|Vol. 18, No. 1, Jan. - Feb. 1989
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
NOBODY knows who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Among the various
suggestions about the possible authorship of the New Testament book, the
name of Luke sometimes appears. I have no competence to express any opinion
on this subject, but the idea prompts me to remark on a phenomenon which
occurs both in the Acts of the Apostles (which he certainly did write) and
this further treatise to the Hebrews with which he may have had some association.
The phenomenon of which I speak is an open end, a failure to complete a
list of events or names.
The book of the Acts leaves us poised in the midst of the apostolic age,
ending so abruptly that the reader is left wanting to know more. Paul had
arrived at Rome, but that was by no means the end of his life or ministry.
What more happened? Luke did not inform Theophilus and God does not tell
us. Why not? Why this divine refusal to continue with the dramatic story?
The RSV gives us some indication by helpfully concluding the book with
the last word which Luke himself employed, "Unhindered" (Acts 28:31). The
NEB version parallels this with its conclusion, "without hindrance", while
J. B. Phillips emphasised the point with the rendering, "without hindrance
from anyone". This is Luke's last word about the gospel. While it refers
directly to Paul's ministry in his own hired dwelling, it may surely be viewed
in a wider context. To me it seems that what the word is meant to convey
is what we nowadays mean when we use the words, "to be continued". There
is more -- much more -- to come.
This is a stimulating idea, for it reminds us that the risen Lord Jesus
is still continuing what He began to do at Pentecost. And we are in it! Dear
friends, we are in a succession -- a holy succession. The Holy Spirit is
occupied with bringing the story up to date. How long Paul or Peter lived
and how and where they died is relatively insignificant: what is important
is that nothing can hinder the onward progress of the gospel. There will be
no full-stop in this story until Christ returns in glory. How long we ourselves
have here is even less notable, for the great thing is that God's work in
the gospel is unstoppable. Luke's account of those early Church days is most
inspiring, but not least is this last triumphant conclusion to the book --
Of course Paul and Peter were important persons in this gospel saga.
They were spiritually sons of Abraham and therefore vitally involved in
the great purposes of the gospel which God had beforehand preached to the
great father of the faithful. But so are we all: "You are all ... Abraham's
seed" (Galatians 3:29). We are all in it together. I am indebted to John
Stott who, in his comment on this verse in Galatians, reminds all true
believers that they not only belong to God the Father but, in Christ, they
belong to one another and then to Abraham: "We take our place in the noble
historical succession of faith, whose outstanding representatives are listed
in Hebrews 11" ( The Message of Galatians, page 101).
This brings me to the other instance of an open-ended or unfinished Scripture,
which is to be found in Hebrews 11:32. Just when our mouths are watering
to have the writer's comments on the great kings and prophets of Judah, he
cuts it abruptly short by stating that he has no time to describe them all,
finishing his list with the bare mention of the names of David and Samuel.
What about those two great men? And what about the kings and prophets who
followed them? Why are we not told about them?
In the writer's own words, it was limitation of time which kept him from
pursuing the subject, and every preacher knows how real such a limitation
can be. But there must be more in it than that. Is it, perhaps, that after
having been given those earlier stories, we are in a position to compile
our own list from the Old Testament Scriptures? The recital of the various
trials and triumphs of subsequent believers may perhaps encourage us to do
that. Or is it that the Lord who inspired the Scripture did not wish us to
be limited to the Old Testament but rather indicated that the list is still
open? It runs on through the [1/2] apostolic age and
must also include gospel believers through the subsequent centuries right
up until our own days -- indeed right up until the great completion of the
story at the Second coming of Christ.
Those great men and women of faith are not only models for us; they are
our brothers and sisters. This means that they are more than our ancestors,
they are our partners. In the royal and eternal family of God there are no
grandchildren or great-grandchildren -- we are all direct sons and daughters
of the living God, "the church of the firstborn ones" (Hebrews 12:23).
Wrongly regarded, such an idea would be preposterous. Who of us would
dare to claim an Isaiah, a Paul, or John, a Calvin, a Luther or a Wesley,
as our brother? Yet this is a fact if our faith makes us all children of
Abraham. It must follow that each of us has an honoured place in the Father's
love, with the consequent implication that our lives must be characterized
by the balance of dignity and humility worthy of such a relationship.
We remember that Paul had a severe rebuke for those who claimed to belong
to him, to Apollos, or for that matter to Cephas or a sectarian "Christ".
It might have been better if Christians of later centuries, including our
own, had taken this rebuke to heart. In Christ everyone has an individual
calling and dignity of his own. Paul's comment is clear enough, though rather
stark. It is not that you belong to them, he said, but that they belong to
you. Get what blessing and help you can from fellow members of Christ but
provided you truly belong to Christ you must not in a partisan way "belong"
I find it hard to describe the significance of the unfinished list in
Hebrews 11. The implication of Luke's "unfinished" in Acts 28 is clear enough,
for it puts us in our rightful place as very small links in the great chain
of gospel history. My second consideration, from Hebrews 11, does not contradict
this but confirms it with the reminder of the great responsibility of each
individual link, however small it may feel itself to be.
This leaves no room for pettiness. There was much of this in some of
the seven churches to which Paul wrote his epistles and alas, there can
easily be petty thinking and acting in our own churches today. This should
not be; we are all partners together in the noble historical succession
of faith. We may be weak, faulty and unworthy, but we should have a humble
dignity worthy of our high calling.
A further feature of Hebrews 11 is the concluding statement that none
of those people of faith actually found fulfilment in this life: "These all,
having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise"
(v.39). All that Abraham had at the end of his long life was one son, two
grandsons and the field which he bought from the children of Heth (Genesis
25:10). Moses had a glimpse of the Promised Land but he never set foot in
it. Samuel never saw David actually on the throne. Although Daniel lived
to witness the return of the captives to Jerusalem, he was not permitted
to be in the party but enjoined to be patient in the assurance that he should
have his lot "at the end of the days" (Daniel 12:13).
This applies to us all, and to some more than others. Luke reminds us
that the story is not yet complete; Hebrews 11 suggests that when the long
list of the men and women of faith is completed in the glory of Christ's
appearing, the light of His judgment seat will shine on each one of us and
"then shall each man have his praise from God" (1 Corinthians 4:5). We each
matter. Our most individual and personal experience is set in the largest
possible background. We are partners with the men and women of faith of all
ages. Let us keep looking unto Jesus, the author and perfecter of all faith.
SAMUEL AND THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
John H. Paterson
The Lord is a God of knowledge... (1 Samuel 2:3)
IN a previous article about the Christian's knowledge of God, I suggested
that this knowledge, when we gain it -- gradually and, perhaps, painfully
-- is not for our personal benefit alone, but can be and should be used for
the good of others. We do not acquire the knowledge of God simply to
become knowledgeable, but to use our knowledge to affect events in the
lives of others.
This we can evidently do, moreover, without either the awareness or the
consent of the other person or people concerned. They may lack the knowledge
of God themselves; yet their own ignorance is transcended by the power of
God invoked on their behalf by a knowing and believing friend.
In evidence of this I cited in the last article the cases of Lot, who
was delivered from Sodom as a result of the knowledgeable prayer of Abraham
(Genesis 18); of Moses, who was able to "beg off" Israel, not once but several
times, when they had sinned as a nation; and Job, who acted on behalf of
his family repeatedly at times when he feared that they might have forgotten
themselves and their reverence for God (Job 1:4-5).
There is, however, one other case study in the Old Testament which clearly
illustrates the use, or usefulness, of the knowledge of God on behalf of
others. It is the case of Samuel: to be more exact, it is the theme of the
whole of what we call the First Book of Samuel.
This book occupies a key position in the Old Testament record of God's
dealings with His people. It is a bridging book; that is, a book that straddles
an enormous gap. It starts where the Book of Judges ends, and it finishes
with the way clear for David to ascend the throne of Israel. But put that
in another way and you will see how enormous is the gap to be bridged.
It starts with that appalling last verse of Judges (21:25): "In those days
there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own
eyes." If you have read through the later chapters of Judges, you will have
to agree that that statement of social and moral anarchy is not overdrawn.
At the other end of the book, however, comes the reign of David: the high
point of Hebrew history; the Golden Age to which, even today, the Jewish
people look back with longing.
For Israel, it represented a move from anarchy to world power in one
short period -- little more single lifetime. And spiritually it was a move
from the deepest ignorance of God's law to the rule of a king of whom it
was later to be said, "I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after
mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will" (Acts 13:22).
