Teaching the Word of the Lord
February 26th, 1978 @ 10:50 AM
TEACHING THE WORD OF THE LORD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-26-78 10:50 a.m.
It is a gladness on our part to welcome the thousands and the thousands of you who are sharing this hour on television and on radio. You are with us in heart and spirit in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Glorifying the Word of God; Teaching the Word of the Lord. In preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 13. In verse 48 of Acts 13 it is written, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord” [Acts 13:48]. The second part of that text will be the sermon next Sunday morning on election, “and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” [Acts 13:48], were saved, the elect of God; this morning, on the word of the Lord.
It is significant that in this one chapter, the word of God is referred to and named seven different times [Acts 13:5, 26, 42, 44, 46, 48, 49].
- In Acts 13:5, “they preached the word of God in Salamis.”
- A second time in verse 26, “to you is the word of this salvation sent” [Acts 13:26].
- In verse 42, “the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached unto them the next Sabbath” [Acts 13:42].
- Verse 44, “the next Sabbath came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God” [Acts 13:44].
- Verse 46, addressing the Jews, he said, “It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken unto you” [Acts 13:46]; to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.
- Verses 47 and 48, turning to the Gentiles preaching the word of the Lord, “the Gentiles heard it, and they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord” [Acts 13:47-48].
- And yet once more, verse 49, “And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region” [Acts 13:49].
This is not unique. It is not peculiar to just this one chapter. I looked in the concordance, and I counted, and found that this word is used in the Bible 1,153 times. It is a magnificent revelation: the almightiness of the burden and meaning of the word of God. In the one hundred nineteenth Psalm, in the eighty-ninth verse, “For ever, O Lord, Thy word is natsab in heaven”; translated in the King James Version, “settled.” Natsab literally means fixed, established. “For ever, O Lord, Thy word is fixed in heaven” [Psalm 119:89]; this Word; God’s testimonies.
I wonder how that is in glory? Is it on some great tablet up there inscribed in angelic marble? Is it incised on some vast, bronze building or wall? Up there in heaven, before it was written down here in earth, God’s word is fixed in glory. In that same psalm, he says “Concerning Thy testimonies, I have known of old that Thou hast founded them for ever” [Psalm 119:152]. It is not something new to God when this Book was written. Again, in the one hundred sixtieth verse, “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of Thy righteous judgments endureth for ever” [Psalm 119:160]. It is something that we can depend upon, the word of God. “My covenant,” He said in verse 34 of Psalm 89, “My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that has gone out of My lips” [Psalm 89:34]. Heaven and earth may dissolve, may pass away, but God’s words shall stand for ever [Matthew 24:35].
This is what theologians in this modern world call “propositional truth.” That is, the Word of the Lord, this Bible, is not some subjective esoteric strivings out of a man’s experience, trying to describe what he may have felt. But the Word of God is by fiat. It is by a spoken syllable. It is by sentence that you can write down and understand [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21]. God speaks, and as I say, there is almightiness in the word of God. By the word of God the heavens were framed, and the stars were spoken into existence, by fiat [Genesis 1:1, 6-19]; my God said, God said, “Let there be light: and there was light” [Genesis 1:3], the word of God.
You see the might of it in the temptations of our Lord in the fourth chapter of the Book of Matthew. Each time the Lord was tempted, He answered by a word from the Holy Scriptures [Matthew 4:4, 7, 10]. We are like that also. In the twelfth chapter of the Revelation, verse 11, we are told that we overcome Satan “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of our testimony” [Revelation 12:11]. Somebody defined the Christian faith as the “Great Confession,” and how true that is! The apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” What a magnificent admonition, for the Word of God is health to our physical frame and salvation to our souls. Listen to the wisest man who ever lived as he writes in the fourth [chapter] of Proverbs.
My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings.
Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart.
For they are life unto those that find them, and health to thy flesh.
Isn’t that the most amazing thing? If a man would be well and strong, let him attend to the Word of God; and if a man would have life for his soul, let him believe in the revelation of God in these holy pages. And this, I think, is the most marvelous and wondrous assignment that a man could ever have.
