Dr. W. A. Criswell
Acts 8: 2
5-26-74 8:15 a.m.
We welcome you this morning who are listening to us and worshiping with us on radio, all of us gathered in the great sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message in keeping with our Memorial Day service. It is entitled In Memoriam. Another title we could give it would be In Defense of Grief. The seventh chapter of the Book of Acts closes with the story of the martyrdom of Stephen. And he kneeled down and after he had said his prayer of forgiveness, he fell asleep [Acts 7:60].
The eighth chapter begins, "And Saul was consenting unto his death" – who later became the apostle Paul [Acts 13:9] – "And Saul was consenting unto his death" [Acts 8:1]. And the second verse of the eighth chapter reads: "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him." And that is the text. "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2].
The first thing I would point out as I read the passage is the humbling and all-pervasive fact that love makes the difference. When Stephen was stoned, there were those who exulted in his martyrdom. They felt triumphant. They had killed, they put away for good this witness for Christ whom they could not refute or confute or confuse.
One of those was Saul himself. After the martyrdom of Stephen, it was like blood for the blood hounds. They became more bitter and vindictive with a spirit of persecution and destruction. "And Saul himself, breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" [Acts 9:1] – even began to go unto strange and far away cities to hale into prison and unto death those that called upon the name of Jesus [Acts 26:9-11].
For them, the blood of Stephen was a welcome sight. For them it was victory, triumph. But love makes the difference. To the disciples of Christ, to the followers of Jesus, it was an immeasurable loss and an illimitable grief. It says so. "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2].
You could not find in human speech a more emphatic description than the words translated here, great lamentation. There is a Greek word, koptō, that means to cut off like a branch. For example, when our Lord entered into Jerusalem the people koptō, they cut off palm branches and laid in the way [Matthew 21:6-8]. Koptō. They took that word, cut off, koptō, and finally referred it to terrible, intense agony of sorrow and grief, koptō. They cut themselves. They beat upon their breasts. The word, the substantive of the verbal form, the substantive is [kopetos,] which means to cut oneself in grief, to beat upon ones breast with grief. That’s the word that is used here, translated lamentation. They beat upon their breasts in grief [Acts 8:2].
And as though that were not enough, the text employs the word mega. We have a megaphone, a megaton. Mega means great, intense. And as though [kopetos,] to beat upon ones breast in grief, were not enough, the author also writes mega [kopetos], with intense beating upon the breast with grief. The death of Stephen, to these men who loved him, was an indescribable, immeasurable sorrow. "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2].
What maybe nothing to somebody else can be everything to us. Those who are not even named by others, to us may mean heaven and earth.
What if we were in a war and there was just one soldier killed? I can imagine the historians. I can see the headlines on the newspapers. I can read the long articles in my mind, in Time and Newsweek and United States News and World Report and all the other editorials of the day. "This is a phenomenal war, it is an unbelievable war! We have won the victory and one soldier killed, just one." Why, it would be an unheard of thing and the people would rejoice from one side of the continent to the other, just one killed. But I just wonder if there would be must rejoicing in the home where the mother is given the news that her boy has been slain?
I remember one time in the last World War when I was sent to speak to a mother whose boy had been killed. There was a man who said to me on the way, he said, "For her, the war is over." They mean nothing or even a matter of rejoicing to others, but to us it is the coloring of heaven and earth.
There is a woman, I am going to name her, her name was Mumtaz Mahal. In other literature you will call her Nur Jehan. Did you ever hear of Nur Jehan? Did you ever hear of Mumtaz Mahal? I would say you could ask ten thousand people walking down any street of any city, and they’d say, "I’ve never heard of Mumtaz Mahal. I’ve never heard of Nur Jehan. I never did." But the most beautiful building in the world, standing on the Yamuna River in Agra, India, the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal is there and for centuries has it stood in memory of that woman who was dear to one somebody, Shah Jehan.
Nothing to somebody else, nothing to others, but meaning everything to us. "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2]. Is that permissible? Is Christian grief acceptable before God, and is it right before the Lord to cry and to grieve and to be in sorrow over these whom we have loved and lost for awhile? If at a funeral service somebody cries, if in the closed door of a bedroom a companion who has lost someone, loved for the years and years, bows down in bitter tears, is that acceptable before God? Is it?
