest because you have got a new heart and a new spirit [Psalm 51:10; 2 Corinthians 5:17]. You have been born anothen, from above [John 3:3, 7]; because that is you, prudent, temperate, and just, and liberal, and kind, and good. Not because we’re seeking recompense, and stipend, and return, and dividend on the investment, but just for the love of God. Good for goodness’ sake; kind for kindness’ sake; righteous for righteousness’ sake; charitable for charity’s sake. Just for the love of Jesus, coming from above. We must hasten.
Third: Nicodemus was not only a fine representative of repetitive, ritualistic religion, he was not only a fine representative of formal morality; but he was a fine, splendid representative of the city sophisticate. He was a learned man, and all of his life he was a Hellenistic Jew. All of his life, I would think, he had lived in cultural circles. He was urban, and urbanity was a part of his demeanor. And a country bumpkin is one thing, and a city urbanite is another thing. They don’t have to do very much, say very much, until you sense it and see it immediately. And ah, dear, that thin veneer of culture and urbanized superiority! Ah! It is so easy to get elevated when you go to the city; all kinds of things, all kinds of things.
There was a dear woman who said, “Ah, I love Wagner. I love Wagner.” She said, “Do you know, you can just talk all the way through it and nobody can hear what you’re saying because they’re singing so loud. I love Wagner.”
And another woman came into great wealth. And she hired Paderewski to play for her. And exhibiting, you know, her cultural likes, why, she had that great Polish pianist come to her home and give a little concert. So after playing one of his numbers, she said to Paderewski, “Oh, how beautiful. Who wrote that piece? Who composed that piece?”
And Paderewski said, “Beethoven.”
“Oh,” she said knowingly, “Beethoven. Beethoven. Yes. Is he still composing?”
And Paderewski said, with all gravity, “No, madam, he is decomposing.”
There were three of these urbanites who were listening to a symphony. And one of them said, “Ah, the music is divine! It’s divine.” Now this is crude. I want you to know before I tell you.
“This is divine.”
And one of them said, “I recognize it. That’s the sextet from Lucia.”
“Oh, no,” said the other one, “that is from The Tales of Hoffman.”
And the other one said, “There’s a card right down there by the orchestra. I’m going down and see what it is.”
She went down, read the card, came back and said, “You all are wrong. It’s the Refrain from Spitting.”
What I got to do is read my Bible more and some of these other things less, that’s what I got to do. What I’m leading up to is this; there is a modern urbanity that has simply seized and possessed our modern generation. And it is this. No matter what it is, to be modern, and knowledgeable, and sophisticated, we have to strain it through the infidel mind of some intellectual somewhere. It has to be a deduction of science. It has to be provable and demonstrable, or we don’t take it.
Prayer? Whether we pray or not is whether it’s logical or not. Faith? Whether we have faith or not is whether it might be reasonable to have faith and worship. Whether we worship or not depends upon our mental, intellectual conclusions. And our whole life is turned that way. Finally, what it does for us, it makes us religionists like Cicero, or Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius. That is, we come to the place where we stand in awe before the great mystery of some unknown cause or some impersonal, inexorable force, and there is nothing else, for that is as far as science will ever reach and will ever go, it is just the recognition and the delineation of some mysterious power in the universe.
How Jesus upsets all that! Nicodemus said twice to Him, “How? How can a man be born when he is old? [John 3:4]. How is it that these things can be?” [John 3:9].
I have to conclude. Listen to me. Listen to me. I don’t deny the material facts of life and of the universe. There is space. There is time. There are ages and eons. There are rocks that they can study the carbon inside them and judge their age. There are physical facts, scientific facts. There are chemical facts, and there are astronomical facts. There’re all kinds of scientific literature that present the discoveries of men. I don’t deny all that. What I am saying to you is that there are other facts in this universe. I don’t deny there are physical facts, but I am avowing to you that there are spiritual facts, and the spiritual facts are as much factual as material facts. I may be a thing of matter. And I got bones, and I got flesh, and I got skin, and I got arteries, and I got a heart and pumping blood. I am a physical being; I know it.
But I also know something else. On the inside of me, there is somebody who lives, who can think, who can respond, who can love, who feels, who exists, who breathes. I am not only a physical anatomical fact, I am also a spiritual being. Here are some spiritual facts. We are made in the image of Almighty God, all of us; made in the image of Almighty God [Genesis 1:26-27]. There’s that somebody that lives inside.
