|Vol. 16, No. 2, Mar. - Apr. 1987
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
THE GOLDEN LAMPSTAND OF THE CROSS
IF we imagine a screen presentation of a large cross fading away, to
be replaced by a seven-branched lampstand [See cover of
A Witness and A Testimony
], we will have a pictorial representation of the seven utterances
of the Lord Jesus as He was being crucified. There is quite a symmetrical
pattern in this image, for the extreme lamps provide prayers to the Father,
while the central utterance is the cry, 'My God, My God ...'. This central
stem, the cry of forsakenness, came at the end of the three hours of darkness.
Between the first prayer and the central cry we have two personal messages
to individuals, while between the middle lamp and the seventh, we have
two statements to the world in general.
This arrangement, with its Biblical use of the number seven, is not
a contrived one made consciously by the Gospel writers, but it emerges
surely as a divine pattern. It is the more remarkable since the utterances,
or 'words of the cross' as they are called, are scattered throughout the
four Gospels. Divine sovereignty ensured that they were seven in number,
not spaced out by time yet forming a clear pattern. At this time of the
year our thoughts tend to concentrate on the crucifixion and on the truths
which are illuminated by these seven lamps of the Spirit.
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). It is
no chance arrangement which gives this awesome cry the central place. Within
those anguished words lies the very heart of the great truth of the Atonement,
the fact that He who knew no sin was made sin for us. Human explanations
fall pitifully short of the mystery of this sacred truth. Well may we say
in the words of my now glorified old friend, Miss K. Kelly,
O make me understand it,
Help me to take it in ...
but at best our grasp can only be partial. What we can better understand
is that the implications of the other six sayings stem from this central
branch. Forgiveness of sins, Family life, Future hope, as numbers 1, 2 and
3, all stem from this fourth lamp, while Fulfilment of Scripture, Finishing
of redemption and the Father's faithfulness (numbers 5, 6 and 7) do the
same. We will take them one by one:
1. Forgiveness of Sins
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing
" (Luke 23:34).
Even in that fierce trial Jesus still used the term, Father. What is
more, His words show that He displayed perfect consistency of life and teaching
by means of them. He who had taught men that they should forgive their
enemies, did not deviate from His own high standard even under the greatest
The chief effect of this utterance, however, is to emphasise that the
primary purpose of Christ's sufferings was to bring forgiveness to guilty
men. John came baptising with forgiveness in view (Luke 3:3), Christ committed
the apostles to proclaim forgiveness (Luke 24:47) and Acts 2:38, 10:43 and
13:38 (with other references) show that forgiveness was the keynote of their
The sinner's first need is not to feel better nor even to have his life
straightened out, but to be made right with God. The first speaking of
the blood of the cross is not to those who need it but to God who requires
and recognises it. Forgiveness is man's greatest need. I think of that
man who was let down through the roof and became a living proof of Christ's
power to forgive sins. Inevitably at some later date, he was again carried
by others, this time by pallbearers to an open grave. At the end, had they
asked if he wished to have as an epitaph, 'This is the man who was made to
walk', he would surely have replied, 'Oh no! Write, This is the man who had
his sins forgiven'. In life and in death, that is what matters most. Thank
God that the first lamp which shines from the cross clearly announces full
2. Family Life
"When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved
standing by, he said to his mother, Here is your son, and to the disciple,
Here is your mother. From that time on, this disciple took her into his
home " (John 19:26-27).
The cross marked the end of an earthly family relationship. Old Simeon,
led by the Spirit, foretold the virgin mother that one day a sword would
pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35). That sword cut her off permanently from
a whole area of human relationships but it also brought her into the newly-formed
spiritual family of the Church, for the sword of the Spirit both wounds
and heals. As Simeon had said, the Lord Jesus was destined to cause the
falling and rising again of many in Israel, including Mary.
Until then she had known some of the sorrows of her relationship with
Jesus. She was hurt at not being consulted about His stay in Jerusalem
(Luke 2:48); she was rebuked, though gently, for her attempt to put pressure
on Him at Cana's wedding feast (John 2:4); and she, with her family, had
been abruptly denied privilege of access when He was occupied with His
disciples (Luke 8:21). But she was His mother! She had followed Him faithfully
right up to the cross.
Now, however, a total break had to be made. In actual fact it was beneficial
in every way. The cross always works like that. It cuts across natural
ideas and desires only to introduce something altogether better. With this
end to the benefits of natural motherhood she was to know the full reality
of her first delight in God as her Saviour. At Pentecost she was to exchange
the temporary experience of being with Him for the permanent joy of His
indwelling presence. At last she was to have an earthly home in John's
house. And she and John were from that moment to form the nucleus of a
new family relationship, seemingly with Peter as well as John (John 20:2)
and then with all the other believers.
No-one now enquired about the earthly home at Nazareth. That family
had happily been integrated into the spiritual family of the Church. James
found a different kind of brotherhood by the Lord's resurrection appearance
to him (1 Corinthians 15:7) and the whole reunited family shared in the
blessings of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). It is Paul who gives us the information
that the elder brother of the saints in Jerusalem was also 'The Lord's
brother' (Galatians 1:19). What mattered then, and what matters now, are
not merely human family relationships but the spiritual ties of the one
body in Christ.
In all the medley and muddle of churches, assemblies, fellowships and
the like in our modern life, what still matters most is family love and
family loyalty. The second lamp still shines brightly from the cross, assuring
us that in Christ we belong to the new family of the one God and Father
of us all.
3. Future Hope
"I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise"
The Story of the penitent thief is so familiar, both in its facts and
in its implications, that it is difficult to say anything new about it.
Following, however, the suggestion of the branching lamp holders coming
from the central stem it can rightly be claimed that the fruit of Christ's
forsakenness on the cross was an immediate welcome in glory for one of the
men most calculated to be described as 'God-forsaken'. Who reported this
conversation to Luke? Who, in that motley crowd, cared one jot for this
minor character of the great drama? Who could have thought it possible that
this wreck of humanity would almost at once be at home with God? Yet the
man has become universally preached about and sung about as a splendid example
of how the cross offers hope to the hopeless.
At some point in the proceedings at Calvary the giant hand of God had
reached down and ripped open the curtain of the temple from top to bottom.
This we interpret as a symbol that the hitherto closely guarded Holiest
of All was now opened for redeemed sinners boldly to draw near to God. A
fairy-story version of history would doubtless depict the holy martyr Stephen
as being the pioneer of such an entry, but the plain yet glorious truth
is that the very first beneficiary of the blood shed on Calvary was this
nameless criminal. 'Amen' said Jesus to him. 'There is certain glorious
hope for you this very day'. [22/23]
Can it be true? Well, the Lord had long conversations with His disciples
after His resurrection and is it possible that not one of them asked Him
about this man? In any case, is it possible that the risen Lord would not
have reported it if there had been any doubt or mistake about that final
promise of His? It must be true. The forgiven sinner was the very first to
be welcomed Home by the victorious Saviour. Morally it sounds unacceptable.
Theologically it almost sounds heretical. Actually, however, it is gloriously
true. That day the man was with the Lord in Paradise. The third lamp of Calvary
shines down on us in hope. There is eternal security and bliss for the most
unworthy and unlikely penitent.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46).
This was not a prayer. The Lord had prayed the matter through with the
beloved Father in Gethsemane (26:39-44) and had committed Himself with blood-like
drops of sweat to the sacrifice of the cross. It was not a prayer but a
cry of distress, but it was made to God -- His God -- and so may perhaps
be classed as prayer since nobody else was involved. Nevertheless we are
privileged to read about it, and the utterance brings us on to such holy
ground that we shrink from comment. Every word is full of mystery. How could
God do a thing like this? How can My God do such a thing to Me
? The question is altogether too great.
We note how Jesus saturated His mind with the Scriptures. In His dark
night of Calvary He instinctively used the psalmist's words to voice His
dismay. Yet perhaps not instinctively, for it was deliberate. As He had
read and re-read Psalm 22. He knew beforehand what was coming to Him.
In our case the future is mercifully hidden from us, and in this matter
the sense of forsakenness can never be real if we are true believers. We
do not know under what stress of circumstances the psalmist first coined
this agonised question, but we do know how often he discovered that after
all he had not been left to battle through alone. "I have been young and
now am old" sang the psalmist, "yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken"
(Psalm 37:25). And however old you get, you never will see that happen.
But you would have seen it at the cross. So far as any of us is concerned,
the truth is that we may at times feel forsaken but the feeling is not true.
With our Lord, though, it was a dreadful reality.
So much has been written about the theological answer to this question,
this agonised question, that it may be best for us to be silent in wonder
and worship. We dimly sense that the whole Godhead, Father and Spirit as
well as Son, were passing through costly anguish that -- in a sense -- was
mysterious even to them. In another sense we can all answer the question.
We say that He was forsaken in order that this might never happen to us.
The writer to the Hebrews repeats the 'never' several times over: "He himself
has said, I will never leave thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee"
(Hebrews 13:5). The fourth lamp shines more brightly than all.
5. Fulfilment of the Scriptures
"I thirst" (John 19:28).
