THE CITY CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-22-78 7:30 p.m.
God be praised for you who lead us in the praise of the Lord—our choir, our orchestra. And again as always, with deepest gratitude, thank you for listening, sharing this hour with us on radio; the radio of the great Southwest, KRLD, and the radio of our Bible Institute, KCBI. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message out of the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Acts entitled The City Church.
Let us now turn to read together out of Acts chapter 18, verses 5 through 11. Acts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—Acts chapter 18, reading out loud verses 5 through 11. And we encourage you who are listening on radio to get a Bible and to read it out loud with us and to follow the message of the pastor this evening. Acts 18:5 through 11 out loud together:
And when Silas and Timothy were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ.
And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them: Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.
And he departed thence, and entered into a certain man’s house, named Justus, one that worshiped God, whose house joined hard to the synagogue.
And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all of his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.
Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace:
For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.
And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
And the background text is the word of our Lord to the apostle Paul, “Speak . . . for I have much people in this city” [Acts 18:9-10]; The City Church.
Paul was a tremendously astute and gifted missionary strategist. And in his preaching the gospel in the first days of the Christian century, he went from city to city to city. He preached in Ephesus [Acts 19:1-20]. He preached in Thessalonica [Acts 17:1-9]. He preached in Athens [Acts 17:16-38]. He preached here in Corinth [Acts 18:1-18]; finally, in Rome [Acts 28:16-31]. And in the heart of the city, there did he build these lighthouses for Christ that finally changed the course of our civilization. And when Paul is preaching the gospel in the cities, he is but reflecting that care and compassion and love of our Lord for the city.
Luke writes this, writing the Book of Acts, he also wrote the Third Gospel, the Gospel of Luke. And when you read the life of our Lord, in the Gospel of Luke, you will find repeated so many times the deep interest and concern of our Savior for the city. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Luke, it is said that our Lord steadfastly set His face toward the city [Luke 9:51]. In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, it avows that our Lord volitionally chooses to die, to be crucified in the city [Luke 13:31-33]. In the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, our Lord is described as looking over the city and bursting into tears—weeping over its people [Luke 19:41]. And the same Gospel writer is also penning these words in the Book of Acts. And he no less depicts our Savior in heaven as looking over, compassionately interested in the city. For it is our risen and ascended Lord who is speaking to Paul saying, “Speak, I am with thee. I have much people in this city” [Acts 18:9-10].
The background of the address of our Lord to the apostle apparently is found in the discouragement and the obstacles that the apostle faces in Corinth. It is trying; it is tumultuous; it is vigorously opposed to the gospel of Christ [Acts 18:5-7], and evidently, the apostle had it in his heart to turn aside and to leave. And it is an encouragement from the Savior that he is bid to remain and to speak, for the Lord says, “I have many, many in the city whom I am preparing to respond” [Acts 18:9-10]—Christians in the making, converts in the electing. So the apostle stays in the face of these urban difficulties. It is always difficult in the city. When Paul writes to this Corinthian church, he says in the last, the sixteenth chapter, “I shall stay in Ephesus,” a great Asian city, “I shall stay in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries” [1 Corinthians 16:8-9]. It is always true. There are many adversaries to the preaching of the gospel in any city.
I want you to compare for a moment the preaching of the gospel in a rural area and preaching the message of Christ in a city. I pastored in rural and village areas for ten years. And I observed, became intimately conversant with the life of the people. Now you look at it. Many of those rural churches, country churches were quarter-time churches. That is, they had service just once a month. So the minister would come, the pastor would come, and he would preach the gospel on that Sunday—say the fourth Sunday of the month or the second Sunday of the month—and then for the rest of the month, that farmer who was there listening to the message—for the rest of the month, plowing out there in the field, he would think about that text, and he would think about that message, and he would think about that sermon. Out there by himself with a mule or with a team, just he and the Lord—turning over in his heart the sermon that he had heard in the church on that fourth Sunday or the second Sunday or some other Sunday in the month.
Or take a village, such as I grew up in—a small little town: no picture show; no theater; no radio—hadn’t been invented; no television—no one ever dreamed of such a thing; no entertainment at all. And the most epochal event that could be announced was the coming of a revival meeting. And everybody attended. Everybody listened. And everybody thought in the days of the week and spoke to one another about the sermon they had heard the day or the night before. Now that was the rural and village life in which I grew up and in which I first began to minister.
