|Vol. 16, No. 5, Sep. - Oct. 1987
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
CHRIST'S SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM
Reading: Proverbs 8:22 - 9:5
IF it is true that Christ may be found in all the Scriptures, it is certain
that in the book of Proverbs we can find much about Him as the true Wisdom
of God. As a poet, Solomon used a feminine figure to typify Wisdom, but Christ
can readily be identified in the description we are given of His eternal
existence: "I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the
world began" (8:23) as well as His intimate share with the Father in the
works of creation: "I was there when he set the heavens in place ... when
he gave the sea its boundary so that the waters should not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman
at his side" (8:27-30). Those who know the Lord Jesus will readily identify
Him in these and similar statements.
All this means that when we move into Chapter 9 we have no doubt that
it is the Lord Jesus, as the personification of wisdom, who invites simple
souls to share in the hospitality of His seven-pillared house. We hear the
echo of the gospel invitation in Wisdom's call: "Come, eat my food and drink
the wine I have mixed" (9:5). We know that it is the Lord Jesus who invites
the wayward (for that is the meaning of the word 'simple') and those who
lack judgment to receive freely the benefit of His generous provision.
There is nothing partial or unfinished in the gospel feast or in the
person of Him who invites us to partake of it. There is nothing vague or
fragile about the house into which we are welcomed, for He has built it
with sturdy pillars and there are seven of them. In the Bible the number
seven speaks of divine completeness. The apostle John takes especial pleasure
in using this number. In his Gospel he deliberately selects seven sign-miracles,
though another is added in Chapter 21, for eight is the resurrection number.
To parallel these seven signs, John records that Jesus also used the name
I AM in a sevenfold description of Himself.
In a previous article [Vol. 16, No. 2, p. 21]
I drew attention to a divine pattern in the seven utterances from the cross.
I hope that it will not be thought fanciful if I suggest that a similar
pattern is offered to us here, in John's Gospel. The central pillar of the
seven is concerned with the atonement -- "I am the good Shepherd; the good
Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (10:11). This is number 4. The
extremities, numbers 1 and 7, remind us of the symbols of that sacrifice
-- "I am the bread of life" (6:35) and "I am the true vine" (15:1). Pillars
numbers 2 and 3 speak of light and access -- "I am the light of the world"
(8:12) and "I am the door" (10:7), while numbers 5 and 6 make similar statements
-- "I am the resurrection and the life" (11:25) and "I am the way ..." (14:6).
The design is balanced and complete. These seven descriptions of the
I AM constitute the seven pillars of Christ's wisdom. John's seven sign-miracles
can be made to suggest a correspondence between the names and the actions
of the Lord Jesus. Both the names and the signs are meant to give us much
more than an interesting pattern. John wrote them to give us a heart-warming
revelation of our glorious Lord.
When God revealed Himself to Moses, He indicated the absolute perfection
of His being in the name "I AM that I AM". In a sense this is quite logical
as a title, for any valid conception of the Deity must regard God as the
One who is [81/82] eternal and all-sufficient, One
who is completely independent and needs neither advice nor assistance from
anybody. This self-description of God as the I AM is constantly repeated in
the Old Testament; it is more than a title, it is His personal name, a name
that none can copy and none can share. God has it all.
The startling truth in the New Testament is that Jesus, although truly
a human being, yet made the same claim about Himself. He is the I AM. This
is implicit in the seven phrases we are considering, but there is much more
than that. He affirmed, "I AM from above ... I am not of this world" (8:23)
and went on to warn His hearers, "If you do not believe that I AM, you will
die in your sins". It is a pity that the N.I.V. translators saw fit to make
the addition to His solemn claim to make it read, "If you do not believe
that I am (the one I claim to be)", but at least they have indicated by their
use of brackets that the Lord did not use the words which they have inserted.
His sweeping statement was that there is no hope for the sinner if the crucified
One was not the I AM. In any case we read a few verses on that the Lord told
His critics, "Before Abraham was, I AM" (8:58) prefacing these words with
His solemn " Amen, Amen". The Lord Jesus did not apologise for adopting the
divine name, and we need not apologise for applying it to Him. I AM is exclusive:
it implies that He alone can help us. I AM is also inclusive, for it assures
us that all our needs are fully provided for in Him. To every need of ours,
the Lord Himself is the all-sufficient answer. I do not propose to follow
the seven titles in order, but will try to extract a few spiritual realities
which emerge from them.
CHRIST'S PERFECT SUFFICIENCY
Wisdom, so we are told, has hewn out her seven pillars and built her
house for the express purpose of providing a banquet for the simple. In
a note on 1:22 the N.I.V. translators tell us that "the Hebrew word rendered
simple in Proverbs generally denotes one without moral direction and inclined
to evil". I imagine that our word 'wayward' conveys something of this idea.
In any case the force of the invitation to those who are in danger of perishing
in their lack of judgment is not merely to offer them information or advice
but to succour them with food and drink. So we are told of the servants sent
out to the highest point of the city to broadcast the invitation to all
This fits in quite closely with some of the calls by Christ Himself in
the Gospels, and it particularly applies to the first of His claims which
is "I AM the bread of life", and the illustrative miracle of the feeding
of the five thousand. This is perhaps the most striking of John's sign miracles,
for it reinforces what has already been recorded in the other three Gospels.
There are surprisingly few matters which are mentioned in all four Gospels.
John clearly did not feel it his business to repeat what the other three
had written. This sign-miracle with the sequel of Jesus walking on the water
is an exception.
He not only repeats the story which the Synoptics had told, but gives
us a few extra details which they had no liberty to mention. The first is
the association with the Feast of the Passover. The next is that Jesus already
had it in mind to work this wonder. The third is that the five small loaves
and the two small fish were not provided by the disciples but by an unnamed
lad. What is more, John makes no mention of the employment of the apostles
to carry the food to the groups of seated guests as the other three Evangelists
do. He speaks as though Jesus did it all by Himself: "Jesus then took the
loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as
they wanted. He did the same with the fish" (6:11)
The mention of the Passover is in accord with John's principle of pointing
out the fact that Jesus is the true fulfilment of all Old Testament types.
The other three ways in which he adds his own details seem to me to play
down any thought that Jesus needed the assistance of His disciples. Of course
they acted as the Synoptic Gospels tell us, but surely John's purpose is to
focus on the absolute sufficiency of Christ. His disciples did not know what
to do and did not even supply the meagre loaves and fishes which the Lord
used. In this striking way Jesus demonstrated the truth of the words I AM.
Perhaps John's way of telling the story suggests that in fact all the satisfied
[82/83] guests felt as though they had received their
portions directly from Him. They hardly noticed the apostles, just as those
at Cana of Galilee hardly noticed the servants who brought the water made
wine to the table.
Every one of these seven pillars has its own testimony to the sufficiency
of the Lord Jesus and all together they emphasise His glorious ability to
provide for every human need at all times. The first sign-miracle took place
at a wedding and the fifth at a graveside. They point us to Wisdom's gracious
invitation to the simple to leave their own ways and find life in Christ
and to those who lack judgment to begin to walk in the way of understanding.
The I AM is the answer to every possible need.
CHRIST'S PRESENT REALITY
Wisdom speaks to us in the present tense. Jesus did not say, "I was",
even when he spoke of Abraham's day: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before
Abraham was, I AM" (8:58). Although He was always looking forward to the
future, His emphasis in the matter of faith is on present realities. Every
one of His seven pillars stresses what we may know of Him today. Two of the
sign-miracles of John's Gospel give occasion for us to note this insistence
on what is not only past or future but present and immediate. They concern
the statement I AM the bread of life and I AM the resurrection and the life.
The events are indeed past history -- they really happened -- but they stress
i. Not only a matter of the past
The phrase, "I AM the bread of life" arose out of the long discussion
between the Lord and the Jews after the feeding of the five thousand. The
Jews were very proud of their nation's past and they challenged the Lord
Jesus with the wonder-food of the wilderness which they still called Manna.
They set great store on this national miracle of survival by bread from heaven,
associating the name of their great hero, Moses, with it. Jesus put them
right in the matter of who was responsible by saying, "It was not Moses
who gave you the manna", but He carefully avoided the obvious correction
that it was the Father who had given it, for that would have been to focus
on past history. He therefore completed the sentence by saying, "but my Father
gives you the true bread out of heaven" (6:32). It is the true bread,
the spiritual reality and not the typical illustration, and He [the true
bread] is now being given -- not a bit of past history but an up-to-date gift
of life to God's People.
The past is past, however wonderful it may have been. No-one can live
on past tradition. What we need, and what Jesus offers, is present and immediate.