For example, in the thirteenth chapter of this Book of Acts, out of which we are preaching, “The Holy Spirit said, Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” [Acts 13:2]. Well, what is this grand, glorious, glad work to which the Holy Spirit is calling Barnabas and Saul? As we read through the chapter, you have already been introduced to it; seven times in that chapter is that assignment delineated and defined [Acts 13:5, 26, 42, 44, 46, 48, 49]. They were separated by the Holy Spirit of God to teach and to preach the living word of the living Christ. What a marvelous assignment!
Do you remember in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm, and the twenty-fifth verse? It says that “My soul was in the dust, in the mire, in the pit, in the ground. My soul was in the dust, and I was quickened by Thy word; raised, elevated, saved, exalted, glorified, sanctified, by Thy word” [Psalm 119:25].
Now this is the great assignment of the church, and this is the dedication of the congregation of the Lord; namely, to teach the Word of God. That is why I had you read the passage this morning in 2 Timothy chapter 2. Paul writes to his young son in the ministry saying, “The word—the word that thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same teach thou to other men, who shall be able to teach others also” [2 Timothy 2:2]. That is our assignment under heaven. We are to teach these who in their turn teach others, who in their turn teach others, until Jesus comes again.
The school is in the church. It belongs there. It always has been there. The school is in the church. There is a Greek word that you will find here in the New Testament, katēcheō. What is katēcheō? Well, you know it; so you just haven’t been thinking about it; katēcheō is the Greek word for “instruct.” So they call those young converts, catechumens; and they call what they taught them a “catechism”; and a “catechize” would be to “teach.” That was it from the beginning. In my humble opinion, I think the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were little tracts used by the catechumens to be introduced to the Word of the living God.
The church has always been identified with the school, and the school has always been in the church. There is no exception to this. All of the great old universities of the world, all of them were church schools, founded by the church, taught by the preacher, brought into the knowledge of God in the great universities. That’s true of the great universities in Italy, in Germany, in France, in England, in America. There is no exception to it. All of them were founded, they were church schools. Same thing is true with regard to the public school. The public school was a church school. Well, that is strange. Well, not when you look at it.
In 1780, there was a man named Robert Raikes who was the editor of the Gloucester Journal in England. And he conceived the idea of gathering up all of these kids, ragamuffins out on the streets, gathering them up on Sunday and teaching them the Bible and teaching them the three Rs. So they started a vast worldwide Sunday school movement. Came to the attention of the king and queen of England, and they furthered it in the English-speaking world.
As time went on, they decided that they ought to teach the Bible on Sunday and then teach the three Rs on the days of the week. So they divided the Sunday school, that part that was taught on Sunday was the Word of God, that’s the Sunday school; and that part that was taught in the three Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic, that was in another hour on another day. But all of it was in the church, where it ought to be.
You can’t teach the truth of God when you have laws against ten thousand things. Why, even here in Dallas, there is a high school, and they sent word to us, “If you just name the name of Jesus in that chapel service, we will close down the high school.” That is an amazing come-to-pass. Religion is at the basis of all true education, and when you take it away, what you have left is the materialism, and the secularism, and the atheism that is overwhelming our entire world.
For the first time in the history of mankind, there are governments now that are statedly, and avowedly, and openly atheistic. That is a development in my lifetime. It was never seen before in the history of the world. Even the ancient Greek, before he made a decision, consulted the Oracle at Delphi. And no Roman general would go to war until first he had propitiated the gods. But these bow at no altar. They call upon the name of no deity. And they have given themselves to a secularism, a materialism, a crass atheism that has taken the purpose of life and dashed it to the ground. And mankind faces nothing now except the darkness of the grave, the midnight of nothingness. That’s this modern way of teaching. As I say, from the beginning, from the beginning, the church has been responsible for the teaching of the people; and the church has been the school, and the school has been in the church.
