GREAT GODLY EXPECTATIONS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-24-76 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Great Godly Expectations of Our Lord. As most of you know, for a period of about a year and seven months, I preached through the prophet Isaiah. And having finished that series of sermons, which are to be published by the Zondervan Publishing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the publishing house asked me if I would choose a book out of the New Testament and preach a series that they might publish—expositions of texts, of passages in the New Testament.
It had been my thought for a long time as I preach through Isaiah, that the next book I would like to study would be from the New Testament. So the publishing house suggested the Book of Acts. And that pleased me so much because I had it in my heart also to choose the Book of Acts. We begin therefore this morning with the first message, which is an exposition of the first verse of the first chapter of the Book of Acts.
“The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and to teach” [Acts 1:1]. When he refers to a previous book, “the former treatise have I written,” I know therefore, that the author has written another book to which here he referred. And that book is easily identified because it also is dedicated to and addressed to one Theophilus. The third Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, in the third verse addresses “most excellent Theophilus” [Luke 1:3], just as we have in the first verse in the Book of Acts: “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus” [Acts 1:1].
He is called here, “most noble,” or “most excellent” [Luke 1:3], kratiste. That is an epithet. It is a descriptive word referring to a man of great and noble stature and of affluence and means, kratiste. In the Roman Empire there were plebes, the common people. There were pretastoi; there were the knights, the people of affluence and dignity and great social standing and power. And then finally, in the highest place of government, there were the senators. So he addresses this man as “kratiste Theophilus” [Acts 1:1]. You find Felix, the Roman governor of Judea, in the Book of Acts later addressed with that same epithet; kratiste [Acts 24:3, 26:25]. Evidently, the man had become a convert to the Christian faith, because his name is a beautiful Christian name. Theo —”God,” philos, friend—”the friend of God.”
Tradition says, we do not know, but tradition says that he was a great, good man, and had a slave by the name of Luke, a doctor, a Greek servant. And that Greek servant won him to the Lord, to the faith. And out of love for the beloved physician, he was given manumission. He was manumitted. He was made free.
And in turn, out of gratitude for what the nobleman, Theophilus—his new Christian name—what Theophilus had done for him, he wrote the beautiful Gospel. The most beautiful piece of literature in the world is the Third Gospel, Luke. And he wrote for him also the continuing story of our Lord, called in our Bible “The Acts of the Apostles.” He is easily identified in the book, because there are peculiarities by which he writes that are very indicative, most indicative of the personality of the man.
All of us are differentiated from all of the rest of us; each one of us, by our little eccentricities, our little idiosyncrasies, little things that make you, you. And if a man writes, you will see those things, those characteristics, literally, in how he writes. It is so with this man. There have been numbers, something fifty or more, peculiar words and expressions found in this man, not found elsewhere, and they are scattered throughout the third Gospel of Luke, and scattered throughout the Book of Acts. And when you look at those peculiar words that he will use—just he—you will find many of them are medical words. They refer to the field of a physician. So whoever it was that wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts was a doctor, he was a physician. That makes it doubly easy for us to identify him, because in the Book of Colossians, chapter 4 and verse 14, Paul referred to “Luke, the beloved physician.” What a beautiful address, “the beloved physician”! [Colossians 4:14]
And in the Book of Philemon, the same apostle Paul refers to Luke as his “fellow laborer” [Philemon 24]. And in the most poignant passage in literature, in the fourth chapter of the Book of 2 Timothy, Paul, having described his friends who are scattered, and some of them, like Demas, who has forsaken him [2 Timothy 4:10]: he writes, “only Luke is with me” [2 Timothy 4:11]. In the Mamertine dungeon, facing inevitable execution under the emperor Nero, “only Luke is with me.”
Luke became associated with Paul in the sixteenth chapter of Acts, verse 10, beginning with the “we” section [Acts 16:10]. When Paul saw the vision of the man from Macedonia, crying to “Come and help us” [Acts 16:9], immediately “we” endeavered, so Luke joined him there. And in the three years or more of Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea, Luke saw and visited and talked with those first witnesses in the Christian faith: from Mary, the mother of our Lord; and he wrote those beautiful stories of infancy about John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who became known as John the Baptist; and the intimacies of the birth of the Lord Jesus, writing as only as a physician would write [Luke 1:5 – 2:16].
