Strength in Striving

1 Corinthians

Strength in Striving

September 20th, 1981 @ 10:50 AM

And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

1 Corinthians 9:25

9-20-81    10:50 a.m.


And we welcome with infinite gladness the great throngs of you that worship with us on radio and on television.  This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor of the church bringing the morning message entitled Strength in Striving.

All over the Greco-Roman world, there were Greek games in every city.  The tremendous games, the Olympic, the Pythian, and the Isthmian were at yearly intervals.  But all through the year in every city were these games of contests and physical prowess and excellence.  There were words used describing those tremendous athletic contests that we find taken out of the stadium and used here in the Bible.  One of them is agōnAgōn first referred to the place of athletic meeting.  Then the word referred to the contest itself.  And they added to that a substantive form agōnia, agōnia, the tremendous agony that the athlete put forth in seeking to win an athletic contest.  And they verbalized the substantive, agōnizomai which means “to strive, to struggle, to fight, to run a race, to achieve and to gain and to win a victory.”

Now those words taken out of the Greek athletic world are used over and over again describing our Christian service to Christ.  For example, the Lord Himself will say, in Luke 13:23-24, somebody had said to the Lord, “Are there few that be saved?”  And He answered, “Agōnizomai, strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”  Agōnizomai, strive to enter in.

Or look again in 1 Corinthians 9, in the passage you just read, “Know ye not that they which run in a race, all of them run, but one receiveth the prize?  So run, that ye may obtain.  And everyone that agōnizomai, everyone that strives” [1 Corinthians 9:24-25], for the victory disciplines himself, prepares himself for the race.

And typically, in the apostle Paul, writing to his son in the ministry, young Timothy, in 1 Timothy 6:11, “Thou, O man of God . . .  fight the good fight of faith” [1 Timothy 6:11-12], agōnizomai agathē agōn, strive the good strive, agonize the good agony.  And once again, in his last letter addressed to Timothy in the last chapter, “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith, agōnizomai agathē agōn[2 Timothy 4:6-7].  I have agonized a good agony.  I have struggled a good struggle.  I have striven in a good strife.  I have run a good race.  “I have fought a good fight.”

This is the will of God in blessing for all of our lives.  It is the way of athletic achievement in the physical world.  The athlete, in whatever game he shares, struggles; he prepares; he disciplines; he agonizes.

It is so in all of our individual lives.  If I do not stretch my muscles, if I do not exercise, my very physical frame atrophies.  If I were to close my eye, not use it, keep it bound for a period of time, then unclose it, I couldn’t see.  I’m blind, the nerve has atrophied.  If I were to close my ear and not use it for a period of time, then unclose it, I can’t hear, I’m deaf.  The auditory nerve has atrophied.  If I were to bind my arm to my side and not use it, after a period of time, I cannot raise it.  The nerve and the muscle have atrophied.  It is God’s will for us that we strive, that we work.  It is no less so in the spiritual and the ecclesiastical kingdom of our Lord.  It is God’s will that we strive, that we work, that we pour our very lives into its ministries.

Do you ever think sometimes, why didn’t God give the assignment of evangelizing and discipling the world to angels?  Why didn’t He give it to them?  They might have done far better than we.  Why didn’t He do it?  Instead He gave it to us mortals.  Do you ever think when a man is converted, when he’s saved, why doesn’t he then in the assignment of God, just sit down and bask in the grace and goodness of the Lord who delivered him out of the punishment and peril and judgment of his sins.  He’s a Christian now.  He’s saved now.  Why not just be seated and be comfortable and enjoy it?

No!  To be saved is like joining an army.  It is like putting on an uniform.  It is like entering the struggle.  It is like fighting!  It is like marching!  There’s strife and struggle in the will of God in our church and in our spiritual lives.

I think of our church in its unusual situation now.  You could easily sell these properties far beyond fifty millions of dollars.  Why don’t we sell them and go out to the green pastures somewhere and all of us be seated and just bask in the goodness and favor of God that enables us to do such an easy thing?  Instead, God wills [that] we stay in the heart of the city and in the very center of its life, seeking to magnify His glorious name in a busy and worldly climate, situation, society, culture.  We’re here to fight and to strive for God, and that is God’s blessing.

It is not because God hated us or despised us that thus He set us in a place of struggle and effort.  It is the blessing of the Lord upon us.  I copied this out of the newspaper from the Baltimore Daily Newspaper.

