Reading: Revelation 5 and 7.
In this meditation, we are going to look at the Cross in various connections in the New Testament.
When we take up the data which gives us all that we know about the Christians of Apostolic times, that is, the letters of the New Testament, it seems to me that in the main three things meet us.
Three Observations with Regard to the Later Apostolic Times
(a) A Startling Feature
The first thing - and it is a rather startling thing - that meets us is spiritual failure almost everywhere. I say that is a startling thing. This fact strikes us. There is not a letter in the New Testament which is not written to correct something that was wrong, to deal with some fault. All the data that we have about the Christians of Apostolic times brings us in the first place face to face with that, a many-sided and comprehensive faultiness. You may think that is a terrible thing to say: but think again. Before we have finished, we will prove it is so. These letters had to be written because of things going wrong: and, mark you, not only doctrinally wrong. There were undoubtedly some in the churches who did not come under the judgment, who were probably not involved, but the strange thing is that not much is said about them if they were there. What we have in the main is a fairly general statement. The letters were written, not just to some people in the churches who have gone wrong, but to the churches. The majority are the occasion of the letters, not the minority. The minority are mentioned oft-times at the end of the letters. Now that is the first thing. We will come back to that, but it is a very striking thing.
(b) The Note of Warning
The second thing that meets us is the note of warning, admonition and exhortation, with reference to spiritual growth unto spiritual perfection as a goal. Some of the warnings are very terrible warnings. I am not going through the warnings, but you remember that such a warning as Israel's perishing in the wilderness is used on two different occasions in two different letters. Those Christians of Apostolic times, those wonderful times, needed to be warned by the example of those Israelites whose carcasses fell in the wilderness, to whom God said, "Ye shall not enter", despite their having come out of Egypt. That kind of warning is found. There are many others, some even more severe than that. What of Esau, who, for a mess of pottage, sold his birthright, and found no place of repentance in his father, though he sought it with tears. That is used as a warning to Christians. Everywhere there is warning, admonition and exhortation, to bring home the fact that this state of things is not God's thought, not God's mind, not God's will.
(c) The Cross as the Remedy and Ground of Appeal
Then the third thing which meets us is the Cross, used as a ground of appeal and pointed to as the instrument of sanctification and victory. Every time, these Christians are brought back to the Cross in some way. The Cross is brought before them and made the basis of appeal and indicated as the means for changing the situation.
Now, these three things stand out very clearly upon even a superficial reading of these letters, which comprise the material by which we are informed of how things were amongst believers in Apostolic times. Well, allowing there may have been, and doubtless were, believers of another kind, they are not spoken of very much, and the prevailing impression we are given of these New Testament Christians is as of believers who were far from perfect, and tumbling about all over the place spiritually, and who were still not only capable of, but actually involved in sin; for all these letters are written to deal with sin, failure, and matters needing to be righted. Well, no one is going to argue we must on that account accept the situation, nor affirm that the Lord has not provided for another position; no one will argue for sin! Moreover, we are faced with the fact that these letters, while written to deal with sin, were written to point out that this was not God's mind for His people, and also to show how and by what means a different state could be brought about: and that is where the Cross is brought in. We shall not attempt to go through all these letters, but if we take several by way only of indicating, you will see what I mean.
Romans - The Cross and the Christian's Position
The order of the letters as we have them under the sovereign hand of the Holy Spirit is that of spiritual chronology, and you start with Romans, which opens thus:-
"Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name's sake; among whom are ye also, called Jesus Christ's: to all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world" (Rom. 1:1-8).
That is the introduction. "Called saints", "called Jesus Christ's"; these are the people to whom the letter is written. Then, as you read on, it is not long before you begin to come into troubled waters amongst these saints, these who belong to Jesus Christ, and you find yourself involved in a fundamental difficulty and the whole question of righteousness arises. Righteousness: that is a fundamental question; the question of righteousness amongst believers; not righteous practice, not righteous conduct, but something more basic than that, namely, righteous nature, and you are led by the letter to see that those who belong to the Lord Jesus are, to say the least of it, unsettled and not sure about the matter of righteousness, fundamental righteousness.