And our great communion of Baptist churches have been forefront and foremost in that great movement of teaching. In the session of the Southern Baptist Convention that met in Augusta, Georgia in 1863, Dr. Basil Manly Jr., professor at the seminary, the one seminary we had, Southern Seminary, later its president, offered the following resolution. I quote: “Resolve that a committee of seven be appointed to inquire whether it is expedient for this convention to attempt anything for the promotion of Sunday schools.” End quote. Ablest men were chosen, and Dr. Manly was chairman, and from them came this report the following year:
All of us have felt that the Sunday school is the nursery of the church, the camp of instruction for her young soldiers, the great missionary to the future . . . it goes to meet and bless the generation that is coming, to win them from ignorance and sin, to train future laborers when our places shall know us no more.
The report of the committee was unanimously adopted. And so they appointed the first leadership of the first Sunday School Board. In Greenville, South Carolina they located it, with Dr. Basil Manly president, Dr. John A. Broadus secretary, and Dr. James Petigru Boyce vice-president; all of them in succession president of our mother seminary.
Now at that time the convention met biannually, and on account of war, the War Between the States, they did not meet in 1865; they met one other time. In 1866 in Russellville, Kentucky, the new board made its first report, and it was written by the greatest scholar our people has ever produced, Dr. John A. Broadus. Let me read the conclusion of it.
In conclusion, the Board affectionately urges upon the Convention and the churches the incalculable importance of the Sunday school work. Besides its powerful direct influence upon the welfare of society, and its vast and blessed direct results in the salvation of souls, the Sunday school is a helper to every other benevolent agency. The preacher and pastor finds in it the aid of many subordinate preachers and pastors. These teachers and leaders are fellow pastors with him, each laboring for the benefit of the little flock. And all finding their gifts and graces developed and exercised as his own are, by efforts for the religious good of others. . .
Everything Christians care for would greatly suffer if its influence were lost, everything will gain in proportion as its influence is extended.
Isn’t it a tragedy? We cannot quite enter into today the awesome devastation of the South. Because of the destruction of that terrible war, the Board died. And it was not until 1891, I’ve just quoted 1866, it was not until 1891 that they were able to begin that work again in Nashville, Tennessee, where it now is located.
Well, just an illustration of the dedication of our church toward teaching the Word of God. And if we are true to the Book, and if we are true to the Great Commission and our heavenly mandate [Matthew 28:19-20], and if we are true to the blood and sacrifice of our forefathers, that’s what we are doing. We are teaching the infallible, and immutable, and inspired Word of the living God [2 Timothy 3:16]. This is the tremendous, compelling motive that brings the assignment if with gladness and appreciation and thanksgiving to our church and to our souls. It is not an onerous assignment. It is one we accept with all thanksgiving.
Look at the Great Commission as I quote it now from the King James Version. The Lord said, “Go and make disciples.” The King James Version is, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God”; and then again, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” [Matthew 28:19-20]. Now, when we do that, we are doing God’s work in the earth. This is it. We are to go and to matheteuō, “make disciples”; teach all people, didaskō, “teaching” them all of the things the Lord hath commanded us. Doing that, we are doing God’s assignment and God’s work in the earth.
Here is a teacher that has in his hand a blessed Book; and here is a boy, and here is a girl that has in his hand, in her hand, that same blessed Book. The assignment of the teacher is to get that Book into the heart of that boy, and to get that boy into the kingdom of God. That is why in the church we are so largely dependent in prayer upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That boy may be able to easily understand the syntax of the sentence that speaks of the grace of God, but does he know the grace of God? That boy may understand the geographical and historical background of the Holy Scriptures, but does he know the God of the land and the Lord of the people? That’s the praying, appealing, God-blessed work of a Sunday school teacher; taking the living Word of the Lord and making it incarnate; bringing it to life in the heart of the boy and the girl, the man and the woman, to whom he is teaching the Word.
Now may I speak of the price of excellence. How do you do that well? How do you do it magnificently? Well, you will be surprised when you study it and earnestly look at it. First of all, it comes by paying attention to detail. “Oh, pastor, you mean having made that great announcement of how we are going to excel and to be excellent in this work, then you come forward with that, it is by paying attention to detail?”
