GOD CAME VISITING
Dr. W. A. Criswell
8-24-80 10:50 a.m.
When you come beginning the first Sunday in September, we not only bring our hearts and souls, but we are going to bring our minds. We are going to learn the great doctrinal truths of the faith; the foundation of it; the skeleton upon which all of the beauty of the Christian life is hung. On the radio and on television, you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled God Came Visiting.
It is a very empirical, pragmatic, practical message of truth. In the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, James, the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, refers to a little word that is so dynamic: "God did visit" [Acts 15:13-14]. And then in the Book of James, that same Lord’s half-brother, who is the greatest leader in the church in Jerusalem and in the Christian world, even Paul paid deference to James – in the first chapter of James, the first chapter, the last verse: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit" [James 1:27]. That’s one of the most remarkable and unusual half of a verse that you could ever read in the Bible: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit" [James 1:27].
Did you ever notice, have you noticed these tremendous revolutionary, social movements of the twentieth century – have you ever noticed how they are identified with the common people, and how their insignia inevitably are common, ordinary things? I can remember when the Fascist Party began in Italy. And a sign of the Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini was a shirt, a black shirt. I can remember when the Nazi Party began in Germany under Adolph Hitler, and a sign of the Nazi Party was a [brown] shirt. On the brown shirt would be a swastika in Germany. On the black shirt would be a Fascist bundle in Italy. But they were identified with a shirt.
Before our day, the great communist revolutionary movement was launched in the world. And as you know, the sign and the insignia and the aegis of the Communist Party is a hammer and a sickle – common instruments of the common laborer, identified with the people.
Most of the times, our political parties seek to identify themselves with the great masses of the American citizens. I have read in history one of the parties had a slogan, "A full dinner pail"; and they won the presidency of the United States. Those things all of us are aware of. We read it. We see it all the time. But there is a concomitant and a corollary that goes along with it, and that is tragic. Somehow the great social and political movements of the world are identified with the common man, with human life; but in a way inexplicable to me, religion in our minds unconsciously is removed out of the common world, and out of common life, and is pigeonholed somewhere in an ephemerality, in an unreality. It’s somewhere you cannot touch it. It’s like a charade. It’s not the real thing. The real thing is out there where the businessman works, and the laboring man works, and where the people live; that’s the real thing. But the real thing actually is not in the faith; that’s intangible and effervescent.
That’s an over/sowing of Satan. That’s a deception of the mastermind who rules over the power of darkness. Nothing could be further from the truth than that. Religion is the real thing of all human life. It touches it in its every area, sensitive. It has to do with our children. It has to do with our homes. It has to do with our hearts. It has to do with our business. It has to do with our destiny. It has to do with life and death and eternity. That is the faith! The only real and abiding thing in the earth is that religious faith. And to show how common-touch it is, and how down-to-earth it is, this tremendous brother of the Lord Jesus, who was pastor of the church at Jerusalem, writes that unbelievable passage, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is an ephemerality"? No. To visit; the common thing of knocking at the door [James 1:27].
Thirty years ago we began building that chapel building right across the street. And there was a steward in a Methodist church, a doctor, who gave me the money for Embree Hall. And then he gave me the money to build, to create six beautiful windows in Embree Hall. Each one of those large, gloriously made stained-glass windows, each one is dedicated to a missionary like David Packer. Well, we searched the world for a man who still was alive, who could create that beautiful stained-glass message such as they had in the medieval church. It’s a lost art. That is the reason I glory in the beautiful old windows in this sanctuary. It’s a lost art. But we found a man in St. Louis, an old man who still could work, making those beautiful stained-glass windows. So he came down here and I worked with him. And I followed beautifully, wonderfully the suggestions of that glorious old saint of God. And the three windows on that side of Embree Hall depict the Old Covenant, the Old Testament, the musical instruments, the giving of the Law, the story of the Old Covenant. And on this side, he had three windows suggested for the New Testament. One of them, Jesus is the Lamb of God; one of them, Jesus, the King of the world. And then I asked him, "Could I make a suggestion about a window? And would you do it?"
