|Vol. 14, No. 2, Mar. - Apr. 1985
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
GOD'S SPIRITUAL HOUSE
(A meditation on Psalm 122)
WE have no information as to the historical setting of this psalm of
David's. Although it begins in a personal way, "I was glad ...", it is certainly
not an individual matter for it is about a corporate stirring up of the
people of God to seek His face. It touches something even deeper than emotions,
though it includes them, for it reaches right down into their hearts to
stir them spiritually, and it does so to all alike, however different they
may be in themselves and whatever are their ways of thinking in other matters,
or their cultural backgrounds. The psalm is surely given to us that by the
power of the Holy Spirit we may find we are stirred up to a new devotion
to the Church of Christ which He has purchased by His own blood.
Introduction. Verses 1 and 2
"I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the
Lord. Our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem."
The words 'shall stand' are a mistranslation; the speakers claim that
now they are actually standing within Jerusalem's gates. The theme is the
house of God and its significance to those who are privileged to stand
in it. We will not be concerned with the arguments about when it was written.
If David wrote it, then it clearly speaks of the time before Solomon's
Temple was built. On the other hand there are those who find references
in it to the time of Nehemiah and so judge that it refers to a time after
the exile. It is of the very essence of the psalm that it partakes of the
timeless nature of so many Scriptures. It can therefore apply to many Old
Testament occasions and can equally be applicable to us today.
The Old Testament view of history has as one of its essential marks
that it overcomes the time factor that separates historical events from
one another, and so is fundamentally different from the modern approach
to history which majors on the time factor. We look at history nowadays
in terms of the lapse of time between events, the stretches of the centuries
which divide one event from another. The Bible way of looking at history
is quite the reverse. It looks at the events themselves, as though the time
between them is of little or no importance.
The Bible, then, gives us a vista of Jerusalem as if we were on ground
level, and not from the bird's-eye view of modern thinking, which looks down
on great stretches of time as though on a map. By the Scriptures, though,
we put ourselves right down into history and look along it, seeing events
in a line, with the distances between them of no importance. It is the events
which are meaningful and we need to think of Jerusalem in this way.
This psalm is about David's Jerusalem, but it equally applies to the
heavenly Jerusalem to which we in this dispensation are come (Hebrews 12:22)
and in which all who belong to the Lord Jesus have a part. Moreover it looks
beyond that to the heavenly Jerusalem as the eternal and ultimate city
described in Revelation 21. Being down on a level with them, we see one
behind the other, and the views of Jerusalem merge so that they are seen
as one, and in fact spiritually they are one and the same.
So it is that as we read about the Old Testament Jerusalem in this psalm,
it suddenly dawns upon us that now our feet are standing within
its gates. It is the same city. We are the same people of God. We belong
to that city as much as those men of God of old ever did. This is the corporate
unity that stretches across the centuries and in our time binds us together.
With that background in mind, I want us to apply these things in the
psalm to ourselves and to think of ourselves as being in the city of God,
the heavenly Zion. We are right to do so but we must be sure to be truly
involved with a group which, in however small a way, does represent the Church.
When we regularly meet together, we are the people of God in that place;
we are part of the great heavenly nation and we are in the spiritual reality
of Zion. As we gather together we can then right affirm that "our feet are
standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem". We are one with God's people down
the ages as [21/22] well as today. That is why we
may take what the psalmist says here about the city of God and apply it to
1. Unity of Fellowship in Christ. Verse 3
"Jerusalem, that art builded as a city that is compact together;
The first feature of this city is its compactness; it consists of those
who are 'bound firmly together'. The psalmist may here have spoken of its
architectural compactness, a city with its buildings all close together,
or he may have had in mind the social unity which is expressed in the Coverdale
Version which reads: "Jerusalem is a city that is at unity in itself".
All who belong to Zion know that they belong together. They have the tremendous
gift that God gives to His people in that they are a community, with the
accent on the unity.
He gives us unity in the fellowship of the Spirit in which we are firmly
bound together; we are all together, whether we like it or not! Moreover
this togetherness is not merely a theoretical togetherness but one which
is fully understood and always observed. Peter says that we are "as living
stones, built up a spiritual house ..." (1 Peter 2:5). It may help us to
understand our togetherness if we consider this spiritual image of an actual
We are not inanimate objects, dead stones to be placed together in an
outward arrangement, so the apostle was careful to tell us that we are
living stones with living relationships with other stones who
have the same life. We are not just dead blocks, since God has given us
life; nevertheless there is value in our realising that we are like stones
entirely at the disposal of the Architect who puts us together in accordance
with His own plans. It is by no means always as we would plan; indeed He
puts each stone alongside other stones which may well not be the kind of
fellows which they would have chosen. In His overall plan, however, this
is how He is compacting the city together in unity.
The danger is that we may resist His plans or at best endure the juxta-position
just as long as we have to, being glad to get out of it as soon as we can.
We must remember that it is His city and for the time being we must accept
that God has put us together as He wishes, giving to us the unity of the
fellowship of His people. I have often preached on this -- so much so that
people laughingly misquote:
Ten-thousand thousand are his texts,
But all his sermons one!
but I have done so because I am convinced of its great importance. At
times I have had to speak to those who started off by being a mere collection
of units who congregated at times for an hour or so and then dispersed
and I have tried to get across to them this great lesson that such a procedure
is not at all what the Church is. We are not just an aggregation of bits
and pieces but parts of a whole which God intends to knit together in unity.
We need to consider carefully what this involves.
From a human point of view we are a miscellany of all sorts, but from
the divine point of view there is a plan in our having been put together
with other believers, just as each stone is part of the whole building
design; each part belongs together and each needs its companions. Your
fellow believers may be those whom you hardly know; there may be some whom
you do not understand and even some whom you do not like, but the Lord
is knitting you together in unity. That is what the Bible means when it
speaks about our being at peace with one another; not a detente but
a holy harmony.
2. Unity in Worship of the Name. Verse 4
"Whither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord, For a testimony
unto Israel, To give thanks unto the name of the Lord." Another version
reads: "To which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed
for Israel ...".
Here in the various tribes we have the same thought of the miscellaneous
and heterogeneous nature of the Church of Christ. It is described here
and made to lead on to their essential unity. They were an extraordinary
mixture, those twelve tribes of the Lord. How different they were! There
were big tribes and little tribes, peaceful and warlike, rich and poor;
there were all sorts. I am sure that by means of this and the history of
Israel God intended to get this message across, the truth of unity in diversity.
What a mixture they were and yet they all went up to Jerusalem, to the
house of the Lord, for they all belonged to Him. And they went to give
[22/23] thanks to the name of the Lord, for this was the bond
which held them together. It is true that the miscellany of different people
were for a long time united by the city itself. There it was, at the centre
of the nation and it provided a focal point of unity for the whole people.
That was why Jeroboam set up his rival system, for he knew that even after
the division of the ten tribes and the two, men would still go up to Jerusalem.
It was natural for them to do so, for the city was the focal point of the
I would suggest, though, that before Jerusalem became this rallying
point, there was something else, something deeper and higher, which united
the tribes. When they did go up to Jerusalem it was to give thanks to the
name of the Lord. That name was what united them. There was precious little
else that did. They were one in the fact that they worshipped the name of
the Lord. However different we may be, that is also the uniting factor in
our fellowship. The tribes came together because that was a decree for Israel;
that was what the Lord intended for them, to be worshippers of the name.
What does that name mean? In the Old Testament there are many titles
given to the Lord, He is Jehovah-Sabbaoth, Jehovah-Jireh, Jehovah-Nissi,
Jehovah-Shalom and many more. This is the multiple name of the Lord our God,
a name which has many facets. I can say, 'This is what the Lord is to me,
and this is what He is to my fellow-believer', so that in the end it is this
name which binds us together. We may be different the one from the other,
but we come together to give thanks to this glorious and all-inclusive name.
It is summed up for us in the New Testament in the words of the angels, "A
Saviour who is Christ, the Lord" (Luke 2:11). This binds us together in the
unity which God has given us, the unity of the precious name of Jesus. Those
who honour that name are our brothers and sisters, and we are all one in
Him. The tribes greatly differ from one another, but they are one in that
they go up together to give thanks to His name.
3. Unity under the Authority of His Throne. Verse 5
"For there are set thrones for judgement, The thrones of the house
In Jerusalem all is under the authority of the throne of David. In those
days the basis of unity was spiritual and temporal, the temple and the
palace, the priest and the king. This reveals another aspect of the unity
of God's people; it was given to them under the authority of His rule.