Brother, you compare that to the city life today. Even between one Sunday and the next Sunday, there are ten thousand things that pour in and reach in to the heart and life and mind of a man—things of the world; a thousand things of the world drowning out the message that he heard the Sunday before. Dear me, the fast tempo and the furious pace of city life! And between what you hear the preacher say today and what you will hear next Sunday, there will be a thousand things that crowd into your mind and into your life. It is not easy in the city. There are so many distractions and interferences and obstacles that arise to face and to confront the Word of God.
But the city church is the most vital and significant of all of the links in the kingdom of God. When I was a lad growing up, I turned my face toward the city. It never entered my mind I would stay out in a rural area. I had the dream of ministering in a city. And I am no different than any other young man or young woman that grows up in a small place. They get educated and they prepare themselves for an assignment in the city. And they are here in this city by the thousands and the thousands—the young people, the young married people who come to find home and life and destiny in the city. And the city is governed and colored the life of the whole nation. As the cities go, the nation goes. As the cities think, the nation thinks; as the cities vote, the nation votes. The whole cultural life, political, economic, educational, is determined by the city, the vital importance of the city church.
Now may I point out some things that must characterize the city church if it is to minister, if it is to be viable, if it is to live. Number one: the city church must of all things have in it the spirit of youth. It must never grow old and senile; over the hill, dead; so many of our city churches grow old. Through the years and the years, they get decrepit, and they are senile, and they are finally buried in the great, moving life of the vast metropolitan area. The church that is to live, the city church that is to minister must ever keep the spirit of youth.
Look, I stood one time on a city street and looked at a used car lot—downtown, in one of the great cities of America. And as I stood there and looked at that used car lot, my mind went back to the days of my youth, when I attended that church built on that vacant, now vacant lot. A tremendous church and its pastor was one of the dearest men I ever knew or met in my life. His name was Carter Helm Jones. His father was chaplin to General Robert E. Lee in the Confederate Army. When he was a little boy his father sent him with a message to General Lee. And General Lee took the little boy Carter Helm Jones, and placed him in the front of his saddle, and on Traveler—the name of the horse that Robert E. Lee rode—on Traveler, he took the little boy to his destination.
Carter Helm Jones was absolutely one of the most polished, and cultured, and gifted of all of the pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. He was lovable, and he was gracious, and he was kind and sweet and good But he presided over a church that, when I looked at it, it had lost all of its young people. There were no children in it; there were no babies in it; it was old. It was dying as I looked at it, and finally, it ceased to be. And in these years that I speak of, I stood there and looked at it from across the street, now a used car lot. A church has to keep its vibrancy, and its viability, and its youth, and its life, and its children, and its babies! It has to be young if it lives. Our faces may wrinkle, but our hearts, never! We are to stay young and alive.
I remember studying Browning. I remember the description of Browning’s funeral. It was sedate, and it was slow, and it was funereal, and it was dead and typical as most funerals are. And he had a friend, an artist named Burne-Jones. And Burne-Jones said, “As I sat there and listened to that dead funeral service, and as I listened, I thought of the intensest life of Robert Browning, who all of his days down to old age was alive and young in his heart and spirit.” And Burne-Jones says, “As I sat there in the funeral of Robert Browning,” he said, “I just wish some man would come out of the triforium with a trumpet and blast the sound, and raise the dead, and wake the people up, and speak of victory and resurrection!” Man, I thought that’s great. That’s the spirit of Robert Browning. It was he who said:
Come, grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’
[“Rabbi Ben Ezra,” Robert Browning]
And the church that is in the city that is to minister must keep its spirit of youth; vibrant and alive, sensitive, dedicated, moving.
And that is my second characterization of a ministering city church. Second: the church that is to live in the city must be a church that marches. It goes. It confronts. It attacks. It moves. My dear people, stubborn and unmalleable is human nature, depraved and evil are the times, but they are always that. They are never any different. This vile world is never a friend to grace. Every inch that we win for Jesus has to be fought over, just like God gave to Joshua and the children of Israel the land of Canaan for an inheritance [Joshua 1:6], but they had to fight for every inch of the land! [Joshua 24:8]. It is no less in the kingdom of God today!