In this matter of the bread of life He is the I AM. It is noteworthy that
when the Jews demanded a sign He did not respond by citing His miracle of
feeding the multitude, which should have been proof enough of His deity.
That, however, although so recent was now past experience for those who enjoyed
it. What matters is not only what He gave, but what He now gives
. Even if we knew the exact location of that desert feast and modern Christians
could make a pilgrimage to it, their experience would be as nothing compared
to the spiritual reality which comes from a personal taste of the I AM.
It is indeed a fact that the foundations of our faith depend on the past.
We wholeheartedly believe all that the Gospels say about the miracles of
Jesus. The words of Jesus show, however, that He multiplied the loaves to
establish the lasting wonder that hungry people may still eat and be satisfied
by feeding upon Him. It is an interesting fact that John always avoids any
use of the noun 'faith' and writes of the activity of 'believing'. There must
be an initial act of 'receiving' Him but that is only valid for those who
go on believing in His name (1:12).
The Lord Jesus wisely left with His Church one simple act of remembrance
designed to illustrate this matter of feeding on Him in our hearts by faith.
The Lord's Supper does look back to the past and also points to the future,
but it really majors on the present. We are to break the bread often, and
when we do so we both proclaim His death on the cross and look forward to
His Coming in the clouds, but the central command is that in our action we
should [83/84] maintain a present communion with Him.
The symbols speak to us of the I AM as our daily bread and of His blood as
that which keeps on cleansing us from all sin.
ii. Not only a matter of the future
The second sign-miracle which emphasises this present tense experience
is that of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. At the time when Jesus
came to Bethany, Martha's expectations were limited to the future: "I know
he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (11:24). She was
quite correct. So he will, and so will she and so, by God's grace, will we
all. Our resurrection, though, will depend not only on a divinely appointed
occasion, but on a Person, and that Person is the One who announced to Martha,
"I AM the resurrection and the life". So there is a knowledge of resurrection
life which does not have to wait for some future date but applies to our
immediate needs. This new life is a present reality when we know God and
Jesus Christ whom He sent: "Whoever lives and believes in me will never die".
The real thrust of the Lord's words is the spiritual principle of resurrection
life. To prove that He really is the resurrection He actually brought Lazarus
out of his tomb but, unlike His own resurrection, that of Lazarus was a merely
temporary experience. Whether he went back later to that same grave or to
some other, death inevitably overtook him as it does us all. On some future
occasion, as Martha rightly said, Lazarus will arise with a new body which
will then be immortal. That emergence from the cave was a sign of what is
yet to be, but it was more than that. It demonstrates to us that in Himself
the Lord Jesus is life and His resurrection life is freely available to
us here and now. Every new birth by the Spirit is a greater miracle than
what happened to Martha's brother, but the constancy of that miracle is to
be maintained by a continual experience of the I AM. Another title which the
Lord offered was "I AM the door". He is the way of access. To that, however,
He added the promise that through Him we are to go in and out (10:9). This
does not suggest a once-for-all experience and certainly not an up-and-down
one, but rather that we ought to have constantly new experiences of access.
Every day and every hour, He is the entrance into new experiences of spiritual
CHRIST'S PRACTICAL POWER
A further point which arises from the parallels of His names and His
sign-miracles is that it is a most practical experience to all of us who
come to Him. The seven pillars are not just ornamental extras to His house
but they are strong supports, ready to respond to every demand made upon
them. We are not just expected to recognise His claims but we are invited
to come to His house and taste for ourselves the present provision of the
I AM. There is much to learn from these sign-miracles which John recorded.
i. I AM the True Vine
We begin with the miracle associated with the vine. It seems that after
the conversation related in John 14, the Lord and His disciples went out
of the upper room and perhaps passed by the great ornamental vine which formed
part of the fabric of Herod's Temple. That was not so much a false vine as
a merely figurative one. When Jesus used the term 'true', He spoke of the
reality, not only contrasting Himself with symbols of failure but even with
what may have been genuine types of the truth. As He said, "I AM ... the
truth." At Cana of Galilee He proved this truth. No doubt that newly married
couple whose predicament is described in John 2:3 knew all about the symbolism
of the vine. It is even possible that they had a pictorial vine in their
new home, but at that moment of dire crisis what they needed was the real
thing, for they had no wine. In fact the True Vine was sitting at their table,
though they did not know it. When once the matter had been put into His hands,
an abundance of rich wine was made available to crown that feast. When the
Lord spoke of the Vine in John 15, most of what He said relates to the believer's
fruitfulness. It is all very important and in this issue I have been able
to include some most helpful ministry on that chapter which George Harpur
gave us not long before he went to be with Christ. But surely the miracle
at Cana must be allowed to illustrate what Christ can do for the fruitless
believer. The true story of the wine at the wedding gives a graphic reminder
of the practical sufficiency of Christ and of the excellence of His provision.
We are to taste and see how good the Lord is. The Master of Ceremonies
there in Galilee knew nothing of the explanation of how the provision came
to be available, but his palate told him that in a moment the Lord Jesus
had done that which excelled nature's best (2:10). He who is incarnate Wisdom
issues the invitation, "Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed"
(Proverbs 9:5). Solomon wrote those words as part of his beautiful poetry,
but Christ gives us the beautiful reality. He is the True Vine whose
surpassing sweetness is available for every time of need which may occur
in our lives and our relationships.
ii. I AM the Light of the World
In John 9 we have the story of the miraculous healing of a man who had
been blind from birth. It was in association with this poor sufferer who
never in all his life had known a single shaft of light that Jesus made the
claim, "I AM the light of the world" (9:5). The man's condition was tragic;
for him everything was thick darkness. The disciples, acting like amateur
theologians, wanted to provoke a hair-splitting enquiry which would have
made an attractive subject for discussion on a T.V. programme, and been no
more profitable than many of them. But Jesus was not in this world to argue
about theories but to provide practical answers to men's needs.
He not only claimed to be what John had earlier described as "the true
light" (1:9), but He proceeded to illuminate the man who had lived all his
life in total darkness. It is clear that the sign-miracle required no great
effort on the part of Jesus. After all, He is the eternal Son who had uttered
the Father's decree, "Let there be light" when the whole world was in chaotic
darkness and then the light had shone. Just one word of command from Him
could begin a new world for the benighted beggar. It was in these terms that
Paul described his own conversion; it was a new creation day for him: "For
God that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, shined in our hearts, to
give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ"
(2 Corinthians 4:6). In the Genesis story we are told of light before the
sun and moon were shining, while at Saul's conversion the light that shone
upon him was "above the brightness of the sun" (Acts 26:13).
No-one would doubt that this emancipated beggar had his whole life revolutionised
by his response to the One who said, "I AM the light". What is more, the
development of his story shows that the light was spiritual as well as physical
and that it increased as he responded boldly to its implications. We only
begin to live when the Lord Jesus enlightens our hearts but what is equally
important, we only make progress in the way of life as we open our hearts
and minds to His fresh shining.
iii. I AM the Door
Another of the sign-miracles of John's Gospel will perhaps give us a
helpful illustration of the practical reality of Christ's name. This time
we are to consider His claim, "I AM the door". The story describes the experience
of a man who for thirty-eight years had been trying unsuccessfully to gain
access: "Sir, I have no-one to help me into the pool" (5:7). He so wanted
to get in, but never could, at least never in time. Jesus solved his problem
There are mysteries about that pool and the properties claimed for the
one who could first enter it when its waters were troubled. They do not
concern us, for what matters is what happened to the man, and there was
no mystery about that: he discovered the practical reality of Christ's claim
to be the entrance -- the door or the gate. He was so obsessed with his
inability that he hardly paid attention to the Lord's enquiry as to whether
he wished to be made whole. Of course he did, but he seems to have been
unable to think of anything more than his need to get into that pool on
time. The Lord did not waste words remonstrating with him, and He certainly
did not offer His services to help the man into the pool. He did something
much better than that; He made the man whole with a word. Instead of bringing
the man to the door, He brought the door to the man. And that is what He
does to all who sincerely desire access into the mercy and grace of God.
My own opinion is that this was one of the most undeserving and even
despicable of all those who were healed by the Lord Jesus. This is partly
[85/86] borne out by the fact that Jesus proceeded
to give him not a promise but a warning. The man reacted to this by becoming
an informer to Christ's persecutors. Never mind! There is grace for the most
unworthy. In any case, what happened to him in terms of physical relief is
surely recounted to us so that we may have a new conception of the grace
and power of the I AM. Jesus said, "I AM the door". He also said, "I AM the
way". In Him we find access and a welcome into the blessings of God.