Almost certainly—in my humble opinion, certainly—he was a Gentile. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Colossians, Paul divides the Jewish from the Gentiles, he named these whom he called “of the circumcision” of the Jewish faith [Colossians 4:11], then he names three of the Gentile world. One is Epaphras [Colossians 4:12], who he says “is one of you Colossians”; one is Demas [Colossians 4:14]; and the third he names is Luke [Colossians 4:14], the only Gentile writer in all of the sixty-six books of the Bible, this beloved physician.
Now the outline that he follows in writing the Book of Acts is by inspiration from heaven. In the first chapter of the Apocalypse, the Lord gave to the sainted apostle John the outline for the Revelation. He says to him, “Write the things the things which thou hast seen”; second, “the things which are”; and third, “the things which shall be”—meta tauta, “after these things that are” [Revelation 1:19].
So John faithfully followed that outline. First, he wrote the things that he had seen, the vision of the glorified Lord Jesus [Revelation 1:9-18]. Then he wrote the things that are, the seven churches of Asia, the churches that are [Revelation 2:1 – 3:22]. The seven churches of Asia encompass the story of the Christian dispensation to the consummation of the age, to the return of our Lord. Then he wrote the things beginning in chapter 4, meta tauta, the things after the things that are; that is, the things after the rapture of the church [Revelation 4:1 – 22:21]. And he followed that through chapter 22, to the great eternal age by which God shall bring to Himself the righteousness that shall fill the whole earth and universe [Habakuk 2:14].
So it is in the Book of Acts, the Lord gave the outline for the book. They are to be witnesses unto Him “in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” [Acts 1:8]. So the Lord takes this great program and outlines its expansion, and Luke follows that outline in writing the book. First, the dispensation of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the disciples in Jerusalem [Acts 2:1-8:4]; then, the evangelization of Judea, the villages, the highways and the byways [Acts 8:26-12:25]; then, spreading further, preaching the gospel to the half-breed, the half-Jews, called Samaritans, in Samaria [Acts 8:5-25]; then, preaching the gospel to a “proselyte of the temple”—a full-fledged Jew, converted out of the Gentile world, the treasurer of Ethiopia under Candace, the queen [Acts 8:26-40].
Then he follows the preaching of the gospel to a Gentile who is a “proselyte of the temple.” That is, he had forsaken his heathen idols and had accepted the moral law of Moses, but still a Gentile. And the gospel is preached thus to Cornelius, the centurion of the Roman army in Caesarea, the capital of Judea [Acts 10:1-48]. Then he follows, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Acts, the preaching of the gospel by those Hellenizing Jews, those Greek-speaking Jews, to the Greek idolaters in Antioch [Acts 11:19-26]. And to the amazement of all who knew of the work of the Lord, those idolaters came out of their Greek heathenism directly into the Christian faith [Acts 11:27-28].
Heretofore, everyone who had come had come through Judaism. But these in Antioch came directly from their idolatry into the glorious light of the gospel of the Son of God. So amazing was it, that they were called Christians first in Antioch [Acts 11:26], and it created a repercussion in the whole Christian world [Acts 11:27-28].
And upon the completion of the first missionary journey [Acts 13:1-14:28], when the Holy Spirit called them out into the Greco-Roman world, in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, there is the first Jerusalem conference [Acts 15:1-35], where the Holy Spirit guided the disciples and the apostles in the avowal that a man could become a Christian without first becoming a Jew. However he was, in the deepest darkness of heathenism or paganism, he could accept Christ, and be saved, and be a child of God [Acts 15:9-10, 28-29]. Then beyond, the work of Paul and Silas [Acts 15:40-18:11], and finally Paul himself [Acts 18:12-28:15], bringing the gospel message to the imperial and eternal city of Rome [Acts 28:16-31]. So he follows the outline that the Lord gave him: “in Jerusalem, and then in Judea, and then in Samaria, and then beyond, to the uttermost parts of the world” [Acts 1:8].
Will you notice, in the first place, the name of the book? In our Bible, we have “The Acts of the Apostles.” The oldest and finest manuscript that we possess, Sinaiticus, written in the 300s, it is entitled just: Praxeis, “The Acts.” And that I think is the best name. For it is not just the acts of the apostles, but it is also the acts of the Holy Spirit of God. And most significantly, it is also the acts of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven. Did you see the text, as it begins? “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach” [Acts 1:1].
And that is the gospel—what Jesus began to do and to teach in the days of His flesh down here in the earth. But now, the apostle says, we shall follow the acts of our Lord Jesus Christ, the doings of our Lord, from heaven. What He did in earth is the Third Gospel, the Gospel of Luke; but what He does from heaven is the acts of the Lord Jesus Christ directing us from glory. And you will find that the book is presented in that continuity, what the Lord is doing from heaven; as He began in earth, now as He presides over the kingdom from heaven.