I attended an associational meeting in Oklahoma when I first began my ministry out of the seminary. And I was attending an associational meeting, and Dr. Andrew Potter our executive secretary was there. And there was a man who stood up and spoke, and he delivered one of those woe be gone messages concerning the evil of the times. And when he sat down, Dr. Andrew Potter stood up and said, “My brethren, the times are always bad.” And then went on to speak, “They are always bad. The days were bad in the days of Noah [Genesis 6:3-5]. The times were bad in the days of Abraham; he was the lone believer in an idolatress world [Genesis 12:1-2; Joshua 24:2-3]. The times were bad in the days of Moses [Exodus 3:6-10]. The times were bad in the days of Elijah and the great apostasy [1 Kings 18:17-40]. The times were bad in the days of Jesus when they crucified the Son of God [Matthew 27:26-50]. The times were bad here when they were stoning the apostle, placed him in prison and finally decapitated him. The times are always bad.”
In 1930, in the days of my beginning ministry, I remember people saying, “Oh, if we can just get out of these terrible Thirties. This deep-dyed and awful Depression; if we could just outlive the terrible Thirties.” And then came the Forties! And my soul, they were the fiercest I have ever known, for it was in the Forties that we were engaged in that awesome Second World War.
The times are always bad. They are never propitious for the gospel. It is never easy for the ministers of Christ and for the church of our Lord. We must attack. We must confront. We must march. Not in some propitious time, that never comes! But in this hour, whatever it is, we have to move, we have to march, we have to go! If we wait for better times and more propitious seasons, we will wait our life out, and the sands of our strength will gradually ebb. It is like Ecclesiastes 11:4: “He that observeth the [wind] will never sow; and he that observeth the [clouds] will never reap.” The time to do for God is now, no matter whether the times are propitious or not—favorable or not.
I remember reading in the life of Abraham Lincoln; year after year of that terrible War between the States, Abraham Lincoln was seeking a man to lead the Union Army, who could march, who could win, and one after another after another failed. Finally, he invited Ulysses S. Grant to be the leader of the Union forces. And, of course, he won the war. And he invited Ulysses S. Grant because he said, “Grant will fight. He will confront. He will march!” And reading in the life of U.S. Grant, he was planning an attack, and one of his generals came to him and said, “But General Grant, it is raining. It is raining. You cannot attack in the rain.” And U.S. Grant replied, “My general, it is raining on the enemy also.” It never is propitious for us to march and to fight. The time to do it is just now; whatever the times. The time to go forward is this moment, whatever the moment! We have just now and that’s all.
In reading in the life of Leonidas, that noble hero of the Spartans who defended the pass at Thermopylae, one of the men came to Leonidas and speaking of the invading Persians—they numbered like the locusts in their thousands and their thousands—and one of the men said to Leonidas, he said, “General, when the Persians shoot their arrows, there are so many of them that they darken the sky!” And Leonidas replied, “Fine, then we shall fight in the shade.”
He had a little army of six thousand Greeks. And he could have staved off the Persian hosts indefinitely had it not been that a traitor showed the Persian army a secret path over and beyond the cliffs. And when Leonidas saw that he was enveloped on both sides and had no opportunity for victory, Leonidas dismissed all of the other Greeks except his three hundred Spartans—and by law, they could not flee before an enemy. So Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans fought at Thermopylae, and there did they die. And after the battle was over and after the conflict was done, the Amphyctionic council inscribed this epitaph where those three hundred Spartans and their leader Leonidas laid down their lives. And translated out of Greek it says this: “Stranger, report this, we pray, to the Spartans that lying here in this place we remain faithfully keeping their laws.” That is great! The Lord said that to us: “Be thou faithful unto death” —that is, be thou faithful if it costs you your life—“and I will give you the crown of life” [Revelation 2:10]; the crown of glory. The time to march is now!
And that leads me to my third and my last avowal of the characteristic of a city church that lives and that ministers; it is a church that senses the immediacy and the necessity of the hour. We have now and that is all. We have this moment, no promise of any other. And what we do for God, we must do now. In our time, in our day, in our generation, in this moment, the sense of immediacy and urgency about our work; I so well remember in a committee, in a church that I pastored, a small city church—a church in a small city, and as we were talking about a program, building, taking care of our young people and our youth, I remember the members of the committee saying, “We cannot do that; maybe some other day; maybe some other time; maybe some other year but not now!”
