Library Tour-Sermon Prep
November 6th, 1996 @ 8:15 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
[Tim Miller] 5901 Swiss Avenue, Dallas, Texas. Nobody knew it back in 1944 when a young pastor named W. A. Criswell first moved in here with his wife, Betty, and their young daughter, Mabel Ann, that this place would become a ground zero point: a place where every morning, without fail, Dr. W. A. Criswell had an appointment with his Lord. As a result of those meetings came some of the most powerful and influential sermons ever delivered from a Southern Baptist pulpit, but the real power behind the ministry of Dr. W. A. Criswell started right here every day.
Wouldn’t you love to go inside that library to the place that is still so precious to the dear pastor and, as a young minister yourself, to hear from him firsthand the techniques that he used to generate three sermons every Sunday? Well, Dr. Criswell has generously granted us his morning to show us the library and to teach you, step-by- step, the process he used to prepare all those wonderful sermons.
[Criswell] This library is my very life as a pastor and a preacher. Next to my devotions before God, my praying, and my seeking the face and will of the Lord, the library is the foundation for all I have sought to do in my over seventy years of being a pastor and a preacher. I say to young men who are beginning their work in the ministry: if it is possible, have your library at home. The reason for that is when I get up in the morning, I come to the library; and when the evening comes, if I have any time left from the work of the end of the day, I come to the library.
I have arranged the library in this fashion. All of this section of the books have to do with commentaries. The first beginning group of books are introductory to the Old Testament, then that is followed by individual commentaries on the books of the Old Testament. Then we come to the New Testament, and we have the books that are introductory to the New Testament as such; and these volumes on the introduction of the New Testament are followed by individual books that are commentaries on the books of the New Testament.
Now in this section of the library, the lower part of it is filled with volumes that are in series on the Bible itself: the dictionaries of the Bible and all of the things that pertain to the Bible as a whole.
This section of the library is filled with general books such as the Harvard Classics, which you see them up here, and then the encyclopedias which you see here; and then down here is one of the great commentaries of the world. This one is The Pulpit Commentary, and down here on this side is The Preacher’s Commentary. Then alongside of these books that are general like that, why, in that section of the library, I have historical books – the history of the church – and then right here I have doctrinal books: the great doctrines of the faith that are presented here.
Then up here in this section of the library are volumes of books composed of preachers’ sermons – great preachers of the faith – and these volumes and volumes are those collections of the sermons of great preachers. Then on the shelf up there at the top and then going around into the library in the next room here, in the additional room, those books are on missions. They are missionary books. Then this section of the library, all of this section of the library, all of this section is books of sermons.
And that leads me to speak of the most advantageous and helpful of all of the discoveries I have ever made in my long life as a preacher and as a pastor, and it comes about like this: I hold in my hand a copy of a wide-margin Bible; and by the side of a text, when a book of sermons came into my hand, by the side of the text in the margin, I wrote the number of the book and, dash, the page upon which the sermon is found. And I have done that for years and years.
Any time a book of sermons came into my hand, I gave it a title, just ad seriatim. I started at the first one and then went right on through the years and the years; and in that way, when I prepared my sermons, as you will hear in just a moment, I always read what some other pastor said about the text, said about the passage. And their ideas helped me world without end; and instead of spinning the sermon out of what little I knew, I added to it the ideas and the understandings of the great preachers of the world, and I enriched my messages endlessly with this little discovery of taking any book of sermons that came into my hand and by the side of the text or by the side of the passage writing the number of the volume and the page upon which that sermon was found.
In the building of this library, they placed a wing where I could add to it; and in the providences of God, the wing is far too small, but I have to use it to the best advantage that I know how. And right here are all of the books that I have on the missionary life of the people of God; and then down here I have the books of general poetry and literature; and then in here I have the books that pertain to the history of the church and to all the things that contribute to illustration and the magnification of the ministries of the people of God.
Then in here, in here, I have my sermons and my books. I have published fifty-four books, and they are all here. Then in this last section here, I have up there the great presentation of the inspiration of the Word of God; and then all of these sections here are filled with Bibles and instructions about how to use and to study the Bible. And one of the unusual things they made for me: there is a section up here on that row and on this row of the volumes that I have published, and they all are republished under a cover that makes it all look continuous.
We’re now going to follow the way I prepare a sermon – the steps I take. First of all, in preparing a message from the Bible, I look at the passage in Hebrew if it’s in the Old Testament, and I look at the passage in Greek if it is in the New Testament. For example, this is my Hebrew Bible, and we begin in Genesis 1:1: "Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim weʹet haʹaretz. In the beginning, God created the heavens." In Hebrew, when a word ends in an "i-m" it’s plural: "In the beginning, when God created the heavens," plural, "weʹet and haʹaretz – the earth."
