The Dispensation of the Holy Spirit
It is common knowledge that God has arranged the course of this world's history in what we call ages or dispensations, which simply means that at certain different times a particular distinguishing, character is given to the period. There were the past dispensations, which had their own character and nature and regime. There will be future dispensations, called in the New Testament "the ages of the ages"; they, again, will have their own special characteristics. We ourselves, at the present time, are in one of these particular arrangements of God.
It is also common knowledge that the advent of the Holy Spirit, on that particular occasion which has come to be known as 'The Day of Pentecost', marked a change in the nature of the ages. That day saw a change of dispensations. That day brought in the dispensation in which we still live, which has its own particular and peculiar characteristics, different from all the others.
This, of course, is a commonly accepted truth, but the failure to recognise adequately the nature of the change which took place on that day has resulted in very much that is dishonouring to the Lord Jesus, and to Christianity. There is a great deal that does not honour the Lord Jesus in the present state of Christianity as we know it. There is that about the present condition which almost everyone deplores. For instance, there are very few people who do not deplore the divisions amongst Christians. These and many other things have brought about a state which really does not glorify our Lord, and makes room for much that would not exist if He had things according to His own mind. That is due in the main to an inadequate apprehension of the change which took place on the day of Pentecost - the advent of the Holy Spirit - and what it was intended to mean for this world and for the people of God.
The Holy Spirit's Work in This Age
There are four great features of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in this age.
(a) The Relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Man in Heaven
Firstly, the Holy Spirit is related to the perfected Man in Heaven, who is His - the Holy Spirit's - vision, objective and passion. In other words, the Holy Spirit has come as committed to that One at God's right hand, the perfected Man, God's Son, to work everything in relation to Him. He is the inclusive objective of the Holy Spirit's work in this dispensation. The Holy Spirit's passion is Jesus Christ in Heaven, as God's Model for a new creation. That is the first thing.
(b) An Alteration in Man's Being
The second great matter with which the Holy Spirit is connected in this age, and intimately linked with the first, is the alteration of man's very being. He is concerned to make a fundamental difference in the very being of man, initially and progressively. This is a very great thing.
(c) Calling Out a People into Life-Union with Christ
The third thing is the calling out from the nations of a people into life-union with Christ, whereby His Church - the Church which is His Body - is formed. That is the commitment made by the Holy Spirit to the Lord Jesus Himself: to bring into being His Body for Him, to make that Body suitable to Him, and to take that Body back to Him. The energies of the Holy Spirit are Churchward, related to the forming of the Body of Christ by gathering and building up. That is simply the fulfilment of the Lord's own words: "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). Seeing that so soon after saying those words He went back to glory, it is evident that it was handed over to the Holy Spirit to fulfil the thing that He had said He would do.
(d) The Commissioning and Empowering of the Church for World Ministry
And fourthly, the Holy Spirit has as His work the commissioning and empowering of the Church for a world mission and ministry. I underline the Church. It is very important to underline that, because it takes us back to what we said at the beginning, that an inadequate apprehension of the meaning of the coming of the Holy Spirit has led to many weaknesses and defects. It is the Church that is the anointed vessel for a world commission and ministry. It is the Church that is called to do that. But that has been missed. If only the Church as a whole had stood into the anointing and the commission, we should have seen a continuance of what was at the beginning. But that has been largely lost; it has slipped away from recognition, though there are signs of a return to it now. But the truth is that the connection of the Holy Spirit in this dispensation is with the Church for its commissioning and empowering for a world mission and ministry.
Now, within those four things, as you will realise, many other things will be found. I am not going to take up those four now, but only a small fragment from the second.
The Alteration of Man's Being
The alteration in man's being is a work to which the Holy Spirit has committed Himself, and for which He has come. The first aspect of that great change, by the work and power of the Holy Spirit, is the effecting of a vital union between man and God in Jesus Christ; aliveness to God in a very immediate, a very real, a very full, conscious way; something altogether new as to man's consciousness of God, and God's aliveness to man. That is the first phase and stage of this work of the Holy Spirit with regard to man's very being.