It is not necessary for me to develop the whole of the subject of the Roman letter, but it is concerned with the Christian's position. That is the point. The most elementary thing, the very first thing about a Christian, the thing which comes before all other things, is a Christian's position before God, the question of his standing, his acceptance, the question of the ground upon which he rests, the question of his relationship with God. Christians here are all over the place on that question, the question of righteousness. It may have arisen subsequent to their faith to which the Apostle refers, but here it is; and does it need any argument to prove that to be a state of things possible to believers at any time? Is it not true, right through history and in our own day, that believers may still be found in a state where this matter is far from being finally settled; where there is still the weakness, the instability, the breakdown, the shame, the unfruitfulness, the inability to bear responsibility, because that thing is still an unsettled thing. Beloved, we find it around us everywhere. But surely it is all wrong for a Christian to be like that? Of course, it is all wrong; but nevertheless it is there. The root of unbelief has not been plucked out of even a child of God. You can be a child of God, you can be called Jesus Christ's, called saints, born again, and still have that root of unbelief in you, which can at any time, even with your dying breath, rob you of the assurance of salvation, and many who have lived a life of devotion to God have died under the cloud of uncertainty in this matter. It is there. We have to take things as we find them: and this is how we find them.
Now, I am not saying that, because we find it so, God would have it so. God has provided a means for dealing with this. But if you and I do not use God's means, then however truly we may be the Lord's, we shall yet be found living this terribly wobbly life, never going straight on, never being for any length of time sure and dependable. So the Apostle, while he says these things about them as in Christ, called Jesus Christ's, called saints, has to say these things about them in respect of what they are in themselves, and those two things may differ.
How does he deal with the matter? Well he steadily works this whole matter of righteousness right up to Calvary. You reach chapter 6, and there his culminating point is that Christians have to come to exactly the same place as those Jews and those heathen had. What place is that? The Cross! He has searched the world, both the pagan world and the Jewish religious world, and not found inherent righteousness; and then he comes face to face with the problem before us and says, 'Neither can we find inherent righteousness in ourselves as Christians'. So far as we in ourselves are concerned, we Christians, we are no different from the heathen and from the Jew in the matter of inherent righteousness, and all of us must come to the Cross, and see ourselves, even as Christians, as believers, in ourselves put out of the way. Romans 6 is for believers. Do not forget that. It is for believers as well as for all the rest, and the Apostle brings these Christians to Calvary, as he brings the Jews and as he brings the Gentiles. He brings them all there, and says, 'Now, all of us have to recognize that in ourselves there is no inherent righteousness. If you believers in Rome are looking for inherent righteousness in yourselves, you will not find it any more than a heathen would. You have, therefore, to let go yourselves; you have to die, you have to pass out in the Cross of the Lord Jesus'. You know how Romans 6 opens. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein?"
"We who died"! When did we die? When did you die? There is a sense in which you never die in yourself, you die only in Christ. That is when you died. Christ's death is your death.
Now this is where the most familiar word comes back to us; for the Cross is brought in here for the establishment of ourselves now; not that we might become children of God, but that as His children we might be established by the Cross. I know we can never become children of God save by the Cross, but that is not the aspect of things here. This letter to the Romans is not sent to unbelievers to get them saved. This is to establish Christians, and the Cross is the means of their establishment, and it has to do with position, our position before God, our standing before God, our acceptance; which is all on the ground of a righteousness which is not ours, into which we come only by once for all repudiating the suggestion that there is any righteousness in us. "In me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing" is the declaration of a saved man, an apostle, and to look for any good thing in ourselves is to contradict Calvary and undercut the very ground of our standing. We stand only on His righteousness, the righteousness which is of God by faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, the point is this, that here we come upon the sin question. What is the sin question, so far as these Roman believers are concerned? The sin question where they are concerned is that of still looking for a righteousness outside of Christ in themselves by works. That is the sin question. That brings them on to a false ground. That nullifies Calvary. When we really recognize the meaning of Calvary, that Calvary is the righteousness of Another provided for us on the ground of our death in that representative Other, then the sin question has ceased for us. The sin question is a matter of our attitude toward what Calvary means. We are responsible, not for our state, but for our attitude toward Him whom God has made a propitiation for our sins. That is the sin question. In the end all judgment comes down to that point. God is never going to judge any man on the ground of his sins as such. God is going to judge every man on the basis of his attitude toward the Sin-bearer. The question that will be asked will not be, How much did you sin? but rather this, What is your relation to the Lamb of God? That is the basis of everything. Faith in the Lamb of God as our substitute and representative deals with the whole sin question.
