by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: Hebrews 12:26-29.
We come back to this letter to the Hebrews, and we can narrow the whole thing down to it. In the first place, is there not some peculiar and wonderful significance about the preservation of this letter in particular? You see, it was written for a special occasion, and that occasion was one historically very near to the time of its writing. If, as many believe, its date was between 66 and 70, then it was very near in time to the actual carrying out or fulfilment of the thing for which it was written; that is, it was written because Jerusalem and Judaism in the order in which it then existed was about to be shattered to pieces and scattered to the ends of the earth, it was preparation for that, and that took place in 70. So the letter, written so near to the occasion, fulfilled its purpose within a very short time.
Why, then, should it last out till now? Why should it occupy the place that it occupies now in the preserved and protected writings of the New Testament? Some have been lost, we know. Why did not the Lord let this be lost, seeing that it had fulfilled its purpose? I venture to say that this letter is living now. It is not a letter that has no life in it, as though it had served its purpose and could now be put aside. It is a tremendous letter as a spiritual document today. What does it mean? Why was it written? Certain Jews had turned to Christ, and in turning to Christ had turned to the fulfilment of all their Jewish patterns, all their Jewish types and figures and shadows, passed from the substance to the reality. Then ardent Jews came along and sought to make it very hard for them. It meant ostracism, boycott, persecution, and much suffering; and a great effort was launched to Judaise Christianity, that is, to link Christianity on with Judaism and preserve, maintain, perpetuate all the Jewish orders in connection with Christianity.
The letter, as you see, was written against such a movement, and to strengthen those believers in the faith, and it set forth the fact in a very comprehensive way that Jesus fulfilled, embodied, transcended all the spiritual values of the Jewish foreshadowing and types, and put them aside, and that henceforth for the Lord's people it was not a matter of a tabernacle or a temple, an altar and its sacrifices, a priesthood in rota and all that outward order of things, but it was all in Christ in heaven, of spiritual value.
That was the content of the letter in brief. Its object was immediate. How far it achieved its object we do not know. It is possible that some of those believers went back in spite of the repeated warnings, and perished with Jerusalem and Judaism. It is probable that many of them were saved by this letter, so that when Jerusalem, the temple and the Jewish system was shaken, as the Word says, and ceased to remain, their link was with heaven, with a living, risen, exalted Christ, and it meant nothing to them of loss that all that did go. The immediate purpose was accomplished. Why maintain the letter? Why keep it alive? Why preserve it? That is the question we have to answer, and the answer is that the letter does not merely deal with an historic instance. It deals with an abiding tendency. It is something which is always the peril of God's people, whether they be Jews or Christians. The value of this letter today is that it is a letter no longer to Jewry, no longer to Israel but to the Christian church, and that is why it lives, because God knows that that tendency is a persistent one in the direction to which these Hebrew believers were being tempted, and in the direction to which they were almost being driven. So that something very concrete arises. It is this: that Christianity can become exactly what Judaism became, and God is against that. And it brings us back to the central point of our earlier meditation. It is one of the master-strokes of Satan against the Lord Jesus, and the principle result of his work is tradition. By that I mean the making of things into a system run by man. Now that covers a lot of ground, a lot of history. Christianity has become a repetition of Judaism. Organised Christianity today is what Judaism was when this letter was written: an historic thing, a systematised thing, a whole system of beliefs, truths, doctrines, activities, movements, which are very largely but an imitation of something.
We come to the New Testament. As to the things taught in the New Testament, we say these are the New Testament doctrines and we are called upon to subscribe to these doctrines. Now we are not going to attempt to cover the ground of what the New Testament doctrine was. Fundamentalism as such draws a circle around New Testament doctrines, but then there are a good many that go beyond that. Then we come to the New Testament and we see not only doctrines but practices, and we say, This is the practice of the New Testament. Then we come again, and we see the activities, what we may call the work which was carried on or carried out in New Testament times by the apostles, by the church. And then we come again and we see what the church was in New Testament times. We have a presentation of the church as it is here on the earth.
