Reading: Matt. 16:16-22; Heb. 11:13,39-40; Gal. 2:20.
"I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."
"He must go to Jerusalem... and be killed."
"Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him, saying, Be it far from You, Lord: this shall never be unto You."
Why did Peter begin to rebuke Him? Because Peter thought that if the Lord Jesus was killed, that would be an end of everything; that his faith could not go beyond death, his faith could not go beyond the cross, his faith could not go beyond that killing. And it was a lapse in faith which led him to begin to rebuke his Master when the cross was brought into view. If that church was going to be built, and the cross, the killing, the death was to intervene and to come before its building, then that church demands a faith which goes through death, goes beyond death and overcomes death. At that moment Peter had not that faith.
You see, a fresh principle is brought in as to the nature of that which comes up in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is the principle or constituent of faith which triumphs over death, and does not believe that death is the end of everything. Now that is exactly the faith which is referred to throughout Hebrews chapter 11.
We are there told quite clearly that the faith of the saints was a faith which looked beyond and apprehended it though death intervened: "These all died..." (v. 18). Yes, death intervened, but they died in faith. They had not received the promises, therefore if the promises were anything to them, they must believe that although they die, the promises will be fulfilled to them and therefore, their faith must be a faith which reaches beyond death. "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things make it manifest that they are seeking after a country..." (v. 13,14). And they died with their eyes looking on believing that this is not the end. And so theirs was a death-conquering faith, or, in other words, it was resurrection apprehended by faith unto the realisation of God's purpose. They, by faith, lived in the power of a coming age. "God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect" (v. 40). So that what is now here before us is the church; the resurrection of the perfecting of faith. These saints are said to have triumphed over death by their forward look and apprehension of faith. We are in the succession and completion of their faith. We are told here that the responsibility of perfecting their testimony rests upon the church, and the church will not perfect their testimony on any other ground than that upon which they developed the testimony. They developed the testimony and carried it on from age to age, generation to generation, on the basis of a faith in the power of resurrection triumphing over death, and the completing of their faith, the consummating of their testimony which falls to the church will not be accomplished on any other ground than that.
We notice that the whole of Hebrews chapter 11 does not only tell us of certain exploits carried out by saints covering many hundreds of years, from Abel to begin with and the Maccabees to end with, but this chapter represents the testimony in progressive development. There is the dispensational feature in the whole chapter.
Abel represents, shall we say, the simple beginning of the testimony. A sinner away from God finds justification, righteousness, access and favour on the ground of the excellency of his sacrifice. It is the basis of the Gospel. That is where the testimony of Jesus begins so far as the Gospel is concerned, and every successive man mentioned represents an advance in the testimony. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses... and all the time you are developing the testimony. Abel hands on something which was gathered up in Moses; Moses gathers up all the features which have preceded him in the testimony, and embodies those features in a corporate representation. Exodus 31 brings that in. The tabernacle of testimony is the inclusive, corporate representation of all the features of the testimony which have preceded, from Abel onwards.
That testimony is carried forward. It becomes a very thin line again, unto a remnant, and then the remnant of a remnant. You come to the dark days between the two Testaments, three hundred years, the wars of the Maccabees. But the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew all about that. Some of the things here mentioned were the things which were done to the Maccabees who sought to maintain the testimony between the old dispensation and the new. The testimony was carried on progressively, but one feature characterised that testimony from start to finish, and it was that they refused the dominion of death. They refused to allow that death could defeat God's purpose, and that refusal, which was the refusal of faith, was virtually the power of His resurrection operating in them through faith. The ultimate victory by which all the promises to them would be secured and fulfilled was the victory of Christ over death. The 'better thing' which God had reserved for us was that we should actually come into the inheritance of the full victory which they had only looked on to by faith. But the testimony is not completed yet; the testimony is taken up by the church. The church inherits the testimony of the saints of all ages, gathers it up into itself and fights the final battle against death. The church's ultimate battle is the battle with death.
Death is not merely a physical thing. Death is a great power, a great spiritual force in this universe. There is a great responsibility resting upon us as we live in this day, which is the end of the ages; it is to complete the testimony of the saints. And as Paul passes on he urges: "Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses..." that we shall complete the testimony. In effect he says: "They are all looking on and saying to you: 'We have done our bit in the testimony and have not yielded to death. We have stood, not accepting defeat and death, now see that you do not do it; you complete the work.'" "Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith". The perfecting of faith in the perfecting of the testimony. Well, we note the progressive factor in the testimony as is here presented.
