CHRIST AND THE SOPHISTICATED URBANITE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-12-86 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Christ and the Sophisticated Urbanite. And I want you to listen with your mind and your understanding and your intellect, as well as your heart and your soul.
Let us turn to John chapter 3. In our preaching through this Fourth Gospel, we have come to one of the tremendous chapters in all the Bible, and one of the most meaningful in human literature. John chapter 3 and we are going to read together the first six verses; now together, John 3, verses 1 through 6 together:
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Just to be introduced to such a confrontation, a conversation, is highly, impressively interesting to us. This is a man of exalted position, and he is seeking an answer from a peasant. He came by night [John 3:2]. There was a reason for that. In the seventh chapter of this same Book of John, there was an altercation among the sect of the Pharisees, and Nicodemus was championing the cause of this peasant from Galilee, named Jesus. And his fellow scholars said, “You search the Scriptures: there is no prophet out of Galilee” [John 7:52].
And again, as the conversation continued, they said: “You search the law of Moses, the words of the Old Testament. The Lord Christ Messiah does not come out of Galilee. He comes out of Judea, out of Bethlehem” [John 7:41-42].
So this member of the highest ruling class in Israel comes to Jesus by night [John 3:2]. Nobody sees him. I say just the setting is intensely interesting. This man, Nicodemus, is a man of highest intelligence, of noblest training, of enviable position. He’s described here as a Pharisee [John 3:1].
To us, that means ‘hypocrite,’ but a real and noble Pharisee was the finest example of God’s scholastic dedication. The Pharisees were scholars. They gave themselves to the study of the Law. Their great exponents, like Shammai, and Hillel, and Gamaliel, and Saul of Tarsus who described himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees [Acts 23:6], these are the men who laid the foundation for the continuing state of Judaism—the Judaism that abides, that lived through the centuries, is Pharisaism. They are the ones that taught. And they are the ones that lived and existed beyond the destruction of the temple and the state of Israel.
He’s a Pharisee. He is described as a ruler of the Jews [John 3:1]. He is a member of the Sanhedrin [John 7:50-51], of the highest Supreme Court and council. He is a rich and affluent man. It is he, with Joseph of Arimathea, who gave to the Lord a noble burial [John 19:38-42]. And even Jesus addresses him as a teacher in Israel [John 3:10]. He was a doctor of the Law. He represented the finest scholastic achievements of his people. But with all of that, his heart was empty, and he sought answers beyond the scholastic world. He knew all that the scholars had said. He had heard all that the casuistic theologians had discussed. He had read and reread the books of the schools. But his heart was empty.
He is like the rich young ruler in Perea who came to Jesus and knelt before Him. And looking upon him, Jesus describing him as having everything that the law could provide, that religion could provide, that wealth and influence could provide; he looked up to the Lord and said, “But what lack I yet?” [Matthew 19:20]. That is Nicodemus. We’re going to look upon him as a typical urbanite, a man of place, and position, and stature, and achievement. And he comes to Jesus for an answer [John 3:1-2].
First of all, and I have three of these—first of all, he came to Jesus out of repetitive, religious ritualism. The worship of God or gods in that ancient day was beautifully impressive beyond compare, whether it was in Alexandria or in Baalbek—have you ever seen the remains of the temple in Baalbek?—or whether it was in Ephesus—the temple there was the Seventh Wonder of the World—or whether it was in Athens in the Parthenon that crowns the Acropolis, or whether it was in Corinth, or in Rome, the worship of the gods was beyond description.
The pageantry, the vestments, the priests, the sacrifices, the rituals, the ceremonies, the chants, they were marvelously beautiful. Crowning the Acropolis in Athens, the Parthenon itself where Pallas Athena was worshiped, the temple of the virgin, her image was sculptured by the far-famed Phidias himself. Isn’t it a strange thing that sophistication and culture never move toward the simple, always toward the complex? Anything except to appear before God in our naked souls.
