The River of Life
December 2nd, 1973 @ 10:50 AM
THE RIVER OF LIFE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-2-73 10:50 a.m.
All of you who share with us this service at the First Baptist Church in Dallas on radio and television, this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The River of Life, the river of the gospel of Christ. It is a reading from the forty-seventh chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel chapter 47:
Afterward the angel brought me again unto the door of the house –
the temple in Jerusalem –
and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward . . . and the waters came down from under the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar . . .
And when the man that had the line in his hand went forth eastward, he measured a thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the waters were to the ankles.
Again he measured a thousand cubits, and brought me through the waters; the waters were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand cubits, and brought me through; and the waters were to the loins.
Afterward he measured a thousand cubits; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.
And he said unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen this? Then he brought me, and caused me to return to the bank of the river.
And when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other.
Then said he unto me, These waters issue out toward the east, and go down into the desert, and go into the dead sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters are healed.
And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the waters shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from Engedi – in the middle on the right side of the Dead Sea – even unto Eneglaim; – in the middle on the other side of the Dead Sea at Moab – they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the Great Sea – the Mediterranean Sea – exceeding many.
And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for food, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed, not wither away: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for food, and the leaf thereof for medicine, for healing.
Could you imagine a more glorious vision than that? Mount Moriah, with Olivet on the other side, formed the beginning of the valley between them called Kidron. And as the Kidron winds its tortuous and twisted way to the east, it goes through the barren, burned, scorched desert of Judea, a veritable wilderness of waste and emptiness. And as the Kidron Valley proceeds precipitously downward and eastward, it finally comes to the great gorge in which the Jordan River finds its death in the Dead Sea.
And the whole outline, the silhouette, the whole panorama is a picture of heat, and burned and death. There’s nothing that lives by the Dead Sea, not even a bird to fly over it, not even a fish to swim in it. It is a picture of solitude and desolation.
In this glorious vision, the prophet says, "I saw proceeding out of the altar of the sanctuary of God’s house, a stream. And the waters poured toward the east and fell into the Kidron Valley"; so the great slope of that Kidron, that the temple was built. "And as the waters issued forth, they grew and they grew and they grew," not because tributaries poured other waters into them, but of themselves they grew. "And the angel took me, measured a thousand cubits and the water was to the ankles, then a thousand other cubits, and it was to the knees, and a thousand cubits beyond, and it was to the loins. And then a thousand cubits beyond, it was an immense stream that a man could not swim over." It was not to be passed over [Ezekiel 47:1-5].
And as the waters grew, and as the flood fell precipitously into the great valley of the Dead Sea, the waters of the sea were healed. And fish multiplied in the great lake. And fishermen spread their nets on either side [Ezekiel 47:6-10]. And then the angel took the prophet to the bank of the river that he might walk along the bank of the river. And the banks of the river were lined with the trees of life. Every month they bare their full fruit, and the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the people [Ezekiel 47:12].
Absolutely one of the most glorious visions to be found in the Word of God. But could it be true? Could it? Could such a thing as that ever come to pass? Could it? Is it a vision that is visionary, ephemeral, without realization or foundation or hope? Is it?
We live in such a dark time. I have lived through many of the great crises of the world. When President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany, I remember that declaration. Making the world free for democracy, fighting a war to end all war. I remember that. I remember the speeches of Churchill. Never was there a statesman who could raise the hearts of the nation as that eloquent Churchill. And I remember the confidence with which he called the free world to war and to battle and to fight against the Nazi enemy. And I can remember well, and many of you can now, our hope of deliverance to Asia in the Korean War, and finally in the struggle in Vietnam.
But if there is anyone anywhere today who knows of the morrow, I don’t know his name. There is abject confusion in the counsels of state wherever our political leaders gather for discussion. Our economic leaders are absolutely lost. They are bewildered. Our monetary leaders have no idea which way to turn. And as for the hope of deliverance, we have just about fallen into universal despair. Without apology our leaders in America say to our nation, the day of plenty is past. We shall learn to live with necessity and need and scarcity. And as for solutions to the world problems that afflict us, we tremble on the brink of a nuclear confrontation every day that we live.
