The Highway to Heaven
November 9th, 1975 @ 8:15 AM
THE HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-9-75 8:15 a.m.
And welcome all of you who are sharing with us this service in the First Baptist Church. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Highway to Heaven. It is an expounding of the latter part of the thirty-fifth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. In our preaching through this glorious prophecy, we have come to the conclusion of the first great section. And it concludes with one of the most glorious visions and one of the most glorious vistas in all human literature. I read the entire chapter, Isaiah 35.
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God.
Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees.
Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of jackals, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there . . . and it shall be called The Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though simple ones, shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Did you ever hear a more glorious prophecy than that? Of course the background of its presentation, its delivery, lay in the historical destruction of God’s people. The Northern Kingdom had already been taken into captivity by the Assyrians [2 Kings 17:5-6, 18]. And Isaiah himself had prophesied the destruction of the Southern Kingdom [Isaiah 5:1-30], and the Babylonian captivity, which was in the near future [Isaiah 6:9-13]. And the land emptied of its people was sterile and barren and waste [2 Kings 20:17-18]. No sadder prospect could any people ever face than Israel faced as they saw their beloved country destroyed, lying in ruins and waste, and the people carried away into slavery. But he saw also above the present ruin and captivity, he saw a vision of a glorious time to come. And seeing that glorious day, he says, “And the desert shall blossom as the rose” [Isaiah 35:1]. First time I ever saw that on an emblem was going through the Mandelbaum Gate into modern Israel, and there where the guests, the tourists, were received, was a great emblem of the Israeli state; and around the emblem were written those incomparable words, “And the desert shall blossom as a rose” [Isaiah 35:1]. What faith and what commitment and what persuasion in God; and yet when those words were said, the land was waste and empty, and the people in captivity.
Not only that, but he saw a vision of the returning exiles and the returning pilgrims. He saw a vision of a great highway lifted up, and the pilgrims coming back home, singing the songs of Zion, redeemed, ransomed, free, and now as the children of God, no more crying, no more sighing, no more sorrowing, but at home with God [Isaiah 35:8-10]. Now the near term, the partial fulfillment of the prophecy of course lies in the return of the exiles from Babylon [Ezra 2:1], and from Assyria, and from all the places where the Diaspora was scattered over the face of the earth. But the real fulfillment of the prophecy is in nowise just that near return from Babylon, but it lies in the gathering of the redeemed of all ages in their new and heavenly home, the Jerusalem that comes down from above [Revelation 21:1-2]. The prophecy ultimately is fulfilled in the return of God’s people to our Lord and to their Savior. So I have entitled the sermon The Highway to Heaven.
First of all, in the prophecy—and from this moment on it’s just an exposition of the Word—first of all the prophecy is a plain way, it is a simple way. The road to God is so simple and plain, that a little child [Isaiah 28:9], or a wayfaring stranger need not miss it. “It shall be called the Holy Way; and the wayfaring man, though a simple one, an untaught one, shall not err therein” [Isaiah 35:8]. Anytime the way to God and the way to heaven is made devious or inexplicable, or recondite, or hard, we are therein departing from the plain revelation of God. Had it been hard, some of us might have missed it. Had it been abstruse, some of us might not have understood it. Had it been difficult, some of us might not have found it. But the way to heaven is always plain and simple. And even a stranger, a wayfaring man, need not miss it [Isaiah 35:8].
Do you remember the last invitation in the Bible? Revelation 22:17, “The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Did you notice that invitation? The Spirit of God pleads with a man to come to Jesus. The bride, the church of Christ, pleads with a man to come to Jesus. “And let him that heareth say, Come” [Revelation 22:17]. That is, just a stranger passing by, hearing the gospel let him repeat the glad refrain and the invitation, “Come, come, come to the Lord.” A plain way, a simple way; “Wayfaring men, though untaught, untrained, simple ones, need not err therein” [Isaiah 35:8]. It is a way that little children can walk on. It is a way that little children can understand. It is a way that the unlearned heathen and pagan can be introduced to, directly out of his heathenism and his paganism. It is a plain way, a simple way, this way to God, to heaven, to Jesus, to salvation [Isaiah 35:8].
Number two: it is a crimson way; it has a color to it. “And the redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of the Lord shall return” [Isaiah 35:9-10]. It is a plain way, a simple way, a beautifully marked out way because it has a deep scarlet color to it. It goes by the cross; it’s a way of blood. First John 1:7, “If we walk in the light, as our Lord is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanseth us from all sin.” It is a way that goes by Calvary [Luke 23:33], by the cross, by the blood.
