Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29.
"Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe...".
There is a sense in which that clause is the summary of the whole of the letter to the Hebrews. Everything leads up to it and it is the embodiment of all that the apostle has been saying; indeed, we may say that it is the summary of a great deal more than this letter; it embodies the New Testament. But for the time being it is with the letter to the Hebrews we are particularly occupied, although we shall go outside of it in order to come back again to it.
While it is never right to give pre-eminence to one part of the Word of God above any other part, and say it is more important, I think those of you who are familiar with this letter will agree that it has a peculiar significance and value for the present time; indeed, I know of no part of the Word of God which would be more revolutionary than this part if it were rightly apprehended and responded to. This fragment of it which we have quoted seems to come to us with special pointedness and poignancy. You notice that the context runs like this:"Whose voice then shook the earth; but now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more will I make to tremble not the earth only, but also the heaven. And this, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain. Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken...".
There are two parts of history referred to here.
(1) "Whose voice then shook the earth...". That had its fulfilment at Mount Sinai.
(2) "Yet once more will I make to tremble... the earth."
But there is this, "Yet once more", and it also was to be history when not only the earth would be shaken, but the heavens also.
This universal shaking is said to be in order that there shall be nothing left but what God Himself has established. This letter is a comprehensive comparison and discrimination between the passing and the permanent, the shakeable and the unshakeable; and it is important to recognise that it was written to a people who for a long period had held the position of a people whom God had taken out of the world unto Himself, showing that even such a people may make their separation an earth-bound thing and have to be warned that that kind of separation is not God's kind of separation. God took them out of the world to be a people for Himself, and then in the course of time they gravitated earthward, so instead of being a heavenly people in the earth they became a religious people on the earth, and there is a great deal of difference. And such a letter as this had to be written to them to tell them, the people who were once taken out of the world for God by God, that they are to have their whole foundation shaken and their whole system of things, in the shaking, removed. On the other hand, the letter is a statement of permanent and final things, and the things which constitute the Kingdom which cannot be shaken.
Going for a few moments outside of this letter, may I remind you that the New Testament is comprised of twenty-seven books, most of which were written to combat some form of a universality of effort to destroy that which had come in with Christ. I want you to grasp that. The New Testament is a comprehensive countering of a many-sided attempt to subvert the church and to pervert the right ways of the Lord, and the chief point of the attack was and is the meaning of Christ's cross as to His own Lordship and as to the meaning of His Kingdom. In view of this mighty effort it was necessary, and is necessary, to make known the ground upon which security and triumph rest, and that is, of course, the positive side of the writings.
Now I have opened up a field that could engage us for a very long time. It is not my intention to take you right through all the books of the New Testament to show how what I have just said is so, but I might just take you through a part in order to indicate the matter, and that, of course, very imperfectly.
You take the four Gospels, and they were written to establish the four-fold claim of Christ to be, firstly, the rightful King; secondly, the Lord's Sent One; thirdly, the Son of Man, and, fourthly, the Son of God. Those four things were disputed. In each of those connections He was rejected; for all of those claims a cross awaited Him; and after He was risen and there was enough evidence in the world that the disputed challenge was hardly well-founded, these Gospels were written as a means to establish those claims. Now, of course, in the light of what we know of Him as the risen Lord, and all that has resulted from His resurrection and His exaltation, we are able to read the Gospels in a new light and we are able to see how confirming they are of His claims.
You pass to the book of the Acts, and there you have the Kingdom introduced from heaven and the risen Lord proceeding with His Kingdom activity, and the book for the most part is occupied with expansion, formation and opposition. And this opposition becomes manifold, many-sided. There is a universality of antagonism to what has come in through the cross of the Lord Jesus, and the rest of the writings of the New Testament deal with the many-sidedness of that antagonism, and each letter takes up some form of that opposition to what has come in with Christ through His cross.
We will now refer to some of Paul's writings alone. With the letter to the Romans we have a challenge to the cross undoubtedly, for the point of emphasis in that letter is the cross. Everything up to chapter 6 leads to it in every direct way, and everything from chapter 6 comes back to it. The cross is central. But the challenge is in relation to sin and righteousness, and the instrument of the challenge is the law, or external obligations. And what arises there is just the issue as to the value of the cross of the Lord Jesus. If the law prevails, then the cross goes out. If the cross prevails, the law goes out. If the law prevails, sin remains and righteousness is not found in God's universe. If the cross prevails, sin is dethroned and righteousness established. There is your challenge.
In the first letter to the Corinthians you have the challenge to the cross along another line. It is the challenge of the flesh in believers, the carnal nature in the people of God. The instrument of that challenge to the cross is just nature and the world working together; that is, believers proceeding in their Christian life upon a purely worldly and carnal basis. The cross is introduced there, or Christ crucified, and if the cross prevails the carnal nature goes out and the world is destroyed. If believers go on in carnality and in worldliness then the cross has been robbed of its power. That is the statement of the letter in a nutshell. It is a challenge to the cross from another angle.