Could such a vision be true? If it is, O God in heaven, bless the man that can speak it, the sermon that could bear it, the hearts that could hear it. Could such a thing be, that there is a river of life that swells and grows and finally brings healing to the people?
As with you who listen, I am a spokesman of that hope today. There are many applications, theological, of the vision I just read. Almost certainly, I would think, it refers to the millennial temple; he is describing in the last chapters of Ezekiel the millennial temple. And he is describing the glorious day that is further pictured in the twenty-second chapter of the Revelation, for he saw the river of life proceeding out of the throne of God and unto the Lamb. And on either side of it was the tree of life, and the leaves were for the healing of the people [Revelation 22:1-2].
Certainly all of that is in the vision. But there could be something more, something for us now; not just the millennium, and not just the river of life and the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, but something now. I do not wrest its meaning, nor do I do violence to the vision when I say that by type picture, the vision is an encouragement, a presentation of the hope of the world that proceeds out of the sanctuary of God in the faith and in the grace of Jesus Christ.
There has never been a time, never, since our Lord poured out of His Spirit at Pentecost [Acts 2:1-42], there has never been a time but that there is somewhere in this world revival, healing, the outpouring of the Spirit of grace, cause for rejoicing and praise and thanksgiving to God. Always there is somewhere in the world a cause of gladness and happiness and joy in the faith and in the grace and in the goodness of our Lord.
For example, I have watched our own mission program for almost thirty years. We have seven chapels. They are here, they are there, they are yonder ministering to these who so desperately need our Lord. I have noticed something about them. Practically always there are some of them that are very dull and dreary and draggy. But there has never been a time but that in that group of chapels there is somewhere revival. There will be one of them, or two of them, or three, or maybe four that are aflame. They are winning people to Christ. They are baptizing converts. They are gathering the people for the teaching of the Word, and the pastor is encouraged, and the people are glad. There has never been a time but that somewhere in the group that there is revival.
I have noticed it in the great cities of America. The vast majority of our historical churches in the vast metropolitan areas of our nation are dying or completely dead. But it’s not all that way. Here and there and yonder I can take you to churches in great cities, downtown in the heart of the metroplex, and they are alive! They have a light, tall, that shines, and the beams literally bathe and bless the whole population.
And that is true in the history of the nations of the world. There has never been a time, how ever dark and hopeless, but that the light of Christ somewhere does shine, and the healing waters of the river of life doth come. Why, it hasn’t been too long ago since we despaired of Indonesia. The military dictator of Indonesia sold out to the Chinese communists, and in a coup the communists fully expected to take over the entire island kingdom of Indonesia. And out of the blue of the sky, something that must have come from heaven itself, Indonesia turned. They cast out the communist traitors and blasphemers, and they brought to Indonesia one of the greatest revivals of modern era. And our missionaries are there today sharing in that glorious outpouring of the Spirit of God. They are winning to Christ and baptizing thousands and thousands in Indonesia today. There is great revival in Indonesia.
Or again, in Africa: when I was in Uganda revival was felt everywhere. Why, I shook hands with one of those native Uganda preachers, pastor of one of our Baptist churches there. His name was Onesimus, like it is in the Book of Philemon; Onesimus. As I talked to him, clasping both of his hands, I said, "I praise God for you." For just in the few months of their new church year, he had already baptized over four hundred converts. And that was all through Uganda. And one of our sweet members, Jim Hooten and his wife, were missionaries there, and I was with them and rejoiced in the favor of God upon them.
What of it now? It is as dark as midnight. There is a Mohammedan, Islamic, Muslim dictator in Uganda that has driven out the missionary and now decimates the churches. And it is dark, dark, dark in Uganda. But not all of Africa is that way. As long as God lives, and as long as Christ is King in glory, somewhere there will always be revival. The pouring out of the Spirit of God, the healing waters of the river of life.
