Drama on the Damascus Road
September 25th, 1977 @ 10:50 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-25-77 10:50 a.m.
And it encourages us no end to know of the thousands and thousands of you who share this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message entitled Drama on the Damascus Road.
In our preaching through the Bible, we have come to the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts. It begins in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. And the sermon is built around three acts and five scenes:
And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest
And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this Way –
That’s the New Testament term for the Christian faith, the way, this way:
whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?
And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutes: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go unto the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
Act one, scene one: we are standing in the midst of the synagogue of the Cilicians in Jerusalem. As we stand in that crowded synagogue, there is a Hellenist who is presenting the faith of the Lord Christ; a Hellenist. He is not a Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking Jew. He is a foreign-born Greek-speaking Jew; a Hellenist. But he knows the Scriptures like an Alexandrian theologian, and he uses them with the grasp and insight of a philosopher. And as he speaks, this deacon layman named Stephen, he speaks with tremendous conviction and with great spiritual power.
Isn’t that an unusual thing? The Christian faith is above all things dogmatic. It is doctrinal. It is assertive. It is exclusive. It is unique and alone. There are those who pride themselves upon their philosophical cynicism, upon their broad eclecticism. They look with superior intelligence upon feeble minds who conclude and believe anything. But the Christian faith is a mandate and a revelation from heaven. As such, it is an exact religion. It brooks no other.
Poetry can have parley with fiction, but not the science of numbers. Poetry is malleable. It can be shaped in all kinds of fanciful expressions, delightful figures, but not arithmetic. So and exactly the Christian faith; it is not poetic fancy. It is a voice from God. It is not supposition. It is a revelation. It is not a guess. It is an oracle from heaven.
And this deacon layman named Stephen is in that Cilician synagogue presenting the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. And he’s doing it with great majesty of thought and tremendous spiritual, heavenly power [Acts 6:8-10]. He must be answered, this layman who is witnessing to the faith of the Lord Christ. So the Cilician synagogue send forth and present in refutation to Stephen their brightest scion. His name is Saul. He is from the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, namely Tarsus.
Educated in the universities there, educated in the rabbinical school of Gamaliel [Acts 22:3] in Jerusalem, brilliant and capable, and he is put forth to answer that deacon layman. But he fails ignominiously and miserably, and he sits down before the power of the witness of Stephen in humiliation, in shame. It is then that they gather together false witnesses whom they pay who are suborned to swear that that deacon layman blasphemed God and blasphemed Moses and blasphemed "this holy place" [Acts 6:11-14]; end scene one, act one.
Act one, scene two: we are now standing in the midst of the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jewish nation. And there before that august body of seventy men, presided over by the high priest, stands that same deacon layman, Stephen [Acts 6:15]. And he is being accused by these suborned witnesses, "We heard this man blaspheme God and blaspheme Moses and blaspheme this sacred place" [Acts 6:13-14]. And the high priest turns to the deacon and says, "Are these things so?" [Acts 7:1].
Then follows the apology of the deacon, the longest chapter in the Book of Acts by far, chapter 7, and the longest address recorded in the New Testament: the defense and apology of Stephen, written here word for word, syllable by syllable [Acts 7:2-53]. It sounds like a verbatim report. Who put that there? Who remembered that address?
I know. Listening to him was that that young brilliant rabbi from Cilicia named Saul of Tarsus. And every word that Stephen said burned like a flaming fire in his soul. He never forgot it, and recounted it to physician Dr. Luke who wrote the Book of Acts.
What is it Stephen is saying? In his defense and in his apology, he is speaking of the new dispensation, the new age of grace, the new approach to God through the Son in heaven. And he is saying that now there is no such thing as that God should be worshipped in one place only [Acts 7;48]. He speaks of Abraham who worshipped God in altars where he built all over the land of promise [Acts 7:2-8]. He speaks of Moses who on the backside of the land of Midian stood in a place that God said was holy ground, listening to the voice of the Lord [Acts 7:20-44]. This man Stephen in his apology speaks of David who worshipped in the tabernacle, not in Jerusalem [Acts 7:45-46]. And finally when Solomon built that sacred house of God, he said the heaven of heaven cannot contain the great mighty Jehovah Lord [Acts 7:47].
