Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-26-74 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television we welcome you to the services of our First Baptist Church in Dallas. And on a Memorial holiday weekend, with this auditorium filled twice, it is a glory to God that you are interested enough, even on a holiday, to listen to the Word of God. And in keeping with the spirit and the meaning of the day, I have prepared this sermon entitled In Memoriam. It is a message in defense of Christian grief.
The seventh chapter of the Book of Acts closes with the martyrdom of Stephen, the first Christian to lay down his life for Christ. And it says in the closing verse that he kneeled down, and he closed his life with a prayer. “And when he had said this, he fell asleep” [Acts 7:60]. That’s a Christian way of saying he died: “he fell asleep.” And the eighth chapter begins: “And Saul” [Acts 8:1], who later was Paul [Acts 13:9], at whose feet the men laid down their garments who stoned Stephen to death [Acts 7:58], “and Saul was consenting unto his death” [Acts 8:1]. He exalted in it; it was a personal triumph for him. Then the second verse, “But devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him” [Acts 8:2].
Love makes the difference. It always does. Love makes the difference. For Saul and for those fanatics who looked upon Stephen as an antagonist, an apologist they could not answer, to get him out of the way, to shed his blood, to murder him was a part of personal vindictive victory. So for them it was an occasion of rejoicing and triumph. You have the same kind of a thing when you turn the pages in Acts to chapter 12. It starts off: And Herod, that would be Herod Agrippa I, and Herod slew James, the brother of John—slew James with the edge of the sword, cut off his head [Acts 12:1-2]. And because it pleased the people, he reached forth his hand and took Simon Peter and incarcerated him, expecting to slay Simon Peter after the days of unleavened bread, the Passover season [Acts 12:3]. They were happy about it, it was a triumph for them. They liked it, rejoiced in it, celebrated over it, exalted because James had been slain [Acts 12:2-3].
Well, it was that way here with Stephen. And around Stephen, his blood made them like bloodhounds who have a taste of the crimson life. It made them more eager and vicious to carry out their terrible devastation. But, but at the same time that these were rejoicing and exulting and praising, there were devout men who carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him [Acts 8:2]. There was no rejoicing among the people of Christ. There were tears and sadness and sorrow. And even this translation, “and made great lamentation over him,” even that is not as strong as the author wrote it.
There is a Greek word, koptō, which means “cut off.” When the Lord entered Jerusalem they koptō branches from the palm trees and laid in His path [Matthew 21:8]—koptō: to cut off—and it came to mean to cut one’s self in grief or to beat upon one’s breast in sorrow. And from that verbal form there was made a substantive: kopeton, kopeton. Kopeton means to beat upon one’s breast; to cut oneself in inexpressible grief and sorrow. And that’s the word translated here, “lamentation” [Acts 8:2].
And as though kopeton, to beat upon one’s breast, to cut oneself in agony of grief, as though that were not enough, he places before it the word mega: mega, like a megaphone. We use the word so much. Megaton: mega means great or intense. And as though kopeton were not enough, he adds to it mega. Mega kopeton, translated here “great lamentation” [Acts 8:2]. It is an extremely graphic and expressive word of infinite sorrow. “And devout men took Stephen, carried him to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.” For others it was joy or victory, but for these it was infinite sorrow. That is so often true in life. It is love that makes the difference. There are those who are so dear to us, who mean nothing to somebody else, no more than a leaf that falls, no more than a rock that is kicked out of the road; means nothing to them. But to us they mean everything, like heaven and life.
I see that so many times. For example, could you imagine in a war, in a war there was just one soldier killed? Why, I can see the headlines in the paper. “The war is won, just one soldier killed!” I can read about it in my mind’s eye as they would write over such a victory in Time or Newsweek or United States News and World Report. And I can see the editorials that they would write about it. “Look what a great gladness and victory, the war and just one soldier killed.” And yet I would think if you went into the home where that mother bows her head in tears, her son was that boy who was killed. To them they don’t even know his name, just one killed, but to her it was everything.
I went one time in the last World War to tell a mother that her boy was killed. And on the way, on the journey, a man remarked to me, “The war is over for her. It is all over for her. Her son is killed.” It is love that makes the difference. It is nothing to somebody else, but it is everything to us who loved them.
If I were to ask you, did you ever hear of Nur Jahan, or in some literature you’d read her name, Mumtaz Mahal? If I were to ask you, “Did you ever hear of Mumtaz? Did you ever hear of Nur?”
“I never heard of her. Have no idea who she is.” If you were to walk down any street in the world and ask them, “Did you ever hear of Nur, of Mumtaz?”
