by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: John 5.
We concluded our last meditation with the remark that Divine life is not a separate deposit in the believer, but is a matter of union with Christ. When we pass into the fifth chapter of the Gospel by John, we come more immediately to the nature and meaning of union with Christ, in which there are always many things hard to be understood unless the Holy Spirit gives very real enlightenment; but we are greatly helped toward an understanding by the occasions of these great utterances of the Lord. The man at the Pool of Bethesda constitutes the occasion in the present instance, for undoubtedly the teaching which follows takes its rise from the incident of this man's healing. So then, to help us toward that understanding, let us examine the position at the Pool of Bethesda.
A Picture of Spiritual Death
In the first place here is a man's impotency. There is no doubt about it, and the details are Divinely inspired, so that the picture is made conclusive. The man was there in the midst of others. He was a part of a general situation. He was representative of a whole company. Then his impotency is made perfectly plain when, on his being singled out, and his case clearly defined, it is learnt that he had been there thirty eight years. That is long enough to discover whether you can do anything or not. We may be sure that in the course of thirty eight years no effort had been spared, no resource had been neglected. His being where he was at the end of that time represented the utter failure of all resource, and the completeness of his helplessness. Then his own declaration, "I have no man when the water is troubled to put me into the pool", shows there is no help in man; all human help fails. It is a picture of complete impotence, weakness.
Now, looked at in the light of the context, and all that comes out of it as to the teaching of the Lord Jesus, as to His utterances, you see that this is the occasion, the basis of that teaching. This is what is meant by spiritual death. You notice that immediately after this the Lord Jesus begins to speak about the Father quickening, and the Son quickening, of their raising the dead and giving life. The supreme matter of life and death, and of life overcoming death comes into view. "Resurrection" is the great word in this chapter. The whole subject, without any break, emerges spontaneously from this incident.
Thus you see something of the meaning of spiritual death when you look at this man. Spiritual death is established, and we are in the presence of helpless impotence. It is a condition in which neither those concerned, nor anyone else, can find help; it is something established over the whole course of things. Of course, in the background we realise that the Lord Jesus is dealing with Israel. He is making Israel His illustration, His instrument for this wider, this larger spiritual teaching. Thirty-eight years was exactly the duration of time spent in the wilderness by the generation that died therein and never entered the land, and is the outstanding illustration in the Bible of impotence in the flesh. They could not enter in, and they died, and their carcasses fell in the wilderness. There we see spiritual death, the helplessness, and hopelessness of the flesh. That is what lies behind.
The Lord says, in effect, This man in his condition at the pool is a good example of what spiritual death is; a man whose whole course of life is marked by inability in a certain realm. A world is closed to him; he is shut out from a whole realm of things. He is bound there, imprisoned, tied. He cannot escape because there is no strength in himself to do it, no power to overcome his own condition; neither is there any man who can save him, who can deliver him from that condition, because there is no man who can give him resurrection life, the one indispensable thing. He cannot walk well. Pleasing unto God. That is what it means, and that is a picture of spiritual death. It needs no enlarging upon, but that is what is taken up here in connection with this man, to be made the illustration of this great teaching.
A Three-fold Cord
The third thing in connection with this man is that he is made to live, and in his being made to pass from death unto life two things go together. Firstly, there was the word of the Lord: "Jesus saith unto him, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk." (Later on you will hear the Lord Jesus saying, "The hour cometh, and now is, when they that are in the tombs shall hear the voice... and they that hear shall live". That is a follow-on). "Jesus saith unto him" - the rulers asked, "Who is the man that said unto thee...?" It was by the word of the Lord that he was made to live, and, of course, his faith acting in relation to that word.
This is a very simple thing, and elementary, namely, that the very first movement into life is by a faith response to the word of the Lord. We must always remember that nothing happens until then. We shall still be lying on our couch in impotency, even after having heard the word of the Lord, and knowing what the Lord says about things, if we do not make an inward response thereto in faith. There has to be an active heart response. There must have been a moment - just a moment perhaps; it need not have been more than that - when the man heard the command, and, in spite of having been there all those years, somehow sought to move in response to that word. He must have taken an attitude which was quite other than one of evasion: "Well, of course, I have been here all these years, and it is all very well for You to say, Rise up, and walk! I have tried to do that many times, and I am not going to try it any more!" There must have been some inward gesture, and when he made that gesture he made a discovery that he could do that which had been impossible before.
That is very simple, and yet it governs every step of our life with the Lord. On all matters it is like that, that there must be, in knowing the Lord's word, an inward movement toward that word and what it calls for.