New Birth: A Lamp Re-lit
This aliveness to God involves what the New Testament speaks of as 'new birth', being born anew. But what is that? It is the re-birth of a certain faculty by which man is able to have this aliveness to God. The Word of God has this phrase: "The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord" (Prov. 20:27). Now a lamp is a very definite and concrete object. A lamp is something in itself. It is not just something abstract. A lamp is a definite object. "The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord." When Adam was disobedient, that lamp went out. The spirit of man was no longer the lamp of the Lord in that man. The light went out.
And so right through the Bible it is assumed and declared that man by nature is in darkness, man by nature is blind, man by nature is without understanding, man by nature has not the knowledge which is life. The Lord Jesus built His whole coming and ministry upon that fact. "I am come a light into the world" (John 12:46). "(I came) into this world, that they which see not may see" (John 9:39). "This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ" (John 17:3). It is assumed and taken for granted that man is in the dark, blind, without knowledge, and without understanding.
The Deep Things of God
Now, the great passage which gathers all that into itself is the verse from which we have taken the title of this message - 1 Corinthians 2:14.
"Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things".
We ought really to read the whole chapter, and I suggest to you that you read this chapter very carefully as soon as possible. What have we here? Well, in verse 10 we have this phrase: "For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God". Now that is said in connection with what has just gone before. "Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of man, whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God."
Now the statement broken up is just this. There are the deep things of God. Those deep things of God are "things which no eye hath seen, no ear hath heard, things whereof no vision ever dawned on human heart, all those things which God hath made ready for those who love Him." That is how Wey puts that verse very beautifully. And the covering statement is that the natural man is shut out of all that. He just cannot know the deep things of God, for the natural eye has not seen, the natural ear has not heard, the natural heart has not conceived or perceived anything of this. All that was closed down to man when Adam disobeyed God. The natural man is utterly at a discount, entirely incapacitated, in the realm of the things of God. That is a very thorough-going, very drastic, very comprehensive statement.
A Renewed Faculty
Something, then, has got to be done in man, if he is to come back into the realm where all that is open to him, where to him the deep things of God are an open book - a marvellous thing to say: where the things which eye never saw, ear never heard, heart never perceived, are all open, the heritage and the inheritance of man. Something has got to happen to change that state and make that true. But here it is! It is stated not as something that is going to be later on. This does not belong to the Hereafter, to Heaven, when we shall see. No, this is something which came in on the day of Pentecost. "God hath" - not is going to - "God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit": 'unto us', says Paul, 'did God unveil them by His Spirit.' The lamp has been re-lit, the light has been re-born; the faculty, which is the lamp of spiritual life, light, understanding, knowledge, perception and inheritance, has been brought into new life.
That is the new birth. It is the spirit of man, which lost its power of knowing God and the things of God, brought back into life as from the dead, brought back into the light as out of darkness, brought back into knowledge as out from ignorance, brought back into sight as out from blindness. This, dear friends, is the very beginning of the Christian life. Oh, if that were entered into and apprehended, and really were true of every Christian, am I not right in saying that much of that which exists would not exist? and that is putting it very mildly. So we begin in nature with a man incapacitated in regard to God and all His things, and then, with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Holy Spirit in new birth, the incapacitated man is capacitated. He has a faculty that he never before possessed in nature; he is quickened and made alive.
Now, this whole matter, as I suggested, relates first of all, initially, to a faculty. We have got to realise this, for it is a point upon which so much hangs. It concerns a faculty, renewed, quickened and energized by the Spirit of God, for knowing the deep things of God. It is not just a matter of information from without. It is not just a matter of what you get in addresses, teachings, ministries, messages and books. You can cram yourself with information about God and the things of God, you can read it up and get all that kind of knowledge and give it out as though it were your own, and yet it is secondhand. What the Spirit of God does is to make everything original, firsthand, in us; and if it is not that, we are simply living on something objective, outside of ourselves, whether it be sermons, addresses, churches or what not. There has to be a lighted lamp within us to illuminate the things of God.
