Knowing God in Christ
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 12 - The Priestly Nature of the House of God

We will say just a further word on this. You will remember that we have referred to the way in which the apostles Paul and Barnabas went out from Antioch in the thirteenth chapter of the Acts, and we had one point only in view. We were seeking to stress the point that ministry is not official but spiritual, and that Barnabas and Saul were not taken at Antioch simply because they were official ministers. There is all the difference between their arriving at Antioch and people there saying, These are two important missionaries, and setting them up in some official capacity right away, and then regarding them like that, and their having their place purely on an official basis - there is a lot of difference between that and what we have in Acts 13. They came there as fellow-members of Christ, not as officers, and there in the main they remained as fellow-members of Christ as in the assembly, and when the time came it was as such that they were dealt with and sent forth, not on an official basis at all. 

We have to be careful as to how far we apply what is written in Acts 13 as a kind of formula, because there is a good deal more behind it, no doubt, that is not written. I do not think for a moment that Paul and Barnabas had never said anything to the elders there about the consciousness of their call, what the Lord had revealed to them as to their mission. I should say, though it is not written, that that was well known in the assembly, and they in all probability kept at least those in responsibility there, if not the whole assembly, alive to that fact, and sought their continual prayer as to the Lord's time and their outgoing. So that the assembly were probably continually asking the Lord about this thing. Then it was at a special time of prayer and fasting that the Holy Ghost said what He did. The Lord may have other ways of sending out besides the Acts 13 way, but we have said this because there are probably a lot of people who, having a real sense of the way in which the Lord is calling, are keeping silent until the Lord in some extraordinary way reveals it to the assembly. There is no reason why we should wait until it comes from another source. Perhaps that is in the way of a confirmation of the call. Paul and Barnabas did not do anything like that. If the Lord has laid it on our hearts we should seek prayer fellowship in the matter, even although we are ready to wait for some confirmation in other hearts of that leading. Probably that which took place at Antioch was confirmatory; the thing commenced in their hearts and was confirmed by other witnesses in the Spirit.

Having said that we can continue. There is a matter which has been coming up and letting itself be known that it was there and had got to be mentioned, and the time for mentioning it had not come. Now one feels that this is the time for our touching upon this particular matter, phase or aspect of the whole thing that the Lord is saying to us. There may be a measure of reiteration, but its value will probably be in the new emphasis.

The Priestly Nature of the House of God

It comes up in a very real way in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. There is no doubt that the Word of the Lord makes it quite clear that the church enters into the purpose for which Israel was raised up, in a spiritual way; that is, that the church takes up Israel's place and vocation in this dispensation. Israel was called for a special purpose. That purpose was very largely, if not entirely, failed of, and Israel was set aside. Even although there was a time when Israel fulfilled the purpose, as far as Israel could fulfil that purpose, yet the whole purpose of God was not fulfilled or realised through Israel; probably it never could be. But as things worked out, Israel was a failure and was set aside. Into Israel's place the church was brought to take up, in a spiritual way and in a fuller way than Israel could ever have fulfilled it, the divine purpose. That purpose was priesthood.

Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests unto God, a priestly house. The marks of what is priestly are seen in Israel's history from its very commencement in the exodus, and right on. The church is called with that calling. The Word makes that perfectly clear, that we are called a kingdom of priests unto our God. You have no need to be referred to the Scriptures in this connection, you are familiar with them. So that what we have to say of the church is that it is a priestly church, and then we have to understand what that means.

Now a little reiteration from our last meditation. We said that in the Mount God revealed Himself to Moses and the elders of Israel, and as the result of their revelation we have the tabernacle in the wilderness. And we said that that revelation in the Mount, issuing in the tabernacle, is in type, in figure, in foreshadowing, the incarnation - God coming in the flesh, God manifested in the flesh, Immanuel, God with us, amongst us. But there in the Old Testament it was a matter of types, figures, symbols; that is, its deepest meaning was secret, hidden, not perceived. It was a great parable, its reality was veiled, and the central feature of that whole pattern was a veil. Through that veil the people could not look. The innermost truth of things, God present, was veiled from them and hidden from their eyes. That truth ran through everything; that is, there was a governing veil over everything, within and without. They did not see, they could not see the inner meaning of any part of things. All they knew was that a certain system was set up in a certain form, and they were called upon to regard it as an expression of God's will, and to be blindly obedient to it, and in that way they found their salvation and their life. As to any knowledge of a deeper meaning, they had none. That veil obtained right through that dispensation.

