Just Passing By


Just Passing By

September 10th, 1978 @ 7:30 PM

For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
Print Sermon

Related Topics

Downloadable Media

sorry, there are no downloads available

Share This Sermon
Show References:


Dr. W. A. Criswell

Acts 17:23

9-10-78    7:30 p.m.


And we thank God for you who by the thousands and the thousands on the Radio of the Southwest KRLD, and on the radio of KCBI of our Bible Institute, are sharing the service with us in the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the message in kind of a little different way.  It is based upon the experience of Paul in the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts to which we will all turn and read the passage together.  It is based upon Paul’s feeling in Athens.  Acts 17:16-23 and we shall read it out loud together.  And then all of you who are sharing the hour on radio, if you would take your Bible and read it out loud with us, it will bless your heart.  Acts 17: 16-23.  Now all of us reading it out loud together:

Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.

Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him.  And some said, What will this babbler say?  Others saw him and said, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.

And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?

For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.

(For all of the Athenians and strangers were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ Hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious.

For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.  Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.

[Acts 17:16-23]

There is a Greek word, dierchomai, and the Greek participle is dierchomenos.  That is the word translated here passing by.  “For as I passed by, passing by, I saw your many devotions” [Acts 17:23].  Paul had just felt in his soul the paroxysm, the agitation, of seeing the whole city given to idolatry, so the title of the sermon is Passing By.  Just looking at this believing world—dierchomenos, passing by.

In Africa, in the heart of Africa, the king of a large tribe, and I am being introduced to him.  He lives in a compound square, and the entrance is in a very impressive gate.  And all the way around the compound he has his many wives and their many children.  And I see, in front of the entrance to the compound, his palace, his home.  I see a little house, built there right in the way.  And I ask the missionary, “What is that little house for?”  And he says, “That house is a devil’s house.  There is a god that he worships that is fierce and awesome, and he worships this god before his house because he is afraid of that god, and he placates him and worships him, lest evil come both to him and his house.”  And passing by I see an enormous kapok tree of tremendous proportions.  Looking at it closely, I see it covered with blood.  And I say to the missionary, “What is this blood?”  And he says, “You see the people believe that the spirit of a god lives in this tree, and they worship the tree, and they make sacrifices before the god, and they cover the tree with the blood of the sacrifices.”  I go further, and I see as I pass by a very large rock—a tremendous boulder.  And looking at it closely, I see blood all over it.  And again, the missionary says to me, “They believe that the spirit of a god lives in this rock, and they worship it.  They are animists.  They worship it.  And they offer to it sacrifices and cover it with blood.”  And just passing by, I see a king’s house, and leaning next to the wall is an idol.  So peculiarly there, outside—just leaning against the wall of the house—just passing by.

Then coming to Jerusalem, there is a large mosque on the Dome of the Rock, and on the inside of that mosque is a very famous rock.  And the Muslim says to you, “See that footprint in the rock?  That is the footprint of the prophet Mohammed, when he stepped from the rock onto his feet and was taken up into heaven.  “And this vial, so sacred in our hands, is a hair that fell from his head, and we have it here as a sacred shrine and memorial to the translation of Mohammed the prophet.”  Just passing by, walking through one of the great cities of Africa, it was wholly closed, stopped, clogged.  From side to side, on the street and for two or three blocks down that I could see, it was filled with men dressed in white, who were bowing in their prayer time toward Mecca.  And about a month ago, stopping somewhat around two or three o’clock in the morning in Dhabi, one of the capital cities of the United Arab Emirates—standing there waiting for the plane to go on to Athens, having come from Singapore—there were three young men.  They had newspapers spread out in front of them for prayer rugs.  And they were bowing and repeating their prayers toward Mecca—just passing by.

Going through India, those sheiks with their long hair—looks like women’s hair, knotted in the back like women wear their hair in a biscuit.  Those Sikhs; they are a special group in Hinduism, and they have among them holy men, mostly naked walking up and down the streets.  You pass them by.  They never bathe.  They have never bathed in their life.  They are holy men.  And they do not bathe.  They just smell.  They just stink—holy Hindus, bowing there before those gods.  And the multitudes who visit the temples, they take a little piece of some kind of amber color, and after they have bowed before the god, they take their finger and make a dot in their forehead.  They have just bowed down in the temple of those gods—for the most part are so fierce looking—just passing by.

And in the Orient, their houses in Japan and China, are built with an upward slant to the roof.  And if you ask why this outward up-ness to the roof, the answer inevitably and always will be, “When those evil spirits fall on the house, they could come in and do us harm.  But when we up the roof on the edge, they bounce off and go back out into space and do not hurt us.”  This believing world—just passing by.