Vital Union With God
But we spoke of a 'vital' union with God. That is indicated in further words in this chapter from 1 Corinthians. "Who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?" May I illustrate by addressing my male readers for a moment? You and I, brethren, can understand one another - up to a point at any rate! - just because we are fellow-men. We know how men think and how men feel and how men act; and if we know other men, we know what to expect from men and what not to expect from men. We are men, and there is something in us which we have in common which is a man's life, which gives us ability to understand one another.
"Even so", says the Apostle, "the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God." Only the Spirit of God understands the things of God, because They have everything in common. Now the natural man does not understand God or the things of God. We know that. Even though we are Christians, how our own natural life limits our understanding of God! We have got to have some knowledge and understanding of God that we do not possess naturally, otherwise we are fogged and defeated and baffled. Only the Spirit of God understands God, because They are God in common.
Now, if the Spirit of God comes into us and begins to operate in us, we are lifted on to a higher level altogether than the 'natural man' level. The Spirit begins through this renewed faculty to make us able to understand the things of God, and that is the experience of every one to whom the Spirit reveals. It begins with a faculty in us. Oh, it is a wonderful thing, a wonderful thing, this faculty - I think the most wonderful thing in the whole Christian life, apart from the grace of God. It is a tremendous thing to have the key, the secret; in union with the Spirit of God to have a faculty in yourself for seeing through - for grasping the things of God. It is a wonderful thing to have that faculty, the greatest thing that we can possibly have. Just think of all this that is closed to the natural man - the deep things of God and all that is said about the deep things of God - and then follow on and say, "God hath revealed them unto us". And it is because He has done something in us.
Are you in the good of that? Oh, it is not perfect. I said that it is initially by a faculty being renewed, so that man is a changed being with this very faculty. But it is also progressive along two lines or in two ways.
'Revelation' and 'Apprehension'
These two words occur in that part of the New Testament which is the consummate presentation of God's mind as to the Church - the Letter to the Ephesians.
The first is in the prayer in chapter 1, at verse 17: "a spirit of... revelation".
The second is in the prayer in chapter 3, at verse 18: "...strong to apprehend... the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ".
So that - this being for those who have already known the definite basic change by new birth - the way of progress in spiritual knowledge and understanding is by revelation and apprehension.
When we speak of 'revelation', let it be understood (and we say this with all the emphasis that we can command) that we do not mean something extra to the Scriptures, but what God means by the Scriptures * (see note at the end). It is surely unnecessary to take time to argue that it is one thing to have the Book and another thing to understand it. Further, the mind of man - even Christian man - cannot understand Scripture unless the Holy Spirit reveals its meaning. There are many overwhelming proofs of this, perhaps preeminently the fact that there are so very many absolutely divergent and opposing interpretations given, and positions held, by very devoted servants of God. The Spirit of God is not of two or more conflicting minds - He is of one mind, and in inspired Scripture He urges believers to "be of the same mind". This may be regarded as an impossible hope or expectation, and such a reaction only proves the extent of the departure that has taken place from the government of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, this is just one - the main - aspect of the large issue that the Lord does not abandon His primary principles, but will - within the general declension - seek to have a true expression thereof. It has ever been so.
But to return to 'revelation' and 'apprehension', which are two aspects of the one thing - the Spirit showing, and the spiritual person being able to take hold of what is shown and to turn it to account.
The very heart of this matter, and that upon which so very much hangs, is just this principle of 1 Corinthians 2:14. It is no more possible for a Christian - a very devoted, earnest, diligent Christian - to arrive at the mind of God, in the Bible or out of it, by means of any natural faculty, than it is for an unsaved person. Natural intellect, brain-power, acumen, training, are unavailing here. The same is true of psychic powers, the extra things of 'sixth sense' and mystical insight.