Since Jesus suffered so very much physical cruelty, it may seem strange
that these pains of thirst should be given such prominence. John gives
us some explanation of why this is in his comment, "knowing that all things
were now completed and so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled". This
suggests that there was a sense in which the Lord now felt free to think
of Himself since the work of redemption was all but accomplished. How gracious
of our dear Saviour to put His own personal concerns last! And how typical
of Him, too, as the great Lover of Scripture, to be careful, even in His
last extremity, to ensure that the Word of God was fulfilled down to its
One gets the impression that of the many prophetic forecasts of Christ's
sufferings -- the beatings, the piercing, the exposure and the cry of forsakenness
-- one last item yet remained and must on no account be overlooked. God's
Word stated, "In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (Psalm 69:21),
and this also was literally to be fulfilled.
Most of the other predictions of indignity and pain were fulfilled by
Christ's persecutors, but this was one of the few which were the result
of His own actions. He had been offered the usual doped wine at His arrival
on the scene, and had refused it. Now He had to be given vinegar to
[23/24] drink, and He Himself precipitated the fulfilment of God's
Word by voicing this physical craving for drink. To Him every word of God
was important, and He stressed that importance by His moving confession
of human agony.
When Hagar was dying of thirst, God showed her a life-saving well which
He had prepared for her and Ishmael. When Israel was in the same dire predicament,
God gave His thirsty people water from the rock. Even that waterless army
group of which King Jehoshaphat formed a part had to dig trenches in the
valley and they received ample supplies from God (2 Kings 3:20). But for
Him, the beloved Son of God, there was nothing but the sour vinegar which
might well aggravate His raging thirst. This was no private request; it was
a public proclamation to the world that Christ the Saviour was in the throes
of those very hellish torments which He Himself had described in His parable
of Lazarus and Dives.
This stress on a primary need, that of water, gives us one more proof
of the true humanity of our Lord. At the same time it reminds us of His
repeated assurances that He gives living water to those who come thirsting
to Him. He thirsted that we might never thirst again! Now it may be a coincidence
that it was in connection with the matter of soul thirst that Jesus once
declared that there were Scriptures which backed His offer of living water
(John 7:38), and now His own thirst was directly associated with the fulfilment
of Scripture. His promise on the last great day of the feast that out of
the believer whose thirst had been quenched would flow rivers of living water
was certainly confirmed in His own case. From that cross the rivers are
flowing more abundantly in our day than has ever been the case before; in
all the world sinners are gratefully drinking the water of life, and all
because our Saviour once uttered the words, "I thirst".
6. Finishing in Completion
"It is finished" (John 19:30).
John alone records the actual word pronounced from the cross by our
Lord, but the other three Gospels tell us that it was done in a loud voice.
This, indeed, was a proclamation to the whole world that nothing now remained
to be done that sinful men might enjoy eternal salvation.
Moses certainly completed his divine assignment, but he had to hand
on the unfinished task to his successor Joshua. Paul could claim to have
finished his course, but he did so by handing on the work of the gospel
to Timothy and instructing Timothy in due course to hand it on to other
successors. Jesus was unique. He neither needs nor has successors. Every
just requirement was met, every possible accusation was silenced, every
enemy totally defeated, when the one triumphant word 'Finished' was shouted
from the cross.
At the beginning of that blackest day in human history, the Lord and
His disciples sang in prospect the Hallel psalm, a psalm of victory (Matthew
26:30). Before the twenty-four hours were over, alone and with His dying
breath, Jesus was able to announce to the world that it had all happened.
The swarm of encompassing enemies had been cut off (Psalm 118:12); the rejected
stone had been made head of the corner (v.22); the sacrificial offering had
been bound with the cords of holy devotion even unto the horns of the altar
(v.27). This Day -- above all other days in history -- was the day which
the Lord had made (v.24). It is indeed marvellous in our eyes.
With all the work fully accomplished, the One who in His lifetime had
not where to lay His head, laid it on the Father's bosom in satisfied surrender.
(The verb translated 'bowed his head' here is the same used in Matthew
8:20 and Luke 9:58 and translated 'lay his head'.)
7. Faith in the Father's Faithfulness
"Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
With this the seven-fold illumination is complete. The first lamp was
a prayer to the Father. The faith of the Son of God had withstood its ultimate
test. Once again we have here evidence of the Lord's familiarity with the
Scriptures, for He used Psalm 31:5 to make His final committal, only adding
His own contribution of faith by means of the word 'Father'.
Now a verse in Psalm 31 which is much more familiar to us is verse 15:
"My times are in thy hand". I have no doubt that this was also very much
in the mind of Jesus as He gave up His [24/25] spirit.
The man who wrote that psalm described in it the fierce enmity which surrounded
him. Apparently it was David and he tells how in a besieged city he was
able to rejoice in God's marvellous kindness and to affirm his faith in
spite of everything: "But I said ... my times are in thy hand". He was no
fatalist. He placed no cheap reliance on a doctrine of divine sovereignty.
He had committed his spirit into God's hand (v.5) and therefore could rightly
claim that all his affairs were in the control of His God who at all times
would preserve him. Committal of the spirit must come before confidence
about the body.
In the case of the Lord Jesus, the care of His sacred body after death
was a matter of paramount importance. Divine sovereignty had restrained the
Roman soldiers from mutilating that body, but who would preserve it in reverent
burial? Seemingly His body could only be dealt with privately by special
license from Pilate (Mark 15:43). The grief-stricken friends and family of
Jesus had no place at hand, even if they had been able to manage the affair.
In this physical yet all-important matter, how could the Lord Jesus expect
that His time would be in the Father's hands?
Well, as often is the case, God's hands were human ones. Joseph of Arimathea's
actions have the unusual distinction of being mentioned by all four Gospels
-- itself a significant fact -- and he was the man whom God chose to use
to implement the divine promise. It seems that at an earlier date this pious
Jew had staked his claim to be buried near to Jerusalem by constructing
or purchasing a rock-tomb as near to the city as possible. In the providence
of God it was also near to the place called Calvary. He was rich enough
to do this, and to ensure that nobody else used it. It was available. It
was near at hand. He had standing enough to obtain direct access to Pilate.
And last but not least, he had his friend Nicodemus to assist him in making
this safe preservation for the temporary care of that most sacred body.
So it was that in this sovereign way, the Father responded in faithfulness
to the Son's committal of faith not only by receiving His spirit but also
by providing for the safety of His body until the resurrection morning
dawned. That last lamp of divine sovereignty shines brightly from the cross
to give comfort and assurance to all of us who have committed our spirits
to our heavenly Father through Christ the Saviour. To every adverse circumstance
and in every situation of need we, like the psalmist, may respond: "But
I said ... my times are in Thy hand."
Christ is indeed the lampstand all of gold. Illuminated by His cross
we echo Paul's words: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him
up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us an things?"
THE GOSPEL OF JESUS THE TEACHER (1)
J. Alec Motyer
UNDER the inspiration of the Holy Spirit each Gospel writer had his
own special view of the Lord Jesus. Matthew was clearly working to a plan,
and if we can discern his plan we will arrive at the essence of the particular
portrait which he is painting. He begins with those lovely stories of the
birth of the Lord Jesus in the first two chapters. From Chapter 3 onwards,
he moves into references to the ministry of the Lord. This all leads up
to the moment when the Lord Jesus steps on to the public scene.
There is a minor appearance on that scene when He walks by the sea and
says to Simon and Andrew, "Follow me" (4:18), an important moment for it
is the beginning of His gathering a discipleship band around Him. His first
major step on to the public scene is found however where it says, "Seeing
the multitudes he went up into the mountain, and when he was sat down, his
disciples came to him and he opened his mouth and taught them ..." (5:1-2).
Up to that point Matthew summarises, telling us at the end
[25/26] of Chapter 4 what the other Gospels give in greater detail.
Five Teaching Sessions
This is a beautifully balanced Gospel. In it we have five great teaching
sessions, each one of which ends with a note of completeness (7:28; 11:1;
13:53; 19:1 & 26:1). The various translations say 'ended' or 'finished'
but the Greek word is the same in each case and implies completeness. The
first one is what we call The Sermon on the Mount. The statement is spaced
out and deliberate: He sat, He opened His mouth, He taught them. This is
the picture of the Lord which Matthew wishes us to have. The session ends
with the phrase "When Jesus had finished these words" (7:28). He had brought
this time of teaching to its completion and then we are told that they were
astonished at His teaching and what He taught them. That is the emphasis
given on His ministry of teaching. If somebody present that day had been
asked by the people at home, he might report that he had spent the day with
Jesus, and if questioned as to what Jesus did, he would have to reply that
He was teaching. That is the impression which was created, namely that Jesus
was a teacher.
We move on into Chapters 8 and 9 of the Gospel and there we find some
lovely stories about Jesus, concentrating on the power of the touch and
the words of the Lord and then, in Chapter 10 we find a further block of
teaching given to the disciples who were now themselves being sent out to
preach. This session ends with the repetition of the words "When Jesus had
finished ..." (11:1). So here we are given the Lord's complete statement
of what people need to know when they go out to tell others about the Lord.