"Well," he said, "what do you have in your mind? Show me."
So I said, and I drew a central medallion. There are three panels in each one of those stained-glass windows. And the larger medallion is in the center. I said, "I would like to have a church with a steeple, a spire pointing up to God. I would like to that in the center of the medallion. And then on this side, I would like to have folded hands. And underneath the word "Prayer"; and on this side, I would like to have a hand knocking at the door; and underneath "Visitation." The way the church is built and the gospel is promulgated, a spire pointing to God; and on any street in the world, where there is a church with a spire pointing to God. It’s a glory. It’s an adjunct. It is an embellishment. Just to look at it is a sermon, that is a spire pointing up to God. And then how the gospel message is mediated; the prayers and intercessions of God’s people, and knocking at the door, visitation.
Well, he was delighted, seemingly, and so he made that window. And when you go over there in Embree Hall and look at those six beautiful windows, the one at the right next to the pulpit down there is that one with the spire and prayer and the hand knocking at the door. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit" [James 1:27]; to knock at the door.
The whole Bible is just like that. It is not extraneous or peculiar or unique in one of the passages such as I have just read from James; but whole Bible is like that. In the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, it says that the Lord God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . . and said, "Adam, where art thou?" [Genesis 3:8-9]. He came visiting the man and the woman that He made [Genesis 1:27]. That’s God. In the first chapter of the beautiful romance of the Book of Ruth, Naomi says to her two daughters-in-law, "I am going back to Bethlehem, for I have heard how that God has visited His people in giving them bread" [Ruth 1:6]. In the beautiful [eighth] Psalm, the singer says, "When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy hands, and the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man, that Thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that Thou visitest him?" [Psalm 8:3, 4]. That’s God. And those marvelous prophecies; the heraldic announcement, "The Lord is coming." One in Zechariah goes like this:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; and shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee; meek and lowly, having salvation . . .
And He shall speak peace to the nations of the world: and His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and His kingdom to the ends of the earth.
[Zechariah 9:9, 10]
And Isaiah said, "and His name shall be called Immanuel; God is with us" [Isaiah 7:14]. And when the Lord God came, that’s the way He came. He came to visit His people; from house to house, from village to village, from town to town, from city to city. That’s the Lord Jesus – living, walking, speaking, conversing, ministering among the people. That’s a marvelous thing when you think about it; Jesus walking, visiting among His people.
As you know, I was in Ed McAteer’s big briefing here in the city of Dallas Thursday and Friday. And Friday night, I sat by the side of Ronald Reagan, waiting for a lengthy program to develop and then to go with him to present it to the great convocation in the Reunion Arena. And as I sat there for a long length of time, as I sat there by the side of that distinguished nominee for the presidency of the United States, I never saw so many policemen in my life. Never in one place have I seen as they surrounded that vast area there. They were everywhere.
And in the back of the arena where the presidential nominee was seated, there were Secret Service men working in and out. Every hallway was blocked by several men, plainclothesmen and in uniform, and to get anywhere, you were accosted and stopped and asked.
Well, being a preacher, and always thinking in terms of the faith and the Book, as I sat there and just looked at it all and watched it all, I could not help but think of our blessed Lord. He was the most available and the most approachable of any man you ever read about in your life. They thronged Him on every side. They pressed against Him wherever He walked. That poor woman with an issue of blood finally worked her way, and coming up behind Him, touched the tassel on the hem of His garment. She said, "If I could just touch the hem of His garment, I will be healed" [Matthew 9:20-22].
The only time in the Bible I ever read that the men around the Lord tried to keep people away from Him, push them out, was when the disciples rebuked the mothers who were bringing their little babies to Him, the little children, that He might touch them and bless them. And when the Lord saw what Simon Peter and John and James and Matthew and the rest of them were doing in pushing the people away, He said, "There, there, suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God" [Mark 10:13-14]. "And He took them in His arms and blessed them."