When I was a youth, when I was a small boy, there was a foundling, a little baby placed on the doorstep of the Scott family just on the other side of the block from us. They brought me as a little boy to look at the little baby. The baby was all skeleton. I never forget how I felt looking at that little baby. It had never been fed, born and never been fed. It was just a skeleton covered with skin. And the baby had been laid on the doorstep of the Scott home, right on the other side of the block from us.
The Scott family took the little baby and nursed it and cared for it and it grew to be a beautiful little child. And in the days that passed, Mr. Scott died. Ah, it was a sadness in the home. And Mrs. Scott cried and she wept and she lamented. She had lost a wonderful and good husband, a fine, noble man. And she cried. But she belonged to a denomination that says there is no grief. It’s just in your head. There is no sorrow. It’s just in your mind. There is no sickness. It’s just an aberration of the soul. These things do not actually exist. They are just imaginary. That’s what their faith teaches.
So, they waited upon Mrs. Scott. And they said to her, "There is no death, and there is no sorrow, and there is no grief, and your crying and your lamentation is a denial of the faith." So, I saw Mrs. Scott as she brushed the tears away, and through the remainder of that time, and at the memorial service, you would have thought nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Maybe a bird roosted in the tree. Maybe the wind blew a leaf. It was no more than that.
And as a little boy, not knowing theology, and not knowing these different denominations, as a little boy I thought in my heart this is one of the strangest phenomena I have ever looked upon. This wonderful man, this glorious Christian man, and his wife is taught to believe that he’s not even dead, and there is no call for tears and sorrow; taught that to weep is a denial of the faith.
I don’t read that in the Bible. "Devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2]. Tears have a place in the presence of Almighty God and tears have a place in human life. I could preach a sermon, and I have, on the tears of Jesus. He cried at the tomb of Lazarus even though He knew He was to raise him from the dead [John 11:43-44]. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus [John 11:35]. Our Lord cried over Jerusalem [Luke 19:41]. Coming to the brow of Mount Olivet, seeing the city of destruction spread before Him, He wept over the sorrow that should overwhelm the people. Jesus cried in Gethsemane as He faced the agony of death. The Scriptures say He prayed with strong crying, strong crying and tears [Hebrews 5:7]. Jesus wept. The tears of Jesus.
I preached a sermon one time on the tears of Paul. Paul cried. Twice in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts as he talks to the elders at Ephesus, he speaks of his tears [Acts 20:19, 31]. And the chapter closes when he knelt down, and prayed with them all; they put their faces on Paul’s shoulder and neck, and kissed him, sorrowing, weeping [Acts 20:36-37], the Book says, that they would see him no more [Acts 20:38].
Out of this Book from which we read God’s Scripture this morning, Paul writes to his young son in the ministry, Timothy, and he says, "I long to see thee, being mindful of thy tears" [2 Timothy 1:4]. And he says, "Come quickly [2 Timothy 4:9], come before winter" [2 Timothy 4:21], for he was facing execution.
To weep, to cry is acceptable unto God. I could speak of the tears of Simon Peter. He went out and wept bitterly [Luke 22:62]. I could speak of the tears of the apostle John. In the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, it says, "When there was found no one worthy in heaven or in earth to open the book or to look thereon" [Revelation 5:2-3], it says, "And I wept much, because no one was found in heaven or in earth or under the earth to break the seals and to look on the pages of the book that had the names of God’s redeemed people. I wept much" [Revelation 5:4].
In fact, if we look through the whole Word of God, how many times will you find it describing grief that is as deep as life itself? The first story of the first family, God said, "The blood of Abel cries unto Me from the ground" [Genesis 4:10]. I have often thought of that verse. The blood of Abel cries unto Me from the ground.
What I thought is this. If the tragedy of the death of Abel moved the heart of God in heaven, think of how Adam and think of how Eve must have felt when they looked upon the prostrate, silent form of their son. Grief and sorrow in death.