He was the complete Teacher in this realm of ministry.
Through Chapters 11 and 12 we are back to stories of Jesus, stories
which as a matter of fact focus on His kingdom, and on the element of judgment
involved in that kingdom. Arising from that we have a further block of teaching
in Chapter 13. We call these The Parables of the Kingdom. So the Lord turns
again from practical demonstration to offer them a complete section on the
judgment of God which is inherent in the kingdom. Again Matthew closes this
section with the words, "When Jesus had finished ..." (13:53).
After this we have more stories, focusing this time on the growing revelation
of the Lord Jesus Christ, including Matthew's account of the Transfiguration
where some of the disciples actually had a vision of His divine glory.
All this leads up to Chapter 18 where we find a teaching session on discipleship.
The more they knew Jesus, the more they needed to know what is involved
in being a disciple of such a great Lord. In Chapter 19:1 we have the same
Greek word used to round off the discourse: "It came to pass when Jesus
had finished these words". It was not just an ending but a completion of
everything they needed to know about discipleship and the relationships
of disciples within the family of Jesus. He is the complete Teacher.
Finally we have stories and parables as Jesus moves towards Jerusalem,
and then a further teaching session begins in 21:23. The centrepiece of this
discourse is found in Chapter 24, where the Lord looks forward to the day
of His Coming -- the climax of the kingdom of God in the Return of the Son
of Man. Probably their minds were moving towards the idea that the coming
of the kingdom was to be immediate, so the Lord alters their thinking by
saying, 'No, not yet. The great Coming is yet for the future'. That is the
substance of His teaching in Chapter 24, and it is followed by three parables
in Chapter 25. For the last time we have the statement that "when Jesus
had finished all these words" (26:1). So the perfect Teacher ended not because
He had run out of breath or out of material, but because He had given a
completed teaching about the great future of His Coming. In these five
instances we are assured that if we want to know the full truth from the
lips of God Himself, well here it is. Then Matthew rounds off his gospel
narrative with the story of Christ's death and resurrection.
So Matthew's Gospel is a sort of Peak District among the Gospels. Luke's
is more like rolling countryside, but this one has great summits, like
peaks shooting up into the air. The wonderful thing about the four Gospels
is that in dealing with so much identical material they can yet bring out
different facets of the marvel of the Lord Jesus. For Matthew He is the
complete Teacher. He is the one who came to present men with the finished
truth. If you care to do so, you can call it the Gospel of the instructed
Christian. Here we come to learn from this marvellous Jesus who sits and
teaches; and who goes on teaching until He has completed His work of teaching.
The Sermon on the Mount
Of course all the sessions of teaching that our Lord Jesus gave to His
disciples are authoritative and of equal importance -- all five of them.
Nevertheless, two of them seem to be singled out in a specially solemn way.
There are, in fact, two mountain-top sessions in the teaching of Jesus. The
first is in Chapter 5 and the second in Chapter 24, and in both cases we are
told that Jesus spoke them sitting on a mount. So they match. The first and
last have this mountain-top motif, as though marking them out as of special
importance. As a matter of fact the Gospel also ends with a mountain: "The
eleven disciples went into Galilee unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed
them" and it was there that He came to them and said, "All authority has been
given unto me ...".
There is one word which appears in all the sections of the Sermon on
the Mount, appearing in different ways in each section. It is the word 'righteousness'.
There are four such sections:
i. The Beatitudes (5:3-16)
If ever there were a deepfreeze amongst words it is this word Beatitude.
Whoever would want to know about something bearing that title? It is due
to the fact that the sayings begin with the word 'blessed'. That is a lovely
word. If only they were called the Happiness Sayings, for this same word
is elsewhere translated 'Happy'. That is lovely. Everybody wants to know
about that. The first word which Jesus said when He came from God to teach
us is about happy people. The Lord sets out to make us happy, fulfilled people,
blessed in our own personalities. 'Oh how happy are the poor!' In verse
6 we encounter our key word for the first time, 'Oh how happy are they who
thirst after righteousness!' It appears again in verse 10, 'Blessed are
they who are persecuted for righteousness'.
So Jesus preached a four point sermon, with righteousness as the common
like between the sections. The first part deals with righteousness of character,
because the Lord says that the happy people are people of certain characteristics.
There are those that mourn, there are the meek, there are the merciful.
This is what His happy people are like. It is instructive to look at the
connection between verses 10 and 11, where the first speaks of us and the
second of Himself.
"Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." It is
not being persecuted that makes them happy or brings them blessing but it
is for the persecution that comes as a by-product of going all out for righteousness.
They are not looking for persecution, but they are looking for righteousness.
Now notice how the Lord rephrases this, "Blessed are you when men shall
... persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my
sake". For MY sake! It is not being ill spoken of or evil done by [others]
that brings the blessing, but the fact that you suffer because you are putting
Me first. The Lord was not speaking of self-righteousness or self-effort,
but of being true to Him. In the beatitudes what He is really saying is
that if you are really right with God, these are the characteristics on
which you will put a premium.
In this list of blessedness sayings there is a link between verse 3
and verse 10. The blessing is to possess the kingdom. "Blessed are the
poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom" (v.3). It belongs to them. Then,
"Blessed are they who have been persecuted for righteousness' sake, for
theirs is the kingdom of God" (v.10). The first beatitude begins [the blessing]
and the last rounds it off. The various blessings give a complete statement
of what constitutes true happiness. These are the people who possess the
Kingdom of God.
It is difficult for us to translate this inner qualification, of 'poor
in spirit', for we do not admire a poor-spirited person and tend to regard
the description as the reverse of a compliment. The real meaning seems to
be that these blessed ones are consciously beggars in spiritual things. When
they think of themselves before God they know their own spiritual poverty.
They are beggars: the only thing they can do is to ask, and they ask for
what God alone can give. The inner qualification for the kingdom is to know
that I cannot commend myself to God. I cannot buy or merit His favour. I
cannot climb a ladder to get into the kingdom. I can only come as a suppliant
to His gate and say, 'Lord, I have no strength to work for my salvation,
nor ability to achieve any merit in Your sight. I am in spiritual poverty.'
We have all to seek and all to gain. Like the prodigal we have to come saying,
'Father look at me! I am no more worthy to be called Your son. Make me
But Jesus says that the true member of the kingdom must also show that
outwardly, and [27/28] this is where verse 10 brings
in the balance. There must be the proof of going all out for righteousness,
even at the cost of persecution. The inner reality must have an outward display
that authenticates it, with the working out of that righteousness which
comes to us as a gift. People should be able to say that they can see it
by the way we live. We really are all out for Jesus. It is not just talk,
but living reality.
This same balance is found in verse 4 and 5. First, "Blessed are they
that mourn, for they shall be comforted" so that when we come mourning
to God because of our sinfulness, He ministers to us a gracious comfort.
That is something which we can only know inwardly and for ourselves. If
we are that sort of people, how will we be outwardly towards others? Verse
5 answers this, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
If we are really mourning before God, how can we be arrogant to others?
The two sides of our personality would be in conflict with each other. There
is no possibility of a true repentance before God that is coupled with arrogance
We move on to the next blessing, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst
after righteousness, for they shall be filled" (v.6). We would like to
put that the other way round, imagining that if we can only enjoy the fullness
then we will hunger for righteousness, but it cannot be like that. We have
to hunger and thirst first. Righteousness is an aspiration which God will
meet if He sees us really longing to be like Jesus. To have this inner
experience of finding our needs graciously met from God's fullness should
mean that we will have an outreach to meet the needs of others, so "Blessed
are the merciful" (v.7). So we see how the beatitudes match. The Lord Jesus
wants His people to be whole people, with what is true at the centre also
true at the circumference of their lives. If we are freely receiving, we
should be freely giving. We have this same balance in verses 8 and 9, for
the pure in heart, who live in the blessed reality of an unbroken, unclouded
relationship with God will be the ones who are peacemakers. They will seek
to bring others into the peace they enjoy themselves, and they will be called
the children of God.
ii. Contrasts (5:17-48)
The next section is one of contrasts. There are six such contrasts in
the rest of Chapter 5. Jesus is teaching very dramatically. To them it
must have seemed very daring for Him to challenge their accepted ideas.
The clue to these contrast sayings is found in the words "I say unto you,
except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, you
shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven" (v.20). The scribes and the
Pharisees were the professionals; in popular estimation they were the gold
medalists in righteousness, but Jesus said that their kind of righteousness
would just not do. He wants us to have a different sort of righteousness.
The righteousness which He requires is not different in quantity only
but different in quality and nature. We must keep this basic difference
in mind as we read these contrast statements. So often people interpret
these contrasts as though Jesus was contradicting the Scriptures of the
Old Testament and putting something better in their place. He never does
that because He never could. He Himself says that He came not to destroy
the law and the prophets but to fulfil them, adding that heaven and earth
will pass away before one jot or tittle of the law shall pass. What He does
deny is the way the scribes and Pharisees had twisted and misunderstood
the Old Testament, whereas He had come to bring out the full flavour of
its meaning. He says, "You have heard what it has been said by them of old
time" to contradict the way in which the Pharisees understood Scripture
and to put it back on its proper footing.