Well, lest you look upon that as being inconsequential, let’s just get acquainted with God for a moment. Let’s meet the Lord for a moment. What kind of a God is He and how does He work? Good, that’s why the Lord reveals Himself to us in His two Books; this one, and the one of nature around us. First of all, that one; thirty-first chapter of the Book of Exodus begins like this: “And Bezaleel and Aholiab were filled with the Holy Spirit of God” [Exodus 31:1-6]. That’s the way it starts.
Well, then we think, so Bezaleel and Aholiab were filled with the Holy Spirit of God in order to do some tremendous, earth-shaking, world-conquering assignment. That’s what you think. Well, what does it say that they did? Bezaleel and Aholiab were filled with the Holy Spirit of God, and what did they do? Here’s what the Book says they did. They made pots, and pans, and rods, and rings, and staves, and stakes, and curtains, and all of the things that pertained to the minutia of the tabernacle of the Lord [Exodus 36:1; 37-38].
“You mean to tell me that God fills Bezaleel and Aholiab with His Holy Spirit in order to make pots, and pans, and rods, and rings, and stakes, and stobs, and staves?” Well, I am just telling you what God says. I do not invent this. I am just telling you what the Lord said. That’s what He says that He did.
Well, let’s take the Lord God and introduce Him in the other book that He wrote, the book of nature around us. Let’s look at that. That is the most amazing thing that you will see in your life, how God pays attention to detail, to the minutia, to the inconsequential down here in the world in which we live. A scientist said to me, “Pastor, come over here and look at that.” So I went over there and looked at that. He had a microscope and underneath the microscope he had something painted solid red, just as red, red, red, red as it could be, just solid red. So he said, “You look at that.” So I looked at that. Well, I never saw such a mess, M-E-S, mess, S-S, mess in my life; solid red; best paint that you could find; best paint that a man could make, solid red down there.
That was a sorry looking mess. It was a blob here and a bubble here and a streak there and a nothing yonder. It was a mess, mess, blob, blob, blob, blob. All right, then he said, “Now preacher, I want you to come and look at this.” And he changed the slide, and he had mounted a butterfly’s wing. So I looked in that microscope at the butterfly wing. Why, you never saw such beauty. It was like silk and satin; not a blob in it; just as smooth all the way through. It was yellow there, and had a beautiful brown streak here, a little touch of red over there. “Come on, preacher, you are not saying God makes butterfly wings! You know anybody else that could do that? You know anybody else that could do that?”
I just got through saying what I saw when I saw a man trying to color something red. Just take anything; color it red; it looks like blob, but when God does it, the hand of the Lord, ooh, how beautiful! That’s the Lord. He is that way everywhere. Could you imagine the astronomical number of the trillions times trillions of snowflakes that have fallen in this earth? And no two of them is ever alike, never. Or take a flower, take a flower. How God expends work and time on a calyx, and a petal, and antlers, and stamen, and all of the multitudinous things that you can’t even see with your naked eye in that flower. And that’s why the soul, the sensitive soul of the great poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, said, “Flower in the crannied wall,” a little old thing growing out of a crack in the rock:
FLOWER in the crannied wall,
I pluck thee out of the crannies,
I hold you here, little flower, in my hand,
If but I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I would understand what God and man is.
[from “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson]
That’s the Lord. That’s the hand of God. In these little things that He has made in the whole world around us, and that is excellence; that’s what it is. Paying attention to detail, that’s excellence. That’s perfection. That’s artistry in its highest: paying attention to detail.
Have you been to Athens? I would say most of you have. Look at the Parthenon. That is why you would go to Athens, among other reasons; greatest building ever built, the Parthenon. And in that triangular called the pediment, above those beautiful ionic columns, why, you go up there, and it’s vacant. Lord Elgin conquered Greece, and he took down those beautiful marble statues put up there by Phidias; so Lord Elgin took them to the British Museum in London. So, when I went to the British Museum in London, one of the first things I wanted to see, I wanted to see those Elgin marbles made by Phidias, the greatest marble sculptor that ever lived, and placed up there in the pediment of that Parthenon.