Now those four things since New Testament times have been taken up as a system and imitated: that is, there has been the forming of the doctrine into the creed, the Christian creed, and it is accepted, and we say, I believe in so-and-so! Why do you believe in it? Because it is in the New Testament. Well, that may be quite good so far, but you proceed beyond that. This was the practice of the church in New Testament times: therefore we can do likewise. This is how the church was organised (I am doubtful about that word, but we will use it for the moment) in New Testament times. This is how the church came into being, and how it was ordered and arranged in New Testament times, therefore we do the same. We have our churches on that basis, we imitate. And then as to the work, whatever it might be, evangelism and all the other activities on the side of the work of Christianity as a movement, we see this is what happened, we do the same, we imitate. And so for centuries the thing has become a system like that, of imitation, and that is what I mean by tradition.
That can just be Judaism repeated in Christendom. That is what Judaism was. Remember that Judaism came from God out of heaven at one time; it came by revelation, and it came in power, and it was accompanied, as this letter points out, with the voice of a trump, with fire and smoke, shaking and earthquake. It came with the accompaniments of God Himself, all terrible, a consuming fire: and yet it became that, a thing which had to be overthrown, for the overthrow of which God had to shake the earth. It became the thing which was the occasion of the chief conflicts of apostolic times. Paul's battles were on the field of Judaism. Yes, a thing which originally came from God, now one of God's main difficulties, doing more harm than it is worth, set aside, repudiated. You have only got to look at Jewry today and see how much respect God has for Judaism as such. Well, Christianity came from God, out of heaven, and this letter says that Judaism came through man but this faith came from the Son of God Himself. That is the comparison. He that spoke then on the earth, Moses; how much more in the case of Him that speaks from heaven. "God, who in time past spake unto the fathers in the prophets... hath at the end of the times spoken unto us in his Son..."; yet the peril and possibility and tendency is exactly the same in both cases, the end can be similar, and God will yet shake Christendom to its foundations, that it shall be shattered as He has done with Judaism. That is the testimony here. Yes, all our creeds, all our imitation of the New Testament. God never meant anything of His in this dispensation to be an imitation. He meant it to be the real thing. The difference between the real thing and the traditional is between life and death. Tradition is in one realm and life is in another. It depends entirely upon whether it is earthly or heavenly.
I am impressed with that phrase, "...as of things which are made..."; that is, things shaken, passing. "Things which are made"; imitations are always made. The original is never made: that comes out from God Himself. What then is the truth? What is it that God is after? Well, you turn to the beginning of this letter and it all becomes very clear at the outset. "God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us Son-wise." It is not just what Jesus said: it is what Jesus is. The revelation is not of something, it is a Son-revelation, and if you pursue this thought - and you will have to seek to follow closely - into this letter a little further, you will find that this word "Son" is a term, not only a personal designation. It belongs to Him in a unique way, in a specific and peculiar way, in a way which has that in it which is not shared by any other, and yet there is that in it which is an imparted thing, and God speaks first of all Son-wise in the absoluteness and finality of His Son.
Then it is not long before you find yourself being engaged with a secondary thought; that Son's relatedness to the race, and bringing out of the race sons, and bringing them to glory, so that a family issues, "Wherefore, holy brethren, partners in a heavenly calling..."; "...bringing many sons to glory..."; "...he is not ashamed to call them brethren...". And then you move on from what lies between, and you come to chapter 12: "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord... whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth." We gave to the fathers of our flesh reverence: how much more unto the Father of our spirits. There you have got to the heart of things. What is the essence of living Christianity? What is the thing that God is after, which will be established, which will be eternal, which will satisfy His heart, which will fulfil all His intention, and which will be the very occasion of His shaking the heavens and the earth to get rid of all else? It is Sonship.
It is in Sonship that we have all that God means, and so here you see it is a matter of living union with the living Son of God as raised from the dead and exalted to God's right hand: for that is what this chapter says. "Unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?" Turn to the book of the Acts, chapter 13 and verse 33: "He raised up Jesus, as it is written, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee." Now He was the Son of God from eternity, He was the Son of God when He was born at Bethlehem, He was the Son of God in Jordan's waters, attested there, but here is something peculiar, related to Him in Sonship: He is declared, says Paul, the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead. God raised Him, as it is written, "Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee."
