Dr. W. A. Criswell
8-7-77 7:30 p.m.
You are listening to the pastor of the First Baptist Church. And in keeping tonight with our Memorial Supper, in preaching through the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, I am coming back towards the front, the beginning of the chapter and speaking from a text concerning the lamentation over the death of Stephen. And the message has to do with Christian grief. The reading of the text is – and if you would turn to it, we will read it all out loud together – the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, beginning at verse 1, continuing through verse 4 – and if on the radio you have a Bible, turn to it and read it out loud with us. The text will be verse 2. But we will read the context, chapter 8, in the Book of Acts, 1 through 4. Now out loud together:
And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.
Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.
Will you notice the different reactions to the martyrdom of Stephen? There were those who looked upon his stoning as a measure and an achievement of triumph – his executioners congratulated themselves. They could not stand in the presence of the wisdom and power by which Stephen witnessed to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. So, unable to answer him, they carried him violently outside of the city walls and there stoned him to death. They were happy in what they did; triumphant in their attitude; glad for their achievement.
You see an example of that in this man Saul, at whose feet they laid down their garments when they raised their stones against him. Saul was even more bitter against Stephen and the Lord and the church, having seen the blood of the martyr drunk up by the ground. He made havoc of the church, entering into every house and haling men and women into prison, and as he says, when they were put to death, he cast his vote against them. The death of Stephen was like blood to a hungry wolf; having martyred him, slain him, stoned him to death, from there they immediately spread out to all of the rest. It was a vicious circle that went on and on, more terrifying and more terrible. That is one reaction to the martyrdom of Stephen.
But here is another: "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2]. These were the children of God. These were those who were redeemed by the blood of Christ; been baptized into the faith and belonged to the church of Jerusalem. They made great lamentation over him. That’s a – that’s an impressive and intense word, translated here "lamentation."
There is a New Testament word kopto, and it means "to cut off" or "to cut down" like a tree. And it came to be applied to those who in great agony cut themselves and beat their breasts – kopto. The substantive form of the verb is kopetos, and kopetos is a descriptive word of deep intensity, describing grief that is immeasurable. Kopetos refers to beating the breast, wailing and lamenting and crying before the Lord. And it is preceded by that word mega which means intense, great. "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made intense lamentation, grieving in immeasurable sorrow over him." Isn’t that a strange thing, how there are some who mean nothing or less than nothing, and yet to others, these same ones are like life and breath itself? Let me show you.
Suppose in a day of battle, the word were to come that the army has met in conflict, and our forces were victorious, and gloriously to announce we lost but one solder – just one boy was killed! What a marvelous victory! What an incomparable triumph. Well, that’s right, I suppose, but you think about the mother of that boy – the one that was slain, just one; or the sweetheart of the boy; or the wife of that boy; to us, what a victory – just one that was slain, but to a mother, what a tragedy! I remember in World War II, a man making a comment about a boy who was killed in the Pacific who belonged to our church. And the comment that man made to me was this, "For that mother, the war is over." Isn’t that a strange thing?
What is nothing to someone else, or less than nothing, may be prized and dear beyond any way to describe it to somebody else; such as Mary Magdalene, seeing the sepulcher empty, turning to one thinking Him to be the gardener said, "Where have You laid His body? Tell me and I will take it away" [John 20:15]; to others, just dust and ashes, but to a Mary Magdalene, a Savior most precious. So with Stephen; devout men carried Stephen to his burial. These over whom others had congratulated themselves for such a triumph in encompassing his death, they carried him to his burial and made great lamentation over him.
And that leads me to Christian grief; the tears that come to our hearts in sorrow over these who have passed away. Is it right that a Christian would cry, would lament, would weep, would be in grief and in sorrow over the translation and the death of these whom we have loved and lost for just a while? Is it Christian to grieve? Is it Christian to cry?
Now, there is a whole communion, there is a whole faith, a great denomination who would say, "Absolutely not! Under no conditions is the Christian ever to grieve, to shed tears over these who have passed away." So well do I remember as a boy, a family, and they belonged to this communion. And the husband in the family died; died of a heart attack; died suddenly. And his wife wept inconsolably, just crying, hurt. And those of the communion to which she belonged gathered around her and said, "Dry your tears. There’s no such thing as death. That’s just in your mind. Just like sickness, there’s no such thing as illness. There’s no such thing as being sick. That’s just in your mind. And there is no such thing as death. That’s just in your mind." So they persuaded her. And I watched her as a little boy in amazement. She dried her tears. She pranced around the house. And the whole thing from then on until her husband was buried in the ground was trippingly, lightsomely, kind of flippantly accepted. Oh, that made an impression on me as a boy!
A little fellow came to his mother and said, "Mother, Mrs. Smith our neighbor down the street is sick."