We think, therefore, of Him not only as the Name whom we adore but also
as the King whom we obey. Among God's people, in God's city, there are set
thrones for judgment, the thrones of the royal house from which the law
is given, under the sway of which we live our lives and to which we give
all our loyalty. This is a further feature of the unity which God gives
to us His people. It is that one and all we owe our allegiance to Him. Our
thoughts, our words, our deeds are all under the authority of King Jesus;
the way we live our lives and indeed, the way we live our lives together,
one with the other, is to be altogether under His authority. He has given
us His Word and His Spirit to regulate our lives, to regulate our community
and to regulate our individual thinking and serving.
And we are united under that command. It is because we have that united
allegiance that we should be more united than others who lack this total
commitment to Christ's Word and His Spirit. It would be a great shame if
it were not so. Our feet are standing within the gates of Jerusalem and therefore
we put ourselves willingly and gladly under the authority of King Jesus.
When He speaks, we obey; when His Spirit moves in our hearts, we follow.
I might have said that there is nothing that unites the Lord's people
like the worship of His name, but I would then have to say that there is
nothing that unites them like the authority of His rule. Each one of us
individually learns to place himself or herself under that authority, but
more than that, we also do so as a body of God's people. Thrones for judgment.
There we humble ourselves and our own judgment and are glad to acknowledge
His instead. That binds us together.
4. Unity in our Love for His Church. Verses 6 and 7
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem' They shall prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces."
Love for Christ's Church is all important. I hope and believe that God
will plant in our hearts this love for the heavenly Jerusalem. Perhaps we
need to recapture it. Again and [23/24] again we have
to fight the legacy of individualism among evangelicals which tends to be
concerned over spiritual things in a purely personal way -- 'Him and me!'
Now this is a part of the truth, and a most precious part, but we must also
think in terms of fellowship. We need to love the community of God's people.
In spite of the contradictions and follies to be found among us, God has
given us His city for us to love and pray for. The Church of Jesus Christ.
I wonder how much you care for it. How much do you love it? It is a beautiful
entity, though it may seem to be clad in rags at times. I care for it and
I pray for its peace and I long for myself and all of us as we minister that
we shall see the upbuilding of Zion as a result of our prayers and labours.
We must always have in our distant vision the glory of God's city as shown
in Revelation 21 with the beauty of that heavenly Jerusalem. That shows
us God's people as they will one day be; let us strive with all our power
that the spiritual reality may become true now.
Conclusion. Verses 8 and 9
"For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be
within thee. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek
thy good. "
If anyone asks us why we should do this, the answer is: "For my brethren
and companions' sakes". The psalm stresses the corporate nature of God's
people and the glories of Jerusalem as a unity, something often lost sight
of, but as we come to its close we see that the concern is truly for men
and women as individuals. When all is said and done, Jerusalem is still made
up of individuals, so that the Church can only be glorious as it is composed
of you and me, actual living people. When I seek the good of the Church,
I do so for the sake of individual Christians whom I know and love. I know
them by name. I want them to have the Lord's richest blessing. I know, however,
that such blessings call for new experiences of the reality of Zion
, so it is for their sakes that I pray for the city and its peace.
But there is a further and even higher reason. I seek the good of Jerusalem
"for the sake of the house of the Lord" or rather because this is God's
own home and the delight of His heart. More than all else, it is for
His sake that we must seek the good of the heavenly city. This city
that is so compacted together and governed by the authority of the throne
is not only the home of God's people; it is God's own home. For His sake,
then, let us pray and work for His full purpose to be realised among His
HEALTHY CHURCH LIFE
"The fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians
BOTH Paul's opening wishes for the Corinthian church and his closing
wishes and command to its members were that they should be 'perfected' (1
Corinthians 1:10 and 2 Corinthians 13:9, 11). The word employed is one used
to describe the activities of James and John when they were 'mending
' their nets (Matthew 4:21). What the two men were doing was putting right
what was wrong, repairing and adjusting those nets of theirs. And that was
what the apostle, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was endeavouring
to do with the church at Corinth.
It is clear that more than two letters were written by Paul to the Corinthians,
and it is by no means certain that the epistles reached Corinth in the
arrangement and order in which they have been preserved for us. My purpose
is not to discuss this, but simply to take them in the way in which the
Holy Spirit presents them to us in our Bible, considering them as Part I
and Part II of a divine message to all assemblies everywhere.
I suggest that the first Letter is largely concerned with matters which
called for reparations, while the second stresses the divine provision
for a healthy church. Taken thus, we find the letters complementary to
each other, the first providing a diagnosis of a sick church and the second
offering the spiritual remedy. May I explain? [24/25]
All through 1 Corinthians the reader becomes growingly aware that there
were things that were wrong in the assembly there, but he begins to wonder
if the various troubles were only some of the symptoms of a basic underlying
disorder. The apostle passes from one matter to another, disclosing actions
and attitudes which needed correcting, but not until the end of the Letter
does he bring to light the fundamental disorder which was the root cause
of their sickly condition.
Apart from some small matters dealt with in the Pastoral Epistles, there
is no other New Testament Letter which deals with regulations for church
procedure. The rest of the Epistles are devoted to spiritual principles
which had to be worked out under the Holy Spirit in each individual assembly,
rather than specifying instructions as to the functioning of a church. Why
does this letter differ from the others? Was it perhaps a diagnosis of a
disorderly condition? Or must we take it as a pattern for church life?
I am not suggesting that the apostolic allusions are unimportant. Not
that! I would not dare to discredit or disregard any Scripture, however
inconvenient it might be. Nevertheless it may well be that we get a clearer
sense of spiritual values if we accompany the apostle in what may be called
his enquiries in seeking to diagnose a sick situation among God's people.
What was wrong with the Corinthians? They boasted of their superior
knowledge, they split up into cliques with divided loyalties, even making
baptism what it was never meant to be. They tolerated impurity, they took
one another to law, they talked when they should have been silent, they
threw off reasonable restraints. They made a mockery of the Lord's Table,
they despised those who had less spectacular gifts than they had and they
threatened to turn what should have been joyful and loving worship into unholy
and bewildering confusion. Paul had to beg them to stop being childish (14:20)
and to come back to their senses (15:34 N.I.V.).
Clearly many things at Corinth were not as they should have been. At
each point Paul gave some helpful comment but, as we pass from one disorder
to another, it is almost as if he himself was perplexed concerning the root
cause of their unhealthy condition. When we reach Chapter 13 we feel that
perhaps he had put his finger on the trouble and that it was a matter of
lack of love. In fact, however, the diagnosis did not end there but followed
on with further concern about the happenings in their church meetings which
betrayed the malaise in their corporate life. This occupies the whole of
Chapter 14. Lack of love, then, was not in itself the peculiar problem at
Corinth, so we still seek the fundamental diagnosis as we move on into Chapter
THIS is the great chapter on resurrection and in it, so I myself feel,
we reach the answer to what we have been seeking. The basic ill which could
give rise to all the rest was disbelief or uncertainty about the resurrection.
"How say some of you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (v.12);
"If the dead are not raised ..." (v.16); "if the dead are not raised at
all ..." (v.29); "If the dead are not raised ..." (v.32); "but some will
say, How are the dead raised?" (v.35). This is an amazing state of affairs
in a Christian assembly. Would it be too much to suggest that all their other
wrongs were due to this basic error? Those who are wrong on the resurrection
are wrong on everything. It appears from the argument of verse 16 that it
was not only the personal resurrection of Christ that was in dispute, but
the possibility of that resurrection working effectively in believers. A
church whose members are not enjoying the reality of fellowship with Christ
in His death and in His resurrection is indeed a sick church.
One day we will all experience a literal bodily resurrection, as this
chapter goes on to affirm, but even now for us eternal life can only be
resurrection life and this presupposes an acceptance of the principle of
the cross. The Church is regarded as being risen with Christ. In His death
we all died, and in His resurrection we were all raised from the dead (2
Corinthians 5:14-15). This is what the whole of the New Testament teaches.
We must note Paul's use of the present tense in his famous words: "Thanks
be unto God who gives us (now) the victory through our Lord Jesus
Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57). The Corinthian assembly, alas, was not a victory
celebration but a battlefield of unhappy defeats.
I have suggested that Paul's First Epistle was largely a diagnosis.
His Second Letter surely provides and sets out in considerable detail the
divine remedy, namely a daily experience of resurrection life based upon
a daily willingness to take up the cross. We remember that it was the Lord
Jesus Himself who laid this down as a condition for discipleship (Mark 8:34).
In order [25/26] that this should be seen as a matter
of experience as well as teaching, Paul did not hesitate to reinforce the
truth with autobiographical illustrations, as we discover when we begin
to study 2 Corinthians. It is true that this is to be an individual experience,
as exemplified by Paul's own story, but individuals are members one of another
in Christ and only by their accepting the working of the cross in their
relationships can there be any hope of a healthy church life.
Paul was not merely writing to individual saints in Corinth; he was
writing to have a sick church turned into a healthy one. They needed not
only to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God, but also
the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). It is a sad fact
that there seems at times to be a big gap between individual Christians
who talk of glorying in the cross and Christian communities where that truth
is demonstrated in their fellowship life and relationships. This surely
ought not to be the case.
