The Confirming Sign from Heaven
March 2nd, 1980 @ 8:15 AM
THE CONFIRMING SIGN FROM HEAVEN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Genesis 14; John 20
3-2-80 8:15 a.m.
These days have been so unusual for me. I have all of my life been involved in an intensive work, either studying, going to school, preaching in my little country churches, pastoring the people to whom the Lord sent me as undershepherd, and to be forced to be quiet for two months, and just sit or lie and think has been an unusual assignment for me. But it has been good for me. "In all things God works together for good to them who love the Lord" [Romans 8:28]. And this has been one of the deepest and most spiritually meaningful of all the experiences of my life. And that is the sermon this morning: The Confirming Sign from Heaven.
God’s signs are in the heavens above us. With eyes to see we behold them in the very chalice of the sky that overarches us. The Bible begins like that: "And God said," in Genesis 1:14, "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven. Let them divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons, and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so" [Genesis 1:14-15]. Did you see? "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven,And let them be for signs, and for seasons." To us a season is a summer or a spring, a fall or a winter; but this word has no reference to a season like that. The word is moadim. Moed is a word used in the Old Testament hundreds of times. Moadim is just its plural. "And God said, Let these lights, the sun and the moon, be for signs, and for moadim" [Genesis 1:14]. A moed is a congregation of God’s people; it is an appointed festival in the name of the Lord. And these lights in the heavens were appointed for the holy convocations of God’s people. In Psalm 104:19, the psalmist says, "God appointed the moon for moadim, for appointed convocations of God’s people; signs for the gathering of the Lord’s congregation." Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Before God says He appoints the sun to give light by the day and the moon to shine on the earth by night [Genesis 1:15-16], God’s Book says the Lord appointed the sun and the moon to be signs for the gathering of God’s people [Genesis 1:14].
And thus it was in the providences of the revelation of the Lord. Our Easter is set according to the signs in God’s firmament. Our Easter, the Jewish Passover, our Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. And then seven times seven weeks later, the fiftieth day, is Pentecost [Exodus 12:1-18, 47-; Leviticus 23:5; Deuteronomy 16:1-8]. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the first full moon after the [autumnal] equinox; and ten days later is Yom Kippur [Leviticus 16:1-34, 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11]; and five days later, the Feast of Tabernacles [Leviticus 23:33-43; Numbers 29:12-38; Deuteronomy 16:13-17]. And when the winter solstice arrives, that is Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights. And the first day beyond the winter solstice, when the day first begins to lengthen in light, that is our Christmas. God says, "I set My sun and My moon in the sky for signs, for the convocation of God’s people" [Genesis 1:14].
When I turn the page to the ninth chapter of the Book of Genesis, there God says, "I set My bow in the sky for a sign of a covenant that I will never destroy this world again by flood. I set My bow in the clouds of the sky" [Genesis 9:13-15]; God’s sign and token of His loving care for us creatures who inhabit the earth. I turn the pages of the Book of Genesis, and come to chapter 15:
And Abraham stands before the Lord and says, You promised a son to me. I am growing old, and no one is born of my loins; and mine heir is this Eliezer of Damascus. And God said to Abraham, Come outside and look up at the sky, and count the stars, if you can. So shall thy seed be that shall be born out of thy loins.
And then follows one of the greatest verses in the Bible and the text of the Book of Romans, "And Abraham believed God; and his faith was counted for righteousness" [Genesis 15:6]. That is, the stars were no longer stars: they were signs, they were blessings, they were covenants, they were promises of the faithfulness of Almighty God – signs of God’s promises in the heavens.
So it was in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: "There came magi from the East, saying, We have seen His star in the sky, and are come to worship Him" [Matthew 2:1-2]. And thus in the second chapter of the Book of Luke: "And the angel said unto them, This shall be the sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" [Luke 2:12]. God’s signs are in the heavens that arch like a great chalice above us.