And I speak in these last few minutes of such in Abyssinia, in Ethiopia. There is a great district in Ethiopia, in the highlands. Most of the great plateau is above twelve thousand feet high, called Munz, they spell it M-u-n-z, pronounced "Menz." A vast region, and for three thousand years there has been no foreigner allowed in that great district of Munz. In the fifteenth century, that would be in the 1400s, the Roman Catholics, the Latin Church, tried to enter the district, and without exception they all were slain.
In 1930 Mussolini, as you know, conquered Ethiopia. But when I was there in that great district of Munz, here, there and everywhere you could see villages that had been destroyed to the last house in it, a silent witness to the fierce resistance of those Abyssinians who live in Munz.
Anyway, you remember when I was president of the convention in 1970, they asked me to go on an evangelistic mission tour through all of the great cities of East Africa, starting at Addis Ababa, continuing on down to Johannesburg. Our convocation was a Sunday afternoon in the city of Addis Ababa, the capital city, in a civic auditorium. And to my infinite delight, it was full. And as I sat on the platform, the missionary by my side said, "Look." And I saw a distinguished-looking man, and an aide by his side. And the missionary said to me, "That man’s name is Gebre Awat. He’s the most powerful man in Ethiopia next to the emperor himself."
As I preached, that man, Gebre Awat, would talk to his aide. And after the service was over, the distinguished lawyer and statesmen asked if the next day, that would be Monday morning, I’d come to a tea that he would arrange in one of the beautiful hotels in Addis Ababa. I was delighted to accept. So the next morning I went to the hotel and there he was. He had about a dozen of the chiefs of states, and ambassadors, with their wives there for the tea. He had arranged in the lounge lobby where he had things to himself; he had arranged the group in a "U." This side, that side and then the front he placed a sofa.
Not speaking English himself, he spoke to me through that brilliant aide who knew English well. So, he said to me, "Let’s let the others visit and I want you to sit down here by me. I want to talk to you."
So I sat down by his side, and the aide, an interpreter, took a little stool and sat facing us. Then he began to speak, and he said, "I regret that it has to be here, but I want to talk to you, and let’s just let these visit while I talk to you." Then he said through the interpreter, "I was at the service yesterday afternoon."
I said, "I saw you."
And he said, "I was greatly moved. I was deeply moved."
What I had done was, out of the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, I had preached on the angel of the Lord sending Philip to Gaza, standing by the road watching, waiting for the will of God, while he was there. And a man of Ethiopia, a man of great influence, who was treasurer under the queen, who had been to Jerusalem for to worship and was returning, and sitting in his chariot [Acts 8:26-29], read Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit said to the evangelist, "Join thyself to the chariot." And when he went near he heard him read the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. And as the Ethiopian read the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, Philip asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" [Acts 8:30].
Remember, that is the chapter "All we like sheep have gone astray; turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" [Isaiah 53:6].
"Do you understand?" [Acts 8:30].
And the man said, "How can I, except someone should guide me? [Acts 8:31]. I pray thee," the Ethiopian treasurer said, "Of whom does this prophet speak? Of himself or of some other man?" [Acts 8:34]. And beginning at the same Scripture, Philip preached unto him Jesus [Acts 8:35].
And the message that previous Sunday afternoon was that, that Christianity is Christ. That when a man preaches the gospel, that’s what he preaches, Jesus; that Christ is the incarnate Word of God. And when a man preaches the Word of God, he preaches Christ. And when a man preaches Christ, he preaches the Word of God. That was the message.
Mr. Awat said, "I want to ask you about that. Explain to me again that, that Christianity is Christ, that when we preach Jesus we are preaching the Word of God, for the Word of God is Jesus. Explain that to me."
And I went through it carefully, carefully, earnestly. You see, the state religion of Ethiopia is Coptic Christianity. It’s a branch of the Christian religion that has been separated from the great life stream of the Christian faith for over sixteen hundred years. And in the development of the church, the Coptic Church, it has become highly liturgical. The language of the service is in Geez, an ancient language in which the Coptic Bible is written, and no one understands it but the trained priests.
