by Dr. W. A. Criswell
Text: Acts 17.22-23
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas Texas. And this is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled Just Passing By. In our preaching through the Word, we are in the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts. And this is one of several sermons that I have brought from Paul’s message to cultural, enlightened, university, ancient, glorious Athens:
“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are very religious. For as I passed by, I beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye worship not knowing, Him declare I unto you” Acts 17.22-23.
It is a Greek participle, passing by, “I beheld your devotions. Just passing by,” I looked and I watched. I beheld,” just passing by.”
So just passing by, I saw in front of the compound of the tribal king of Ire, inside Africa, in the big gate that leads into the main entrance, a little house. It was where the tribal king worshipped the devil. I asked him, “Why don’t you worship God?” He replied, “God is good and I am not afraid of God. But the devil is bad, so I try to placate the devil.” So there at the main entrance into his compound is his little house of worship, his devil house; just passing by.
In the middle of a village, an enormous peacock tree, an enormous thing. It is the god of the village, and they worship that peacock tree. I asked them, “You worship that tree?”
“No,” they said, “Not the tree, but there is a spirit that lives in that tree. We worship the spirit that lives in the tree”; just passing by.
An enormous stone, a huge rock in the road; the little old English car going along made a big detour around it. It had been there forever. They just built the road around it. I just stopped and looked at it. I was travelling so much anyway. An enormous stone, it is a sacred rock. It is worshipped. There is a spirit, there is a god that makes his abode there. And they worship the rock; just passing by.
There is a little idol that high, leaning against the mud wall. That’s the god of their village, and they worship that idol. I walked over and put my hand on its head, pulled it up and looked around; set it back in its place; just passing by.
One of the most interesting places in the earth is the Dome of the Rock. And the mosque on it ought to be called the “Dome of the Rock.” It’s at Mount Moriah where Abraham sacrificed Isaac (Gen. 22.1-40), where Solomon built his temple (I Kings 6.1-38). It was the threshing floor of Araunah that David brought before God to placate the plague (2 Samuel 25.18-25). It’s now the Mosque of Omar—it’s called in the world—it belongs to the Muslims. And on the inside of the Mosque of Omar, one of the two sacred of all sacred places of Islam, Mecca and then the Mosque of Omar, there in the rock—built around the great rock—there in the rock is a footprint. And that’s the footprint of Mohammed when he ascended up into heaven. And over there in a sacred place, they have some of the hairs from the head of the great prophet. And they have it in a bottle. And they fell from his head when he was wafted up to glory, and they captured those sacred hairs and put them in a bottle. And there is his footprint, and there are the hairs that fell from his head. And Mohammed ascended up into heaven, and he did it from that place, the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem; just passing by, just looking.
Did you see the pictures of the straw man of Egypt, the new dictator of Egypt? First pictures I saw of him, he had his feet and legs bare, and he was washing his feet, and he was washing his hands. They have to do it up to their elbows. No man ever enters into a Muslim mosque without washing his feet and his hands. And they go in for prayer.
I so wanted to go into the cave of Machpelah at Hebron where Abraham had buried Sarah. But I couldn’t. It was the hour of prayer, and I am an infidel, and no infidel can enter a sacred place like that at the hour of prayer. So I just stayed outside and watched the sanctified, watched the holy, watched the believers of the Muslim world go in, and I stayed outside, an infidel; just passing by, just looking, just looking.
Walking down a street in Lagos, you couldn’t get by. The entire street was filled for a block with white-robed men, all of them bowing toward Mecca five times a day; just passing by, just looking.
Going down the streets of Calcutta, Delhi, Agra, anywhere, you see the Sikhs. They have hair like a woman, long, beautifully kept, beautifully done up, usually under a turban, Sikhs, one of the Indian religious fanatics. And the reason you have the civil war in India was because of those Sikhs. By God’s grace and by God’s help, they tried to murder every Muslim that lived in India. That’s the reason you have Pakistan today. They divided it in two—Pakistan is one state, and India is another state—and the Sikhs precipitated it. They’d go up behind a Muslim, hit him over the head, put gasoline on him, set him on fire. And just like that, he’d be aflame and dead; they killed them by the thousands and the thousands and the thousands. So they divided the empire, the Sikhs; just passing by. Religious fanatics: just looking at them, just looking at them.