That’s great. There’s nobody like the Lord Jesus, they just never lived. He is unique and, as I say, approachable; and lived among the people; and walked among them; and visited among them. He never – did you know this as you read the Bible? He never refused an invitation to go to somebody’s house. Never. He never refused. Never. Why, He even went to a certain town where a poor sinner lived. And on that street where the poor sinner had his address, and He walked up to that tree where the poor sinner had climbed up, and He called him by his name, "Zaccheus . . . come down," He said, "for I am going to your house today" [Luke 19:5]. Can you imagine that? And when He went off to be a guest of Zaccheus, who was a hated publican, tax collector [Luke 19:2], all of the people murmured, saying, "He is gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner" [Luke 19:7]. And the Lord replied one of the most beautiful verses of the Bible, "For the Son of Man is come to seek" – isn’t that right? "He is come to seek and to save that which was lost" [Luke 19:10]. That’s Jesus.
And the final picture you have of the Lord in the Bible is the one that you just read in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any one hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in." He stands at the door of our hearts. He stands of the door of our homes. He stands at the door of our lives. He stands at the door of our businesses. He stands at the door of our destinies. He stands at the door of our eternities. And He stands there with open arms. That’s Jesus.
Have you noticed how the Lord taught His disciples? He taught them just like that; and how different our attitudes, our Christian ministries today. You know what you and I are like? We are like this. We are like a sower who stands dead still on the side of the field, and we lift up our voices and we say, "All of you acres out there that are to be sowed, come up here and get sowed." That’s the way we do it. The Lord taught, "A sower went forth to sow" [Matthew 13:3] – out there, sowing the seed of God’s Word.
You know how you and I are? You and I are like a fisherman who takes our stance on the side of the lake. And we lift up our voices, and we say, "All of you fish out there, come up here and get caught." That’s what we say. How different the Lord was. He said, "Go out into the deep, launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught" [Luke 5:4]. That’s how He taught.
You know how you and I are? This is the way we do. We build a sheepfold on the side of the wilderness. Sometimes we decorate it marvelously, magnificently, and then we put a sign out there in front, and we say, "All of you lost sheep, you wander in here and get saved." That’s the way we do. But how did the Lord teach? He said the shepherd leaves the ninety and nine, and goes out into the wilderness to seek until he finds him [Luke 15:4]. That’s the Lord. That’s the way He taught. And that’s the way He trained His apostles. He sent them out, the twelve, two by two [Mark 6:7]. And He sent the seventy out two by two, knocking at the door [Luke 10:1]. And that is His Great Commission. There is no commission in the Bible from our Lord without a going. "Go. . . and preach the gospel to every creature" [Mark 16:15]. Or, "Go and make disciples of all of the nations" [Matthew 28:19]. Always, the heart of the commission is to go.
Now when the apostles implemented the message and ministry and commission of our Lord, that’s exactly what they did, and that’s exactly the way they did it. In the beginning of the ministries of the church, you have a little concluding summation in the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts, verse 42; and it reads like this, "And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus our Lord" [Acts 5:42].
In the life and ministry of the tremendous apostle Paul, in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, he is describing, he is summarizing his great effective preaching of the gospel in Ephesus, the great city of the Roman province of Asia. Now you look how he describes it. In Acts 20: verses 20-21, and 31, this is what he said, he says: "You remember how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but showed you, and taught you publicly, and from house to house. Testifying both to the Jews, and to the Greeks" – that is, anybody who lived in the house, Jews and Greeks, testifying "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" [Acts 20:20, 21]. And the thirty-first verse, "Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one, night and day with tears" [Acts 20:31].
Ah, have you ever heard? I have a thousand times, both reading and in introductions. There will be a visitor, a great preacher, and they are talking about him in a book, presenting him in a book, or they are presenting him to a great convocation, and they will say, "This man is the greatest preacher since Paul." I have heard that so many times: "He is the greatest preacher since Paul." I know exactly what they mean by that. I know exactly. They conjure up an imagine of a Demosthenean, Ciceronian orator who rises from one tremendous peroration after another, and just waxes up into heaven by his magnetic and glorious and electrifying words. That’s what they mean by it: "This man is the greatest preacher since Paul."