There are six contrast sayings, and they seem to belong together in
pairs. The point of the first pair is the purpose of the Lord Jesus to
take Scripture at its full meaning. The first of this pair is in
verse 21 and the second in verse 27 where the Lord speaks of the inner
significance of adultery. Now that is part of Old Testament teaching --
the sin of the heart. It is actually in the Ten commandments for they not
only say 'thou shalt not commit adultery' as the seventh commandment, but
also in the tenth commandment forbid the coveting of your neighbour's wife.
Jesus is therefore neither taking away from nor adding to the Old Testament,
but stressing it in order to deny an unnatural restriction imposed by the
Pharisees. They were outward in their righteousness, teaching that you were
all right so long as you did not commit the actual adultery. That is Pharisaical
righteousness; it observes the letter of the law and ignores its spirit.
'That will not do', [28/29] says Jesus. 'You are
to be holy people, stamped through and through with the hallmark of authenticity.
Your heart must be in the same condition of righteousness as your body.'
Then we have the second pair of contrasts: "It was said also ..." (v.31)
and "again you have heard it said to them of old time ..." (v.33). Now the
point of these two contrast sayings seems to me that we must take Scripture
in its direct meaning, without embroidering fresh meanings upon that which
is actually said. It is right to take Scripture as our exclusive authority,
but we must not add fancies of our own upon its truths. When the Lord Jesus
says, "swear not at all" He is clearly forbidding what the Pharisees had
involved them in, which is what nowadays we would call jesuitical reasoning.
It was part of Pharisaic thinking that an oath depended entirely upon the
form of words used. To sware by the gold in the Temple did not commit you.
In fact they had lists of oaths. To use some terms made the matter binding,
but if stated in other ways you could be free because what you said did
not really constitute an oath. So Jesus commanded His people not to get
involved in such a casuistical way of thinking whereby you can sometimes
be trusted and at other times not. We must covet to be persons whose word
always means what it says, which is of course exactly what the Scriptures
In the third pair of contrast sayings, the Lord Jesus calls us to use
Scripture in its intended application. The first saying is "you will have
heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (v.38)
and the second, "you have heard that it was said you will love your neighbour
and hate your enemy" (v.43). Well, right enough, the Old Testament does
say an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth -- and thank God it does. What
it says is in relation to a judge who sits in court, and every society should
have a judiciary that can make an exact balance, and especially not admit
the exaggerations of malice. Three times over the Old Testament says, "an
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". It may sound savage, but in fact
it is just equity.
The Pharisees, however, made this a law of personal morality, permitting
me to do back to another the wrong that he has done to me. Jesus reminds
us that this is said to the judge in court, and rightly so, but it must
not be carried over into personal retaliation. Let him hit you on the other
cheek rather than that. Let him take your cloak also. There is a different
law for personal behaviour. The Scripture must be applied with exactness.
This law was made for the judge; it must not be made a rule for the ordinary
It is true that the Old Testament told us to love our neighbour, but
it nowhere tells us to hate our enemy (v.43). No doubt the Pharisees argued
that it was logical and that the Scriptures by implication allow us to hate
our enemies. Well, I suppose that there is a sort of demented logic about
that, but what it involves is taking a Bible saying and misapplying it.
The Lord Jesus does not want us to be un-biblical, He did not come to destroy
the law and the prophets. What He did come to do was to fulfil that law
and bring it to its true meaning and application. The distinctiveness is
between our own righteousness and the righteousness of God.
iii. Distinctives (6:1-18)
Next Jesus moves into what I will call the distinctives. He says, "When
you give your alms, do not sound a trumpet before you ..." (6:2). He is
drawing a distinction between His people and others who might do identical
things. It is as though He takes up this matter of righteousness and applies
it to practical things. You will be involved in works of charity. So are
many other people, but there is to be something distinctive in your case.
Jesus then goes on from works to prayer: "When you pray you shall not be
like the hypocrites" (v.5). There are other people who pray, but there must
be something distinctive about your praying. He then takes up a third area
of distinctiveness, that of fasting (v.18). There are other people who involve
themselves in self-denial, but there must be a distinctive element about
Why does He do this? He begins, "Take heed that you do not your righteousness
before men" (v.1). We would say that the righteousness of the Beatitudes
is a matter of character, whereas here we treat of a righteousness which
shows itself outwardly, in works of righteousness which characterise a manner
of life. In this area we must take care that the outward works are matched
by that inward character of His kingdom righteousness of which He has already
spoken. It is all a matter of righteousness, but the living
[29/30] of the righteous life has to have a certain inner principle
about it which makes it different from anybody else's, even when the actions
are the same.
As we have seen, there are three areas of life dealt with by the Lord.
There is the realm of charitable works, reaching out to help the needy among
mankind (v.2). Secondly there is the area of prayer, that is to say, reaching
upward in our relationship to God (v.5). The third are is where we reach
inwardly to ourselves, to self-discipline and self-denial (v.16). So here
we are doing things that many other people will do, but there is to be a distinctive
mark about the Christian in doing them: it is that they are done for the
Father. That makes all the difference. "Your Father who sees in secret" is
to provide our true motive. What is done is not for personal glory nor even
only for the benefit of those helped, but it is done to please Him. The same
applies to prayer, "pray to your Father who sees in secret ..." (v.6). Finally,
"that thou be seen not by men to fast, but by your Father who is in secret
..." (v.18). That is to be the distinctive mark of the Christians who live
out the life of righteousness; it is all done for the Father. How Jesus,
the perfect Son, delighted to honour His Father, and He points us up to the
Father as He sets our feet on the way to righteousness. Everything is for
the pleasure of the Father.
iv. Directives (6:19 - 7:27)
We now come to the last section of the Sermon on the Mount where we
have six commands, so I call this the directives. The first three are negative:
"lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth" (6:19); "judge not" (7:1);
and "give not that which is holy to the dogs" (7:6). We do not drift into
holiness. It doesn't happen to us by accident or wishful thinking. We have
to set our feet in the way of holiness. Having said so much about righteousness,
Jesus tells us that we will only have this if we really want it and go
all out for it.
For this reason the Lord brings us down to the brass tacks of six commands.
Three of them are negative -- 'Don't do that' -- and the other three are
positive. The first [positive command] is a command to pray (7:7). The second
positive command is to enter (7:13), and the third is to beware (7:15).
Why does He give us these six commands? Because He wants us to seek righteousness,
the righteousness which comes from an obedient life. He is the perfect Teacher.
There is a marvel of symmetry, balance and forcefulness in the way He teaches.
This part of the Gospel ends with the comment that He taught as one having
authority. How important it is, then, to hear His sayings and to do them.
(To be continued)
THE ENIGMA OF THE STABLE
John H. Paterson
ANOTHER Christmas has come and gone and, with it, that familiar story
of a baby, a stable (or was it really a cave?), shepherds and wise men.
For many of us, it has come to have the quality of a favourite seasonal and,
in that case, we are not likely to take it too seriously. What new truth
could it possibly contain?
Reviewing the events in the story, I have to say that, familiar as it
is, there is something about it that has always worried me. To explain
what that worry is, I can best borrow an analogy drawn from our own times.
You know, I am sure, that in America (and perhaps in other, relatively
"new" countries), a politician running for office is often helped in his
campaign if he can claim to have been born in a log cabin. He is anxious
to show that his rise in the world is due to no advantage of birth or inherited
wealth; he has succeeded on his own merits alone.
So much is this the case that the politician will stress -- will overstress
-- his humble origins, with the comfortable family home shrinking in his
speeches and his imagination to the required degree of poverty and simplicity.
The public, in turn, comes to expect this and eventually grows cynical about
these claims. To use the phrases [30/31] with which
our everyday language provides us, the log-cabin theme has become too
much : the claimant has "gone over the top".
But now: What about the birth of Jesus? Is not that "too much"?
-- a bit "over the top"? That He should not have been born in a palace we
can accept: after all, He was due to come out of Bethlehem-Ephrathah, and
there were no palaces there. That His parents might be relative unknowns
we could understand, just so long as one of them, at least, was of the House
of David. But a stable: that, surely, was unnecessarily theatrical!
It is true, of course, as a thousand preachers point out every Christmas,
that His birth in these circumstances linked Him from His earliest moments
with the poorest and most needy of mankind. But I for one have never been
able to accept that as an adequate explanation of this extraordinary episode
in divine history. A thing may be true without necessarily explaining itself:
the explanation requires that we know why a thing is true, and not
simply that it is so.
No: for so important an event as the coming of His Son into the world,
God must have had some very serious purpose behind His planning. If there
was a full house at the inn, and shepherds in a field, then those circumstances
were intended to serve us notice of something of real importance. The question
Why The Stable?
I do not know what your own answer would be to the question which I
have just poised, but here is mine. The circumstances surrounding the birth
of Jesus were intended to serve notice upon us all that, in God's dealings
with men, the appearance of things will always be deceptive. To go by appearance
alone, in other words, will always involve the risk of our being misled.