As an experiment, the National Institute of Mental Health built a miniature garden of Eden for mice.  Nothing was spared to provide every good and environmental feature dear to a mouse’s heart.  The scientists then stocked this paradise with enough supplies and space to support four thousand mice, but put in only four pairs.  The eight lucky rodents had a field day.  They eagerly explored the invited area.  They got to know each other.  Their population doubled every fifty-five days.  They really got to know each other.

But the researchers discovered when the number of mice reached six hundred twenty, the growth rate declined.  Social problems appeared.  Cannibalism of some of the newborn young began.  The older mice became totally indifferent to the paradise handed to them and suffered from genuine stress.  The younger mice became autistic like.  I have never seen that word before.  It means introverted.  The younger mice became introverted and spiritless.  Shortly after the population reached two thousand two hundred, about half of the planned capacity, all reproduction stopped.  Not one inhabitant showed the slightest interest in rebuilding the society.  The mouse population dwindled to zero, to nothing!

Now I didn’t write this conclusion.  A journalist in the newspaper, in the Baltimore newspaper wrote it.  “There are lessons here for people.  These physically healthy mice had lost the ability to recognize and respond to challenge.  Challenge is necessary in all hopeful lives.  Regardless of modern philosophy, advanced psychology, or wonder drugs, the laws of God remain.”  I never wrote that.  A journalist wrote it in a newspaper; struggle, effort, challenge.  To run, to strive is God’s blessing for us as a people, as a church, as a family, as you.

So it was that when our church came into this unusual situation, and these two giant fifty-story skyscrapers are rising on our property, one of the men in the city who had read of it in the daily newspapers said to me, “Preacher, man, what a time and what a day you have come into.  All of your debts are paid.  And all of your problems are solved.  Now, you can just take it easy, and enjoy the affluence into which you have entered.”

I said to him, “Sir, you don’t understand.  God has just liberated us that we may strive, that we may do better for Him.”  I said, “Man, you don’t realize it, when they take our Easterwood Building, we’ve got another building for our Academy to erect.  It’ll cost a million dollars to replace those four elevators in Spurgeon Harris building.  We have these great properties that have been disintegrating for years because we haven’t had the funds to keep them up, such as the Burt Building.  They must be refurbished, rebuilt, reconstructed, remade, and we have an assignment in our Sunday school and in our outreach program and in a thousand ministries God has laid upon us.  My brother, we have just begun!

Then one of the most unusual things that ever overwhelmed my soul came into my life.  After I was dismissed from the hospital, I stayed at home for a few days, recuperating, giving God time to make me well.  And in those days, I read omnivorously, prodigiously.  Read everything I could get my hands on, reading the newspapers, reading the magazines—once again, as you are, impressed and moved by the hurt of humanity, the terrorists and the terror they bring; crime and its rising incidence; the sin that seemingly like a pall weighs and darkens all mankind, the fear of war and the preparation for it.

Then upon a night before going to bed, I watched a late movie on television, a typical American movie; its scene in Miami, in Los Angeles, in New York, and in the Bahama Islands; a reflection of typical American life.  All through it and practically every scene, they are drinking, drinking, drinking.  Nobody seems to bother to marry, they all just slept together, traded one another as whim might dictate.  Their promiscuity was appalling to me.  The leading woman in the movie committed suicide in hopelessness at the end of the play.  And the men in the movie were professional robbers and gangsters, undercover men, lived in a dark world but so eminently, socially acceptable and affluent.

When the movie was done, so depressed and depressing, and yet so typical of modern American social life, the fabric of our society and of our nation, nothing unusual about it, just an ordinary movie but depressing to me; against that background, apparently this happened.  In the middle of the night, I shared in a vivid, vivid dream.  I was in a vast tabernacle like those tabernacles I used to preach in as a boy, only this much greater; extensive with aisles running down to the pulpit, a great, fancy tabernacle.

I was seated about two-thirds of the way back.  And I looked at that vast throng.  They would break up at times.  And when they break up, they’d gather in groups such as the English-speaking people would gather in that group, and the German-speaking group in this group, and the Chinese-speaking people in that group, and then they’d come back again.