'Soul' and 'Flesh' Helpless in Spiritual Things
We have only to look at the word used in our Scripture - "the natural man". That is a descriptive word. It not only refers to an unconverted person who knows nothing of new birth, but it defines or describes a particular kind of person. "Natural" is our translation of the Greek word which means 'soulical' or 'man of soul'. The soul comprises the reason (intellect), feeling (emotion), and will (volition). So, the man who approaches, and proceeds to give a judgment or arrive at a verdict on any Divine matter, by means of any or all of these, is said to be out of court where the Holy Spirit and "the things of the Spirit" are concerned. This is fairly drastic, deep-cutting and far-reaching, but it is the teaching of all the Scriptures and is demonstrated very powerfully in them.
The usual appeal for verdicts, judgments, and guidance in matters of conflict is to 'scholars' or 'students'; to those who have studied and learnt in the schools, or who have intellectual qualifications. The Word of God just sweeps the board of all this, as something in itself, and passes the judgment that the soul of man is in itself wholly without authority in spiritual matters, and that therefore the man who operates only upon the basis of his soul just cannot know the things of the Spirit.
The only ones who are safe and whose judgment should be sought and trusted are spiritual men, who derive their knowledge from a close walk with God, a truly crucified life, a life of much referring and deferring to God by prayer. Nothing but confusion and distress can result from any other course. This places a very solemn responsibility upon all who would help others and influence lives for God.
The context of 1 Corinthians 2:14 throws much light on all this. The conditions being dealt with were those of spiritual limitation, childishness, quarrelsomeness - all tending to be destructive. This is all put down to a 'soulical' level or basis of life impinging upon Divine things. By contrast, the categorical message is that, for constructiveness, unity, growth, maturity and effectiveness, another basis is essential - life in the Spirit by really spiritual people. Later the Apostle introduces another word, "carnal". This does not necessarily mean a third species. Carnal - or 'of the flesh' - just means the positive factor of self-hood in the soul; it is the 'I' principle, as the context shows.
The trouble lies not in the fact that man has a soul, but that when the soul is made the basis of attempted ingress into Divine things it is exceeding its province, and will create trouble. When, however, the soul is actuated by personal motives, selfish interests, and unworthy considerations, that is 'carnality' - fleshliness - and is positively evil.
Having said that, we imagine that some may still not be clear as to what - from the practical standpoint - is meant by "revelation". How does it come? Well, let us say emphatically that we do not mean hearing voices, sitting in a passive state and receiving impressions, communications, getting ideas, and all that sort of thing. The real key to this is a spirit alive and sensitive to the Spirit of God. The outworking of that is what the Apostle calls the witness of the Spirit. "The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit" (Romans 8:16).
The Witness of the Spirit
How does the Spirit bear witness? "The mind of the Spirit is life and peace" (vs. 6). The Spirit is "the Spirit of life" (vs. 2). Our spirits have been made alive with Divine life, which is different from natural life. We know that we are alive in a new way. So when things accord with the Spirit we have a real witness or sense of life. When they are not according to the Spirit we miss that witness, and if they run contrary to the Spirit we sense - or ought to sense - His reserve, veto, disagreement, and that is death, a cold dead registration upon our spirit.
Again, the Spirit is "the Spirit of truth" (John 16:13). It ought to be impossible for a child of God - much more a servant of God - to receive, accept, and pass on something that is not true, without the Holy Spirit witnessing to his or her spirit that that is not the truth. If at the moment they are not sufficiently alive to the touch, if they are given to times of waiting upon the Lord for fellowship and communion (not just to bring a lot of requests), that doubtful thing will come back and it will have to be faced. This is true spirituality, and this is what it means to walk with God.
It can easily be seen that, if this were more generally true of the Lord's people, a vast amount of ground would be protected from the Devil's work of mischief-making and divisiveness. One of the most poignant problems in evangelical Christianity is that of how people who know and teach the doctrine of the indwelling Spirit can accept, believe, and pass on things that are untrue about other people of God, and yet the Holy Spirit be unable to give them a bad time over it inwardly.