IN common with many other Christians, I have sometimes been in danger
of some confusion as I have worked my way through 1 Corinthians. May I
suggest, in all humility, that there can be real spiritual gain in reading
straight on into 2 Corinthians, as though the two letters are parts of
a whole. There can be no doubt that in this second letter great emphasis
is placed on sharing in Christ's death in order also to share in His resurrection.
The opening verses give an intimate revelation of some drastic experience
which Paul passed through. We do not know, nor do we need to know, the
actual circumstances; we only know that he described it as "so great a
death" (1:10). The important lesson was not so much God's wonderful power
to deliver but the divine principle which he had learned by passing through
it. He, the great apostle, had to learn "that we should not trust in ourselves,
but in God which raiseth the dead" (v.9).
Despairing, as he did, of his own ability to continue, he cast himself
on the Lord and so had a new experience of the reality of the God of resurrection.
When I was younger I used to hear godly men calling for their hearers to
'Let go and let God'. Nowadays this is usually rejected as being unrealistic.
For my part I agree that this is only part of the truth and is dangerous
if it is taken in isolation, but I suggest that it does put into a pithy
phrase a principle which is truly Biblical, given that the action is one
of letting go to God. If the Corinthians had 'let go' of their partisanships,
their intolerance of the convictions of others, their exaggerated attempts
at liberty and their preoccupation with sensational gifts and learned to
trust in God who raiseth the dead, they would surely have been a community
enjoying constant renewal.
This brings me to another point mentioned in the letter, namely, human
weakness as a basis for divine power. Unlike many modern Christians, Paul
freely admitted the diminution of his physical powers (4:6). Whether we think
of him as an ageing man, conscious that even if he had had experiences of
bodily healing, his was still a 'mortal', that is, a dying body; or whether
we interpret his words as stressing the wear and tear of his sufferings for
Christ, the fact remains that he recognized that his outward man was decaying,
even while he rejoiced that his inward man was being renewed day by day.
Perhaps the acceptance of the one brought about the enjoyment of the other.
It is sometimes like this.
In any case this most important passage in Chapter 4, beginning with
the reminder that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" is truly relevant.
In the course of it the apostle makes a quotation from Psalm 116 which
itself is an amazing commentary on this whole matter of resurrection life.
He adds to the psalmist's claim, "I believed, therefore did I speak" his
own personal assertion that he spoke out of experimental proving of the
reality of the God of resurrection. The context shows that what he believed
was bound up with the fact that death was working in him: "So then
death worketh in us" and that the consequence of this was a free flow of
life for others.
It was working in him because of his faith-committal to God. It was
not accidental; it was not merely mortal decay; it was the operation of
the cross in his daily procedure, brought about by his own acceptance of
the death of Christ in terms of glad surrender to the will of God. "I die
daily", he had affirmed in 1 Corinthians 15:31. He now amplified this statement
by saying that he was always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus,
that the life also of Jesus might be manifested in his body (v.10).
How different would have been the story of the Corinthian church if
its members could rightly have claimed with Paul: "We which live are always
delivered unto death for Jesus' sake ...". All their petty differences would
have perished "for Jesus' sake", and they would have had a taste here on
earth of the heavenly unity of the glorified. After all, the Holy Spirit
is given as a foretaste of the experience when "what is mortal will be swallowed
up of life" (5:4-5).
I have known those who confessed to having had a great spiritual crisis,
the crisis of the cross, in which the whole issue of their being dead with
Christ has been made real to them in an overwhelming way so that they have
never been the same again. I understand that George Muller was such a one.
Perhaps it could be argued that Paul had such a moment in his life. But,
crisis or no crisis, it is plain that for him the challenge came up again
and again, as it does for us, and that he accepted the way of the cross,
confident by faith that this was the secret of resurrection life. As we read
through 2 Corinthians we find the truth set before us in many aspects, not
just as a matter of doctrine but of day to day experiences, sometimes painful
but always God-glorifying.
I began this article by referring to Paul's prayer for the Corinthians
that they should be perfected, The N.I.V. renders his last appeal to them
in these words: "Aim for perfection" (13:11). It may sound like impossible
idealism. It is not that. It simply means that in church life as well as
in our private experiences, the goal should be likeness to Christ. That is
the realm for the operation of "the fellowship of the Holy Spirit".
SECRETS OF SPIRITUAL CONSTANCY
"I have told you all this to guard you against
the breakdown of your faith." John 16:1
J. Alec Motyer
1. THE SAFEGUARDING POWER OF PRAYER
IN His last long discourse, the Lord Jesus explained that His words
were intended to safe-guard His disciples against the possibility of spiritual
breakdown: "These things have I spoken unto you, that you should not be
made to stumble" (John 16:1).
The verb 'to cause to stumble', skandalizo, is an important one
and is variously rendered, with possibly the most helpful translation that
given by the N.E.B.: "to guard you against the breakdown of your faith".
By this verse we see the purpose that the Lord Jesus had in the teaching which
comprises the three most important chapters of John 14, 15 and 16. It provides
a recipe which will keep us from breaking down spiritually.
A concordance study gives us a passage which encapsulates all that the
New Testament implies in its use of skandalizo. This is found in Romans
14:21: "It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything
whereby thy brother stumbles". If we consider the passage which leads up
to that verse we will find that a certain number of other verbs are used
before what we may call this key verb appears. There is "grieve" and "destroy
not" (v.15) and a very strong verb translated "overthrow" (v.20) which has
the implication of pulling down a building. Then there are the opposite ideas
which contrast with these three negatives, namely, "the things which make
for peace, and the things whereby we may edify one another" (v.19). These,
then, are the ideas which cluster around the verb skandalizo . There
is a kind of behaviour in others, both Christians and non-Christians, and
also in the incessant pressure of circumstances, which can pull down a believer
and work to destroy him.
This is all real to experience. The world is littered with people who
once ran well. Why did they stop running well? Something caused them
[27/28] to stumble; it entered in as a grief, it imperilled their
peace and then it went on to erode the foundations of faith. This happens
to some people at some times; it is a threat to all of us all the time.
We call it 'backsliding'. In John 16:1 the Lord Jesus exposed the danger
and He also prescribed the remedy. This remedy is found in the totality
of the Lord's discourse recorded in John Chapters 14 to 16 and on into His
prayer in Chapter 17.
I have tried to sort out four lines of teaching which appear in these
chapters, so that we can say to one another, Well, at least these are
some of the things which will guard us against the breakdown of our
faith and give us greater knowledge of the ongoing peace and edification
which there is in Christ. The first of the four is The Safeguarding Power
1. 14:13-14 "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do,
that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in
my name, that will I do."
This has often been called the blank cheque of prayer. The words 'anything'
and 'whatsoever' inform us as to the bounty of God and so entice us into
the place of prayer. What is it that you need? What is it that is grieving
you, destroying your peace and pulling you down instead of building you
up? Have you prayed about it? Have you availed yourself of this counsel
of your Lord?
The first part of verse 13 and the first part of verse 14 are parallel
in their command that we ask. Why then did the Lord suddenly introduce that
second part of verse 13 with the allusion to the Son and the Father? Twice
over the Lord stresses the bounty and the liberality that is there waiting
for us in the place of prayer; twice over He drives it home, but why does
He place in between the explanation: "That the Father may be glorified
in the Son"? May I use an illustration? If you are skilled in the running
of a car, for you to say that it is running well would be using a statement
in a different way from me. You would base your appreciation of the car
on quite a different set of evidences from mine if I said that it was running
well. What I would mean is that I know what it does when I do things to
it. I know what happens when I turn on the ignition and I know what happens
when I press the accelerator. I know the feel of a car that is running well.
You however, if you are skilled, know what is going on under the bonnet
and have an informed basis on which to base your opinion.
I suggest that this is what is happening in these statements about prayer.
In the first part of verse 13 and the first part of verse 14, the Lord
Jesus is speaking the plain truth of that fact when it is running well;
it is a simple matter of asking and receiving: But the second part of verse
13 lifts up the bonnet, as it were, and lets us look inside to see what
is going on in the unseen realm. In effect the transmission whereby this
thing works with power is introduced to us: the fact of the Father in heaven
and His own work of mediation. In the experience of prayer made and prayer
answered in the name of Jesus, the Father is glorified because the prayer
goes to Him through the Son and the answer comes back from Him through the
There is no other way of explaining how, in the matter of prevailing
prayer, the Father is glorified in the Son. It is as though the Lord says:
'See what is going on when you pray to Me and your prayer goes through Me
to the Father, and see what happens when the answer comes back from the Father
through the Son'. Prayer is therefore a living experience and a proof of
the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus speaks of prayer
and answers to prayer as that which is powerful to safeguard us from the
breakdown of faith. It imposes on our experience the wonder of our salvation.