And do you know why I wanted to look at them? Because I had heard that while Phidias was making those marvelous Greek pieces to put up there in that pediment, a fellow came by and said, “Phidias, what in the world are you doing here, working on the back side of those marbles,” those little statues, the back side of them, “and nobody will ever see it. Nobody will ever see it. Just make the front of it, because that is what you will see when you go to the Parthenon and you look up there, way up there, high up there, that’s all you are going to see, just the front of it. Why are you working on the back? Nobody can see it.”
And Phidias replied, “But God can see it. But God can see it.”
So, when I went to the British Museum, I walked me around and I came to those Phidias’ statutes, and I looked on the back. I went there to look at the back. And did you know, they are as beautifully carved and as wondrously wrought, the hair, the robes, the folds, everything, it is as beautifully done in the back as it is in the front. That’s art. That’s detail. That’s perfection! That’s great! That’s the way it ought to be.
Let’s take another one that you are familiar with all of your lives. Many of you have been in Florence. And if so you go to the Academy of Fine Arts in order to look at Michelangelo’s David. Ah, a heroic statute, made out of enormous piece of Carrara white marble. And there in the big entrance hallway of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, there you will see Michelangelo’s David. Well, why do you especially want to go see that? Well, I will tell you why that. He was working and finished it, and a friend came by and said, “Magnificent, magnificent; you are through, aren’t you?”
And Michelangelo said, “Almost.”
“Oh, that’s great,” said his friend, and went away. And after months and months and months and months, he came back, and Michelangelo was still working on that marble statute of David. And the friend said to him, “Michelangelo, I thought you had finished that months and months ago, when I last was here.”
“No,” said Michelangelo, “I need to kind of soften this expression here, and I need to work on the contour of that muscle there. And I need to kind of polish up this little place here.”
And the friend said, “Michelangelo, those are trifles!”
And the great and famous reply, “Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.”
You see, when you come down here to teach the Word of God, how you pay attention to these little things is a measure of your concentration and dedication to it. Is there a place to park? Well, what does that got to do with the Word of God? That is a trifle! Is there a place to park? Is it cool in the summertime? Is it warm in the wintertime? Is the room just so? Is it neat and painted? Have you studied the lesson? Have you prayed over it? Do you understand its message? Have you made a visit? Did you knock at the door? Did you show an interest in that boy? When that little couple had a stillborn baby, were you there saying something to comfort and strengthen? All of those little remembrances and little things, little details, and little minutiae, and little inconsequentials, and little insignificances, but they make it great! And that’s God! That’s just like the Lord. And when you’re doing that, that’s just like the Lord.
Oh, dear people, let’s not hesitate at a small thing for Jesus! Take an interest in a boy, knocking at the door, inviting somebody to Jesus, studying the lesson, making a telephone call, seeing to it that the room is just right and everything is prepared, and the Lord will bless. The patience it takes to do that is almost endless, but it’s worth it.
Do you remember the twenty-eighth chapter of Isaiah and the tenth verse? The people who scorned Isaiah the prophet were making fun of what he did. Here’s what they said about Isaiah the prophet: “It is line upon line, line upon line, line upon line, precept upon precept, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little” [Isaiah 28:10-13], making fun of the prophet in the message he had from the Lord. Wearisome and tedious, “We’re tired of it.” I don’t do other than grant you, that a lot of times it is wearisome and tiresome and tedious to do God’s work. Man alive! Here I am knocking at a door, when I could be watching a program on television. Or here I am poring over this Bible when I could be in a picture show or I could be out getting drunk or something. The tedium of it—but that’s what makes it great.
You know, when you come to church here, I guess you sit out there and think, “I wonder if that preacher ever prepares. Just look at the way he preaches. He’s just up there and he’s going this way, going that way, and sometimes he’s there, and sometimes he’s there, and all around.” No, you’ve been fooled. I study this message hours and hours and hours. And for every minute I preach up here, if you’d sit there and listen to me, I’d preach an hour for every minute that I’d be preaching up here. Just so much, so much to say. It’s great and marvelous to give yourself to an affirmation of the Word of God.