What a transformation -- not only in the fortunes of the nation but also
in the spread of the knowledge of God! And at once we find ourselves asking:
how did it come about? What was the secret? Confronted with total ignorance
of Himself among His chosen people, how would God react to restore the knowledge
The answer to those questions was this; He would find a man -- and one
man would be enough -- to whom He could reveal the knowledge of Himself,
and through that one man He would eventually restore the vision and the understanding
of the whole nation.
That is the solution as the First Book of Samuel reveals it to us. And
it certainly fits in with a number of small and apparently random clues
in the book itself. Knowledge generally comes to us through the faculties
of seeing or hearing and, if [3/4] you step to think
about it, there is quite a scattering of references in this book to both.
There is Eli whose eyes were dim so that he could not see (4:15) -- in more
senses than one. There is Samuel who said, "Speak, for thy servant heareth"
(3:10). These were times when (3:1) "the word of the Lord was precious in
those days; there was no open vision" (R. V. margin, no widely-spread
vision). And when the Lord wanted to warn Samuel of Saul's impending arrival,
He "uncovered his ear" (9:11 R. V. margin).
So knowledge -- of God and His will -- was going to be the central issue
for Israel and her leaders and, as time went on, they found themselves grouped
into two: the "knows" and the "don't knows"! In the first group were Samuel
and David, together with those two remarkable women in our story, Hannah
and Abigail. In the second group, tragically for Israel, were Eli and Saul.
And stuck rather miserably between the two groups was Jonathan, Saul's son.
He knew all too well (23:17) that David, and not he, would be the next king,
but he stood by his father and, in the end, died with him.
So who was this one man whom God used as a channel for bringing the nation
back to Himself? The man it should have been was, of course, Eli.
The high priest of Israel was the very person who should have possessed the
knowledge of God. It was his business to possess it. He was there to
mediate between God and man, and to interpret God's wishes to man. He, and
he alone, had the privilege of going, once a year, into the Holy of Holies
-- into the very presence of God. But Eli's eyes were dim, and he did not
even see the gross misbehaviour of his priest-sons ("they knew not the Lord",
as it says in 2:12); he only heard about it from others (2:22-23).
No; when the knowledge of God came to Eli, it came by way of the one
God had chosen to be its bearer -- Samuel, the little boy in the Temple.
What an unlikely choice! But that was the channel, and that was to be the
method: "The Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the
Lord. And the word of Samuel came to all Israel" (3:21 - 4:1).
If Eli fared badly as a "don't know", Saul's case was immeasurably worse.
Somehow, the fact that when he first came on the scene he was hunting --
unsuccessfully -- for his father's asses seems to epitomise his whole career!
Here was a man who had not only been chosen out of all Israel to be their
leader, but who actually looked like a leader, head and shoulders above
the rest of the nation (10:23). Yet he blundered from decision to decision,
always uncertain; constantly swayed by outside forces ("I feared the people,
and obeyed their voice" -- 15:24). After hunting for the asses he was no more
successful in hunting down David and we find him in the end in a most pitiable
state of ignorance, having to resort for "knowledge" to one of the witches
he himself had outlawed (28:6-9).
What lesson can we learn from God's choice of Samuel? Apart from His
oft-repeated preference for the obscure rather than the obvious there are,
in the account we have, just two things about him which marked him out,
but these two were apparently enough. One was that he was wholly dedicated
to God's service. It was, of course, Hannah who had committed him to this,
even before he was born (1:11). His was a dedicated life. In a sense, this
was Hannah doing what her son was later himself to do -- using her knowledge
of God to act for the future good of God's people. The other thing about
Samuel -- and for this let us give what credit we can to old Eli, who instructed
him -- was that he had a listening ear. When the word came, he was ready
,to hear it.
When God calls such a man, what can he do? He can interpret God to man
or, as Samuel himself put it (12:23), "I will instruct you in the good and
right way." Samuel was unsparing in his criticism when Israel chose what
he knew to be the wrong way, including the rejection of him and his
advice in favour of electing a king. He never sought to win them over or
to curry favour with them by changing his message.
But most particularly he could pray. As with Abraham, Moses and Job,
whom I have already mentioned, it was Samuel's use of prayer to affect the
lives of ignorant or wayward people which marked him out as a man with a
knowledge of God. In this respect, Samuel evidently stood in the first rank,
alongside Moses, as the rescuer -- the lifeguard, if you like -- of the
people of God. I know this is so because years later, through the prophet
Jeremiah, God accorded these two a supreme tribute: if anybody could make
Him [4/5] change His mind, they could! "Then the
Lord said unto me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could
not be towards this people" (Jeremiah 15:1).
When he was saying farewell to the nation, Samuel made them a promise
which has always impressed me. This nation, after all, had just rejected
Samuel and his descendants, even though he was able to claim without challenge
that he had never oppressed or stolen from them (12:3-4). We must all be
moved by the loyalty of the old man as he said to them, "as for me, God forbid
that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (12:23). This
was generosity indeed! But I think it was more than that. To cease to pray
for them would not merely be to forget old friendships; it would be to "sin
against the Lord". I think he realised that, by prayer, he could go on, even
in retirement, securing God's purposes in His people. He actually expected,
by prayer, to be able to counteract the destructive consequences of Saul's
ignorance, and to bring the purpose of God to its fulfilment in the survival
and crowning of David as king.
Samuel's knowledge of God thus carried over, as the later chapters of
1 Samuel show, into the life of David. David's first great exploit, the killing
of Goliath was, surely nothing but applied knowledge. Here was the whole
army of Israel under Saul's hesitant leadership, frozen by fear and unable
to act. And David came forward to deal with Goliath on this simple basis:
"This giant has insulted and defied the living God. My knowledge of that
God may not yet be very great, but I do know Him well enough to be sure that
He will never allow Himself to be insulted in this way. The man who takes
his stand on that assumption need have no fear of the consequences, no matter
how big the giant is!" And he was right!
How many people does God need to turn around the course of a nation's
history? One is evidently enough, if that one person is dedicated to His
service and always listening for His voice. And what God could do through
the young Samuel, he can do through anyone of us, in these days when the
knowledge of Himself is so meagre, if we, too, are dedicated and listening.
4. REVELATION AND REST OF HEART
"No-one knows the Father, save the Son, and those
to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" Matthew 11:27
PAUL began his prayer with the request that the Father of glory would
give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him (Ephesians
1:17). It may be profitable, therefore, to close this brief series with some
thoughts on receiving revelation concerning the Father which can only come
from the Son.
Rather surprisingly, Jesus maintained that no-one but the Father could
know the Son. Believers will claim that they do know the Son; they know
Him in a personal way as Lord and Saviour. Clearly, then, Jesus must have
meant that there is a deeper sense in which no-one knows the Son. The truth
is that His being is such a mysterious blending of the divine and human that
it is impossible for us to comprehend how He can be both God and Man, though
we profoundly believe that this is the case.
This chapter 11 unfolds to us something of the human aspects of the divine
Son. It shows Him to us as under a yoke -- He called it "My yoke"
[5/6] (v.29). It was, of course, His yoke of harmony with the Father
in heaven. As a Man He could look up to the Father in heaven with complete
and grateful trust (v.25), and so confess that His yoke, though painful,
was easy to bear and quite compatible with total rest of heart. His words
concerning the revelation given to babes is followed by the gracious invitation:
"Come unto me, and I will give you rest, take my yoke upon you, and ... you
Shall find rest unto your souls". In other words you can learn of me how to
bear the yoke of those who know God as Father.
The invitation, though so powerfully used to attract all men, was not
originally addressed to troubled sinners but to burdened and bewildered disciples.
Heart rest, so the Lord affirms, can only come to those who learn from Him
how to know and trust the Father. As a Man, Jesus suffered as we do, and
it is as a Man, wholly in harmony with the Father in heaven, that He offers
to teach us to find heart rest by trustful submission. In His human dignity
He was able to face life's burdens and problems with a prayer of submissive
praise: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth ... Yes, Father,
for so it was well-pleasing in Thy Sight" (vv.25-26). If we accept partnership
with Him under His yoke, he will teach us the secret of heart rest in that
son-to-Father relationship which can be ours. He will actually choose to
reveal God as the faithful and loving Father, and so lighten every burden
which may come upon us in God's service. There is just one condition: it
is that we lay aside our own imagined cleverness and understand and take our
place among the babes!