The Bible starts off saying God created, plural, the heavens – all of those vast multitudinous universes out there that we look at as stars in the sky – plural. God created all of them, and then He created our earth. So the Bible begins, and thus it is when my passage I’m expounding is in the Old Testament, I look at the original in the Hebrew; and that helps me world without end in presenting the true message of God.
Then here is my Greek New Testament; and if the passage I am expounding is in the New Testament, why, I read the passage in Greek and study it in the original language. For example, I’m holding in my hand now the Gospel of John in Greek. "En archē ēn ho Logos kai ho Logos ēn pros ton Theon kai Theos ēn ho Logos. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was pros ton Theon – in the presence of God, face to face with God – and Theos ēn ho Logos – and God was the Word, and the Word was God." So it is as I prepare my message, why, I look at it first of all in the Hebrew or in the Greek.
Then when I get through looking at that passage in its original language, I study it in all of these commentaries that you have seen here in the library – these English commentaries. And the word that comes to my heart and to my mind as I study these commentaries on the passages, those studies bring unending wealth to my heart, to my mind; and they help me endlessly, marvelously, gloriously, as I prepare the message from the passage in the Bible.
Then after I have studied it in Greek or Hebrew and after I have studied the passage in English commentaries, then I use that marvelous, wonderful discovery that I made with the wide-margin Bible. I look at the passage in my wide-margin Bible, and I write down the numbers of the book and the pages on which the message is found. And there out of my collection of books, I take out those books of sermons, and I read what these famous and gifted pastors have written about that passage in the Bible. And it is unbelievable how many wonderful, wonderful ideas are brought to my heart and mind as I read what other preachers have said about the passage.
Then having gathered together all of the material that I can find on that passage, by that time a burning message has been born in my heart, and I sit down here at the desk and I write out from my own heart the meaning of that passage to me and the meaning that I can pray God will help me to preach it to other people.
Now, may I add one other thing to the sermon? Over here in this section of my library, I have these storages of the sermons that I have preached. They are there placed according to text starting at Genesis and going to the Revelation. Then there are other areas in which I have placed my sermons other than a text. For example, in this series that I have carefully placed in these cabinets, I will have a section, a collection, of Mother’s Day sermons; then a collection of patriotic sermons delivered around July 4; then a collection of Thanksgiving sermons; then a collection of Christmas sermons; then a collection of New Year’s sermons; then a collection of Easter sermons. But outside of those exceptions, all of my sermons and addresses are filed in those filing cabinets according to text.
Now let me add one other thing. On my desk, right in front of me as I study, are a few books. This is my Bible, and this book is an analytical lexicon of the Greek text. This book is the Greek text itself. This book is the dictionary of the Bible. This volume is a dictionary of the English language. This volume is a listing of all of the sermons that I have preached: first their text, then their title, and then the date that I delivered the message, and over here in this part I have the place where these messages were delivered.
Then the next thing here is my calendar, the dates that I live by; and when I have fulfilled the work of the day, I mark it out – and this is you and your coming here on this date, the eighteenth of November in 1996. Then the last volume up here before me is a concordance of the words in the Bible.
This little library book collection on a swivel, these are the books that I have at my left hand, close to my desk, that I can turn to immediately. Right here, for example, are the Bibles that I preach out of. These are the Bibles that I hold in my hand when I stand in the pulpit, and right here is that wide-margin Bible in which I have written the numbers of all of the books of sermons that are in my library. Then this volume here, these volumes here, are Ellicott’s commentary on the whole Bible starting at Genesis and going through to the Revelation. Then this is the American Commentary on the Bible, and it goes through here. Then this is Gray’s commentary on the Bible, and this is Jamison Fawcett and Brown’s commentary on the Bible. Then I have a hymnbook here out of which our people sing.
Now right here is the text of the Old Testament in Hebrew, and this is the text of the New Testament in [Greek], and these volumes here are interlinear publications of the Bible – in English and then the Greek or the Hebrew underneath; and in this way I have right at my fingertips all the things that I need here in the Bible.
This is a volume that is most unusual: it is the Bible in twenty-six different translations. And this volume here is a beautiful publication of the Bible that is in Hebrew and Greek, and is a study Bible in English with the Hebrew and Greek underneath it. And this is a topical concordance that gives you all of the passages in the Bible according to subject. These things are just at my left hand – always present and close by to help me in my study.
In my preaching through the Bible, I have come to the Gospel of Matthew, and I am going to preach an expository sermon on the first half of Matthew 20 and the last half of Matthew 19. Now, in the preparation for that sermon, first of all I get this Greek New Testament and I read this story in Greek, and in that way I look at every nuance, every shade of meaning, and I come to a wonderful understanding of what Jesus was doing when He makes a differentiation between working for God by agreement, by what you get out of it, or working for God just for the love of the Lord and leave the reward to Him. So I look at it in my Greek New Testament.
