|Vol. 13, No. 4, July - Aug. 1984
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
"One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord." Acts 15:38
THE psalmist did not mean that for him life consisted of just one thing.
It was rather a question of priorities. Nor do his words signify that he
was asking to go to heaven, for what he wanted belonged to this life in which
he still needed help from his enemies. The true import of his words, as they
come down to us through the Scriptures, is that here on earth there is an
experience in "the house of the Lord" in which we can enjoy some real appreciation
of the loveliness of Christ.
Note carefully that such an experience, though truly personal, is described
as being in close association with the rest of God's people. Which Tent was
David referring to? Or was he looking forward to the Temple which was yet
to be built? It does not matter for, all through the Scriptures, from Jacob's
vision at Bethel (Genesis 28:17), through Tents and Temples, through the
spiritual temple of the Church and into the eternal glory of Revelation, the
essential feature of God's house is that it consists of the spiritual enjoyment
of fellowship with God -- not "A Fellowship" that men have set up,
but the fellowship in which God's sovereignty appoints us all a place.
Now it so happens that from time to time in a Christian gathering, we
may be caught up in an overwhelming sense of the great beauty of Christ.
Such a glimpse of glory may be rare but it is very real, as I myself can
testify, and it is by no means necessarily associated with eloquent preaching.
What I would like to suggest here, though, is that the "one thing" which
is to be sought is not so much an inward vision of the Lord as an inward
transformation into His likeness. As Paul wrote: "We all, with unveiled face,
beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the
same image, from glory to glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18) and as we used to sing:
Be like Jesus, this my song,
In the home and in the throng;
Be like Jesus, all day long:
I would be like Jesus.
This was the prayer of Moses -- truly a Christlike man -- "Let the beauty
of our God be upon us" (Psalm 90:17). This is the feature which must have
absolute priority for all of us at all times. Above all else it must be "the
In the New Testament there are at least three references which take up
this theme of the "one thing". They are Luke 18:22, "One thing thou lackest",
Luke 10:42, "Only one thing is needed", and Philippians 3:13, "But one thing
I do ...". These are all the same thing. It seems to cover all age groups,
the young ruler, the mature housewife and the ageing apostle. What is this
one thing? What is the absolute priority above all else from the first step
of faith in Christ to the final stages of service for Him? Surely it is Christlikeness,
the beauty of the Lord in the human soul.
1. The Rich Young Ruler
Seeing that the Evangelist's subject matter was carefully chosen under
the guidance of the Holy Spirit, how came it that all three synoptic Gospels
record the sad story of the great refusal? What can we Christians learn from
it? No-one will suggest that the Bible teaches us that a person must give
up all his possessions if he wishes to experience eternal life. Why was
the noble enquirer so challenged? And what is the "treasure in heaven" which
might have been his?
Some have suggested that in this way the Lord Jesus was reminding the
ruler of the commandment which had not been included in the list, namely,
"Thou shalt not covet". But can it seriously be thought that if the man had
answered that challenge by giving away all his possessions, he would then
be able to claim that he was keeping the whole law and therefore eligible
for eternal life? That cannot be. That is not the gospel. It was not just
that he had kept nine of the commandments and lacked just this one to be
"perfect", but the thrust of what the Lord said was that the young man was
missing the whole point. [61/62]
It is a reasonable explanation that the significance of these words could
have been to destroy the enquirer's self-confidence and bring home to him
the fact that after all he was a sinner. The Lord deals with each one of
us as individuals and perhaps this drastic demand was necessary to make the
point. But what does it mean to us? And again I ask, what is the "treasure
in heaven" which we all do well to covet? Can it be that the Spirit's purpose
in thrice recording this incident was to alert all of us to this issue of
the one thing! And is not that one thing, likeness to Christ? That is the
one item of value that we can take with us to heaven.
Would I be regarded as fanciful if I suggested that the affluent young
man would have liked nothing better than to share his riches with Jesus?
It was obvious to him that this "Good Master" whom he greatly respected was
a very poor man. He might well have felt that if only Jesus could put him
right about this matter of his having a place in God's kingdom, he would
make it his business to see that the Lord was well provided for. In other
words, he wanted Jesus to be more like himself. Before we criticise him for
this, let us ask ourselves if it is not our own tendency to try to bring
the Lord down to our level, to expect Him to accommodate Himself to our way
of life. "No", says Jesus. "The one thing of supreme importance, the only
thing which really matters, is that you should become like Me." For this
young man it seems that the cost was too great, and so, for the time being
at any rate, he turned his back on eternal life, for what is eternal life
but likeness to Jesus?
Some people like to think that this young ruler was Saul of Tarsus. If
that were so, it would be the happiest of sequels to a very sad story, but
we have no evidence to support this idea. In any case, though, Saul did
grasp what this man rejected and what, alas, we often ignore, that at all
times and in every circumstance, the good deeds we do, even for God, can
have no value if Christlikeness is not our number one priority. For him
it was well worthwhile to forego values on earth in order to carry into
eternity a genuine inward knowledge of Christ.
2. Martha of Bethany
Before we consider Paul further, however, we need to ask what we can
learn from the Lord's reminder to Martha that there is one thing
needful. Matthew and Mark tell us nothing of this incident at Bethany, for
it was a private occasion at which they were not present. John does not describe
it either, but he permits himself the illuminating information that "Jesus
loved Martha ..." (John 11:5). Luke was the man who made his own enquiries
and seemingly enjoyed the confidence of godly women-folk, including Mary the
mother of Jesus. We may therefore presume that it was Martha who told him
the story against herself. It is most unlikely that Mary would have exposed
her sister in such a bad light.
It all came to the surface because of Martha's impatient remonstrance
with the Lord. No doubt before her outburst she had already given hints of
her grievance by loud sighs and clashing dishes. At last, however, she could
bear it no longer and impulsively tried to tell the Lord what He ought to
do: "Bid her therefore that she help me" (Luke 10:40). Mary could quite reasonably
have spoken before this saying, "Lord, bid my sister that she stop creating
such an atmosphere and comes and sits down at Your feet with me", but that
would also have been telling the Lord what to do, and those who truly sit
at His feet do not do that.
"Tell her what to do," demanded Martha. "Tell me what to
do" requested Mary, choosing that "better part" which is the one thing needful.
Alas, so many of us become preoccupied with the weaknesses of others and
so ready to pray that the Lord will tell them what to do, that we are
in danger of failing to give priority to the state of our own hearts; we
can be hot with zeal for the Lord but sadly lukewarm in our personal love
to Him. How often in a tense situation we pray, "Tell her, Lord" or "Tell
him, Lord", whereas our better part would have been to pray, "Please tell
me, Lord!" One of the outstanding features of Christlikeness is the
listening ear: "He wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear
as they that are taught. The Lord hath opened mine ear ..." (Isaiah 50:4-5)
said the great Servant of the Lord. "I do nothing of myself, but as the
Father taught me, I speak these things" (John 8:28) was how the Lord Jesus
described this experience.
In any case the Lord did indicate to Martha what she ought to do and
He did so with a mild rebuke and this stress on the "one thing". One thing,
notice! Only one thing! That was when it was contrasted with the relatively
good things about which Martha was so troubled but were now exposed as being
of lesser value. So once [62/63] again it was a question
of priorities. To us it comes with startling impact, especially if we are
sincerely active in our service for the Christ. Are we in danger of ignoring
the supreme background for all service, which is likeness to Christ? The
last word on this subject is found in eternity where it is said: "His servants
shall do him service; and they shall see his face; and his name shall be
on their foreheads" (Revelation 22:4). The essential joy of our future service
in eternity will be the fact that it is based on true conformity to His likeness.
It was with this destiny in view that the Holy Spirit prompted Luke to record
this homely story of service and the spirit in which it is done. None of
us needs to enquire why it was written, for the thrust of its message comes
readily home to our own consciences.
No doubt at the time Martha had felt sure that she was in the right.
When there are differences or clashes in our fellowship relationships, we
may well feel that our opinions or actions are right. The real question,
though, is whether we are showing a Christlike spirit. If not, we are wrong
even when we are right!
3. The Imprisoned Apostle
The governing purpose of Paul's life is declared in what he wrote to
his friends in Philippi: "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection,
and the fellowship of his sufferings ... Brethren, I count not myself yet
to have apprehended; but one thing I do ... I press on towards the goal unto
the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:10-14).
The apostle knew that the end which God had in view for him was complete
conformity to His Son:
"Christ is the path, and Christ the prize."
This is the "treasure in heaven" of which Jesus spoke, this is the one
thing that matters -- to be conformed to the image of Christ. The "one thing"
which mattered to Paul was not relief from suffering or deliverance from
prison but a growing realisation of the beauty of Jesus.
His words may be specially relevant to those of us who are growing old
for, when he wrote them, he realised that for him the end of earth's labours
might be near (Philippians 2:17) and indeed he truly wished that he might
be taken Home to glory (1:23). As a matter of fact he still had to be willing
to live on both because God still had a work to do through him and
also a work to do in him. And he would learn while he worked, as
we should all do.