Just exactly what kind of preacher was Paul? You know, it wouldn’t hurt us to read the Bible, would it? No, there would be no harm in reading the Bible at all. And if we read the Bible, we would know exactly what kind of preacher Paul was. In the tenth chapter and the tenth verse of the second Corinthian letter, Paul quotes what people said about him. He quotes what they said about him. "They say" – and now he quotes what they say [2 Corinthians 10:10]. When the people heard Paul preach in the agora or in the temple or in the Pantheon or wherever he was, he quotes what they say. Second Corinthians tenth chapter, tenth verse – there are some of you that are turning to it. What does it say? He quotes the people who heard him preach and this is what he says, "They say – they say that his letters that are powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is contemptible" [2 Corinthians 10:10]. Now isn’t that in the Bible? You have got your Bibles, isn’t that what it says? That’s what they say about him. They went to hear him preach, and they said, "His bodily presence is weak, and his speech is contemptible" [2 Corinthians 10:10]. Man, where is that Ciceronian, Demosthenean peroration image that you conjure up when you say this man is the greatest preacher since Paul? There is not a word of truth in it, nor is there a semblance of an approach to that kind of a man.
Well, how did he do his work? This is the man who brought all Asia, the Roman province of Asia – you just read God’s letter, Jesus’ letter to one of the seven churches of Asia [Revelation 3:20]. All that was done by the apostle Paul. This is the man who turned the world right side up. How did he do it? Well, he describes in this passage, in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, how he did it. For three years [Acts 20:31], he said, the whole space of his ministry in Ephesus, for three years went night and day with tears, he went from house to house testifying repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ [Acts 20:20-21]. That’s how he did it.
But there’s not a country preacher in the world that can’t do that. There’s not a minister of the gospel anywhere in this earth that can’t do that. We may not all be endowed with tremendous oratorical, rhetorical, forensic gifts. I say they are unnecessary. If the kingdom of God depended upon a man’s literary and forensic abilities, it would have stumbled a long time ago. But the kingdom of God goes forward on the feet of those, and especially the minister of Christ, who loves the lost, who will weep over them, who will knock at the door, who will take time for little children or for the lost; people who need; people who are hurt. That’s the gospel. God says it is. Not all of these ephemeralities, or not even these marvelous liturgies, or not even these glorious manifestations, but that sweet, precious thing of "I am interested. I care about you."
Now, let me sum it up. I have just avowed that the heart of the Christian faith is that. Not way out here, removed somewhere, but down here where people are, and ministering to their needs. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit" [James 1:27]. Well, preacher, what makes you so sure of that? Because Jesus is sure of it. That’s what He said. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the first Gospel, which is one of the great apocalyptic discourses of our Lord, He says:
When the Son of Man shall come in His glory . . .
And before Him shall be gathered all the nations –
the peoples of the world –
He will divide them . . . as a shepherd divides his sheep from his goats.
And He will turn to those on His right hand and say, Blessed are you. Blessed are you. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
[Matthew 25:31, 32, 34]
And then why? Do you remember? "I was sick and you visited Me. I was poor and needy and lost and you came unto Me." That’s what He said. That’s what He said. And they replied to Him, "Lord, we never saw You in our lives. When did we ever see You sick and visit You? Or needy and lost and came unto You? When?" And the Lord shall reply, "Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto Me" [Matthew 25:35-40]. That is pure religion: come down to earth where we are. That’s it.
Oh, I know how we are actually. We will go to the Southern Baptist Convention, and in an auditorium hall that will seat sixteen thousand people there will be eighteen thousand there. And we look at that tremendous evidence of the might and power of our Southern Baptist Zion, and we walk out the door and say, "Man, this is the faith. This is the real thing!" That’s what we do. Jesus never referred to it. He never mentioned it.
I know exactly how we are. We will sit in the presence of a great minister and orator speaking before thousands of people. And he rises from one glorious description to another, and lifts us up to heaven. And when it’s over, we turn to our neighbor and say, "Man, did you hear that? That’s the faith! That’s it." Jesus never referred to it. He never mentioned it.