It might be perhaps helpful if we stay for a moment upon that little fragment: "God having provided some better thing concerning us". We have suggested what generally that 'better thing' is; but what is it particularly? If you go back to chapter 8 of this letter you will see what it is specifically: "But now has He obtained a ministry the more excellent, by how much also He is the mediator of a better covenant, which hath been enacted upon better promises" (v. 6). And what are the 'better promises' that we inherit? The rest of chapter eight tells you. The old covenant was that, in outward things, the covenant which He made with them when He took them by the hand and led them forth out of the land of Egypt, the covenant of outward things; and now the better covenant which comes by the better promises: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and on their heart also will I write them". Better promises unto the better covenant into which we enter by the Holy Spirit, is the reality of things within and not without; but now for the believer everything is inside not outside. That is the better thing which God foresaw for us. It represents all the glorious work of the Holy Spirit who was the promise of the Father, in whom all the promises are fulfilled - better promises. The Holy Spirit indwelling now writes the law of God in our hearts and makes everything inward.
Now it is upon that basis that the testimony is to be completed. It is upon the basis of faith in the triumphant Lord as within us: "Christ in you the hope of glory..." "by the Holy Spirit"; that is the better thing. If you think about it for a moment, that is the battleground of faith: "Christ in you...". The devil will do anything to make you doubt that, question that, be uncertain about that, forget that, fail to apprehend that; that Christ is in you, the triumphant Lord, the Lord that has conquered death. "And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God." "I live", that is the life triumphant over death, but it is 'by faith' in Him. The testimony is going to be completed upon that basis.
Oh, if we really did more fully and strongly believe that the Lord who has conquered death is in us, the testimony would be more perfect and we should be in the way of completing the testimony, because the testimony is Christ triumphant over death, Christ Risen in power over death, now within, by faith. You see the ground upon which the testimony is to be perfected - on different ground from the Old Testament; the ground of better promises, the better covenant, the "better thing" of God. And this should make us feel ashamed of ourselves, that they for whom everything was external and in the future, so marvellously and mightily overcame death by faith, refused to accept that the promises of God were quenched when they died. Of the promises made to them they said in effect: "Yes, I die this violent death, I am to be burned alive today, sawn asunder today, torn to pieces by wild beasts today, but all the promises will be fulfilled to me. I shall enter into the promises yet, I embrace them as I see them afar. I die, but I die in faith". And here are we who have the living, victorious Christ resident within us, whose testimony is not always as glowing as theirs who had not the better thing. It is perhaps well that we should be shamed, but may the Lord mightily stir us, for that is the object of the apostle's writing this portion of the letter. Here were those believers contemplating a return to their old system because their having come out of it was fraught with so much difficulty and persecution, contemplating adopting a line of less resistance, taking an easier way. The apostle is writing to get them urged on to complete the testimony and not to abandon it, to maintain that which their brethren before them had held to unto death. And this letter is handed down to us for exactly the same purpose. We have it preserved by the Lord through all the centuries to show us how the testimony is completed, how the church is built, and what it is we are in. That church which He builds will be built by the constituent of the faith of those who are of it, which is a faith which is on resurrection ground, triumphant over death. The abiding basis of all time is that of conflict with death to complete the testimony in the power of resurrection.
You and I are now called to live in the power of Christ's resurrection life, and the Lord's dealings with us are to get us on to that ground. He will weaken our strength, empty us of our fulness, bring us up against things which are altogether beyond us, and His dealings with us in every way will all point to one direction: to get us to live our life upon no other basis than His resurrection life, the life that we live by faith in Him. Those who are going to complete the testimony will be on that ground. Those who are going to make full the saints of past ages, because it was not possible that they should be made complete without us; those who are going to make full their testimony and complete that will be those who will be brought on to this ground.
I feel that this word is intended to have two effects, two meanings. One, to show us the nature of the thing we are in. The nature of the thing that we are in is the battle of the testimony of the risen life and power of the Lord Jesus in us, over against all the power of death. That is what we are in. The other thing is to get us to definitely take our position anew on resurrection ground so that from now on we have it quite clearly understood that, although perhaps not in exactly the same forms as they met death, yet in exactly the same force, we have got to meet it. We may not go to the stake; we may not be cast into the ring for the wild beasts; we may not be sawn asunder; ah! but death is going to be just as real as an antagonist of our spiritual progress as it was to them; just as great a reality in the spiritual sense as it was to them in the literal sense. And there has got to be in us, and by us, a clear and strong testimony that Christ has overcome death, and as the Overcomer of death, He is in us. This is the power of His resurrection working in us now. Do you see what we are in? The testimony involves that.
We speak much about "The testimony of Jesus". The testimony of Jesus is some terrific thing, it is not some system of doctrine. Sometimes it becomes the most grim reality, and if this word has a sifting-out effect, well, perhaps that is good, to see if we are in the testimony or we are not in it, and if we are in the testimony we are going to fight the battle of the heroes of faith in a spiritual way, a battle with spiritual death - and the Lord is going to allow it.