They were very honest.  In one of the little asides in that dream, one of those things that you have in a dream inexplicable, I had left something on a table.  And after the group had broken up and I took my seat, I remembered and I went to the table and looked at it, and it was still there, untouched, unstolen.  And as I sat there in that vast tabernacle, I looked at that assembly of people.  They were saintly.  They were godly.  They were deeply reverent and worshipful.  They were attentive to the Spirit and the word of God.

And as I sat there in that vast throng of God’s saints, the Spirit of the Lord came upon me in a moving presence.  People respond when they’re deeply moved in different ways.  Some people clap; I’ve seen them.  Some people shout; I’ve heard them.  Some people weep; I’ve watched them.  The concluding verses of Ezra describing the stragglers that came back from the Babylonian captivity, laying the foundation of the temple, those concluding verses in chapter 3 said there was such a noise of shouting on the part of some and weeping on the part of others, that you could not tell who was shouting and who was weeping [Ezra 3:12-13].

We react in different ways.  I always react the same way.  Never has failed.  When I am deeply moved, I cry.  I just weep.  And I sat there in that throng of God’s reverent and saintly people, weeping before the presence of the Lord.

Then the Spirit of the Lord spoke to me in my heart.  And the Spirit of God said, “This is the answer to the scarlet sin, and the crime, and the terror, and the hurt, and the wrong in the world.  It is Christ.  He is the answer.  Our hope is in Him, in the preaching of the gospel, in the winning of the lost; this is the answer to the need of the world.”

And then, in a turn that I never would have thought for, the same Holy Spirit of God said to me, “This is your assignment: the making of Christ known to the lost of the world, and you’re asked to place in your budget, your giving program, one million dollars for the Cooperative Mission Program of your Baptist Zion,” a turn I would never, ever have thought for.

I cried, “Lord, no!  No!  With all of the burden and responsibility and assignment we already have, no, Lord, no.”  But the Spirit of God pressed it more deeply and earnestly upon my heart, “This is your assignment, a million dollars for the Cooperative Program.”

In my weeping before the Lord and crying before the Spirit of God, I awakened myself crying.  And lying there the rest of the night, I said to myself, “I’ve lost my mind.  I am unbalanced.  I am beside myself.  I’m not sane!”  And then I thought, “And the deacons will think the same thing.  The deacons will, when he hears me, he will say, ‘Our pastor is beside himself.  He’s lost his balance.  He’s not sane.’”  And I thought, “And the people will say the same thing.  When that message is brought to them, they will say, `Our pastor has lost his equilibrium.  He’s unbalanced.  He’s beside himself!  He’s not sane.’“

And as I lay there in the morning hours of the night, the Lord whispered to me, and He said, “Pastor, that is what they have said about Me.”  In the third chapter of Mark, verses 21 and 31, when His friends heard what Jesus was doing, they went out to lay hold on Him, for they said, “He is beside Himself!  He has lost His mind!” [Mark 3:21].

And His friends, being able to contain Him, they called His brethren and they called His mother.  “Then came His brethren and His mother, and, standing without, sent unto Him, calling Him.  And the multitude sat about Him, and they said unto Him, `Behold, Thy mother and Thy brethren without seek for Thee’“ [Mark 4:31-32].

“Take Him home!” the friend said to His mother and to His brethren, “He was lost His mind!  He is beside Himself!  He is insane!  Take Him home.  Take Him home” [Mark 4:21].  That’s what they said about Jesus.

And the spirit of the apostle Paul whispered to me Acts 26:24-25, “And as Paul thus spake for himself, Festus,” who was the Roman procurator of Judea, “Festus cried with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself.  You have lost your sanity.  You are mad!”  But Paul said, “I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and sobriety.”  And Paul wrote in [1 Corinthians 4:10], “We are fools for Christ’s sake” [1 Corinthians 4:10].  “You see that pastor?  He’s a fool for Christ’s sake.  He’s lost His balance.  He’s beside himself.  He’s not sane.  He’s a fool for Christ’s sake.”

Thus am I asking our deacons in their meeting beginning at noon today to place in the budget, our giving program for the new year, one million dollars for the Cooperative Program and bring the budget to me and let me lay it before God and our people.  And we shall see what God does through us.