Now the Lord most certainly does not invite us to share His yoke in the
matter of sin-bearing. That is entirely His responsibility and was discharged
in the atoning work of His cross. We can only begin as disciples in the School
of Christ when we have entered into the full value of His saving grace through
faith in His blood. But when we are in the path of sonship -- born from
above by the Spirit -- we still have everything to learn about our Heavenly
Father and it will be the Lord Jesus who has promised to reveal Him to us.
He will do so not only in words but by His Own experiences under the Father's
hand as He bore the yoke of simple trust.
In this chapter we find three areas in which Jesus Himself could have
been stressed and burdened. He could have been -- but He wasn't! There was
no friction in His holy soul, the yoke was easy, there was no depression to
weigh Him down, the burden was light. He had perfect rest in His soul. I
listen again to His prayer: "Yes, Father, for this was Your good pleasure."
In every circumstance we can know true rest of soul if we can honestly say,
"Yes, Father. This is how You want it, so this is how I want it too." Here
are three areas in which the divine Son found freedom from all stress by reason
of His Complete trust in the Father:
1. Sorrow (vv.1-15)
He suffered when His loyal friend and cousin, John, sent to voice his
questions and doubts. John was passing through a most painful time, with
major questions about Jesus, but my suggestion is that it must have been
very sad for the Lord to have these doubts about Him by the man who, humanly
speaking, was closest to Him. And under the yoke of the Father's will, He
had no liberty to help this dear friend and herald of His.
We are apt to focus so much attention on the trial of John's faith that
we overlook the much larger issue that what was happening in his case was
largely due to the behavior of Jesus. Here He was, as He Himself reported,
relieving and delivering all sorts of people in their troubles, and yet doing
nothing for the man who mattered most. What is more, He did not feel free
to give any explanation of His conduct to the sufferer, but only urged him
to go on trusting. Under the constraint of the Holy Spirit, Jesus would not
even speak His words of commendation of John until the messengers were out
of earshot, so that John could not be told what Jesus had said about him
to the crowd.
That the Lord thought most highly of John is evident from the glowing
terms with which He spoke of him. He was unshakable, said Jesus. He was wholly
and sacrificially devoted to the will of God. He was the greatest! John was
a cousin through Mary and he had showed a beautiful spirit in his interchange
with the Lord at Jordan's baptism. He had claimed to be like the enthusiastic
best man to the Lord Jesus in His capacity of bridegroom. Yet in spite of
all this and much [6/7] more, Jesus had the painful
duty of leaving him to languish in Herod's prison, knowing all the time
that John must be left to die a cruel death with no help at all from the
Savior who was helping everybody else.
Even the glowing words of tribute which the crowds around heard may never
have reached John's ears. He only knew that Jesus was the Christ and that
he must not be offended with Him. All this Jesus knew, and it must have been
exquisitely painful to Him. Placed in the same position, we would find it
unbearable. Jesus, however, claimed to have rest in His soul. The only possible
explanation for heart rest under such circumstances can have been simple
trust in the Father's wishes and wisdom, as revealed in His words: "Even
so, Father, for this is Your perfect will" (v.26). It was a yoke, for every
natural instinct would surely have been to act or at least to explain, but
it was a friction-free yoke, for the Son's trust in the Father gave Him comfort
in sorrow, ease for pain and rest of soul. And this is precisely what He
offers to reveal and convey to us if we will learn to share His yoke and
from Him learn more about the Father's infinite wisdom.
2. Insults (vv.16-19)
The charge against John, who had his reputation taken away by the slanderous
priests who accused him of being demon-possessed, brought up an equally slanderous
accusation against the Lord Jesus Himself: "A glutton and a drunkard", they
said, "a man who carouses with the lowest of the low".
Now God does not worry about the lying charges of unbelievers. How can
He, for He is Almighty God? "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh: the
Lord shall have them in derision". But although Jesus is very God, He is
also truly man, and what man would not deeply suffer from lying accusations
and misrepresentations? Jesus was a Man of flesh, not of iron or stone, and
He was infinitely more sensitive than the most delicate woman. It must have
hurt to be maligned in this way. Of course it hurt, yet here He was, quietly
offering praise to the Father and talking convincingly about rest of the
Once again we note that His attitude was one of gentle acceptance of
the Father's sovereign will. This was more than outward calm -- some of
us can manage that at times, even when we are boiling inside -- for He could
affirm: "I am gentle and lowly in heart". I have seen Christians with strong
professions of holiness, reacting to lesser insults than these with hot
condemnation. I have known them utter threats of divine judgments against
their opponents in the face of opposition. I have to confess that I have
at times burned with unspoken indignation. But not the Lord! "When he was
reviled, he did not revile in return" says the Scripture. "when he suffered,
he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly"
(l Peter 2:23).
If we ask how Jesus could react so calmly to this kind of lying insult,
the answer is that He bore the Father's yoke and was completely committed
to trust in the Father's will and wisdom. He had to rebuke the offenders,
but He did so not only with a calm demeanour hut with a divine peace in His
heart. No clenched teeth and stiff upper lip -- Just quietness of heart!
"Come to me" he says, "and I will share that heart rest with you, so that
no accusations or insinuations will provoke a ferment in your soul." The gospel
invitation is to give such a revelation of the Father as will give us rest
of heart in the midst of persecution and calumny: there is heart rest for
us all in yoke partnership with the Son.
3. Unsuccessful Ministry (vv.20-24)
Jesus was human. To Him, as to all of us who serve God, success must
have tasted very sweet. Who of us has not been uplifted when people thank
us for our helpfulness and respond to our appeals? Imagine, then, how Jesus
must have felt as He had to taste the bitterness of utter rejection. He lived
a holy life in Nazareth and concluded His time there with a gracious, spirit-inspired
message in their Synagogue, but they would not listen to Him. At that time
even His brothers did not believe in Him. So complete was the murderous
rejection of His life and ministry that none of the four Gospels even mention
Nazareth after the incident described by Luke (4:16-30). Nazareth was out!
Was that all that Jesus had to show for His thirty years there?
To ordinary judgment this represented total failure. We do hear about
some of the other Galilean cities, notably Capernaum which became His second
home, but once again the news is very had. He not only preached in Bethsaida
and [7/8] Capernaum, but did many mighty miracles
there. With what result? In this chapter Jesus Himself provides the report
and it was one of total rejection, absolute refusal to respond. It left them
not only worse than Tyre and Sidon, but even worse than Sodom: "Howbeit I
say unto you, that it is more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day
of judgment than for you" (v.24). This was the account which the holy Servant
of Jehovah had to give of His ministry in that region. It looked like miserable
failure. Some of us have had our bad moments from our ministry, but not many
can have passed through such a bitter experience. Did I say "bitter"? Look
again! It was "At that time" that Jesus answered the situation by saying"
"I praise You Father, Lord, of heaven and earth ..." I praise You that Your
Sovereignty prevails in this wilful blindness. I praise You that there is
another side to the story, the miracle of divine grace revealed by those
who have hearts like little children so that they can come to know You. And
as I praise, I find that My yoke is easy and My burden is light to Me, because
in all things I exercise complete trust in You, My Father.
It was as though Jesus had shown how He trusted and knew the Father,
and then immediately turned to strained and burdened disciples and offered
to bring comfort to their hearts by revealing to them the ever faithful
Father. "Take My yoke", the Lord says. "Come into partnership with Me. You
will then enjoy for yourselves this heart rest which I am now displaying
under most trying circumstances. The secret of this rest is such a knowledge
of the Father as enables you at all times to say "Thank You. If that is how
You like it, then I choose to like it too". Those who are enduring sorrow,
those who are misunderstood and criticised, those who seem just at the moment
to be failures in their service to God, have the same heavenly Father as Jesus,
and can find peace to their souls by simple trust in Him. The secret is to
stop trying to fight it out or to worry through, and just humbly come and
accept Christ's sweet yoke.
Everything is made to hinge on this matter of the yoke of sonship. No
doubt it is legitimate to employ Matthew 11:28 as a gospel invitation to
the sin-weary and the guilt-laden offenders, but the rest of Christ's words
show that really His purpose is to comfort His disciples by revealing the
Father to them. The idea of a yoke involves movement. Jesus did not find rest
by giving up. And nor shall we. He moved steadfastly on with His yoke-service
to the Father, and those who would know heart rest must move on with Him.
We must not let difficulties or apparent lack of results paralyse us. Just
as the Lords Jesus went right on, bearing the yoke and trustfully praising
the Father, so we may go on with Him, sharing His yoke.
Does the yoke we are bearing chafe us? Does the burden of our service
seem too heavy to bear? We have to confess that sometimes this does appear
to be the case. We must ask ourselves, Is this His yoke, is this His burden.