Then, next, I get my wide-margin Bible, and I turn to the passage in my wide-margin Bible, and I take my wide-margin Bible over here where I have the number of the book, dash, and the page upon which the sermon is published. And I look through my list, and I come across the [book]. Then I have another, and I look at my books, and I come across this Bible, this book; and I take it over here to my study, and I look at the number of the page upon which the preacher has delivered a message on this passage, and I read it carefully and prayerfully. Then I take the other book and turn to the passage, and I carefully read it, and I thank God for the insight of this other preacher.
On a sheet of paper, I make notes of all of these things. All the things that I have read in my Greek New Testament, I make notes of them; and all of these things that I have read in these books that are registered in my wide-margin Bible, I make notes of all of those things. Then having put all of that together, all of these notes, page after page of them, I humbly bow my head and pray to God to give me a message that I am to deliver to those dear people. And God never fails in answering that prayer. I write down all of the things that God puts in my heart about that passage in the twentieth and nineteenth chapters of Matthew, then I make an outline of it; and I keep that outline and file it over here in this cabinet, and I stand up and I preach, and I preach according to that outline.
I make an outline on a folded piece of paper, and there are four pages to it: one page, turn it, two page, three, four. And I make a full outline of that sermon on that folded page, and when I stand up there to preach – I have a good memory – I preach down this page, then I turn it and I preach down that page, then I cross over and preach down this page, and then I turn it and I preach down the last page. And all of my sermons are prepared like that, and I deliver all of them just like that.
Now, of course, while I’m up there extemporaneously preaching, why many other things come to my heart and mind; but the great mass of the message lies in that outline that I have made on those four pages.
When I speak to preachers, and particularly young ministers, I try to tell them as fervently as I know how: when you are called to the church and stand up there in the pulpit, you make an announcement to them that you want to be left alone in the morning. Nobody call you, nobody ring the telephone, nobody knock at the door, nobody invite you to a committee meeting, nobody to expect you in the foyer or in the presence of the people. You tell them you want to be left alone in the morning: nobody seek you out, call you, or interfere with your work dedicated to God in the morning.
Then tell them that you will do anything in the afternoon to further the work of the people of God: you’ll go to any committee meeting, you’ll make any visit, you’ll do anything to help build the church. Then at night: tell them that at night you’ll attend any meeting, any convocation, any group that furthers the message and ministry of the gospel; but you want to be left alone in the morning. And take that morning every morning and dedicate it to prayer, to study, to sermon preparation.
And I can tell you this: If you’ll do that, when you stand up to preach the following Sunday morning, they will know that you have been with God, and the Lord will bless you and the people will be blessed by your dedication. There’s not anything that could mean more to you and could mean more to the church than that you keep that morning for God.
Now I have an aside to that word. The average length of a pastorate in our Baptist denomination is hardly two years. The preacher burns out. He comes to the end of his way. But if you will do as I have outlined – keep that morning for God – you will grow and grow and grow in your pastorate; and when you come to the end of two years, you’ve hardly started; when you come to the end of ten years, you’ve hardly started; and after you’ve been there and pastored the church for over fifty years, you still have as many marvelous and wonderful things to preach as you did at the beginning. There’s not anything that will enrich the course of a preaching ministry and a pulpit declaration of the saving grace of God as keeping that morning for the Lord and standing up there in that pulpit with a message from heaven.
Sometimes I say, "You know, a preacher pace up and down his study crying, ‘O God, what shall I preach this coming Sunday? What shall I say?’" And I add, "I also pace up and down my study. Only my concern and burden is, ‘Dear God, I’m going to die before I even get through this preaching of the message of Christ that I find in Holy Scripture.’"
Did you know, one time when I came here to Dallas, at the beginning of my ministry, I announced that I was going to preach through the Bible? They had never heard of anybody doing that. So the deacons gathered around me and said, "Young pastor, you’re going to kill the church. Nobody is coming to the church to hear a man preach on Zechariah or Habakkuk or Nahum. I don’t even know where they are in the Bible." But I did it: I started at Genesis, and I preached for eighteen years through the Bible. Where I left off Sunday morning, I started Sunday night, and I preached through to the Revelation.
I had a problem, I do admit: you couldn’t get in the church house. The people so thronged to hear those sermons on the Word of God and there wasn’t room for them in our large sanctuary, and that’s when I began preaching twice every Sunday morning. And many, many of those sermons have been published in the fifty-four books that have been published under my name.
[Tim Miller] Fifty-four books over fifty years – incredible! And now it’s time for you to carry on wherever the Lord leads you. Thank you, Dr. Criswell, for those long, faithful hours out of the public spotlight, pouring over those books, on your knees for God, and one incredible pulpit ministry.