Praying as those whom God has saved through the mediation of Jesus Christ,
we have the blessed experience of a proof of the real fact that Jesus is
at the Father's side and that His mediation is real and effective.
2. 15:7 "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever
ye will, and it shall be done unto you."
Once again we find the great word 'whosoever', and notice that there
is no diminution of that wide-open word. "And it shall be done unto you."
Here again we have the glorious bounty of God to His praying people. Notice,
however, that it is all related to a condition. If you abide ...
then it shall be done. Not that this in any way reduces the dimensions
of the 'whosoever'.
People often ask, 'Do we have to say in prayer, Thy will be done?
Do we have to talk like this?' Well, ask yourself what lies behind that
question. [28/29] Why do people look tragedy in the
face and so often resignedly say, 'Thy will be done'? One surmises that
the implication of this is that if only we had the running of things, how
much better that would be. If only we could ask and get just what we wanted!
But see what you are doing when you ask in His name. You are praying
in the name of the One in whom all the fullness dwells. This cannot be limitation
at all, this bringing our requests into the name of this One. It rather
lifts up the 'whatsoever' into a much larger bounty than we could ever hope
to achieve. Furthermore, to pray in the name of Jesus is the blessed safeguard
of prayer. I affirm one thing to you and it is this: that if we got everything
we ask for in prayer, when we ask for it and in the measure in which we
ask for it, we would stop praying tomorrow. We would find that we had far
too dangerous a weapon in our hands. For such a liberality of prayer and
such an automatic efficaciousness of prayer committed to our poor wisdom
would be nothing less than a gun pressed to our head. To pray in the name
of Jesus is to pray in the blessed conditions which He lays down which not
only lifts prayer into a greater bounty and a greater liberality but puts
prayer into the only place where it is safe.
Prayer is efficacious for those who are joined to Christ and keep His
word; it is for those who abide in Him in the light of His word. Notice
that the two things are put together; we must abide in Him but not in a
Christ of our imagination, not in some Jesus we have fancied for ourselves,
but in Him as He has made Himself known by His word. In this way we are living
with Him in the light of what He has revealed about Himself. In that case
we may ask what we will, and it will be done for us. We pray as those who
are joined to Christ and in the experience of efficacious prayer we learn
the reality of being at one with Him.
I remember years ago Billy Graham came over for one of his campaigns
and in a T.V. interview was confronted with that extraordinarily pervasive
bogey about having a closed mind. Billy Graham was not a bit abashed. He
said, 'Of course I've got a closed mind'. He said, 'Consider, for example,
the question of marriage. My wife and I have been happily married for many
years and over the course of our married life, my mind has been completely
closed to the thought of ever going with any other woman'. He said, 'I wouldn't
want it any other way. The experience of happy marriage has closed my mind
so that it snapped tight and remains so'.
So it is that in the experience of prayer our minds can snap tight on
the reality of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, so that this becomes
something upon which the mind is closed. So it henceforth becomes axiomatic:
'I am one with Jesus'. Prayer, bringing us that assurance, brings us into
the place of security from breakdown. When prayer is the fruit of union,
then in prayer the union comes alive and its living power places us beyond
the possibility of any insecurity.
3. 15:16 "Ye did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you,
that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide; that
whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
Here prayer is set before us as one item in an age-long programme of
God. Prayer is a part of a plan God has made for us and part of a plan which
he is implementing for us. The plan began in His own mind, He chose us:
"Ye did not choose me, but I chose you ...". Isn't it extraordinary that
over and over again the Bible expresses its vast impenetrable truths in language
that cannot be misunderstood. In this sentence there is not a word beyond
one syllable, yet you could exhaust your mind from now until the Day of
the Coming of Christ without penetrating its full meaning. Nevertheless
it is as plain and clear as it can be.
We may say, 'But I did choose you Lord. I remember the occasion well.
It was at 7:15 in the evening of 23rd February in the year 1940. I remember
it so well. That was when I chose you'. To which the Lord will reply, 'But
dear child, you are like a young man who runs up to a girl who has taken
his fancy and says, "The Lord has told me to marry you". She, however, being
a well-instructed young lady may reply, "Well, He hasn't told me that I'm
to marry you". In that case your choice of her would be invalid, and would
remain so until it was made valid by her choice of you. And you, my child,
could only choose Me validly because I first chose you'.
Behind all is the great and blissful reality that He determined to have
you. He chose! He appointed you to this circumstance. He appointed
[29/30] you that you should go and in your obedient going to discover
that obedience is a fruit-bearing business; so to you He opened the avenue
of answered prayer. You are to ask 'whatsoever', and God will give it you.
What does this teach us about prayer? It is that in prayer we discover
and experience our position of security in the will of Christ. Prayer is
not something isolated; it belongs with the four-fold reality of His choice,
His appointment, His commandment and His promise.
And as we act upon the promise and find it true, we realise the validity
of those things which lie behind the promise. Yes indeed, He chose me;
yes indeed, He appointed me; yes indeed, He commanded me, and here I am
living within the eternal counsels of God,
4. 16:23-27 "In that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily,
I say unto you, If ye shall ask anything of the Father, he will give it to
you in my name. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name; ask, and ye shall
receive, that your joy may be fulfilled. ... In that day ye shall ask in
my name; and I say not unto you that I will pray the Father for you; for
my Father himself loveth you ...".
Our final point is that prayer brings us into direct touch with the
loving Father. Of course the Lord Jesus did not mean that He would not
pray for us. He is eternally the Mediator, as verse 23 reminds us. Jesus
never steps out of His mediatorial role; we can never come to the Father
by any other way than in Him by the Spirit. But in verse 26 He tells us
so graciously that His mediatorial role runs on oiled wheels, so that we
do not notice it. The reality which it secures is the reality which He shares
with us, so that we are aware of direct access to the Father. It seems that
the Lord was concerned that at that moment they should not think so much
of His part by mediation as of the direct relationship with the Father which
He secures for His people. Just then He was not telling the disciples of
His prayer to the Father because He wanted them to realise how much the Father
loved them. This is the privilege which Christ has won for us, the privilege
of access to the Father, an access in which we bask in the Father's love.
How, then, does prayer safeguard us against breakdown? What are the
edifying powers of prayer? In a word, they are experience. In the place
of prayer we come into immediate experimental awareness of the truths which
would otherwise just be facts expressed in a creed. In Chapter 14 we have
the Reality of our Salvation. We are informed of Christ's role as Mediator,
bringing us to God and keeping us with God. In Chapter 15 we are given the
Reality of our Security as those whom God has chosen and included in His
eternal purpose. In Chapter 16 we are told of the Reality of our Welcome
before the Father's throne. These are great truths, but are they meaningful
truths to us, are they nourishing truths?
Truth in a creed is like food in a freezer. It is potentially nourishing
but it is not actually nourishing anybody. Its nourishment is locked up
inside it. To get its value you must take it out of the deep freeze, bring
it to the cooker and put it into boiling water. Then it must go on a plate
and be dealt with by knives and forks. NOW it is truly nourishing. The truths
have become experimental.
Here then are four great truths, set out before us that we may experience
them in the place of prayer. It is there that we enter into the nourishment
of them and into their power to safeguard us from any breakdown in our
(To be continued)
THE WAY OF HOLINESS
(Some comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews -- 13)
John H. Paterson
1. In Retrospect
AS we approach the end of this series of studies in Hebrews, it may
help us to recall what have been the main emphases which we have identified
in the epistle.
Firstly, and I hope justifiably, I have treated the epistle as an argument
about which of the two ways of God is better -- an old one or a new. The
writer was evidently seeking to convince [30/31]
some Hebrew Christians that, in accepting Christ as God's new Way to Himself,
they had not made a terrible mistake. He wanted to reassure them that this
new way to God was indeed better.
But note, in passing, that word better. He did not set out to try to
convince them that the old way which they knew, and to which they were tempted
to return, was no good at all. Far from it: by that old way, men had
undoubtedly made contact with God. It was a good way. He simply wished
to argue that the new way through Christ was better -- more certain; more
accessible; permanent. It was an argument which had to be delicately presented
to people proud of their spiritual heritage and, in this writer's capable
hands, it was!
Secondly, however, we have been trying to answer this question: Why
did doubts arise about the new way in the first place? If it was so much
better than the old, why were these Hebrew Christians hesitating about
following it? Why were its advantages not obvious to them?
I think that the epistle itself gives us plenty of clues. The trouble
lay in the expectations with which these believers had started out
on the Christian life. Who had given them the false impressions we shall
never know, but it seems clear that they imagined that, since Christ is so
great and the new way to God so wide, their passage over that way would be
swift and easy. They would be borne along it in triumph and never again have
any troubles. And when, in reality, troubles did arise -- doubts,
failures, persecution -- they seem naturally to have concluded that this
was not, after all, a journey they wished to make!