Some of us have been perplexed sometimes, as to why it is that having taken such high ground, such utter ground with the Lord, the ground where we do honestly will to have none of the flesh and none of the natural man, and where we do, with all our heart, stand to have everything of God right up to the hilt, one hundred percent; why, having taken a place like that, we have such terrific experiences of death. It is a most perplexing thing and we have thought that to take high ground like that, that with the mighty, glorious power of His resurrection operating, death would be nothing. It has been the opposite. Sometimes we have been more terribly conscious of the awfulness, the deadness of spiritual death than anything else; it is in the atmosphere, circling around; something you have to battle through; death - to pray, to get out a message, sometimes pressing in upon your whole being spirit, soul and body. Well, if what we are saying is true, this is the explanation: that the very fact that we have come into such a testimony demands that testimony be established over against a more clear manifestation of death than any other realm. It means, for the full testimony to be established, there must be a fuller testimony against which the testimony stands.
If resurrection is the testimony, we are going to know and we do know, the resurrection side, the victory side; at any rate, we do up to this moment. The enemy may work in the future, but he cannot undo the past. We do stand today upon that testimony. We do know something, it may be but a little, about the triumph of His resurrection in us over some terrific onslaughts of death. That is the nature of the testimony, and that proves that we are in the testimony, the ultimate thing. If you do not know what a battle with death is, spiritually, you have reason to doubt whether you are right in the testimony of Jesus. I am not going to tell you to ask the Lord to put you in. The abiding basis for all time is conflict with death, to complete the testimony in the power of resurrection, and we have entered into that.
Now the thing which comes up in this connection is the matter of faith, because faith is the thing upon which it all hangs. In the presence of death faith is terrifically assailed. The one pre-eminent antagonist of faith is death. In His death even the Lord Jesus found His faith being assailed, and death is the assailant of faith. In spiritual experiences of death, when you feel yourself to be dead, and the last thing in all the world seems to be true that Christ is in you and death has settled down on you as a child of God, and your faith gets knocked about all over the place and you begin to wonder, to question, to doubt... what is going to happen? Well, you are going out or you are coming in, and it depends upon whether faith rises up and asserts God's facts over against your feelings, or whether you accept your feelings and all that seems to be, as the end of your faith. I am not talking theory; I am talking real, living facts of experience.
Oh, do we not know the times when we feel as dead as anything can be, and empty, and utterly lacking in any of those spiritual energies and abilities? The heavens are as brass over us, it is all death and darkness and weakness and emptiness; and the evil one is making suggestions to us and telling us the Lord has abandoned us, set us aside and there is no more ministry, and there is no more anything. We know that; but some of us do know by the training of the Lord through years, that that is the time when we have definitely to stand up on our feet and assert our faith against that, and positively say: "Yes, all this may be more real than anything else that I feel, or have, or know, but I stand upon an unshakeable rock. Christ is in me, Christ has not abandoned me, the Lord has not forsaken me, He cannot go back upon His Word. In so far as I have not, with all my intelligence, enlightenment, understanding and knowledge, in my spirit repudiated Him, refused Him, turned against Him, inasmuch as I have not done that, He has not left me, according to His Word, and I may abide in this state for a bit, but this is not the end. I am coming out sooner or later, it may be very soon, or I may have to wait. I will be looking back upon this valley from some height, and I will be in victory, ascendancy again. I will remember the dark day, but I am coming out of this."
Faith asserts that in God, and this is the victory that overcomes. Of course you come to that by spiritual education. We have all gone the way where we have accepted those conditions and gone down under them, and we have discovered that was going to be the end of us, and we have had to fight back again to some sort of ground. But through continuous experiences, and the way the Lord graduates His training of us, we have come to the place where - not finally, there may be greater tests - we have been able to say: "Yes, this is another attack of death and I shall come out alright." Faith which stands on resurrection ground even when death seems to have gained dominion, is what makes the testimony so real. That is the testimony of the church. That is the church which He builds. It is the perfecting of faith which brings the perfection of victory and perfects the testimony of Christ triumphant over death.
It has been difficult to make clear, to get it out naturally (or satanically) but I believe if you will ask the Lord, you will find a real message in it, something that will get to the heart of things. There is something far too deep in this to put it into any kind of clear form of words; we can only enter into it in understanding.
We are in this testimony of Jesus, to be perfected by the church, completed by the church, and the principle of the completing of the testimony is faith which takes and keeps resurrection ground when death seems to be everywhere triumphant. We will be no use if we are not there. We will be out of the fight and out of the testimony. We can hope and and pray as much as we will and go over the difficult situation, but never come to it until we take definitely, with both feet, our position by faith in our Risen Lord, and repudiate everything that argues to the contrary. These bodies will not help us in this fight. These souls of ours will not be much good in this fight. We shall have to be strengthened with might by His Spirit into the inner man by putting into active operation what we have already got of the Lord, and then we will get more; the fulness. Start right away on the little bit of the Lord you have and He will add, and this will come that way.