God confirms His promises to us by outward signs. When the Lord called Gideon to lead his people against the marauding and invading and destroying Midianites, gathered like the sands of the sea in the Vale of Jezreel, and Gideon with his little band on the hills of Gilboa, when God said to Gideon, "I have chosen you to deliver My people" [Judges 6:14-16], Gideon said to the Lord, "Could I have a sign? A sign that You have chosen me, and that You will be with me?" [Judges 6:17]. Did God say, "No?" The Lord honored Gideon. And when Gideon said, "I lay before You a fleece of wool. Let it be wet with dew, and all the earth around be dry." And it was so [Judges 6:36-38]. And then Gideon said, "Be not angry with Thy servant; but this time let the fleece of wool be dry, and all of the earth be wet." And it was so [Judges 6:39-40]. And as though that were not enough, God said, "Gideon, I will add another sign. You take your servant, and in the nighttime go down the hill of Gilboa and listen to these who speak in the tents of the Midianites" [Judges 7:9-11]. And Gideon went down in the dark of the night and listened. And one of the Midianites said to the other, "I dreamed, and the dream was a loaf of barley bread rolled down the hills of Gilboa, and struck our tents and destroyed them." And the other Midianite said, "That is none other than the sword of the Lord and of Gideon" [Judges 7:13-14]. God confirms His promises by outward signs.
When Hezekiah came before,when Isaiah the prophet came before Hezekiah to bring him words that God had seen his tears and heard his prayers, and that he would not die, but that God would add fifteen years to his life [2 Kings 20:4-6], Hezekiah said to the prophet, "What sign could there be that God will give me fifteen more years?" And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, "Could you give me a sign of the promise of God?" [2 Kings 20:8]. And the prophet replied, "See that sundial in the court of the king? Ask for the sign. Would you like the shadow on the sundial to go forward ten degrees or back ten degrees?" [2 Kings 20:9]. And Hezekiah replied, "As a sign that God hath promised me fifteen more years, let the sundial shadow come back ten degrees" [2 Kings 20:10]. And it was so [2 Kings 20:11]; God’s promise confirmed by an outward sign.
And that gives rise to one of the greatest passages in the Old Covenant. Ahaz is king of Judah, and Pekah of Samaria, and Rezin of Damascus have conspired to destroy him and Judah [Isaiah 7:1]. But instead of turning to the Lord, Ahaz makes a secret compact with Tiglath-pileser, the bitter Assyrian, that he be delivered by the hands and might of Tiglath-pileser, and not by the might of God [2 Kings 16:7-9]. And Isaiah the prophet stands before Ahaz, and he says, "God says, I will deliver you; look to Me" [Isaiah 7:3-9]. And then Isaiah says to the king, "That you may know that God will stand by you and deliver you and give you victory over Pekah and over Rezin, ask a sign; ask it in heaven above, or ask it in the earth beneath. Ask a sign of the Lord, that He will keep His promise; that He is faithful" [Isaiah 7:10-11]. And Ahaz, weak, vacillating, hypocritically answers, "I will not tempt the Lord; I will not ask for a sign" [Isaiah 7:12]. Secretly he had already made that covenant with Tiglath-pileser [2 Kings 16:7-9]. Then Isaiah, looking at the vacillating and unbelieving and untrusting king, Isaiah then says, 7:14, "Then the Lord God shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and call His name Immanuel, "with us is God" [Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23]. And before the child is old enough to be weaned, these two kings that you fear, Pekah and Rezin, shall have disappeared from the face of the earth" [Isaiah 7:16]. And beyond the virgin that was married and gave birth to a child – that prophecy came true in the life of Ahaz – but, over and beyond is the sign of another virgin, who this time is given a Child with a heavenly Father; and He will be the great Deliverer and Savior of His people: for He is God in the flesh, Immanuel [Matthew 1:20-23].
Not only are God’s signs in the heavens above us, and not only does God confirm His promises to us by outward signs, but God makes known His presence among us by signs. It’s a wondrous thing, looking at it in the Bible. God, Jehovah the Father, made known His presence to the children of Israel by an outward sign. In the daytime, it looked like a pillar of a cloud, and in the nighttime it looked like a pillar of fire, the shekinah glory of the presence of God [Exodus 13:21].
God the Son made known His presence among us by outward signs. John closes his Gospel, "Many other signs, semeia," John never uses the word "miracle," never; always, it’s a semeion. "Many other semeia" plural, "did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, not written in this Book; But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name" [John 20:30-31]. Jesus, the Son of God, is set apart by semeia, signs, that we might know He is the Prince of Glory.