If it is not let us cast it off. If it is, then we have the comfort of His
presence and promise. He suggests that the remedy is a new nearness to Himself
and appreciation of the One who is not only His Father but also our Father,
by grace. As we are enabled to face every situation in the spirit of "Yes,
Father, for this is Your good pleasure", we will find the same heart rest
that the Son of Man always enjoyed.
TREASURE IN EARTHEN VESSELS
J. Alec Motyer
2. PRESENT RENEWAL AND ETERNAL GLORY
(2 Corinthians 4:7-18)
"WE have this treasure in earthen vessels". No doubt gardeners will know
what it is to go into the greenhouse to get a flower-pot that you thought
was put away safely, only to find that it has a great chip in the side of
it. It was only an earthenware vessel, something essentially fragile, unfitted
to bear the knocks of life. That is what Paul means here. It is earthen,
not in the sense [8/9] that it belongs to this earth
but that it suffers from life's knocks. We use this vocabulary about the events
of life when we say that we are "shattered".
That is the whole flavor of this passage which we are considering. We
hold the eternal treasure of the gospel in lives and personalities which
are fragile. And we are not a protected species, for in this harsh world
the earthenware vessel is subjected to knocks and buffetings. These things
come upon us as they come upon anyone else. This is what life is like. There
are, of course, blessedly other sides to the life of a Christian, but this
is one side, and a very serious side at that. The sufferings, the blows and
the decayings come on the believer.
And it is not just our bodies, but the whole personality of the life
we live here on earth which is the vessel. That is what is involved in the
apostle's phrase, "the outward man" (v.16). There is the person that people
can see, that which is visible of us here on earth. Our bodies bear the signs
of the change and decay of life under pressure. The whole outward man is
perishing. This passage addresses one of the deepest problems that we face
as earthen vessels, for often there is a sense of purposelessness in the
deep afflictions when blows fall, either upon us or upon those who are dear
to us. The inner heart of our grief is often the fact that we cannot penetrate
through to see what is the purpose of it all, for it may seem pointless.
We really feel that if the Lord came down for a minute from His throne
and explained things to us, life would be easier to bear. But this passage
assures us that in His Word God does just that. He explains. The Bible both
tells us about suffering and explains its reason and purpose. Look at the
words, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels in order that ..."
We ask why things have happened to us and God replies, "in order that ..."
We have more in verse 10, "Always bearing about in the body the dying of
Jesus, in order that ..." If this were not enough we go on to read,
"For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake in order
that ..." (v.11). God has explained Himself. He has given us an awareness
of the purpose which He is working out. We need no longer be puzzled. No
more need we ask what the purpose is behind all that happens to us. God has
come down from His throne to explain it to us.
For all things are for your sake in order that ..." (v.15). The
words are "always" and "all things". They are for your sake in order that
divine purposes may be realised. At the very heart of this message there
is the answer to our problem. Why has God done this? Why has this happened
to me? Perhaps best of all are the lovely words "Our light affliction, which
is but for a moment works for us ..." (v.17). The trial which comes to us
is actually working for us an eternal weight of glory! Far from being purposeless,
it is actually full of energy to bring a blessed result to pass.
Verse 12 denotes a new section by means of the words, "So then". This
goes on until verse 16 which begins, "Wherefore". We see, then, that our
whole passage is divided into three parts:
1. The Divine Purpose in Suffering - Verses 7 to 11
The treasure is in earthen vessels "in order that the exceeding greatness
of the power may be God's, and not something which proceeds from us" (v.7).
No power can arise from an earthen vessel. Its purpose is to display the
power that comes from God alone.
i. How God wills to reveal Himself
The treasure spoken of here is the knowledge and experience of the gospel.
God has worked wonderfully to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory
of God in the face of Jesus Christ. He has done a creative work. The same
God Who at the Creation said, "Light shall shine out of darkness" has performed
a creative work in our hearts. He spake and it was done". That is the sacred
history of our conversion. It represents a sovereign, creative work of God.
So it is that we are told, "If anyone is in Christ -- a new creation!" (5:17).
In the original it is an exclamation rather than a statement -- a new creation!
Natural logic will go on from this to a sort of triumphalism, arguing
that from now on it will be glory all the way, but we need the corrective
of spiritual logic, which reminds us that this treasure of the new creation
is for the time being contained in the essentially fragile earthenware pot
of my personality. We argue that a new creation means that everything will
now be different and marvellous. "Not so" says the Scripture. "Everything
will be pressures and knocks and difficulties, for that is the way in which
God chooses to reveal Himself." God's purpose is that [9/10]
under the pressures of life, onlookers may not say that we are marvelous,
but that we must have a marvelous God.
In the Old Testament story of Gideon and his three hundred men, we are
told how they concealed their torches in their earthenware pots. When Gideon
raised his great shout, they smashed the pots and the lights shone. That
is how the victory was won. We are apt to say that every blow is a problem,
every blow is a setback, a difficulty, but no, every blow is an opportunity
-- when the earthenware pot cracks, the divine light shine out.
ii. How God keeps us safe
The apostle goes on to speak of pressures and perplexities (v.8), of
persecutions and prostrations (v.9). That is just what life is like. The
Bible is very realistic, not at all like the triumphalism that many speak
of today -- though none of them live it! Paul says that these trials are
natural, and we notice that he includes himself in the "we" of this passage.
This is the normative apostolic experience. It was true of the apostle and
it will be true of every believer in the apostolic tradition. When we are
pressed, pursued and harried and even flat on our faces, it is good to know
that this is normal. Nothing strange is happening. It is not a bit out of
the ordinary. This is what life is about. Another apostle tells us not to
count it strange when we fall into painful trials (1 Peter 4:12). This is
the lot of an earthen vessel.
What Paul calls "the exceeding greatness of God's power" (v.7) can be
described as "the plus one greatness of God's power". There is that about
the power of God which is always better than any other power that can come
against us. So Paul points out that while we are pressurised, we are not crushed
and while we are pursued we are never left in the lurch. We may be smitten
down but we are not destroyed, for there is always the "plus one" of the
power of God to keep us safe and to bring us home in victory. We are comforted,
therefore, not only to be told that this is how God wills to reveal Himself
but also that His faithfulness guarantees our safety.
iii. How God makes us like Christ
These are things that we must constantly keep in mind as we are under
life's pressures. While we wonder how we will get through the day, we know
that God is going to reveal Himself in our trials and is going to bring us
safely thorough them. The third thing that we can be sure of is that by these
things God is at work to make us like the Lord Jesus. Verses 10 and 11 virtually
say the same thing over twice: "Always bearing about in the body the dying
of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body, for we
which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake that the life also
of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh." Note the repetition of "always".
This is something which is permanently true. God is at work to make us like
His Son. Not only at the cross but at every point in the process, Jesus bowed
Himself to what is here called "necrosis", the process of dying.
We find this process of dying in the pressures, perplexities, persecutions
and prostrations that come to us in our daily lives as vessels of clay, but
the process is related to a most glorious purpose, namely, that the life
of Jesus may be seen in us as we become progressively like Him. These two
verses remind us that there is a Jesus pattern in what is happening to us.
With Him the life could not have been known in the glory of resurrection apart
from the death of the cross. There is a Jesus pattern, and God imposes that
pattern on all of us. He brings upon us day by day those things which will
produce the necrosis, the dying of Jesus, in order that the life of
Jesus may operate in us. So we are not left without explanation. God declares
to us His purpose in our trials. The great question is whether we are going
to believe Him. If we do, then when the heat is turned on we can confidently
affirm that the inexplicable will of God is purposefully at work to reveal
his glory, to alive us the plus-one power that will bring us through and
to further this majestic scheme to make us like the Lord Jesus.
We notice that Paul affirms that this is always the case. Every situation
is a part of this purpose. However inexplicable, however niggling or however
appalling this process is, it is divinely effective. In verse 11 we have
another word for "always" which means that it is going on all the time. In
this way God is at work in every circumstance and all the time, and He is
doing it "for Jesus' sake".
The buffetings that come upon the earthen vessel are for the sake of
the Lord Jesus. Indeed it says that we are delivered to them. It is not
something which we voluntarily undertake for the gospel's sake, but that
which is imposed upon us. We are handed over to them for Jesus' sake. And
[10/11] who is it that hands us over? it is our
heavenly Father. We are involved in the devotion of the Father to the Son
who shows us what He thinks about Calvary by imposing the same pattern on
all His children. He plans to express His supreme satisfaction with His
Son by making us all like Him. In the estimation of God there is no glory
like the glory of Jesus.