This principle, of course, was not new; it should already have been
known to the Jewish people. It was simply one more reminder -- and perhaps
the most pointed -- of what God had been telling them for a large part of
their history. Periodically, God served this same notice upon them. There
was their great national leader, Moses, who had come to them as a baby out
of the river. There was Gideon, who started with 32,000 men and ended up
achieving victory with only 300 -- and those armed, so far as we know, only
with pitchers and lights. There was the story of David and Goliath, and
Elijah with earthquake, wind and fire and God in a still, small voice. And
there were countless reminders in their prophetic writings of the way in
which God works. "Not by an army, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith
the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6 R.V. margin).
That God should have chosen this, the moment of His Son's coming, to
provide the most dramatic reminder of all of this principle suggests to me
not only that it was going to be particularly necessary during the lifetime
of Jesus, but also that He attaches very great importance to it. So, let
us restate this principle, this time a little more broadly. Mankind is dealing
with a God who is invisible, but who is working to a plan for His creation.
It follows from this that the most important part of creation's history is
the part we cannot see. Like the iceberg which sinks the ship, the visible
part above the surface is only a small fraction of the whole: it is the part
out of sight under the water that matters!
It then becomes the problem of the Christian believer to keep track
of two quite separate histories which are unrolling in and around him --
the history of visible things, of appearances, and the history of God's
purposes, which is just as real, but unseen. Not only are these two quite
separate, but they may at any particular moment actually be opposites. No
one could have explained this more clearly than Paul:
"God chose the foolish things of the world, that He might put to shame
them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that He might
put to shame the things that are strong ... and the things that are not,
that He might bring to nought the things that are, that no flesh should glory
before God" (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Now to keep track of two histories unfolding side by side is just as
difficult as thinking in two languages at once! But it is a skill which God's
people need to learn. For the Scriptures insist on this distinction between
what appears to be true and what is the reality behind the appearance.
Once again, our best guide to this distinction is Paul. The key passage is
found in 2 Corinthians [31/32] 4 - 5, and it centres
upon that familiar reminder that "we look not at the things which are seen,
but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal;
but the things which are not seen are eternal" (4:18).
Appearance and Reality
In these two chapters, Paul distinguishes between "appearance" (as in
5:12) and a reality for which he uses another word that the Revised Version
of 1881, consistently if rather pedantically, translates by "manifest" or
"manifestation". (The Authorised Version almost, but not quite, follows
the same course: it breaks down, as we shall see, at a crucial point in
5:10.) So, there are things which appear to be true and then there
are other things which emerge as true when the moment of manifestation comes
-- when God's light shines on them -- but which may contradict the appearance.
These are the things referred to in 2 Corinthians 4:10, 11; 5:10, 11. They
are, if you like, the things that are really real!
In order to follow Paul's train of thought, it is necessary to remind
ourselves of the connection between his first and second letters to the
church at Corinth. As we have already seen, the first epistle contains,
in Chapter 1, the principle of the two histories, of the visible and the
invisible, with which we are here concerned. It contains, too, the germ
of the contrast between appearance and reality which was to be developed
in the second letter: "... the Lord ... who will both bring to light the
hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the
hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God" (1 Corinthians
Tragically, that first letter had also to contain a blistering attack
on the life and practice of the Corinthian believers. The church there
was in a shockingly bad state. But it is clear that, when the first epistle
arrived in Corinth, the reaction of the local Christians was not to say,
"Yes, it's all too true: we must do as Paul says and put things right!"
What they actually said was, "Who does he think he is, telling us
how to run our own affairs?" And incredibly, just to show that they not only
had a disorderly Church but had misunderstood everything in that first letter,
they chose to reject Paul's rebuke precisely on grounds of appearance! They
said, in effect, "He doesn't [32/33] look like
an apostle! He doesn't sound like an apostle!" It was the equivalent
of being rebuked by a minister today for immorality, and rejecting the rebuke
on the grounds that he has red hair or a green tie, whereas you think that
ministers ought to be bald and wear black!
So Paul had to begin all over again in the second epistle with the lesson
of appearance over against manifestation. To "appearance" he referred twice,
in 5:7 (RV margin) and 5:12. He was up against "them that glory in appearance",
and the rest of this epistle through to Chapter 13 is, in a sense, a rebuttal
of their viewpoint. What God is interested in, said Paul, is not appearance
but manifestation -- the reality shinning out behind, or even in spite
of, the appearance of things. He knew, better than anyone, how unimpressive
was his appearance as an apostle: "pressed on every side ... perplexed ...
pursued ... smitten down ... always bearing about in the body the putting
to death of Jesus" (4:8-10 R.V. margin). But, he said, the reality of all
that was "that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh"
And however unimpressive he might appear to be, he was confident (5:11)
that the reality was known to God, who would assess the true value of his
ministry as an apostle: "we are made manifest unto God". Indeed, he argued,
however superficial the judgement of these shallow and ignorant Corinthians
might be; however they might denigrate him on account of his mere appearance,
he was sure that their own consciences would rebuke them for such a shallow
assessment, and make them face the truth: "I hope we are made manifest
also in your consciences."
To repudiate Paul might not seem anything very serious, but the consequences
of their action were likely to be far-reaching, for here we come to the
key verse (5:10): "We must all be made manifest before the judgement
seat of Christ." It is a pity that the authorised Version of our Bible,
apparently following Tyndale's lead, has "We must all appear ...".
To appear before the judgement seat of Christ is one thing that
nobody will do; that nobody can do! In that place and at that time,
there will be no appearances; only reality, with the bright light of God
shining on all men and women, illuminating the reality of their lives and
exposing what is merely appearance, pretence, hypocrisy or play-acting.
Living in Two Worlds
To follow Paul's argument in these chapters is certainly helpful in
understanding our problem as believers, but the problem itself remains:
how to live in two worlds; how to keep in view two histories; how to decide
what is reality and what mere appearance; how to convert the values of one
into the values of the other. This is the essence of that quality which
we refer to in believers as discernment -- the ability to penetrate appearances
and perceive reality; to see the apparent and instantly to convert it into
the currency of heaven; to hear wisdom and know it for foolishness.
It was a problem which people constantly encountered with the Lord Jesus
Himself, and that long after He had left the stable and had become a public
figure. People saw and heard Him, but it was always a question as to
how they saw Him -- as the real Him, or only as some nine-day wonder.
John began his Gospel with the assertion, "We beheld His glory, glory as
of the only begotten from the Father" (John 1:14), but it took John himself
long enough to realise that, and his Gospel narrative is full of stories
about people who did or did not -- mostly not! -- behold His true glory.
To return to the principle from which I began, was it not more true
of the Lord Jesus than of any other figure in history that, if you judged
by appearances, you could only be misled? If the stable was an enigma, what
of the Cross? No wonder that Paul, long afterwards and in the very passage
we are considering, wrote: "Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the
flesh: even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him
so no more" (2 Corinthians 5:16). The flesh was the appearance; the manifestation
was the glory that shone through.
All this is very confusing. I do not know whether, on the television,
you have seen those advertisements in which two images of the same person
are made to merge into one. One image has a cold and the other a sore throat,
but if you take the right medicine the images come together in a single
healthy person! This, I think, is how we may visualise those two tracks
of history of which I spoke earlier. Making them merge is our problem, as
it has been the problem of God's people all along. To return once more to
2 Corinthians 5 (verse 7 R.V. margin), "we walk by faith, not by appearance."
To state that in its simplest terms: let us never forget, as the days
go by, that alongside our own unfolding history is another history -- that
of God's unwavering purpose, and in the long run that is the one
Many years ago, I came across a comment in one of the travel books written
by the late H. V. Morton, In Scotland Again, which I still think
captures, as well as anything could, the Christian believer's problem of
living in two worlds. Morton describes how, in a little town in Scotland,
he came across a weaver who could weave two Scottish tartans at the same
time on opposite sides of the same rug:
'I watched him at work on a rug of Grant tartan, the reverse side of
which was a Maclean. It was an extraordinarily complicated process. "How
on earth do you do it?" I asked. "Well, my eye's on the Maclean and my mind's
on the Grant!"'
The Merging of Two Histories
What I have said so far is only a bare introduction to a very large
subject, but you can pursue the outworking for yourself. I cannot end,
however, without asking and answering one further question: will these
two histories -- worlds -- sets of values -- never merge of their
own accord? Are they parallel lines which will never meet?
Happily, this is a question which we can answer positively and precisely.
They will meet, and we know when! We have the answer in that marvellous
verse of Paul's tucked away rather obscurely in 2 Thessalonians 1:10: "When
He shall come to be glorified in His saints and to be marvelled at in all
them that believed."
(The Revised Version's "marvelled at" is much preferable to the A.V.'s
"admired", for the Greek expresses astonishment rather than admiration, and
that is the whole point!)
When the Lord Jesus comes "in that day" of His return, the spectators
are going to be confronted, says Paul, by an astonishing spectacle. This
astonishment will arise from the presence with Him of a lot of people who
have lived their lives here on earth with every appearance of being very
ordinary folk. Nothing in that appearance will have prepared the onlookers
for the [33/34] astonishing fact that they are
now with Him. From everybody's lips the bewildered questions arise: "What's
so special about them ? How did they get there?"