You pass to Galatians, and again it is a challenge to the cross. See how many times the cross is referred to in that letter, and here you have not only the law but the whole system of Judaism rising up to destroy the value of Christ's cross. It is not only the question of sin and righteousness, righteousness which is of the law or of faith. That is not the specific argument in Galatians as in Romans. Here it is the whole system of Judaism, the whole range of that historic religion in its outward expression, and it rises up to bring believers again into bondage; and if Judaism prevails the cross, again, is destroyed as to its meaning and value; and if the cross triumphs Judaism goes out.
Then you pass from Galatians to Ephesians. It is again the challenge to the cross, and this time it is in relation to the character or nature of Christ's church. The Ephesians, and those included in that rather general term (for the letter was undoubtedly a circular letter for a region), had a background of pagan mysteries, rites, initiation, secret societies, a whole mystical system. The peril there was to make Christianity, and what had come in with Christ, just a mystical religion. You remember at Ephesus it was that they made the great bonfire and burned their books on magic and such like things. All those books contained the ritual and order and system of this mystical line of things, with initiatory rites into secret societies, and so on. Now you can see the place of this letter to the Ephesians.
I am always afraid of that phrase "the church mystical", and yet it gives point to this letter when you remember the background of the people. Yes, the church is mystical, but not in the pagan sense. There is initiation, but not after their order. The church is heavenly, it is spiritual in reality, the church is not a seen, a tangible, an earthly thing. The knowledge of the things of God is not along the line of ordinary intellectual training and ability; it is only by initiation, "a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him...". Do you see the peril?
Here you see there was a challenge to what had come in through Christ's cross, the true, eternal, spiritual, heavenly nature of the church which is His Body, and how that church is entered, what is the basis of membership of that Body, and what are the features of the life of that church as in a heavenly place with a heavenly revelation, something that has come out of eternity and goes through to eternity, in which time is only an incident. Oh, there is a large field for mysticism, but mysticism is not spirituality in the New Testament sense: it is an imitation, a false thing, it is Satan's counterfeit of the church, and multitudes of the Lord's people have fallen into the snare that was lying in the path of these converted pagans, and thinking of mystical Christianity and religion as essentially spiritual. We have to get a right understanding of the meaning of the word "spiritual" according to the New Testament, and not get into that morass of death which is merely mysticism.
You may think that is very much up in the air, far above us all, but, do not make a mistake, it is a snare for every one of us. There are those to be found very near at hand who are always probing into things to try and get something that is not obvious, something that is remote, and they think that if they can get behind the thing said and find some extraordinary interpretation that they have got the inner secret of the Word of God; and so we find a lot of these extraordinary, fantastic interpretations of God's Word by a probing into it and trying to draw out some fanciful interpretation. It is called spirituality, and larger and deeper knowledge, and it leads nowhere, only to death. There is all the difference between mystical interpretation and divine revelation.
It is the cross which is basic to the church, and if the cross is put aside you can get a false and mystical kind of church, but not the church of God. So it was a challenge to the cross.
Passing to the letter to the Colossians, you have another challenge to the cross, and this time it is in relation to Christ's supremacy. You know the whole line of that letter, the marvellous part of the first chapter in its presentation of Him. Here again the challenge came, this time through what was called Gnosticism, the people who claimed to know, to have extra knowledge. Such believed that that system of thought which saw the universe of the unseen as arranged and ordered in a great hierarchy of angelic beings, all in different ranks and orders, from the supreme archangel down in ever-widening circles and ranks of archangels and angels, coming down to the more inferior spirits. This was what lay behind the visible universe and governed it, and in the interpretation Jesus was just the supreme Archangel in the spiritual system. He was that and nothing more. They allowed Him the supreme place there, but that was as far as they could go.
Now you see the point of this letter. The apostle tears that theory to fragments, and says that in Him, through Him, unto Him were all things created, things in heaven, things in earth, things under the earth; angels and principalities were created by Him, and He is above all, all are in Him, all things held together in Him. He is appointed by God to have the pre-eminence. And that, all hung upon His cross. That is why in such a letter as the letter to the Colossians you have such emphatic passages as that in chapter 2 verse 12 about the circumcision of Christ, in which the whole body of the flesh is put away in baptism. If you do not have the application of the cross to your fleshly mind you become fantastic, and your fantasticism means that Christ is given a less place than God has given to Him. You may exalt Him, but to a lower place than His rightful place. There must be the circumcising of the mind and of the heart of man; he must know what it is to be buried with Christ in baptism. Do you see what hangs upon the cross? So much!