That is what came in at the Mount. You know what Paul says in the second letter to the Corinthians about the veil, and that even to this day there is a veil over their hearts in reading Moses. They do not see, they do not understand, and not until it shall turn to the Lord will the veil be taken away, will they understand.

The great figure gave place to the great reality. The figure of the incarnation, the tabernacle, coming out from heaven, God showing Himself in that form, gave place to the Person, the incarnation. Here we have the reality. But although the reality is present, the veil is not taken away. There is still a veil, and through the three-and-a-half years, at least, of God's sojourn in flesh amongst men, they knew Him not, He was veiled from them. As we have said repeatedly, both as to His person and as to His teaching and His works, they were still, in the main, in the dark.

Now the one thing which governed both the type, the figure of the Old Testament, and the reality of the New Testament in the Gospels, was the priestly element. It was all priestly. The tabernacle was priestly, everything to do with it was priestly. So in the incarnation the predominant element is that which is priestly, and it is a great spiritual education to move through the Gospels with that thought in mind, to note the priestly features of Christ's work here on the earth, of His life, His teaching, and His works. We shall see a little of that as we go on.

If you like to narrow it down to John's Gospel alone, you have Israel's background so fully there all the time. It seems as though he is striking at Israel all the way along. Read the third chapter about Nicodemus and Israel in the wilderness. Israel is in the background. Read the fourth chapter, dealing with the springing well. Israel is in the background. Chapters five and six, deal with the manna in the wilderness, the bread from heaven. It is Israel in the background. The impotent man, thirty-eight years a cripple. That is Israel's thirty-eight years in the wilderness, a helpless cripple. The blind man, born blind. Oh, how much he had to say about Israel's blindness! Israel is in the background. But over against all those things there is that which is the priestly offering.

That is enough to at least indicate what we mean by the predominant priestly nature of things. Yet, as present in all the living reality of that in the days of His flesh, there was a veil, the veil was not taken away. They did not in a living and spiritual way enter into the meaning and value of it. Christ was veiled in flesh. Two things synchronize: God's destruction of the veil of the Temple and the removal of the veil of Christ's flesh, showing that these two things were one in the thought of God, the type and the reality.

What we have been saying is not mere interpretation or fancy: it is truth. God smote that veil, and split it from top to bottom. God acted from heaven to reveal Himself in Christ through the rending of His flesh. After His resurrection He still has a body of flesh and bone, but the veil is gone for His own. There is a manifesting forth of God in Christ, a seeing of what was never seen before. The apostle tells us that we now enter in through the veil, that is to say, His flesh, rent so that we find God in Christ, God through Christ.

In the resurrection of Christ the veil was removed. That means that, although the priestly feature was predominant, both in the type of the Old Testament and in the reality of the incarnation, it is only truly, livingly, spiritually entered into in the resurrection. It requires the resurrection, it requires the risen Lord to make us in the real meaning and value of priesthood, and to bring us into it.

Features of Priestliness

That is all very simple, but it leads us to see what the church's real position and nature is. So you find that in the forty days after His resurrection, in which He was seeking to lead His disciples into the spiritual meaning of the church for the future, its nature and its vocation there are many priestly elements brought out.