I believe that this may partly explain why God's servants, like Paul
himself, can be reduced to seeming inactivity when they would so love to
go on doing some work for God which had long been of great importance to
It may also explain why some who -- like the apostle -- would much rather
depart to be with Christ have to go on into their eighties and nineties.
There are still more lessons to be learned, more treasure in heaven to be
acquired. My dear friend and colleague, George Taylor, who himself suffered
long months of ill health before going to be with Christ, used to correct
my occasional impetuous wishes that the Lord would take some ailing saint
Home to heaven with the rebuke, "Remember, Harry, that God is always working
with eternity in view". How right he was, and how important it is for all
of us, especially as we grow older, still to concentrate on the one thing
which we will take with us into eternity, namely, Christian character.
But the apostle was not only speaking to the elderly. He was not merely
describing a proper terminal spiritual attitude, but setting forth what had
long been his principle of life and what should be the governing concern
of every Christian. From the first step of faith (which the rich young ruler
refused to take) until the last period of our life and ministry, the psalmist's
concern about the beauty of the Lord should be given absolute priority.
This is more than a matter of mere meditation or passive contemplation,
as Paul shows by his energetic statement: "This one thing I do ...".
We have got to work at it and realise that it requires close association
with the house of the Lord. Made impatient by the imperfections in our assembly,
we may at times be tempted to withdraw from active fellowship, but we must
beware lest in doing so we virtually opt out of the pursuit of Christlikeness.
We look forward, and rightly so, to the moment when we shall see the Lord
and then be like Him, but the man who has this hope is called to keep working
away at positive conformity to Christ until that day comes (1 John 3:3).
The connection between this priority and the house of the Lord has a
double significance. Firstly, that the discipline and costliness of practising
fellowship in the place where God has located us is the very means by which
we can learn to grow more Christlike. Within this realm of corporate church
life we may encounter provocations [63/64] which will
produce unexpected ugliness in ourselves. Painful as this may be, it will
be very valuable if we only stick at it, for we will be forced to turn afresh
to the Lord Jesus so that we may learn of Him who is meek and lowly in heart.
We must not run away from such disclosures. The psalmist speaks not of just
visiting the house of the Lord occasionally, but of dwelling there. Like
the Lord's command that we should abide in the true Vine, this is
not always easy, put it is most rewarding.
The second point is that in the house of the Lord we are meant to see
more of the beauty of the Lord in our fellow worshippers. We must not miss
this, but we will do so if we allow our attention to be wrongly focused upon
some natural trait in them rather than what is the grace of Christ. Not
that we are asked to pretend blindness to the failings of others, though
incidentally we rather tend to expect them to overlook our faults. No, it
is not a question of unreality or artificiality, but rather of making constant
efforts to catch a glimpse of the Lord's beauty in our fellow Christians.
If we look for it, it is usually there. When we do that, and truly appreciate
what we see of the grace of Christ in others, our desire to identify with
the psalmist will constantly grow and, all unknown to ourselves, we will
be "transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as from the
Lord the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
"Again, on the morrow John was standing, and two of his disciples;
and he looked upon Jesus as he walked, and saith, Behold the Lamb of
And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus."
THIS passage of Scripture starts with the little word "again". The word
speaks of repetition, and life consists of repetitions. We can make them
dull and dead, a mere routine, or we can make them wonderful new character
builders, because living repetition is what produces perseverance and steadfastness.
The manna was repeated day by day throughout almost forty years. The Israelites
gathered it again and again, getting up in the morning, going out into the
fields, stooping down to the ground and picking it up. Was it just a dull
monotony, or was it a daily miracle?
It is true that the Israelites often found it irksome, but that was their
own fault. They said, "Is there nothing else than this manna? Must we have
it again and again?" Quite often I hear people talking like that. Are we
going to a meeting again? Are we going to pray again? Are we going to have
another convention? They complain about what is to be "again". It is up to
us, however, to make the repetitions of life a means of building up a character
of perseverance and strength. Nowadays repetitions are not appreciated, for
superficial people cry out for novelty. They do not like the word "again",
but always want something different. So it is that believers run here and
there, living a shallow life instead of having their characters built up by
the daily repetition of the essential things of life. Novelties quite often
provide escape from the path of duty. It takes real determination to do the
same thing in a new way day after day.
Here was John the Baptist again. He did not seem to be interested
in variety, as such. He was centred in God, and therefore he had no need
for novelties. He concentrated on the will of God day by day, remaining in
the spot where God wanted him to be, content to be in the place which God
had appointed for him. John was ready to do things again and again, and yet
again. You could always find him in the place of duty, and that is just the
place where you can always find God. If you want to meet with God, then remain
at the place of your duty. Learn to persevere; learn to do the same thing
again and again in a living way. Do not seek after novelties, but live day
by day with God and for God in the place of duty.
So it was that John stood "again", presenting us with a picture of a
man as God wants man to be; a man of strength, of steady character and
[64/65] reliability. In our hearts we know that a person should
be like that. Those who are always running after the latest thing can seldom
be relied upon. They will often be where they ought not to be; they cannot
be found where they are needed in the will of God. They themselves imagine
that they are seeking God, but if they seek Him in the wrong place, they
should not be surprised if they do not find Him. So often God is to be found
in the place of the everyday duties of life.
We may ask what John was doing on that most important day. We know that
two days before he had had a wonderful experience, and that was a great day
for him when he baptised his Lord and saw the Spirit of God come upon Him.
"On the morrow he seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb
of God which taketh away the sin of the world" (v.29). That for him was
a great day of testimony. Now what would happen on this next day? Would it
not be an anticlimax? The days before had been full of the wonderful glory
of the Lord, and now, what could he expect today? He could not count on the
same experience and yet, in spite of that, he came to the same place again.
Why had he done this? Because in true life every day is unique in its own
right. Every day links us to the past, and yet every new day offers us something
hitherto unknown. Every day we can rightly say, "This is the day of the Lord",
and if we face it in that spirit we shall be grateful for the repetitions.
This is the day of the Lord, therefore I read my Bible. I have done it a
thousand times before, but this day it will be unique. This is the day of
the Lord and therefore we meet together. We have done it hundreds of times
before and may imagine that we know all about fellowship; nevertheless this
time will be unique. This is life for today. So John was on the same spot,
not to repeat his yesterday but to live the new day fully for the Lord. John
shows us how to redeem time. If we do this, then time gives us something,
but if we allow time to pass by in dull repetition, then we not only lose
the day but lose something in our own character.
WE do not know what John had done that day until the tenth hour but one
thing is certain, he did not just speak of his experiences of yesterday.
He had faith enough to keep quiet and to concentrate on the Lord, waiting
for what was new and then for what he should speak. John is a wonderful example
of little activity but tremendous power; he was never found on the periphery
of things but always in their very centre; living hour by hour with God and
only speaking and acting out of a new living experience of Christ. So we
are told that he looked upon Jesus and then spoke.
Jesus had not repeated His approach of the previous day. Then he had
actually come to him, which was wonderful, whereas this day it says that
John looked on Him "as he walked". This was a new way, yet John was not
disappointed with the Lord for passing by, but only took a fresh look at
Him as He did so and then drew attention to Him. He made no demands on the
Lord; he did not try to tell Him how to walk; he just took a fresh look at
Him and then was able to speak of Him with effective power. What is preaching
but this, looking afresh on the Lord and then speaking fresh, warm words
about Him? We may even say the same words about Him. It may appear to be
only a repetition. We may have spoken about the Lord so often but, if before
speaking we have been allowed to see Him in a new way, then there will be
power in our words. This is the secret of preaching, to live every day so
that the repetitions are ever new, to look afresh on the Lord Jesus, and
then to speak. We need no more than that; but we cannot do with less.
This was why John had both a message and a testimony. He could say "Behold"
because that was just what he himself had been doing. He called others to
see what he could see. Everyone who really sees the Lord reacts either directly
or indirectly with a cry, "Behold". We must concentrate on the Lord Jesus.
In the midst of everyday life with all its repetitions, we must take a new
look at the Lord, and the repetition becomes new life. Go into your room
alone and behold the Lord. Come together with others for worship, and behold
the Lord. Go and listen to His Word, not as a matter of routine but in order
to meet Him in that Word. In this way every day and every experience can be
It was not man who had taught John that Jesus was the Lamb of God. As
he pursued his duty, lived with the repetitions of life always being prepared
for God's surprises, light came to him from heaven. If you are prepared to
be faithful in daily repetitions then God can meet you with new revelations,
things which you would never discover if you were running round looking for
novelties. Sometimes the Lord will come to [65/66]
you in one way and then He will show Himself in some other way, but you
will get to know Him and so you will have a vital testimony and so be able
to point others to the Saviour.