The holy men of India, the holy men, they’ve never bathed in their lives, and they are mostly naked. I’ve seen some of them naked on the streets of a big city like Calcutta—never bathed in their life—filthy and dirty beyond compare; religious men, holy men, devout men, godly men; just looking at them, just passing by.
The women with the little dot in the center of their forehead, almost all of the women with that little dot on their forehead, a little orange colored Chinese orange dot in their forehead, every one of them almost—I wonder where that dot came from and what it meant. Go up through those Indian temples, there where the women worship is a pan, a little flat pan about that big square. And after they have worshipped their Indian gods, they dip their finger in that pan, and it has little chalk. But it is very adhesive, and they put it in the center of their forehead. It’s the sign of the Hindu faith and the Hindu religion. And it’s the sign of nationalism and the resurgence of all that the nation of India stood for; very religious, very religious. And the gods they worship are the fiercest looking creations that any aberrated mind could ever devise or could conceive of. There they are worshipping, bowing down; just passing by, just looking, that’s all, just looking.
And in Japan and in China, all of their houses just so; they all have that upsweep, upsweep on the roof and on the gable, all of them practically are made like that; just looking at them. That’s so the spirits, when the evil spirits fall on the house, instead of coming down on the sides where an evil spirit might crawl in the window, crawl in a crack, or crawl in a hole, why, when the evil spirit falls on the house, it sweeps out and away and doesn’t bother any of the people who live in it. So the houses are all built like that with an upsweep on the edge of the house in order to keep the evil spirits out; just passing by, just looking. And everywhere, and everywhere, everywhere the little pagodas, the little shrines with incense, and rice, and the little utensils, and vessels, and worshiping, and praying, and chanting, and begging; just passing by, just looking at it.
You go down to France, go down Bavaria, anywhere in that country, there and over yonder and there and a little further, everywhere, little shrines , little shrines. The Virgin Mary appeared to a damsel in that field, a little shrine. She appeared to this wayfarer right there on the road, a little shrine. Here was a miracle that came to pass, a little shrine; just passing by, just looking at it, just beholding it.
And the bambino in Rome; ah, you haven’t seen Rome if you haven’t seen the bambino. A little doll that tall in a case made out of gold and silver and precious stones, and from the top of its head to the sole of its foot, that little doll, and around it, it looked to be about eighteen inches deep; gold and silver and jewels. They were the gifts of those who have been miraculously healed by the bambino, standing there just looking.
A dear woman came up and bowed down, prayed in her tongue. I couldn’t understand. Somebody sick and they take that little bambino to the bedside, and it heals the sick; just looking, that’s all, just looking. Just going around. Just passing by, and as I passed by, “I beheld your devotions, and I see that in all things you are very religious, very religious” (Acts 17.22).
It’s always been that way. Go to the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers in Southwestern Colorado, and there those mummies, been dead a long time before we discovered this continent, and there by the mummy is a bow and an arrow, a little pot, a little pan, a little spoon, a little dish. They were prepared for the long journey that was to come. Go to Egypt, the mummies there: they have a book with them, the Book of the Dead. And it describes for them the journey that is yet to come; always been that way, far back as the dawn of history will permit us to penetrate.
Same way in the Old Testament; it was never a fear in the Old Testament that the people would cease to worship God. It was just that they would worship the wrong god: the god of the Canaanite, or the Ammonite, or the Hittite, or the Jebusite—some god. Never was there any doubt in the Bible that they would cease to worship; it was just that they might worship the wrong one. When Elijah was on Mount Carmel, he said, “If Baal be God, worship Baal. If Jehovah be God, worship Jehovah” (1 Kings 18.21). But he didn’t say “If Baal or Jehovah be God, worship them, but if there’s not any God, forget it.” He didn’t say that. You see nobody ever thought of that.