“No, I never heard of her.” Couldn’t care less, have no interest whatsoever. And yet if you ever go to India, if you ever go to Agra where the sacred Yamuna River turns in the bend of the river, there you will find the most beautiful building in the world. It is called the Taj Mahal. And it was built by Shah Jahan in memory of the wife that he loved named Nur, Mumtaz. To us, a name meaningless; to him, there was nothing of proportion or grandeur that was too great or too beautiful for her. Love made the difference.
“And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him” [Acts 8:2]. Is that Christian? Is it acceptable in God’s sight for us to weep, and to pray, and to cry, and to lament over these who have died? Is it right for a Christian to cry, and to be in sorrow, and to be plunged into grief over these who have died? Is it right? Is it acceptable in God’s sight?
Right on the other side of the block from us, in the same block but living at that corner, there was a fine man and his wife named Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Scott. They were such noble people. I remember as a little boy, there was a foundling, a given-away, forsaken baby laid on their doorstep—it was a little girl. I remember they asked me to look at the little child, little baby; apparently it had never been fed after it was born and it was just a little skeleton covered with skin. The child was laid on the step, the front doorstep—a foundling child of the Scott home. They took the little baby, they named her Margaret, and they raised her lovingly and tenderly. That’s the family.
As the days passed and as the years multiplied, Mr. Scott, that fine man and neighbor, died. And when he did, Mrs. Scott cried piteously. She was plunged into inexpressible grief. She happened to belong to a certain kind of a Christian sect, denomination, and the teaching of that faith is that death is just a figment of the mind, that sorrow is just something that isn’t real. Tears are not actual, but it is just something that you imagine. And you give yourself to sorrow because you don’t know any different, and you cry because you are not taught. And that there is actually no pain, and there is actually no death, and there actually is no sorrow, and there actually is no sickness. It’s just something in your mind. It’s something in your head. So, when Mrs. Scott cried so piteously over the death of her husband, why, these people who belonged to that sect and that denomination, these people came to see her, and they said, “This is the denial of the faith for you to weep, for you to cry, because there is not any death, and there is not any sorry, and there is not any pain. It’s just in your mind, and if you get it out of your mind, why, it won’t be. It’s just nothing.”
So, I looked upon Mrs. Scott, and she went around as though nothing had happened. The memorial service, she acted as though nothing had happened. She didn’t cry anymore. She didn’t weep anymore. She didn’t express any sorrow anymore. It was as though a leaf had fallen. It was as though a clod were kicked out of the road. No expression at all.
What about that? Is that according to the Word of God? Is there death? Is there? Is it real? And is sorrow right in the presence of God? Is it? Is it before God acceptable to cry? “And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him” [Acts 8:2]. Was that acceptable in God’s sight? Is that Christian?
We might look at it a moment in the Word of God. I preached a sermon one time entitled The Tears of Jesus. Three times does it say in the Holy Scriptures that our Lord cried: one, at the tomb of Lazarus. Even though He knew He would raise His friend from the dead, yet He stood there and cried. The shortest verse in the Bible, and none more expressive; “Jesus wept” [John 11:35]. He burst into tears, the Greek says. He burst into tears. Jesus cried.
A second time He cried was over the city of Jerusalem [Luke 19:41]. Coming to the brow of Olivet, looking at the great city and knowing of its soon destruction—there were more than a million people. It was at the Passover season when Titus, the Roman legionnaire, shut the people up in the walls of that Holy City and more than a million died. And Jesus, looking upon it, Jesus cried. He wept seeing the city.
The third time He wept was facing His own death. It says in the fifth chapter of Hebrews that in Gethsemane He cried unto Him with strong crying and tears [Hebrews 5:7], the tears of Jesus.
I remember one time I preached a sermon entitled The Tears of Paul. Paul cried. In the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, twice as he spoke to the Ephesian elders, Paul refers to his tears, weeping day and night as he testified, serving the Lord with all humility and tears [Acts 20:19, 31]. And that twentieth chapter closes, and Paul knelt down and prayed with them all, and they wept [Acts 20:36-37]. They cried because he had said to them, the Scriptures say, “You will see my face no more” [Acts 20:38]. Was that wrong and was that unacceptable to God?
If I had time, I could speak of the tears of Simon Peter. “And he went out, and wept bitterly,” the Scriptures say [Luke 22:62].
If I had more time I could speak of the tears of the sainted apostle John. In the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, there is the seven sealed roll, book, and it has it in the names of the redeemed of God. And search was made in heaven and in earth for one worthy to break the seals and to look and to read the names thereon. And there was not one found, not in heaven and not in earth [Revelation 5:1-3].