2. The Evangelistic Purpose in Suffering - Verses 12 to 15
There is an evangelistic relationship between the sacrifices made by
the evangelist and the blessing which comes to the evangelised. "Death works
in us, but life in you". This is seen clearly in the matter of Paul's ministry.
If he had not been willing to accept the rigours of his missionary tours,
the gospel would never have reached those to whom he preached. Had he not
been willing to accept the suffering, they would never have known salvation.
Paul goes on to quote from Psalm 116, stating "having the same spirit of
faith according to that which is written, I believed, and therefore did I
speak". Like David, the apostle faced all his problems with a spirit of restful
faith, believing that in it all God was working out His purposes. It was faith
which sustained Paul; this was his pathway to the enjoyment of the resurrection
I truly believe that this is not only true of the sufferings which we
may undertake voluntarily in the interests of sharing the gospel, but applies
also to all those sufferings which are imposed upon believers in this world.
When Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he said that he was "on duty for the gospel".
So are we all. Whatever trial or sorrow falls upon us, we find ourselves
on duty for the gospel.
Somebody will be watching and will he blessed if we use our suffering
for the glory of the Lord Jesus. Somebody will be blessed. That is how the
gospel goes forward. Sadly, though, we tend to want costless evangelism.
We would rather write cheques and invite Billy Graham than speak ourselves
to our next-door neighbour. We say, "Lord, here am I. Send Billy Graham!"
This will not do. If we are not willing to pay the cost of suffering in evangelism,
then there will be people who do not hear the gospel. At the end of his catalogue
of sufferings in verses 8 and 9, the apostle goes on to say that He who raised
up the Lord Jesus and raises us up also with Jesus "will present us with
you" (v.14). We will all be there in the glory. There is a purpose in suffering,
my beloved. Never let us again exclaim that we do not know why the Lord lets
us suffer. Here is the answer. We have found it in the Word of God.
Paul closes this section on evangelism by noting a twofold purpose. First
he says, "Everything is for your sakes in order that grace may come to more
and more people" and secondly he says that "Everything is for your sakes
in order that thanksgiving may go more and more to God" (verse 15). Everything!
Paul looks back on beatings and shipwrecks and hungers and sleepless nights,
and he says, "Everything is for your sake". And everything is for the satisfaction
of God, The basis of everything is purposeful suffering. Never let us think
that God ought to look after us better. His ways are perfect.
3. The Eternal Purpose in Suffering - Verses 16 to 18
The "wherefore" of verse 16 makes us look back. It reminds us that the
purpose of God in leading the earthen vessels through pathways of suffering
is that those vessels may become more like Jesus. And as it does so, it
calls us to look forward to the eternal significance of it all. And all
this means that we do not faint, or allow the bloom to go off us. We have
seen that we have confidence because God is revealing His own glory and power
in us. Then we have seen that God is going to spread His gospel, as we accept
suffering in a spirit of faith. And now the third basis of confidence is
that He is going to bring us home to eternal glory.
i. Present Renewal
The process of being prepared for glory is that of constant present renewal:
"Though our outward man is decaying, our inward man is being renewed day
by day". The bangs and buffetings of life are the means by which God is making
us like His Son. This is not what is commonly heard today. Just as Christians
want costless evangelism, so they are looking for cheap, costless renewal.
This can never be. Paul tells us that it is the trials which will produce
renewals. It may seem a strange way of renewal, to have the outward man decaying,
day after day. But since God is in charge, it involves constant renewal
by His grace, as day after day we are transformed under His hand.
ii. Future Fulfilment
"For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us an
eternal weight of glory". Our questions and complaints are silenced as we
seek how God is making things work for us. It is not that God is allowing
affliction and then setting it aside in favour of blessing. No, in His hand
the very afflictions are actually working for us. It is, of course, God who
is working, but He uses the trials. The description "light" can only be
as a means of comparison, for many of the afflictions which come upon God's
people are heavy. And they do not seem to be just for a moment! Indeed in
many cases they may seem to be lifelong. For many more believers the blow
falls and its effects stretch for many dreary years ahead. It is only by comparison
that we can use the terms "light" and "momentary", but we can use them in
the light of the eternal weight of unending glory. When by faith we feel
the pressures of the weight of bliss which heaven will bring, then we know
that no earthly burden can be heavy. And when we look out into the endless
stretches of eternity, we appreciate that what is happening now is but for
iii. "While we look ..."
The final verse adds a little condition of enjoyment. We may wonder how
we can now enjoy these things, and that is the big question. It can only
be as we note and remember this purposefulness of our God in all our sufferings
that we enjoy His plus-one power. The N.I.V. reads "so we look ..." (v.18)
but that is not what it says. The sense of what Paul wrote is that we enjoy
this provided that we look....
So often in suffering we tend to look at ourselves. We look at our hardships,
or we look at the sad circumstances of dear friends who are suffering. That,
of course, is natural; it is inevitable and has to be. But where else are
we looking? On what is our main gaze fixed? What is our permanent object
of concern? Paul tells us that if we want to reap the harvest of God's mercies
we must keep a steady gaze on eternal realities.
We must keep ourselves acquainted with eternal, spiritual realities.
That is how the Lord Jesus endured the cross. When He spoke at length to
His disciples in the upper room, He must have been envisaging in His own
holy heart the cruel events so soon to come upon Him. We read, however,
in John 17:1 that at that time He lifted up His eyes to His heavenly Father,
filling those eyes with the glory: "Now, O Father, glorify me with thine
own self ..." And so He endured. In our own small measure we are to do the
same. Paul ends this chapter by telling us to fill our eyes with the glory,
to keep looking up to heaven where Christ is. When we do that, then we are
able to live in the good of God's purposes and His promises.
(To be continued)
"When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father,
even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall
bear witness of me; and ye also bear witness..." John 15:26-27
"THEY were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and ..." (Acts 2:4). Many
Christians asked to complete that sentence might make different suggestions.
Some would say "and they were filled with praise"; others might suggest that
it should be, "and they were filled with love"; yet others might opine that
they were filled with wisdom (a very important truth). Again it might be
said that the sequence should read, "... and they were launched into fellowship".
All of these ideas would be true, but they are not what Luke wrote. He tells
us that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak
with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance".
In other words, what the Pentecostal miracle tells us is that the Holy
Spirit is in the business of communications. I don't know how you understand
the special gift of tongues described in Acts 2, but to me it is that what
the gift of the Holy Spirit did for the apostles was to enable them to communicate
the truth of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, breaking down the language
barrier which Babel had set up, in order that everybody could hear the mighty
works of God in their own particular tongue. Certainly the gift of tongues
at Pentecost did not confuse but made the truth clear and plain.
We find several references to the Spirit of truth in the Lord's talk
to His disciples and in them we are told not about the Spirit's person but
about His work. The Lord Jesus said that "The Spirit, whom the Father will
send in my name will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all
that I said unto you" (John 14:26). This is the ministry of the Spirit of
truth, first to teach the apostles and remind them of what He had said, and
then to teach us through the apostles who would pass on to us the inspired
Word. Then the Lord Jesus said that the Spirit of truth would bear witness
of Him, adding the words, "... and ye also bear witness".
The blessings of God must never terminate with those blessed. If He teaches
us, it is that we may be able to teach others, and when He bears witness
it is to give us the privilege of sharing the testimony with Him -- hence
the use of the word "also". The purpose of blessing is to make us a blessing
as was seen in the case of Abraham. This is the purpose of election as the
Scriptures show in his case, and it was the great fault of Israel that election's
purpose failed when they grasped everything for themselves.
The Holy Spirit is not given us primarily for self gratification, but
for Christ glorification. He is given not so much to make us feel happy as
to enable us to reach out in blessing for others. To us all the Lord says,
"You also bear witness". Originally the words were spoken to those who had
been with Him from the beginning (John 15:27) but now the same Spirit calls
us to share His testimony. The original thrust of the "you also" applied
primarily to the apostles, for it was true of them that they had been with
the Lord Jesus from the beginning. Indeed to be an apostle you had to be
an eye-witness of Jesus and His resurrection as is disclosed by the occasion
of the choice of a replacement for Judas, when it was stated "Beginning from
the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up from us, of these
must one become with us a witness of his resurrection" (Acts 1:22).