SIGNIFICANCE OF WHAT IS SPIRITUAL
The seven pillars speak of permanence, and only the spiritual is truly
permanent. Those who do not accept the infallibility of the Scriptures tell
us that the early believers invented these stories just to assist us to
appreciate the Lord's spiritual powers. They are quite wrong. Each of these
seven sign-wonders actually happened. But it would be rather foolish to
stress His power to bring healing to men as if this were paramount, or to
demand similar miracles in His Church today. That God can do miracles if
and when He wishes no true believer would doubt, but the question which arises
is that of genuine and lasting values, and these must be spiritual. In this
connection what the I AM does for men in the spiritual realm is the real
thrust of the message of John's Gospel.
Perhaps I may revert to the apostle Paul in an attempt to stress this
truth. Saul of Tarsus actually passed three days of blindness when physically
he was in total darkness. He then received back his sight by a miracle, as
is explained in the words, "Something like scales fell from his eyes and
he could see again" (Acts 9:18). As part of his testimony on the steps of
the Jerusalem barracks, he told his hearers of that miracle (Acts 22:11 &
13) but apart from that almost casual allusion he never seems to have mentioned
again the physical wonder. On the other hand he continually wrote and prayed
about the miracle of spiritual enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. This was
what mattered. His writings abound with thanks for his own deliverance from
spiritual blindness and prayers that his readers might know and walk in the
light of the Lord. For him it was clearly the giving of spiritual sight which
constituted the true fulfilment of Christ's claim in this and in every other
matter to be the great I AM.
(Some thoughts on John 15)
THE Lord Jesus claimed to be the True Vine. Israel was called to be God's
vine but, as the prophet informs us, the nation completely failed Him and
yielded only bad fruit. In any case, though, the description which the Lord
gave of Himself as the True Vine, not only contrasted with what was
faulty but also with what was typical and secondary. The rich reality of
all that the vine means is to be found in Him alone who said, "I am ...".
He also said "I am the truth", meaning the absolute reality.
To be the True Vine was no idle claim, for the life of Jesus was wholly
fruitful and He was able to assert that He did always those things which
pleased the Father. What is more, He put into the same statement the fact
that His Father is the Vinedresser, making sure to give the Father all the
glory for the human life that He was living, because our Lord was true Man
and His manhood was expressed by His complete dependence on His Father. His
life as the Vine was based on the will and control of His heavenly
[86/87] Gardener, and He placed all His dependence on this relationship.
After He had made this personal statement, the Lord devoted the rest
of what He had to say as set out in this chapter to the fact that His disciples
are the branches of this Vine. We are now to follow what He has to teach
us about matters related to the branches in the Vine and their concerns. In
His case there was no question of self-government but only of submitting to
the will of His Father. As branches in that Vine we are called upon to live
in this same way. Any vine which has good branches of fruit has been well
trained; it is a plant which is ordered and pruned and under firm control.
A wild vine, however, follows its own course, twisting and winding at random.
We might have thought that since the Lord Jesus was sinlessly perfect,
He could have ordered His life exactly as He wanted to, but He did nothing
of the sort. He submitted totally to the plans which His Father had made
for Him. There was nothing in His life that was not true to plan. Again and
again it is written of Him that the Scriptures were being fulfilled in His
experiences and actions so that at last, when all the Scriptures were fulfilled,
He could cry "It is finished!" He had followed the Father's will perfectly;
He never did a thing that was out of His own thought processes.
He was able to say that the things which He did were those things which
He had seen the Father doing and the words that He spoke were what He had
heard His Father say. This, I believe, relates to the statement made at His
baptism that the heavens were opened to Him. How we wish that they were open
to us! In fact the Bible will open them to us to some degree; in His case,
though, it was a totally opened heaven. Our Lord's communication with His
father in heaven was perfect and complete; the opened heaven under which
He lived enabled Him to produce on earth exactly what He saw there. Insofar
as heaven is opened to us and we even bother to look up to our Father there,
we will discover that He has a plan for our lives too, and we should seek
by His grace to follow out that plan and do the things that He wants us to
do. Jesus -- who in any case would never have acted in a self-centred way
-- did exactly what His Father told Him and could claim that He always did
the things that pleased Him (John 8:29). This is the Vine of which we are
In the opening words, "I am the true vine and My father is the Vinedresser",
Jesus summarises the whole of His life in its perfection and its total control
by God as well as His personal submission to the Father's will. Our Lord
could have done what He liked, for His likes were perfect: The Old Testament
laid down no laws as to what occupation He should follow so He could have
chosen what He liked best and in any case would never have done anything wrong.
He did not choose at all but went the way His reputed father went and accepted
responsibility for the carpenter's shop at Nazareth. In fact He accepted
the path which His heavenly Father chose for Him, in the beautiful harmony
of a life wholly directed by the will of God. It is great if in anything in
which we are involved, we have the assurance that what we are doing is God's
will. We shall always find it conflicting with our own will, so a basic decision
must be made that by God's grace we will live under an open heaven, doing
what we see God doing and saying what we hear Him saying in our hearts and
Jesus goes on to say, "every branch that bears fruit, He trims clean
that it may bear more fruit". Here our Lord introduces the idea that there
are branches in Him and the disciples may well have wondered for a moment
what he meant by branches. He explains in verse 5, but not before then.
The fact is that we have become branches of Christ by being grafted into
Him. We are not there by nature. In Isaiah 53 it is pointed out that Christ
had no generation, but nonetheless He has a great family who together form
what we may call the corporate Christ. There is such a thing; a body of which
He is the Head, for the anointing upon Him came down upon the whole of the
Church. "God anointed him". That same anointing has been poured out upon
His disciples at Pentecost, to bring the reality of the Holy Spirit, in all
the benefits and powers of the anointing, into the members of His body.
It is true that branches in Him are cut off if they do not bear fruit.
Where there is real salvation, there will be real fruit. We need to realise
that there is another side to justification by faith, for where there is
true faith there will be sanctification and there will be fruit. Conversion
is our way of talking about our side of it, but regeneration is God's way
of talking about it, and that means a change of the heart so that we become
new people. We are only babes to begin with, so that for a time it may be
difficult for others to determine if a conversion is genuine or not. The
important thing is to bear fruit, not in order to be saved but in order to
show that the transaction we had with Him was real. Every branch that does
not bear fruit must go, but every branch which does bear fruit must be trimmed
or pruned so that it will become even more fruitful. When we come to Christ
we are not entering upon a programme of dead ease and comfort, but we are
submitting ourselves to a programme in which we will be trained and trimmed
according to the mind of God.
I think that this is the thing in life to which we most object, these
purging and pruning operations which God undertakes in our case. We are apt
to think that having been saved and the whole business of our eternal destiny
settled, now we can settle down and do no more than enjoy life. Of course
we are meant to do that, "God gives us richly all things to enjoy", but
that is not the purpose for which we are here. Not that the Lord would rob
us of anything good here; sometimes, however, He has to hold them back from
us because they are the things we tend to value too much. He prunes us in
various ways, two in particular.
First of all, the knife has to come to slice off some features of our
nature, for He cannot permit uncontrolled growth. Our Vinedresser has to
do that since, left to ourselves, we would tend to grow out in all sorts of
directions, this way and that, spurred on by our own selfish and self-centred
notions. How often do we take some course and then, when weeks and months
have gone by, ask ourselves if after all that was what the Lord wanted us
to do. We tend to act on our own initiative, taking our own way into life,
even into Christian service, ignoring the will of God which should govern
us as members of Christ's body. The vine will only grow properly when it is
trimmed and pruned. God's pruning is done in love; He never gives one cut
which is not necessary or beneficial. The vine has no alternative, it is
completely in the hands of the gardener. We, unfortunately, have our own alternatives
and may find ourselves resisting God's pruning knife. There are times when
we might be freed much more quickly of our troubles if we accepted them in
the fear of God. This, then, is the first way in which He works. He prunes
us by what we call our afflictions.
There is another way by which God prunes us, and that is by His Word:
"Already you are clean because of the word which I have spoken unto you"
(v.3). The knife not only deals with the wild growth which is not going to
be profitable, but it also cuts out the bruises, the bacteria and the fungus
that will attack any vine in the natural course of things. The Word of God
is that knife, and it is designed to remove the harmful things. It is important,
therefore, that we listen to it and give it serious thought. It is a knife
in the Father's hand so, as we give it attention, He will use it to cleanse
away any threat to fruit-bearing. We should welcome the knife, for it heals
even as it wounds.
"Remain in me, or abide in me, and I in you". This is what happens with
any branch in a vine, for it can only bear fruit by maintaining intimate
union with the main plant to which it belongs. When, however, we think of
a grafted branch, there is always the possibility that it may not 'take'.