And then he speaks of the exclusiveness of their selfish sacerdotalism in Jerusalem. And he cuts at the very heart of private privilege on the part of priestcraft [Acts 7:48-53]. Any penitent everywhere is acceptable to God when he comes by faith through Him who rent the veil [Matthew 27:50], and welcomes us boldly to lay before the Lord our petitions of need [Hebrews 4:16]. When they heard that, they gnashed on him with their teeth [Acts 7:54]. And in a rage they dragged him outside of their city wall to stone him to death [Acts 7:58]; end scene two, act one.
Act two, scene one: outside the city wall, down at the base of the great high wall on Mount Moriah and down in the valley of the Brook Kidron, there they are stoning this deacon layman to death. And his execution is being presided over by that brilliant young Gamaliel rabbi, Saul of Tarsus. He would not deign to soil his hands with those rocks. But presiding over the execution, they lay their garments at his feet [Acts 7:58]. And with infinite satisfaction, he watches Stephen beat to the ground [Acts 8:1].
Answer him by reason or by words – unable! Answer him by stones and death – yes. And with infinite pleasure and satisfaction, he watches the blood of Stephen poured out on the ground. But that face, that face, the face like that of an angel! [Acts 6:15]. And that vision saw heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God [Acts 7:55-56]. And that prayer, kneeling down beneath the hail of murderous stones, praying for those who took his life [Acts 7:59-60]. Never saw a man die like that man died.
And if a prophet had stood by the side of that young rabbinical student named Saul and had prophesied saying, "Saul, the day will come when you will be stoned for the same faith. And you will lay down your life as a martyr for the same name," he would have been highly indignant and insulted. You see, the young man must rave a while. He must be furious a while. He must try to find an answer in his madness. But God maketh the wrath of man to praise Him [Psalm 76:10]; end scene one, act two.
Scene two, act two: "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2]. It was as though a great gallant general in an army leading into battle had been cut down. I remember reading in history something that Robert E. Lee said. His tremendous general, Stonewall Jackson had been accidentally killed by his own soldiers. And Robert E. Lee said after the battle of Gettysburg, "If I had had General Stonewall Jackson, I would not have lost the war." Watching Stephen die, burying him with great lamentation – like seeing a general cut down in the midst of the battle, like looking into the face of the sky and seeing the sun turn to ashes and plunged into the darkness of the abyss; Stephen, this great layman, stoned to death [Acts 7:60]; end scene two, act two.
Act three, scene one: we are now in the homes of the Christian disciples of the lowly Jesus [Acts 8:3]. They are confronted with a terrible and implacable foe. He is like a wolf ravaging the flock. He has seized with both hands the destruction of the church of the living God. And he strikes it as it has never been struck before. He persecutes with an intensive activity. It is as though he felt himself called of God to destroy this heresy from the face of the earth. He hales men and women and children into prison and unto death. Having received the keys to the prison, he crowds it with disciples. Having seen the opening to the dungeon, he plunges it full of the faithful followers of the blessed Jesus. And he compels them to blaspheme, and he sees them scourged until the floor is covered with their blood. And when they are put to death, he casts his vote against them [Acts 26:10], this persecuting, breathing out threatening and slaughter, this wolf named Saul of Cilicia, from the city of Tarsus [Acts 9:1].
Scene two, act three: we are in the room of a student in the school of Gamaliel. And a young man is seated at the desk poring over the Mishnah and the Gemara. And as he seeks to study those endless traditions of the elders, on every page he sees that face, the face of Stephen. And when he shuts his eyes, he hears the voice of that martyred Stephen. And when he kneels to pray, before his God, he hears the prayer of that martyr Stephen [Acts 7:60] ringing in his soul. When he goes to sleep at night, he sees the face of Stephen.
Isn’t it strange psychologically when a great conviction is forming in the heart and the soul of a man, usually he opposes it violently? And that young rabbi, in his student room warring viciously, and vigorously, and vociferously, and violently against the faith he saw in the apology and the face and the prayer of God’s first martyr, Stephen.