You see what is possible to believers, and how believers, right at the very foundation of their Christian life, have to get this matter fully and finally settled, that righteousness will never be found in them inherently. It will only be found in Christ who is in them. The Holy Spirit is very careful always to discriminate between us and Christ in us right on to the end. John, who has much to say about sin and holiness and sanctification, is very careful to say, "God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son" (1 John 5:11); always a discrimination between what we are and what Christ is. Blessed be God, having Christ in us, we have that which is sinless, perfect, resident within: but we are not that. Only as we abide in Christ shall we not sin. But you and I can at any moment fail to abide in Christ; that is, if I understand aright, we can just step over into ourselves.
1 Corinthians - The Cross and the Christian's Walk
We move to the first letter to the Corinthians and see the Cross in another connection. But mark again the introduction.
"Paul, called an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God... unto the church of God which is at Corinth, even them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints, with all that call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything ye were enriched in him, in all utterance and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:1-7).
A wonderful people! Now surely we come to sainthood! What a pity we have to read on; and we shall not move very far before we move into a scene of terrible carnality, carnality expressing itself in a number of ways which make us blush. We do not want to dwell upon that side of things, but we take account of the fact that this is what meets us in those who are called saints, enriched in all things, coming behind in no spiritual gift. How will it be dealt with? What is the matter here?
We have moved on. This is spiritually in advance of Romans. I am not saying the state of things is better, but the phase of things is further on. In Romans it is a matter of position, standing. In Corinthians it is a matter of walk, conduct, spiritual behaviour; and it is all so faulty; and faulty is a weak word for it. It is tragic, it is terrible, and it would be really unbelievable, if we did not know it to be so possible, that we should have to read things which come up in this letter as being true of Christians. But I say we have to take things as we find them, and this is not something which was unique in the case of the Corinthian church. This is the sort of thing which has been true in many other quarters since. There it is, and it is not for us to say that people who do things like this are not born-again people, that they have not been accepted of God by faith in His Son. We must not say that. Who has authority to say that the first letter to the Corinthians, in any particular, was not written to Christians? Well there you are, and the question now before us is that of a believer's walk.
How will the matter be dealt with? Well, by the very same means. The Cross will be brought in, and the great ringing note foundational to this letter is "Jesus Christ, and him crucified". Christ crucified: that is the note, the basis, and the means of dealing with this situation. It is always the same. Believers are still capable of these things, but if there is a true apprehension of the Cross they need not commit them, though they remain capable of them. Capable in themselves of anything - yes; but not following their capabilities if the Cross really has been apprehended. The Cross is not only the means of establishing our position, but it is the means of correcting our walk, governing our walk, and if you and I really do apprehend the fact that, when the Lord Jesus died, we died - and that meant that we not only died to what we call sins, but to self - well, that is the end to such things. We died to self. If we died to self, what man is going to law against his Christian brother to get his own rights recognized? What man is going out in rivalry with his Christian brother to get the better of him, if he has died to himself? What man will bring another fellow-Christian into shame, under reproach, if he has died to self? What man will come to the Lord's table in an unworthy manner, if he has died to himself? Paul applies that aspect of the Cross to conduct, relationships. You see, it will correct everything. Oh yes, you are still capable of these things, but you will not do them if you really have apprehended your death with Christ.
