When a Few Is Many
June 17th, 1984 @ 10:50 AM
WHEN A FEW IS MANY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-17-84 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled When A Few – When A Few Is More Than Many. It was our privilege to be with the choir and to listen to them sing. They did so nobly, beautifully, movingly, spiritually, Christ honoringly. When I go away on any kind of a journey, I always take with me the material for the sermon that I am to preach; sometimes for a long series of sermons. I take with me the material that I am to preach when I return to the city. I never get away, ever, from the burden of the message that lies immediately ahead. And as most of you know, I am preaching – have been now for over three years on the "Great Doctrines of the Bible," and we have come to the climactic section on the return of our Lord; and the sermon was to have been delivered entitled The Manner of Our Lord’s Coming.
But just before I left on the journey to Europe, I received a letter from a member of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. And in the letter he wrote something that so burdened my heart and so belabored my soul that I could not continue in the preparation of the sermon that I had announced. I will deliver it next Sunday. But because of this letter, I prepared a message in an altogether different world and way, and I pray that this will be a turning point in the spiritual life of our congregation. The letter reads this: after addressing me, he says, "My wife and I are working in the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and we work with single adults at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth. We had the privilege of worshiping at the First Baptist Church in Dallas this past Sunday morning at the 10:50 service." Then he speaks of the blessing that came to his heart and described where he sat underneath the balcony back there. Then he continues, "There were, however, two things that disturbed my wife and me during the service." He mentions the first one, and this is one over which we have no control. It concerned a young woman, doesn’t belong to us, but she greatly disturbed the service. But the second one that he wrote was this:
When the invitation hymn was announced and we were both – when the invitation hymn was announced, we were both shocked at the mass exodus of church people. At a moment when God is dealing with souls, when lives hang in the balance, it seemed a tragedy that so many people were more concerned with beating the rush or with other interest than with the new souls which God would be bringing into the fellowship of the church. A few of those leaving actually were conversing as they left. This disrupted worship, at least for us, much more than the young woman mentioned above. It seemed from our vantage point that up to one-third of those who were there at the beginning of the service had left before the benediction.
Dr. Criswell, I do not write to judge or to condemn the motivation of others. It is difficult enough to be spiritually sensitive to know my own attitudes and actions, but I did want to share these concerns which we had as visitors to the First Baptist Church of Dallas.
Thank you for the time, for your love for people. God bless you.
Yours in Christ.
And he signed the letter.
In my journeying, I could not get away from what I have just read. They say that any church is a reflection of the pastor after he has been there five years. Think how much more this church is a reflection of me, the undershepherd after forty years. And the letter is a supreme and tragic indictment and accusation of my ministry here through all of these years. This is the brood I have hatched. This is the church that I offer to God, and it is a church of spiritual vagabonds. What a tragedy; what a tragedy! What a tragedy that any letter like that could ever have been written to the pastor. But I have watched it for years. I will quit preaching sometimes at ten minutes until twelve, and there will be that same exodus. I will quit preaching sometimes at five minutes after twelve, and there is that same exodus. It’s a tragedy. It’s an indictment. It’s an accusation. It’s a shame. It’s a sorrow. It is the same thing as if we struck the hand of the surgeon as he operates on someone whom we deeply love. It’s the same thing as if we pulled the plug on a life-support system. It is the same thing as if we interrupted and interdicted a message of hope to a dying family. It is the same thing as if we severed the telephone lines of someone appealing for help. It is the same thing as if we changed the direction on the signs to the cities of refuge. It’s a tragedy. It’s a sorrow. It’s an indictment. It is an accusation. It is a public avowal, it is an open, overt assertion of our lack of agony for souls.
In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, our Lord tells of Dives, the rich man, who is burning in torment in Hades. And he cries, saying, "I have five brethren; go warn them, lest they come to this place of flame and sorrow" [Luke 16:28]. And our reply is, "So what?" If these are lost and judgment bound, what is that to us? We couldn’t care less. What a tragedy. What an indictment. Our services are conducted as though in attendance we were here to watch a game. We are to be entertained. We are spectators, not participants, like going to a football game; many, many times when the home team is losing at the end of the session, half of the stadium will be empty. The people have left. Or like watching a game on television and you turn it off. We turn it off and leave, when the most dramatic and meaningful and significant of all of the battles of life is waging in the hearts of these to whom we make appeal for Christ. It is a public acknowledgment that we have no joy, and no rejoicing, and no sense of great spiritual victory in these to whom we witness for our dear Lord.
