The Sword Visits Bethlehem
December 16th, 1987 @ 7:30 PM
THE SWORD VISITS BETHLEHEM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-16-87 7:30 p.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Sword Visits Bethlehem. It is a true depiction of the experiences all of us share in human life. The text is in the second chapter of the Book of Matthew, Matthew chapter 2, beginning at verse 16:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
In that beautiful, incomparably meaningful, and precious story of the birth of our Lord and the coming of the magi, the wise men [Matthew 2:1-2], there is this tragic sentence, “Then Herod. . .sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the regions thereof, from two years old and under” [Matthew 2:16].
The chosen family came to Bethlehem [Luke 2:4-5]. The angels came to Bethlehem [Luke 2:9]. The shepherds came to Bethlehem [Luke 2:8-16]. The star came to Bethlehem [Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11]. The wise men came to Bethlehem [Matthew 2:1-2]. And then the tramp, tramp, tramp of the soldiers; the sword also came to Bethlehem [Matthew 2:16]. The song of the angels was turned into the cry of Rachel.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
This is the reiterated story of all Scripture and of all human life. The paradise of Eden is described in beautiful and meaningful terms [Genesis 2:8-15]. Then follows the story of the serpent and the fall [Genesis 3:1-6], the curse [Genesis 3:14-19], and the blood of Abel crying unto God from the ground [Genesis 4:10].
Joseph is ruler in Egypt and his father Jacob, whose name is Israel, and the family of Israel come down to Egypt to be saved from starvation [Genesis 41:37-47:28]. And then, quote, “a Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph” [Exodus 1:8]. And the whole tribe is cast into unmitigated, unbounded slavery [Exodus 1:9-14]. The Book of Acts begins with prayer and Pentecost, with joy and power [Acts 1:14, 2:1-47]. Then the sword of Herod Agrippa I takes the life of James, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee [Acts 12:1-2], and the Christians are scattered throughout the earth [Acts 11:19]. In the Book of the Revelation, the vision of Jesus is incomparable in that opening scene [Revelation 1:9-13], the throne of grace [Revelation 4:1-2], the worship of the angels and the saints in heaven [Revelation 4-5], and then immediately, the terrible tribulation [Revelation 6-19].
So it is here in the story of Christmas. The glorious announcement is made to Mary [Luke 1:26-38], her incomparably beautiful “Magnificat” [Luke 1:46-55], then the prophecy of Simeon, that a sword would pierce her own heart [Luke 2:35]; later fulfilled in Mary’s standing by the cross [John19:25-30].
This is the pattern of all life, there is no exception. Elijah, fleeing from the presence of Ahab, dwells by the brook of Cherith; then Cherith dries up [1 Kings 17:2-7]. Naomi and her husband Elimelech with her two boys, Mahlon and Chilion, go into the land of Moab for bread; then all three die, her husband and her two sons [Ruth 1:1-5]. There is no poem in English literature filled more with pathos than this cry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of England:
Break, break, break
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter,
The thoughts that arise in me.
O wail for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O wail for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
Through their haven unto the hill;
But, oh for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the voice of a friend that is still!
Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.
[“Break, Break, Break”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson]
Thus, in chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, an addendum to the Gospel, the Gospel of John ends at chapter 20 [John 20:31], and years later John adds an appendix [John 21:1-25]. And in that appendix our Lord prophesies the crucifixion, death by cross, for Simon Peter [John 21:18-19]. Thus, the servants of God are subject to the abuses, and the hurts, and the heartaches, and the illnesses, and the death of this life.
When Paul is called to be an apostle, in Acts 9:15-16, the Lord said, “He is a chosen servant unto Me, for I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” This is the high calling of God to the apostleship on the part of Saul of Tarsus [Philippians 3:14]. For what purpose? That he might suffer things chosen of God in the assignment for him in his ministry. And that is why I had you read out of 2 Corinthians chapter 11 and chapter 12, a recounting of the unbelievable perils and heartaches and hurts of the apostle, as he preached the gospel of the grace of God [2 Corinthians 11:23-30, 12:7-10].
It is only the foolish man who thinks to escape these contradictions and hurts and sufferings of the human life. That is the story of the builders of Babel, “We shall rise above the floods of this life.” But its broken tower is an emblem of the experiences of all humanity [Genesis 11:1-9]. In Judges, chapters 17 and 18 [Judges 17:1-18:31], is the story of Micah’s idol, raised in his own house to be a source of strength and protection for Micah and his family, but is taken away by the Danites [Judges 18:18]. And in the Book of Judges in the story, Micah follows after, crying over his lost and stolen god [Judges 18:23-24].