A second spiritual fact: not only born one time, but I am capable of being born again, and any man has that capability [John 3:3, 7; Romans 10:8-13]. Some of the greatest preachers who have ever lived arose out of the slime and slush and sin of the gutter to preach the unsearchable riches of the gospel of the saving grace of the Son of God [Ephesians 3:8]. I have seen men myself preaching the gospel in power who had gone down to the depths of depravity and transgression; the possibility that a man on the inside of him can be born again [John 3:3, 7; Romans 10:8-13]: spiritual facts.
And another spiritual fact: it is a remarkable thing to me how a man will respond to the gospel of Jesus. Suppose I were to pick me out the most advantageous place in the earth and stand up and announce to the world, “Sunday morning, every Sunday morning, twice, and every Sunday evening once, three times a day, every Sunday—one day out of seven, I’m going to”—and then you name it. Three times I’m going to lecture on economics, or three times every Sunday, I’m going to lecture on literature, or three times every Sunday I’m going to speak of the current political scene, or three times every Sunday I’m going to stand there, and I’m going to disseminate and dissect all of the movements, revolutionary, cultural, political, scientific, that are pressing upon the world. Just name it. Just name it.
I might have somewhat of a crowd the first Sunday. I might have somewhat of a crowd the second Sunday. But after I’d been doing that for twenty-six years, reckon anybody would be there, listening to me lecture on literature, or lecture on current events, or lecture on all the scientific formulae that are being published today, or talking about all the things that overwhelm this present world, after twenty-six years? Reckon?
Man, look around you. After twenty-six years, starting when I was thirty-four years of age—after twenty-six years standing in this very place, behind this very pulpit, twice Sunday morning and again on Sunday night, opening that Book and telling about the grace [Acts 15:11], and love [Ephesians 3:18], and mercy of the Lord Jesus [Jude 1:21], and the men meet and say, “You know, we got to build us a bigger church.” And the men meet and say, “Do you think it might be possible that we’d have four services on Sunday instead of three?” After twenty-six years.
I tell you that there are spiritual facts just like there are physical facts. And that’s one of them, how the human heart responds to the preaching of the gospel of the love and grace and mercy of Jesus.
Was it for crimes that I have done,
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown
And love beyond degree.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe.
I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.
[“Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?” Isaac Watts]
That’s the power of the gospel of the Son of God. And when a man preaches it anywhere, so many are just like me; as I listen to him, something in my heart vibrates. Like you’d take a hand with fingers and play on a harp, my heart’s strings, like a harp, vibrate when a man begins to talk to me about what Jesus has done to save me from my sins.
Is that true with you? Is it? Do you hear the voice of God when Jesus is named and the call is announced, lifted up, presented? “Come to the Lord”—do you feel something in your heart? Do you feel, “I’d like to go”? “I’d like to give my soul to God. I’d like to have the Lord in my heart.” Do you? If you do, come down here and stand by me tonight.
In a moment we’ll sing our hymn of appeal, and as we sing it, you, if you’d like to give your life to the Lord [Romans 10:9-13], come and stand by me. “I open my heart heavenward, I invite the Lord Jesus into my soul, and I’m coming tonight”; do it. A family you, to respond, to put your life with us in this dear church; a couple you, or just you; in the balcony round, down one of these stairwells and into the front; on the lower floor, into the aisle and down here to the pastor, “Here I come. I make that decision now and I’m coming tonight.” Do it. Do it. Make the decision this moment. When they stand up to sing, “I’m coming.” Do it. And God attend you in the way as you respond, while we stand and while we sing.
AND THE CITY CITIZEN
between Lord and one of great intellects, rulers of his day
1. A Pharisee,
doctor of the law
2. A ruler of the
Jews; member of the Sanhedrin
B. His introduction
reveals the depth of hunger in him (John 3:2)
1. Having heard
all the answers of schools, theologians, yet a hunger
2. Rich young
ruler (Matthew 19:16-22)
II. City religion
B. Heathen religion of
C. Sterility and
emptiness in it
III. City morality
A. Formal morality is
to be prudent, temperate, honest, just
diligently and prosper
B. What Jesus said
upset the whole system
1. Not the deed,
but the spirit in the heart of the man back of the deed
IV. City sophistication
A. Urbanity – thin
veneer of culture and urbanized superiority
B. Our modern
generation possessed by need for intellectual, scientific
V. There are spiritual facts as there are
A. We are made in the
image of God
B. We are capable of
being born again