So the Apostle speaks about the natural man and the carnal man, and says, 'That is the ground on which all this is springing up. You are living on natural ground still, and therefore you have all these conditions. Get delivered from your carnal life by means of the Cross, and you will not behave like this'. The Cross is the corrective every time; and, beloved, let me say this, that the Cross is a mightily active, potent thing in the hands of the Holy Spirit. It is not just some position which we take. It is not just some teaching, some doctrine, which we accept. If you and I will yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit in the light of the Cross, in the light of our death with and in Christ, and say, 'Lord, when you died, I died, and I accept my death; now you make it good', the Holy Spirit will come in and will check us up on our conduct, on our behaviour, attitudes, relationships, talk, criticisms; yes, everything in our life and walk. He will deal with it and He will bring the death of the Cross upon it, and the death of the Cross for us will be a most shameful thing at that moment. We shall feel ashamed that we said that thing, that ever that thing passed our lips, that ever we did that thing, and we will have to get down before God. No one has charged us with it; the Spirit of God has smitten us. The Cross has been laid upon us and we know that we are smitten, and we are as dead until we have dealt with that thing before God. It is a real instrument in the hands of the Holy Ghost is the death of the Lord Jesus to our natural life, to our carnality, something by which we are taught. The Cross is God's rod of training, of discipline, to bring out sonship; not to make us sons, but to bring out sonship, to develop us according to Divine thoughts. Well, that is walk.
2 Corinthians - The Cross and Ministry
We pass to the second letter to the Corinthians. We come to a new aspect in the second letter. As we begin to read this, we discover very quickly that we are not out of the first letter yet, but rather in the pangs, the suffering, the sorrow, the soreness of the issue of that first letter. Thank God for godly sorrow which brings us godly comfort: and then, when the Cross has dealt with the walk, dealt with the conduct, dealt with the carnality, the question of ministry will arise.
The second letter, as we know, is the ministers' letter! It tells us what a minister is from the Divine standpoint when the Cross does its work. Moses, the minister of God, is brought very much into view, ministering in the old covenant, declaring the thoughts of God, revealing the Divine mind. That is what a minister is. A minister, this word says, is one who shows forth the Divine thoughts, who manifests the mind of God. When Moses read the law, his face shone, the glory of God was expressed through him as God's servant, God's minister. That, mark you, was under the old covenant, the covenant of signs, the covenant of symbols, of types; yes, and a ministry of death and condemnation: and, says the Apostle, we have another ministry, and ministry is the shining forth of God in the face of Jesus Christ in our hearts. That is what a minister is; and let me put that simply, plainly.
There is no such thing in the New Testament as an official ministry as such. God has never, in this dispensation, appointed officials, as such, to be ministers. The ministry is a matter of a revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ in the heart shining out, and what constitutes one a minister more than another is the measure of the revelation of Christ in the life; and we all ought to be ready to give place to that. It must be a revelation of God in your heart, in my heart, that constitutes us God's ministers.
Now, you see, the Apostle is saying that it is the Cross that constitutes ministry and makes ministers.
"The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that one died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that they that live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again. Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the flesh: even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Wherefore if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God" (2 Cor. 5:14-18).
In what context does the Apostle say all that? That has usually been taken as a text for Gospel addresses. It may be very good, but that is not the Apostle's context. See how this letter opens. See the strain that runs through these early chapters. These people have been calling into question his apostleship, his ministry, his right, his position. They have been saying all sorts of things disparagingly of him to try to set him at nought, to put him behind other apostles. He refers to some of these things. We hear him say, The Gospel which was "preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timothy, was not yea and nay". Why does he say that? Because they had been saying, 'He is a yea and nay man; we cannot rely on him. He says a thing and does not do it'. Thus they were setting him at nought. And there are many little things here which indicate that they were questioning his ministry, his apostleship, his credentials: and so he says, 'Because we all died, we do not know one another after the flesh. You are judging on a wrong basis altogether. The whole question of ministry is not what you may find of human faults in me. The whole question of ministry is, Has God shone into my heart? Is there a ministration of Christ going from me? Have your eyes come to rest upon what I am in myself with all my faults, or are you looking for Christ? If you take that lower ground, you know me after the flesh'. On that ground we deny the Cross. We can all take one or other of these attitudes and positions over servants of God. We can all the time be criticizing their natural defects and faults, focussing upon what we see them to be humanly and naturally. If we do that - knowing them after the flesh - well, we do not give a chance to what is of God. Or we can take the other position. 'Yes, it is quite true he is a very frail, faulty, imperfect man, but I choose rather to let the Cross in between what he is naturally and what he is spiritually, and I look to see if he has something of the Lord. If he has, that is the thing I focus upon'. That is the position in 2 Corinthians, the Cross coming in to deal with the matter of ministry.