So the doctor said to me, “Before you go back to the pulpit”—that was last Sunday, my first Sunday back—”Before you return to the pulpit, you ought to get away for a few days.”  We haven’t been away for over two years.  So I’d never been to Montreal.  So Mrs. C and I went to Montreal and stayed a week there.  And when Sunday came—the churches proliferate in the downtown city, all of them liturgical.  And I spent the Sunday going to church from one to the other.

The biggest one there by far—the hotel faced the little park, and this church, a gigantic church, just to the right of the park; a tremendous house of worship, and I was seated about two-thirds toward the front, about a third way this side of the chancel.  And in the course of the service, they passed the collection basket.  They were wicker baskets.  I have made it a rule, religiously in my life, no plate has ever passed in front of me but that I would place in a gift.  I do that three times every Sunday.  If we met ten times today, ten times the day, I would put something in that basket.  That’s a rule that blesses my heart.  I never miss it, and it blesses me.  So the baskets were passed.  And in keeping with the liturgical church, they were brought to the front and consecrated, dedicated to Christ, and then placed in two column stacks before the high altar and left there before that great altar.

As the service continued, from somewhere back of me came a woman walking down that interminably long center aisle all the way down to the chancel, to the front of the church.  And as I watched her pass me by, I was seated next to the aisle and watched her as she walked down to the front, to the chancel.  I thought, “Dear, dear me, what is going to happen?  That woman is demented.  She’s insane.  She’s beside herself.  She’s unbalanced!  Or,” I thought, “with vicious intent she’s going to disrupt this beautiful service.”  I couldn’t imagine such a thing.

Do you know what she did?  She walked down that long, long aisle to the chancel and then up to the high altar and reaching forward placed a gift in that topmost basket and turned around and walked back to her seat.

The service was in French, which I couldn’t understand in language.  And just seated there, in that liturgical hour, I wondered as you would, “What moved that woman to do that?”  And I thought maybe she came in late and missed the offering and so brought her offering to the Lord.  Maybe, having given the offering, as the service progressed she felt in her heart, “I didn’t do my best.  I can do better for God.”  And she came forward and added to the offering she had made.

Or it could have been this; maybe God had done some wonderful thing for her.  Healing or answered prayer and out of the fullness and overflowing of her soul, she walked up to the high altar and made that gift for God.  The Lord moves in strange ways, another fool for Jesus’ sake, another one who has lost her balance, she’s beside herself.  She’s filled with overflowing and thanksgiving to God for answered prayer, maybe for a great healing.  “Lord, You have been so good to me.  You have raised me up.  I thank Thee, Lord.  With abounding gratitude my soul overflows, and I have a gift, Lord, for Thee.”

And in this invitation, if you come forward, to give your heart to Jesus, the most precious, meaningful thing you could ever do, the greatest decision you could ever make, if you come forward to give your heart to Jesus, come to us here and stand with us.  When you come forward to put your life in the fellowship of our dear church, you come here and stand with us.  Maybe some of you would like to say, “God has been wonderfully good to me.”

If you are in the topmost balcony, while we sing our hymn, there’s time and to spare, you come.  You see that basket on the open Word of God?  See that basket on the open promise of God?  You come, and place a gift for the Lord in the basket, and then you can go back to your seat.  “Maybe I can do better for Jesus, and this is a sign and a token of that commitment.  God’s been good to me.  I thank Him and praise Him, and this is a token of my gratitude.”  Or, “I’ll add to what I’ve given to the Lord.”

You come and place it in the basket, and then you can go back to your seat.  When you come to give your heart to Jesus, you stay here with us.  And when you come to put your life in our dear church, this God-blessed church, the assembly of God’s family, you stay with us.  Bless you, dear precious people.  May we stand for the prayer?

Wonderful, wonderful Savior, the great Physician who healeth all of our diseases, who raises us up, who gives us strength for our days, who opens doors of service and opportunity, who blesses the work of our hands, O, wonderful, wonderful Lord, how could we ever return to Thee the depth of gratitude that moves our souls?  We love Thee, Lord Jesus.  And now, Master, in this appeal, bless those who feel in their hearts, “I’d like to do that.  God has been so good to me.”  Or, “I can do better for God, and this is my token of consecration.”  And some, Lord, opening their hearts to Thee as Savior and others placing their lives with us in this family of God, bless our people as they come, and may the Spirit of God be pleased with our response, in Thy dear, dear name, amen.

While we wait, while we pray, while we sing, come and welcome.  Welcome.