For example, in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, it says that the Holy Spirit of God is poured out from His gracious hands; it is a gift from the Lord Jesus Christ in glory [Acts 2:18, 33]. The second chapter ends, “And the Lord added unto the church daily those who were being saved” [Acts 2:47]. What is done is under the aegis and supervision of the Lord from heaven. It is the Lord who adds to His church [Acts 2:47]. In the third chapter of the Book of Acts, it is the Lord’s name that heals that lame man, laid daily at the gate Beautiful in the temple [Acts 3:16]. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, it is the Lord Jesus who stands, who rises to receive the spirit of His first martyr, Stephen, in earth [Acts 7:55-56]. Everywhere else in the Bible the Lord is seated on the right hand of Majesty [Hebrews 1:3; 8:1]. But in this instance, when the first martyr dies in earth, the Lord stands to receive the spirit of His martyr Stephen.
It is the Lord in heaven who is guiding His work in earth. “All that Jesus began both to do and to teach” [Acts 1:1], and now continues, directing His work from glory. Consequently, there is no formal ending to the Book of Acts. It follows the story up to the point at which Luke is writing, then it is cut off. There is no ending to it, there is no consummation, there is no peroration, there is no reaching out to some great, grand climax. It just stops [Acts 28:16-31]. And the reason why there is no ending is the story continues on. Our Lord is not done, nor will He be done until the end of the age. So the Book of Acts just stops.
Paul is in prison. The story begins in about 30 AD, and stops about 64 AD, about thirty-four years, and it ends with the great hero and emissary in prison, and then it stops, like those old serials in the picture show. They would tell the story, and then they would leave the hero hanging by a shoestring over a four-thousand-foot cliff, just stop. Well, that meant there was another section, there is another chapter, there is another story. You come back and see what happened to the hero, hanging by a shoestring over a four-thousand-foot cliff.
Now that’s exactly the Book of Acts. It has no ending. And the reason it has no ending is because God is not done. Our Lord is still working, and the great kingdom movement proceeds on and on until the end of the age. The only thing that Jesus finished in His life was the plan of salvation. When He bowed His head on the cross and cried, “It is finished” [John 19:30], that was all that Jesus finished—just the plan of salvation. But His work continues on, and on, and on.
The apostle Paul writes in [Colossians 1:24] an amazing word. He said we are to complete what is lacking in the sufferings of our Lord. Does he mean the sacrifice? The atonement was not sufficient to save us from our sins? No, what the apostle is saying is that there must be a continuation of the sacrifice and the suffering. The witness and the testimony; it must continue on. “And I have a part,” Paul says, “in that continuing ministry of our Lord, who presides over the work from heaven” [Colossians 1:25-29]. And we also must take our part and assignment and mandate in it, for it is God’s work from heaven in the earth today, and it continues, and it grows.
Now that is one of the most astonishing things that our Lord would say to us; that when He goes away, and is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, that greater works shall be done in earth by us than by Him in the days of His flesh. For example, in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John and verse 12, he writes, “Truly, truly—verily, verily, amen, amen—I say unto you, He that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto My Father” [John 14:12].
The greatest work of the Christian faith, the Lord says, has not been done in what Jesus began to do and to teach. But it will be done in those centuries and the years that follow after. That’s why I had you read the passage in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be My disciples” [John 15:8]. Doing God’s work in the earth, as Jesus commenced it in the days of His flesh, in the Gospel of Luke, so He is continuing now in the praxis, the deeds, the works, the actions; the acts of our Lord in the earth, as He presides over the work from heaven [John 14:12].
Therefore, the Lord is in His church. And the Lord is in the ministries of His church. And it is God’s work that we are seeking to do in earth, as He guides and encourages and presides over us in heaven. The head of our church is the Lord [Ephesians 1:22, 5:23; Colossians 5:18]. And the moving Spirit in our church is the Spirit of Jesus. And the mandates that we carry out are heavenly mandates, and the work that we seek to do is under His gracious and nail-pierced hands. So the ministries of our Lord are the ministries that He does in the church through us. In the moment that remains, may I name two or three of them? Things that Jesus does, is doing, the continuation of the work of our Lord, the praxis; the acts of the Lord Jesus Christ as it continues through the years, and now, through us; one is the ministry of our Lord in His church, in the house of sorrow and death with His hands outreached to bless and to encourage as in the days of His flesh so in the ministries of the church, blessing and encouraging and ministering.