There is not a more pathetic or moving passage in human story and literature than the death of Absalom, the son in whom King David literally lived in the hope of a glorious tomorrow. Absalom, the most beautiful son possibly that was ever born to a man [2 Samuel 14:25]. Absalom, capable and gifted, charismatic but without soul. So gifted and so beautiful he wooed the whole nation away from David [2 Samuel 15:1-6]. And in the rebellion that followed in the civil war that was fought, Absalom was slain [2 Samuel 18:9-15].
And when the news was brought to his father, David, David wept. And going to his chambers, there to grieve before God, he cried saying, "Oh Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom my son, my son!" [2 Samuel 18:33]. And if you go to Jerusalem today in the Valley of Kidron, just in front of the Garden of Gethsemane there will you find a monument carved out of the living rock, to Absalom; grief in the Bible.
Grief over a husband; when Naomi returned to her native Bethlehem the people gathered round and said, "This is Naomi; this is Naomi" [Ruth 1:19]. She said, "Nay, nay, I am not Naomi. For Naomi means pleasantness. My name now is Mara, bitterness, agony, sorrow" in the loss of her husband [Ruth 1:20].
Grief in the Word of God, it is always seen as in the presence of the Lord. There is no intimation in the Holy Scriptures that it is wrong for us to cry, to sob, to be in sorrow over these who have been taken away. There is only one thing that the Scriptures say, just one. And that is this. That we are not to sorrow as those who have no hope [1 Thessalonians 4:13]. We are not to cry as those who think that these have been taken away from us forever. For we are taught that if Jesus died and rose again, even those who fall asleep in Jesus, will God bring with Him. "For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we, all of us, shall be changed, immortalized, glorified" [1 Corinthians 15:52-54]. "Caught up to meet our Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words" [1 Thessalonians 4:17, 18].
That’s all the Scriptures have to say. We are not to cry as being without hope. And we are not to sorrow as those who have no belief in a more glorious tomorrow. We believe God hath made some better thing for us, that God Himself, Jesus Himself would not be complete without us. But to sorrow before God and to weep before the Lord for these who have preceded us and left us behind in this earthly pilgrimage, is always acceptable in God’s sight.
And that leads me to my last avowal. In memoriam, is it right and is it good and is it acceptable in God’s sight that we seek to perpetuate the memory of these whom we have loved and who have preceded us into heaven? Is that acceptable in God’s sight? Is that right? Or should we seek to destroy their memory, to efface their whole life, to bury everything about them when we bury the human body? Or is it right for us to seek, to perpetuate the memory of those who have preceded us in glory? From the Bible and from the Scriptures, I know that there is no sweeter thing that can be done than we seek to perpetuate the memory of these whom we have loved.
We shall begin with our Lord Himself. The recurring ordinance of the church, the one the Lord asked us to observe again and again and again is the ordinance of the memorial of His death. "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do it in remembrance of Me. This is my body, eat in remembrance of me. This is my blood, drink in remembrance of Me" [1 Corinthians 11:24-26].
And whenever the church, as a family, as a community of disciples, as a koinonia of fellowship, of God’s children, when we gather together there is no more sacred or significant hour than when we break bread together in memory of our Lord – in Memoriam.
Out of all of the marvelous poems that Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his greatest poem and his most famous poem, one that shall live forever is entitled "In Memoriam." "In Memoriam?" Yes, there was a close, personal friend dear to Tennyson by the name of Arthur Henry Hallam. And he died in the very prime of his life. And the grief stricken Tennyson wrote his poem "In Memoriam," dedicated to Henry Hallam.
Was that good? Was that right? Was that acceptable to God? The whole human race could never repay to Tennyson the debt that it owes for the expression of faith in that immortal poem, "In Memoriam." It is a poem about faith in God, as in the strong immortal Son of love; "In Memoriam."
And there has not been a sweeter thing or more meaningful than our church has done than to give opportunity for our people to, in memoriam, to remember these whom we have loved in our life and who are now in heaven.
When they planned that building across the street that they call the Criswell Building, when they planned that building they placed a large foyer in it that they called the hall of memories. And it has bronze plaques in it just so big, and time and time and time again I stand there and I look at those bronze plaques, so many of them are people dear to me. And so very many of them have I laid to rest, awaiting God’s call to resurrection and to life [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18].