First of all, so far as the Corinthians were concerned, it had to make a way for what was of Christ in revelation, and, so far as Paul was concerned, it was to mean a glorious in-shining of Christ.
We are on the heavenly ground and on this heavenly ground we have an open heaven. The credentials of ministry are the shining of God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ in our heart, and anybody who has that can be a minister; and anybody who has not that has no right to call himself a minister. The Cross must strike at all ideas of ministry which are merely professional, which are anything other than spiritual. Spiritual gifts, spiritual revelation, spiritual knowledge, spiritual resources, spiritual riches, these alone constitute us ministers.
Galatians - The Cross and Spiritual Fullness
I will just remind you that, as you go on in these letters, you come next to Galatians, and then to Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, and you are simply taking up the Cross in its relationships to different aspects of things, to get things right, to get things into their right realm. You are moving on all the time. First, position was dealt with, then walk, and after that ministry; and then when you get to Galatians, the question before you is, How shall we reach spiritual fullness? The trouble with the Galatians was that they had stopped short. "Ye were running well; who did hinder you...?" They had stopped short and not gone through to the end. It is a question of fullness, and you know what a place the Cross has in Galatians. Oh, in chapter after chapter, the Cross is brought in. "I have been crucified with Christ." Why have I stopped going right on? Because somehow I have come up again from the dead. "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I, but Christ." The great objective is Christ.
"God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14). Why have I not gone on? Because the Cross has been nullified in the matter of the world. So the Cross comes in all the time to clear the way for going on to fullness, to finality. That is Galatians - not stopping short of anything of all that God intended.
Ephesians - The Cross and the Eternal Purpose
Ephesians takes you to God's great eternal purpose, and now it is a matter of the corporate life. How shall we know the great, collective, corporate purpose of God from before the foundation of the world, issuing from those Divine counsels in eternity past? How? It will be by the Cross; the eyes of our hearts being enlightened through the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.
Philippians - The Cross and the Fellowship of Saints
Philippians: - yes, now we are in the Church. It is no longer just an individual or personal matter as it has been in Romans and in Corinthians. Now it is a collective matter, and when you come into the Church then the matter of fellowship arises. It is not long before the matter of fellowship arises between Christians, and Euodia and Syntyche get at cross purposes. How are you going to look after fellowship, correct discord among Christians in the same assembly?
"Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:5-8).
Let the Cross deal with this matter of mind, which in some form of expression has come in to interrupt and injure this fellowship. Your "mindedness" has to be dealt with. The same principle holds all the way along. So Colossians takes it up in another way.
Sufficient has been said to point out that there is not a point in the Christian life, walk, service or ministry, in the fellowship of the saints, in the purpose of God: there is not a phase but what the Cross needs to be there all the time. The Cross deals with everything that can arise in Christian history and experience to spoil God's thoughts and intentions. Oh, how we need to say, "Jesus, keep me near the Cross"! The Cross is the corrective, the remedy, for what may arise still among Christians. We know only too well these things do still arise amongst Christians, all these marks of immaturity. How shall the matter be dealt with in us and in things, wheresoever we find them like this? Well, there is only one means, namely, the subjective operation of the Cross. Having got the objective side settled once for all, we must allow the Holy Spirit to use the Cross as an instrument to govern us from day to day.