Saved by the blood of the Crucified One!
All praise to the Father, all praise to the Son,
All praise to the Spirit, the great Three in One!
Saved by the blood of the Crucified One!
[“Saved by the Blood,” S. J. Henderson]
As some of you know, this past week, Monday through Friday, I have been preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, nor have I ever been more wonderfully, aboundingly, amazingly blessed in my life as I have been this past week with those two thousand theological students and their illustrious faculty. One of the highest, greatest, noblest, experiences of my life has been this past week. Well, a group of students met together and asked me to visit with them for “dialogue” as they call it. One of the things they asked me was this: “What is the greatest preaching experience you ever had in your life?” Well, I wasn’t prepared for the question, and I said, “Give me just a moment to think.” The greatest preaching experience I have ever had in my life; and I thought through some of the high, holy, heavenly hours that I’ve shared in as a preacher and as a pastor. I thought of the time of the closing address at the Southern Baptist Convention in San Francisco years ago, and as I preached and then gave the invitation, it was unbelievable the response. Even the man who was over there seated at the controls left his controls, came to a microphone, and said, “I want you to know that listening over this P.A. system; I have accepted Jesus as my Savior.” It was a heavenly hour. I thought of that one.
I thought of the time in Beulah Park, when all of those pastors, being paid to come, all their expenses cared for, all of them present, in a Nazarene assembly. And on a Thursday night, when I was done preaching, there were about three hundred who came down the aisle, they began while I was preaching. The first one stood up while I was preaching, and came down there, and fell on his face and began to cry before the Lord, and another, and another, until there were more than three hundred of those preachers down there, just sobbing before God. That gave the inspiration in my own heart to ask the church to build this altar rail here at the front of our auditorium. I thought of that as one of the highest, holiest hours I ever shared in. Can you imagine standing in a pulpit and listening to three hundred men sob out loud before the Lord? Just the sound of it was something I’d never heard before. I thought of that.
I thought of preaching in Hong Kong years ago, and while I was preaching, those Chinese began to come with their hands folded like this, and there were so many of them down there, I stopped and turned to the interpreter, and I said, “What are these people doing down here?” He said to me, “O, praise God!” He said, “Praise God, praise the Lord.” He said, “These are men and women who cannot wait until you are done [with] your message, but they’ve already come, indicating that they accept Jesus as their Savior.”
I thought of the first Sunday that I preached, having been called of the church as undershepherd of this dear congregation. And that first Sunday in October, this house was jammed and packed, and when I knelt to pray, having delivered the message, it looked as if the whole congregation burst into tears. It was then that as I walked back to the study which was at that time there, Dr. Truett’s study, it was then that Bob Coleman, Truett’s assistant for forty years and beyond, put his arm around my shoulder, and he said, he said, “Young man, the first of October is to be your anniversary. We’ve never had a service like this in the history of this church.” I thought of that.
I thought of a service in our state evangelistic conference in Fort Worth. And when I was done preaching, there was a man at the top of the balcony who began to shout, and all the way down to the front and on the stage, that man walked down those aisles shouting the praises of God, and everybody there felt in sympathy and harmony with him. I thought of that.
What is the greatest preaching experience I ever had in my life? I’ll tell it to you, and this is my answer to those young men as I thought through it in my heart for a moment. The greatest preaching experience I ever had in my life was a few years ago, when New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday night. And some of my deacons came to me and facetiously said, “Pastor, you are always complaining that you never get to finish a sermon, that the thing is too short, that the time is sped by, you’re always complaining. Now, Sunday night is New Year’s Eve. Why don’t you start at seven-thirty o’clock, and just preach past midnight instead of having some kind of a to-do here, as we do, you know, celebrating the new year on our knees or whatever. Well, why don’t you just start preaching, and then you’ll have plenty of time. You’ll have from seven-thirty to midnight. Well, why don’t you do that?”
Well, they were just kidding me. And you know I got to thinking about that. I got to thinking about that. I concluded that was a directive from the Lord. That was inspired! So I started here at seven-thirty o’clock that evening, and I preached until past midnight—and then didn’t have enough time. You know what I preached on? And this is the greatest preaching experience of my life: I preached on The Scarlet Thread through the Bible, the trail of blood through the Scriptures.