And the first one I placed there myself. And sometimes I stand and look at it. It is a dedication to my father. I love having done it. It may mean little or nothing to somebody else, but it means so much to me. The people here in the church never saw my father. They never knew him. But I did. And the sweet, gentle spirit of that good man, Christian man, God’s man, blesses my soul forever. And to look at that in memory of him is a blessing to my heart.
This last week there came a family to see me. And they said to me, "This man whom you loved so much and who helped you so much in the building of the church and in the work of the Lord, he was our father," to the children, "and my husband," to the wife, and they said, "We are bringing to you a gift in memory of your great friend, my husband and the father of these children." And they filled out this card for one hundred thousand dollars and placed it in my hand. It moved my soul. I am not able to make the gift one hundred thousand dollars. But what I have been able to do, I have done and am continuing to do. A blessedness, a preciousness, not a coercive chore, but something I love to do.
So when I go around and look at our buildings, there on that room, here in this assembly, just everywhere. Seated out there in the congregation Wednesday night, I noticed a memorial plaque to the right here of the baptistery. How precious. In memoriam, remembering these who have gone before and doing something that blesses God’s work and furthers His purpose in the earth.
And I have one other brief word. Sometimes, sometimes out of memory of these who have gone before, sometimes, sometimes we are brought to bow before our blessed Savior. In one of those dramatic services such as when it comes, when it happens, it just indelibly burns itself in your memory.
In one of those services there was a young man – he’s now so successful a man – there was a young man who stood up before the great throng of the congregation, and he said, "When my mother died she called her children around her and I only was outside the fold. I only was lost. And she turned to me and said, ‘Son, promise me, promise me that you’ll meet me in heaven; you’ll give your heart to Jesus.’" And he said, "I promised my mother I would meet her in heaven. I would give my heart to Jesus." And he said, "The years passed and I gave my heart to everything else besides the Lord, a wayward, prodigal, sinful son. But," he said, "Today, today I’m keeping that promise I made to my mother." And he lifted up his face and pointed his hand to heaven as though he saw her and said, "Mother, today, today I have kept that promise. I will meet you in heaven. I take Jesus as my Savior."
You don’t forget those things. They linger as long as memory lasts. Has anybody prayed for you? Is there anybody who loves you in the faith and in the name of the blessed Jesus? Is there somebody who cares or who did care about you? Maybe to the world, whether you lived or died is nothing. Maybe to the world our life is no more than an autumnal leaf that falls to the ground. But to somebody, but to somebody who loved you or loves you, it means everything in heaven and earth, you.
In a moment when we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, in answer to somebody’s prayer, in answer to somebody’s care, in answer to somebody’s love, if God bids you today, calls you today, would you answer with your life? Taking Jesus as Savior, "Here I am." Putting your life in this dear church; "Here I come." Reconsecrating your life to the precious Savior, "I’ll do it now." As God shall press the appeal to your heart, would you respond? Would you come? A family, a couple or just one somebody you, make it now, do it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. The different reactions to the death of Stephen
A. To the executioner, triumph
1. Saul the more bitter (Acts 8:3)
B. To the disciples, inexpressible sorrow (Acts 8:2)
C. Those who mean so little to others can mean so much to us (John 20:11-15)
II. Is it Christian to grieve? (Acts 8:2)
A. The tears of Jesus
1. Lazarus (John 11:35)
2. Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-35, 19:41)
3. Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7)
B. The tears of Paul (Acts 20:19, 31, 36-68, 2 Corinthians 2:4, 2 Timothy 1:4)
C. The tears of Simon Peter (Matthew 26:75, Luke 22:62)
D. The tears of John (Revelation 5:4-5)
III. Tears are grief in the Bible
A. For a son (2 Samuel 18:33)
B. For a husband (Ruth 1:19-21)
C. For a wife (Genesis 35:16-20)
D. For a nation (Jeremiah 9:1, Lamentations 2:18)
IV. Our tribute in memory
A. Tennyson’s "In Memoriam"
B. Our hall of memories; memorials
C. The Lord’s Supper (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 11:26, 15:52)