I know exactly how we are. We will look at some marvelous edifice like some of those cathedrals, say, in Rome, and there are people by the thousands, and the ministry is presenting the holy chalice, or a golden cross, and those people are there by the thousands. And they all turn aside and say, "Man, that’s the faith. That’s it!" That’s what they do. Jesus never referred to it. He never mentioned it.
Well, what did He refer to? And what did He mention? Isn’t it this? Jesus said, "If a fellow, anybody, gives a cup of cold water in My name, verily, I say unto you, God took notice of it" [Mark 9:41]. Isn’t that what He did? And Jesus said that shepherd, seeking one lost sheep [Luke 15:4-7]; or that poor widow, sweeping the floor to find one lost coin [Luke 15:8-10]; or that father, seated on the porch, looking down a long, long road, asking God to send back His prodigal boy, the one lost boy [Luke 15:11-32]; that, Jesus says, is real religion.
I don’t gainsay the beautiful cathedral. I don’t cast aspersions on the gorgeous ritual. I have no criticism of a marvelously gifted preacher. I love to listen to him myself. I am just saying, that’s not the faith. The faith is, "My hand, dear brother, if I can help; my heart, sweet friend, if I can remember; and my prayers to help in any way I can encourage or stand by your side." That’s it. That’s the real thing.
There was a Sunday school teacher, bless her heart, and little Mary, one of her little girls was absent from the class for several Sundays. So each week, the teacher went to the post office and mailed a little card to Mary, saying that we missed you as an absentee from our Sunday school class. Well, on this particular day, she had just gone to the post office and had mailed the sixth card saying that she had missed little Mary and she was very proud of herself for that dedication. Well, it just happened to be that having gone to the post office and mailed that card, she met the mother of the little girl. And greeted her and said, "I have just been to the post office, and I have mailed the sixth card to your little girl Mary saying how much we have missed her in our Sunday school class." And the mother pathetically and sorrowfully replied, "Dear, you don’t need to mail any more cards to our little girl, Mary, for yesterday after a long illness, we buried our little girl."
It may be good religion to write a note, to send a message, to post a letter, but God says, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is This" [James 1:27]: to knock at the door, "to visit," a personal heart-to-heart confrontation, your word delivered to their listening heart. And God says, "I am in it. I will bless it." He does it, and you are going to see it today. We have visited. We have prayed. We have asked God. We have knelt in these homes. And the Lord honors it with a beautiful and precious response. You will see it.
May we stand together? Our Lord, there is just something great about everything that You did. If I didn’t read in the Bible that You were the Son of God, the Prince of Glory, just looking at You, and seeing what You did, and the things that You taught, I would bow at Thy presence. I would kiss Thy feet. Like that woman in need, I would try to touch the hem of Your garment [Matthew 9:20-21]. I would ask Your blessing. And I would love to take a little child to You, that You would hold the youngster in Your arms and bless the child [Mark 10:16]. Lord, Lord, You are so one with us. You are just like us. You also knew what it was to cry, to be hurt, to be hungry, to be tired, to be rejected. You know the bitternesses of life. Did anybody ever suffer, and You did not suffer? Did anybody ever weep, and You did not weep? O Lord, how precious and how dear, and just to think in glory Your heart has not changed [Hebrews 13:8]. You are still the same; still loving us, our compassionate and faithful and sympathetic High Priest, who knows all about us and yet loves us [Hebrews 4:15].
Lord, Lord, while our people pray and while we stand in the presence of God; no one moving, except coming down here to the front, for this moment when the choir sings, down one of these aisles, down one of these stairways, gather your family and come. Or just you and your wife; or just you and a friend; or just one somebody you, "Pastor, the Lord has spoken to my heart this day and we are answering with our lives. I am on the way." Make that decision now. And in a moment, take that first step. It will be the greatest step you have ever made in your life. Our ministers will be here; our deacons are here to welcome you; and the angels of God are here to rejoice with us [Luke 15:10]. So Lord, bless as only God can bless, and give us this precious harvest, in Thy saving name, amen. While we wait, while we pray, while we sing, "Here I am, pastor, here I come." Bless you.