We also are to be Christ's witnesses, but in our case the testimony does
not come from personal association with the Lord so it necessarily has to
be the same testimony, coming to us through their writings. Through the Scriptures
we are empowered to give an apostolic testimony. Today there are many who
talk about Jesus but the mere mention of His name is not enough. Is their
testimony about Jesus the one which the apostles gave? Is it apostolic? Is
it the apostolic Christ with whom we are confronting our generation? There
are vast implications of the gospel which affect many areas of life in the
world, but to preach the implications of the gospel is not to preach the
The gospel must focus on the Lord Jesus. He said "The Holy Spirit will
bear witness of Me". The Spirit does not speak primarily of Himself
but concentrates all His witness to the truth by testifying of the reality
of God and the reality of the Lord Jesus -- His Person and His work. The
Spirit is soaked in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. By the Spirit
we are to confront our generation with the fact of Christ, the death of Christ,
the blood of Christ and His atoning work, with His resurrection, His ascension
and His Second Coming. We hear much about rediscovering the kingdom of God,
but the Gospel shows that the most significant factor of that kingdom is
the position of Jesus as King. People want the kingdom without the King. They
cannot have it. It is on Him that the Spirit's witness focuses.
Note that there is to be a double witness: "He will bear witness ...
and you also ..." The Lord Jesus Himself tells us that if our testimony
is to carry weight and go home to the conscience of men and change their
hearts and lives, then it is not enough to have a single witness. That is
the force of the word "also". We need the Spirit and He needs us.
We cannot bear our witness without the Holy Spirit, but He needs our
witness to corroborate His, to back Him up. I once had to referee a rugby
football match between our college and another. On the opposing side there
was one player of international class so their team seemed invincible. But
his particular side lost the game. We won! It is true that he was an outstanding
player; whenever he got the ball he ran thirty or forty yards with it, but
failed because there was no-one in support. His running and his skill were
unavailing since there was no back-up given. Similarly with us, though it
is not a question of our giving witness and having the Holy Spirit to back
us up but rather that the prime witness is the Holy Spirit and our business
is to back Him Up. In the testimony He is leading, but we must come behind
and be involved.
How often we are stirred up about evangelism and think eagerly in terms
of technique and programmes, but it doesn't seem to get very far. Is this
perhaps because we do not stop to ask what is the emphasis which the Holy
Spirit is seeking to give. We need to find out what is the emphasis and focus
of the Spirit and then come up behind it. He will create the climate and
not leave us to choose and to plan. He takes the prime place, but when He
is doing so, we must follow behind Him in such a way that our testimony will
be effective and authoritative. How can we do this? Let us choose a few
words from John 15 to help us answer this question.
"Already you are clean ..." (John 15:3). This means that we must not
try to witness to the Lord Jesus without a personal experience of His power.
By receiving the word of the cross we are made clean and right with Him. We
talk of "give and take" in life, and this is most necessary in our relationships.
With the gospel, however, it is just the opposite -- not "give and take",
but "take and give". First we must receive and then we are able to give to
others. Evangelism is not just a duty coming from guilt but a glad outworking
of a sense of gratitude. The Holy Spirit impels us because we know the reality
"Abide in me, and I in you" (John 15:4). Testimony is the result of deep
intimate relationship, not loose attachment like a door-knob to a handle
which can always be knocked off, but organic union, as the branch in the vine
so that the sap of Christ's life is coursing through us. Behind the word
"abide", there is the idea of that which is constant and controlled. It necessarily
involves pain as the husbandman prunes. Probably there is no other plant
which has to be pruned so ruthlessly as the vine. For it to be fruitful a
vine has to be cut back again and again. This is the picture which the Lord
Himself has given us to comfort us in the trials of life which our loving
heavenly Father permits as we keep in vital relationship with Christ. His
one objective being always to ensure that our testimony for Him is effective
3. Even As
"This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I
have loved you" (John 15:12). This matter of love is not offered as a suggestion
but given as a commandment and the standard is the highest possible -- even
as I have loved you! The love of Christ for His own is not mere sentiment,
but constant and loyal. We might say that it is a stubborn love. It forgives
to the measure of seventy times seven. This is the basis of an effective
The Lord Jesus does not burden us with many and intolerable restrictions
like the Pharisees with the Mosaic law. He narrows it all down to the matter
of love. In this case He does not tell us to love God. The first commandment
of the gospel is not that we love God but that we trust Him. Here the Lord
does not even tell us that we must love those to whom we testify. No, the
command is that we love one another. The effective testimony to Christ must
come from those who are the family of God, exercising family love.
I was once about to lead a service in India, in a place near Poona, and
had the shock of seeing the whole congregation suddenly disappear. The
[14/15] men, sitting on one side, and the women, sitting together
on the other side, all rose up and departed, and it all came when there went
up a cry "A snake!" As it happens it was not a large one, but it was deadly
poisonous, and everybody was aroused to have it killed. Well, it was killed,
and then the whole company returned, the men on one side and the women on
the other. We proceeded with the Communion Service, but the parable involved
has always remained with me. Before we could come to the Sacrament we had
to deal with the serpent. This is true at all times and affects the manner
of our Spirit-led witness. If unpleasantness and pettiness are causing division
among us, then our testimony to outsiders will lack conviction. How can
we witness to the world effectively if the unity of the Spirit is not fully
operative among us?
In closing may I point you to a double emphasis on witnessing which is
found in the Letter to the Colossians? In the first place the apostle asks
for prayer that he may give his testimony in a suitable way: "That I may
make it manifest as I ought to speak" (Colossians 4:4) and he then goes on
to urge his readers so to order their speech with grace and salt that they
may know how they ought to answer every questioner (4:6).
Preachers must be careful to use their opportunities to speak as they
ought to do, that is, with courage and uninhibited boldness. We must
be true to the Word. May God deliver us from a gospel from which no-one is
offended and no-one saved. And then all Christians, quite apart from preaching,
must know how to answer men as they ought to do. Notice that the stress
is on answering. We are not to use our daily work to be always aggressively
pressing the gospel on all and sundry. That is not what the Spirit means
by evangelism. It may make us feel good, but it is unlikely to help others.
This verse emphasises not so much initiative as response; the grace of the
Holy Spirit as well as the salt of the truth are needed so that we can answer
enquiries which are provoked in the course of daily and ordinary events.
One of the great purposes in Christ's ministry to us of the Comforter
is that we may always bear a true witness to Him. That is how we ought to
PAUL'S LETTERS TO SEVEN CHURCHES
1. ROME The Scriptures
PAUL wrote more than seven Epistles; in fact the inspired writings of
the apostle are about twice that number. Nevertheless we only know of seven
churches or church groups to which he wrote. I imagine that this must have
been commented on, but it had never occurred to me until now. The seven are:
Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse and Thessalonica.
The recurrence of the number seven alerted me and set me on a search
to try to discover a specific emphasis of each of the writings. All cover
the general features of the gospel -- the Person and Work of Christ, the
Work of the Holy Spirit, the Destiny of the Church, etc. and, of course,
specific handling of local problems among the believers of that time. However
what I have tried to discern [15/16] is some basic
idea which was in the mind of the writer as he addressed the different communities.
In the case of two of them, the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, there
were two separate Letters, but I take it that for them, also, there may have
been some basic stress in the mind of the apostle.
It is not unusual for a teacher to have one thought or word which makes
a kind of refrain in his mind as he tries to help others, and this is true
in respect of our prayers. Whether consciously or in our subconscious there
may be a recurring idea which lies behind our efforts. Could this have been
in the case of the apostle Paul? It surely cannot be chance that has recorded
the number of Paul's inspired messages to be to the exact number of seven.
There were, of course, seven Letters sent by Christ through John to the churches
in Asia. Seven in the Bible is always the full number, so that in a sense
this may involve the whole message of God to the whole Church. Those Letters
to the churches in the Revelation were meant to be read in all seven churches
(Revelation 22:16), and in the course of time we may believe that this is
what occurred with Paul's. All the churches, then as now, can profit from
all the epistles. On at least one occasion, Paul requested that the message
be shared (Colossians 4:16). I hope, therefore that studies based on each
specific message may be worth considering. What follows merely represents
musings of mine over the refrain running in the writer's mind as he wrote
The theme of Romans is redemption and the treatment given to that subject
in the Epistle is worthy of the immense subject. As we pass through sin and
forgiveness, the cross and the resurrection, the work of the Holy Spirit,
the significance of Israel, the Christians' behaviour and worldwide evangelisation,
we find a constant undertone of quotations from the Scriptures.
The Letter begins with the assertion that the gospel is founded on the
Word of God: "which he promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures"
(1:2). It also concludes with a similar reminder that the mystery of Christ
is "now manifested and by the scriptures of the prophets ... is made known
unto all the nations unto obedience of faith" (16:26). In between these allusions
to Scripture there are numerous Bible references, with over thirty actual
quotations from the Old Testament. Seventeen times we are reminded that
"it is written", and there are many other allusions to the Old Testament.