And the answers to those two questions are, firstly, that what is now
being seen is the manifestation of His saints' true worth, concealed for
so long behind their very ordinary appearance and, secondly, that they
are there because, says Paul, they believed. But believed what?
These saints are there because they believed in the reality of that
other world, those other values, even when they could see nothing to confirm
their belief. They went on believing even when every accumulating appearance
seemed to shout "This is all there is! What you get is what you see, and
nothing else!" And because the accumulated evidence pointed ever more strongly
to the conclusion that there is no God and no divine purpose behind history,
it is utterly astonishing that there should, in the end, be anyone present
on that great day who has gone on believing to the very last, and so shares
in His splendour.
But there will be -- [it will be] those who have "endured as seeing
Him who is invisible", until one day faith became sight; the two images
merged and the rest of creation could do nothing but marvel -- and glorify
Him who was so enigmatically born in a manger.
MOVING FORWARD WITH GOD
"The people shall go up every man straight before him" Joshua
IT cannot have escaped your notice that detailed instructions were given
to Joshua before the attack upon Jericho. Between the fall of the walls
and the final orders concerning the spoils, however, the soldiers had but
one order, and that was that each man must march straight forward into the
city. This one matter is drawn to our attention twice by the Holy Spirit,
who both records the command and states that it was obeyed, "... the wall
fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight
before him" (Joshua 6:20). On the seventh day and after the seventh circumnavigation,
there came a call to halt. All the men turned to face the city, saw the
walls fall down before them, and each man marched forward in the path that
God had chosen specifically for him.
Their experiences must have varied greatly. One soldier might have been
appalled at the obstacles which immediately confronted him while not so
far away his fellow soldier was faced with a relatively easy way through.
There were some, of course, who had halted right in front of the gates.
For them the immediate approach would be easy, with no masonry to bar their
way, but since there would be guards posted at the gates, they might later
encounter fierce opposition. At some places the walls may have literally
fallen flat, with rubble that could easily be negotiated, but those who
had been halted right opposite a tower would have to face far greater obstacles
and have to struggle through huge piles of masonry which barred their progress.
The instructions, however, were quite explicit and they were that each individual
should move straight ahead and not seek an easier way.
This is very true to life. We Christians are in the Lord's battle and
as we move forward we face a whole variety of circumstances in the path
appointed for us by God. Some Christians seem to sail through life, with
little difficulty, little apparent effort and a minimum of suffering, while
others have to battle on and face problems of family, of health or perhaps
employment. For them nothing is easy. If, however, we believe that we are
God's own people, fighting in His battles, we must believe that it was He
who chose our path for us, saying 'This is the way, walk in it.'
Returning to Jericho, do you not think that a soldier facing a heavily
fortified sector did not look with envy at his neighbour who was confronted
by a less guarded section or by less masses of rubble? He might have reasoned
that if the march had been stopped some minutes earlier he could have finished
up just there. He could easily envy his more favoured neighbours and allow
some trace of bitterness against his [34/35] commander
who had been responsible for his location. No consideration had been given
to him; he had been ordered to stop just there and then to turn and go
It would have been natural enough to complain. It is easy for us to
envy our fellow believers, resenting our own lot and arguing that if we
had been born in another place and at another time our lot might have been
so much easier than it is. I have travelled a lot in Eastern Europe and
have often been appalled at the sufferings of God's people there in those
countries of oppression and deprivation. Suppose that some of us had been
called upon to endure those trials because of our faith! We do well to pity
them, though in fact I have heard them pitying us in the West who are called
to be true to God in our affluent society.
Our course is marked out for us; every man must go straight before him.
I don't know how justified I may be in applying this Jericho experience
to us, but I do know that it was for all of us that Solomon wrote: "Let
your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you ... do
not swerve to the right or the left ..." (Proverbs 4:25 & 27). At the
very beginning of this campaign the commander, Joshua, was instructed not
to turn to the right or left from the law of the Lord.
Now each Israelite soldier had to look straight before him as he moved
forward into victory. He must not concern himself with the activities of
his companions. While in other ways we must be careful for one another, in
this sense we must not be pre-occupied with the movements of others, but pursue
our own God-given way. If the attention of an Israelite was distracted by
considering others, he might easily stumble and fall as he clambered over
the ruined walls.
At the very beginning of this book the commander, Joshua, was instructed
not to look to the right or to the left as he moved into the land with
God's people: "Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according
to all the law which Moses my servant commanded thee; turn not from it to
the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success ..." (Joshua
1:7). For the soldier not to go straight ahead but to veer to right or
left would do one of two things, either it would leave a gap, an empty
space, which no-one else could fill, or it could cause others to stumble
and be a hindrance to them on their onward course.
Everyone is responsible to our great commander, and it is to Him that
we must give account. We are not called to answer for the way our fellows
are taking, but we are responsible for our own progress: "So then each
one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge
one another any more; but judge ye this rather that no man put a stumbling
-block in his brother's way, or an occasion of falling" (Romans 14:12-13).
In that resurrection episode by the Lake, Peter wanted to know what
John's way would be but, when he enquired of the Lord, he was told to mind
his own appointed task (John 21:22). Each one is different. As these soldiers
moved forward to take possession of the city, some were able to move quickly,
while others lagged behind, but they were all involved together in the taking
of Jericho, and were in good order so long as each kept to the way chosen
for him by the Captain of the Lord's host.
This brings me to my final point. If each warrior that ringed the city
went straight ahead as he had been commanded, then they must all have met
at a central point. What a meeting that would be! What celebrations of victory
would thrill them all! Those who had fought so hard, those who had been
wounded, those who had hardly a scratch and those who were exhausted by
their efforts, would all meet, knowing that by taking their God-chosen way
they had come to have a share in the glories of His total victory.
Imagine the scene! There were those who had struggled painfully, those
who had fought hard, those who simply plodded on and some whose tears mingled
joy with sorrow. But they were at last together. They had come through.
Some may even have avoided the difficulties and deviated in their path,
but God was gracious to them all. He gave them the victory.
As to us, we know that one day we will all meet in celebration of Christ's
victory which He has expressed through us as we sought to move forward
with Him. Even now we are all moving towards that great Day. Some, scarred
with the battle, are coming from frozen Siberia, others from easier circumstances
in affluent lands; some from flourishing churches and some from struggling
groups or even lonely outposts. But they all have a story to tell of God's
faithfulness as they moved straight forward in His will.
"They shall come from the east and west, and from the north and south,
and shall sit down in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:29). And all of them will
have learned the lesson that the secret of victory in this spiritual warfare
is to accept God's appointed way and move straight ahead with Him.
IN the books of the Kings and Chronicles we have the short histories
of two small kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The former lasted for about 200
years, while Judah continued as a kingdom for some 350 years. In these small
kingdoms God raised up men who stood before Him and could rightly proclaim,
"Thus saith the Lord". Such men are among the greatest in the world's history.
They represented God and spoke for Him, so perhaps it is not surprising
that their words have never been assimilated into human wisdom but have
rather been overlooked and neglected.
Standing Before the Lord
As a matter of fact, though, these were the men most worth listening
to. It was so in their own day and is still the same today. Their foretelling
of events at times was marvellous, but that was only a small part of their
activities. The function of a prophet is to speak for God, and this demands
an intimate relationship with Him. The first man whom the Bible calls a
prophet is one who would not normally be considered as such, Abraham. God
told a heathen ruler, "He is a prophet, and he will pray for you" (Genesis
20:7). At that particular time Abraham had behaved rather badly, but still
he had audience with the Lord. He never preached a sermon; he never faced
a congregation; but he stood before God and so was able to intercede effectively.
Standing before God is an essential in prophetic ministry, for prophecy
is not some sort of magic but the outcome of holy living. This was emphasised
later, when it was said of Moses, "There has not arisen a prophet like unto
Moses", with the explanation, "whom the Lord knew face to face" (Deuteronomy
A Man of God
We are familiar with the title 'prophet', but may be helped to a better
understanding of what it involves when we consider the description 'A man
of God'. This is often used, and it indicates that the one concerned was
God's man, chosen by God and possessed by Him. In the case of Moses we know
that from the beginning he was specially chosen by God. He was drawn out
of the Nile where he lay at the point of death, and carried this truth with
him all his life by reason of his name Moses. In this sense this sovereign
choice made him a man of God. In a much deeper way, however, he was a man
of God because he understood and accepted that he no longer belonged to himself
but lived a God-appropriated life. So it was in the case of Elijah who came
much later who was truly a man of God although in himself a nobody. He had
no hesitation in declaring to the king Ahab, "As the LORD, the God of Israel,
liveth, before whom I stand". He was thus a man of God. Indeed this was
a feature of all the prophets. They were God's men because He had selected
them in a special way and also because they practised fellowship with Him.
Standing before the Lord means as close to Him as is possible and giving
Him the priority over everything else. If at times these prophets were
lonely, finding themselves rather isolated from the broad religious life
of the community, that was the price which they had to pay for their close
fellowship with the Lord. They did nothing to make themselves extraordinary,
but their position as men of God was brought about by their determination
to wait upon God. Not being quite like ordinary men of their day was the
inevitable result of their living in God's presence.