And the mother said, "No, child, she’s not sick, she just thinks she’s sick."
And the next day the little boy came in and said, "Mother, Mrs. Smith down the street who thought she was sick yesterday, today, she thinks she’s dead!" That lightsome attitude in that home when I was a boy was an astonishing thing to me! What about Christian grief?
And does it advance our faith that we would cry and lament over these that have been translated and passed away? Well, let us look at the tears of Jesus. Standing at the tomb of Lazarus, you have the shortest verse in the Bible. Literally translated, "Jesus burst into tears." In the King James Version, "Jesus wept" [John 11:35]. Sorrowing at the grave of Lazarus, even though He knew He was to raise him from the dead, He wept over the death of Lazarus. The tears of Jesus – coming to the brow of Olivet and seeing the city laid out before Him, He wept over the city crying, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem; . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" [Luke 13:34, 35]. And he wept over Jerusalem [Luke 19:41].
Our Lord went one other time in Gethsemane with strong crying and tears, making appeal unto God who was able to save Him from death [Hebrews 5:7]. Jesus cried. Jesus wept. Jesus sorrowed. Jesus lamented. I could speak of the tears of Paul. Three times in his address to the Ephesian elders recounted in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts – three times did Paul say that he cried, that he wept many tears. In the second chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul says, "I have written unto you with many tears" [2 Corinthians 2:4]; the tears of Paul. In the last letter that he ever wrote, the second to Timothy, he says to his son in the ministry, "Being mindful of thy tears" [2 Timothy 1:4].
I could speak of the tears of Simon Peter; while he was cursing the Lord and denying he never saw Him and never knew Him, the Lord turned and looked upon him. And the Book says, "And Peter went out, and wept bitterly" [Matthew 26:75]. It crushed him – Christian tears. I could speak of the tears of the sainted apostle John in the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, when search was made in heaven, and earth, beneath the earth in the nether world, for someone able to break the seals, and to open the Book, and to look thereon. He wept sore, he writes; He wept sore, because no man was found worthy. . . . And then one of the elders speaks to him and says, "Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to break the seals, to open the Book, and to look thereon" [Revelation 5:4-5]; Christian tears.
Will you notice also in the Bible how these who love God grieved over those who had been translated? Over a boy, in the Book of 2 Samuel, chapter 18 – and David, cried this cry saying, "O Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" [2 Samuel 18:33] – weeping over the death of a boy.
Weeping over the death of a husband; when Naomi came back to Bethlehem Ephratah, having lost in death her husband Elimelech and her two sons in Moab, when she came back, the town was stirred, saying, "Is this not Naomi, been gone so many years? Is this not Naomi?" And she replied, "Call me not Naomi" – pleasantness, happiness – "but call me Mara" – bitterness – "for the Lord hath afflicted me and taken away my husband and my two sons [Ruth 1:19-21].
Weeping over a wife; and the midwife said to Rachel, "You will have this son also." But she died in giving birth to that little boy. And as she died, "she called his name Benoni" – that is, "the son of my sorrow" – but Jacob said, he shall not be called Benoni, he shall be called Benjamin – "the son of my right hand" [Genesis 35:17-18]. And he built there a pillar over the grave of Rachel
Crying over a nation; Jeremiah 9:1 begins, "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night over the loss, the slain of the daughter of my people," and in the second Lamentation, "O that thy tears might fall down like those of a falling river" [Lamentations 2:18] – tears in the Bible, Christian tears of grief and suffering. And that’s why God’s people, in memory of those whom we have loved and lost for just a while and whom we believe in Him, in Christ, we shall see again, that’s why, oh, so many things are done in memorial; the title of the sermon tonight.
Tennyson – Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his greatest poem, incomparably his greatest poem and entitled it "In Memoriam" to A. H. H, Arthur Henry Hallam, in memory of a friend who had suddenly died, a poem dedicated to him. In our church is a hall of memories. And I see, having almost completed the space in the allocated area for that hall of memories when we built our chapel building, I see it proliferating all over the church. In the great entrance corridor in our Christian Education Building, there are plaques, hundreds of them in memory of those whom we have loved and who are now in heaven. And I often pause as I walk through the buildings here at the church, and I read those plaques.
The first one I placed there – in the hall of memories; There I placed it in memory of my father. And I stop and look at that frequently, and I think about my father. Next to the plaque, second, was placed a plaque by the church in memory of the great pastor, George W. Truett. And then all up and down, I read those bronze words, "In memory of these who have preceded us into glory." Then as I walk around through the church, I see memorials everywhere. Here is a hall dedicated to God’s sweet deacon, Ralph Baker. And then, at the top of the Mary C Building, a beautiful gymnasium for Christian recreation dedicated to my precious friend, Dave Wicker. And every time I read our Reminder, memorials in the library, and in the Truett Chair of Evangelism, and in many areas of our building fund – remembering these who have preceded us into heaven.