On the previous day John had given his testimony, saying "Behold the
Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world". Until then John had
been preaching about people's sins. Sins were a problem and he knew that
they could be forgiven. After this experience, though, he realised that the
real problem was deeper than the remission of sins, for it consists not only
in what the world does but what the world is. This brought
home to John that his own ministry was insufficient and that the ministry
of Christ was more profound, getting to the heart of the matter. To take
away sins is not really to solve the problem if sin itself remains. So John
learned something which no human reasoning could have taught him, that the
Lamb of God had come to take away the sin of the world, to take away
the satanic element in humanity, the self-dependence, the self-sufficiency
and the pride.
THAT was yesterday, but this day he had another emphasis, not this time
on the work of the Lamb but on His person. "Behold the Lamb of God!" he dared
not say more. He did not multiply words, he did not try to give explanations;
he had seen something which no human words could explain, even the wonderful
person of our adorable Lord. Whenever you see Christ in this way, you feel
the need to keep quiet in case you spoil what you have seen by too many words.
The Lamb is too great for words -- you only want to point to Him. Such an
experience so dominates your whole being, your thoughts, ideas, emotions,
will, conscious life, subconscious life, the depth of your personality in
an overwhelming manner which seems to make talk impossible. You can talk
about His work of bearing away sin, but the greatness of His Person is such
that it leaves you speechless. You marvel at the grace of God which has given
you such a glimpse of God's Lamb.
Like John, you will be so thankful that you went back again to the same
place, doing the same duty, for it was there that you had this new vision
of Him. Yesterday was wonderful, but today is unique. You live. You enjoy
fresh life, right up-to-date. You have found such fullness in His presence
that you do more than make a sermon, you are left with a testimony. You do
not have to live in the past; you do not have to wait for the future; you
see Him today and you see Him as you repeat what you have done times without
number, just return to the place of duty and stand there for the Lord. Such
a stand is what makes a man, a real man or a real woman. We cannot do without
our duties. We cannot do without our responsibilities. We cannot do without
our repetitions. If we can rightly grasp the significance of this word "again",
we will find that we are enabled to see the Son of God in a new way, day
I think that this daily life of routine and repetition is a wonderful
gift of God. We miss opportunities for surprises when we run around looking
for novelties. We need to gather our inner powers to stand steadily in our
daily duties, for so we may expect to find the Lord in new ways. The Bible
is the same book, and yet to us it becomes a new book. Prayer is the same
exercise and yet it becomes something quite new. Fellowship may seem to call
for mere repetition, but it becomes totally new. Words may be the same, and
yet they can be the means of a totally new experience of the divine freshness
of God's grace.
The Germans have a saying: "Happiness is where you are not!" This is
not true. Happiness is just where you are -- in your kitchen, in your office,
at your hospital -- if you are there with God. Today you can behold the Lamb
of God. Today others can be inspired to follow Christ by the testimony which
emerges from your enrichment as you persevere in life's repetitions.
* * *
"And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.
THESE two men were involved in the repetitions of life too. They were
not in the foreground like John, being rather overshadowed by this great
master of theirs, but that was how it all began for them also. No doubt these
two had done many small things in their daily service for John, and now
they stood there again with him, and it was thus that a great opportunity
came their way. Why did it come? Because they were steadily carrying on where
they ought to be. Great opportunities arise in the repetitions of life when
people are found in their God-appointed place in daily faithfulness.
It says that these two men heard John speak. They had heard him speak
hundreds of times in all probability. They may have woken up rather
[66/67] tired that morning and wondered whether it was really necessary
for them to go to be with John again. They may have thought: "Cannot
we take a day off today? Must we listen to him again? We have heard him so
often." Happily they rejected ideas of a change and as it happened, though
they may have heard him speak often before, they had never heard that inspiring
cry: "Behold the Lamb of God." What they would have missed if they had not
been ready to be in their place once again!
Those few words revolutionised their whole lives and it all happened
because they were willing to go on with daily repetition. The verse says
that they heard John speak, but we know that what they really heard was
the voice of God, calling their attention to His Lamb. They were there,
and so they heard. And what is more, they followed. "Following", a keynote
of John's Gospel, involves leaving everything. It is a total break with
one's own ways, a total farewell to one's own conception of life, a total
renunciation of personal ideas and interests. It means giving up the right
to direct one's own ways; and this is what they did.
Following, however, means more than this; it means serving, as Jesus
said: "If any man serve me, let him follow me" (John 12:26). Indeed following
is essential if we are to serve, since service means more than general activity
for Him. Our conception of service can be quite mistaken, as though it were
some special task reserved for Sundays. That would mean that the rest of
the time is not service, and we serve the Lord for certain hours and perhaps
for certain days, and the rest is time off from service. Such a conception
is quite wrong.
These two followers became servants, members of the very inner circle
of those whom the Lord Jesus appointed to be with Him. We must be impressed
at the tremendous result which came from John the Baptist's faithfulness in
daily repetition, with his wonderful testimony and simple message. He did
not urge these two disciples of his to make a decision. He did not even tell
them to follow the Lamb. He simply said, "Behold the Lamb of God". Such a
message, coming from vital experience and vision is enough. When Christ is
truly revealed that revelation constitutes a call; yes, and more than a call,
for something happened inside those two as they saw the Lord. Life and power
touched their spirits and they became new men. I am not sure that they said,
"let us follow the Lamb". I am not sure that they made a decision so much
as just doing it. The Scripture does not tell us that they decided to follow
Jesus or that they started to do so. Human decisions can so easily break
down and human actions peter out. Drawn on by divine power, they followed,
and they kept on following; they never stopped because the initiative had
not come from them but was a gift from above.
We may ask what John felt about this. He had lost his two disciples.
That is true, but it is not the whole truth, for really we keep what we
lose for the Lord. The only way of keeping is by letting go to Him. We are
not told that the two said, "Goodbye" or that John wished them to do so.
When we see the Lord Jesus we do not want to keep our possessions, our disciples
or our ambitions; we find fullness in Him alone. So far as John was concerned,
this happy result of his being there that day "again" filled his heart with
FURTHER STUDIES FROM MARK'S GOSPEL
J. Alec Motyer
2. Mark 8:22 to 9:29
OUR passage begins with what must be one of the most amazing changes
or transformations to be found in the Bible. There was the situation when,
with what might well have been called despair, the Lord asked His disciples,
"Do ye not yet understand?" to be followed by Peter's statement, which must
have delighted His heart, when he affirmed, "You are the Christ!" So far
as we can work out the chronology, it all happened in a brief space of time,
not years or months but probably days. In fact the transformation was greater
than could be measured by time; it was miraculous. It was the result of a
taking away of spiritual blindness and an impartation from on high of a
revelation of true knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. [67/68]
Revelation a Miracle
Looking back on the Gospels we are inclined to marvel at, and even criticise,
the dull slowness of mind of the disciples. We tend to be astonished that
they could not seem able to see who He was in spite of all that He did to
declare His name and His nature. As we know, all the Gospels lay great stress
on the "feeding" miracles of the Lord Jesus, and yet see the sad comment
passed on them after the first of them: "They understood not concerning the
loaves, but their heart was hardened" (6:52). Now, so soon after, when the
four thousand had been fed and the disciples had forgotten to take bread,
He had to ask them: "When I broke the five loaves among the five thousand,
how many baskets did you take up?" and receive their answer "Twelve". He went
on: "When I broke the seven among the four thousand, how many baskets did
you take up?" And they said, "Seven". It was then that the Lord had to demand
of them, "How is it that you do not yet understand" (v.21). How could they
have missed it? Who but God can create bread just like that? Who was it who
gave manna in the wilderness and who is now the true bread from heaven? And
yet they did not understand. Yet a few verses after we find Peter declaring,
"Thou art the Christ" (v.29). The miracle of revelation had happened. It was
an act of God.
Let us consider a few of the many Scriptures about this matter of revelation.
"Who has believed our report? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"
(Isaiah 53:1). It is not just a matter of hearing a message, says Isaiah,
if anyone is going to believe then there will have to be a great unveiling.
The veil must be taken away, for that is what the word "reveal" really means.
There has to be an uncovering not only of the subject to be seen but also
an uncovering of the mind of the observer. It is not the capacity of the
wisdom of men to observe the truth of God; it has to be a revelation from
God, a bringing to light and illumination of the understanding.
We turn over to the New Testament. The matter of revelation is a rich
and clear vein of truth running right through, but it is stated in a negative
way by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Writing of the natural man, that is to
say, man as he is, untouched by any special movement of the Spirit of God,
unaided from heaven he affirms: "The natural man receives not the things
of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, and he cannot know
them." So there is more to it than that he does not know them, there is also
a "cannot". There is a human helplessness involved, related to a deep natural
incapacity which nothing in us can overcome. There is this "cannot" -- "he
cannot know them".
