Growing a Great Sunday School
October 22nd, 1989 @ 10:50 AM
GROWING A GREAT SUNDAY SCHOOL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-22-89 10:50 a.m.
In Dallas, this is the pastor bringing the message; it is an exposition of the Great Commission. In the last verses of the last chapter of the First Gospel we read:
Jesus came and spake unto them saying, All exousia—authority, power—
is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God—
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you all the days, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
The message arises out of looking at that in the Greek text; it looks so different. For example, there are four verbs in that great commandment and three of them are participles. One of them only is an imperative. Poreuthentes, “going,” is a participle. Baptizontes, “baptizing,” is a participle [Matthew 28:20]. Didaskontes, “teaching,” is a participle. But one of them is an imperative—mathēteusate; “making learners, make learners” [Matthew 2:19].
You have that word in Matthew 11:29, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me,” mathete, “learn of Me.” That’s the word here, mathēteusate; it is a timeless aorist imperative. Make learners of all the people [Matthew 28:19-20]. The pertinency of the question of that shoe cobbler, William Carey, in 1798, two hundred years ago in England, the father of the modern missionary movement: he stood up in the North Hamptonshire Baptist Association and asked the question, “Is it not imperative upon ministers today, this same commission that the Lord gave to His apostles?” We’re to make learners; we’re to make disciples of all nations and peoples of the earth [Matthew 28:19-20].
The assignment is vast and all inclusive. Did you notice that word all is used four times? Pas, panta, pasa, “All power is given unto Me. . .Go ye therefore, and make learners of all nations. . .teaching them to observe all things. . .and I will be with you all the days” [Matthew 28:18-20]. It is a vast and inclusive commission. One of the most famous religious paintings in the world is of our Lord Jesus pointing to the world as a field. And there are by His side, Simon Peter, and John, and the other apostles, and the look on their faces is one of determination and commitment.
As the Lord includes the whole, vast humanity in our assignment, we’re to go to the wrong side of the railroad tracks and the right side of the railroad tracks. We’re to go to the up-and-outs and we’re to go to the down-and-outs. We’re to go to all humanity, all of them!
In keeping with that Great Commission in our modern era, there was born a Sunday school teaching movement. In 1780, there was an editor, an owner of the Gloucester Journal in England, by the name of Robert Raikes. When he would go to work and come back, he noticed on the Lord’s Day the children playing out in the streets. He gathered them together and began teaching them the Word of God. Being an editor and the owner of the Gloucester Journal, he publicized it to the ends of the earth. And the churches in the kingdom of Christ responded and began gathering the families together, especially the children, to teach them the Word of the Lord.
In this very pulpit a man stood here and said, “The streets of the city offer no degrees and they confer no diplomas, but they educate with terrible precision.” That is seen in the tragic fact that more than one million boys and girls every year in America now enter careers of crime. Criminal statistics are rising furiously in the western nations of the earth, and tragically so in America. Drug addiction, violence, rape, plunder, robbery, drunkenness are rising fearfully, and our city is no exception. It was not a preacher, it was a politician who said, “The moral deterioration of America threatens the very foundation of our existence.” I think the politician was correct. If there is not a turning in the violence and drunkenness and drug addiction of America, we’re going to see our very life thrown into disarray and disintegration.
Could I make an aside? I was grown before I ever saw a house door locked; I was grown. You come out there and look at our house now; it has bars all over the windows and doors. It’s got every door locked two or three times and it has an alarm system on it.
That’s the difference between my raising up as a boy and the world in which I live today. The method of approach: how do we meet the tremendous needs of this modern era and how do we implement this Great Commission of our Lord? [Matthew 28:18-20]. How do we do it? First of all, we are to be reminded: methods are many, principles are few. Principles never change, methods do. The gospel is ever the same; truth is the ever the same; principles are ever the same, but how we apply them changes with every changing generation.
Here again, may I speak of the difference between now and when I was a boy? I went to church in a little white crackerbox of a church house; had a little cupola on it with a bell in it. When we had a revival meeting, we did it by way of announcement. That was all. The stores closed; everybody attended, everybody!
Right back of our house lived the town infidel. You could hear him cuss all over creation every time he beat his cow in the morning. He was there on the second seat, making fun of the preacher. Everybody attended. And the whole preparation for the meeting was just by announcement. I’d like to see you do that today. I’d like to see us have any kind of a revival today. It’s another era, it’s another time, it’s another day.