To use an image which our writer himself is about to introduce to us
(Hebrews 12:1-2), they were like runners enthusiastically entering for a
race which they took to be a hundred-metre sprint, straight down the track,
only to find after it had started, that it was actually a six-mile cross-county
run on which there were fences, steep hills, and bystanders only too ready
to misdirect them!
In several of our past studies, we have seen by what means our writer
tried to counteract this view of the Christian life. He insisted on the
need for faith and patience; faith because the finishing post
of this race is far ahead, and out of sight and patience because we all
have a long way to run. But while admitting that the Christian life is no
hundred-metre dash, he was insistent that these believers must on no account
give up. And so we come to the start of Chapter 12.
"Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great
a cloud of witnesses, 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.
2. Why So Long A Race?
But now, if you were a Hebrew Christian and had been following the argument
up to this point, you would want, I think, to make an objection! The question
you would want to ask, and have answered, is this: If Christ is so great,
and if He really has done, by His work as priest and sacrifice, all that
Hebrews 5 - 10 tells us He has, then why is victory not immediate? Why are
there still problems and obstacles? Has He not removed them all?
These are valid questions, and we can only hope that our writer has
an adequate answer to them. But he does! And that is what Hebrews 12 is
about. It is his answer to the legitimate worry of these Christians as to
where the new way to God seems to be leading them.
He had, actually, three answers, of which it is the third which will
specially concern us here. His first answer we have already read, in the
eleventh chapter. It was that all those who follow the way to God
have always encountered difficulties on the way and, and a matter
of fact, the need for faith and patience on the old way -- to which, let
us again remind ourselves, they were thinking of returning -- was much greater,
the trials much more severe, than anything they themselves had encountered.
Those who nevertheless won God's approval in this hard way now surrounded
them like a great cloud of witnesses.
The writer's second answer was to point them (12:2-3) to the Lord Jesus
Christ. His was the supreme life of victory, was it not? He it was who
fulfilled the law, delivered mankind, brought down him who had the power
of death, and now "hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God".
What a triumphant life! But consider, [31/32]
said the writer, think about that life: consider, in particular,
"such gainsaying of sinners". Consider the obstacles, the opposition, the
trials, the hatred which that life of Christ provoked. And He was the Son
of God; yet for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising
the shame. What are you complaining about?
3. God's Purpose in Delay
But these first two of the writer's answers are rather cold comfort.
To be told that your own troubles are so much smaller than other people's
that they hardly count at all is not very satisfying! The third answer, however,
is much more positive and it this: the Christian way, the Christian life,
is not intended simply to be a means of getting the believer from earth
to heaven as quickly as possible. There is something to be achieved on the
road. The purpose of God is to obtain fruit from our lives (12:11),
and the means He employs to get it is training (12:5-10). The fruit
is the fruit of righteousness, and it is to be borne in the lives of those
who are made "partakers of His holiness".
Now this idea was by no means new to the Jewish people, for we find
the writer quoting the Book of Proverbs to support his argument. The idea
that God's people should be trained and educated through His dealings with
them was written deeply into their experiences of the exodus and wilderness
years. It was part of the old way to God, so why not of the new?
Nor was this all. A God who arranged to bring people into His presence
without paying any attention to their state or welfare would be like a parent
who never disciplined or trained his child. While all the other children
were being told to get home by 9 o'clock and never to play on the main road,
here would be one child whose parents told it nothing at all; gave no instructions.
Soon the child would ask itself, 'Don't they care whether I come
home or not? Don't they mind if I'm run over? Maybe they don't love
me at all'. Yet, said the writer in 12:8, the complaints of the Hebrew Christians
betray a failure to grasp this very principle -- that training is a sign
of love, not of ill-will!
So God's training is intended to make us holy -- or, as Paul expressed
it to the Romans, to conform us to the image of His Son. If anybody thinks
that that can be done in a few short days, let them think again! What is
required is nothing less than moral transformation.
Now that is, of course, what God intended for Israel also and, if the
idea seemed novel or surprising to these first-century Hebrew Christians,
then perhaps one reason may have been that Israel's training achieved so
little -- that the work of training or character-building bore so little
fruit in their lives. You can tell this if you read the words of the prophets,
who railed against Israel for the most flagrant transgressions of the law
of holiness, centuries after their training began. They complained over
and over again, that Israel were no different from their heathen neighbours.
4. A Warning
It must not happen again! Alarmed that it might, the writer of the epistle
wanted to warn his readers of the twin dangers that confront those whom
God plans to lead through His training course, and of both dangers the Old
Testament has an example to offer.
Faced with the challenge of growing in holiness, the believer may make
the mistake, said the writer, of either despising or refusing: "My son,
despise not thou the chastening of the Lord"; "See that ye refuse
not Him that speaketh". Of the first error the best example is provided
by Esau; of the second, the Children of Israel.
In the face of God's declared interest in making us partakers of His
holiness, it is possible to adopt the attitude that it doesn't matter about
being holy. Holiness, we may argue, is an extra in the Christian life; it
is for the experts and professionals, like saints and pastors and missionaries,
and not for 'ordinary' Christians like us. Let us leave it to those who
are keen on that sort of thing!
But, argued the writer, think of Esau. He despised his birthright,
and look what happened to him! Esau was the inheritor of the firstborn
right in the family which God had chosen out of all the families on earth
to bless. Then he sold that birthright for soup. By doing so he showed
himself to be, says verse 16, a "fornicator" and a "profane person". The
Greek word translated fornicator has as its root the idea of selling --
[32/33] selling a body; selling a birthright;
in either case selling something which ought not to be sold, something
holy. The word translated profane carries the sense of stepping over a threshold
or limit; it is the same idea that we have in English about stepping in
where angels fear to tread. It is the idea, in both cases, of despising the
quality of holiness; of treating something as common rather than sacred
(cf. Hebrews 10:29); or regarding holiness as unimportant.
Holiness is important; without it no man shall see the Lord (12:14).
So there really is not a choice, as the Hebrew Christians seemed
to think, between riding along the way to God as a kind of passenger and
running an exhausting training race on foot. Holiness is not for experts:
it is God purpose for all His people.
The writer's second warning is about refusing enrolment in God's training
course. He had no difficulty in identifying the best example in the Old
Testament of what that would lead to: he found it in the Children
of Israel, and in their "entreating that no word more should be spoken to
them" (12:19). The fire and thunder of Sinai made them feel that theirs
was a God with whom they did not really wish to become acquainted too closely:
life with Him, they could see, was going to be uncomfortable. So they simply
opted out: in the most literal sense of our modern phrase, 'they didn't want
to know'. So they refused to hear His words, and went their own way, and
the writer was concerned lest his readers might do the same -- might say,
in effect, 'No: this new way to God through Christ is too dangerous, too
demanding, too costly, and we're going to turn back while there is still
Not if he could help it! His closing words to them in Hebrews 12 are
very solemn. He even puts in a good word, a word of excuse if you like, for
Israel of old, to make the case that they had extenuating circumstances,
which do not apply to us. After all, he said, Israel's experience at Sinai,
the experience which led to their saying, "no more!" was a terrifying
one. They knew practically nothing of this God of theirs, and the first
thing they found out was that contact with Him was, quite literally, fatal:
"If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned". Even Moses, their
leader, said, "I exceedingly fear and quake". Coming to Mount Sinai was no
picnic; we can feel sorry, I think, for those who were encountering, in these
circumstances, Israel's God for the first time!
But if these circumstances constituted a kind of excuse for them, we
have none if we do not hear His word. Read again, if you will, the description
in verses 22-24 of our conditions of access to God and contrast
them, phrase by phrase, with the thunder, darkness and absolute solitude
of Sinai. They may have been scared to listen: we have not that
excuse. See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh!
On the open way to God through Christ, shall any person ever dream of
LEARNING TO KNOW GOD
(Some thoughts from the Pentateuch)
1. GENESIS. God the Creator
THE Bible has been given to us in order that we may learn to know God.
The fact is that since the Fall of Man, not one of us sinners can learn to
know Him by our own efforts. No-one can reason his way to God or find Him
by mysticism, meditation or religious practice. God is who He is, and only
when He makes Himself known by revelation can we learn to know Him. He has
therefore given us the Bible so that we may learn to know Him. There He
reveals Himself and the growing revelation is gathered up and perfected in
the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nowadays man is so interested in learning
to know himself, but his efforts are futile, for [33/34]
no-one can do this, but if we learn to know God, then from Him we learn
to know ourselves.