It was because of their intimate communion that the Word of the Lord
came to them and was given through them. God spoke to them and they obediently
repeated what they had heard. They did not just make up sermons or sit
down and think up what they thought might be the right ideas or interesting
subjects; they waited on God and so they became men of God. They were not
supermen or eccentrics but men just like us, as James says of Elijah (James
After Elijah came Elisha. It is striking that of this successor of the
great prophet, the great woman of Shunem said to her husband, "I know that
this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God" (2 Kings 4:9), yet
all we know of Elisha -- or rather all she knew -- was that when he was passing
that way, he stopped to have a meal in her home. Such a simple contact nevertheless
brought a very real sense of God's presence to that home. Holiness does
not consist of religious forms; it comes from a close walk with God.
Another term used to describe some prophets was that of Seer. The suggestion
is that they saw and understood God's will and God's way, and that this
spiritual insight enabled them to speak for Him. They did not act on their
own impulses or initiative; they waited on the Lord for instructions. They
were not showmen, seeking a place in the limelight; they often risked their
own lives in communicating to the people what had first been shown to them.
They acted without fear of man, yet were free from unseemly forcefulness
or arrogance. They could rightly affirm: 'this is what the Lord says'
There were of course others who used the phrase, 'Thus saith the Lord'
and who called themselves prophets and were generally reckoned as such, but
who were false prophets. They do not seem to have been conscious deceivers
but they themselves believed what they said, yet they were blind and certainly
not seers. We can argue for what we think is right as though it were God's
truth, whereas actually it comes from our own deceitful hearts. Mankind
has fallen so deeply into deception that it is all too possible for any
of us to be false without knowing it. Only true humility can save us from
The prophet must not indulge in wishful thinking. This is a tendency
common to most of us but it is fatal in one who would be a prophet. As an
example, we read of a man called Zedekiah who doubtless thought and hoped
that the blessing of God must rest on an alliance between his monarch Ahab
and the good king Jehoshaphat, so he accordingly prophesied that the kings
would be victorious, saying: "Thus saith the Lord ... thou shalt push the
Syrians that they be consumed" (1 Kings 22:11). Jehoshaphat himself was not
convinced so, in spite of Ahab's declared prejudice, another prophet, Micaiah,
was called. He spoke from God and gave a completely different prospect to
the kings, not because he wanted it to be like that but because he had a command
from the Lord. On the face of it, no-one could say which man was really the
one who spoke for God and which was only making it up. Micaiah was content
to be judged by the outcome and replied to his persecutors, "If you return
in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me."
Very often it is the outcome which provides the proof of the true or
false. Certainly non-fulfilment of what purports to be predicted in the name
of the Lord completely discredits the speaker and labels him with God's charge
of being a false prophet. Now the false may not be a deliberate deceiver,
but can be led astray by his own ideas or impulses. This is especially so
when there is an element of conceit or self-importance on his part. Such
a conceit in spiritual things brings a great risk of self-deception, a fact
which should humble anyone who dares to speak in God's name. If the false
prophets were themselves deceived, that made them much more dangerous to
The Lord has warned us that deceivers will arise and deceive many. Jeremiah
describes the basic faults of such men: "I did not send these prophets,
yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they
have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have
proclaimed my words to my people" (Jeremiah 23:21-22). Perhaps the greatest
need in Christianity today is quietness; not a lazy passivity but an active
quietness before God which is seemly for those who aspire to be His servants.
We must stand before God in the first place, and listen to what He has to
say and then communicate to others. That is what God's prophets did.
The prophets did nothing to make themselves important yet their words,
which were often quite brief, had eternal values. They cast light on life
from an eternal viewpoint. Of course their messages were relevant and vital
to those who first heard them and had a timely communication from God about
their own circumstances, nevertheless the heart of all prophecy is the
revelation of God's eternal purpose in Christ and is therefore of supreme
The prophets did nothing to make their words more acceptable, for they
believed that He who spoke through them could open deaf ears and enlighten
blind eyes for their hearers and readers even as He had done this first for
them. They [37/38] realised that they said more than
they themselves fully understood, for it is through them that we have the
revelation of the mystery of God, who is Christ. All the fullness of the
godhead dwells in Christ and it is through the ministry of the prophets that
we learn of Him. Through their Scriptures little people like us who have
small understanding and limited perspectives may learn something of those
"riches of the full assurance of understanding" which the Bible promises.
It is because the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy that
the history of these two humanly-speaking insignificant nations comes with
life-giving power to our hearts. The ministry of God's prophets points
us to the Head of the Church who radiates a glory which casts light on
the whole creation. The significance of the prophets is inexhaustible.
The history of Israel and Judah is more important than national history,
contemporary history or world history, because through it we are given entrance
into that world which is beyond all human capacity to realise. We can only
know God by His making Himself known to us, and He has done this through
the prophetic Word. "You should give that word your closest attention, for
it shines like a lamp amidst all the dirt and darkness of the world ..."
(2 Peter 1:19 Phillips ).
BRINGING MANY SONS TO GLORY
(The Epistle to the Hebrews)
1. THE CALL TO SONSHIP
GOD the Father has an Only Son. He is the Lord Jesus Christ. This book
of the New Testament lays great stress on His unique greatness. At the same
time God has, in Christ, a whole family of sons, and it is to them that
this Letter to the Hebrews is especially directed. It is not so much a Letter
to any group or locality as a treatise on spiritual matters for all believers.
I rather favour the suggestion that Chapters 1 to 12 represent the main
body of the work, with Chapter 13 as a covering letter of 'few words' (13:22),
possibly written by Paul himself. Looked at it in this way, we have a message
which commences with the statement that God has spoken (1:1) and ends with
an appeal not to refuse Him that speaks (12:25).
It is true that it has been given the title which says that it is for
Hebrews, but the truth is that nobody knows who were its first recipients.
It is clear that its readers were presumed to have a detailed knowledge
of the Old Testament, something which every Christian should aspire to have.
The readers are called 'holy brothers', not only by the writer but by the
Lord Jesus Himself (2:11). It follows, then, that the message is for all
of us who by new birth are members of the family of God, directly begotten
by the Father and therefore described as 'The church of the firstborn ones'
The apparent historical background of Jewish believers, tempted to apostatise
back to a formal religion, does not greatly concern any of us today, for
even modern Hebrew Christians cannot possibly return to a Temple, priests
or sacrifices. Heaven-born saints, whatever their nationality, have no permanent
city here on earth (13:14). The call of the book is to us all. It is not
only against going back but is an urge not to stand still either, but to
press on towards the mature experience in which children become sons. God's
speaking to us is in terms of sonship. With His unique Son at His right hand,
He is engaged in bringing many sons to glory. The main thrust of this whole
document is the Fathers call to His children to press on towards their appointed
goal, namely, His public acknowledgement to the universe that they are His
sons and heirs.
This is not an evangelistic tract for non-Christians, though it repeatedly
emphasises the foundation truth of salvation by the atoning sacrifice of
Christ. To have one's sins forgiven is indeed a wonderful blessing, but
the reference to 'such a great salvation' (2:3) which must not be ignored,
implies that there is much still to be realised of redemption's purpose.
We can never hear too much about God's remedy for sin, so we treasure each
statement which the writer makes concerning that one great sacrifice of
the cross. I find, though, that we are told not to circle round and round
the fundamental bases of our faith, but to leave the elementary teaching
about Christ and go on to maturity (6:1). Justification by faith is not
an end in itself; it is the opening up of the prospect of a glorious destiny.
The Father loves His little children whose sins are forgiven but He wants
them to make progress in an increasingly mature knowledge of His will.
God's Human Family
It may seem surprising that most of the first two chapters is taken
up with the subject of angels. The objective is not to inform us about these
extra-territorial beings but rather to convince us of the supreme importance
to God of the human race. The prospect in view is 'the world to come' (2:5)
and its rulers are not to be angels but Abraham's descendants (2:16). The
Lord Jesus demonstrates to us how important we men are to God. The superiority
of Christ to the angels is set out in a series of most convincing arguments.
Those who believe that the Son is the exact representation of God's glorious
being will readily accept that. Yet a whole chapter is devoted to proving
it. The last verse gives a clue to the reason for this, since it reminds
us that the humblest heir of salvation is being ministered to by angels. So
far as God is concerned, it is His sons who matter most.
It is rightly stated that, as Co-Creator with the Father, the Lord Jesus
is in every way superior to privileged angelic beings. That could never
be in question. What can it mean, then, that He has inherited a more
excellent name than they? As the eternal Son did He not always possess a
name infinitely above all angels? The significance of His inheriting such
a name can only be that in His incarnation, and as a Man, He has total superiority
to angels. It was at the time of His incarnation, when He was brought as
firstborn into the world, that they were commanded to worship Him (1:6).
Why this command concerning One whom they had always worshipped hitherto?