It never occurred to anyone that I ever knew when I was growing up to, say, have an educational building by the side of that church. The ox cart is gone, the horse and buggy are gone. Did you know Dr. Truett, my illustrious predecessor here for forty-seven years, visited in a horse and a buggy? And when the horse and buggy went out, he never learned to drive a car; Truett could not drive a car. Another day, another era;even the steam engine, the railroad steam engine that seemed so universally fixed in history and in time and in transportation—even the steam engine is gone. Out there at the Fair Park, if you go out there they have several railroad tracks in which they have those steam engines for a relic; you just gawk at one.
I heard of a slow train through Arkansas. And a little lady was on the train and when the conductor came by she said, “Oh, I’m so tired.” And the conductor, to cheer her up said, “Why dear, I have been riding this train twenty-two years.” And she said, “Oh dear, you must have got on in Texarkana!”
It’s another day. What is the great principle that lies back of our teaching ministries? It arises out of the ministry and methods of our Savior. His teaching was not staid and static; it was dynamic, and personal, and relevant. So much so that when they heard Him, they were astonished at His doctrine, at His teaching. It was new, like a new garment. It’s even called the New Testament, the new covenant and new creation. Well, what is it? It is very simple and it is very plain. The great methodology and the central heart of the teaching and doctrine of our Savior is the gospel of the one lost sheep, and the one lost coin, and the one lost boy [Luke 15:3-32]. You can sum up His whole method in that sentence.
That was our Lord: in the cursing fisherman [Matthew 26:69-74], he could see the great preacher at Pentecost [Acts 2:14-40]. In that despised tax collector [Matthew 9:9], He could see the author of this First Gospel. In a harlot, He could see the purity of a Mary Magdalene. In that malefactor crucified with Him on the cross [Luke 23:32-33], He could see His companion in Paradise [Luke 23:42-43]. In the blaspheming persecutor, Saul of Tarsus [Acts 9:1-2], He could see the apostle of the Gentiles [Acts 9:15]. The approach of the method of our Lord was always that “one somebody you,” always, whether it was Nicodemus taking up half of the night to ask Him a question [John 3:1-21], or that five-times divorced Samaritan woman to whom He showed the way of life [John 4:7-28]. That’s our Lord. And the great method of our Savior in teaching lies in that one somebody: that little boy, or that little girl, or that family, or that father, or that mother.
And for us to approach this great city of Dallas, and to do it with the one in our mind, that one somebody in our hearts; to grade, to divide, to multiply, to reach, not by the gobs and the masses, but by the ones and the ones. We’re born one at a time, we’re going to die one at a time. We’re going to be judged one at a time, and we’re born into the kingdom of God one at a time. And for us to give ourselves to that kind of an approach, each one is precious in God’s sight. And we’re going to organize, we’re going to grade, we’re going to multiply to reach those ones for our Savior. It’s a wonderful commitment, and it’s one that God would gloriously bless.
I want to take a little moment to compliment us. I don’t think I was ever more surprised in my life than I was in this. I was holding a revival meeting in Caribou, Maine. That’s up there at the top. I remember going up there where Highway 1 that runs from Canada down to those [Florida] Keys: the United States Highway 1. I went up there where it started, just to say I had been up there. Oh, it’s another world I tell you! I was holding that meeting in May, and the snow was clear up to the back of the motel where I was staying, in May.
Well, anyway, the house had burned down—the church house had burned down, and they were pretty well close to building their new church house. Well, I was in the secretary’s office, and there on the wall was a picture of their beautiful new church house. And it was elegant, so I looked at it and I complimented it and I said, “That’s just beautiful. That’s just beautiful.” And she never said a word. So I emphasized it. I said, “Just look at that new church house here. That’s just beautiful.” And she said to me, “It hurts my heart every time I look at it.” Why, I couldn’t believe my ears: that secretary, “It hurts my heart every time I look at it.” Well, I said, “What makes you think that?” And she replied, “What we need is an educational unit to reach these people for God. Then we can build a church house.”
Like an old Dutch farmer, he builds his barns and he lets his barns build his house. Having an educational unit, and letting the educational unit build the church house; I did that here in Dallas. I went to the bank and borrowed one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars and built Shiloh Terrace Baptist Church. And what I did, I took the one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars—which is a whole lot more back yonder in that day—and I built an educational building. And the educational building has built that wonderful church out there.
So looking at that, she said, “What we need is an educational building to teach the Word of God.” And I said, “Dear child, where did you learn that way up there in just this side of Canada? Where did you learn that?” And she said, “I learned that where you live. I learned that in your church. I learned that down there where you preach: that we need to reach the people, teaching the people, and then the people come together in some kind of a sanctuary, there to sing the praises of God. But first we make learners.” Isn’t that what God said? Mathēteusate, “Going, make learners of all the people” [Matthew 28:19-20].