Nor have the ages past been any different.  When you go to a place like Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado, and look at the places where the cliff dwellers dwelt, there in those sarcophagi, those places of the dead, there will you see by the side of the bones of the dead—you will see little pots and little pans and little evidences of vegetables of fruit of eating, because they are going on a long journey into a land they have never discovered.  And they, believing in the life that is yet to come, they place these instruments that they might use in the happy hunting ground.  And in some instances with the American Indians, bury with him his bow and his arrow.  For many, many centuries the hieroglyphics in which the mummies in Egypt were buried, were unknown to the Western world, but the Rosetta Stone revealed them to us.  And each one of those mummies is wrapped in what is called the Book of the Dead, that they might know how to do and what to expect in their journey that is yet to come; passing by this believing world.

Nor is it any different now than it has been, it is that through all of the multiplied centuries.  You could not help but notice in reading the Old Testament, that the concern of Jehovah God for Israel was not that they turn atheist and infidels, but that they would worship the god of the Canaanites and of the Hittites and of the Hivites and of the Amorites [Exodus 23:33, Deuteronomy 4:19, 7:16].  Do you remember when Elijah is on Mount Carmel he says to the people, “If Baal be God, worship Baal.  But if Jehovah be God, worship Jehovah” [1 Kings 18:21].  He doesn’t ask if Jehovah be God, or if there be no God—it is Baal or Jehovah.

Do you remember in Assyria, when the Northern Kingdom Israel was taken away and they placed Assyrians back in the land, that the government of Assyria sent a priest for Jehovah that he might teach those Assyrian strangers the God of the land? [2 Kings 17:27].  And do you remember, when the storm hit that ship in which Jonah lay asleep, that the captain of the ship awakened every man and said, “Cry to your god that we be saved” [Jonah 1:6].  It is the same through all of the centuries—just passing by.  And when Paul waited in Athens, he was stirred in his soul when he saw the city given to idolatry [Acts 17:16]—just passing by this believing and worshiping world.

Well, I come to the place in my life when I say that is intellectual vapidity and inconceivable stupidity.  I am not going to be caught in the web of all of that worship.  I shall live my life without the gods.  And I junk them all.  I brush them all aside, and I shall live my life scientifically.  I shall live it intellectually.  I shall live it academically.  I have now achieved a place in my life where I am above any of these gods.  Old gods like Baal and Astarte; new gods like Buddha and Krishna—I have no gods in my life.  I have come to a place in my intellectual achievement and progress where I don’t need God.  And I don’t believe in God.  All of that is just so much superstition and inanity.  And now I am free, and I give myself to my new, liberated intellectual and scientific life.  Wonderful!  Fine!  So, I am liberated and I am free.  But there are some things along the way—just passing by—that nag at my heart, and that nag at my mind, and that knock at the door of my spirit; things that I cannot hide my face from and things that I must reckon with.

One: you know, through all of the centuries and through all ages, there has been that devotion to a god.  And it could be that their idolatry and their misunderstanding, it could be that that just points up the fact that there might be a real God, and these are but false imitations of a real reality.  It could be.  It could be.  In Exodus chapter 7, when [Aaron] casts his rod down before Pharaoh and it becomes a serpent, they cast—the sorcerers of Egypt, they cast their rods down, and they become serpents—imitating what God had done [Exodus 7:8-12].  But it could be that that imitation but points out there was a real gift that the Lord gave as a sign to Moses.  It could be [Exodus 7:8-9].  It could be that, when I see an imitation of a Raphael, it could be that it points to the fact that there is a real Raphael—a real painter, and these imitations but avow that he really painted.  It could be that when I hear a man try to sing like Caruso, it could be it just points out the fact that there was a real Caruso.  When I see an imitation diamond, it could be that the imitation but emphasizes the fact that there is a real diamond somewhere.  All of these false gods and these ageless devotions could be the pointing up of the fact that there is a great reality and a great truth in deity and divinity.  It could be.

Another thing: I somehow meet that reality down every road.  I cannot hide myself from it if I am intellectually honest.  I meet it everywhere.  As you know, being a pastor, I have lived no small part of my life in a hospital; visiting, praying with the sick.  And the surgeon cuts.  He sharpens that scalpel and he intrudes in the human body,  then with sutures the wound is placed together again.  But who heals it?  Oh, the doctor heals it.  Do you think?  The surgeon heals it.  Do you think?  He is as helpless as a clod.  Somebody heals.  Somebody makes well.  Somebody closes up that wound.  Who is that Somebody?

I walked through the days and the stories of human life.  And I look at these things that surround me on every hand.  And I see over and beyond some other Somebody.  I see Him everywhere.  I look at the stars, and they follow patterns and laws without a second or variation through the untold ages.  Who did that?  Who promulgated those laws?  And who holds this universe in His hand? [Isaiah 40:12].  Who does that?  I look at the science of history.  And it seems to me as I pore through those pages, through the ages and the centuries, that history is struggling toward some kind of a great consummation.  Who does that?  Who creates that?  Who moves in nations and in continents and in life?  Who does?  I look at the science of biology.  Take a little watermelon seed, a little watermelon seed, can you imagine that little seed?  It calls forth its architects and its engineers and it creates a watermelon two hundred thousand times its own weight.  And its little architects and its little engineers get together and they call in aroma and color and taste and five hundred other little things just like itself.  And I just look at that watermelon.  Who in the world constructed that?  Who ever made a thing like that?  The whole world is filled with wonder and mystery; the sign and the signature of a great Somebody.