God is the Creator, a fact that cannot be grasped except by faith. In
this way we understand that He has created all things out of nothing. No-one
else can do that! We must have material to start with; God had only Himself,
His own wisdom, His own holiness, His own eternal plan, and He it was who
created the heaven and the earth. He did this by His Word: He spoke and
it was there. This suggests to us that whenever we really hear His word,
we experience His creative power. Every time God speaks and some really hear,
it is an event, a creative event, for then God creates by His word, which
is Spirit and life.
TIME and again in Genesis we read that after the Fall God revealed Himself
to men. The God of glory appeared to Abram while he was still in Ur, in
Mesopotamia, and was a heathen. He knew nothing of the God of Glory until
God revealed Himself. Everything that God does begins with Himself and ends
with Himself; it comes forth from Him and leads back to Him. And He sustains
everything. If He withdrew His breath we would all become as dust. While
we sit down in safety, every breath we breathe is only possible because God
sustains us. In the first book of the Bible He is called "God Almighty" (17:1
etc.). When Abraham was an old man the Lord appeared to him and told him
that he was to have an heir, but before He disclosed this coming event, He
affirmed, "I am God Almighty". Omnipotence is not something magical: it is
the very nature of God. It means that all that in His wisdom He wants to
do, He can do and He does it even though it may be something quite impossible
for everyone else. This does not mean, however, that His omnipotence is at
the disposal of our wishes, for He is God.
In this book He is also called The Most High, words quickly read but
calculated to act as a tremendous blow to our pride when we begin to realise
their meaning. Genesis therefore reveals God as the Almighty and the Most
High, governing nature. He could send the Flood, and when He did so, no-one
could stop Him or prevent it happening. He could send famine, and did so
for seven years in Egypt. Men are not lords of creation and science is certainly
not lord of creation, so we do well to thank God every time we eat.
He is the Sovereign Lord of the nations, as we shall see throughout
the Pentateuch. As for the tower of Babel -- He demolishes it. As for Pharaoh's
might -- He destroys it. He goes on to destroy Amalek, Og of Bashan and
the rest, for He is absolute Sovereign. It is good for us to remember this
today. We live under the shadow of a so-called giant power, but we must
remember that to God such worldly powers are a drop in the bucket, a speck
of dust on the scales. He is Almighty over all the rulers of the earth from
Nimrod, the first, to Antichrist, the last.
THE most wonderful thing is that He is Lord over me and over you; He
is the Lord of the individual life. Through Joseph we are given some of the
richest expressions of God's almightiness in the Bible, as he told his bothers:
"Be not grieved nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God
did send me before you to preserve life. So now it was not you that sent
me hither, but God" (45:5 and 8). This is worth taking to heart. Think of
the dastardly way in which they had treated him and then hear Joseph claim
that it was God who had done it. Our enemies, those who wish to harm us,
the chances of circumstance -- these do not have the last word. God alone
Therefore sin is the real tragedy of life, for it is rebellion against
Him who is the Almighty, the Most High God. Sin is more than a kind of human
weakness; it is a power which keeps mankind deaf and blind to the reality
of God's existence. Through the Fall, man no longer believes in God and
this is the central nature of sin. It is a foolishness which defies description
to go through this life with your back to God who has created all things;
it is to be dead even while you live. After Adam there was no direct law
until Moses, yet sin and death reigned, for men had turned their backs on
God. The whole of humanity is turned the wrong way round from God. When
man has only himself, his own opinions, even his own religion and good intentions,
he is completely lost. Being without God he is also without hope.
Yet, if I may say so, man's sin has made no change in God Himself, for
He remains who He is, holy, perfect and almighty. So we find in Genesis and
indeed throughout the Pentateuch, a consistent description of God's holiness
and righteousness. This holiness is not what we commonly think of when we
describe a person as [34/35] 'holy', for our tendency
is to think of what such a person refrains from doing, whereas real holiness
can never be described negatively. God's holiness does not consist in what
He does not do, but shows itself first and foremost in His active working
to save. Holiness is not so much a passive characteristic in a protected
sphere, but it is active in outgoing helpful love.
There are not many abstract descriptions of God in the Pentateuch --
nor indeed in the rest of the Bible -- but there are accounts of His acting
and intervening, and all that He does is in righteousness. Not that God
is subject to any judgment as to righteousness in any higher court; it is
not that we set our standards and then call upon God to answer to them or
be tried by them. God is righteous, and therefore no institution or court
can be above Him, to question or accuse Him, though alas, many people persist
in doing so. This is due to the limited ideas of small men.
God punished the world with a Flood. Was that cruel? We might say that
it was, especially if we ourselves had been involved in the calamity. Not
that our opinions would have helped. Only humble faith could do that. God
punished Egypt. In that He was wholly righteous, even though it may seem
to us to be going rather too far when the firstborn was struck down in every
home. If, however, in all their distress the Egyptians had acknowledged His
righteousness, there would have been hope for them.
ONE area in which we are inclined to think ourselves more righteous
than God is in the matter of His sovereign election, which is a great theme
of Genesis. God chooses. He elects. He chose Abraham and in doing so acted
in supreme wisdom. It is rather more difficult for us to accept His choice
of Isaac, especially as this was accompanied by His rejection of Ishmael:
"Cast out the bondwoman and her son ... he shall not inherit" (21:10). The
worst case seems to us to be that of Jacob and Esau. Certainly Jacob could
not be said to be better than Esau ethically or morally, but God made His
choice between them, and God is righteous. In those most difficult chapters,
Romans 9, 10 and 11, we are just told that God is righteous: "O man,
who art thou that repliest against God?", in other words, 'Who are we that
dare to think that we understand righteousness and love better than God?'
Later we shall read: "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose
you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the
fewest of all peoples: but because the Lord loveth you ..." (Deuteronomy
7:7-8). It is good to submit to God. It is hard to believe and almost impossible
to understand that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.
Why should He? Why indeed! Jesus said clearly, "You did not choose me,
but I chose you" (John 15:16).
Scriptures also tell us that those whom God chose, He also foreknew.
I am glad of this for, as life has unfolded I have learned to know myself
and know what a disappointing person I am. Happily God knew it all before
I did. Election is the unmotivated love of God: it has no basis in the one
elected but only in the fact of God's sovereign love.
What perhaps is most difficult for us to understand is that God is wholly
righteous when He justifies a sinner. To me the most important verse in
Genesis is that which informs us that after God had given almost unbelievable
promises to Abraham, "he believed the Lord; and he counted it to him for
Genesis tells us not only about Abraham but about many other people,
such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and not one of them was
ethically perfect. In a religious sense we would not say that anyone of
them was specially characterised by holiness, but God is righteous in His
election and is righteous when He justifies the man who believes in Him.
No man can give God any greater honour than to believe Him. In doing so,
Abraham recognised God to be God; he acknowledged Him as the Almighty. Jacob
did the same, although his development took a very long time. Joseph was
another who acknowledged God's absolute sovereignty. The New Testament emphasises
for us the fact that all these men pleased God, and that they did so not
by their ethics, for they were very faulty, and not just by their piety,
for at times that was mediocre, but by their faith.
SO then, right from this first book of Genesis the Bible makes it clear
that there is a basic difference between religion and revelation. There
is no road from man to God, but there is a road from God to man. The Lord
never accommodates [35/36] Himself to human thoughts.
We can understand His choosing such a fine character as Joseph, but when
we remember how Abraham committed such a grave deceit which endangered his
wife, and then even repeated the same sin, we might imagine that he had surely
forfeited his righteousness. Humanly speaking, he had, but salvation rests
on something deeper than that, on God's eternal election, so in the final
issue everything depended upon Abraham's Saviour who provided the Lamb of
God, slain in the divine intention before the foundation of the world, but
historically crucified just outside Jerusalem.
Because God is Creator He had every right to say to Abraham: "Get thee
out of thy country" and it is equally true, though much harder to understand,
that He could say: "Take thy son whom thou lovest and offer him as a burnt
offering". Abraham by that time knew God so well, better indeed than any
other living person, that he unhesitatingly set out to obey.
To listen to what God says is a man's duty, though it is a task too
heavy for us. We need more grace for it than we realise, but such grace
is available for the Bible repeatedly says that they are blessed who have
ears to hear. What God says cannot be supported by arguments; the more
you try to argue about it, the more you devaluate its divinity. No, its
support can only be the fact that God is who He is, and it is our privilege
to submit to Him and believe in Him.
What a gracious experience it is to listen to Him and then obey Him.