It seems that this forms a sort of illustration of how important it is for
us to maintain vital association with our Lord. When a gardener takes a branch
which is to be grafted, he cuts down the tip to expose the inner life of that
branch. He then has to cut a place in the vine itself and insert the prepared
branch in its right place and bind it on.
It is put there to stay permanently; and only by abiding or remaining
can it take. If someone comes along and pulls it out from the main stem,
then it is finished. It will never produce fruit. It is dead. It has nothing
in itself from which to produce fruit. It needs time for the graft to take
[88/89] and the cells to knit, but in due course
the vital connection takes place and the fruit-bearing process begins. But
any distance between the branch and the main stem is inadmissible. If such
a graft only had a millimetre of space between it and the vine, it might just
as well be a mile away for all the value that there can be.
Now in the True Vine this does not mean we can be in and out of the vine,
dead branches at one time and living branches at another, but of course no
parable can be pursued to its precise limit. What the Lord wished to do
was to stress a point, not to establish a doctrine. By speaking of a branch
which may be divided from the vine and perish in the fire, He is not speaking
of a Christian's salvation, but of the folly of allowing ourselves to permit
any distance between ourselves and the Lord and so failing to maintain the
practical values of our relationship with Him. That relationship is not
exactly that of a branch to a vine, but it is a personal experience of close
union with Him, stressing that there needs to be a continuity of fellowship
with Him if there is to be fruit. The sap in the vine must get through to
the branch. A branch which is pushed in and out will never be fruitful. Living
power must be transferred continually in order that the goodness which is
in the Vine may become grapes on the branches.
How close we need to keep to the Lord! "If you abide in me, and my words
abide in you, ask whatsoever you will, and it shall be done unto you" (v.7).
We note that to abide in the Lord means to keep His commandments (v.10).
Faith must be expressed by obedience. One step of faith will take you into
the narrow way of life but that step will not take you to the end of the journey,
for you are now in a way. There will be one final step at the end, and that
will be into glory, but meanwhile you have to walk step by step. Not that
this is taxing, for the Lord speaks of it as a way of joy: "... that my joy
may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled" (v.11). We are told here
of two joys. It gives the Lord great joy when we obey His commandments and
He can give us the smile of His approval. In His case, when He perfectly obeyed
the Father's will, God opened the heavens and cried, "This is my beloved Son,
in whom I am well pleased." One day He will find joy in opening the same
heaven to us and greeting us with the words, "Well done!" The very thought
of that should fill us with joy. Our cup will brim over as we obey His commandments.
His commandments are meaningful; they are part of a plan. He wants us
to appreciate this and so offers us the privilege of friends who have some
real understanding of this (v.15). So this goes beyond the simple analogy
of the vine, for it suggests that as Christians we are called into intelligent
cooperation with the heavenly Gardner and can increasingly appreciate the
significance of our personal life and experience in its relation to the Lord's
overall purposes. The servant, Jesus says, does what he is told without necessarily
having any idea of his master's larger interests. We, however, are not servants
but friends and as such those in whom He can confide and who can share His
concerns and purposes.
There is yet a further truth to be explained, and that deals with us
as members of a body. The idea of the branches in a vine takes us on a further
step beyond the lesson of the sheep in Chapter 10. There each individual
sheep is almost entirely concerned with its relationship to the Shepherd in
an outward way. It has been purchased by the Shepherd and is precious to
Him, but it does not have much more than a mere outward relationship with
the rest of the flock, or any responsibility for the others. Together they
are a flock but otherwise they have no particular relationship with the others
or concern for them. With the branches of the Vine, however, it is different.
They actually share the inner life of the Vine and even have some sort of
connection with one another. But this cannot explain the whole truth. One
branch need not necessarily feel the loss of another and may even feel more
able to grow and expand by its removal. So further truth about our spiritual
life must be stressed and this was later done by the apostle Paul in his
teaching about Christ's body.
In a body each member needs all the others. Their vital relationship
with the Head is all important, but it is not the only thing. Every part,
even that which is apparently insignificant, [89/90]
is important for the good of the whole. For this reason the Lord Jesus
continued His lesson on the vine with the words: "This is my commandment,
that you love one another, even as I have loved you" (v.12). Fruit-bearing
is not only a personal matter, it has corporate significance. The heavenly
Gardener's attention and activities are not just aimed at our personal fruitfulness;
they are all part of His supreme care for His one True Vine.
THE GOSPEL OF THE GLORY OF JESUS
J. Alec Motyer
THERE is a feature in common in John's longer New Testament writings.
His Gospel, his first letter and the book of Revelation have all the same
basic plan in that they all open with an introduction -- what we would nowadays
call an author's preface. Before he comes to the actual contents of the book
itself, he tells us what it is going to be all about. In the case of the
Gospel which we are now considering, this introduction runs from 1:1 right
through to 2:11.
Of course the Gospel is all about the Lord Jesus. John means to paint
his own portrait of the Lord, and this preface is a summary statement of
what he thinks about Jesus. The preface falls into four parts, each giving
its own testimony about Jesus. First of all there is the testimony of John
the writer (1:1-18). Next there is the testimony of John the Baptizer (1:19-42).
Then there is the testimony of some of the first disciples (1:35-51). Finally
there is the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee where His mother and
His disciples saw His glory (2:1-11).
So that is what it is all about. John the apostle says, 'This is His
glory as I saw it'. This is also the glory of Jesus as John the Baptist
and his disciples saw it. Now listen to Philip and Nathanael to know of
His glory as they saw it. And now let me tell you a story of the particular
occasion at Cana when Jesus manifested His glory. Here then is the essence
of these testimonies:
i. John the writer of the Gospel
John starts his testimony by saying that Jesus is the divine Word. He
is what God wants to say to the world, and He is God Himself come to say
it. Jesus is also the true Light (v.9). He is the new life: "To any who received
him, to them he gave the right to become the children of God, even to them
that believe on his name" (v.12). That is the true order of the words in
the Greek, and it speaks of this experience of becoming children of God being
bracketed around on the one side by 'receiving' Jesus and on the other by
'believing in him'. Between those two brackets, one at each end of the verse,
there is this lovely truth of the benefit that Jesus brings. The apostle's
testimony is summed up in the words: "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among
us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father),
full of grace and truth" (v.14). This is a verse which would exhaust all
our space if we were to dwell upon it, but let us note the simple point that
Jesus is God incarnate. The Word was God. The Word became flesh. He left
none of His deity behind, but He brought His deity down within the bounds
of a truly human experience.
ii. John the Baptist
John now turns from himself to another John who also bore witness about
the Lord Jesus: "On the next day he sees Jesus coming and says, Behold the
Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world" (v.29). Now that is a
[90/91] marvellous and plain picture. We need no new
pictures of Jesus, for surely nothing can be plainer than the picture of
Him as the sin-bearer. There is, of course, a mystery here, which no amount
of human explanation can clarify, the mystery of how God could take my sin
and load it on to His Son. That was the only way in which God could deal with
sin, so it is Jesus the sin-bearer who gladly accepts responsibility for
all our sins.
John continues his testimony by speaking of the moment when he came to
realise that his cousin Jesus was the Messiah sent from heaven: "I knew
him not but he who sent me to baptise with water, he said unto me, Upon
whomsoever thou shalt see the Spirit descending and abiding upon him, the
same is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and I have seen and I have
borne witness that this is the Son of God" (v.33). What prospects this Gospel
is offering! The author's preface is full of the glory of Jesus.
iii. The First Disciples
After this the Baptist sent some of his disciples to follow Jesus. His
words, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30), show that he knew
his place in the plan of God and was glad to see them going after Jesus,
even though it meant that they were leaving him. John's work was coming to
an end, but as the disciples followed Jesus they realised that his testimony
had been true. They were able to share the truth, "We have found the Messiah"
Jesus is the promised One, the One in whom all God's promises are to
We note how the preface is now being presented in a series of days, as
though John the writer had been keeping a diary. So he says, "on the next
day Jesus was minded to go into Galilee, and he found Philip" (v.43). In
his turn Philip found Nathanael and said, "We have found him ...". Now that
was not absolutely true because it was Jesus who had found Philip, but it
was true enough in the sense which Philip intended it. "We have come to a
great discovery" he said, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and
the prophets did write", so underlining the idea that Jesus is the fulfiller
of all, and then adding, "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph". So Philip
bears his testimony, Jesus is the fulfiller of the predictions and He is
a truly human person. Nathanael added something more, for he testified, "Rabbi,
you are the Son of God. You are the king of Israel". Our diaries can often
run into the sand for lack of information, but it was not like that with
Jesus. Every day things were happening.
iv. Cana of Galilee
There was a third day in that diary, "On the third day there was a marriage
in Cana of Galilee" (2:1). John could not leave that out because that was
the day on which Christ manifested His glory. What is the glory of Jesus?