In the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, our Lord tells the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep. And when he has found the lost sheep, he calls his friends and his neighbors, and he says, "Rejoice with me; I have found the sheep which I had lost" [Luke 15:6]. Then our Lord spoke of the woman who had lost one of the coins in her wedding endowment. And after she had found it, she calls her friends and her neighbors and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found the coin that I had lost" [Luke 15:9]. It’s like the Lord, in that same chapter, speaking of the prodigal boy who comes back home. And when the lad returns, [the father] kills the fatted calf, and he calls all the family and friends and neighbors, and they rejoiced. "For this my boy was dead, and he is alive again; he was lost, and is found" [Luke 15:24].
But there is no rejoicing with us. There is a social side to the Christian faith that cannot ever be denied. If a man says, "I can be a Christian out on a creek bank fishing for fish," he doesn’t know the Word of God. He may be a philosopher. He may be a Buddhist. He may be a Muslim, but he’s not a Christian. There is a social camaraderie, compatriot side to the Christian faith that is assembly [Hebrews 10:25]. It is a conjoined commitment of our lives together in Christ. There is no such thing as a Christian apart from the body of our Lord. If he belongs to Christ, he belongs to the assembly. He belongs to the church. He belongs to the ekklesia. He belongs to the body. And it is the body of Christ; the assembly gathered together that rejoices over these who are lost.
And when we leave, when we walk out, there is no assembly. There is no rejoicing. There is no being together in the love and grace and triumph of our blessed Lord. Not only that, but it is a public acknowledgment of the fact that we have no real purpose, not actually, in gathering together, in having our services. E. V. Hill, that dynamic, Baptist black pastor in Watts in Los Angeles, whom all of us have heard – E. V. Hill was asked, "How is it, and why do you have services from 10:00 o’clock in the morning until 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon?" And his reply was, "We have work to do for God. We have assignments from heaven. And if we were like you, thirty minutes would be too long. It takes hours for us to rejoice in the Lord."
I think of these charismatic services. I am not a charismatic in that sense, but I do rejoice in their long hours of praising God. It is a way of life with them. For us it’s incidental. It’s incidental. It’s peripheral. It’s adventitious. It’s not central. It’s not dynamic. It’s not meaningful. Sunday before last, I went to the service in the morning at Westminster Abbey in London. It was the dullest, driest, dreariest service that you could ever imagine. But there was nobody that left, and the service and the people were deeply reverent.
Because of this, we’re going to change our service. We’re going to do a little something different. We’re going to add a little word in our coming before the Lord. Just before the pastor or the preacher, whoever he is – just before he stands up to preach, beginning tonight – just before he preaches, we’re going to have the organist play a quiet melody, and we’re going to bow our heads and we’re going to read 2 Corinthians chapter 13, verse 5: "Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith; and whether Christ be in you, or you be reprobates" [2 Corinthians 13:5]. And in that moment when we pray and are quiet before the preaching of the Word of God, anybody, anybody who does not propose to stay for the invitation can quietly leave. We’ll understand. You may quietly leave. But if you stay, if you make a commitment to remain, that commitment carries through the appeal for the lost. Otherwise, you’re free to leave. "Well, pastor, what if they leave? What if they just get up and walk out?" That was the title of my sermon: Where A Few Is More Than A Many. Our Lord experienced that. In the passage that you just read together; "Will ye also go away?" [John 6:67] He was left with just twelve. The apostle Paul experienced that. In the last chapter of the last letter that he wrote, 2 Timothy chapter 4, he says, "Only Luke is with me" [2 Timothy 4:11]. But in the Word of God, as I read it, God can do more and more powerfully and more wonderfully – God can do more with a few who are really committed than with a throng and a multitude who are spectators and passers-by. God asks a great commitment on our part, and He blesses that commitment, not the number.
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Judges, when Gideon blew the trumpet there were thirty-two thousand men who answered the call to march for God. And when the Lord looked at them He said, "They are not committed. Gideon, all of those who are fearful and afraid, let them return home." And there were twenty-two thousand of them that went away, that left, that walked out [Judges 7:3]. Then the Lord God said to Gideon, regarding the ten thousand that remained, "They are still too many." And the Lord said to Gideon, "Take them down to the water and let them drink" [Judges 7:4]. And God said to Gideon, "All of those that get down there on their knees like this and drink like this, number them" [Judges 7:5]. And then God said to Gideon, "All of those that lap up the water like a dog, with eye on the enemy, choose them." And when Gideon looked at the numbers that lapped up like a dog, with the eye on the enemy, they numbered three hundred [Judges 7:6]. There were nine thousand seven hundred who got down to drink. God said, "Gideon, with those three hundred I will give you the victory" [Judges 7:7]. Where a few is more than many; God can do better with us, more powerfully and wonderfully, more soulsavingly with us. God can do more with us, with a few of us that are consecrated and committed, than He can with a multitude who just are peripheral, who just are passing by.