There is a Sonship connected with His resurrection which is of peculiar significance, because when Jesus was dead (if I may put it this way) that was an end of everything, everything as to the thoughts and intentions and purposes of God. If Jesus had remained dead, all God's eternal purposes would have ceased. When God raised Him from the dead and He lives again, it is Sonship, but it is Sonship in an inclusive way. All God's purposes and thoughts and intentions spring to life again, have realisation, and this very principle of Sonship is a related thing, is a family thing, is that He should not be the only begotten but the first begotten; that He should be the firstborn from among the dead, that He should be the firstfruits of those that sleep, "Bringing many sons to glory". And so Sonship has a very far-reaching significance in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Now then, Sonship embodies, as you may see, all the thoughts of God, all the purposes of God, all that God has before ordained and intended. It is in the Son whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom He made the ages. Now the Spirit of God's Son, of that risen, living Son, is given to believers for the purpose of realising all those intentions and thoughts of God in the church, and that is God's method. God's method is not to call upon you and me to accept certain doctrines, prescribe to certain things set forth as New Testament truths, to act in a certain New Testament way, and do a certain kind of New Testament work. God's all-inclusive thing is that you and I should receive the Spirit of His Son, and from that time everything is in His hands. We do not take on anything from the outside; everything begins from inside. And anybody who simply takes Christian truth as in the New Testament from the outside, accepts it, adopts it, and assents to it, will become a traditional Christian and a dead one, and anybody who tries to conform to the New Testament order of things has put on a mould, a garment and will simply get into what the New Testament describes as "dead works". Anybody who tries to do the work of the Lord, because that was done, and it was done in that way, in the New Testament, will find that they have a long way to go in the matter of power with which to meet the demands. Unless the Son of God does it all, and that from within, in the end it will be lost, it will be shaken, and it will fail to possess. Everything becomes inward by Sonship. Christ is the sum total of God's thoughts, God's desires, God's intentions.
By the Spirit of sonship indwelling, those thoughts, those desires, those intentions become an inward thing in the believer, and then begins our real history spiritually. What is spiritual history? Spiritual history is not what we believe as doctrine; there is no history in that at all. Spiritual history is not in what we do as practice. There is no history in that. Spiritual history is our testing, our trying in relation to the thoughts, desires and intentions of the Lord.
Now that is difficult to grasp. How can I put it clearly to you? The apostle Paul, after he had met Jesus of Nazareth on the Damascus way, went away into Arabia for two or three years. He got new things revealed in him by the revelation of God's Son in him. God's thoughts in Christ, God's intentions in Christ were revealed to him. Up to that time Paul had been pursuing a course dictated by outward acceptances. If Jewry said a certain thing ought to be done, because Jewry said it Saul did it. He conformed to the outward system. It was something imposed. But now the whole initiative had been taken out of his hands, the authority had been taken away from him, and from a system. Now his relationship with the living, exalted Jesus of Nazareth meant that he could no longer adopt his own course, follow his own thoughts, be governed by any outward order or system. Even though that thing had originally come in through and from God no longer could it be the governing thing in his life, the thing now is, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" Then there was a new Lordship, a new mastery, and on his side a new imprisonment, and he was going to be tested all through his life as to that basis. He had the Old Testament, but I challenge you to find in the Old Testament what Paul found in it, without special revelation of the Holy Ghost. I could give you one or two passages quoted by Paul, and ask you if you could see that in the Old Testament. There is every justification on the natural line and ground for what his opponents said, that he was just reading into the Old Testament his own ideas. But we do not believe that. With spiritual illumination you see that that is what God meant, but it is extraordinary that God meant that: it never looked like that at all. Judaism said that God said it meant this. Now then Paul, you are going to be tested by God's thoughts as interpreted in your heart by the Spirit of God's Son.