We do not learn practical holiness and righteousness by passive observation,
but by obedience in daily life. This is the reason why Genesis often informs
us about points of time, how old people were and what they did. We are
reminded that it may be the work of the Lord to look after sheep, to dig
wells, to carry provisions to others, for it is in our daily life that
the knowledge of the Lord can develop. Abraham never preached a sermon,
and in fact there are not many sermons in the whole gook of Genesis, but
Abraham walked with God, as did also Enoch and Noah and Jacob. Great events
are described in Genesis, but also the small things of daily life have much
prominence. Our job is to read the book with our eyes upon God, always asking
what He did there and what He said about things and how did He evaluate
The stories of these men are written for our learning. As we grow in
obedience and the knowledge of God, we shall find ourselves in the same family
as these great patriarchal figures, the family which is the Church of all
time, chosen and loved by the Creator God. Those men of old learned to know
Him. When their time was over some went home to God full of days; others
perhaps, like Jacob, felt that "few and evil were their days" and that they
did not attain, but they are safely in the glory by the grace of our faithful
Creator who is also our Redeemer.
(To be continued)
ISAIAH AND THE GOSPEL
2. CHRIST'S INCARNATION (7:1 to 8:8)
THE Christian is not called upon to grope his way through the Old Testament
but rather to read it with the hindsight given him by the New. It follows,
therefore, that we should be familiar first with Matthew 1:18-25 and by
this means clearly identify Isaiah's name of Immanuel with Joseph's adopted
son, Jesus. Having established this astounding and yet very logical truth
of the virgin birth, we may now marvel afresh at the accuracy and significance
of the prophet's statement in 7:14.
Those of us who are not Hebrew scholars can always make use of Young's
Concordance, and in this case we can verify that the word used by Isaiah
is the same as the one employed to describe the virgin Rebecca (Genesis
24:43) and the virgins of Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8. Perhaps simple people
like most of us may be permitted to ask how there could possibly be a Person
who was truly God yet truly Man without such a virgin birth? Without that,
the name Immanuel does not make sense. [36/37]
The truth surely is that to question Isaiah's prophecy about the virginity
of Immanuel's mother is to deny the essential deity of the Babe of Bethlehem.
The two stand or fall together. So far as Isaiah's language is concerned,
we can always rely on the way in which the Bible uses Bible words, and
if we do that we have every reason for saying that Isaiah did define the
coming child as truly born of a virgin. That was the beginning of his gospel
as it is the beginning of ours, He was "conceived of the Holy Spirit". The
first feature of the gospel is the Incarnation.
We find the circumstances described in Chapter 7. King Ahaz had refused
to ask for a sign. The issue at stake was the continuation of his royal
dynasty. At this time the Assyrians were enlarging their empire to global
proportions, planning to nullify the other world power, Egypt, by taking
possession of the buffer states of Syria, Israel and Judah. The kings of
Syria and the Northern kingdom of Israel got busy making a defence pact against
this potential aggressor and pressed Judah to join them in a grand alliance.
This the kings of Judah had refused to do, so that the two combined
kingdoms agreed to force this defence pact and counselled: "Let us go against
Judah ... and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeel" (7:6).
They reckoned to achieve their alliance by first deposing the new king
Uzziah, the powerful ruler of the past, had died. Ahaz, his grandson,
was powerless because of his estrangement from God. He and his people therefore
suffered a great wave of terror at the prospect of this imminent invasion
by Syria and Ephraim. Ahaz, the man of no-faith, could only counter this
peril by appealing to the Assyrian world power for protection from his neighbours.
While he was gloomily inspecting the vulnerable water supply of Jerusalem
-- "the waters of Shiloah that go softly" (8:6) -- Isaiah went out to challenge
him in the name of the Lord. His message could have been a cheering one,
for he called the two enemy kings damp squibs (7:4) and announced that God
would not let them capture Jerusalem (v.7), but it also brought to Ahaz
the challenge of desisting from his appeal to Assyria and trusting the Lord.
Faith was then -- as it always is -- the victory that overcomes.
Isaiah tried to help Ahaz by inviting him to ask for the kind of sign
that God is ready to give to those whose faith needs it. This would have
been some practical evidence of God's power, to give encouragement for trusting
Him. But Ahaz had no intention of trusting God; he was setting his hopes
on his treaty with Tiglath-pileser of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7). He therefore
declined to ask for a sign, not out of humility but because it would have
committed him to obey -- and this he had no intention of doing.
"All right," said Isaiah, "That marks the end for you. If you will not
believe, you will not be established" (v.9). Syria and Israel would fail
in their efforts to depose him -- God would attend to them -- but the sovereign
kingdom of Judah under Ahaz's dynasty would henceforth be on its way out.
At this point Isaiah passed beyond the present, to the distant prospect
of that new Member of David's line who would come to rescue the remnant
of God's people and fulfil all His will in them. The warning of general
rejection given him at his first vision was proving valid, but then he had
also been assured that there would be a faithful remnant, emerging like
a new shoot from a fallen tree (6:13), and had been so assured of this promise
that he had given his son the name Shear-jashub, a remnant shall return.
With this son by his side, Isaiah now announced the divine sign -- Immanuel.
This was not the kind of practical sign that Ahaz might have received or
that his son Hezekiah later had (38:7), but a vast dispensational sign,
namely that God Himself would come in human form to be His people's deliverer.
Such a new beginning necessitated a virgin birth, and this would indeed
take place in due course. It would, however, be quite different from the
glorious appearance of the Messiah which God's people had envisaged, for
the child would be born into conditions of material distress in which butter
and honey -- the food of privation -- was the common lot. His coming would
be to a land depopulated and devastated by an enemy: "All the land shall
be briars and thorns" (7:23).
It is not easy for us to distinguish between the actual conditions of
Isaiah's day and the future which they portended. The immediate threat
of devastation was real enough. The spiritual implications, however, were
no less real for, when the [37/38] Babe was born
in Bethlehem, God's people were a captive people and their spiritual state
was pitiful. What is more, Jesus was born in distressful circumstances, not
only coming into a poor family associated with the despised Nazareth, but
specifically reduced to shelter in a stable by virtue of the Roman conqueror's
pressure in the form of a census.
This then was Isaiah's gospel, as it is ours. Into a confused and defeated
world, hope comes in the person of a virgin's Son, a Baby who was called
both Jesus and Immanuel. A remnant (not only from Israel but from all the
nations) will emerge as the fruit of this divine intervention. The accompaniments
of this cosmic 'sign' are referred to from time to time in Isaiah's ministry
when he speaks of "a shoot out of the stock of Jesse" (11:1), a Servant
bringing forth judgment to the nations who would not "cry, nor lift up,
nor cause his voice to be heard in the street" (42:2), and who would grow
up as a root out of a dry ground, without form or comeliness, "despised and
rejected of men" (53:2-3).
This, for Isaiah and for us, is the beginning of the gospel of the Incarnate
Son of God. It may give us some personal help if we consider some of the
implications of this 'sign' of incarnation by virgin birth.
The first matter which arises is holiness, not that there is anything
unholy about the normal birth process but that this birth was unique. When
Isaiah was first called, it was amid the ardent cries of "Holy, holy, holy".
Throughout the course of his book he uses the phrase, "The Holy One of
Israel" some thirty times. The virgin birth was not only a miraculous act;
it involved the introduction into the human race of this divine holiness.
When Mary received her own intimation of the coming event she was told:
"that which is to be born shall be called holy ..." (Luke 1:35).
The word implies that which is entirely different from everything else
and infinitely above it. This is the primary emphasis of Isaiah's first reference
to the Christ of the Gospels and should be a subject not for discussion
but for awe and wonder. Here was a Being who was truly man, a son of Abraham
and of David, yet also truly God. The God of creation set aside His normal
laws of procreation not just to show His miraculous power but to give us
Himself in human form -- Immanuel.
Apart from a reference by David in Psalm 51:11, Isaiah alone uses the
title Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (63:10-11). The mention makes reference
to God's presence with the redeemed people led out of Egypt by Moses, but
we see a deeper meaning in the reminder that "In all their afflictions,
he was afflicted" (63:9): to the contrite believer there is something attractive
and tender about the holiness of our Saviour.
But we must not ignore the other side of holiness. The Holy Spirit is
"the spirit of burning" (4:4). Holiness is a fierce flame which blazes
out against all that is unclean or unseemly. While we rejoice in the reality
of Immanuel, we are never to forget that this God who is with us is Himself
"a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29).
Who can bear to live at close quarters with such a God? This was the
question raised in the hearts of the besieged inhabitants of Jerusalem as
they found themselves hemmed in by the hordes of Assyrians. "The sinners
in Zion are afraid ... who among us shall dwell with the devouring
fire? who among us shall dwell with the everlasting burnings?" (33:14). It
is all very well to want God to execute fiery judgment on their enemies,
but if they themselves were to survive they had somehow to live in proximity
to the Holy One of Israel with his fiery anger against sin. The only answer
to this question was -- and always is -- that salvation means uprightness
of life (33:15).
It seems that there is nothing more obnoxious to God than outward religious
forms with inconsistent lives. Isaiah constantly blazed against religious
humbug, with its meaningless sacrifices and prayers (1:11-15) and its contentious
fasts and ceremonies (58:3). The Holy Son of God was equally fiery against
religious hypocrisy and even quoted Isaiah in His denunciation of the Pharisees:
"Well did Isaiah prophecy of you, saying This people honoureth me with
their lips but their heart is far from me" (Matthew 15:7-8).