Let us look at some of them. We know what priestly elements are, but look for them in the forty days.

a) Mediation

First of all there is mediation. What is mediation? It presupposes a state of conscious need, on the one hand, in the matter of pardon, grace, forgiveness, restoration. On the other hand, the gracious One, the pardoning One, the receiving One, the accessible One. What was the great word which was running through the forty days? It was peace. He had made peace by the blood of His cross, and His one word as He moved amongst them during those days was, "Peace be with you". We have already thought about His first appearance to Mary Magdalene. If ever there was a heart needing peace, hers was. We have talked of His appearance to Simon alone, and to Thomas. Each of these had their sin brought to remembrance. If there is one thing which the cross meant to them, and probably to all of them who had forsaken Him in the flesh, it was their weakness, their failure, their sinfulness. Probably they were going through torture during the three days after His death, and His appearing to them was for the special purpose of bringing that peace to their hearts which only One Who could bring the sense of forgiveness and restoration and acceptance could give. On the one hand there was a speaking of failure, then, on the other hand, the speaking of grace and acceptance and mercy and pardon and peace. I am perfectly sure that the forty days for them were days of heart healing. You have only to try to put yourself in their place. Put yourself into Peter's place, if you can, having denied the Lord with oaths and curses, gone out and wept bitterly, and that is the last scene; the Master is slain and leaves you there. You remember fellowship with Him and all that He was to you, all His love, all His grace, all His forbearance, and then think that is how you finished up when He was in difficulties. That leaves a sore heart. That leaves a state of agony inside. But, oh, the healing of the forty days, the healing of the heart.

So it must have been for them all. What kind of healing was it? It was priestly healing, not just saying, Oh well, we will say no more about it, do not fret and be troubled, let bygones be bygones. You cannot let bygones be bygones. You have got to have the assurance from God that that thing is forgiven, and that no longer stands between you and Him, to interfere in the slightest degree with fellowship, that thing has not left a shadow where He is concerned, in His memory, in His attitude. You have got to know that that thing is all blotted out from God's sight, and you have got to have in your heart the witness of peace from God before you can get over it and go on. That is the mediatorial work of the forty days.

The Lord Jesus was seeking to establish that for them. So far as He was concerned, and they were concerned, He was seeking to establish them upon that thing for their future ministry, so that their ministry would be like that. Look here, you may have turned your back upon God, you may have done despite to His holy Name, you may have been as bad as I was; I denied Him with oaths and curses, but He has forgiven me, He is a forgiving God, He is a marvellous God, He can bring you right back to full fellowship. That is the priestly character of the priestly ministry of the church. It is in this sense a taking of the mediatorial ministry of Christ.

Now we must guard that. It is not on the official basis of the Church of Rome, with many mediators; there is but One Mediator. We are speaking of mediation in Christ. A broken failure can be brought into new fellowship with God, be made to meet on the ground of absolute fellowship, and that in a Man Who combined in Himself God and Man. The veil is taken away, and you see this is God and Man, and in Him you have peace. He brings the peace of God into the Man's side of things. We are joined in that Manhood with God in His mercy and grace. "He showed to them His hands and His side". That is the ground of peace. That is the way of peace.

b) Illumination

Another feature of priestliness, as we well know, is illumination. The priests' lips were to teach knowledge, the priests' business was to interpret the things of God, to make them plain; just as Ezra stood up and expounded the Word, read it and gave the meaning thereof. The priest of the Old Testament had as a vital part of his vocation the giving of the sense and the explaining of the Word. I suppose the Old Testament priests could go little further than saying, This is the will of God, God has said this, and God wants this done, and you must ever bear it in mind, even if you do not understand why God has said this. We do not have a full knowledge of God's meaning, but this is His will for us, and we must keep these things in view. So the priests would teach the knowledge of the will and the way of the Lord.

Now this is so patent, it lies on the surface. In the days of the resurrection, when the veil is taken away, the Lord Jesus took up the Old Testament from Moses, the Psalms and the prophets, all the Scriptures, and the veil was taken away. That it was necessary for Him to open their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures, shows that the veil was still there, even for disciples. He brought them into true spiritual understanding, and in that He was fulfilling the ministry of the priests.

That became their ministry, as you see afterwards. Listen to them as they begin to preach. What are they doing? They, with unveiled face and opened eyes, are bringing out from behind the veil hanging over the Old Testament the real meaning of God. What a wonderful discourse was Stephen's on the Old Testament, and what a wonderful discourse was Peter's on the Old Testament. If there was one man who had the veil over his face more than another it was Saul of Tarsus. What a blind man he was, what a darkened man he was concerning Scriptures with which he was so familiar. Then the veil was taken away, "God has shone into our hearts...", "Whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away." Sometimes you are astonished, and do not wonder that the Judaisers said he was making it all up, the Scripture did not mean that. They needed the veil to be taken away. That is priesthood.