I know some of you have seen the little English church Stoke Poges. It is surrounded by and sits in the midst of a little cemetery. Practically all of those little English parishes are like that. They are in a little cemetery. Thomas Gray, in the 1700s, wrote one of the most meaningful poems in our literature entitled, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” You see, the saints that died in the faith wanted to be buried as close to the door or the wall of a church as they possibly could. For it was in the ministries of the church that our Lord lays His hand of blessing and hope upon our people, just as He did in the days of His flesh.
This morning, I made arrangements for a memorial service for one of the sweet mothers and one of the saints of God in our church, and it will be held here at 11:00 o’clock on Tuesday morning. Still ministering, still blessing, still encouraging. When my father died, we had the service in a little church. When my mother died, we had the service in a little church. It’s the Lord’s presence in our midst; just as felt, just as sweet, just as dear, just as comforting and full of hope as in the days of His flesh, when He comforted Mary and Martha [John 11:20-44], when He comforted the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-15], when He promised our own resurrection because of the victory He had won over sin, and death, and the grave [1 Corinthians 15:51-58]. Just the same it continues on. There is no end to the Book of Acts. There’s a twenty-ninth chapter after the twenty-eighth here. There’s a thirty-ninth chapter. There’s a sixty-ninth chapter. There’s a one hundred ninth chapter. And it shall continue on, chapter after chapter to the end of the age.
May I name another? The sweet ministries of Jesus in His church today—our Lord ministering through His church on the mission field, in evangelization, preaching the good news to those who lie in darkness and in the shadow of death. And what a precious and beautiful hope do we bring—we, whose feet are anointed with the gospel of peace, good tidings, euaggelion, the message of salvation.
In our budget, there is a large item, many thousands of dollars, set aside in that budget, for the mission program in our Jerusalem. One day this week, over there at Ralph Baker Hall, I met with Dr. Patterson, the president of our Center of Biblical Studies, and with Dr. Eaves, our professor of homiletical preaching. They had gathered together young men who had volunteered and had given themselves to sharing in a mission program that I have in my heart. What I want to do and what I believe God is blessing us now and beginning to do, is to have thirty or forty preaching missions in the city of Dallas.
Why, between us and the Lakewood section where I live, which is not very far, there are more than eighty thousand people, of whom only twelve thousand belong to anybody’s church—just in this section between where this church is and where we drive to the parsonage. There are eighty thousand minus twelve, there are sixty-eight thousand people between this church and our home that belong to nobody’s church. The whole city is that way. So, I had in my heart that God would bless us as we took these young men, who have given themselves to the gospel ministry and are in our school; and they are preaching, praise God! in storefront buildings, in empty houses, on the street corner, telling the good news of Jesus.
And one of the reasons why it was so poignantly laid upon my heart is because of an experience I had in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was preaching in the Ose Baptist Church, the downtown Baptist church like our First Baptist Church. I was preaching in Ose Baptist Church in Buenos Aires. And I had not seen on any mission field or in any mission church in the earth a young man who impressed me anything like the pastor of that Ose Baptist Church. For one thing, every girl would have loved him. He was tall, dark, and handsome. He was brilliantly educated. He has a doctor’s degree in medicine. He has a doctor’s degree in psychiatry. And he has a doctor’s degree in theology. And he presides over the church with such grace and gentility, absolutely one of the most charming, one of the most gifted, one of the most trained and educated young ministers to be found in our whole Southern Baptist communion.
Well, when I came back to the seminary, our Southern Baptist Seminary in Buenos Aires, I mentioned to the professors in the seminary there how impressed I was with the young doctor who is the pastor of that downtown Baptist church in the great, vast, city of Buenos Aires.
And those faculty members said, “You don’t know where he came from, do you?”
I said, “No.”
“Well, let us tell you. This afternoon,” they said, “you were a guest in the home of this aged missionary. You had English tea with her.” Buenos Aires is so largely British in its customs. “You had English tea with her this afternoon.” And they said, “You didn’t know, but in the years and the years that have gone by, that missionary was in a marketplace in Buenos Aires. And there came to the marketplace a poor, disheveled, and bedraggled woman. She had in her arms a little baby. And that missionary, with whom you had tea this afternoon, won that poor, ragged, bedraggled woman to the Lord, who had come to the marketplace to buy something for her and the child.” And then, “That brilliant young minister who impressed you so much in the downtown Baptist church is the little baby that that poor, bedraggled woman held in her arms.”