What is the purpose of our coming and assembling in the sanctuary of the Lord? As I open my Bible on this one page in the Book of Psalms, I read, I read these things: the purpose, the reason for our coming together. Number one: we come together to worship our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. In Psalm 95:6: "O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God; and we are the sheep of His pasture, and the people of His hand" [Psalm 95:6-7]. As Isaiah 56:7 says: "Mine house shall be called a house of prayer." We are assembled to worship and to bow down before the Lord God our Maker. We are assembled to sing the praises of God.
O sing unto the Lord a new song:
Sing unto the Lord, all the earth.
Sing unto the Lord and bless His name.
O come, let us sing unto the Lord.
Let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation.
We’ve come together to sing in the name and in the praises of the Lord. When you attend the congregation in Great Britain, everybody there will sing; everybody. There is no exception. They all sing. When you come to a congregation in America, one-third of them don’t sing – never sing, never think to sing. We come together to bow down before God, to pray. We’ve come together, all of us, to sing His wonderful praises. We’ve come together to give glory unto the Lord. "Bring an offering, and come into His courts, worshiping our Lord" [Psalm 96:7-8]. By commandment they brought a tithe, and they brought an offering over and above and beyond, out of their abounding love for their great God and Savior. "And let us come before His presence with thanksgiving" [Psalm 95:2]. We are coming to thank God. Thank God for our illnesses; they teach us to lean on the Lord. Thank God for our distresses, and our heartaches, and our sorrows, and our burdens; we learn more, far more in the depths of life than we ever do on the heights. We come to thank God for the promise we have in Jesus, for His presence with us, for His blessings, for the hope we have in heaven. Oh, for how many reasons do we have cause to give thanksgiving unto God? That’s the great first purpose of our assembling together, is to worship in the name of the Lord.
Number two: why do we come together? What is the reason? Number two: it is that we might listen, growing in grace, that we might listen to the exposition of the Word of God. In the Book of Nehemiah, Nehemiah describes the pulpit that they built on which Ezra stood, and he expounded to the people from the Scriptures the word of the Lord [Nehemiah 8:4-9]. In the twenty-fourth, the last chapter, the resurrection chapter in Luke, the Lord God "expounded unto those disciples the things concerning Himself" [Luke 24:27] – out of the Torah, and the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim – out of the law, out of the prophets, out of the hagiographa, out of all the writings of the Bible. We’ve come together to sit down, to look up and to listen to the servant of the Lord as he prayerfully interprets for us, and expounds to us, and mediates to us the truth of God in the Holy Word. We know what the sociologist says. We know what the economist says. We know what the politician says. We read that in every newspaper. We read it in every weekly magazine. "But preacher, does God say anything? If God says anything, tell us. What does God say that will save our souls from hell, and bless our lives in this earthly pilgrimage? Speak to us out of the Word of God what the Lord says."
Why do we assemble together? A third: not only to worship in His name, and not only to listen to an exposition, an expounding of the Word of God, but we come that God might use us to win the lost to Jesus. When we read those wonderful preachers of the New Testament, this is the way that they preached. Simon Peter closed the great Pentecostal message with this word: "Repent – turn, every one of you, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ because of the remission of your sins. . . And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward, judgment-bound generation" [Acts 2:38, 40]. Listen to the apostle Paul as he preached, looking in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, beginning at verse 19. This is the apostle Paul:
God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself; . . . and hath given to us that word, that ministry, that gospel of reconciliation.
We then as ambassadors for God, do beseech you in His stead, and in His name, be ye reconciled to God.
For God hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
We beseech you, therefore, as His fellow workers, not to receive the grace of God in vain.
(For He hath said" – in a time – I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in a day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)
[2 Corinthians 5:19-6:2]
Come, come, come to the Lord, to the fountain of life and drink and live [John 7:37]. This is the New Testament. This is the preaching of the apostles. This is the great, tremendous reason that lies back of our assembling together, that the lost might be saved; that someday they might be in heaven; that God might bless them and keep them now, and preserve them to that ultimate and final day when all of us shall stand at the judgment bar of Almighty God [2 Corinthians 5:10].