And the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, came to us in outward signs. In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, there was first the sound of a rushing mighty wind [Acts 2:1-2]. And second there was the sign of a great fire lowered from heaven, that was cloven, and parting, lambently flame upon the head of each one of the disciples [Acts 2:3]. And the third sign: "And each one spoke in another language, and the strangers at Jerusalem from the ends of the Roman Empire heard the gospel in his mother tongue," seen, by signs, outward tokens of God’s presence [Acts 2:4].
And in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 12, Paul says, "The signs of an apostle were wrought among you" [2 Corinthians 12:12]. These are the authentications of their divine mission from heaven, one of which was to write our New Testament, the Holy Scriptures. They are authenticated by outward signs. No more apostles, no more apostolic signs, and no more Scriptures; God’s presence is made known among us by outward signs.
Again, God’s judgment is always preceded by outward signs. God never visits a people in wrath or in judgment unless first He warns them plainly, vividly. When Jeroboam separated Israel from Judah [1 Kings 12:16, 20], in order to break the habit of the people to go to Jerusalem for worship, he built a golden calf at Bethel and one at Dan, and he said to his people, "These are the gods that delivered you out of the land of Egypt" [1 Kings 12:26-29]. And there came an unnamed prophet from Judah, and as Jeroboam stood by the golden calf and offered sacrifice on the altar to a strange and idolatrous god, the unknown prophet from Judah came and stood before him and his people, and cried against it, saying, "Thus shall God destroy the kingdom, and destroy the ritual, and destroy the golden calf, and destroy the idolatry; and in a sign thereof," the prophet said, "God shall rend this altar in twain; whereupon the hand of the Lord came down and rent the altar in twain, and the ashes poured out" [1 Kings 13:1-3]. God always precedes His judgment by outward signs.
When Jeremiah came to plead with the people for repentance against the day of the awesome destruction and captivity brought by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, God put a yoke around Jeremiah’s neck, an ox yoke around his neck. And Jeremiah walked up and down the streets of Jerusalem, crying, "Repent, get right with God! [Jeremiah 27]. The judgment of God awaits an unrepentant people!" And he carried around his neck a yoke, a wooden ox yoke, a sign of their captivity and slavery [Jeremiah 27:2]. And Hananiah, a false prophet, stood before King Zedekiah and before the people, saying, "God hath not sent Jeremiah, God hath sent me. And God hath given me the message, saying that two years from now Nebuchadnezzar will be destroyed, and he will never touch this city, or this temple, or this place, or this people" [Jeremiah 28:1-4]. Jeremiah replied:
May it be [Jeremiah 28:5-6]. And Hananiah broke the yoke from off the neck of Jeremiah. Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, and he said to Hananiah, and to Zedekiah the king, and to the people, You have broken this yoke of wood that God placed around my neck; but God will forge a yoke of steel, of iron, around the necks of these people, and deliver you into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. And he turned to Hananiah and said, Hananiah, because you have led this people to believe in a lie, you shall die this year.
And two months later Hananiah died [Jeremiah 28:17].
God always precedes His visitations of judgments by outward signs. And that is the twenty-fourth and the twenty-fifth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. And I shall preach on that at a later time. The sermon is already prepared. "Lord, look at the stones of this temple. Lord, what is the sign of Thy coming? And what is the sign of the end of the world?" [Matthew 24:1-3]. And for two chapters thereafter the Lord gives to us the signs of His coming and of the end of the world.
It is a lament, a woeful and tragic sorrow when the psalmist cries, saying, "We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long" [Psalm 74:9]. As the Lord said to His people, in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, "You can discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times" [Matthew 16:3]. God always warns; God always precedes His judgment by outwards signs. He tells us. He speaks to us, and He shows us the things that are coming! Dear God, that we might be a repentant and a believing people.
And last of all, God confirms His will for us by outward signs. And blessed is that man and that woman and that youth who has eyes to see the confirming sign of God that this is the will of the Father for our lives. On Friday, as I read the newspaper, San Antonio, this last Friday: "Don and Pearl Langdon will destroy hundreds of bottles of liquor Sunday," that’s today,
To signify the end of alcoholic drinks at their chain of restaurants. The Langdons decided not to renew their liquor license for the El Rancho Restaurant chain after state officials sent back the application. Mrs. Langdon had signed it in the wrong place. Saying . . . Mrs. Langdon said, ‘The Lord must have been guiding my hand,’ the woman said. And she took the signing error as a sign from God to stop serving liquor at the restaurants.