Passing on into 2 Corinthians we read: "Seeing it is God who said, Light
shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the
light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2
Corinthians 4:6). Into all this darkness and blindness and incapacity the
wonder has taken place: God has acted. Just as the darkness which shrouded
those early days of the creative work of God contained in itself no capacity
to produce light, and the Creator came and said: "Let there be light" and
light was, so there is a darkness of man's soul and a need which cannot be
met by any effort of ours or of others, but the same God has shined in our
hearts. This is the miracle of revelation.
The Revelation of Christ
Now we come back to our passage in Mark and see how beautifully Mark
covers this truth. The parallel passage in Matthew reads: "Jesus came into
the parts of Caesarea Philippi and asked his disciples, 'Who do men say
that the Son of man is?'" (Matthew 16:13). If we compare Mark 8:27 with
this, we read: "Jesus went forth with his disciples into the villages of
Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples saying: 'Who do
men say that I am?'." Clearly we are dealing with the same incident. Knowing
that His time had come to go to Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus determined to have
a long period with His followers, so He took them up into the North, away
from the Sea of Galilee, into the region of Caesarea Philippi, and then He
was going to make His way quietly from that far area back again to Jerusalem.
In that remote spot He opened up this topic, first "Who do men say that
I am?" and then "But whom say ye that I am?" In both Gospels it is Peter
who makes the confession, for the opening of the eyes of the mind has come
to him: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Matthew then records
the reply of Jesus, which was: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh
and blood have not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven"
(Matthew 16:17). Now what could be plainer than that? There had been
[68/69] an act of God in revelation. Matthew then records the special
words which the Lord spoke to Peter: "Blessed art thou ..." (Matthew 16:17),
but Mark says nothing at all about this. There is a strong tradition that
Peter's testimony lies behind Mark's Gospel, and that he prompted what Mark
wrote. We can imagine them sitting together and, as they come to Peter's
testimony "Thou art the Christ", Mark might say, "Oh yes, I remember what
Jesus then said to you", only to receive the reply, "Don't you dare put that
down! I don't want anything of that!" Dear old Peter, what a loveable man
he was. Anything that was to his detriment, and showed him up as a sinner
saved by grace, could by all means be put down, but anything that could possibly
redound to his glory must be omitted. "No Mark! Leave that out!"
"Well, how am I going to do it then" asked Mark; "if you won't let me
record this marvellous story of how the heavenly Father illuminated you,
how am I going to make the point?" To which Peter replied, "This is what you
can do. Just leave people to discover it for themselves, and do so by telling
them of the man whom Jesus persevered with until his eyes were opened. Tell
them that, and then all the glory will be to the Lord".
So it is that we read in Mark's Gospel -- and only here -- the story
of the giving of sight to a blind man with whom the Lord persevered until
he could see. On the one side you have Peter in his blindness and on the
other side Peter with his eyes open to Christ, and in between (vv.22-25)
there is a man who was blind ministered to by Jesus so that his eyes began
to open and then ministered to again by Jesus until he saw clearly. The
story is an illustration of the great truth of spiritual revelation as a
miracle of grace. Incidentally, Peter himself, even though he saw, needed
to have his eyes opened more fully and this is what happened to him later.
What a beautiful story this is of the Lord who never gives up. "Was the
first touch not enough for you?" he asked, "Well do have another". The Lord
never gives up: "He giveth more grace" (James 4:6). We have here an account
of the work of Jesus in special illumination. Everything is done by Him.
He spits upon the man's eyes -- revolting perhaps to us, but establishing
an indisputable connection between the Healer and the healed. The healing
came directly, intimately and personally from Him; it was something that no
other could contribute. And He persisted until the man's sight was perfectly
Peter would need many another touch on his eyes, just as you and I need
to be constantly touched and touched again from heaven. This retouching assures
us that the Lord will never give up until our eyes are sharp enough for
us to join that company of His saints who see His face and have His name
on their foreheads. It is so necessary that the retouching work shall go
on again and again.
But with our eyes opened, what is the revelation of Jesus that we see?
To answer this we must turn again to our passage and discover the way in
which the Lord set about filling that new spiritual vision with new information.
For this we have three stories: the conversation at Caesarea Philippi (8:31-38);
the story of the transfiguration (9:1-8) and the story of what happened "as
they came down from the mountain" (9:14-29).
i. The revelation of His sufferings
"He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer ..." The primary
revelation of Jesus the Christ is that Jesus is the suffering Messiah. This,
of course, runs all through the Old Testament, but the Israelites' eyes were
so full of the glory of a royal Messiah that they had forgotten God's revelation
of a suffering Messiah and when reminded, they were resistant to it. This
is a tremendous example to us of the way in which our eyes can be veiled
as we read the Word of God. In our reading of the Scriptures we need constantly
to come to the Lord and ask Him to touch our eyes for, without that continual
touching, we will go on seeing "men as trees walking", being partial and
limited in our understanding, tied to our traditions and not allowing the
Word of God to bring fresh, liberating and enlarging truth to us. The Lord
Jesus had to remind the disciples that the Son of man must suffer
... for this is the first and chief point about His Messiahship. "Thou art
the Christ", what then? Why, the Christ of Calvary.
Mark goes on immediately to tell us of the Lord's transfiguration, and
rightly so. "After six days ..." (9:2), to show how closely this is linked
with what has preceded it, the Lord Jesus took Peter and James and John
apart into a high mountain. They had been shattered inwardly by this thought
of a suffering Messiah and, as we know, Peter had been foremost in resisting
this [69/70] revelation and had been sharply rebuked
for so doing. "Not that Lord" Peter had expostulated, and Jesus replied
to him in the presence of all the disciples, "Get thee behind me, Satan"
(8:33). You notice how Peter let Mark put that bit in. Anything to his detriment
may be put down, for he had no wish to conceal himself as a sinner and of
all the apostles, the one who always got it wrong. "By all means Mark, put
It was then that the Lord Jesus had begun to open out the message of
the cross. "He called unto him the multitude with his disciples" because
He was opening up the cross as a principle for life here and now for all
who belong to Him, namely, "If any man is willing to come after me, let
him deny himself and take up his cross" (v.34). From this He looked forward
into the future, saying that when the Son of man came in the glory of His
Father, He would be ashamed of those who had been ashamed of Him and of His
words (v.38). What words? Why, the words of the cross. This principle of
the cross, first asserted in the experience of Jesus, is now imposed as a
principle on all those who belong to Him and will be the basis of testing
in the last day.
ii. The revelation of His glory
It was after this that the Lord brought His disciples to the Mount of
Transfiguration. If they felt that by presenting a view of the Messiahship
which was different from what they had wished, Jesus was departing from the
glory that they expected, the answer was, No! It was the Jesus who had told
them that He was going to the cross, who is the Jesus of glory, and so the
Father took away the veil to allow them to see the glory that was always
there. Mark makes it so clear in his Gospel that alongside the cross there
is always the glory.
Consider his account of the Lord's baptism: "Straightway, coming up out
of the water, he saw the heavens being rent asunder, and the Spirit as a
dove descending upon him, and a voice out of the heavens saying, "Thou art
my beloved Son" (Mark 1:10). When the Lord Jesus went into the waters of baptism
to stand alongside of sinners, He had a conversation with John, just as every
other candidate for John's baptism had a conversation with the Baptiser. Every
other candidate had gone there openly confessing sin, and doubtless all who
stood on the bank watching the conversation assumed that He too was confessing
sin. But they were wrong. Jesus was not confessing sin, but John was confessing
the sinlessness of Jesus. We know that the sinless One was standing in the
Jordan, taking His place in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of
sins as the sinless One, identifying Himself with sinners. "This is the way
in which we will fulfil all righteousness," He said to John, for it was the
way in which God's righteous purpose went forward when His sinless Son identified
Himself with sinners. At that moment the Father in heaven suddenly wrenched
the veil away and proclaimed, "This is My Son", so that for the first time
in the Scriptures the Holy Trinity stands revealed. Father, Son and Holy
Spirit involved in the fact that the Son was beginning to tread the pathway
that would end at Calvary.
We have read how for the second time in Mark's Gospel the Lord Jesus
had committed Himself very deliberately to the way of the cross by saying.
"The Son of man must suffer ..." and this is followed by the Father's plan
to show His glory to the three disciples. Once more the heavens are rent,
and the Father comes clothed in the majesty of the cloud, that ancient symbol
of His glorious presence, and out of that cloud there is His voice which cried,
"This is My beloved son" (9:7). This voice followed Christ's firm committal
to the cross.
There is a third and last time when Mark records such an occurrence.
At the baptism, Jesus entered on the pathway of identification with sinners;
at His transfiguration He committed Himself to the way of the cross and now
we find the whole process completed: "Jesus uttered a loud voice and breathed
his last" (15:37). Once more there is a great rending: "the veil of the
temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom." The heavens were rent
to allow us to meet God as He is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If at the
transfiguration we could see Him in all His glory, now at the cross we may
enter and share that glory. In going to the cross, Jesus did not turn His
back upon His dignity: He fulfilled that dignity in the glory of Calvary.
iii. The revelation of the conqueror of Satan
We pass from the revelation on the Mount of Transfiguration to the incident
which shows Him to us as the conqueror of Satan. In this narrative of the
demon-possessed child, Mark seems to go out of his way to underline the desperate
[70/71] power of Satan over human lives; it is so
desperate that it seems to have gone beyond recall. Mark stresses human helplessness:
"Oft times it has cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy
him. If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us" (v.22).