Back there, that’s where the Samaritans came from. Everybody had to worship the god in the land. There are those Assyrians having taken away the Northern ten tribes, they settled heathen there in Israel and they were not prospering. So the people there sent word to the king of Assyria in Nineveh and said, “We’ve got to have somebody come and teach us the god of the land” (2Kings 17.26-27). So they got a Hebrew priest and sent him down there and taught them the Jews’ religion, and that’s where the Samaritans came from.
When Jonah lay asleep in the hole and the great storm came, every man called on the name of his god. And the shipmaster went down into the hole and saw Jonah there and said, “Awake thou that sleepest. Call on the name of thy God” (Jonah 1.6). Just add one more to the list of deities who they were seeking to intercede with to heal the storm.
Now, just passing by looking at it, just looking at it, what’s your reaction? What’s your reaction? Well, my reaction: wash my hands of the whole thing. It is superstition. It is stupidity and intellectual inanity; the whole thing, the whole mess. It makes you sick; tired of it. Wash our hands of it. The old gods—Astarte, and Baal, and Ashtoreth—put them all in the ash can, every one of them. The gods, the ancient gods—Isis and Osiris, Jupiter and Juno, Venus and Apollo—all of them, drop them in the trash can; such intellectual impossibilities.
No sane man would believe it, couldn’t. And the same way with the new gods, just throw the new gods in the trash can too—Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed, Mahavira, Lao Tse, Zoroaster, the god bambino—the whole spirit world of animism, throw them all in the trash can, all of it. And let’s make a clean sweep while we’re doing it. Stop it all—Jesus included. Stop it all; rid of it, rid of it. Such perversions, such impossibilities, such intellectual monstrosities, such aberrations of clear, right thinking, the whole religious world; dump it. Get rid of it, wash our hands of it, be through with it!
Now we are going to live a rational life. We are going to be intellectually sure in all of our persuasion. I’m going to live like a scientist now, and I am done with the spirit world, and I am done with God, and I am done with religion. I am through with it. I’ve washed my hands of it.
Isn’t that strange? But I’m not done with it. But I’m not done with it. I’m not even done with it in my mind, in my intellect, in my thinking, in my cerebrations, in my cogitation, up here. I can’t even get rid of it out of my mind, for this thing strikes, and it strikes, and it strikes. Anything, anything that is as ageless and as universal as the worship of God may have back of it a reality. These perversions I see as I pass by, these aberrations I watch as I just pass by, these false faiths, these fiery spectacles, these poor religious fanatics, as I look at them just passing by, it may be that they are but false, poor imitations of the great reality, that back of them is a real thing and a great fact.
It says over there that when Moses and Aaron did their miracles before Pharaoh, that Pharaoh called his magicians and his astrologers, and the Bible says, “And they also did in like manner with their enchantments. They cast down their rods and each man’s rod, became a serpent” (Ex. 7.11-12). They imitated the real thing. And it may be that what I see in the multifarious religions of the world is but an imitation of an actual fact, a great reality. Like an imitation of a Raphael, the painting of a Raphael, an imitation of it. The imitation would argue that somewhere there is a real Raphael. A fellow trying to sing like Caruso; his very imitation of Caruso would argue that somewhere there must have been a real Caruso. Like an imitation of a diamond; the very imitation argues for the fact that somewhere there might be a real diamond. Like these little two by scantling preachers going around this country, especially a few years past, trying to preach like George Truett; their imitation argued for the fact that somewhere there must have been a real George Truett.
So it is with these things that I see in the world as I pass by. Their very presence, though it’s aberrated, though it’s impossible, yet for the ages and the ages, their very imitation argues for a reality and a fact that lies back of what I see when I pass by. That’s in my head. I can’t get that out of my head.
Then there’s another thing. I meet that reality down every road I travel, every road I go; every road. I meet that fact, that fact, that great all-inclusive fact, that back, back, back of this there’s something more than my finite mind can conceive and my physical hands can grasp. I meet that reality down every road.