What do you think of that? Is that idle and silly and inane superstition? She took it, she says, as a sign from God that she was not; they were not to serve liquor anymore in the El Rancho Restaurant chains. Is that idiocy? Not according to the Word of the Lord. To those who have eyes to see and are sensitive to the voice of God, His signs for us, His will for us is made known to us everywhere by outward signs.
Why, my brethren, there is no sweeter love story in all of the literature of the world than found in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis. Abraham is seeking a wife for his son, Isaac. "Not," he said, "among the girls of the Canaanites, but from his own household," a believing girl. And he makes Eliezer, that faithful servant, putting his hand under the source of procreation, you have it translated in the Bible, "put his hand under the loins," he put his hand under the source of procreation, and Abraham made him swear that he would not take a wife of the daughter of the Canaanites, but he would go back to Nahor, the city of his brother, and find a wife for Isaac among his own people, one that believed in God [Genesis 24:1-4, 10]. How fortunate the boy that marries a sweet, God-loving girl; and how fortunate the girl that marries a godly and devoted Christian boy. So Eliezer, with his camels laden, makes the long journey to the head of the Mesopotamian Valley to the city of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And when he arrives, he takes his camels to the well of water. And at the eventide, when the girls of the city came out to draw water, Eliezer prayed, saying, "Lord, let it be a sign for me, the girl You have chosen, let it be that the damsel who says, ‘I will give you drink out of my pitcher, and I will also draw water for your camels’; let it be she that God hath chosen"; an outward sign [Genesis 24:10-14]. And God honored it, and Rebekah, beautiful, came and offered Eliezer water to drink, and then offered to draw water from the well that his camels might slate their thirst [Genesis 24:15-20]. And Eliezer said, "Who are you, fair damsel?" And she said, "My father is Bethuel, who is the son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother" [Genesis 24:23-24]. God is pleased when He is asked for a sign to confirm His will for our lives.
It has always been thus. God said to Jacob, "Get thee up, and go back to the land of Canaan" [Genesis 31:3]. And the next verse, "And Jacob saw that Laban’s face was not toward him, as heretofore" [Genesis 31:5]. God always confirms His will for our lives by an outward sign. In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit forbad Paul and his party to turn east [Acts 16:6]. Then he attempted to turn north to Bithynia, and the Spirit forbad [Acts 16:7]. He attempted to turn south to Mysia and to Asia, and the Lord forbad [Acts 16:7]. And finally they came down to the Hellespont, across the heathen continent of Europe, where our forefathers lived. And not knowing what to do, he had come to the end of the way, to the shores of the sea; that night he had a dream: he saw a man of Macedonia, saying, "Come over and help us" [Acts 16:9]; a sign from God! Had it not been the sign to cross the Hellespont into Europe, it would have been China sending missionaries to us, and we not to the Orient. God confirms His will for us always by an outward sign.
So it was in my praying before the Lord. A great, heavy burden came upon my heart. When I came, now in this thirty-sixth year ago, to be undershepherd of the flock, Dr. William L. House, educational professor at the seminary, I asked him to come and help me get started. So he made a study of our First Baptist Church, and he came to me and said, "For eighteen years the First Baptist Church in Dallas has been going down. Eighteen consecutive years, each year the Sunday school attendance was less than the year before. Eighteen years the church went down." That was in the days of the far-famed and matchless George W. Truett. Why? He was gone all the time. Dr. Truett was God’s plenipotentiary to the world, and he was gone all the time. And the church began to ebb and to quiesce for eighteen years. I looked at my own calendar. Not by my choosing, but in the providences of life, every week I was gone between Sundays this year, every week, and it became a heavy burden to me. "Lord, Lord, what shall I do?" On the twelfth of January, for the twenty-ninth year, Pat Zondervan came to Dallas; ever since there’s been a Sheraton, stay at the Sheraton Hotel, and I eat dinner with him at the Sheraton Hotel on Saturday night before he makes his appeal for the Gideons here on Sunday. So as we ate dinner, Pat Zondervan said to me, he said, "Why don’t you stay at home and study, and preach to your people, and pastor your flock? Why don’t you do that?" And he said, "If you will, if you’ll stay at home and study and prepare a series of great doctrinal messages, we’ll print them. And then see if God will give you length of days to preach through the books of the New Testament you have not yet published expository sermons on, and we’ll print them. And then after you’re in heaven, those books will still bless the people. Why don’t you stay at home and study, and preach to your people?"