This is an emphasis which none of us must miss.
What, then, has this Letter to say to me about the practical values of
close attention to the Scriptures?
"As it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith" (1:17).
The Letter begins with the phrase, "the obedience of faith" (1:5) and
ends with the same, "unto obedience of faith" (16:26). Here is a matter of
vital importance; here is the basis not only for the beginning of the Christian
life but for its active continuance.
Faith is not so much an action as a reaction; it is a personal response
to a personal proposition. This is how it began. Abraham, the father of all
who have faith, was given a promise. The initiative came entirely from God
who had said, "I will ..." How much God's promise came as a surprise to
Abraham or how much it provided for some inner sense of need which he felt,
we do not know. What we do know is that Accra responded with a simple "Thank
You" to God's promise. "Abraham believed God". His faith was demonstrated
by a grateful acceptance.
My Continental and S. American friends used to tease me because -- being
an Englishman -- I often said "Thank you" when I really meant "Please". Amid
laughter the proffered item was kept back, since to them the response of
"Thanks" to the offer which was being made was equivalent to saying "No, thank
you." I ought to have said "Please", and waited to express thanks until I
had received whatever was being offered. I solved this problem only by waiting
until I had the thing firmly in my possession before I said "Thank you".
That is what Abraham did. When he [16/17] believed
God he did not say "Please", for he regarded the gift as already given; he
grasped it gratefully and so proved that he believed God. And that -- says
the Scripture -- was faith.
In this Letter Paul takes up the analogy, reminding us that in Abraham's
case the proposition seemed hopelessly impossible, so that for him faith
was not a soft option but a challenge -- not easy but divinely possible. Paul
goes on to say that the "it is written" was not that which related only to
him but "for our sake also, unto whom it shall be reckoned who believe ..."
(4:23-24). By His gospel God has met us with a promise, namely, that we can
be accepted by Him as completely free from sin and wholly upright. If we
are sensitive, this will seem just as impossible, or even more so, than the
promise given to Abraham. Without any action on our part or contribution from
us, can a just God be the Justifier of those who believe in Jesus? The answer,
of course, is that it comes because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross; we
are justified by faith in His blood.
Later on in the Letter Paul reminds us that we can only have faith in
God when we have met Him in His Word: "So then belief comes by hearing, and
hearing by the word of Christ" (10:17). No-one can be a man of faith without
constant attention to God's Word. Abraham did not wake up one morning and
decide to become a believer. No. God met him, and that day he listened and
responded, and so became a man of faith. It was because God had spoken to
him that this happened. And so it continued. It was not that afterwards when
he woke up, he said that because he had previously believed God he had automatically
become an up-to-date believer. Each day he was met by God and each day he
relied afresh on God's pledged word. Alas, there was a time when he listened
to Sarah instead of to God, and it seems that for thirteen years the title
for him of "believer" was a doubtful one. That is all too possible in our
case. Thank God that the aged Paul was able to assure us that such a barren
period need not last: "If we are faithless, he abides faithful; for he cannot
deny his own nature" (2 Timothy 2:13).
The possibility of unfaith will, however, be underlined for us as we
pay attention to God's Word. Both Moses and Isaiah are cited to remind us
of the fact that it is possible to hear and yet to refuse to believe (10:18-21).
On this connection we have that frequently quoted tragedy communicated by
God to Isaiah: "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not
see, and ears that they should not hear." The apostle adds "unto this very
day" (11:8). He would have to say the same in 1988. We are true believers
when God has taken the initiative to face us afresh with the challenge of
His promise and afresh we have said our "Thank You" in confident trust. Any
day of "no Bible" will probably be a day of "no faith".
"As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one" (3:10).
There are, of course, deluded self-righteous people who claim to be blameless,
but the majority of us are ready to admit our faults and failures. It may
be surprising, therefore, that so many Scriptures are quoted to prove the
sinfulness of man. The letter to the Romans provides many or these. Why is
I imagine that the intention is not just to mention the fact of sin or
even to prove it, but to stress its seriousness. The trouble with society
today is that sin is not taken seriously, even among many professing Christians.
The so-called Liberation Theology condones murder. In the name of tolerance
or charity, there are those who excuse sodomy. Then there is Triumphalism
which tends to encourage greed and covetousness. I regret to say that people
obsessed with healing techniques can be cruel in their opinions and sometimes
doubtful in their veracity. A cheerful use of apparently orthodox slogans
can cover behaviour which the Bible would call sin. And religious associations
do not help. Indeed Isaiah's words are quoted in this connection: "For the
name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, as it is
written " (2:24). This is a sharp arrow to pierce the conscience of us
Now if he had been alive today, Saul of Tarsus would doubtless have agreed
with all I have written. He would be untroubled by the various Scriptures
quoted and would claim to be keeping the law. Stealing, adultery, idolatry
-- he felt guiltless in all these respects. The problem would arise, as in
fact it did, with that last commandment which deals with the inner life as
well as the outward behaviour. In fact this actually did happen for he confesses,
"I had not known sin, except through the law, for I had not known coveting
except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet". He goes on to say that this
one commandment slew him (7:7-11).
When this became a vital issue to him we do not know. It does not matter.
The simple fact is that an honest reading of the Scriptures is bound to convict
us of our sin. It seems to have made Saul (or Paul) a wretched man. But
it did not leave him there. When his own pretensions of morality were destroyed,
he was ready to receive the gift of Christ's righteousness and to change
his tune from "O wretched man that I am" to "I thank God through Jesus Christ
our Lord". I know that Paul's conversion dated from the Damascus road, but
this biographical excerpt tells how an honest facing of God's Word called
his bluff and undeceived him about himself. The Word of God will always
do that. Christians or not, we live in an unreal world of self-deception
if we fail to keep close to the Lord through His Word.
"The scripture saith ... Whosoever shall call upon the name of the
Lord shall be saved" (10:11-13).
Salvation is a vast subject. It concerns the forgiveness of sins, and
in this connection David is quoted (4:7-8). If Abraham is regarded as a great
saint I am afraid that David can be regarded as a great sinner, but the
two of them are found together in Chapter 4 as both being examples of the
grace which justifies sinners. They fit into the pattern of the rest of
the letter which condemns all men but also offers free forgiveness to all.
We not only have the passage from Psalm 32 (Romans 4:7-8) but also a quotation
from David's great penitential psalm: "That thou mightest be justified in
thy words, and mightest prevail when thou comest into judgment" (3:4). Here
they are used to justify God's righteous condemnation of the sinner but,
so far as David was concerned, they were but a prelude to an appeal to this
holy God to wash his guilty soul and make him "whiter than snow" (Psalm
51:7). His sin had really offended God, so that God was the only one who
could truly forgive him.
Other quotations, not only from David but from Hosea, from Joel, from
Malachi, yes, and even from Moses, are all given in a united assurance that
the gospel offers full and free salvation to all. All the rich blessings
of salvation are confirmed by quotations from the Old Testament, including
the important matter of holy lives worthy of the gospel: "As it is written,
The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me" (15:3). This quotation
from Psalm 69 is used by Paul to emphasise the Christlike virtue of selflessness,
and it is followed by a statement that all the inspired Scriptures were written
for us, to teach us patience and holy living.
We cannot leave this subject of salvation without noting the great emphasis
on evangelisation. The Old Testament has much to say about witnessing; in
it we may find a wealth of encouragement in the work of evangelism, and this
is especially so in the prophecies of Isaiah. Even a verse which originally
applied to the release from Babylon of the captive Israel is cited in connection
with Paul's argument that, as Lord of all, Christ is rich toward all who
call upon Him: "Even as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them
that bring glad tidings of good things" (10:15). Our feet may have been weary,
clumsy, stumbling and even reluctant but, when they have led us out to others
with the good news of the gospel, they are beautiful in the sight of God.
Under the heading of Salvation we have to consider what the Scriptures
have to say about Israel. We notice that Paul is most emphatic in warning
Jews that while the gospel had come to them first, its message is just the
same for them as for everyone else. In the matter of acceptance by God,
"There is no distinction" (3:22 & 10:12). "There is no respect of persons
with God" (2:11). The Old Testament verdicts of condemnation were by no
means reserved for other nations, since [18/19] they
applied inclusively to all men. "As it is written: There is none righteous,
no, not one" (3:10).