You pass to Philippians, and again the challenge comes in in relation to the ultimate object, the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. That third chapter of the letter to the Philippians is one upon which hangs God's highest purpose for the saints.
"If by any means I may attain unto the out-resurrection...", and that connected with the prize. And what is the prize of the upward calling? It is the throne. Saints are called to be joined with Him in His throne. "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, as I have overcome and am sat down with my Father in his throne." Paul's aspiration is to that, the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ, and as a true aspirant he says, "this one thing I do... I press on... if by any means...".
There is an assault upon the cross, because that is the supreme issue for the saints. How does the assault come? Along the pathway to the throne. It is that simple, commonplace language: "I beseech Euodia, and I beseech Syntyche, that they be of one mind in the Lord." Do you see the relationship? If the enemy can get in between saints and get them at variance in mind and heart, get them divided, get the love of the Lord in them for one another damaged and interrupted, he has struck a blow at the prize, he has arrested their course on the way to the throne. Jesus, equal with God, emptied Himself, being found in fashion as a man, taking the form of a bondservant, humbling Himself, and becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross; wherefore God highly exalted Him. He has emptied Himself to come down, to be obedient unto death, in order that He should be there, not alone but having His church with Him, He loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might present the church to Himself not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, a glorious church.
Now here is the challenge. Called into union with Him in His exaltation. What will defeat it? How can it be arrested, prevented, hindered? Just in this way: Euodia and Syntyche - and all whom they represent - at variance with one another. You will never get to the throne that way. What is the remedy? It is the remedy of the cross. "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who... emptied himself...". Why will Euodia and Syntyche be at variance? Because of some pride which keeps them back from saying, I am sorry! I was in the wrong! They are standing upon their dignity. "He emptied Himself, He took the form of a bondslave, He became obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross" - shame, ignominy, humiliation, degradation. Sometimes in order to get to the throne it is necessary for us to degrade ourselves (if you will use that word, for pride often uses that word and says it will be a degradation). He did! There is the challenge to the cross along the line of Christians at variance, an attack upon the issue of the cross, the Throne.
We close with a word about Thessalonians, for here is the challenge of the cross in relation to its ultimate crisis, the Lord's coming, the church's hope and dynamic.
We have reached Hebrews 12:28, a Kingdom which cannot be shaken. Do you see what the Kingdom that cannot be shaken is? It is all those things that we have been speaking about. Hebrews summarises all Paul's letters:
- Romans. The sin question dealt with and a righteousness established. That runs right through the letter to the Hebrews; the priesthood of the Lord Jesus, His sacrifice.
- Corinthians. A life in the Spirit, not in the flesh.
- Galatians. An emancipation from an earthly system of religion into Christ. That is Galatians, and that is Hebrews.
- Ephesians. Heavenly union with the risen and ascended Lord. That is Hebrews again: "Holy brethren", says the apostle to the Hebrews, "partners in a heavenly calling".
- Philippians. "The prize", corresponding to: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that thou puttest him in charge?"
- Colossians. The absolute sovereign headship of the Lord Jesus. Well, read again the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews: "Whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom he made the ages". That is a summary of Colossians.
- Thessalonians. The heavenly hope. "Receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken". That sums it all up.
Now, of course, we ought to go back and have a look at these components of the Kingdom which cannot be shaken. We are not going to do that at the moment. This is only an introductory word, but it is a call which has been reinforced during these days with tremendous pointedness. Are we quite sure that we are receiving now the Kingdom which cannot be shaken? Note the language, note the tense. "Wherefore receiving (present active) a kingdom which cannot be shaken". It does not say the Kingdom is going to come; the Kingdom has been introduced, and the Kingdom is going to be consummated: it is progressive and it is spiritual. The question, put quite bluntly, is this: Are we quite sure that we are founded and grounded in the spiritual and the heavenly realities of Christ and His cross, or are we simply linked up with some system of truth, doctrine, practice? Are we dependent upon the externalities of our faith, or have we the risen, living Lord resident in our hearts, and is He answering to all the need of our spiritual life, as represented by that system which has been put aside? Has the question of sin been for ever settled for us by His one offering? Is the question of sanctification settled for us? Is the question of glory settled for us? Is the question of going through triumphantly settled for us?
How practical the Kingdom is, as seen in the light of the Philippian letter! How practical it is as seen in the light of the Ephesian letter! You ask me what the Kingdom is. I say it is the message of all those letters. Are we receiving in a spiritual and living way what is there? You begin with Matthew: Jesus is King. Receiving the Kingdom is first of all to have received Him as King, as Lord, and so on.
May the Lord Himself bring His own appeal to our hearts.