That is the vocation of the assembly. There should be a living, opened, unveiled ministry of the things of the Lord, not speaking in parables and in types, but the mystery no longer a mystery, revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets. So He constituted them priests in the days after the resurrection, and fitted the church as it was then for its future work by taking the veil from their eyes.

c) Representation

The third feature in priesthood is representation. The priest must represent before God, must stand in the presence of God, bringing the people with him upon his heart, upon his shoulders. He must have access, and he must bring the people into the place where he stands with God, and represent them before the Lord. So, on the other hand, he must represent the Lord before the people, he must be amongst the people in the behalf of the Lord. There must be the Godward side and the manward side in priesthood.

Now listen, "Go to my brethren, and say to them, 'I ascend unto My Father and your Father, to My God and your God'." Here is One Who brings them with Himself into the presence of God in His own Person, and Who brings God in His own Person into their presence. So that man and God meet in Christ, and He represents both. That is priesthood. He takes them in where He is with God the Father. He brings God the Father out where they are.

This requires very careful guarding when you carry it forward to the church, and yet it is true, that this gives character to the church's nature and vocation. Christ (we use the word, though we feel it is very dangerous) is incarnated in the church. We use that word only in Luke's thought, that Christ is continuing His words and deeds in the church. That which He began to do and teach He continues in the church. He is here, and Christ imparting Himself in His church makes the church His Body, and makes the church function in this way, that God comes to man in the church and man comes to God in the church. In the true, spiritual church there is a meeting of God and man, man and God, and God is represented there amongst men, and man is represented there before God. It is a great, a solemn, and a holy vocation with which the church is called, that it should represent the living presence of the Lord to men, and that man coming into the church or into the local assembly should know that God, while He may be in heaven, is also here. That is the importance of the church to God, that He might have a dwelling place where man may approach Him, and where He may come to man. He does sometimes come to men singly and apart, but by far the greater meeting between God and man is found in a spiritual company. That is the continuous side of this; the other may be spasmodic and fragmentary, but the church should be the continuous presence of God and man meeting. That does not put Christ apart.

In the forty days one thing that was left with these men and these women when He eventually did go up into heaven was this wonderful reality, We never know when our eyes shall see Him. It is always dangerous to say He is not here, for just when you think He is not here He is here. He is here all the time. He is in heaven, and yet He is here. That was left with them to be a mark of the future, and then they understood. That is what He meant, "Lo, I am with you all the days, even into the end of the age."

d) Ministration

Another feature of priestliness is ministration, the imparting. At Emmaus He sat down to supper that was made a sacrament, and as He brake, their eyes were opened and they beheld Him, and they knew Him. That is a ministration. That was not the only meal in which the disciples shared after the resurrection. All this was intended, as He made perfectly clear, to let them know that it was not a spirit with which they were dealing, not a mere apparition. He is a real person, and to prove that He is a real person He gives them real food and as He gives them real food they know, strange as it all may seem and mysterious, that He is a real person, feeding with real food. This ministration of Christ was known in the breaking of bread.

That is a priestly function to break the bread, to minister. That needs hardly dwelling upon in its application. Is it not true that that is the church's function? Is it not true that Christ is to be ministered in the church and by the church so that the reality of Christ is proved by that spiritual substance which is our very life, our nourishment, our strength? We can come into the assembly weak, empty, weary, finished, and there is ministration to us, and we go away as though we had had a meal, as though we had been at a banquet. It should be so, and it can be so, and this is what the Lord means, that it should be the place where there is real ministration of heavenly bread, and Christ is identified, verified, known in the giving of what He does give in the assembly, which makes us know the miracle of passing from emptiness to fulness, and weakness to strength, and weariness to freshness, by coming together.