Is it right for the Christian to cry? Is it right for the Christian to grieve? Is it right for the Christian to be sad, and to weep because of the separation of these who have been taken away from us? The answer is yes. It is right. Christ cried those tears. Paul cried those tears. Simon Peter wept those tears. John wept those tears. The saved through the Bible wept those tears. And we weep them, too. The only thing is this, Paul admonishes us that we’re not to cry, we’re not to weep, we’re "not to sorrow as those who have no hope" [1 Thessalonians 4:13].
Beyond our tears is the triumphant grace of God extended to us in Christ Jesus. He is more than life; He is resurrection itself. He is heaven itself to us. And these memorials are to bring back to us the promise that we have in Him. This is a memorial of His death, of His passion, of His sufferings, of the atonement of our sins on the cross, to bring back to our hearts the memory of His sobs, and of His tears, and of His blood, and of His death: "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do memorialize the death of our Lord" [1 Corinthians 11:26]. And then this last, we are to "sorrow not as others who have no hope." For always to the Christian message and to the Christian tears, there is a greater day coming, God having provided some better thing for us. There’s the day of resurrection. There’s the day of the coming of our Lord. There’s the day of the opening of the sky. There’s the day of the gates of glory. There’s the day of the rendezvous of God’s redeemed in heaven – "that you sorrow not as others who have no hope" [1 Thessalonians 4:13].
So the memoriam; "For as oft as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death" – but there is something more – "until He come": "Until the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we, we shall all be changed" [1 Corinthians 15:52], at the coming of the Lord. Beyond our tears and our sorrow and our lamentation, is triumph and glory and resurrection. This is the Christian faith. I may cry now, weep now, in sorrow for these who are taken away, but beyond the tears is the glorious restoration, resurrection, giving back again these who we have loved and lost for just a while. Christian grief; "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him" [Acts 8:2]. That is Christian – to love, to remember, to dedicate ourselves to God in a new way; to treasure in heart forever the memory of these who have preceded us into heaven.
And that’s our invitation to your heart tonight – to find in death the promise of life; in the grave, the light of the glory of God; in the pilgrimage that we make in these days, the fellowship and the blessing of the sainted and glorified Jesus. Just before I came into the auditorium, in the minister’s room, to have a prayer before I came into the auditorium, one of my fellow ministers said, "One of our sainted ministers has just died. Could you hold the service Tuesday morning?" When I go to the service, as I do through these years and the years, always that word of Christian assurance, beyond our falling tears is the rising of the Son of God: "sorrowing not as those who have no hope." It is precious to be a Christian. Any day, any step of the way, it is glorious. It is comfort and strength to be a Christian. And that’s the appeal we would make to your heart. Open your heart heavenward and God-ward and Christ-ward. Let Jesus come into your heart.
Whatever the contingency or exigency or providence in life, when the Lord is with you, God has in it an untold blessing and a heavenly promise. Thus to receive Him, would you come tonight to put your life with us in the church? Welcome. I will be standing right here on that side of our Communion Table. From the balcony round, you, and the throng of people on this lower floor, you, "Tonight, I have decided for God, and here I am, pastor." Or, "Tonight, putting my life in this dear church, I’m coming." Or, "Bringing my whole family, we are all here tonight." Make the decision now, and when we stand to sing in a moment, stand walking down that stairway, coming down this aisle. "I’m on the way, pastor, here I am." God bless you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. The different reactions to the death of Stephen
A. To the executioner, triumph
1. Saul the more bitter (Acts 8:3)
B. To the disciples, inexpressible sorrow (Acts 8:2)
C. Those who mean so little to others can mean so much to us (John 20:11-15)
II. Is it Christian to grieve? (Acts 8:2)
A. The tears of Jesus
1. Lazarus (John 11:35)
2. Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-35, 19:41)
3. Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7)
B. The tears of Paul (Acts 20:19, 31, 36-68, 2 Corinthians 2:4, 2 Timothy 1:4)
C. The tears of Simon Peter (Matthew 26:75, Luke 22:62)
D. The tears of John (Revelation 5:4-5)
III. Tears are grief in the Bible
A. For a son (2 Samuel 18:33)
B. For a husband (Ruth 1:19-21)
C. For a wife (Genesis 35:16-20)
D. For a nation (Jeremiah 9:1, Lamentations 2:18)
IV. Our tribute in memory
A. Tennyson’s "In Memoriam"
B. Our hall of memories; memorials
C. The Lord’s Supper (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 11:26, 15:52)