Then most all, the human heart; human need, such as this sweet family; precious family, they have a little girl—a darling flaxen-haired blonde little girl.  And the little thing dies.  And there, in the home, is the casket.  And the mother says, “Just one more time may I comb her hair?”  And the big man, the father and husband, as his wife and the mother of that child, just one last time combed the flaxen hair, he turns his face away to hide his tears.  Oh, that I knew Somebody who could say, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14].

But you see, I’ve dismissed Him.  I don’t believe in Him.  I have come to an intellectual plateau in my life where all of these who are devotees of God are stupid to me.  I have risen above them.  But it still stays in my soul.  Would God I knew somebody who could say, “Come unto Me” [Matthew 11:28].  And the days pass, and the years come, and the life is almost spent, and the shadows are long.  “The silver cord is loosed, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is broken at the cistern!” [Ecclesiastes 12:6-7].  And the valley seems long, and there is nobody in step with me.  Would God there was somebody who would say to me, “The Lord is your Shepherd [Psalm 23:1].  Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you need not be afraid.  His—the signs of His presence, a rod and a staff will comfort you, and you will live in the house of the Lord forever and ever” [Psalm 23:1-6].  But I have dismissed Him.  I have come to that intellectual plateau in my life.  I have come to that academic achievement where I don’t believe in God.  But oh, my poor soul and my poor heart, and what should I say of the sins of weakness and sin and guilt and mistake?  Would God there was somebody who could say, “This is My blood of the new covenant, shed for the remission of sins” [Matthew 26:28].  And this long journey, called life, would to God somebody could say, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee [Hebrews 13:5].  I will see you through.”  You know what?  You know, maybe I haven’t considered all of the facts.  Maybe I’ve overlooked some of the great facts of life.  Number one: the greatest fact in human history is the fact of God.

Number two: the greatest fact in human story is the fact of Jesus Christ.  He divided time, AD, BC.  Around Him centers the love and the devotion of uncounted millions and millions.  Maybe Jesus is a fact and these other things are facts.  Maybe He is a fact.  Isn’t it an astonishing thing that men can study rocks and evolve from it a science of geology?  And they can study stars and evolve from it a science of astronomy.  And they can study fossils and evolve from it a science of past history.  But isn’t it strange that I should not be able to discover the great fact of Jesus Christ and find in Him an ultimate answer to all of the hurts and troubles of mankind?  Study the heavenly bodies and be aware of them and never be sensitive to the heavenly character, the One who came down from glory? [Hebrews 10:5-14; Luke 19:10].  O Lord, that I might have that wisdom, not only to be sensitive to the ages of the rocks, but to know also in my heart, to be introduced to, to love and adore the Rock of the Ages.

Rock of ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy wounded side which flowed,

Be of sin a double cure,

Save from wrath and make me pure.

[“Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” Augustus M. Toplady]

Maybe, Lord, God could give me that unusual intellectual sensitivity and capacity to see beyond the stars, the Bright and Morning Star; Him who said, “I Jesus have sent Mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches.  I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and the Morning Star [Revelation 22:16].  And 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” [Revelation 22:16-17].  And maybe God will give me that intellectual capacity, that academic achievement, that sensitivity of understanding to find in the grain of wheat Him who died that I might live [1 Corinthians 15:3]—the Lily of the Valley, these botanical biological miracles that feed my heart—bread of heaven, manna from above, angel’s food [John 6:51]:

Break Thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,

As Thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;

Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;

My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word.

[Mary A. Lathbury, “Break Thou the Bread of Life”]

It is a wonderful man, it is a intellectual man, it is a man of wisdom and spiritual intellectual achievement who sees Him everywhere.  I see Him in the stars at night.  I see Him rise in the strength of the morning sun.  I see Him in the plants that grow.  I see Him in the very food that we eat.  I see His presence in the times of human sorrow.  And I see Him in the moving Spirit in history.  I see Him in friendship and in love.  I see Him on the pages of the Bible.  And I feel His loving presence when I kneel in prayer.  I just meet Him down every road.  I see Him in every created thing.  And my heart is happy in Him—just passing by.  An altar “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.  Whom therefore you worship not knowing, Him declare I unto you” [Acts 17:23].  In back of all of the phenomenon that you see in human life and in human history is God.  O blessed one who sees Him in Jesus Christ, and finds Him precious to your soul.

And that is our appeal this precious moment.  To give your heart to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus [Romans 10:8-13]; to place your life with us in the circle and circumference of this dear church; to bring your family and rear your children in the love and nurture of the Lord [Ephesians 6:4]; as God should place the appeal in your heart, would you answer with your life?  In the great balcony round, a family you; on this lower floor, a couple you; or just one somebody you, I will be standing here by the side of that table of communion.  Make the decision in your heart.  Do it now.  And when you stand up, stand up walking down that stairway, walking down this aisle.  “Pastor, I have decided for God and I am on the way” [Ephesians 2:8].  May angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.