Well, anyway, the temple at Jerusalem was like that. Its message was bound down and imprisoned in ritual and in ceremony. You heard V. O. Gray just now sing. Even the coins that were brought to the worship of God had to be of a certain nature, of a certain kind, and the doves and the bullocks and the oxen that were offered in sacrifice had to be of a holy order [Matthew 21:12]. That was why the prophets so vigorously and vehemently denounced the ceremonial ritualistic religion of their day.
The prophet Isaiah in his first chapter begins: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices? When you spread your hands before Me, I will not hear” [Isaiah 1:11, 15]. In the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, Jeremiah the prophet says, “When I brought you out of Egypt, did I speak unto you concerning sacrifices? Did I not say obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people?” [Jeremiah 7:22-23]. Or that famous passage in Micah 6:6‑8:
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
That was the message delivered by Jesus to this sophisticated urbanite who came to the Lord out of repetitive, religious ritualism. Our Lord went to the heart of the matter, “You must be born anothen,” from above, in your heart, in your soul [John 3:3-7]. There is no ritual that can ever take the place of an obedient, worshipful, loving heart before God. As [Samuel] said to Saul, “It is better to obey than to sacrifice” [1 Samuel 15:22].
There is never a punctilious performance that can take the place of a devoted spirit. There is never a posture in prayer that can take the place of a loving heart. There is no such thing as ascetic mortification that can ever wash away our sins. And there is no oracular confession speaking in the ear of a priest that can take the place of genuine repentance. Ritual and ceremony are not what God seeks of those who come before Him, but a heart that is right in His sight, and a spirit, a soul, a life that is born anothen from above.
Number two; he came to the Lord, this urbanite [John 3:2]. He came to the Lord out of formal morality, urban morality. Formal morality finds the sum of life in temperance, in sobriety, and prudence, and industry. These are the great watchwords of the business community. To be honest, to be a man of integrity, to make friends and influence people and treat them fairly, to sell goods, to succeed, and to enter into heaven—this is formal business morality. This is urban excellence.
Do you remember in 1956, when the committee for the choosing of the number one young businessman in America—do you remember? They finally came down to two men. They’re choosing the most distinguished young man in America. And the last two considered were named Billy. One was in North Carolina, Billy Graham; and the other was in Texas, Billy Sol Estes. When the final choice was made, do you remember who was chosen as the most distinguished young man in America?
They chose Billy Sol Estes, the embodiment and incarnation of what it is to be successful in the business world. And that Billy Sol Estes is the young Texan who spent the last scores of years of his life in a penitentiary! That is urban morality—to be successful! It never occurs to worldly, formal morality to make a distinction between the outer man and the inner heart, between the outside of what is done and the inside of what the man is.
I so well remember in the days of the Depression, walking up and down the streets of Cicero, a suburb in the southern part of Chicago. It was dominated by Al Capone, nefarious gangster. But the law could never touch him. He supported bread lines, took care of the poor. The only way Al Capone was ever sent to the penitentiary was because of errors in his income tax report. They could not touch him. Al Capone was the friend and the champion of the poor.
When I was a youth growing up, Tammany Hall governed New York City. Tammany Hall was one of the most corrupt civic administrations in the history of city life. But it was untouchable because Tammany Hall brought loads of coal for the poor widows. Never a distinction does urban morality make between the outside—what’s done—and the inside of what the man is. You meet it here all the time and every day of your life. They run the sixth-horse race for the crippled children. Or we have a lottery for the advancement of higher education; urban morality.
He came to the Lord Jesus, this sophisticated Nicodemus, asking Jesus a question beyond what was useful, what was expedient, what was successful. And the Lord set aside and discarded all of the outwardness of so-called goodness, or righteousness, or morality. And He went to the heart of the soul and the heart of the life [John 3:1-8].
What you are is what makes you good or bad, not the good deeds you do to further your cause or to be successful; to be good not because it pays; to be honest not because it’s a good business judgment; to be righteous not because of recompense. But to be righteous and good and honest because of your heart, of your soul, of your life; it is inside you, you are that way.