It is the glory of God come down to earth. Thousands of years earlier He
had said, "Let there be light" and there was light; so now at Cana He said
"Let there be wine", and there was wine. Jesus is God come down to earth,
bringing newness of life. He is come down to earth to revive dead situations,
to give hope where there is no hope and to give joy where joy has run out.
He has come as the One who has kept the best wine until the last.
After this the Gospel works out as the story of four trips to Jerusalem.
The First Visit
Immediately after the end of this preface we are told that, with the
Passover at hand, Jesus went up to Jerusalem (2:13). Then according to 3:22
He moved away from Jerusalem into the surrounding country. He then returned
north into Samaria (4:4) and came again into Cana of Galilee (4:46). So the
first part of John's Gospel describes a trip to Jerusalem and then home again.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, He continued the godly custom which
He had learned from Mary and Joseph and went to the Temple. If we speak
of the cleansing of the Temple we instinctively think of what happened on
Palm-Sunday when Jesus drove all the traders from there, but John, alone
of all the Gospels, tells us that Jesus also cleansed the Temple at the
beginning of His ministry, on this first trip to Jerusalem.
It was a drastic and daring thing to do, to take the management of the
Temple into His own hands. They demanded to know how He dare do it, and
His answer frightened them out of their lives: "Destroy this temple and
in three days I will raise it up" (v.19). They never forgot it and when
He came on trial three years later it was this that they remembered. John
tells us so perceptively that Jesus was talking about the temple of His
body, and after His resurrection the disciples realised the significance
of His words. This is the heart of John's first great truth about Jesus,
namely, that He makes all things new. He did not say that if they destroyed
the Temple He would build another to take its place but he said, "I will
raise it up". The real significance of the Temple was that God dwelt in
the midst of His people. The empty ritual of the Jews had destroyed that
truth but in the Person of Jesus Christ and by resurrection it was to be
fully recovered. He would take everything that God had ever done for His
people and make it new.
There are stories that come in this first section, that of Nicodemus,
that of the Samaritan woman and that of the nobleman whose son was dying.
John uses these true stories to illustrate the truth of things being made
new. In Chapter 3 he has the story of Nicodemus and the reality of new birth.
In Chapter 4 when, weary and travel-worn, the Lord first surprised the woman
by asking for water and then gave her the marvellous offer of living water.
She had come to the old well with all the flat staleness of a life in which
there had been no satisfaction and Jesus not only offered her new life for
herself but spoke of her becoming a fountain of living water. Jesus not only
offers to make a new person by birth from above, but He provides also a
new vitality, a whole well-spring of overflowing life.
Later in Chapter 4 John recounts the story of the man who was driven
by concern for his dying son to travel thirty miles to get help from Jesus.
At first he was repulsed with the challenge as to whether he was like all
the others, just wanting sensations, but when he cried out from his heart
that he really wanted help and wanted it quickly, the Lord gave him a simple
test of faith by saying, "Go thy way; thy son lives" (4:50). The man believed
and went home, only to be met with the good news that his son had recovered.
He asked just when his son began to get better but the reply was that there
was no beginning about it, it had all happened at the very hour in which Jesus
spoke the word.
Jesus can make all things new. He can make us new people; He can give
us new vitality; to those who face death He can speak the word of life. These
stories give graphic illustrations of what Jesus said when He told His critics
that if they would pull down the old, He would make it all new.
The Second Visit
We now come to the second visit which the Lord made to Jerusalem: "After
these things there was a feast of the Jews and Jesus went up to Jerusalem"
(5:1). In Chapter 6 we find that He is back in Galilee again, so John tells
us that He made another round trip. The theme of this seems to be that Jesus
is the life. After the first journey we might have asked how we can get this
new life which Jesus gives. The answer is that it involves a personal relationship
with Him. Where He is, He is there as life.
John begins this visit to Jerusalem with the story of the man at the
Pool of Bethesda (5:2). Jesus had to ask the man if he really wanted to
be well. After all, since he had been there for thirty-eight years, it may
well have become a way of life to him. What is more important is that if
he had been there for such a long time there was no actual need to heal
him on the Sabbath for he would have been there on the day before and the
day after just the same. There must therefore have been a deliberateness
about this act of Jesus in choosing to heal on the Sabbath day.
It certainly provoked the legalists and the ritualists who insisted that
He should not have done this on the Sabbath. The answer given to them is
very important and recorded by John as such, for Jesus said, "My Father works
even until now and I am at work" (5:17). The following verse tells us that
for this cause the Jews tried harder to kill Him because in addition to His
alleged Sabbath breaking He had made Himself [92/93]
equal with God. They fully understood the implications of Christ's words.
He is the Creator God. If He finished the actual work of beginning the creation,
it was only to take up the work of maintaining the creation. The Lord's argument
was that they all knew very well that when Genesis speaks of God resting,
it does so in the confident knowledge that God never rests; He does not
stop His work of maintaining the creation just because it is Sunday.
The Lord Jesus claimed to work as His Father works, healing this man
on the Sabbath to show whose Son He really is and what is the work on which
He is engaged. And they knew what He meant, though they hated it. He was claiming
to be the Creator God, able to make all things new. He stood beside the friendless
man by the pool and asked him if he really wanted to be healed. 'If you do,'
He announced, 'there is no need for remedies, whether they be real or imaginary,
for I am here. I can make all things new. I am here as the Creator carrying
on His creative functions. You can derive life from Me.'
In Chapter 6 John picks out two incidents to prove that Jesus is the
Creator come down to earth. By now He has completed the round trip and is
back again in Galilee. First there is the feeding of the five thousand and
then the storm on the lake and Jesus walking on the water. These seem to
follow the incident of the man at the pool and the Lord's claim that He was
working in concert with the Father. John tells us that Jesus knew what He
was going to do (6:6) and when He acted He did so as Creator, creating food
until none of them could eat any more. And then, when the disciples were
in the troubled sea, not able to make any headway, He actually came to them
walking on the water!
That claim by the pool was no idle one. Jesus really is the Creator God
come down to earth. He could give food and He could master the unruly elements
of creation. The meaning of all this is explained as the chapter goes on
for, capitalising on the incident of creating bread to feed the people, the
Lord began to open up the truth that He Himself is the Bread of Life (v.35)
He came down out of heaven to give life to the world. Was that not what He
did at the pool? He came to the helpless man to give him life, so that he
was able to pick up his bed and carry it off as a visible proof that Jesus
is the Life Giver. In the days of Moses God gave the Israelites bread and
now He Himself has come down to be the true bread.
The Third Visit
The third journey which Jesus made to Jerusalem was on the occasion of
the Feast of Tabernacles. His unbelieving brothers urged Him to go there
but He said that He was not going (7:8). Yet afterwards He went. His words
to His brothers meant that He would not go as they suggested, making a display
with signs and wonders. When He did go, He went quietly and secretly. What
is stated in Chapter 7 is associated deliberately with the Feast of Tabernacles,
so much so that Jesus went up at the middle of that feast (v.14) and spoke
out to all on the last great day of that feast (v.37).
Perhaps it will help if I mention two things about that feast:
i. A Feast of Water-pouring
One great feature of the Feast of Tabernacles, especially on the last
great day, was the outpouring of water. The leaders went in ceremonial procession
to the spring outside the city wall and brought back a great jar of water
from the spring. At the time of the morning sacrifice they poured the water
as a libation over the sacrifice and as they did so they said, "Now Lord,
send salvation!" The outpouring was seen as a symbol of the outpouring which
God had promised His people of old, the outpouring of God's salvation and
of the Spirit being poured upon them from on high (Isaiah 32:15). It was
at this point that Jesus suddenly stepped forward and shouted, "If any man
thirst, let him come to me and drink" (v.37). The outpouring had taken place.
They were symbolising the outpouring, crying out to God for it to happen,
and all the time it had now happened. In Christ the outpouring had taken place.
He is the promised salvation of God poured out upon the earth.
This, then, is the theme of the third trip to Jerusalem. Jesus is the
fulfilment, the fulfilment of all that God had promised. At the moment
[93/94] when they were carrying in the water to pour it out with
the cry of Hosanna, Jesus dramatically interrupted their ceremony by claiming
to be its fulfilment: "If you are really thirsty for God, then come to me
ii. A Feast of Lights
I am told that the other feature of this Feast of Tabernacles was that
of light. This was not commanded in the Old Testament but had grown up as
a ceremony in Jerusalem; they filled the whole city with light. The Temple
courts had great lampstands which glowed with light all through the night.