We must hasten. What do we teach? What is our text? We do not manufacture our message; it is given to us by divine inspiration. Didaskontes, making learners, “teaching them all the things that I have commanded you” [Matthew 28:19-20]. The Gospel of Luke in the last chapter, 24, spells it out: “And the Lord spake to them concerning the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Kethuvim”—the Law, the Prophets, and the hagiographa, the Writings, the Book [Luke 24:44-47]. The Book! What a marvelous privilege to stand before God’s people and teach them the Book. There’s never a dull moment in it, I tell you.
In one of these classes the teacher asked the kids about Solomon. “What do you know about Solomon?” And one of the youngsters held up his hand and said, “He loved women and animals.” And the teacher said, “What do you mean?” And he replied, “The Bible says he had seven hundred wives and three hundred porcupines.”
There was a teacher, there was a teacher who was emphasizing the omnipresence of God; God is everywhere. So she asked a question, “Where is God now?” And a little boy held up his hand and she said, “Where is God now?” And he says, “He is in our bathroom at home.” And the teacher was amazed and said, “What do you mean He is in your bathroom at home?” Well, the little boy who had been picked up by somebody else said, “When I left the house, I heard my daddy beating on the door saying, ‘Good Lord, are you still in there?’” There’s nothing in the world like teaching the Word of the Lord.
Two things about it: one, this is the way we’re saved. First Peter 1:23-25, “We are born again . . . by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” James 1:18: “Of His own will begat He us by the word . . . that we might be a kind of firstfruits unto God from all of His creation.” We are saved, we are born again by the word of God [1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18]. And the other, our hope of heaven is the word of God. John 5:24, “Verily, he that heareth My word, and believeth . . . shall have everlasting life, shall not come into condemnation: but is passed out of death unto life.” Our hope of heaven: that blessed word [1 Peter 1:23, John 5:24].
May I take a leaf out of my life? In these days and years past, a long time ago now, there was a beautiful, gracious, gifted middle-aged woman here in our church, a professional woman. She went regularly to New York City on buying assignments. And upon a day there, she married the producer of Broadway plays in New York City and brought him back here to Dallas to live. She was very faithful in church and brought him with her. And to my infinite delight, upon a day like this, down the aisle he came confessing his faith in the Lord Jesus and giving himself to our Savior. Well, sweet people, I was ecstatic because in my heart, ever since I have been here, I have wanted us to have a drama department in our church.
Don’t you ever persuade yourself that Hollywood, and the television, and all those people invented the drama. They got it from us. In about 900 AD, the church began to teach the people through drama, through plays; they were called miracle plays. And in the thousands, in the eleven hundreds, in the twelve hundreds, thirteen, fourteen, in the fifteen hundreds, one of them is still going on: the Passion Play over at Oberammergau. All through Christendom, the church taught the people with drama. And I wanted to do that here in our church. I wanted to have a magnificent dramatic department. That’s why Ralph Baker Hall is built as it is, I built that thing in order for us to have a dramatic department.
Well, you cannot imagine, I say, the ecstasy I felt in my heart when that Broadway producer was converted and came down that aisle and I baptized him. Well, here again, a dream, a rainbow gone to smash—suddenly, he died of a heart attack, just broke my heart. Well, I went to the service to conduct the service, and when I stood by the casket with his wife, for the first time in my life I saw something I had never seen before. He lay there in the casket with his Bible in his hand, with his Bible in his hand. And I turned to his wife and said, “I’ve never seen that before.” With a Bible in his hand, lying there in the casket.
She said, “Pastor, when he was converted, he began to read the Bible all the time.” She said to me, “When he would shave, he would prop up that Bible by the window by the mirror, and as he would shave he would read that Bible. It was always on the seat by his side in the car. It was the way he began the morning. It was the way he ended the day in the evening. He always read his Bible.”
And she said to me, “When they placed him in the casket, I looked at him and his hands seemed so empty. And I had seen him so many times holding that Bible.” She said, “I went home, I went upstairs, I got his Bible, and I brought it and I put it in his hands. And I buried him with his Bible in his hands.”
Sweet people, when I die, when I die, I want you to place my Bible in my hand, my Book! I want to be buried with my Bible in my hands.
Sing them over again to me,
Wonderful words of life;
Let me more of their beauty see,
Wonderful words of life,
Words of life and beauty,
Teach me faith and duty:
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
Wonderful words of life.
[“Wonderful Words of Life,” Philip P. Bliss, 1874]
What a preciousness that God hath so plainly shown to us the way.