And then the Scriptures say, “And John wept sorely because there was no one found in heaven or earth that was worthy to break the seals” [Revelation 5:4]. And as he cried and as he wept, an elder came and touched him and said, “Weep not, for behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah . . . hath prevailed to break the seals, and to look on the book, and to read the names of glorious, redemptive saints” [Revelation 5:5].
The tears, the crying, the sorrow in the Holy Scriptures; let me take time to speak of the expressed grief that we find in the Scriptures crying, lamentation, sorrow. It begins that way. There is an expressive verse in the first chapters of Genesis. “And the blood of Abel cried unto God from the ground” [Genesis 4:10]. Blood has a voice, doesn’t it? It cries, doesn’t it?
And the Scriptures say, “And the blood of Abel cried unto God from the ground.” As I have looked at that Scripture and read it, I think of the sorrow that it brought to God, this first one to die. But I also think of the indescribable sorrow that it brought to the father, Adam, and to the mother, Eve. I think of that in terms of that is the first poignant, tragic illustration of what God meant when He said, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17].
What did death mean to Adam and Eve? They’d never seen it, never been introduced to it. It was metaphysical, philosophical, ephemeral to them. It was something outside experience. But God just said it, “In the day that you eat thereof thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17]. And then I can imagine, as they stood over the fallen form of their son, Abel [Genesis 4:8], then they knew what it meant with bitter agony and tears, for the blood of Abel cried unto God from the ground [Genesis 4:10].
I follow one of the most poignant stories and dramatic in the Bible, in David’s lament over the death of his son, Absalom. Absalom was as beautiful and handsome a man as was ever born. And David was inexpressibly proud of him. He was to be the king. Absalom was fine, fine looking, beautiful the Bible says. In all of the earth there was none as beautiful and handsome as Absalom [2 Samuel 14:25]. And he was charismatic. He had personality. He could woo, and did, even the people away from David himself [2 Samuel 15:1-6]. And in the rebellion that followed, David gave instruction, “Spare the young man. However the war turns, spare Absalom” [2 Samuel 18:5]. But as you know, Joab took a dart and thrust it through him [2 Samuel 18:14]. And word was brought to David that Absalom had been slain. And the Scriptures say that when word was brought to David that his son had been slain, that he wept. And as he went to his chambers weeping, he cried saying, “O Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom, would God I had died for thee, my son, my son!” [2 Samuel 18:33].
Was that wrong? Was that not acceptable in God’s sight, the tears and the sorrow over the death of his son?
You have that so many times in the Bible, the sorrow over the loss of a husband [Ruth 1:1-3]. And Naomi went back to Bethlehem [Ruth 1:19]. And the people gathered around her and said, “Oh, this is Naomi! She has returned, Naomi.” And Naomi replied, “Do not call me Naomi. That means pleasantness. Call me Mara. That means bitterness. For I have lost my husband and my two sons” [Ruth 1:3, 5, 20]—sorrow over the death of a husband.
Sorrow over the death of a wife; and as they journeyed toward Ephrath, toward Bethlehem, Rachel was in pain and travail. And as the little boy was born, in her last breath before she died, she called the name of the little boy Ben-Oni, which is “the son of my sorrow.” But Jacob took the little child and he named him Benjamin, “the son of my right hand” [Genesis 35:16-19]. And there, the Scriptures say, over the grave of Rachel he erected a monument. And the Scriptures say and it is there to this day; sorrow over a wife [Genesis 35:20].
Is that acceptable in God’s sight? Do we violate the spirit of heaven when we cry, when we sorrow, when we are in grief over these we have loved and lost for a while? All through the Holy Scriptures will you find it. And now, it is no less acceptable in God’s sight when there is the spirit in the heart of these who are left behind that we seek to memorialize, to keep in memory these who have been taken away. That also is in God’s sight holy and acceptable.
The recurring ordinance of the church is called a Memorial Supper. For the Lord took bread and blessed it and said, “Take, eat, in remembrance of Me. This is My body broken, torn, for you, remember Me” [1 Corinthians 11:23-24]. And the Lord took the cup, the red crushed fruit of the vine, and He said, “This is My blood shed for the remission of sins. Drink all of you [Matthew 26:27-28]. Drink in remembrance of Me” [1 Corinthians 11:25].
Isn’t that a strange thing that of all of the things that our Lord did, this is the recurring ordinance, that we might remember Him in His suffering and in His death? [Matthew 27:32-50]. Is that pleasing to God? Evidently it is more pleasing to God than anything that we could do for Him. And when our people are gathered together in His name and the pastor and his men and the koinōnia, the fellowship, are here in God’s holy house, we break bread together. And we do it bringing to mind, to review, the sweet blessedness of Jesus who died for our sins [1 Corinthians 15:3]; in memoriam.