Oh, I’ve got so many other things to say! Let me conclude. To be faithful in that assignment, it’s to reap a reward from heaven itself. A survey was made of our Sunday schools, all of them. And did you know, the survey reported that one half of all members of the Sunday school, one-half are lost because of the indifference of the teacher? What an indictment! One half of them are lost because of the indifference of the teacher. The bond between the teacher and the pupil is so tenuous, so frail and fragile, that it breaks off with any little inadvertent circumstance. Oh dear! How different it ought to be. These are souls for whom God hath given us precious care, and I’m responsible to the Lord for them. And as such I must be faithful, and I must pray, and I must teach, and I must show myself prayerfully interested. Dear God! I don’t know what the Lord will do with us if we’d be that way.
I talked to a man in a textile factory in North Carolina. Did you know, you’d say, “Well this fellow, he’s not courteous; he doesn’t show deference to the preacher.” You know what he did? As I stood there talking to that man in that big textile factory, his eye was almost constantly on that loom; and every minute or so he’d look at it very carefully, and he’d watch all of those threads. You know, I thought, “Man, I’d love to have a fellow like that in the church”; feeling the responsibility for the loom of life. Or that rancher, in whose home I stayed out in West Texas, just so careful about his herds, and his flocks, and his little calves and lambs. That’s just marvelous. And that’s the way it ought to be with us.
Bear with me just one other second. I want to show you how people are. Here’s a father, had a bunch of children, and loving them he loved other children. So he sat down by a ragamuffin boy, and put his arm around him, and said, “Son, I’d sure like to have you in Sunday school. You know what we have in Sunday school? I always have candy and cookies. Won’t you come?”
The boy said, “No. No.”
And he said, “Son, did you know in Sunday school, did you know we play games? And I’ll take you to the gymnasium, and we just have the best time in the world. Won’t you come?”
And the boy said, “No. No.”
And he said, “See, I’ll give you a book, and we’ll study, and we’ll have a good time learning. Won’t you come?”
“We have a choir; you can sing in the choir. And we’ll just have the best time in the choir. Come, won’t you?”
And the boy said, “No.” And when the father, the teacher of that class, tried everything that he knew, and in discouragement he finally walked away, and the boy lifted up his voice, “Say, say, say, will you be there?”
And that kindly man said, “Yes, son, yes I will.”
And the boy replied, “Then I’ll be there too. I’ll be there too.” He didn’t know anything, out of the street; he cared less. But he was moved by the pressure of a warm hand on his shoulder, and the arm of that man around him. “I’ll be there too.”
And that’s life. You can lead that boy to the saloon, or you can lead him to the Sunday school, either way, either way. He’ll go with you either way. That’s why God says, “Lovest thou Me? Feed My lambs.” And again, “Lovest thou Me? Shepherd My sheep” [John 21:15-17]. And if we love God at all, it’s not an onerous task I say, it’s a happiness and a gladness to accept the assignment from the Lord’s saving hands. “I’ll be there. I’ll look for you. It’ll be a joy to welcome you. We’ll love God together. We’ll learn what the Lord has to help us to be strong in our souls and in our hearts and in our physical frame.” This is the blessing of God and it is ours, a gift from His nail-pierced hands.
And that’s our invitation to your heart this morning: to love the Lord Jesus, whom to know aright is life eternal [John 10:27-28]; to put your life with us in the fellowship of this church. “Pastor, I want to accept Jesus as my Savior, and I’m coming.” “Pastor, I want to be baptized just as it says in the Book [Matthew 28:19]. I’m coming.” “Pastor, this is my wife and these are my children; we’re all coming.” As the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now. And in a moment when we stand to sing, stand up walking down that stairway, coming down that aisle, “Here I am, pastor, I have decided for God [Romans 10:9-13]. I’m on the way.” May angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.