The point seems to be that the Father insists on honouring the Son in His
humanity. Indeed it is in that humanity that the Lord Jesus has been re-instated
at the Father's right hand. Christ has brought sonship into the realm of
flesh and blood (2:14). The eternal purposes of the Father God are bound
up with us men. Angels are real beings and they serve to further the glory
of God, but they do not satisfy His longings for love, for He is Father as
well as Creator, and from eternity He has planned to have a great family
of human sons.
Our destiny is referred to in the context of Psalm 8, where the writer
asks the question as to why man should be so important to God. This is an
unusual psalm, for it makes no mention of sin or redemption, yet sets the
dignity of man in the context of God's excellent name in all the earth. What
is man? He is the being whom God has chosen to be crowned with glory and
honour, and to rule the whole creation. Will it ever happen? It has already
happened in the person of the Lord Jesus and for the moment that description
can only truly refer to Him. So far as the rest of us are concerned it is
not yet true (2:8). Not now! Not yet! But already we see in Jesus the present
realisation of that prospect, for He is already crowned with glory and honour,
and we are reminded that His tasting of death for us makes possible the eventual
bringing of many sons to glory. It is true that Psalm 8 does not mention
redemption but it does give us some clue to the greatness of our salvation.
One day the whole groaning creation will rapturously greet the revelation
of the sons of God (Romans 8:19).
God's Desire for Growth
Chapter 3 repeats this amazing destiny which awaits the redeemed, informing
us that we are members of God's household (or family) (v.6) and sharers
with Christ, provided always that we keep going on (v.14). In this connection
the Holy Spirit has already provided a warning in Psalm 95. There were literal
sons of Abraham who, however, never attained to his inheritance. There
were men who were shepherded by the faithful Moses yet who were finally
disqualified. We are not to be downcast. Every provision has been made
for us in Christ. The Holy Spirit still assures us that 'Today' we have
a glorious future in view. And just as Abraham had a timely intervention
from God in the persona of Melchizedek, so we have the heavenly Melchizedek
in the person of our exalted Lord (4:14 & 5:10).
Here again we are confronted with issues which are not directly concerned
with the forgiveness of our sins. For that forgiveness we have the perfect
sacrificing priest who had settled the sin question and brought us into
the family of God as His dear children. But we have more than that. In the
same Saviour we have the One who was high priest before man ever sinned
and will still be high priest when sin has for ever been put away -- "a
priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (5:10). We will
always need Him. We will always have Him. Let us be sure to make full use
of His gracious help.
It is at this stage that the writer underlines a basic requirement for
God's children which is that they should grow up. The writer was inhibited
from developing the Melchizedek theme by reason of the immaturity (seemingly
the culpable immaturity) of those for whom the message was first given (5:12).
I would love to know what are these many features of Melchizedek that could
[39/40] not be divulged. Am I also immature to a
degree that silences further revelation? It may well be so. It is possible
that some of the implications are so sacredly spiritual that it would not
be safe for most of us to pursue them fully until we are in eternity. Nevertheless
we are told to grow up. We are encouraged to believe that the Lord is ready
enough to instruct us further, provided that we will be found among those
growingly able to digest solid food.
I do not hold that there is any technical difference between the two
designations of 'children' and 'sons'. I do not know. But I do sense that
there is a great need for God's children to put away childish things and
grow up spiritually. In this connection I would highlight Paul's exhortation
to the Corinthians, "Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to
evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults" (1 Corinthians 14:20). It
is not my purpose to draw attention to the context of the apostle's words,
but only to underline the importance of spiritual growth. New birth is instant;
our public recognition as God's sons will presumably be instant too; meanwhile,
however, we must take seriously the fact that God is dealing with us as those
whom He is instructing in the ways of holiness with sonship always in view.
We must take very seriously the exercise of growing up.
This Letter was not written just to draw out our admiration of God's
great Son, though that might be reason enough. It is more; it is an impassioned
appeal to us to see Him as our Forerunner and to be whole-hearted in growing
to be like Him. In ourselves we are slaves: in Christ we are made to have
The Call to Action
From first to last our salvation is a matter of sheer grace. The throne
to which we come for help is essentially a throne of grace. The Lord Jesus
reminded us that being anxious will not assist us to grow. But when all
that is taken into account we are still left with an important Scriptural
document which alternates between encouragements to action and warnings
about inaction in this matter of sonship.
By constant use of the verbal form which is translated 'Let us ...'
the writer entreats us to be resolutely active in our Christian growth.
We can drift out of the will of God but we can never drift into it. We
have been born by reason of God's will, but we will not grow up into that
will without constant effort on our part. As I have said, the divine family
in which Moses served is constituted of believers (3:6), who have become
partners with Christ (3:14) but both of those verses lay down the condition
of holding fast our hope firmly to the end. The individual responsibility
is underlined by the express desire that each one of us should show
the same diligence to the very end, in order to make our hope sure (6:11),
while the more general call is that we should give diligence (or make the
effort) to enter in (4:11). This call for effort is far from being contrary
to the repeated assurance that Christ has sanctified and perfected us by
His one offering of Himself; it is in fact a reminder of God's expectation
that we will give an active response of faith to His provision in Christ.
We must note the repeated call to patience or perseverance. So much
is made to hang on this, indeed it forms perhaps the main thrust of the
whole document. It seems to me that there are two ways of considering spiritual
attainment. There is the obvious one of beginning at the bottom and working
steadily upwards, but there is also the view that we have been launched from
the beginning on the heights, but need to take care not to slip down to
lower levels as time goes on. Both are valid, and both appear in this Epistle.
The first is expressed in the words: "Let us run with patience the race that
is set before us" (12:1), where the imagery suggests the steady progress
of growth. In the second, the readers are praised for the early enthusiastic
days of their first love, when they behaved as responsible sons of their
Father, and then urged not to throw away the values of those golden days
by losing heart and sinking to a lower level (10:35-36). It is as though
they began in the full life of true sonship, and must now be careful to keep
it up. If both aspects are true neither of them leaves any room for complacency.
There are costs and there are perils associated with this calling to
sonship, as the Letter will make plain in the continuation of our studies.
There are also wonderful encouragements and incentives, as we shall also
see. The Lord Jesus who began our life of faith is the One who will also
bring it to maturity (12:2). We need to keep looking away to Him. But even
if we fail to do so, He will not turn from us since His great preoccupation
in His life on the throne is to make salvation bring us to this divine
goal -- "He is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near
to God through him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us"
(7:25). The same Spirit who is bringing children to birth is also bringing
many sons to glory.
(To be continued) [40/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
ON THE WAY UP (2)
Psalm 121 STARTING UP
NO sooner has the pilgrim set out on his journey than he catches a glimpse
of the ultimate destination which is on the high hill of Zion. This raises
in his mind the question as to how he will ever make it. "From whence will
my help come?" How can I possibly climb to those heights?
TWO main factors arise, namely, how he can obtain and maintain strength
for such a strenuous journey and how he can find protection from the many
dangers and difficulties of the way. An inspired voice answers his questions.
He will be kept by the power of God.
FOR his strength he may confidently look to the Lord, since He is the
One who made both heaven and earth. He made those hills and He can therefore
safely be trusted to enable the traveller to reach the divinely set objective.
He is also the pilgrim's Maker so that if He sets this goal before him,
He will provide all the needed strength that it may be ultimately reached.
THIS has its spiritual parallel. The heights of holy perfection in Christ
are so daunting that we may well ask ourselves where we can find help to
reach them. The question, however, answers itself. Our God is the faithful
Creator. He planned our destiny and He will give us help to reach it.
THE second problem concerned the perils and difficulties of the rugged
way to the top, the dangers of the stumbling foot, the scorching sun and
the treacherous moon. The answer is the same. The Lord who is the pilgrim's
Creator is also his Keeper. Whatever various renderings may be given in different
translations, the R. V. tells him six times that he will be kept
THE same Lord who keeps the whole Church will keep the fearful individual,
and the keeping will be total -- "He will keep thee from all evil; He will
keep thy soul." The daytime perils of the sun may be very real, but he
will be kept under the divine shade. The nightly perils of the moon may
be quite imaginary, but mercy will keep him from them too. God's vigilance
is perpetual; twice over we are assured that our Keeper is always wide
awake and will not relax His watchful care of us for a single moment.
FINALLY the questioning pilgrim is told that now and for ever his heavenly
Keeper will take care of his goings out and comings in. The N.I.V. uses
a more familiar expression, 'comings and goings' but God does not express
it in this order. He never concludes with going out where His own are concerned.
For them there will always be a coming in. Our psalm not only deals with
the matter of setting out on the journey but of safe arrival.
WE go out trustingly in the morning; we come in gratefully at eventide.
We go out of this world in weakness, but that is not the end, for we go
into our heavenly home in glory. For the last time we will go out of that
sweet blessedness when the Day of Christ comes, but the eternal coming in
will follow, when dead and living will be gathered to the Lord at His appearing.
And the Lord will preserve each going out and the subsequent coming in.
With that assurance we can keep moving on our way up to our Home in God.
THE LAW OF THY MOUTH IS BETTER UNTO ME
THAN THOUSANDS OF GOLD AND SILVER.
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