That brings us right back to this first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ, God's Son, is absolute Lord, and that Lordship has got to have its expression in the believer in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the believer is not governed by anything but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the living, exalted Christ, and that is the only safe way; it is the only true way. It is made so perfectly clear, with an abundance of evidence in the Word. You go through this letter and see what it says about the new covenant, for instance. And then you take up other parts of the New Testament which deal with the new covenant, like the second letter to the Corinthians, and see what the new covenant is. Well, it is quoted from Jeremiah 31:31: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah." What is the nature of the new covenant? "I will write my laws in their hearts, and upon their minds will I write them." Paul says in 2 Corinthians, "Not on tables of stone with pen and ink, but upon the tables of the heart by the Spirit of the living God". This new order of things is the inward writing of God's Spirit in the heart of His people as to what He wants. John writing his epistle says, "The anointing which you have received abideth in you, and ye have no need that anyone teach you, for the anointing which abideth in you teacheth you...". You say, that is dangerous; that makes everybody a law to themselves; that is setting the Word of God on one side. Do not think that. There is one Spirit, not so many Holy Spirits as people who receive Him. The Holy Spirit will never take us away from the Word of God, but He will fulfil it in us, and we will come to know the Word of God as we can never know it by the most ardent application and study; and believe me, no Holy Spirit governed life will at any point contradict the Word of God. It is because of this other kind of thing that reading any part of the Word of God results in a hundred or five hundred or a thousand different interpretations of it, and applications of it, and practices concerning it. There is all the difference between the thing made and the thing not made. The thing made is mechanical, the thing not made is organic; it is living.
So that God's thoughts and intentions become the testing ground of a believer. Oh well, God has a plan, and He does not reveal His plan to us all at once: but as far as He goes as a rule - even with His most devoted, consecrated, sacrificing servant - is the next step. And so Paul, with all his revelation, and all his vision, and all his walk with God, and all his knowledge of the Lord, would just be allowed to go to the border of a country with his own feeling that that is the direction, that is from where the call comes, that is where the need lies, and that is the thing to do. Yes, he is a devoted man, he is a consecrated man, but he has thought that this is the present movement, this is the present direction, this is where the present need is, this is where the call is, and just there he gets a showing from the Lord that night that it is in another direction altogether, and when he explains it he says: "Assuredly gathering...". (That is, "concluding.") And so he leaves that about which he had such strong convictions and for which he had such good arguments, and goes this other way. He has been tested as to whether he will follow outward dictates, the dictates of appearances and seeming demands, or whether the voice of the Spirit in him will govern him.
Now we can organise our movements, lay our plans, draft our schemes. We can lay it all out according to the New Testament and it can be dead, ineffective. God is merciful, God is gracious, and God is sovereign, and in so far as there is devotion to Him, and in so far as His interests are at our hearts, and in so far as there is a possibility of something being accomplished for Him, He blesses; but that is not the point at all. The thing is, can God go all the way with this? Is this ultimately God's way, God's thought? Will not a very great deal of that go when the shaking comes? That is the point. The thing is now what God Himself through the Spirit of His Son is doing in a living way. Every life, and every assembly has to be constituted directly and immediately upon the basis of the living expression of the thought of God, and that thought as wrought into the very life by testing. A thought from God, a divine thought is not enough. It is not enough to carry us through. It is not enough to act upon. That thought has got to test us, try us, until we are constituted by that thought. You are dealing with tremendous principles. It is not enough for me to say to you that the Word of God means this, and for you to take it and straight away in accepting it, try to make it a part of your order of things. It may be the truth, you may have to believe it, you may have to adjust yourself to it, you may have to obey it, but it has not become a living power in you until you have been tested on it, tried on it, taken through the fires by it, and that thought of God has become a part of your very being, that you are constituted according to it in perfect oneness with the living Lord. It is thus that the believer's life becomes a living expression of those thoughts and desires and intents of God. It is thus that the church is constituted. You cannot imitate apostolic methods. The Holy Ghost must do this. He must constitute the church.
You see the difference between a traditional system, whether it be Judaism or Christianity, and a living thing coming all the time in a living way out from the Christ Himself by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit Himself doing it. Well, this is going to cost something. See what it meant for these people. At the end of this letter you come on this: "Wherefore, Christ also... suffered without the camp. Let us therefore go to him without the camp, bearing his reproach." The camp was Judaism, and He suffered without the camp because He repudiated Judaism and stood for the realisation of all God's thoughts as in Himself personally. He gathered up everything into His own person, "I am." It is the Christ who is the full sum and embodiment of all God's thoughts and ways, and that takes the place of Judaism, and He, therefore, repudiated Judaism and suffered without the camp. Let us go to Him without the camp.