In the past nominal Christendom has been prejudiced against Jews, as
if the gospel brought special charges against them. This is quite wrong.
More recently Christians have at times claimed special favours for the Jews
because of the "messianic" expectations. That is also wrong. A Jew is either
a sinner who needs redemption by the blood of the cross, or a saint who
has been baptised by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. There is no
Jews may be grateful for their natural advantages, much as many of us
Western Christians are grateful for our godly heritage, but their own Bible
confronts them with the same gospel challenge as it brings to the rest of
us. Isaiah foretold that only a remnant of Israelites would he saved (Romans
9:27), after he had already confessed that but for God's grace they would
all perish with Sodom and Gomorrah (9:29). The majority -- even in those days
-- stumbled in this matter of faith: "As it is written: Behold, I
lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence, and he that believeth
on him shall not be put to shame" (9:33).
Chapters 9 to 11 deal extensively with the subject of Israel's destiny,
not as a digression but as part of the gospel message concerning God's Son.
They contain a large number of Biblical quotations. Different students of
them have drawn differing conclusions. It is a closely-argued section and
I have nothing to contribute. It does seem to me, however, that the various
statements add up to two conclusions.
The first, confirmed by other New Testament Scriptures, is that the Church
of Christ represents the full fulfilment of God's eternal purpose for the
spiritual Israel -- Abraham's seed. A person is either in that Church, saved
by grace, or is a lost soul. The second conclusion which many do not accept,
but which I believe to be valid, is that in some future epoch the whole "saved"
nation of Israel will have that central place among earthly nations to which
it has been elected. In this way I equate Paul's assertion that all Israel
will be saved -- "As it is written, There shall come out of Zion
the Deliverer ..." (11:26) -- with Isaiah's prophecy that "Israel will be
the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth
..." (Isaiah 19:24-25). This, however, is in the unknown future, subsequent
to the completion of the Church, and can be of no comfort at all in these
times to a dying Israeli.
Some interesting and rather surprising Scriptures are quoted to impress
upon us the total supremacy and sovereignty of our God. Some of them are
hard to understand and quite unacceptable to the natural mind. The verse from
Malachi here cited is a point in question, as it argues the electing sovereignty
of the Lord. "Why did He not elect Esau also", we may ask. The first point
to establish is that the Bible idiom of "hate" has nothing to do with capricious
rejection, not even with justifiable rejection, though it is true that Esau
was a man with no appetite for God. If merits were under consideration, Jacob
himself would never have been elected, for he was an unworthy individual.
Paul's argument, however, is that this choice was made by God before
the twins were even born. We notice that Esau's brief seniority of birth
operated very well for him in material affairs, for it was he who inherited
all Isaac's possessions plus a substantial gift from Jacob. Although he
insisted that he already had quite enough, he let himself be persuaded to
accept this generous gift from Jacob (Genesis 33:9-11). Election is to do
with spiritual and eternal blessings, not with earthly advantage. The wonder
of this choice, as every saved sinner will agree, is not that Esau should
be unfavoured but that a man like Jacob could be loved. Paul goes back from
Malachi to Moses to argue this electing sovereignty of God by quoting His
insistence: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (4:15).
Whether we like it or not, here it is, and Paul adds a Scripture which
may be even harder to receive. It concerns the overthrow of Pharaoh (9:17),
and what Moses was commanded to say [19/20] to him:
"In very deed, for this cause have I made thee to stand ... that my name
may be declared throughout all the earth" (Exodus 9:16). Behind that awesome
example there stands the principle that can be applied to all tyrannies,
and that is that God uses evil men to further His designs for His own glory
and for the ultimate blessing of His people.
This is borne out by another Scripture, this time taken from Psalm 44:
" As it is written: For thy sake we are killed all the day long:
we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Romans 8:36). Most of Psalm
44 is a dismal complaint, but it accurately describes the experience of
many Christians, both in Paul's day and in ours. What comfort, we ask, could
the apostle get from that Scripture? Well, he tells us. This is God's way,
he says, of showing His love, since His sovereign power can make the bitter
sweet and turn the curse into a blessing, so that we can rightly react by
insisting that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. No! In all
these trials we are not only preserved but we are brought through in most
profitable deliverances -- we are "more than conquerors".
A further quotation from the psalms draws our attention to the Lord Jesus
as the great example of how we can live for the Father's glory. The verse
quoted (15:3) is from a psalm which contains many references to the sufferings
of our Saviour, which sufferings were all made to turn out for blessing and
glory. It shows how the Lord Jesus provided a platform on which God's sovereignty
could work: "As it is written, the reproaches of them that reproached
thee fell upon me" (Psalm 69:9). The point being stressed is that we are
to be like the Lord Jesus in not pleasing ourselves. The words of David explain
that the one who was suffering so deeply under reproach for the Father's
sake was determined, though poor and sorrowful himself, to praise and magnify
the Lord and that such a selfless spirit would be more pleasing than the
most costly sacrifice (Psalm 69:29-31). We are exhorted and enabled to display
the same selfless spirit.
These last two quotations about suffering stress the fact that divine
sovereignty is never a matter of mere fatalism, but always calls for selfless
and triumphant faith on our part. After all, is not the whole purpose of
redemption to make Christlike saints out of hopeless sinners? And our part
in this transforming work is to feed constantly upon the Word of God. Paul
shows us how we can foster our devotion to the Lord by dwelling deeply in
the Scriptures, and he gives us a most inspiring explanation of what our
Bibles can do for us: "For all those words which were written long ago are
meant to teach us today, that when we read in the scriptures of the endurance
of men and of all the help that God gave them in those days, we may be encouraged
to go on hoping in our own time" (15:4). [20/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
ON THE WAY UP (13)
Psalm 132 SUMMING UP
THE pilgrim's destination is Zion. This song may represent some of his
thoughts as he sums up the significance of that place of blessing.
WHETHER this psalm was written by David or not, it is wholly concerned
with what represented his supreme achievement in his history with God. At
first it might seem that it was he who took the initiative in the matter
of God's House in Zion, and his consultation with Nathan (2 Samuel 7:2) seems
to confirm this.
AS the psalm proceeds, however, we realise that Zion was really God's
idea and His Choice: "This is my resting place for ever. Here will I dwell;
for I have desired it" (v.14). When Solomon dedicated the temple which David
had planned, his words were: "Now therefore arise, O lord God, into thy resting
place, thou and the ark of thy strength: let thy priests, O Lord God, be
clothed with salvation and let thy saints rejoice in goodness. O Lord God,
turn not away, the face of thine anointed; remember the mercies of David thy
servant" (2 Chronicles 6:41-42). This prayer is repeated here in verses 8-10.
The appeal was based upon the sure promises made to David.
WHAT is the implication of this to the travelling pilgrim? As he pauses
on his upward journey and looks on towards the goal before him, how can he
sum up the many factors which have contributed towards this home which God
has made for His people? It can be done in one word -- David!
ZION represents a divine destination. As the Ark of the Covenant came
to its final resting place within the Sanctuary, with its long staves protruding
into the holy place, it was as if this was what God had been planning and
working towards through the long wilderness journey of His people. It was
as if now He had arrived, now He had come to rest; not the rest of exhaustion
but that of complete satisfaction.
IN fact this was also David's destination, though he never actually saw
the temple in Zion. He looked for it -- "a place for the Lord" (v.5); he
was devoted to it -- "Surely I will not ... go up to my bed ..." he vowed
to God (vv.2-3); he suffered for it -- "all his afflictions" (v.1). This psalm
reveals the master passion of David's life, namely, a home for the mighty
God of Jacob. The features of Zion can be summed up in this one person; it
is, as Jesus Himself said, "the city of the great king" (Matthew 5:35).
THIS, thinks the pilgrim, is to be my home, the eternal dwelling place
of the mighty God of Jacob who is also my God. And as he does so, he thinks
gratefully of David. God remembers the afflictions of David and for the sake
of His servant David, there will always be food and clothing and loud shouts
of joy for all who come into His home (verses 15-16).
SPIRITUALLY this is certainly true of the heaven which awaits us who
are faith's pilgrims. We have the Lord Jesus as our great King who planned
our destiny and suffered many afflictions to provide it for us. God does
not remember our faults but He does remember the sacrificial virtues of our
WE can sum up all our hopes and expectations in one word -- JESUS. It
is He who is our path and also our prize. Even as we contemplate future glories
we shout aloud for joy as we think afresh of Him.
THE LAW OF THY MOUTH IS BETTER UNTO ME
THAN THOUSANDS OF GOLD AND SILVER.
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