That is better than attending church services. Oh, how much there is of going to the meeting, going to church, going to a service, listening to a sermon, and singing some hymns; and having done your religious duty you go home for another week. That is very different from the Lord's thought of the church, and those who belong to the Lord's true church in spiritual union with Him ought to be in a place where they can no more go without assembly life than they can go without their daily food. It ought to be just as impossible for them to continually keep out of the fellowship of the assembly as it is for them to keep out of their meals for their bodies.

The Lord meet us there, and have us recognise that our life very largely depends upon our assembling of ourselves together when it is possible. That is ministration.

e) Life

Another great feature in priesthood is Life. That has been spoken of so much that it hardly need be added to now. In the Old Testament the blood was the life, and the life was in the blood. That is the central feature in all priesthood in the Old Testament. That is the most holy, the most sacred element. The life is there. That is priestly ministry concerning the blood, or concerning the Life, and it is very clear that the forty days were days of Life. Two men went to Emmaus, half dead, nine-tenths dead, and they go back over those few miles as men who had been raised from the dead. You see the difference in the going out and the coming back. There was Life coming in all the time in those forty days. Things are getting more and more alive as the days go on. It is the risen Lord bringing them all back to Life and making them feel that they live anew, with new purpose, new hope, everything new. There ought to be Life in the assembly, in the church. That is priestly ministry. If people do not get Life amongst us, we are failing in our real vocation. If they do, let us thank God that to that measure we are being enabled to fulfil the ministry of the priestly company.

f) Communion

Communion is also a part of the priestly work. We are not going to stay to say anything about that. We are just reminding ourselves of what is said in Acts: "Being assembled together with them...". It was an assembly before He left them, and the real value of assembly life is that it is communion. We leave that for the present, and just say a closing word about priesthood, and this is the seventh thing:

g) Firstfruits

Paul tells us that, "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that are asleep". Christ amongst them was the Firstfruits from among the dead. Then the very term itself implies that there will be other fruits, there must be a complete harvest. He was the Firstfruits. The Word teaches that the church also is a kind of firstfruits. It is the firstfruits of the nations. When you get the church in resurrection you get that which first of all satisfies God's heart and answers all His desire, but then it points to the fact that others are coming on too. Let it not be thought that the church is the whole company of the saved. It is not. There will be a great many more saved when the church is gone, and afterwards the nations will bring their glory and their wealth into the City. God is seeking the satisfaction of His own heart, first of all, to make good in the church all that Christ meant to Him of satisfaction.

Look at the farmer as he goes out into his field and sees the first ripe grain, and the joy that fills his heart as he gathers those and takes them home. He is satisfied that he has the earnest, the promise, the proviso, the assurance, the foretaste of what is coming. That is what Christ is to God: Christ is to God the assurance, the promise, the proviso of a church conformed to His image, of a great company like Him; and then after that still more.

We cannot stay to speak of the particular meanings of resurrection as in the church, as differing perhaps from all other resurrection in its content and its value. There is no doubt that God has a special thing that He is doing in the church. It is concerning this that Paul, who had been "caught up to the third heaven" and seen things which it was not lawful to utter, says in effect: "Look here, that is as far as I can go, but believe me there is a great deal more bound up with this than I am able to say, vast ranges of meaning and value that I am not allowed to utter, and which lies behind what I am saying. I have seen things I cannot talk about to you, but what I do say is to urge you on to something that I know." So when he says, "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection", we must believe that Paul saw something to know of Christ, and something in the resurrection of Christ and the power lying behind that which he had ever mentioned, far more than he had ever spoken; he knew the outworking of that, he knew what it was unto. He called it "unspeakable things". That is bound up with resurrection, and that particular kind of thing is bound up with the church. That is not for the nations afterwards; that is for the church in the first place. The good of that may come to the nations, but it can only come through the church, and in that sense we are a kind of firstfruits of resurrection. Here the High Priest says, "Touch me not", I am not yet ascended to the Father. He is going to present Himself as the Firstfruits, as the priest presented the firstfruits of old. He is the Firstfruits, but He is BUT the Firstfruits. He says, "the others are all coming. I have secured them!"

We are a kind of firstfruits, we have to be before the Father in the power of His resurrection, and go on continually to know by His illumining and leading and teaching what His resurrection Life means unto the satisfaction of God, and the reaching of His full thought in the church.

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