And that like spirit has expressed itself in some of the most magnificent ways in the world. Alfred Tennyson had a friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, and in the very prime of his life Hallam died, and a grief stricken Tennyson was crushed to the ground. And in those days Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his greatest poem and one of the greatest poems of all English literature. And he entitled it “In Memoriam.” It is a poem of Christian faith addressed to the strong Son of God in memoriam, perpetuating the memory of a wonderful friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.
And so I see a like spirit in our church and among our people. In that building across the street that we call the Criswell Building, there was allocated, there was drawn into the structure by a gifted architect, there was drawn a large foyer that they named the Hall of Memories. And people who give memorials to the church, place a plaque there. And it is in honor, in memory, in appreciation, in love of these that we have loved.
And I go over there often and I stand there and I look at those bronze plaques, so many of them have I buried. So very many of them have I buried. And I read the names and I remember the people. And I turn and look this way on this side, and I look at that first plaque. The first plaque I put there. The first one that was affixed in that Hall of Memories, I put there. And I sometimes stand there and read it. It’s to my father, a good, humble, sweet Christian, godly, self-effacing man. I just look at it, and I think of all of the days and the years gone by. And it’s just a little way, somehow, to do good for God in his memory in helping our church and the Lord’s work through it. You didn’t know him. There’s nobody in the church that ever saw him. To these it was as though he never lived, I know. It would make no difference at all, but it does to me. It’s a sweet thing for me. And I love having done it.
And as you go through these buildings, in our new education building, in this building there will you find rooms, and windows, and halls, and foyers dedicated to the memory of somebody so loved, so missed, so remembered, a beautiful, precious thing to do.
Last week there came to my study a little family, a wife, her children. And they said to me, “Pastor, in memory of our dear husband,” said the wife, “our father,” said the children, “and your friend; we’ve come to talk to you about a memorial in his name.” He was one of the finest friends any pastor ever had. He helped me mightily in the work from the day that I came here until his death. And they said, “In memory of my husband,” said the wife, “in memory of our father,” said the children, “and in memory of your close and personal friend, we wish to give a memorial to the church and the work of our Lord.” And they signed and gave to me this pledge card for $100,000. What a precious thing to do. And it will be used beautifully and well. I am praying that the memorial fund, with this and what shall be gathered around it, will help us build a music hall named for him.
I’m not able to give $100,000, but I can give some, and have, and shall, and will love doing it. No coerciveness, don’t feel it at all. It’s something that I love to do. It is something that sweet family loved to do. Somehow, just an expression, the best we know how, of thanks to God for these who meant so much to us, and in God’s work and in God’s house, that they might continue witnessing and testifying to the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
I must close. In another way, there are expressions that we can make of thanksgiving to these who loved us and prayed for us. In a dramatic service, and sometimes the services in Christ’s name can be so poignant and dramatic, there was a young man who came forward, and in his testimony to the congregation, the vast throng that night, he described the death of his mother; all the children were saved except him. And that mother turned to him and said, “Son, will you promise your mother that you will meet me in heaven, that you will give your heart to Jesus?” And there by the side of his mother, he promised he’d give his heart to Jesus, that he would meet her in heaven. And the years passed, and he said, “I did anything else except give my heart to Jesus. I gave my heart and my life to the world and lived a sinful and prodigal life. “But,” he said, “tonight, tonight I am keeping the promise that I made to my mother. I’m accepting Jesus as my Savior” [Romans 10:9-10]. And then lifting his heart and his hands to heaven, as though he saw her beyond the pearly gates [Revelation 21:21], he said, “Mother, I am keeping my promise, and I will see you in heaven.”
Did anybody ever pray for you? Did anybody ever love you in Jesus’ name? Did anybody ever encourage you, God-ward, heavenward, Christ-ward in the faith? If they did, this Memorial Day, in memoriam, would you give your heart to Jesus? Would you answer God’s call with your life? Would you come and work and worship with us? Would you?
In a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and while we stand and sing it, a family you, to come, a couple you, or just one somebody you, to give your heart to Christ, to put your life in the circumference of this church, to answer God’s call, however the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, would you make it now? Would you come now? Would you decide now in your heart? And on the first note of that first stanza, come, down a stairway, down an aisle, “Here I am, pastor.” “We are all coming today. My wife, my children, we are all here.” Or just two of us, or just you, while we sing this song of appeal, make it now; come now, while we stand and while we sing.