According to Josephus, every street and lane and alleyway in the city was
filled with light -- the light of the God of Israel lighting up every bit
of darkness. We see then how once again John presents Jesus as the fulfilment
of all promises and expectations, for he goes on to record the words of the
Lord, "I am the light of the world" (8:12). Jesus is the Water of salvation:
He is also the Light of the world.
So John moves into Chapter 9 with a practical illustration of this precious
truth, the story of the man born blind. Once again the Lord spoke of working
the works of God, insisting that this man's disability was not due to any
fault of his or of his parents but just to provide a teaching aid to this
wonderful truth of His light-giving presence. The man went to wash in Siloam,
which means 'sent', and he came back not walking any more in darkness but
having the light of life. After his excommunion by the religious authorities
the man asked Jesus who was the Son of God to be believed in and Jesus replied,
"you are looking at Him". This is sight indeed, to have personal dealings
with the Light of the world. They cast him out, but Jesus took him in and
he became a believer and a worshipper. At that Feast of the Tabernacles,
then, Jesus fulfils the promise of outpoured salvation and also of light for
a dark world.
At this very point, between Chapter 9 and Chapter 10, the Lord said to
the Pharisees, 'You are of no further significance. What matters now is
people's relationship with Me. I am the door. And I am the Shepherd.' He
fulfils all that was ever intended for David, Israel's king; He is the fulfilment
of all that David was meant to be and could not be.
The Fourth Visit
The fourth visit to Jerusalem was the last, and reads on from Chapter
11 where we are told of how Jesus was called to Bethany, in the vicinity
of the city, to bring new life into a dying or dead situation, to bring hope
where there was no hope. This must be reserved for a later article
[Vol. 17, No. 3, p. 51] when we must compare the accounts which
all four Gospel writers give us of the crowning revelation of the glory of
God's dear Son. Meanwhile, however, we look back on the three visits which
John's Gospel has mentioned and remind ourselves of three precious truths
about our Lord Jesus. Jesus makes all things new. Jesus Himself is the life.
Jesus is the perfect fulfilment of God's promises. Perhaps this study may
have helped us a little to exclaim that we have seen His glory.
KEEP YOURSELVES IN GOD'S LOVE
WE may wonder why Jude should exhort us to keep ourselves in the love
of God (v.21) for it might be thought that we would do this as a matter of
course. This, however, is not so, especially as God's love exceeds all natural
understanding and differs greatly from what we might imagine. None of us
know as a matter of course what this love is, for we must learn to know
it as John -- the apostle of love -- writes so forcefully: "We have learned
to know the love which God had for us, and we have come to believe in it"
(1 John 4:16 Danish ). [94/95]
Learning to know this love
Perhaps we may ask how it was that John himself learned to know God's
love. He seems to give some indication of this by his self-description in
his Gospel as "the disciple whom Jesus loved". Surely the phrase contained
a sort of wonder that the Lord could love even him.
Can you imagine yourself signing a letter with your name and then following
with the description 'the disciple whom Jesus loves'? You hesitate to write
in this way, but in fact you can rightly do so when you have made the greatest
discovery of your life, that the Lord loves you. As you sign your name in
this way you do not make yourself out to be more important than others. On
the contrary, the words rather emphasise the fact that you still cannot comprehend
how He could love you as He does. John described himself in this way because
he found it so wonderful to be loved by the Lord.
Christ did not love John more than Peter and the others, as John knew
very well. The marvel to him was that as a man who had been so fiery and
eager for the best place, yet the Lord loved him. It was easier to believe
that the Lord loved the others but hardly credible that such a one as he
could be singled out for love. He knew himself, and anyone who does that
will more readily understand the feeling that he is the least lovable of
all. The Lord loved even him.
If this is so it means that John learned to know the love of the Lord
by coming to a realisation of how little he was worthy of that love. This
is the way in which most of us learn to know the love of God. At the beginning
we perhaps think that there is at least something in us which can give a
basis for God's valuation of us. We feel that we deserve something from Him,
for are we not zealous in His service, whole-hearted and totally dedicated,
having nothing of that uncommitted or indifferent attitude which is found
in others! Alas, however, in the school of God it is revealed that in me,
that is, in my flesh, there is no good thing, so this raises the question
if God can continue to love me as much. I am such a failure that He can well
have cooled towards me.
Those whom I have disappointed or failed will naturally withdraw from
me, or at best wait to see whether I can recover and again prove myself worthy
of their friendship. But the Lord does not withdraw. His love does not waver
like ours. And this is not because I am lovable, but because He Himself
is love. Because of His own nature He still loves me and His love never
He knows my sinfulness and all my transgressions, even better than I
know them myself, but instead of withdrawing in His holiness from such a
one as I am, He takes all that sin and guilt of mine upon Himself. Through
all eternity we will never cease to worship God who loved us so much as
to give His only Son to the horror of death on the cross for our sakes.
Although the law would curse us (and with good reason), His love in Christ
has delivered us from that curse. Instead of cursing us with His holy law
and telling us to depart from Him, He took the curse upon Himself and ensured
that we would never be accursed by bearing the curse Himself. Such a love
is not natural to us but it is wonderfully true.
Coming to believe this love
This love is so foreign to us that we have to learn to know it and to
come to believe it. By our understanding or feelings we cannot comprehend
God's love. He is too great and we are so small, that we cannot appreciate
it. He exceeds all knowledge. Not only that, but His holiness is so dreadful
that there is a gulf between Him and us sinners which seems unbridgeable.
That such as He loves such as us is completely incomprehensible. How can He,
who hates every expression of unholiness, love people like us who can provide
nothing other than unholiness? It is impossible to explain.
The only answer can be that God is love; that is the explanation
-- or rather the revelation. The proof of His love is found in Gethsemane
and at that terrible hillside just outside the city where Jesus was crucified.
By this we are reminded that it was not we who took the initiative and asked
God to love us, but it was the God who is love who took the initiative, coming
to us who were His enemies and freely forgiving us. [95/96]
In a sense this is how God defeated us, for He cut the ground from under
our enmity against Him and so conquered us. I once said something nasty to
my first wife. I expected her to defend herself and answer back, but she
did what was worst for me in that situation for, while I was bad-tempered,
she just said to me, 'I love you so much'. What could I say to that? I was
ashamed. Soon we were in each other's arms and I had to ask for her forgiveness.
Love is the most terrible force in the universe. It conquers its enemies and
lays them prostrate at its feet in worship.
"We have learned to know that love" says John, adding "and we have come
to believe in it" so that we shall not misunderstand how it is that we attain
to that knowledge. We can never know it with our minds or by our feelings,
for our thoughts and sensations are too small and transient for such immensity.
The love of God is far too divine for us, but when our inner eyes are opened,
so that in God's light we see our crucified Saviour, perfect in His work
of love for us, we realise that His indescribable sufferings demonstrate that
supreme love. Far from despising us, He has wooed and won us, and we have
learned by faith and worship and honour Him. How dreadful to harbour the
least doubt about such a Saviour and such a love! What can hurt love more
than a lack of confidence? Our sins are indeed terrible, but by far the worst
is our scepticism.
He who abides in love
To be conquered by this love it to become truly free. He who has been
conquered by the love of God must abandon all self-esteem. He knows that
he is nothing in himself, but is 'bound' to love God and to have the one
single desire to do His will in everything great and small. Love is the only
power which can reform a person by creating him anew, changing all his ideas
and making him free and happy so that all he desires is to respond to the
Lord for all His undeserved benefits and unmerited love. "The love of God
constrains me" said Paul, and we find it so. If we want to penetrate to the
heart of the Holy Spirit's nature then we find that it is the power of love
to conquer God's enemies and make them His fervent disciples. This is His
Of course the devil will not look on passively, but will do everything
he can -- and that is not a little -- to draw us away from this source of
power. His favourite method is to sow doubts about God's love in our hearts.
He reminds us of the depravity of our own nature and suggests that we cannot
now expect the Lord to love us. If we have an extra-sensitive conscience
we can even become oppressed with the imagination that we have committed the
unpardonable sin. Day and night he attacks us with the most absurd thoughts.
He rejoices when a believer becomes the prey of despair, even seeking to
tempt some to suicide. He is himself the liar and murderer, and he spares
no-one whom he can get into his power.
His supreme purpose is to destroy our belief in the love of God. Happily
he cannot succeed, for no-one can pluck us out of the Father's hand. Since
Jesus has bought us for God by shedding His precious blood we are perfectly
safe even although we may not feel so. Paul was convinced that nothing in
heaven, on earth or from hell could separate us from the love of God in Christ
Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). We must also be convinced that this is
Sometimes it is easy to enjoy this conviction, and sometimes it can be
so difficult as to seem impossible. What we must always do is to abide steadfastly
in that love. Whatever the seeming contradiction of facts and arguments may
be, the chief task of faith is to remain firm in the astounding but glorious
fact that we are loved and are precious to the Lord. It is around this fact
that the fight of faith often rages. Here is the realm where Satan is most
active in trying to make us stumble. Nevertheless faith is the victory, the
sure victory over those evil powers which are so strong that only faith can
defeat them. Sometimes that faith may seem to be broken and totally conquered,
but behold, it rises up again as by a miracle of God's grace. Though weak
in itself, it makes victory wonderfully possible. Praise the Lord!