The Lord rebuked and cast out the unclean spirit, and then Mark alone tells
us "the spirit cried and rent him sore, and came out of him and he was as
one dead, insomuch that the greater part said, He is dead". The Evangelist
underlines the dreadful power of Satan, the magnitude of that power and
the helplessness of humanity in the face of it. In choosing the cross, Christ
gave the ultimate challenge to Satan. As soon as Jesus announced the principle
of the cross, Satan came and said, "Not that!"
Matthew and Luke tell us that Satan tempted the Lord in the wilderness
by offering Him world dominion on conditions. "You can have it all" he said,
"if only you will worship me." But the one way by which the Lord Jesus will
have world dominion and Satan will have no part in it, is by His going to
the cross and bearing our sin in His own body on the tree. In this way He
took our curse upon Himself, and that finished Satan. So Satan leaps in to
say, "No, not Calvary", but the Lord completely triumphs by choosing the
So He came down from the mountain top where His glory had been seen,
with the glory graciously veiled again, but as He came down He brought all
the powers of His divine nature as the Son of God to face the power of the
enemy at a level and in a magnitude that no man could face, and commanded
the demon: "Come out of him, and enter no more into him", and that was the
end of the matter. This is the revelation given to us of the Lord Jesus.
As He touches and quickens our eyes, He wants us to see Him as the Christ
of Calvary, as the Son and Word of God and as the all-conquering Lord.
The Revelation of Discipleship
Now we must go back again to these three incidents, for alongside the
revelation of the Lord Jesus there is the revelation of discipleship. For
this also we need the miracle of the opening of the eyes.
First of all we come to the conversation which followed the testimony
of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Peter had already blundered and proved himself
to be an emissary of Satan and, having rebuked him, the Lord Jesus "called
the people unto him with his disciples ..." (8:34) to listen to what He had
to say. This is not a regulation for any particular group or super-party
within the Church; this is a revelation for all who would ever belong to the
Lord. "If any man wills to come after me, let him deny himself and take up
his cross and follow me. For whoever will save his life shall lose it; [and]
whoever will lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save
it" (8:35). The key words are "... after me"; discipleship is falling in
behind Jesus. These are followed by further key words, "for my sake ...".
Discipleship is living for Jesus, taking every circumstance, every opportunity,
every asset of life, and using it for Him and the gospel. The third key phrase
is, "me and my words" (v.38). The disciple stands alongside of Jesus as
the world looks on and identifies himself with the Lord and His words.
These then, are three sides to the revelation of discipleship: there
is the falling in behind Him so that we match our steps with His steps and
go the way that He went; and there is living of life for Him, so that we
take all that there is to our lives and hold it for Christ's sake and the
gospel's; and there is identification with Him and His words in this day,
so that we will be recognised by Him in the last day. "Me and My words"!
I suppose that there is nothing without meaning in the Scriptures, so that
the last three words are not idle -- "and My words". We are not to invent
an imaginary Jesus and then identify with what we have invented, but we are
to find Jesus as He is expressed in His own teaching in the Scriptures and
then identify with Him.
i. Discipleship and suffering
The bearing of the cross is not just patience under the adversities of
life which come upon us, though we tend to talk of having a cross to bear
when circumstances of suffering come to us. I am not suggesting that this
is a wrong use of the phrase "cross bearing", but it is not what the Lord
was speaking of here. Jesus was not just speaking of the suffering and adversities
which are part of the disciples' lot and concerning which, as James tells
us, we are to count as joy and which Peter tells us we are not to think strange.
It is not that. The taking up of the cross is an act of embracing every
aspect of life as it comes to us, its sorrows, its joys, its opportunities,
its denials, its riches, its poverty, in glad [71/72]
acceptance of the will of God. However life comes to us, it is to be embraced
in such a way that we are setting our feet in the place where His feet trod,
we are taking our place after Him, we are using everything for Him and for
the gospel, so that before the world we are identified as those who belong
to Jesus. We must not imagine that suffering is a sign that something has
gone wrong with our discipleship. The opposite may well be true. We are privileged
to walk in the path of the Christ of Calvary and so often in that path, suffering
is the hallmark of the reality of our discipleship. Far from being strange,
"it is through much tribulation that we must enter the kingdom".
ii. Discipleship and glory
The Lord Jesus was always certain of His own coming glory. When He told
His disciples about His cross, He added "... after three days rise again"
(8:31), although they didn't seem to notice that He had said it. He then
went on to speak confidently of the glory which lay beyond the resurrection,
talking of "coming in the glory of His Father, with the holy angels" (v.38).
On the Mount, though, we have the lovely truth that it is a glory which He
shares with those who belong to Him. Discipleship therefore has the built-in
factor of coming glory. The Lord wanted that His disciples should not only
see His glory and be sure of it but by their very presence on the Mount, be
assured that in the day of His glory they would be with Him.
Now Mark stresses this point in a way which is so typical of him, for
here in this transfiguration account, he simply records a conversation: "There
appeared unto them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus"
(9:4). They must have known what was being said, for they heard them and
Luke records what they heard. Here then was Mark's pen poised to write. "Now,
shall I tell then what was being said about His exodus at Jerusalem?" "No,"
says Peter, "don't tell them that. I just want them to know that, when Jesus
was revealed in all His glory, His people were there talking with Him. Just
that! It is the fellowship of glory that He reserves for His own." So there
were Moses and Elijah, coming out from the ancient past, and here were Peter
and James and John, from the immediate present; and the old covenant and
the new covenant were bound together in the one body of the redeemed, focused
on a glorious Jesus. Nobody knows exactly why it was Moses and Elijah but
I want to make some suggestions which have been helpful to me.
Why was it Moses? And why was it Elijah? Was it because of their position
in God's plan, just as the three apostles were there because of their position
in God's plan? Moses was the law-giver; Elijah was in many ways the fountain-head
of the order of prophets; so the law was there and prophecy was there. And
Peter and James and John were there because they were the founder members
of the apostolic order. So law, prophets and apostles were all there and
the Word of God came to all alike. So the whole of Scripture is bound together
round the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. I think too, that they were there
because they were individual people. Here is a lovely thought, that it is
people who are with Him in glory, and they are there in their own personal
I wonder if you can accept my third suggestion which is that they were
there as failures. Moses was given such a mighty task from God, but he stumbled
and did not finish it. Elijah wrought a mighty work for God, sweeping a whole
nation back to an allegiance to the Lord God of Israel, but then he succumbed
to a spirit of discouragement; a fearful depression overwhelmed this great
man and he ran for his life. His prayer was, "Oh Lord, I am such a failure.
I'm no better than anybody else has been and I can't bear this thought of
failure any more, so please let me die". And it was as though the Lord smilingly
said, "My dear soul, take away your life? Why should I answer such a foolish
prayer when I have something much more glorious for you? Death is simply
not going to enter into your experience, now or ever!" And then Peter was
there, the Peter who just recently had unintentionally been the mouth-piece
of Satan, yet he was there in the glory. James and John, who were so to misunderstand
the glory of Jesus that they were going to ask for special prominence in
His kingdom, were also there. They are all there as a classical array of
failures, caught up by grace and presented to glory. Isn't that thrilling?
Moses who could not enter the land, has now entered into glory. Elijah, who
wanted to die, is alive for evermore. Peter, who didn't want Christ to go
to the cross, finds himself saved by the blood of that cross. James and John,
who wanted glory for themselves, are content just to be there, even though
they are frightened, because that is where Jesus is. [72/73]
iii. Discipleship and power through prayer
One last thought; We come into the story of Christ's power over Satan,
with a fearful revelation of that power. We have heard the Father's voice
out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son", now notice the very different
voice of another father: "Teacher, I have brought you my son" (9:17). Between
those two, you have the whole power of Satan to blight and destroy. Here
is a glorious Son of God, and here is the pitiful son of mortal man, damaged
beyond repair by the enemy of souls. Satan's power is the power of destruction;
no wonder that in the face of this, the Church is a helpless Church: they
could not cast him out (v.18).
Sadly, then, the disciples came to Jesus and asked Him privately, "Why
could we not cast him out" (v.28)? It was half a question and half a rueful
admission of their own inability. If we are called to discipleship, where
does the power come from? If we are to minister Christ to a desperately
needy world, which the Scripture says is lying in the evil one, then where
is the power to come from? "We could not cast it out." The reply of the
Lord Jesus was clear: "This kind can come out by nothing save by prayer."