The science of medicine, the surgeon cuts, and he makes his incision, and he operates, and the suture is beautifully completed. Who heals? “The surgeons heals.” The surgeon heals? “The doctor heals.” The doctor heals? Who heals that wound? Who? There again I run into that fact, that reality. Who heals? Who binds that wound together? There’s not a surgeon that ever lived that could make one cell unite with another cell, much less those thousands of cells involved in healing that wound. Who heals? Somebody does. I meet it down every road that same fact, that same reality. In the world of biology, in the field of life, the science of living I meet that fact down every road.
A leaf, a common thing like a leaf; greatest factory in the earth, get any leaf, any leaf, any green leaf, put it under a microscope and look at it. The little old thing is filled full of cells, made up of cells. And on the inside of those cells are little round green bodies called chlorophyll bodies; chlorophyll. And those little round green bodies go around, and around, and around, and around. And through the process of photosynthesis, they’re making sugar. And that ability to manufacture sugar is the source of all living, the trees, the tubular roots, the potatoes, everything comes from that little leaf manufacturing. And then animals eat it, and so life is possible. Who tells that little green thing and that body of chlorophyll to go round and round and round and make that sugar? Who told it? Who showed it how, anywhere? I meet that reality again; a little old leaf.
Did you ever think about a watermelon seed? A watermelon seed, a little watermelon seed, put it in the ground. Along comes God’s shower. Along comes God’s sunshine. And that little old seed takes off its coat and goes to work. Pretty soon, pretty soon it is shoving through a little tiny stem, a weight of body two hundred thousand pounds bigger than itself! It weighs two hundred thousand times more than the seed weighs! That little old seed with its coat off, oh brother, he’ll put a beautiful green covering on the outside of that thing. And on the inside, he’ll put a beautiful white rind. And on the inside of that white rind, he’ll put the most gorgeous, luscious red you’ve ever saw in your life. And all through that red, that little old seed will stick one hundred fifty or two hundred other seeds just like itself that could do the same thing. Where did it get its rainbow colors? Where did it get its flavoring extract? Where did it get all of that engineering and architectural skill? How did it get in a watermelon seed? Much less talk about an egg and a sperm, and you.
Go out under the stars, look at astronomy, and I’ll meet that fact again. Read history and follow the story of mankind, these great movements that grow up and upward and out. Don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going somewhere towards some great, vast, final consummation. And I meet that fact again, that great reality again.
And as a pastor, as a pastor I meet it in human need. I meet it like I can’t say, like I couldn’t describe. A little casket on the inside, little blond girl, five years of age, pale, cold lily in her hands and the mother says, “Just one more time let me curl her hair and arrange her hair just so.” Then she sits by the casket disconsolate. By her side sits her husband. He just looks far away and says nothing. And then they send for me. Ah, if I just knew someone who could say, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not; for as such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19.14); if I just had someone who could say that.
“You see, I’ve got rid of all that intellectual stupidity and superstition, and I am living a life now of the intellectual scientists. I’m living a reasonable, rational life. And there is no room in it for God or religion. I am done with all that. I’m through with all that.”
And I don’t know what to say. And the evening shadows fall. And my life, my life grows dim and gray. And old age forces me to admit that my life is of no more consequence than a brown autumn leaf floating to the earth, of no more consequence than the grass of the field that is withered, of no more consequence than a derelict floating on the bosom of the sea.
And I come to the last stage of my journey. And my vision obscures, and my hearing dulls, and my tongue speaks vainly to form the last words. “The silver cord is loosed, and the golden bowl is broken, the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is broken at the cistern” (Eccl. 12.6).
The shadows are long and dark. And the valley is deep, and there is no one keeping step by my side, “O Christ, O God, if only, if only I could remember the words my mother taught me when I used to say as a little boy.”
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He leadeth me beside the still waters…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me” (Ps,23.1-4).
“I’ve decided to live a rational life, an intellectual life. I’ve decided to live according to reason. None of that superstition and none of that stupidity for me; I’m done with all that! Don’t have any Bible. Don’t have any church. Don’t have any Christmas. Don’t have any Easter,” don’t have any hope, don’t have any hope, don’t have any heaven, don’t have any life to come.