Could I make an aside here? If the mayors were Christians, and the governors were Christians, and the legislators were Christians, and the judges were Christians, you’d have no need for laws against bribery, or the traitorous disposition of the trust of the people, or for the peddling of influence. Think of it, when the heart is right with God.
I one time heard of a most successful young man—affluent, already rich, living with his godly mother—and he brought to his mother a business proposition. It had in it millions of dollars for him, this young man. But as he laid it before his mother, he pointed out to her that the deal is unjust. “It’s shady and it’s not right. And it’s taking advantage, though it brings to me millions of dollars. Mother, what shall I do?”
And she answered her boy in the most unusual way. She said, “Son, when breakfast time comes in the morning, I stand at the foot of the stairs, and I say, ‘John.’ And there’s no answer. And I go up the stairs and knock on your door. And I open the door, and I say, ‘John, it is breakfast time.’ And you are there sound asleep, John.” She said, “Son, I would hate to see the day when I came to the foot of the stairway at breakfast time and said, ‘John,’ and found you wide awake.”
There are some things in life that are more valuable and precious than all of the money and all of the success in the world—the heart that is right with God! That is the word of the Lord Jesus; anothen, from above [John 3:3, 7].
I have one other. This sophisticate came to the Lord Jesus out of his urban sophistication. Pseudo-culture is like a thin veneer. It is empty and sterile. I one time watched a group of American tourists in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. They were there for three days. And for three days they drank and partied in hilarity. And all around them, the whole earth around them there in Israel, the things and the places of God, and there they are drinking and partying in the hotel.
Pseudo-culture is the thinnest and the most puerile and the most unprofitable of all of the cultures I can think for in human life. I heard of a woman who said she loved Wagnerian opera. She loved Wagnerian music because it was so loud that she could just talk to her friends and nobody would hear what she was saying. Magnificent appreciation for classical music!
One of the women that I read about had inherited an enormous fortune. And she invited the far-famed pianist Paderewski to present a program, a concert in her palatial home. And in his playing, she came up to Paderewski, the great pianist—by the way, I’ve heard him play—she came up to the great Polish pianist, and with an air of knowledge and culture said: “Who was the author of that beautiful piece?”
And he said: “Beethoven.”
And she said: “Is he still composing?”
And he said: “No madam. He is decomposing.”
I heard of a group of women—and I’m not down on women now, we’ve got to have them. I heard a group of women who were at a concert, and they were talking, and one of them said: “You know, that’s beautiful. That’s the sextet from Lucia.”
And another one said: “Oh, no. That’s from the Tales of Hoffman.”
And another one said: “There’s a big plaque over there. I’ll go see what it says.”
And she says: “You’re all wrong. It’s the Refrain from Spitting.”
A dear woman was watching the world famous Turner in England painting a sunset. And she said to the incomparable artist: “I never see sunsets like that.” And he said: “Oh, but Madam, don’t you wish you could?” The thin veneer of pseudo-culture, urban sophistication, but mournfully, tragically is that seen in the spiritual life of the people.
What is accepted must first be presented with the iron links of our finite deduction: pray or not pray, according to our logical conclusions; believe or not believe, according to our human judgments; worship or not worship, according to what we think we human beings know and understand. Everything sifted through the alembic of an infidel’s intellectual response. And we come out religionist like Cicero, or like Seneca, or like Marcus Aurelius.
Why, it’s unthinkable that we would be pulled into the religious superstition of soul and God and eternity. These things of the heart and the soul and the faith are unreal. The real things are airplanes, and bombs, and railroads, and skyscrapers, and corporations. These are the mighty things of life. But heart, and vision, and prayer, and worship, and God, these belong to the superstitious unknowing of the ignorant.
This man Nicodemus came to Jesus and wanted to know if there are answers beyond human speculation, beyond philosophy, beyond scientific discovery. And the Lord answered in an incomparable and forever truth. There are things that are physical, He says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” [John 3:6]. They’re real. This earth is real. This planet is real. Our lives are real. Our business is real. We live in a world of reality, but, says our Lord, there is also a spiritual world. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” [John 3:6]. And the spiritual is as real and substantive and actual as the physical. And I, in my judgment, as I look and as I perceive, it seems to me that the great facts of life, and certainly the most precious, are the things of the spiritual, of the heavenly. May I name some of them? Then I’m through.