Only by prayer! Does this sound too simple? Well, my mind goes back to Naaman
the leper who was told by Elisha to wash in Jordan seven times and went
off in a huff, or was going to, but his servants were wiser and said to him,
"My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would
you not have done it?" We all tend to be like that. If I set before you now
some marvellous complicated thing, some wonderfully exciting, thrilling
thing and said, "That's the way of power"; if I offered you a ceremony or
an experience that seemed tremendous, would you not seek it? The Syrian
servant asked Naaman why he scorned Elisha's way because it was so simple.
We must not be offended by the apparent simplicity of the Lord's words:
"This kind can come out by nothing but prayer", for that is the stamp which
the Lord puts upon the life of discipleship. A person who is powerful through
prayer -- that is His revelation of what makes a disciple.
(To be continued)
THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM
(Some comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews -- 10)
John H. Paterson
THE eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews was written, as I
have already suggested in these studies, to encourage a group of Christians
who feared that, in abandoning their traditional beliefs and following Christ,
they had made a disastrous mistake. They had evidently run into unexpected
difficulties; things had not turned out as they had anticipated, and their
new faith was not providing them with the reassurance and consolation which
they felt entitled to expect of it.
In this chapter, the writer of the epistle wanted to make two points.
One of them, I think, was simply this: that they were not unique! If they
encountered problems in following the Christian way to God, so did others,
and those "others" included the very greatest of God's servants -- men and
women whose names had been household words to them throughout their lives.
The second point was that, in reality, the problems which they had so far
encountered, and of which they were complaining, were comparatively slight.
None of us, of course, likes to be told that we are making a fuss about
nothing! Our problem is always the biggest: we may even develop a
certain pride in that belief. The writer had got to create in his readers
a sense of proportion. But for their pride's sake he did it indirectly. He
did not actually say, "What are you making all the fuss about?" but that was
the clear implication and, when he came to write the twelfth chapter, he
went as far as to remind them that "Ye have not yet resisted unto blood,
striving against sin" (12:4).
What he chose to do, then, was to select particular experiences from
the lives of the patriarchs to illustrate the kind of problem which even
the greatest might encounter on the way to God. Will you please take note
of that word "select"? For [73/74] his selection is,
at first sight, rather curious. Not only did he select as examples some less-than-mainstream
characters, like Enoch or Rahab the harlot, but, having selected someone
obvious like Joseph, he then made an odd choice of detail. What Bible teacher
today, we may ask, given a dozen words in which to commemorate the marvellous
career of Joseph, would use them to say "the great lesson of Joseph's life
was that when he was dying he 'gave commandment concerning his bones'" (11:22)?
Who would pick out of Jacob's tortuous career, as one of only two events worthy
of mention (11:21), the fact that he "worshipped leaning on the top of his
We can only assume that the writer, here as everywhere else in the epistle,
was reacting to the feelings of his readers as he guessed them to be; that
the events he selected as his examples were particularly relevant to their
Problems on the Journey
I am inclined to think that the reasoning went something like this:
What we are discussing is the way to God -- your way, my way, anybody's
way. Now when you set out on a journey, there are several obvious questions
that you probably ask:
Where are we going?
How shall we know when we get there?
How long will the journey take?
What will conditions be like at the other end?
What are the risks or dangers of this mode of travel?
What resources do we need for the journey?
Do we travel alone or in company?
As you can see, these are all sensible enough questions to ask, whether
our journey is to Heaven or to Halifax! But apparently the Hebrew Christians
to whom this epistle was written were uneasy about the answers to them which
were emerging in their own experiences. Frankly, it seems from this epistle
as if the picture of the Christian journey to which they were clinging was
a sort of swift, painless Concorde flight on which lunch was served to them,
and they would be at their destination in time for tea!
Well, there may be some journeys like that, but not on the way to God.
And to make this clear to his readers, the writer recalled to them some
of the incidents in the lives of great men of God which show that, even
for the greatest, the way is long and hard, the risk considerable, the time
of arrival uncertain.
The first of this group of case studies offered by the writer is that
of Abraham. And with him we can certainly employ the analogy of the journey
once again. Let us put together, with the writer's help, some of the facts
about Abraham's journeyings:
-- When he set out on his journey, he had no idea where he was
-- When he did reach a place which God promised to give to him and his
descendants, it was already occupied by somebody else (Genesis 12:6). Abraham
was, in every sense of the word, a stranger in the land (11:13).
-- During his lifetime he never reached the end of his journey, nor did
he even pretend that he had done so (vv.9, 13-16).
And this was Abraham, that great man of God! Yet he seemed well
content with his journey; he accepted its conditions; indeed, he refused
to have them changed (Genesis 14:22-23). He had exchanged the settled life
of the city for the constant wandering of the nomad and, at the end of it
all, he still had not seen journey's end.
But that, of course, was not all. There were also the risks and dangers
of the journey. Some of these were overt -- threats or attacks from surrounding
tribes. But not all the risks were of one kind: there were some which Sarah
The whole goal and purpose of Abraham's journey, as also the whole content
of God's promises to him, were centred upon a son and heir. Without a son
there could be no nation; therefore, no-one to occupy the land of promise.
But who took the risk in this all-important matter? Not Abraham, but Sarah!
I have to admit that I have never found Sarah a sympathetic character,
but here she is in the writer's list, alongside her husband, Abraham. Can
you imagine the risk to Sarah in bearing [74/75]
Isaac at her age? Or the absurdity of the idea? Or the likelihood
that her experience would end in disaster, a disaster in which the most
probable victim would be Sarah herself? Yet this was, apparently, the only
way to the fulfilment of God's promise. No Concorde flight with free meals
The Resources for the Journey
And the writer had a good deal more yet to say about Abraham. He was
now going to turn to that important question about resources for the journey.
How did Abraham keep going? How can we hope to keep on if the way is so long
and the risk so great?
To answer this question, the writer introduced an idea which is familiar
enough to anyone who has read Paul's epistles, but which he himself introduced
here for the first time. It is, as we can now see, the key to the whole "resource
problem". How can any believer keep on, with faith and patience, in the
face of either persecution or the slower, debilitating pressure of delay,
disappointment or emptiness? The key lies in a few simple words, "as good
The story of Abraham includes not one but two points where, but for the
intervention of God, it would have come to an abrupt end. Firstly, there
was the occasion of Isaac's birth. How impossible it seemed to be! And in
fact how impossible it was, until God intervened to bring life out
of death: "Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so
many as the stars of the sky in multitude" (v.12).
Isaac was a miracle -- a man who owed his very existence to God's intervention.
But that was just the point. If Isaac had been born fifty or sixty years
earlier, there would have been nothing miraculous about him. There was
nothing miraculous about the birth of Ishmael, which was precisely the
result of Abraham and Sarah doing their best to avoid the finality of that
verdict, "as good as dead". And so to these wavering, doubting Hebrew Christians,
the writer introduced, for the first time in his letter, the divine principle
of life out of death.
And then, for emphasis, he promptly repeated it! There are, as you know,
not one point but two in the story of Abraham and Isaac where this principle
was seen at work. The first was in Isaac's birth and the second was in the
call of God to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Everybody knows the story, just
as the first readers of this letter would have done. This time it was Isaac
who was as good as dead, when Abraham offered him up to God, "accounting
that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he
received him in a figure" (v.19), or, as Moffatt translates that "he did get
him back, by what was a parable of the resurrection".
Poor Hebrew Christians! Here were they, with their very limited resources
of understanding, faith, patience and courage, wondering why God did not
make good His promises and bring them swiftly to journey's end, and the writer
responds by saying, "Well, He didn't do that for Abraham, did He?" He then
goes on to add, "And the sooner you grasp this fact the better, that
your resources are quite inadequate to see you through. For this is
how God always works -- in this strange, paradoxical back-to-front way --
by bringing life out of people who are as good as dead.
Few men have ever coped better than Abraham with the problem of dealing
with a God who works in this way (though even he had his failures -- several
of them). Once he had left Ur of the Chaldees behind him, Abraham lived the
life of a nomad until his dying day -- this difficult, demanding life of
faith and patience.
I think it was just for the sake of his readers that the writer added
one other point in his survey of the lives of Abraham and his family. Notice
that rather strange statement, "If truly they had been mindful of that country
from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned"
(v.15). Returning was just what the Hebrew Christians had in mind! But Abraham
never went back, even though he might have done so; never settled for anything
short-term or second-best, even though the delay, the waiting, went on for
generations: "dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him
of the same promise (v.9).
And neither must they go back. What their own resources would never achieve
would be made possible, if they went on, by the life that God brings out
"But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly:
wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God:
for he hath prepared for them a city."
(To be continued) [75/76]
"HAIL, ABRAHAM'S GOD AND MINE!"
(Names by which Abraham came to know God)
1. YAHWEH -- THE LORD
AS we study the story of Abraham, the father of the faithful, to learn
something of the names by which he came to know his God, the first of them
and the best known of them is, strictly speaking, the only one which is
a personal name. The rest are really titles or descriptions. The name is
YAHWEH, often referred to as Jehovah and shown in our Bibles by capital
letters as the LORD.