Imagine, he who abides in love, abides in God. That means that
he abides in the fullness of life and power as well as in every good work.
Faith in the love of God is often faced by tremendous and satanic opposition,
but we can be strong in grace, that is undeserved and unmerited love. To
have any idea of dealing with God on the basis of merit, is to become either
a Pharisee or a despairing soul. Abide, therefore, in that love which has
been revealed to you by the Saviour who suffered the fate which you have
deserved in order that you may enjoy all that He deserves.
BRINGING MANY SONS TO GLORY
(The Epistle to the Hebrews)
4. FAITH AND SONSHIP
IN this Epistle there are three occasions on which God is said to have
sworn with an oath. This striking expression stresses His concern over matters
which are of supreme importance in His sight. The second of these oaths refers
to His promise of blessing and it is so strong that it is said to put an
end to all argument (6:17). The third oath relates to the constitution of
His Son as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, which is said to be irrevocable
(7:21). The first, however, is rather different, for it is presented as
a negative decision: "So I sware in my wrath, they shall not enter
into my rest" (3:11). This is repeated in 4:3. This oath was uttered concerning
those who had an evil heart of unbelief and in this emphatic way God makes
it clear that never under any circumstances will He accept those who refuse
to trust Him. No faith, no blessing! That is final.
I suggest that there is a positive side to this oath, just as there is
with the other two, and that the sworn statement affirmed that real faith
will always be accepted and rewarded. If it is clear that the theme of this
epistle is sonship, then it is equally clear that the key to sonship is
active faith. In the long and important Chapter 11, there is a reference
to Enoch which asserts that without faith it is impossible to please God.
All through the Letter there are repeated calls for active faith. Each reference
would give us helpful enlightenment on the subject, but since the many verses
of Chapter 11 are concentrated on this one theme, it may profit to devote
our present study to this one chapter, particularly as it begins with the
explanation that faith is being sure of what we hope for and being certain
of what we do not see. This surely applies most directly to the matter of
I have never found an explanation of the selective way in which people
mentioned in Hebrews 11 were singled out as they are. Some, of course, are
obvious for those concerned were significant people, but there seem to me
to be notable omissions. I am glad that Sarah is there but was not Ruth
of almost equal importance, while Hannah was more strikingly full of faith
than either of them? Even in a Jewish context it hardly seems right to include
Barak while ignoring the inspiring prophetess Deborah. And why is Joshua
omitted? And why no further name after that of Samuel? Elijah was given the
same privilege as Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration and was referred
to a number of times in the New Testament, but here he is just loosely included
under the general heading of 'the prophets' (v.32).
Presumably the point is that once we are given an indication of the principle
involved we can proceed to work out the details for ourselves. But in this
case what is the general principle? Of course it begins with the fundamental
truth that the only basis upon which anybody ever counted for God was faith.
It is not now, nor ever has it been, sufficient to be numbered among God's
people in an outward way. There is no such thing as mass conversion to Christ.
"They are not all Israel which are of Israel" (Romans 9:6). This evangelical
conviction must surely have been held by the first readers of this Letter
who would not need this long Chapter 11 to establish that simple fact. There
must be more than that.
I believe that the argument sets forth a certain kind of relationship
with God. Many Israelites had the name, but lacked genuine faith. They cannot
even be considered. But there were also many Israelites who exercised a genuine
saving faith in God but never attained to the full possibilities which faith
can lead to. Their ultimate salvation cannot be doubted, but would it ever
be possible to include such in the remark that "these all were commended
for their faith" (v.39)? Surely not. From the following verse we have the
idea that this will only be publicly known when [97/98]
the great Day of revelation comes and believers realise their full destiny.
May we therefore suggest that the stress of the argument is that while saving
faith may be adequate, what God looks for in His sons is overcoming faith
In the light of the great Day of fulfilment, this chapter provides a
confirmation in history of the main theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews,
which is that very big issues depend upon wholehearted pursuit of the will
of God. Faith is not only the basic requirement of being born into God's
family as children, but it is also the continuing means by which God's plans
are fulfilled for His inheriting sons. We are clearly told that the Father
sent the Son for our redemption "that we might receive the full rights of
sons" (Galatians 4:5 N.I.V.). We are also told that since we are now sons,
God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts (Galatians 4:6),
and we notice that this results in our calling out to God, "Abba, Father".
Whether Jesus used this mode of address often, we do not know. What we are
told is that the one occasion when the Scriptures report that He did employ
it was in the garden of Gethsemane. Three times over He prayed the prayer
of filial submission, "Not what I will, but what you will", and it was in
this connection that He used the address, "Abba, Father" (Mark 14:36). This
Letter makes mention of this occasion when it tells us that Jesus prayed
with loud cries and tears, and was heard "because of his reverent submission"
(5:7). If the Spirit of Christ rules in us that will also be our attitude,
from early days of faith right through to the last phases. Childlike faith
and mature faith are not contradictory: they are both of them Christlike
There is a striking reminder at the end of this chapter that faith has
something more in view than immediate experiences of blessing, however wonderful
these may be. That 'something' has not yet been realised. In their lifetime
those spoken of here "did not receive the things promised ..." (v.13), nor
have they yet received them even now in their heavenly bliss (v.39). They
are all waiting, waiting with us, to share in the supreme goal of faith's
exercise. More of this later, but for the moment we register that the common
characteristic which is here stressed is the active persistence of faith
right through to the end. That is what may be called the outstanding message
of the Epistle. As we have already seen, its call to us is not merely that
we should avoid going back but that we must be sure to press on in faith.
Having been a preacher for very many years I feel genuine sympathy with
the writer of this chapter in his comment, "What shall I say more? I do not
have time ..." (v.32). I know exactly how he felt for at times the clock
has defeated me too. In my case it has often been because I over-extended
myself in the earlier part of my message and consequently could not finish
all my points. Later consideration, however, suggested that perhaps it was
just as well that I was cut short provided I had got my message over. Extra
items on my list have blurred rather than clarified its import. If that was
so, then the clock was more of a friend than an enemy. That is not the case
here because we are dealing with a man under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
in a special way, but in any case the writer had made his points in the clearest
possible way. Here are a few of them:
1. Faith is an Individual Matter
Faith is essentially a matter of personal experience; it is quite impossible
to standardise the way in which it finds expression in each one of us. While
the writer urges his readers to imitate the faith of their leaders (13:7),
he in no way suggests that they should copy their way of life, for every
person of faith is an original. This is clearly demonstrated as we follow
the variety of individuals listed here.
The second man of faith was Enoch. Since the only previous example he
had of this kind of life was that of Abel, he might well have imagined that
to embark on a life of open faith would lead to martyrdom, for Abel had met
with a violent death. It would be impossible to find a more different experience
which came to him for Enoch never died.
So we might go on. Noah, the next on the list, was a man who always had
a settled home, first during the long years while he had to be on
[98/99] site for the building of the ark, next for the many months
spent in his divine houseboat, and finally under the rainbow on the renewed
earth where he settled down and planted a vineyard. In contrast, the faith
of the next man, Abram, resulted in his leaving his settled home and never
having another. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob (v.9). So far as
we know all that Abraham ever planted was a tamarisk tree (Genesis 21:33).
The next three men, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are singled out in the matter
of their supreme exercise of faith by what happened at the end of their lives.
Moses, however, who follows, is said to have made his great faith decision
in early life (v.24). The whole chapter proceeds to emphasise the uniformity
of faith as a principle but the complete variety of its outworking in the
different individuals. We may learn from others but we must be careful to
look beyond them to Jesus (12:2).
2. Faith is a Practical Matter
It may be right that concern about spiritual growth and sonship should
concentrate on understanding, meditation and prayer, but while these are
matters of great importance, the exhortations to faith in this Epistle make
plain the need for action, and does so by such phrases as, "Let us go on"
and "Let us run". Chapter 11 gives ample illustration of the practical nature
of faith and especially the feature of obedience. The great biblical treatise
on justification by faith, Romans, begins and ends with the phrase; "the
obedience of faith" (1:5 & 16:26).