- I started in Eden, when God sacrificed an innocent animal for the nakedness and the sin of our first parents [Genesis 3:1-7, 21].
- Then I went through the blood of Abel [Genesis 4:8-11].
- Then through the blood of the Passover lamb [Exodus 12:6-7, 12-13, 22-23].
- Then through the Mosaic ritual, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for the atonement of sin is in the shedding of blood” [Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22].
- And the daily sacrifice [Numbers 28:3].
- And then the death, the martyrdom of John the Baptist [Mark 6:14-29].
- Then the blood and the suffering of our Lord in Gethsemane [Luke 22:41-44].
- And in the Lord’s Supper [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26].
- And on the Via Dolorosa, and then on Calvary [Matthew 27:32-50; Luke 23:33].
- And then through the martyrdom of Stephen [Acts 7:54-60] and the saints [Revelation 6:9].
- And finally, in the passage that you read together this morning, “These are they who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” [Revelation 7:14].
From time to eternity, from earth to heaven, it is a crimson way, it is a way of blood, it is a way where the redeemed and the ransomed walk before the Lord [Isaiah 35:9-10].
That highway to heaven is not only plain and simple that a little child can find it and walk on it [Isaiah 28:9], it is not only colored scarlet crimson, a way of blood [Revelation 7:14], it is also a way of humility, of repentance, and of confession [Psalm 51:1-12]. The Book says, “And sorrow and sighing shall flee away” [Isaiah 35:10]. Well, that means of course that those who walk on that road to heaven have known what it is to cry and to weep and to be filled with sorrow. Ah, I can just hear the cry of the captives of Israel, as in a strange land; they hang their harps upon the willow trees and wept in confession before God [Psalm 137:1-3]. I don’t think anyone ever walks the road to heaven, ever follows the highway to glory, who does not first bow before God in deepest contrition, and confession, and humility. It is a way that David walked when he said,
O God, O God be pitiful to me, be merciful to me . . .
I acknowledge my transgressions before Thee . . .
O Lord, restore unto me the joy of my salvation . . .
If Thou desirest sacrifice, I would give it; Thou delightest not in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.
[Psalm 51:1, 3, 12, 16, 17]
It’s the way that David walked. It’s the way that Simon Peter walked, when the Lord turned and looked upon him, and he went out and wept bitterly [Luke 22:60-62]. It is a way of confession and contrition. And the publican would not so much as lift up his face to heaven, but bowed before God, he beat upon his breast, and said, “Lord, be merciful to me the sinner” [Luke 18:13]. That’s exactly the way it’s written in that Greek Testament you teach out of, “the sinner,” as though no one in the earth had done wrong before God, I have. It isn’t he, and it isn’t she, and it isn’t they, it’s me O Lord that stands in the need of prayer. That is God’s way to glory.
When a man is proud and boastful and lifted up and self satisfied, he’s not walking in the pilgrim way. For the way is one of tears and confession and humility [Psalm 51:1-12]. And I think every day we ought to bow before the Lord and confess our sins of that day. “Lord, Lord, this day, forgive me all that I’ve done that has displeased Thee or been injurious to anyone else”: a way of humility, a way of confession, of contrition [Psalm 51:1-12].
It is also a way of joy and of gladness [Isaiah 35:10]. Isn’t that the strangest thing in the earth? At the same time we’re weeping before God [Psalm 51:17], we are rejoicing in the goodness of our Savior [Psalm 51:14-15]. It’s the same kind of a spiritual experience as though a martyr who is being burned at the stake sings; his heart overflows in praise to God. How do those things be together in the same heart? That’s the Christian experience: it is a way of joy and gladness [Isaiah 35:10]. “And they come to Zion with songs, and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness” [Isaiah 35:10]. It is a way of happiness and of praise.
“See, here is water, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” [Acts 8:36]. And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” And the eunuch answered and said, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and my Savior [Acts 8:37]. And they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch: and he baptized him [Acts 8:38]. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more; and, and, and, and he went on his way rejoicing” [Acts 8:39], glory to God, glory to God, glory to God, glory to God! Listen my sweet friend, listen to me: the gospel of Christ is not intended to make us miserable, but it’s to wipe the tears from our eyes. Our dream and our vision is not of devils descending a dreary staircase down to hell, but our dream and our vision is of a ladder, and the angels ascending, and the top of it leans against the shining throne of God [Genesis 28:12-13].