This name is found thousands of times in the Old Testament and it is
then transferred to the New Testament where God is given the same name --
the Lord. Our greatest danger is to have become so familiar with it that
we are prone to use it thoughtlessly and sometimes to intersperse it between
every little sentence in our prayers. Perhaps we can learn something of the
meaning of this great name and what it means to call God by it, if we look
more closely into the story of Abraham. So we begin by noting that it was
the LORD who said to Abraham, "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy
kinsmen ... unto the land that I will show thee" (Genesis 12:1).
THE MYSTERY OF THE NAME
Although it was the first name by which Abraham came to know God, the
name is nevertheless a name of mystery. To come to grips with the complexities
of Scripture in this respect, we have to turn on to Exodus 6 and see what
is told us there: "I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as
God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH I was not known to them" (Exodus 6:3).
Nevertheless, whether he knew it or not, it was the LORD who spoke to Abraham
in Genesis 12:1, so that if it was a fact that Abraham did not know that
name we can learn this about its mystery that it was He, Jehovah, who was
at work. He certainly was so known after the time of Abraham. Moses called
God by this great name and the New Testament takes it over and calls Him
Lord. The Church continues the practice and we all know Him as Lord. So we
have all these later generations who have known and used the name, and all
of us can look back to the story of Abraham and record that even if the name
of mystery was not known to Abraham, it is clear that it was the LORD who
spoke to him. Whatever other name Abraham may have known Him by, it was our
LORD, the one whom God's people down through the ages have known by that
It was the LORD who in those ancient times called Abram out of Ur of
the Chaldees. The one who spoke to him was our God. So that all of us, down
the Christian centuries, have Abraham as part of our inheritance because
we can look back and say that the God who spoke to Abraham is my God. It
was my God who called him and it was my God, the LORD, who thought that it
was worthwhile having the story recorded for my sake. It is as if the Lord
said, "I will tell the story of Abraham and how I called him, even if he
didn't know Me by that name, and I will do it for the sake of all those who
in years to come will call Me by that name". It is therefore right for us
to consider Abraham and his faith and the gradual increase of his knowledge
In point of fact, if we trace this matter back in Genesis, we will find
that in Chapter 4 the name of the LORD was known. This was long before the
time of Abraham, and was still in the lifetime of Adam's son (Genesis 4:6).
True, they couldn't then have known the depth of meaning of the name, but
it will appear that they knew that name and used it. It was on that name
that they called (Genesis 4:26) and it was the same LORD who spoke to Noah
concerning the world that was to perish in judgment in the Flood (Genesis
6:3). It was also the LORD who came down after the Flood and saw what was
going on then (11:5-6). In all these passages it was YAHWEH who was there,
even if they didn't know the fullness of His name. So this can be our second
lesson, that it was not only writers after the time of Abraham who could look
back and affirm the reality of that name; it was also the people before Abraham
who knew it. When therefore we get to Genesis 12, we find that the God who
spoke to Abraham was already the God of his fathers. The same God who had
appeared in those early days of Genesis, now came to Abraham when centuries
had gone by. [76/77]
So we can look at the matter in two ways. We can say how amazing it is
that the God of the now, the God whom we know, is the same YAHWEH
who speaks to us out of those ancient stories. That is why they are so relevant.
On the other hand, from Abraham's point of view, it was the God of the
then , the God of the past, the God of his fathers, who was now speaking
to him in the present. So on one side, the God of now has something
to say to us that is right up-to-date, and on the other hand, the God of
the then had something to say to Abraham. So the God of ancient history
has something to say to us today.
Then there is the third thing about this mysterious name. Although it
may be true that Abraham did not understand the name in its fulness, it seems
that he must have known it, for he addressed God by it. It is not simply
that the later writer of the narrative was able to call God by the name of
YAHWEH, even though Abraham had not heard it, but we find Abraham himself
using this name. "I have lift up mine hand unto YAHWEH, God Most High ..."
(14:22). So he not only knew God as Most High, but also as the LORD. As we
read the narrative, we find by Abraham's own words that the name was known
to him. Yet although it was known before his time, although it was known
after his time, and although it was known in his time, yet still it is a
name of mystery, because it is only when we come on to Exodus 6 that we find
it fully revealed. As we shall see, it was only for Moses that the truth
was made known in its fulness in a way that Abraham could not have known
Even if Abraham did not know what God really meant by calling Himself
by this name, he was not prevented from using it. This reminds me of the
passages in the New Testament which speak in similar terms of our Christian
experience. "We know in part ... now we see in a mirror darkly ... now I
know in part ..." (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). We only see partially, but we
gaze and we adore; we follow on to know the Lord. This was what Paul wrote
in Philippians 3:13 where he admits his limited knowledge but affirms that
he was pressing on to learn as much as he could. From Abraham, then, we learn
that there are riches in the name and character of God which none of us
fully understand, but we will go on reaching out after Him until we get
to glory. There is more excuse for Abraham than there is for us. He could
not possibly have known all that was in the name in his day. There are reasons
why we know more than he did, so we have much less excuse for not following
on to know the name, to use it, and to grow in our understanding of it. It
is our duty to try to receive an unfolding of its mystery, always learning
more of that name on which we call.
THE RICHNESS OF THE NAME
As we go on we shall find what a name of richness YAHWEH is. Abraham
only glimpsed it, but he did so right away for it was at the beginning that
the LORD told him that he was to be made into a great nation (12:2). What
that was going to mean hundreds of years later when God spoke to Moses,
telling him that the time had come for the fulfilling of that promise, is
found in Exodus 6. The one who said, "By my name Jehovah I was not known
..." now goes on to assure Moses that He had established His covenant with
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and was about to reveal that name in all its riches.
In those earlier days it was simply a promise but now it is about to be unfolded
in its rich meaning.
1. The richness of His perfect knowledge
We see what God says to Moses, speaking on the basis of His name YAHWEH:
"I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians
keep in bondage" (Exodus 6:5). This is the same sort of thing which He had
said to Moses in Exodus 3: "I have surely seen the affliction of my people,
and I have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their
sorrows" (3:7). Three times over the LORD makes known the riches of His perfect
knowledge. He knew their situation, He knew what they had been going through
and He knew all about what was being done to them. There is not a cry nor
a groan nor a tear that went up from the land of Egypt but that He knew it
The LORD affirmed His knowledge in particular in their time of need.
When they did not feel that they needed Him quite so much, the question
was not so sharp, but now they needed Him and it was then that they began
to see what His perfect knowledge means. From the words, "I have remembered
my covenant", the LORD went on to say: "Wherefore say unto the children
of Israel, I am Jehovah" (6:5-6), which turns us back to the first encounter
at the burning bush when, in reply to Moses' question as to His name, God
said "I AM THAT I AM" (3:14). [77/78]
2. The richness of His utter faithfulness
This reflects the utter faithfulness of God. "Thus shalt thou say unto
the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you" (3:14). Who I AM that
I AM! You all know what I am. You have been brought up on it, and you are
full of the knowledge of what I am. Now I want you to know that the riches
of My faithfulness is that that is what I actually am. I AM just that. I
3. The richness of His dynamic power
Because I AM (Jehovah) "I will bring you out from under the burdens of
the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem
you with a stretched out arm ... and I will take you to me for a people
... and I will bring you in unto the land ... and I will give it to you
for an heritage; I am Jehovah" (6:6-8). What God was saying in those verses
was "I will act! You will see that I AM by the fact that I execute My covenant
in practical ways".
I think that it is most significant that when God tells us what He is,
He doesn't use vague abstractions. He doesn't talk about Himself in nouns
which are like high currency notes, but talks in the hard cash of verbs.
When He says, "What I AM, I AM" He means that He is the One who is going
to redeem by bringing out and bringing in. It is true to say that He is Love.
He is Justice and He is Omnipotence and much more. All those things are true,
but when God reveals what He is, the terms in which He describes Himself
are full of verbs. "You want to know what I am? Well, I am the sort of Person
who does things." He is not just a static Being but One who is rich in dynamic
power. Our God is not an academic God but one who does things.
4. The richness of His redemptive grace
All those things which God promised to do can be summed up in the one
word, "to redeem" which means to rescue and to save. That is the richness
of the name which could only be glimpsed by Abraham, for it was closely tied
up with the events of the exodus. It was impossible for anyone before the
time of Moses to have understood the name in its fulness, for it had to do
Nevertheless I believe that Abraham did have some glimpses. I think,
for example, of God's words, "I will make of thee a great nation" (Genesis
12:2), which gave just a hint of the kind of thing that God was going to
do. Then later: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a
land that is not theirs, and shall serve them ... and that nation whom they
shall serve, will I judge; and afterwards they shall come out with great
substance" (15:13-14). So Abraham had an inkling of redemption.