Then I added a fourth: not only the reason of our assembling to worship God, to listen to an exposition of His Holy Word, to make appeal for the lost, but I added a fourth because of an incident last week. In a shop on Portobello in London, talking to a German girl, very large and strong in frame – and as I try to do as graciously and as deftly as God would help me, I try to speak to everyone about the Lord, in some way bring up the subject – so I begin to talk to her. She and her German husband had come, had immigrated to England, and had taken out citizenship as a Britain, as an Englishman. But strangers from a strange land, and the father and mother of a little boy, as they had come, the husband died and left her with that little boy. She said in her broken heartedness and in her despairing sorrow, she went to church. She said as she attended the services of the church, they were meaningless, ritualistic, nothing for her heart, nothing to encourage her in the way. And a friend said to her, "Why don’t you go with me to the synagogue, the Jewish synagogue?" And she said, "In my hurt and despair, I went with my friend to the Jewish synagogue. And the rabbi who spoke, spoke to my heart. He had a message that helped me." Then she said, "I don’t know what to do. I think of the Jews," and especially her being a German, "I think of the Jews as another race and another religion. How could I become a Jew? I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know where to turn." Well, I gave her the name and address of a church there in London that I felt might speak to her soul. But what stays in my mind is, I wonder how many come to church – I don’t know their names, I’ve never seen their faces, but how many come to church with a broken heart, crushed by the cruel providences of every life? And I wonder if they turn away saying, "There was no word from God for me. The service was empty and sterile and powerless, and God wasn’t in it."
O Lord, I am praying that today we will begin a new day for our people. We are dedicated. We are committed. We are consecrated. We are given to the message of life in Christ Jesus. It is not incidental; it is dynamic to us. It is not peripheral; it is central. It is not sterile and meaningless; it is the very voice of heaven. And when our assembling time comes, it is with that dedication and that consecration in our souls that we’re present. And may God bless our witness, and bless our life, and bless our testimony. And when we make appeal, may it be the rejoicing of all of God’s people here and those sainted in heaven, these who turn in faith and in acceptance to our living Lord. God grant it, beginning this moment.
Now may we pray? Our Lord, in keeping with the Word of God, let everyone examine himself [2 Corinthians 13:5]. As we search our souls, O Lord God, it is in deep, deepest commitment to Thee, to live for Thee, to die in the faith, and to look forward to being with Jesus our Lord forever and ever; that we might go to heaven when we die; that we might be saved from our sins in this earth; and that we might have the fellowship and friendship and companionship of Jesus in this earthly pilgrimage.
And in a moment, we’re going to stand and sing our appeal, and while we sing the song, out of the balcony round, down one of these stairways; among the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, "Pastor, today, this day, I have decided for God. I’m accepting Jesus as my Savior." Come and welcome. "We are putting our lives in the fellowship and the circumference and the communion of this dear church. We’re coming with our love and prayers." Welcome. Or to answer some call from heaven with your life; welcome. And our Lord, bless them as they come, may angels attend them in the way, to the praise of Jesus our wonderful Savior, amen. Now may we stand, and God bless you as you come.
WHEN A FEW IS MORE THAN MANY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
John 6:66-67, Judges 7:1-7
A. Taking material for the sermon
B. The letter I received just before leaving
C. An indictment of my work as pastor
D. The sorrow, tragedy of the action
1. Like striking the hand of the surgeon
2. Reveals, publicizes our lack of agony for souls (Luke 16:28)
3. No rejoicing over salvation (Luke 15:6, 9, 24)
4. Acknowledgment that we have no purpose in meeting
II. A new order of service
A. Time of quiet commitment before the preaching
1. Read 2 Corinthians 13:5
B. Decide to leave then or commit to remain through invitation
III. What if they do leave?
A. Jesus experienced that (John 6:67)
B. Paul experienced that (2 Timothy 4:11)
C. God had rather have a few faithful
1. Gideon’s army (Judges 7:1-7)
IV. Achieving the purpose of our assembly
A. Worship of God (Psalm 95:6-7, Isaiah 56:7, Psalm 96:1-2, 95:1-2)
B. Expounding the Scripture (Nehemiah 8:4-8, Luke 24:44-45)
C. Wining souls (Acts 2:38, 40, 2 Corinthians 5:19-6:2)