We misunderstand the meaning of Immanuel if we fail to face the solemn
implications of the presence of Him whose eyes are "as a flame of fire" (Rev.1:14).
Though truly God, the Lord Jesus had a human birth by a human mother,
and so is genuinely one of us. Later in this series we will consider the
tremendous significance of His identification with us in death, but for
the moment what concerns us is His identification with us in the circumstances
of daily life. What we need to realise is that in the Lord Jesus we do
not only have the phenomenon of One who came to live for over thirty years
as a man and then returned to what had been before, but that this coming
into the human race was eternal and irrevocable. Christ is God but He is
also a Man. He is one with us all:
i. In our simplicity
When Isaiah first spoke to Ahaz, the king was looking despondently at
the feeble water supply of Jerusalem. This was "the waters of Shiloah that
go softly" (8:6) and he despised them in comparison with Abanah and Pharpar,
rivers of Damascus, and the great water systems of Assyria. In point of
fact those waters which he envied, "the waters of the River, strong and
mighty, even the king of Assyria and all his glory" would come like a mighty
flood to engulf the kingdom of Ahaz, overflowing Judah "even to the neck"
(8:7-8). Since, however, God's time had not yet come for Jerusalem's overthrow,
the reality of Immanuel, His merciful presence, would preserve the city.
The small, softly flowing waters would prove mightier than the great Assyrian
It is a feature of the gospel that it lays no claim to worldly greatness
but is weak and foolish in men's eyes. "Verily, thou art a God that hidest
thyself", Isaiah rightly asserted (45:15). When he made that statement
he was able to glory in the great deliverances which had come to God's
people, but I imagine that what he meant was that for long he had had to
trust God in the dark, with no apparent sign of His working. Most of us
have to pass through such experiences, when our God seems to be hiding
Himself from our situation and needs. When the Babe was born in Bethlehem
He could say: "In the shadow of his hand hath he hid me ... and in his
quiver he kept me close" (49:2).
The marvel was that old Simeon had the spiritual discernment to recognise
the reality. He looked down at the tiny helpless Baby in his arms and then
began to speak in superlative terms: "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples" (Luke 2:30-31).
I think that Simeon must have known the connection with Isaiah 7:14 for he
addressed his words not to both of the parents who were present but only
to "Mary his mother" (Luke 2:34). The Spirit enabled him to announce the
wonder of the Incarnation, though to other onlookers the occasion must have
appeared to be just one more Infant Presentation. Later on at Jordan, the
crowd must have imagined that they were seeing just one more contrite sinner
being baptised. Only John knew that this was indeed the Son of God. There
was something majestically modest about the coming to this earth of God's
eternal Son, as there was always a beautiful simplicity in the years He spent
ii. In our adversity
His incarnation means not only identification with us in our simplicity
but also in our adversity. He is one with us in all our sorrows and trials.
The prophet made special mention of this in connection with Immanuel, for
the only prospect which he could offer to Ahaz was "briars and thorns"
(7:23, 24, 25). The prophet's first son had declared by his name Shear-jashub
, that it would only be a remnant which would return and now further
indications of adversity were to be made by the name of the second son,
Maher-shalal-hash-baz , telling of speedy defeat and disaster.
Isaiah was told to emphasise this in a special way by writing a kind of
poster carrying the baby's name (8:1). He then stood with his two sons as
signs from God (8:18) proclaiming to all and sundry that harsh events were
These, then, were the circumstances into which Immanuel would come;
He would share our woes: "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our
sorrows" (53:4), words which Matthew quotes in describing Christ's healing
ministry (Matthew 8:17). Isaiah's gospel was no fairy story of easy religion,
but it was a message of comfort for the fearful and troubled, a realisation
that God Himself had come down to share men's adversities.
The prophet lived in times of political uncertainty and threats of impending
calamity. There were the threatening neighbours, Syria and Israel; the
menacing world power of Assyria and to the South another menacing world
power, Egypt, which was ready enough to make secret treaties
[39/40] but was powerless to implement them (30:7). In fact Isaiah's
world was very much like ours. He did not try to opt out of it but all the
time he maintained his steady insistence that faith is the way of victory:
"In returning and in rest shall you be saved; in quietness and in confidence
shall be your strength" (30:14-15). Only those who know the reality of
Immanuel can do that.
The Incarnation also assures us of the Lord's sympathy: "I, even I,
am he that comforteth you. Who art thou that art afraid ...?" (51:12). No
wonder that Isaiah's command to Ahaz was: "Take heed, and be quiet" (7:4).
It is the beauty of the name Immanuel that it assures us of an understanding
and sympathising friend. More than a friend, for the prophet declared:
"As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" (66:13). Those
were almost his last words. It only remained to point on to the new heavens
and the new earth (66:22) which we have been promised.
I think that it is fair comment to say that as the days grew steadily
darker in that period of Isaiah's ministry, so his messages of cheer and
comfort became stronger and clearer. My personal suggestion is that the
second part of his book may have been written when he himself was more or
less 'underground' in Manasseh's reign of terror. No mention is found in
it of the personal activities of the prophet, and the legend persisted that
he was the man sawn in two by that foul monarch. If so, then this corresponds
in part to Paul's prison epistles. In any case there can be no doubt that
the vision of Immanuel became ever clearer to Isaiah. May the same be true
(To be continued)
TRANSLATIONS INTO CHINESE
It has been brought to my notice that some of the works of the late
T. Austin-Sparks are being circulated in Chinese by those who have no right
to do this. In 1969 Mr. Sparks specifically named Mr. Newman Sze of the Testimony
of Christ Mission to be the sole person responsible for any translations
and publications in Chinese of his writings. This authorization still stands,
and the work is being done by our beloved and respected brother Newman Sze.
The Editor [40/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (14)
"(For the Lord hath given me many sons)" 1 Chronicles 28:5
ALTHOUGH David's words suggest that he was proud of his offspring, we
may perhaps be forgiven if we question any such emotion. The names of six
of these sons are given in 2 Samuel 3:3. They make sorry reading.
AMNON'S disgraceful behaviour makes us almost ready to tolerate violence
on the part of Absalom, his half-brother, though of course we cannot condone
treacherous murder. The story of Amnon's infamy, including his disgraceful
repudiation of the girl he had wronged, is told in 2 Samuel 13:14-17; and
then we are informed, if you please, that "When king David heard of all
these things, he was very wroth" (v.21). He was furious, was he? Yet he
did nothing at all to punish the offender. Perhaps it was his own bad conscience
over that sort of thing which restrained him, or was it regarded as just
a family matter?
THIS brings us to Absalom, David's son by another wife. As I have said,
we feel some sympathy with him over the wrong done to his sister but, as
the story unfolds, we soon lose any better feelings for him, since he turned
out to be so ambitious and treacherous that he was ready to kill off his
father as he had already murdered one of that father's sons (2 Samuel 16:11).
He did not succeed, for God had purposes of great importance bound up with
David, so it was Absalom who himself died, though that was quite against
David's wishes. The grief which the king felt when Absalom was killed may
arouse our compassion, but we find it hard to disagree with Joab who called
him to his senses, charging him with being more indulgent to this enemy than
he was grateful to his loyal helpers (2 Samuel 19:6).
WE are not told how David treated three of the others, but we are informed
that he thoroughly spoiled his eldest surviving son, Adonijah (l Kings
1:6). The result of this indulgence was disastrous. The man became a crafty
plotter who did his best to usurp the throne which the Lord destined for
yet another of David's sons, Solomon. Once again the attempted coup failed,
but the whole episode was sordid and God-dishonouring.
WE therefore have to report that while David could thank God for giving
him many sons, his home and his family provided little honour for God's
name and much that was discreditable to a man so blessed. David wept over
one of them: God might well have wept over all these three.
SO much for our parenthesis. The surrounding narrative presents to us
the chosen successor to David's throne whose earlier years were highly
satisfactory to God and beneficial to the people. From the first Solomon
had been chosen by God above his brothers, just as David himself had been
preferred to the rest of Jesse's sons, and in the end he became Israel's
great king. There was little to David's credit in this, except that to
judge by Solomon's words in Proverbs 3:11-12, this son at least had known
the disciplining hand of his loving father.
WHAT emerges so encouragingly for us is the realisation that not all
the follies and failures of God's servants can affect His sovereign will.
In spite of everything God's perfect plan was realised. When it comes to it,
we all have our foolish parentheses of which we do well to be ashamed. Thank
God that His sovereign purpose goes steadily forward. He will work and no-one
shall hinder Him.
WORSHIP GOD! FOR THE TESTIMONY OF
JESUS IS THE SPIRIT OF PROPHECY.
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