And when you go to church, it’s usually an octagonal church on the outside. When you go inside the church, the first ring around will be for the visitors. Then there is a high wall and beyond that wall will sit the members. Then there is another high wall. Beyond that wall are the officiating priests. And in the heart of it there is a holy of holies, a sanctuary with an ark of the covenant in which is the Holy Bible.
But the people never hear a message in Amharic, their language, the language they speak in Ethiopia today. And the officiating priest is behind a high wall.
So, Gabre Awat said to me, he said, "If Christianity is Christ, and if when we preach Christ we are preaching the Word of God, then the church ought to be open."
I said, "Yes."
"And the minister ought to be where the people can see him."
I said, "Yes."
"And hear him."
I said, "Yes."
"And the message ought to be in Amharic, the language of the people."
I said, "Yes, yes!"
He had built himself the church in Munz. He said, "I must rebuild it. And I must have a minister who stands there where the people can see him, with an open Bible, and the people are preached to in Amharic, the language they understand."
I said, "Yes, yes."
Well, the reason I am telling you all of this is something that happened last Friday. There was a national prayer breakfast held at the Statler Hilton Hotel in the big ballroom there, sponsored by the brotherhood commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, addressed by Dr. Carlton, the executive secretary of our Foreign Mission Board. And the leaders of our convention and the leaders of our great Southwest, were present at that prayer breakfast last Friday morning. After the prayer service was over, there was a fellow that came up to me, and he said, "I am a missionary from Ethiopia."
I said, "Oh, I was there."
He said, "I know, and I bear you a message. Mr. Gabre Awat sends you an invitation. Do you remember talking to him?"
I said, "I’ll never forget it. It’s one of the great moments of my life."
Well, he said, "Mr. Awat has built a new church in Munz, and it’s a church that is open, and the people sit in the congregation, and they listen to a minister preach to the people out of the Book in Amharic. And he says, right next to it, there is a Baptist seminary, our Southern Baptist seminary, in which we are to train preachers."
"Now," he said, "All of this is a program for the future. It is coming to realization. The church is almost built; the seminary constructed by its side. And Mr. Awat sends you word, and wants to know if you’ll be the first to preach in the new church, opening the Bible, preaching to the people?" Oh, I couldn’t go. It’s so far, far away. But as I listened to the missionary bearing the message, I have seldom felt in my heart the uplift, and the encouragement, and the assurance that God has blessed, that His blessing and favor are upon us. "And everything shall live whither the river of life doth come" [Ezekiel 47:9].
There is hope. There is life. There is revival. There is a glorious tomorrow always in the hands of Almighty God. He doesn’t fail, nor is He discouraged, nor does He lose the battle. "Lift up your heads; look, for your redemption draweth nigh" [Luke 21:28]. However the outlook, the down look, however the deepening darkness of the midnight, the light is shining somewhere always. There is revival and outpouring of the Spirit of God somewhere. He never fails or forgets us.
And Lord, as God is pouring out His Holy Spirit in Ethiopia, ah, precious Savior, may we see it here with our eyes too. May there be the true spirit of revival, upturning heavenward, among our people in our congregation and in this dear church.
In a moment, we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and for you who have it in your heart to give life and soul and love and allegiance and faith and acceptance to Jesus, would you come and stand by me? I’ll be here to this side of our communion table. Accepting the Lord as Savior, coming into the fellowship of His dear church, in this balcony you, on this lower floor you, a family, or a couple, or just you, make the decision now in your heart, and in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up answering with your life. "Here I am, pastor, here I come. I make it now." Do it while we stand and while we sing.
THE RIVER OF LIFE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. The glorious vision
A. The dry scorched wilderness of Judea
B. Fountain flowing from the temple
C. Waters grew to an immense stream that could not be passed over
D. Trees of life bear fruit of healing
II. A type and picture of healing gospel of Christ
A. We live in dark times
B. There is always a cause for joy in the faith somewhere
1. Our mission chapels
2. Cities of America
3. Foreign fields
III. Ethiopia – Munz
A. No foreigner allowed for 3,000 years, until Mussolini conquered in 1930
B. Evangelistic mission tour in 1970
1. Gebre Awat
2. Coptic Church