But maybe the clearest glimpse of all is described in the extraordinary
story of his near-sacrifice of Isaac. When Abraham had offered his son on
the altar and in the very act of lifting the knife, had been prevented from
killing the boy, found a ram in a thicket. Genesis 22:14 tells us that he
called the name of the place Jehovah-jireh -- "In the mount of the Lord it
shall be provided". And so it was! But the margin informs us that equally
it could be rendered "he shall be seen". It was provided for the immediate
need but on a deeper level, it was seen. I wonder whether in that
extraordinary hour, Abraham's eyes were opened to a glimpse of what God was
going to do in the salvation of His people in the time of Moses and later
in the time of Christ. He saw something of the redemptive grace of the Lord,
the covenant God, in terms of salvation.
It was a name of mystery to Abraham, but there was a richness in it which
maybe Abraham did know a little about. He could not know the full richness
of it, because it was waiting to be seen in the time of greatest need of
the people of God, so that it was all those years afterwards, in the time
of Moses, that it could be seen more fully. YAHWEH was going to do His greatest
miracle at the time of the exodus and concerning that He was able to say,
"Ye shall know that I am Jehovah your God" (Exodus 6:7) to His own people
and also to say "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD" (7:5).
Both the people of God and the world would come to know the richness of His
name at the time of the exodus.
It may seem strange that in order to know the reality of what Abraham
knew of the name of God we have to move on into the next book of the Bible,
but Exodus is in one respect the key to the whole of Scripture. It is the
centre of the Bible. There is no other theme in the whole of revelation than
the theme of the exodus. That is why we are told that on the mount of Transfiguration,
Jesus spoke to Moses and Elijah of His exodus which He was about to accomplish
at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). What happened in the [78/79]
time of Moses was simply a foreshadowing of the great salvation to be
brought about on Calvary. That is why in Revelation 15:3 the redeemed sing
in heaven "the song of Moses ... and the song of the Lamb". There is only
one song, the song of redemption, which in heaven celebrates the deliverance
of God's people out of slavery and into freedom, out of death and into life.
When Abraham on Mount Moriah was saved from killing his son, he exclaimed,
"In the mountain of YAHWEH it shall be seen". What was seen? The pattern
of the exodus and beyond Exodus, the vision of the cross. "Your father Abraham
rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it and was glad", Jesus said (John 8:56).
I think that this is where it happened and in itself it gave a foretaste
of the meaning of the great name Yahweh.
THE PROMISE OF THE NAME
In Exodus 6 it was about to come then and there and it was opened up
in concrete detail. Although this was long after Genesis 12, it was taking
up the same promise given then to Abraham in connection with the name. It
was the LORD who promised Abraham, "I will" and now to Moses He confirmed
the promise, for the original can actually mean "I WILL BE that I WILL BE".
So the last thing to notice about this great name is that it is the name
of promise. God will always be what He is.
It is over this point that Hebrews 11 interjects something about Abraham
and the people of God. Talking about those generations, it says: "These all
died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and
greeted them from afar ..." This was because the promises could not come
true in their time. There was a sense in which Moses and his generation actually
did receive the promise, for they received it at one level in the fulfilment
of the exodus. Abraham could only have had a glimpse of it so that, so far
as he was concerned, the name was the name of the future. It spoke of what
God was going to do, but he did not know when it would be. It was years
hence, centuries hence, that God was able to say that the time had come
for the fulfilment of His promise.
And what a promise it was! You know that the margin of Exodus 3:14 gives
the alternative: "What I will be, I will be". Whether we take it in the present
or in the future, it is the name of promise. "When I say to you, Abraham,
I will make of you a great nation then I WILL. When I say that I will bless
you, then I WILL bless you. It is not just something that I say. And when
I say to you, Moses, I will rescue you, then I WILL. When I say that I will
redeem you, I WILL. When I say all those things, I mean them." This is the
name of promises which shall be fulfilled.
And when the LORD says, "I will hear those who call upon Me", He will
. And when He says, "I will receive those who come to Me", He will
receive us. And when He promises to hear our prayers, He will
hear them. And when He says, "I give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Me",
He will do just that. Moreover when He says, "I will come again and
receive you unto myself", HE WILL! That is what the name of promise is all
What I AM, I AM, because I am the LORD. "This is my name for ever, and
this is my memorial unto all generations."
(To be continued)
WHY ARE WE WHERE WE ARE?
IT sometimes happens that our feet are led into strange paths, so much
so that we tend to question the Lord's wisdom in His government of our lives
or what He permits to happen to us. It is then that we need to remember His
prayerful words about us: "As thou didst send me into the world, even so
have I sent them into the world" (John 17:18).
Many years ago, when I was visiting a city on the Amazon, I went to see
a Brazilian Christian who was in deep trial. The man belonged to an up-country
village to which the gospel had been taken, with the happy result that he
and his family had received the Good News and turned to Christ. For a time
he gave a faithful testimony, and then a great calamity fell on him. He
[79/80] contracted leprosy. At that time there was no cure, so this
meant that he had to become an outcast. He left his happy home and was exiled
to the leper colony, which was just a group of sufferers, collected in rough
shacks on an island in the river.
Here was he then, facing a lingering death in loneliness and poverty.
How strange are God's ways! This brother had truly consecrated his life to
Christ and yet now he found himself among a group of human derelicts. As
a young missionary, preparing to go into the jungle. I was greatly moved
by his story and decided to pay him a visit. My purpose was to take him some
material and spiritual comfort, though I confess that I wondered what might
have happened to his sorely-tried faith.
I need not have wondered. Imagine my surprise and joy when I arrived
there and found him the central figure among a little band of Christian
lepers, everyone of them led to Christ by his radiant testimony. He told
me that at first he had entered on his life on that island with a heavy heart,
but soon he had come to realise that he was in that dreary place by the will
of God. As Christ had been sent into the world, so he had been sent to his
needy fellow lepers, to carry God's message of hope to them. If his newly
converted friends had known the Scripture, they might have exclaimed, "How
beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things" (Romans
10:15). Even a leper's feet can be beautiful!
For me it was a humbling and an inspiring experience to hear this dear
man's prayer as he poured out his heart in praise to God for the privilege
of serving Him in that place.
Not so many years afterwards he went to be with Christ. No doubt his
life's work was done and it was fitting that he should go from that squalid
island to the Father's Home. The same Lord Jesus who had stated in His prayer
that He was sending His disciples into the world had also requested that
they might eventually go to that Home, to be with Him in the glory.
He left His disciples in the world, and He has left us there. He sent
them into the world, and He has sent us. No need, then, for unbelief to question
why we are where we are, but rather for faith to rejoice in the privilege
of being in the place of His sending, and of staying here so long as the
Father has a purpose for postponing the call for us to "come up higher".
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (10)
"(now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel,
but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel
had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal
for the children of Israel and Judah;)" 2 Samuel 21:2
THE vengeance taken on Saul's descendants which is described in this
chapter makes very unpleasant reading, only marginally redeemed by the devoted
behaviour of Rizpah. Nevertheless it is inspired Scripture and therefore
has a message for us. This parenthesis reminds of the early days of possession
of the land when Joshua did what from time to time most of us do, he judged
by appearances and acted without prayer.
AS our passage tells us, the Gibeonites were really outsiders, but they
had been given a place in the land by the solemn promise of Joshua and the
princes of the congregation (Joshua 9:19). After all those years, Saul broke
that promise and even though his intentions may have been sincere, his action
was not only repugnant to the Gibeonites but wrong in the sight of God.
FOR us the lesson may be summed up by the words, "He that sweareth to
his own hurt and changeth not" (Psalm 15:4). God's standard is that we should
not renege on our promises, even when they become inconvenient to us. It
possibly seemed a minor matter to Saul, but it was serious in God's sight.
It is no less so today.
HOW many Christians make promises on their wedding day, only to break
them when the promises may seem to turn out "to their own hurt"! How many
Christians make vows at their baptism and then ignore them because the keeping
of them proves inconvenient! How many Christians join a local church and
publicly promise to be active and loyal in their membership, and later cause
division or go off in a huff when things do not work out as they think right!
Alas, the latter group is a very large one.
NOTHING happened when Saul broke his involvement in this solemn promise.
It was only years afterwards that the long drawn-out famine forced David
to enquire of the Lord as to what was wrong. That also, I suggest, is part
of the lesson to be learned here. We can blissfully ignore our broken undertakings
and not be conscious of any special controversy with the Lord, but in due
course it will catch up on us. And others beside Saul suffered.
IS there a continual famine in our case? Do we blame God or others for
our spiritual dryness? May the truth not be that we have forgotten the psalmist's
reminder that one of the conditions for God's favour is that we should keep
our pledged word, even though there may be good enough reasons for breaking
GOD'S wise man wrote: "When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to
pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools; pay that thou vowest. Better it
is that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay"
GIVING DILIGENCE TO KEEP THE UNITY
OF THE SPIRIT IN THE BOND OF PEACE.
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