Scene three, act three: on the Damascus road, nearing the city, suddenly, around this violent persecutor, breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, suddenly, round about him, a light bright, brilliant, above the glory of the midday meridian Syrian sun, and there in the way, the immortalized, resurrected, glorified Lord Jesus! [Acts 9:1-3].
"Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? [Acts 9:4]. It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" [Acts 9:5]. All of those convictions that are forming in your heart and soul, it is hard for you to drown them. The testimony of My martyr Stephen, it is hard for you to forget it. And the witness of that deacon layman, it was impossible for you to answer it. And the face of that godly dedicated layman, not a rabbi; layman! you cannot drown it. "Saul, Saul, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."
And the arch persecutor, falling in deepest humility and contrition and penitence, "Lord, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" [Acts 9:6]. And in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Acts there is added, and Saul said, "Lord, in the same place that Stephen died, let me die. And on the same ground that drank up his blood, may it drink up the crimson of my life" [Acts 22:20]. But the Lord replied, "No, Saul, pick up the torch laid down by the stricken hand of Stephen. Pick it up. Raise it high. And bear it to the Gentile world [Acts 22:21]. Saul, Saul, I will show thee how great things thou can suffer for My name’s sake" [Acts 9:15-16].
What an astonishing development! When Stephen died, never would he have dreamed that his death would have been the cause of the conversion of that young rabbi, zealot, flame, Saul of Tarsus. The conversion of Saul changed the whole course of Christianity and the world. It was like winning an army. It was like converting a nation. And God used the dear, sweet spirit of Stephen to convert that flaming and violent persecutor Saul.
I could not tell you the number of times that I have read in ecclesiastical literature, "Had Stephen not prayed, Paul had not preached." The witness and the death of that first martyr was beyond what Saul could ever answer or forget. And it is thus and it is so with us. There is no tear ever shed in behalf of our Lord, and there’s no drop of blood ever poured out in His name, and there is no sacrifice ever made but that God sees it and blesses it. It never falls in vanity, and sterility, and vacuity, and emptiness to the ground. God blesses it and uses it mightily.
Yesterday afternoon, I was at Baylor Hospital and among those I visited, I sat down by the side of Floyd Lyon. He is a member of JAARS, the aviation wing of Wycliffe, stationed down there in the Amazon jungle in Peru. I owe my life to that young fellow. Had he not been a genius, being a pilot, I would not be alive.
I baptized their three little boys here in this church. And one of them, down there in the jungle, named Nathan, 14 years old, the boy became friends of another lad down there, 14 years of age, his own age, but the family without Christ, the family agnostic and unbelieving. And the unbelief of the family, poured over into the life of that 14-year-old boy, the friend of Nathan. But Nathan witnessed to them, though just a boy. And Nathan talked to his friend, though 14 years of age. And as you know, in a tragic crash Nathan was killed in the crashing of a plane in the Amazon jungle.
But God saw it. And out of the sweet memory of that boy Nathan, fourteen years old, the whole family confessed their faith in the Lord – became devoted and consecrated Christians. And that 14-year-old boy, the friend of Nathan, is now a senior in our Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, soon to begin his ministry as a preacher of the gospel of the grace of the Son of God. And Nathan’s little brother, Kevin, is picking up the life of Nathan, and he’s going to live two lives for Jesus, one for him and one for his brother who died. God sees to that. We may never see it. In heaven we may be when God brings it to pass; He never lets a testimony or a sacrifice or a witness fall futile to the ground.
Could I have the temerity and would you forgive me for taking an intimate leaf out of my life that illustrates the same thing, God blessing the humble ministries and sweet witness of a man? When I came to be pastor of this dear church, Wallace Bassett had been pastor of the Cliff Temple Baptist Church for many, many years. When I came following his illustrious friend, Dr. Truett, Dr. Bassett was normally and reasonably much interested in where I came from, how I was converted; talked to me at length one time all about the years that had preceded my coming to be undershepherd of this precious church.