And I remember one of the finest men in the city—one of the finest businessmen in the community and one of the dearest fellow helpers that a minister ever had—he spoke and said, “But, my brethren, I have a boy, a young teenage boy, and if we put this off, my boy will be grown, and will be gone. If we do anything to help my boy, we must do it now, now.” I realized that that father had his own boy in his heart and in his mind, and in a vision for the church, he was thinking about my boy. But what he was thinking and what he was saying is everlastingly right! These youngsters are youngsters for just a while. These boys are boys for just a day. Turn your head and look at them again, and they will be grown. Close your eyes and look at them once more, and they will be out and into the world.
What we do, we must do now. And the ministries that we have before God, we must offer them and dedicate them to Jesus in their behalf now. Tomorrow is gone and too late. The church that lives is the church that ministers now, not some other day, some other time, some other hour, but the exigency and the emergency and the necessity is the “now,” now! And pretty much it’s what we do now that shall color all of the eternity that is to come. We don’t have any tomorrow. It is just now.
One time one of the dearest men with whom I ever worked in a church told me a story, the day of Pearl Harbor. Most of you are too young to remember that tragic moment when the word came of that awful attack on Sunday, December in 1941. This godly man, when that attack was made, told me this. He said, “I was visiting in a poor, poor part of the town, and as I was coming back, walking across the Katy Railroad tracks, there was a youngster—dirty, unkempt, unkempt—smoking a cigarette. I stopped and began to talk to the little fellow. And I said, ‘You are so young to be smoking.’ And the boy replied, ‘Mister, I have been smoking since I was four years old.’” And this godly deacon and Sunday school superintendent began to talk to the boy and began to tell him about the good things down at the church, and the wonderful things in the Sunday school, and all of the other things that go with the beauty and preciousness of the Christian life.
And he said, “Won’t you come? Won’t you come? We would love to have you. We would love to have you. Come.” And that dirty urchin said to him, “Well, mister, I will. I will be there.” He came. He was converted. He was baptized. He became a marvelous teenage Christian. And as a teenager, in his teens, in Pearl Harbor, he was about the first one that was killed. Aren’t you glad; am I not grateful that it was not some other day, some other hour, some other time? It might have been too late; opportunity gone, but there, on the railroad tracks to a dirty urchin, a waif of the streets, winning the boy to Jesus, and when that awful day came, he was saved. He was a Christian. He was prepared to meet his Lord.
That is our assignment. That is our great mandate from heaven; not some other time, some other day, some more propitious moment, but now we are witnessing, we are striving, we are testifying, we are pleading for Jesus, we are pointing the way to glory, we are preaching the gospel. We are alive, and we plead with you in Christ’s stead, be reconciled to God [2 Corinthians 5:20]. Give Him your heart. Give Him your soul. Give Him your life [2 Corinthians 6:2]. Trust Him for every tomorrow and see if God, as these brethren have testified, does not aboundingly and gloriously remember you in every sweet and precious and heavenly way. There is no life like the Christian life; no abounding pilgrimage like the Christian pilgrimage. It is deep. It is rich. It is precious. It is beautiful. It is everything that God Himself could bestow upon us in this life, and there is heaven to come [John 14:3].
And that is our appeal to you tonight; coming to Jesus in repentance [Matthew 4:17], in turning, in faith, in acceptance [Ephesians 2:8-9]; following the Lord in baptism [Mark 1:9-11], praying with us, worshiping God with us, praising the name of the Lord with us, growing in grace with us: “Tonight, I accept Jesus as my Savior, and I want to be baptized, and I want to belong to His church.” Or, having been saved, having accepted the Lord, having been baptized, “Pastor, I am coming to place my life in the circle of this dear church.” Maybe your wife is with you, your children; all of you are coming, or just a couple, or just one somebody you. In a moment we will stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, down one of these stairways at the front and the back and on either side; down one of these aisles, “Pastor, tonight I have decided for Jesus, and here I come.” Maybe the Lord has whispered some special invitation to your heart, answer with your life. What God says, attune your heart, listen to the word and make the response now. “I am coming, pastor, down this aisle, down this stairway. I am on the way, and here I am.” May the angels attend you. May the Holy Spirit of God guide you as you make that decision now in your heart. And when you stand up, stand up answering with your life, “Here I am, pastor. I make it now.” God bless you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.