What we have said about the Spirit bearing witness is the basis of all revelation. The Word of God has got to come alive in us. We may know the Bible in its content, and know it very well. So did the Jews and their teachers. But, all the same, they killed God's Son! It is only as the Holy Spirit takes the Word and just brings it alive, so that it makes all the difference to us in life, behaviour, understanding, and strength, that we are able to say, 'The Lord has made that live in me, and I can never be the same again.'
Spiritual knowledge is of a different order from merely intellectual knowledge, even of the Word of God. The intellect is a servant of the spirit, not the master. The spirit tells the intellect, not the other way round. The intellect is the organ of the self-conscious existence, just as are feeling and will. The spirit is the organ of the God-conscious life, and this links with realms of knowledge that are closed to intellectualism by itself.
We hope that what we have said will throw some light upon two things:
(1) The way of spiritual progress after new birth.
(2) The cause of the confusion and bewildering contradictions amongst the most well-meaning Christians.
In closing this part of our consideration there are just one or two things to add briefly.
The answer to any question, the end of all argument, and the truth about any matter is never the best opinion or judgment of men - however influential or devout. It is - Where does the matter in question put the Lord Jesus? Does this mean that He has the only place, and will our going any given way mean more of Him in our lives? Are we likely to make progress in the knowledge of Christ and be enlarged in Christly stature by any presented course? This is how Paul settled the debate in Galatia and the quarrels over teachers in Corinth.
Then, let it be understood that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the birthright of every true child of God. The presence of the Holy Spirit within is meant to bring us under an open Heaven and into a constantly enlarging apprehension of Christ. But remember that Romans 6 precedes Romans 8, as Romans 8 most surely issues from Romans 6.
* Note on the Meaning of 'Revelation'
An illustration taken from the life of Martin Luther.
'I was seized with a marvellous burning desire to understand what Paul said in his epistle to the Romans: but there was one passage that stood in my way, and it was in the first chapter. It read (verse 17): "The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel". I hated that phrase, "the righteousness of God", as was then usual among scholars, I understood it in the sense of a righteousness that 'gives each one his due'; it meant that the righteous God simply punished sinful and wicked men. But I felt that, even if I lived blamelessly as a monk, I was still a sinner in God's sight, and I had a very uneasy conscience. I felt that I had and could have no certainty of finding reconciliation by any atonement which it lay in my power to make. I had therefore no liking for a righteous God who punished sinners; rather, I hated Him: and, if not with silent blasphemy, at least in many a rebellious mood, I complained against Him in a dreadful way, and said, 'Was it not enough that a poor sinner should be lost to all eternity on account of original sin, and that they should be punished with all sorts of pains and penalties by the Mosaic law and the Ten Commandments? Whereas now, God must use the gospel to pile up punishments and threaten us with His righteousness and wrath!' I raged against it all with a wounded and confused conscience, and I was constantly coming into collision with that phrase of Paul's, and thirsting eagerly to know what he meant by it.'
'Luther rose to his feet and strode to and fro... After a time he sat down again and once more read the text in its context. Suddenly his vision cleared; he felt as if a veil had been taken away; he could see what Paul meant; the righteousness of which Paul spoke was not the righteousness of God seeking retribution, but that which was imputed to the believer; it was therefore a profound expression for the grace of God: God presents His own righteousness to the believer. By His grace God regards him as if he were already righteous, even though he is not so... The righteousness of Christ is something belonging to me.'
It was at that moment that Luther was delivered. He sprang up from his chair. 'It seemed to me as if I had been born again and as if I had entered Paradise through newly opened doors. All at once the Bible began to speak in quite a different way to me. The very phrase "the righteousness of God" which I had heard before, was the one that I now loved best of all. That is how that passage of Paul's became for me the gateway to Paradise.'
We could cite better examples of our meaning of 'revelation', but we have chosen this because it may serve more than one purpose.