So he asked me about my conversion. How is it that you found the Lord? So I told him. In the little town, the little tiny town in northwest Texas on the high plains, we were having a revival meeting. And the man who held the meeting was the pastor of the church in Dalhart. His name was John Hicks. And he stayed in our home in the days of the revival. And every night after the service, he would be seated by my mother at the kitchen table. And mother would pour him a glass of home-churned buttermilk. And as he drank the buttermilk, he talked to me, seated by his side, about the Lord. And that happened and continued every night during the revival.
And in the days of that revival meeting, with Brother John Hicks, I gave my heart to the Lord, and I was saved. I told Dr. Bassett that. And when I told him, he looked at me in amazement and he said, "I cannot believe it!" He said, "Johnny Hicks" – called him Johnny – "Johnny Hicks was sent down here to Baylor Hospital with an illness in which he died. And I sat by his bedside and we visited together. And Johnny Hicks said to me, ‘Wallace, my life has been in vain. I have never done anything for Jesus. My life has been a failure.’" And Johnny Hicks died with those words on his lips. And Wallace Bassett looked at me in amazement and said, "And just to think, and just to think that that is the man, Johnny Hicks, who spoke to you every night about the Lord, and in whose revival meeting you were saved."
You never know, and maybe shall only be apprised of what God has done with you when you open the Book of Life in heaven, and God has written it large [Revelation 20:12, 15]. There was the word of testimony. Here was the tear of concern. This was the witness that changed the life. This was the beautiful spirit that remade the whole world. That’s God. Ah, Master!
In your life did someone speak a word of faith that you could never forget? Did your mother pray for you? Did your father? A wife, or a child, a friend, a Sunday school teacher; has someone planted the seed of the Word in your heart, and God has never let it die? And it fruits and flowers. With us, would you commit your life in gratitude to God, and come and stay by me?
"Pastor, I have found the Lord, in keeping with His blessed Word, I want to confess Him openly as my Savior. I want to be baptized according to His heavenly mandate [Matthew 28:19], and I am coming." Maybe bringing the whole family with you or just one somebody you; in a moment we shall stand and sing our song of appeal, and while we sing it, down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, "Here I am pastor. Here I come. This day I have decided for God. I am on the way." Do it now. Make it now, in any way that the Spirit presses the appeal to your heart, answer with your life. God bless; angels attend in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
DRAMA ON THE DAMASCUS ROAD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. Act One
A. Scene One – Cilician synagogue in Jerusalem
1. Stephen, a Hellenist, presenting the faith (Acts 6:9-10)
a. Speaks with tremendous conviction, spiritual power
2. Saul, a brilliant young Gamalielian, put forth to answer him
a. Unable to stand before power of Stephen’s witness
3. They suborn false witnesses against Stephen(Acts 6:11-13)
B. Scene Two – The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem
1. The defense and apology of Stephen (Acts 7)
a. Young Saul listening, never forgot it
2. Stephen speaks of the exclusiveness of their selfish sacerdotalism
3. Their implacable rage
II. Act Two
A. Scene One – Outside the city wall, the stoning of Stephen
1. Saul of Tarsus presides over the execution(Psalm 76:10)
2. The death of Stephen – his face, his vision, his prayer(Acts 7:55-60)
B. Scene Two – Stephen’s burial
1. Devout men made great lamentation over him (Acts 8:2)
III. Act Three
A. Scene One – The homes of the Christian disciples of Jesus
1. They face a terrible and implacable foe(Acts 8:3, 9:1-2)
B. Scene Two – Student’s room in school of Gamaliel
C. Scene Three – The Damascus Road
1. Suddenly bright light around Saul(Acts 9:3-4)
a. "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."(Acts 9:5)
2. The arch persecutor in deepest humility and contrition(Acts 9:6, 22:20)
3. "Saul, pick up the torch from fallen hand of Stephen, bear it to the world." (Acts 9:6, 15-16)
A. Had Stephen not prayed, Paul had not preached
B. No drop of blood shed in vain, no sacrifice for naught
1. Nathan Lynn
2. John Hicks