King Belshazzar, at the feast in Babylon, feels safe and secure behind the walls and gates of the city, but that night he died under the sword of the invading Persian army [Daniel 5:1-31]. This is the story in Luke 12:15-21, of the rich fool who said, “I have goods increased; now my soul, eat, drink, be merry.” But that night, God said, “Thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall these things be, that thou hast saved?” [Luke 12:20].
The ultimate blessing and reward of God is for those who accept the cruel providences of life as a way of serving Him. Not only in the joys and the gladnesses and the rewards of life do we find the hand of God leading us in our pilgrim way, but the hand of God no less leads us and blesses us and infills us and indwells us in the hurts and the tears and the sorrows that all of us shall know in our human pilgrimage [2 Corinthians 1:3-5].
This is the story of Abraham, who was called out of his home and away from his people:
And he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country…
For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: because He hath prepared them that city.
[Hebrews 11:9-10, 16]
This is the story of Moses,
By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter—the scion of the kingdom, the heir to the throne—
Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of the throne for a season;
Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.
And that is the story of our Lord,
Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.
And this is our great appeal in the gospel and in our discipleship before our Lord,
Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
There is no more beautiful or meaningful hymn than this one written so long ago:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
[“God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” William Cowper]
The sword also comes to Bethlehem [Matthew 2:16]. There is no life that escapes the sorrows and tragedies that are attendant to our pilgrim way. But God is in it. And He teaches us, and He disciplines us. And we learn, in our tears and frustrations and sorrows, just as much of the goodness and mercy of the Lord as we do in our joys, in our gladnesses, and in our triumphs. The sword also comes to Bethlehem [Matthew 2:16].
Now may we bow our heads for just a moment? In this great group, in the presence of God’s people tonight, and in the presence of our dear Lord, is there one here this solemn evening to give himself to the Lord Jesus in faith [Romans 10:9-13; Ephesians 2:8], or to answer God’s call in your heart, or to come into the fellowship of our dear church? If you’re here thus tonight to accept the Lord or to put your life in the fellowship of our precious congregation or to answer some appeal of the Spirit, would you hold up your hand? Anywhere, anyone, anywhere?
In God’s presence, we’re all in the kingdom, we’re in the fellowship of the family of the Lord, and we dedicate and consecrate and commit our lives to the blessed Jesus tonight. What a gracious, wonderful, good and glorious Lord He is!
And Our Savior, may this word from God’s Book resound in our souls when that day comes, and the tramp, tramp, tramp of the soldier and the unsheathed sword is plunged into our hearts, and we experience the hurt and the sorrow that is attendant to all life and living. May we not be bitter, but may we accept, as from God’s hand, the providences that lead us closer to Thee, leaning on the arm kind and gracious of our Lord. Bless our dear people.
And our Savior, as we serve Thee in this Christmas season and honor Thee during these days with thanksgiving for the coming of Christ [Matthew 1:20-25], may God bless our witness, our testimony. And when the Lord’s Day comes, precious Lord, wonderful Savior, meet with us in this sacred place. We pray for our “Tree,” and its song of love and glory tomorrow night, then Friday night, then Saturday night, O Lord, for Thee, in Thy blessed and saving name, amen.
I. Who comes to Bethlehem
A. Chosen family,
angels, shepherds, a star, the wise men
B. Soldiers with
the sword (Matthew 2:16)
II. The reiterated story of all the
A. Paradise of
Eden, followed by story of the fall, curse, and blood of Abel
favored in Egypt, followed by slavery (Exodus
C. Book of Acts begins
with Pentecost, followed by sword of Agrippa I
of Revelation begins with vision of Jesus, then immediately the tribulation
E. Announcement made to
Mary, followed by prophecy of Simeon
III. Pattern of all life
beautiful, glorious then the sickle of decay, disease, death
B. Poem by
Tennyson, “Break, Break, Break”
servants of God are subject to the abuses, hurts and death of this life (John 21, Acts 9:15-16, 2 Corinthians 11, 12)
the fool thinks he can escape (Genesis 11:1-5,
Judges 17, 18, Daniel 5, Luke 12:15-21)
wise man has known hand of God leads and blesses in the sorrows known in the
human pilgrimage (Hebrews 11:9-10, 16, 24-26)
V. Jesus understood the journey
B. All for our
redemption and the victory beyond