This is a spiritual reality—that a man is made in the image of God, that the life of God Himself is breathed into his physical nature [Genesis 1:27]. He’s something more than anatomy and dust. He is also like God. And the concomitant and the corollary and the addendum of that is human personality is sacred, and it is never to be prostituted for tyrannical purposes. Every man, every somebody is dear in the presence of the great Maker in heaven. That’s a spiritual reality.
Here’s another spiritual reality—that a man can be remade [2 Corinthians 5:17], that he can be born again [John 3:3-7], that he can be exalted [James 4:10]. I started to use—in preparing this message I started to use the names of some of the men in our congregation who have been marvelously changed, lifted out of a sordid life and now live in the light of the glory of God. But I felt I might embarrass them. But that is an actual reality—the possibility of a change in a man’s life.
As a youth, I sat in a congregation and listened to a preacher who had been saved out of the gutter. Several of the fine students who are studying to be preachers in our Center of Biblical Studies have been saved in our inner city mission out of the dregs of humanity. There is always the possibility of change, upwardness, godliness in a man’s life. That is a spiritual reality.
May I name another one? The possibility of the devotion of a man’s life to a noble idea and a noble cause. I sat one time in the interior of Nigeria in West Africa. I was seated next to Dr. Theron Rankin who is executive leader of our Foreign Mission Board. And as I sat by his side, I was listening to a doctor report on his year’s work in the mission. And at a pause in the message, Dr. Theron Rankin turned to me, and he said, “I want you to get a good look at that young doctor.” He said, “He was the number one graduate in the medical school. And when he received his medical degree, he was offered places of position, and influence, and prestige, and money in some of the greatest clinics on the east coast. But he chose rather to go out as a missionary.”
And at that time, dear people, the salary of a medical missionary was one thousand dollars a year. He came to see me, Dr. Golenta. He came to see me here in Dallas. And I presented him to our people. What I did—I said, “I don’t feel worthy to stand in his presence.”
That is a spiritual reality. That’s God in a man’s life. That’s nobility of soul that can come only from heaven itself. I’m just saying that spiritual things are as real as physical things.
And now, for my last one, which is the appeal. God made us for Himself. And anytime, anywhere the cause of Christ is faithfully presented, there’s something in a man’s heart that responds. Now he may slay it. He may deny it. He may crush it. He may interdict it. He may fight it. But it’s always there. God made us to be responsive to our blessed Savior.
Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Savior die?
Did He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for crimes that I have done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.
[from “At the Cross,” Isaac Watts]
That is a spiritual reality. It is a heavenly fact. And to answer God’s call in your heart is the dearest experience and the most precious you could ever know in your life. And that’s the appeal we make to you today.
Does the Lord knock at the door of our heart? Would you open the door and let Him come in? [Revelation 3:20]. Come to be with us. We are on our pilgrimage to heaven. Join us in the song of praise and love and thanksgiving. Bring your family into the fellowship of our dear church. Or to answer some call of the Spirit in your heart, when we stand in a moment to sing our appeal, on the first note of that first stanza, come. That first step will be the most meaningful you will ever make in your life. Now may we pray for one another?
Our Lord in heaven, these great spiritual truths that we read in God’s Book and see in God’s world are so everlastingly impressive. We would have to hide our faces not to see them. We would have to harden our hearts not to respond to them. And our Lord, we pray that in the invitation this morning that the heart will be open heavenward, that the mind will be able under God to see that the things that are not seen are the things that abide forever. These physical objects, and attractions, and appeals, and ambitions are all for the moment. But the things of God are forever and ever and ever. And our Lord, speak to that heart, to that family, and may there be a wonderful response. We will love Thee for it, in Thy saving and keeping name, amen.
Now, when we stand, down a stairway from the balcony, and there is time and to spare, and from the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, this is God’s day for me, and here I stand.” Welcome, while we stand and while we sing.