It is true that what is here said about Enoch might suggest a mystical
life of contemplation. Abel was a practical man, he tended sheep and he
made an offering. Noah was a real worker, as witness his mammoth undertaking
of building an ark. We might ask what Enoch did. How did he express his
faith? The answer includes that he was a family man (Genesis 5:9-10). To
bring up a family in a godly home is a practical service to God, all too
much in danger of being forgotten in our popular ideas of God's service.
Enoch walked with God, but so did Noah. This patriarch was not a mere
dreamer -- far from it. His work did not end with the completion of the ark,
but continued and was matched by the fantastic operation of caring for all
the animals as they spent their months together in that vessel. Noah's ship
had three decks, so that he and his family could well have spent most of
their waking hours in humping loads of food up and down ladders. Can a man
work like that and yet walk with God? Noah did! I have often observed that
the spiritual stature of people like that increases in a wonderful way.
But it is not only the physically strong who perform works of faith;
it seems that Isaac's peak moment of faith came when he was feeble and blind.
Jacob, too, was almost blind and actually on his deathbed when he resisted
Joseph's natural attempts to manipulate his hands and firmly held them to
be sure that the blessing was given according to the mind of God (Genesis
48:17-20). And what shall we say of Joseph? Surely he must be included in
what an earlier verse says: "All these people were still living by faith
when they died" (v.13 N.I.V.). I like that! That is a marvellous way to die.
Since there is eternal significance in the life we live here below, it may
be that some of the last steps in our walk of faith may be the most fruitful.
3. Faith is a Costly Matter
The earlier parts of this chapter give hints of how costly it must have
been for men like Abraham and Moses to triumph in active faith. The former
offered up his treasured son while the latter rejected all the status and
riches which the world could offer him. The latter part of the chapter, which
gives no names, not only tells of heroic exploits but also of painful trials.
Daniel and his three friends were delivered from lions and fires and someone
(was it Isaiah?) was sawn in two. Cruelties seemed to be the lots of these
saints who were hounded from house and home, as many have been since.
Let us never imagine that our great privileges as sons of God will give
us immunity from suffering. The reverse is often the case. The manifestation
of sonship must await the Return of Christ. Meanwhile the same world which
persecuted the Saviour will often persecute us. "The [99/100]
reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him" (1 John
3:1). Who would want the patronage and goodwill of a world so base that
God regards it as unworthy to have His sons living in it (v.38)?
4. Faith is What Matters to God
A Devil's Advocate could compile a biographical account of most of these
same people, listing their failures and lapses. We do not know about Abel
and Enoch, but we are told of Noah's drunken shame, of Abraham's lies, of
Isaac's folly over the birthright of his twin son, of the glaring faults
of Jacob and even the rash outbursts of Moses. We have to admit that these
men and women of faith had many imperfections; but no trace of this appears
in Hebrews 11.
Sins and failures are completely ignored by our writer. Indeed -- unlike
most of us Christians -- the New Testament has a beautiful way of keeping
silent about the lapses and character-faults of God's servants. For the sake
of veracity and for our warning and instruction, such matters had to be
recorded in the sacred history books, but they are given no place here. God
carefully searches out and for ever treasures in His Book of Remembrance
that which is an expression of faith in Himself. All the rest He deliberately
As an example of this kindness of forgetting, we may consider the case
of Isaac who is praised for his faith in blessing his twin sons (v.20).
Isaac does not come out at all well from the Genesis story. He knew very
well that Jacob had been chosen by God to have the blessing but in his blindness
-- spiritual as well as natural -- he planned to out-manoeuvre God and Rebecca
(who shared the knowledge with him) by blessing the older twin. Rebecca overheard
his plot with Esau and incited Jacob to be her accomplice in trickery. It
was carnal and wholly reprehensible, but it deceived Isaac into unwittingly
giving the blessing to Jacob. He bitterly regretted it, but the deed was
done and the gourmet father could only give a lesser blessing to his favourite.
Now that cannot be the occasion spoken of in verse 20, for there was
not a grain of faith in that whole household. Soon afterwards, though, Isaac
agreed with Rebecca that Jacob should be sent off to the region where the
rest of their family lived and, before the son migrated, he gave him a beautiful
parting blessing in the name of Abraham's great God, El Shaddai (Genesis
28:3). This surely was the blessing recorded in Hebrews 11. If so it represented
an exercise of real faith in that Isaac admitted that his own ideas and wishes
had been wrong and showed himself now quite willing to co-operate with the
This is an element of true faith, when a person lets go of personal preferences
and willingly joins with God in the outworking of His will. Such a submission
to the Lord's choice marks a definite advance in that way of faith which
leads to sonship. In our apprenticeship as sons we may at times be carried
away by our own self-will and become a menace to God's plans, but if we let
Him, God will correct us and overrule our actions. He may disappoint us, as
He did Isaac; He may use strange happenings and people to thwart us, as He
did then; but if we accept His correction and commit ourselves to His superior
will, we may also have a place among God's faithful sons.
Those who begin with saving faith will reach God's goal by overcoming
faith. We are told that our predecessors in this pursuit of active faith
are now surrounding us as witnesses (12:1). In a normal race the competitor
must never let his attention be directed towards the cheering spectators but
must fix his gaze on the finishing line. In this spiritual race we may and
indeed we should look to the cloud of witnesses. Indeed the whole of Chapter
11 is devoted to the task of describing them so that we may do so. The wonderful
truth is that we are to look not only to them but through
them, for in this way we learn more about Christ who is our goal. So we
are to 'look off' to Jesus, and this we do by means of the Scriptures. And
as we do so, the Lord Jesus who is the Author of our faith is pledged to
work on with us and eventually to become our faith's Perfector.
(To be continued)
Editors Note. We owe an apology to Professor Paterson and to our readers
for a transposition of type in his article ["Affirming The Wisdom Of God"]
in our last issue. The first paragraph on page 68 should obviously follow
the incident of the artist and the poet on page 70. We hope that this will
not seriously affect the message on Ephesians 3:10, for it is an important
[Inside back cover]
ON THE WAY UP (5)
Psalm 124 BACKING UP
TWICE over the pilgrims exclaim in grateful relief that disaster would
have come to them, if it had not been the Lord who was on their side. They
would be much more acutely aware of this when the whole story was completed,
but even now the truth of divine backing is most precious. As they pause
for a moment on their upward journey, they are deeply moved by the realisation
that their enterprise would have been doomed to failure if the Lord had not
backed them all the way.
THE strength of the opposition is stressed by the threefold reference
to what could so easily have swallowed them up -- the overwhelming waters,
the torrential streams and the "proud waters".
THEIR soul has not only been endangered by the hostile floods but also
by the subtle snares into which they have been enticed, traps from which
there would have been no escape if the Lord Himself had not broken the snares
and released them. So far, then they had been backed up in their pilgrimage
by their faithful God.
WHEN I trekked through the Brazilian jungle with two Red Indians as my
guides I always insisted that one of them should keep behind me. I knew
only too well that if they both went ahead, they might easily pass out of
my sight and beyond earshot. Then I would be lost indeed. It is true that
I needed a guide to show me the way, and the Lord is our Guide. But I equally
needed a rearguard to make sure that I kept in the way. The Lord is also
NOT much that was sensational happened to me as a traveller in Amazonia
but in my spiritual pilgrimage I identify readily with the psalmist in confession
that I would never be going on today without the Lord's gracious backing.
Only His interventions have kept me from being swept off my feet by the 'proud
waters' and when my unwary feet have become entangled in the snares of sin,
He is the One who has broken the snares and provided me with a way of escape.
Blessed be the Lord, said the psalmist, and I say Amen to that.
IT may be that there were occasions when it was my own folly that precipitated
the floods of trouble. There certainly have been times when my own sinfulness
has resulted in my being entrapped in the snares of the fowler. Still, however,
the Lord has remained on my side, though I did not deserve such care. He
could have left me to flounder out of my depth in self-made waters of trouble.
He could have left me to struggle vainly when I have been led astray into
captivating nets. He could have done so, but He never did. My soul has not
been swallowed up; my soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare; I am continuing
on my upward way solely because of God's grace.
IT is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth that I have found
my help. My Creator is my Redeemer, but my Redeemer is also my Creator. There
may be frightening floods but "The Lord sat as King at the Flood; the Lord
sitteth as King for ever" (Psalm 29:10). He made the waters. At the beginning
of his pilgrimage the psalmist affirmed in faith that the Lord who made
heaven and earth would help him. He now records that his confidence has
not been misplaced. His Creator God has backed him up and been on his side.
THE moral for us is a clear one. It is never to enter upon any undertaking
without a simple ability to trust that the Lord is on your side. All will
be well in that matter if you have His backing.
THE LAW OF THY MOUTH IS BETTER UNTO ME
THAN THOUSANDS OF GOLD AND SILVER.
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