“I come to the end of the way. Where and what should I do? Bring me my Charles Darwin,” let me read the story of my life again. “Bring me Voltaire, and Huxley, and Tom Paine, and Bob Ingersoll, and all the rest of the infidels to comfort my soul when I die.” I think I better re-think my facts, I believe I had. “I don’t like to be a dupe of illusion, and fancy, and folly, and fable, and superstition, and supposition. I want to be a scientist too! I want to savor the facts too! I want to know the truth too! As I pass by and look at their devotions, I think it is inanity! I think it is stupidity and silliness, no piece of it appeals to my heart; none at all. I want the facts!” And what are they? “I’m seeking for the great reality.” And what is it? Tell me. Isn’t the biggest fact in this world God? And isn’t the greatest reality that ever happened in this planet, isn’t it Christ? Why, it seems to me that anybody that would be born into this world in a manger, live as a peasant, die on a cross, and yet, from Him, all of the ages are made before Him and after Him. He is the center of the calendar and the center of all time. Isn’t that a considerable fact?
Any one who could be the Savior to the souls of millions and millions, isn’t He a considerable fact? How is it that a scholarly man, an intellectual man, a rational man can deduce great conclusions from the facts of the world and yet never consider the supreme fact of all facts? Rocks are facts, and he deduces from the rocks the science of geology. Stars are facts, and from it he forms a great intricate system of astronomy. Fossils are facts, and from it he can read whole chapters of the history of the world. But what about the fact that is all consuming and all pervasive in heaven and in earth, in your own heart and soul and life? What about the fact of Jesus Christ? Is He not a fact? They can deduce great conclusions from the heavenly bodies but cannot deduce any conclusion at all from the heavenly character, the body and soul and sacrifice of the Son of God.
At a banquet last week, Dr. Reagan made a little speech to his class. And in it he quoted a parody. An astronomer looking up into the sky,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
I know exactly what you are.
Hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen gas
I know where you came from
And how you will pass.
Cold, remote, rational intellectuality; facts—isn’t this a fact? The wonder and adoration of a child:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are.
Way above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
When the sun at evening sets
When the grass with dew is wet
And you shine with all your might
Twinkle, twinkle all the night.
[Adapted from “The Star”; Jane and Anne Taylor, 1794]
“For we have seen His star, and have come to worship Him” (Matt.2.2). Looking at the ages of the rocks and finding beyond them the Rock of Ages. Looking at the flora of the fields and seeing beyond them the Lily of the Valley. Beholding the firmament of the galaxy of the heavens and seeing in glory and in beauty the Bright and the Morning Star; just passing by, just passing by. But beyond that poor devil with his mind benighted, worshipping a stick or a stone in Africa; and beyond that poor Sikh and Buddhist, bowing down before his god of silver and gold; and beyond the shrine on the road from Munich to Oberammergau, beyond is the great great truth of all truths.
Give me back my Bible, give me back my church, and the old hymns, give me back my beloved congregation, this precious fellowship, our church in Dallas. For whom you worship without knowing, beyond the stick and the stone, is the true “God that made the world and all things therein…and hath made of one blood all the men of the earth…and hath appointed their habitations; That they might seek after God; that we might find God” (Acts 17.24-27). The highest knowledge of all life; the great end and purpose of all living, the summum bonum of all excellence, that we might seek God, “if happily we can find Him…For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). This is the purpose, high, holy of life: that we might belong to God.
All right, let’s sing our song and while we sing it, somebody you, give your heart to the Lord. “Preacher, I believe those things, and today I give myself to them.” You come and stand by me. Somebody you, put your life here in the church. “I want to be baptized like it says in the Book.” “Here is my family. We all want to come into the fellowship of the church.” “Here I am, pastor,” one somebody you, while we sing the song, while we make appeal. While our people prayerfully wait in intercession, in this one moment, all of us praying together, singing together, while we make this appeal—you, will you come? In that balcony, in the top most balcony, anywhere as God should say the word and make the appeal, today, would you come? Would you come? While we stand and while we sing.
Copyright © 2013 The W. A. Criswell Foundation.
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Posted with permission.
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