I am the first to admit that those people are poor and what you’d call common, mostly uneducated. They are the flotsam and jetsam of human life. But God is not done. He is still raising up Spurgeons and Moodys and Truetts. He is still saving souls. The Book of Acts is continuing on. And when we preach the gospel in these places, that are so out and out and down and out, how do you know but out of it will come another Chrysostom, or another Wesley, or another Savonarola, or another Spurgeon? Why, I think it pleases God, as He presides over His church, that we do it.
Let me say one other of the ministries of our Lord continuing on in His church. As many of you know, last week I was preaching in New York City to the association of our Southern Baptist Churches in the great metroplex of New York City. It was a long meeting—long in the morning, long in the afternoon, long in the evening. When I stood up for my last message, that late Sunday evening, that late evening, I had sat on that hard wooden chair so many hours, until I said to them, “I couldn’t tell where I left off and that chair began.” Oh, it was hard and long!
So between the morning and the afternoon session, I walked down the streets with one of the pastors in New York City. And where we were meeting was one block away from the street called Bowery; Bowery Street, where humanity drops the refuse of the human race—Bowery Street in New York City. And as I walked down Bowery Street with that young minister, I turned my head to talk to him. I was speaking to him, walking along with my head turned toward him. And as I walked along, he grabbed my arm and pulled me, yanked me over, and I looked to see why he had done it. And right there on the sidewalk in front of me, where I would have stepped on him, had he not jerked me out of the way, there was a poor, miserable, fallen wretch. There was a little doorway there, and part of him was in the doorway and part of him was out on the sidewalk, unspeakably miserable and dirty and fallen.
Well, we have a Bowery Mission. And my heart cannot but thank God for the ministers of Christ who work in that Bowery Mission and do what they can to help those fallen and miserable men. But there is something better, far better. It is better to keep the man from falling than it is to try to minister to them after they have squandered their lives away.
Before our deacons there was made a magnificent report by Dr. Ben Watts who, until he retired, was head of the graduate department of Southern Methodist University. And in that report—the men, having studied for almost a year, came back with one tremendous recommendation, and it was this: “We recommend to the pastor, to the staff, to the deacons, and to the church, that we re-emphasize our Sunday school and our teaching ministries here in the church.”
“It is our Sunday school,” they said in the report, “that we use to visit. It is our Sunday school that is our outreach ministry. It is the Sunday school by which we seek to oversubscribe our giving program. It is the Sunday school that we use to teach the Word of God. We beg our pastor and our people to re-emphasize our teaching ministries, to build up our Sunday school, to give it first place and first emphasis in the life of our church.”
And isn’t it a strange thing how things come to your mind? Almost stepping on that poor, benighted, and fallen wretch, I thought about that. Rather than minister to them when they their lives are ruined, why don’t we try to get them for God before they fall?
‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, “Put a fence ‘round the edge of the cliff,”
And others said, “Let’s get an ambulance down in the valley.”
Well the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became moved with pity
For those who slipped over that dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers on highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But to buy an ambulance down in the valley.
. . .
Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing the results than in stopping the cause,
When they’d much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this hurt,” cried he,
“Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley.”
. . .
Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling,
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ‘tis best
To prevent them when young from falling.”
Better build in their hearts the love of the Lord
Than to deliver from dungeon or galley.
Better put a strong fence ‘round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.
[from “A Fence or an Ambulance,” Joseph Malins, 1895]
Ministering in the name of our Lord, let’s put your arms around these little ones, and these children, and these teenagers, and these young people. And let’s pray that the Spirit of Jesus will work with us in winning them to the faith, in guiding them in the nurture and love of the Lord; that they might grow up strong and tall for God, and not that we stumble upon them as fallen wretches in a bowery. That’s why I think everyone of us who love Jesus say, “Pastor put my name down among those who love the Lord, who support His cause in the earth; who, with whatever talents God may bestow upon us, minister before His throne, in His name, and by His grace.”
We sing now our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family, a couple, or just one somebody you, to give himself to the Lord Jesus [Romans 10:8-13], to come into the fellowship of His church [Hebrews 10:8-9], make the decision now in your heart. And when we stand to sing, stand walking down one of these stairways, coming down one of these aisles. “Pastor, I’ve made up my mind. The decision is in my soul. I’m giving my life to God” [Ephesians 2:8]. Do it. May angels attend you in the way while you come.