I said to him, "Pat, there’s not anything in the earth that would bring joy to my heart like that. My heart is not out there; my heart is here. My call and ministry is not out there; it is here. I have always been one thing and one thing alone: I have always been a pastor, a shepherd. I have never had ambition beyond. I’d love to do that."
Pat said, "Why don’t you do it?"
I said, "I don’t know how to answer; these engagements, these engagements."
That night, that night, at 1:20 o’clock in the morning, I awakened with a hurting in my heart and a pain in my left arm that would not leave. No matter how I did my arm, the pain stayed. And no matter how I changed or breathed or sat up, the pain in my heart remained. And at 4:30, Dr. Bagwell met me at the emergency room at Baylor. And after consultation with the doctors, the first thing they said to me was, "You must cancel all of those outside engagements, and you must stay at home. And you can study, and you can preach; but you must cancel those outside engagements." When I returned to the house and Mrs. Pritchett brought the mail, there was a letter from the Baptist World Alliance, saying, "There is a great international religious convocation in England, and we want you to be our representative. Will you go?" I told Ms. Pritchett to answer, "No."
There came a letter from Brazil saying, "We are preparing to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Baptist work in Brazil. We want you to come and help us celebrate." No. Then a letter came from Rio. "You conducted our first national Bible conference in Sao Paulo this year. We want you to conduct our second national Bible conference. It’ll be in Rio." No. Then there came a letter from an official in the Korean government: "We’re expecting two million people at a gigantic convocation of God’s people in Seoul, Korea, and we want you to come and be one of the speakers." I said, "No."
I have an appointment. I have an assignment. And I have a confirmation of God’s will from heaven. I am to study. I am to prepare my sermons. I am to undershepherd this church. I am to be pastor of the flock. The confirming sign from heaven; and God speaks to all of us in those outward signs. If it is God’s will, there will be something in your life, something will happen, something will occur, and it will be a sign from heaven that this is God’s choice and God’s will for you. And always those signs bring us into the faith, into the orbit and circumference of the love and mercy and goodness of our Lord, always to a commitment to Christ, always to a following in His blessed will, always and ever an affirmation. "This is the way, walk ye in it" [Isaiah 30:21]. And blessed is that man, blessed is that woman, and blessed is that youth who follows the affirmative sign of the will of God for your life.
May we pray? With our heads bowed, could we quietly stand together?
Our Lord in heaven, what an amazing discovery to me at least, that we do not tempt God, nor are we presumptuous when we ask Thee for a sign from heaven. Sometimes it is difficult for us to know God’s will; but Thou art pleased when we ask for an outward sign. And our Lord, having seen it, being sensitive to it in our lives, may we give ourselves, then to the call and choice of heaven for our souls. To each one of us, the Holy Spirit speaks, and He does it in words that are plain to understand and in signs that are simple and easily perceived. Lord, give us the heart to follow after and to walk in the way.
And this morning, in this precious and holy moment, there will be some here to whom God is speaking, calling to faith in our wonderful Lord, calling to fellowship and discipleship through the waters of the Jordan in baptism, calling to membership and comradeship and communion in this dear church, or speaking in ways that my human understanding could not penetrate, but God knows and speaks and calls. This moment, would you say, "Yes, God, I see; I hear," and answer with your life? We’ll stay here for a moment for the invitation; and then we’ll be dismissed for our Sunday school. But now, as we pray, as we wait, out of the balcony, a family, a couple, or just one somebody you, in the throng on this lower floor, a couple, a family, a child, a youth, or just one somebody you, into that aisle and down to the front, there’ll be a minister, there’ll be a deacon to meet you and pray with you. And then we shall rejoice as we present you to our dear church.
So Lord, as we sing our invitation hymn, may God honor His truth, His revelation, His preached Word with a gracious harvest. We shall love Thee for the answered prayer. In Thy saving and keeping name, amen. Now while we sing, down a stairway, down an aisle, here to the front, in a prayer, "God’s spoken, and I’m answering with my life." Do it now, while we sing.