If, as we were saying at the beginning, this letter's preservation has any significance at all from God's standpoint, then its significance is that it applies to the same tendency in Christianity as there was in Judaism. What is the issue? If you are going to take this line you are going to repudiate organised Christianity, going to repudiate Christendom as a traditional system, going to repudiate that order of things which is made, and going, therefore, to suffer reproach and be outside of the camp suffering His reproach. In other words, in line with what we have said earlier, we are immediately going to come up against that force of antagonism to stop what has come in through the death and resurrection and exaltation of the Lord Jesus, the heavenly thing. Is it not sad that these people met it through God's historic people, the people who claimed to have the oracles, to be the elect, to be the favoured of the Lord? It is always like that. "A man's foes shall be those of his own household." Do not narrow that down to the limits of a family where one is a Christian and all the rest are not. That is not the point at all. It is his own household, the Christian household. You will meet the antagonism to what has come in from heaven as a heavenly thing; you will meet the antagonism amongst those who are the traditional people of God in this dispensation. That is how it will be. That is going to be the cost of a walk in life with the Lord and not with man, knowing the Lord for yourself.
Now what will be the form? Why all this difference, this separation? Well you see, it is so difficult to understand, and yet the fact stares you in the face that organised Christianity as it is today cannot understand anything that is not organised, that is not advertised, that is not run. It must have names that carry weight, that mean influence. If you can get people with some title you are going to have the guarantee of success for your Christian enterprise. And so the letters and the titles strung on are a necessary requisite for the success of the Lord's work. You must write it up in the press, you must give a report of it, you must be able to make some kind of return that people can read, and say, This is a successful thing. If you cannot do that the whole thing is doomed to failure. They say, you must advertise, you must have publicity, you must organise, you must bring in all these things to support it, to carry it on. If you did none of those; if you were never heard of in the press; if you never had a report; if you never had any names; if there was nothing at all that came out in a public way for people to take account of, what is the verdict of organised Christianity? Nothing is being done. You are doing nothing. It is a-hole-in-a-corner sort of thing. Is that true? What must we say about that? There was a striking absence of all that in the beginning, and a marvellous manifestation of power, of progress, of effectiveness, so that nothing could stand in the way. We must only conclude, we are driven to this extremity, that the Lord can do His own work. Evidently the risen Lord is able to carry on His own work, the Holy Ghost knows how to manage things. What a surprising discovery! Forgive my irony. I say, this is that upon which Hebrews 12:26-28 is fixed. "I will shake the earth and the heavens"; that which can be shaken will be shaken; that which cannot be shaken will remain; and what is that? It is what God has done. "Whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever." What God does is done in a spiritual way; it is spiritual, it is heavenly, it is eternal.
That may leave you perhaps in a vague, perplexed position, not knowing where you are, but I have no doubt about the truth of the message. If you do not feel you can accept it; if you disagree; if you revolt; if you feel it cuts clean across all your training, all your acceptance; if you feel that it runs counter to all that you know, all I ask of you is honesty with God. I ask you to come and ask Him to open to you the meaning of the letter to the Hebrews, why it was written, what its significance is, why God has preserved it, what its application is now. Have honest dealings with the Lord. Please do not go away hot in spirit, antagonistic; do not lay this at the door of any man. At least give God a chance. It may be costly, it may be that you will have to be prepared to accept the position that God's greatest work through you is something hidden, something secret, something that no one can read about, perhaps no one can discern what is going on; and it is the mightiest work that God is doing. But, oh, this natural life - how it must see, how it must be in things. That is just the point. Where the cross has done its work to slay that natural craving of ours to have some feeling, some place of some kind in the things of God, not prepared for God to do His work through us without our coming in some way personally into it.
May the Lord give us His own interpretation, give us honesty of heart, and show us His meaning in having brought us to this consideration.