On Monday I am happy, and on Tuesday full of joy,
On Wednesday I have peace within, that nothing can destroy.
On Thursday and on Friday, I’m walking in the light,
Oh Saturday is a heavenly day, and Sunday’s always bright.
Oh glory, glory, glory, oh glory to the Lamb,
Hallelujah, I’m saved, and I’m so glad I am.
Oh glory, glory, glory, oh glory to the Lamb,
Hallelujah, I’m saved, and I’m bound for the Promised Land
[from ”Glory to the Lamb,” Selected Hymns, the New Onward and Upward
(Logansport, Indiana; Home Music Co.) around 1900
It’s a way of joy and of gladness; “They shall come with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads” [Isaiah 35:10].
It is a way of confession, openly; it is a way seen publicly; “And a highway shall be there” [Isaiah 35:8]. Paige, I see you have your Hebrew Old Testament and are following the passage in the Hebrew. Paige, look at that word for “highway,” “highway,” it is a word for a raised road, for a lifted up road, for a great causeway, high [Isaiah 35:8]. And the people that walk on it are very publicly seen. You can see them. It is a way of open commitment and open confession. When I baptize, always, however I may turn that baptismal formula, always there’ll be this in it: “Upon a public confession of your faith in Jesus, upon an unashamed commitment of your life to Jesus,” always that is in that baptismal formula. It is an open, public commitment of our hearts and lives to God, unashamed. Isn’t that what the Book says? Romans 10:9-10, “And if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart one believeth unto a God kind of righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation,” openly and publicly. Isn’t that what the Lord said in Matthew 10:32-33, “Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I deny before My Father which is in heaven. And whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I confess before My Father which is in heaven.” It’s an open, seen, publicly avowed, committed way, this way to God.
Something happened last summer, and a thousand times since then or more have I thought about it, and would to God I could go back and do what I had an impulse to do at the time. We were in Hyde Park, full of communists, red flags, propaganda, political asseverations, thousands of people milling around there, and all of those speaking, speaking. Right in the middle of Hyde Park in all of that throng, there was a minister of the gospel. And he was standing there with an open Book in his hand, and he was faithfully, faithfully preaching the message of Christ. Out of all of the other men in Hyde Park who were heckled, there weren’t any who were heckled like that faithful preacher. They made every ridiculous sarcastic remark about him that human speech could command. He’d say, “What shall ye do with Jesus who is called Christ?” And one fellow would come out there in the little open arena and say, “If I had Him, I’d kill Him.” And another one says, “I’d crucify Him.” On and on they ridiculed and heckled and sarcastically demeaned that preacher, with an open Book in his hand, preaching the gospel of Christ. Why, I didn’t do this I don’t know, I had it in my heart to do it, but I, I walked away. I wish I could go back and stand there again, and look at that man, and see the tragically sorrowful discouraging remarks and attitudes and raised fists that were all around him. You know what I would do? Without any fanfare at all, without any particular announcement at all, I would like to step out into that little circle around him, and stand by his side, and turn to him and say, “My brother in Christ, I want you to know, I too am a Christian. I too have been redeemed by the blood of the Crucified One [1 Peter 1:18-19], and you ask what shall I do with Jesus? This shall I do: I will receive Him into my heart, love Him, pray to Him, and follow Him from earth to heaven” [John 3:16].
I wish I had done that. That is a part of what it is to be a child of God: “Sir, put my name down with those who love the Lord. Write my name among those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb” [1 Peter 1:18-19]. And, “Lord, if it isn’t in Your book in heaven, write it now [Luke 10:20]. If I’m not saved, I want to be saved now [Romans 10:9-13]. If I’m not a Christian, I want to be a Christian now. If I’m not in that Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27], Lord, write my name now. Openly, publicly, unashamedly, number me with God’s redeemed” [1 Peter 1:18-19]. That’s the highway to glory. That’s the high road to heaven [Isaiah 35:8-10].
Our time is far spent. To come down that aisle and to stand before men and angels, “I too confess Him as my Lord,” will you this day? To bring your family in the circle and orbit and circumference of this precious congregation, would you come? To give your heart and life to Jesus, would you come? Answering any appeal the Spirit presses upon your heart; would you answer with your life? Would you do it now? On the first note of the first stanza, come. If you’re in the highest seat of the second balcony, there’s time and to spare, down one of these stairways on either side, we’ll wait. Come; make the decision in your heart, and come. Do it now, make it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.