Then, going along with the word of Christ, which finds that response of faith, there is the imparted life of Christ. The life is in the word; but the life in the word is not found, proved, and enjoyed, until there is that instant response to the word, and then the life is found. So that the man was made to live by the word, and the imparted life which came in with the co-operation of his heart. The Lord does not expect us to do what we cannot do - and we cannot make ourselves to live - but what the Lord does call for is an attitude, and the attitude is one of faith. That is where everything begins.
The Divine Pattern in Christ as Man
Mark the movement from the occasion to that of which it is made the occasion. "Now," says Christ, "As this man could do nothing apart from Me, so I can do nothing apart from the Father." You notice that is twice repeated. Firstly in verse 19 we read: "Verily, verily (truly, truly) I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of himself..."; and then in verse 30: "I can of myself do nothing". The Lord Jesus has taken the place of man deliberately, voluntarily, not by compulsion. As we shall see presently, this very chapter presents Him in both His titles of Son of God and Son of Man. By His own consent He is placed on the basis of man, to live man's life. As Man He can do nothing of Himself; is wholly impotent. That is true of the Lord Jesus as of every other man.
But there is another factor that is governing all that is in this chapter. It is a question of relationship. The Lord Jesus says He can do nothing apart from the Father, nothing as out from Himself. This man, again, could do nothing apart from Him. There was nothing that could come out of himself. That is one side. There is also the positive side, to which we are being led.
Now we must notice that there are two men in this chapter. The one is spelt with a small "m" and the other with a capital. The one is a type and representation of the old creation severed from God and in death; and here you see what that death is. That is the old creation man. The other is the new creation Man, a Man as representing the new creation. The one is dead and helpless, with no life, and no energy in the things of God; the other is living, competent, full of life and power. The one has "no man", no resource, no link with any source of help; the other is the Son of Man, who is Son of God, in whom God and Man are joined. It is just that great difference between the two which is the difference between death and life.
Then you see that a large section of this chapter is occupied with the union between Christ and the Father. If you read it carefully you will see how much the Lord Jesus says of this union; and it is the union of Man with God. It is out of that He says, with repeated emphasis and affirmation, that everything proceeds - all that He Himself had done, and the greater works that were to follow - the occasion of all, is this union between the Father and the Son, the Son and the Father, Man and God.
Look, then, at that oneness of Christ with the Father. In the first place the Father is set forth as being actively engaged in work. "My Father worketh"; "Whatsoever he seeth the Father doing..."; "The Father raiseth the dead..." That is the first thing. God is engaged in work. There are the works of God. All the works begin with God. Let us remember that. All the works with which we are to be occupied, and in which we are to have interest, are the works which God is doing, works which come from God.
Further God's work, as set forth here, is the giving of life. "The Father raiseth the dead, and quickeneth..." The Father's work is the giving of life, raising the dead, and quickening. Now, says the Lord Jesus, by reason of oneness with the Father there is oneness in this work. It is the one work of the Father and the Son, of the Father through the Son. It is God working, with the Son as His instrument. That is the nature of the union between Christ and the Father.
Before we go further we must recognise a profound thing here, and that is the significance of verse 27: "And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man" (the margin says "a son of man"). You can use which of these forms you like. Surely if ever there was a place in which the other term was called for, it was here. Surely the correct form would have been, "And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is" - the Son of God? No! The Lord Jesus has just used that phrase in verse 25, but here the designation is that of Son of Man.
Now notice that, and mark the significance of the change of the designation used by Him. Verse 25: "The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live". The voice is the voice of the Son of God, but expressed through Him as the Son of Man. Here is God's voice which is life, resurrection, power, authority, in a new creation; it dwells in a Man; it is functioning and operating in a Man. It is God's voice, the voice of the Son of God, but finding expression through Him as Son of Man. It is that which is of God in a Man. Oh, then, after all the generations, after all the tragedy of the generations, after all that the fall meant, after all, Divine life, with all that it means, is found in a Man! Never was this the case before. You say, It was impossible for the old creation. You perceive, then, the analogy. There is the tree of life. It was the symbol of eternal life. Man had never had it. He was placed on probation with a view to it, but he sinned, and to that "man" God closed the way of access to the tree of life, lest he should "put forth his hand and take of the tree of life, and live for ever".
That old and fallen creation could never partake of eternal life, and yet it was God's will for man. God had never prohibited man from taking of the tree of life. He had done so in respect of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but not of the tree of life. Man would doubtless have come to partake of it had he remained faithful to the terms of his probation, but when once man had fallen, eternal life could never be for that creation. Yet God willed man to have eternal life.
Now God has His new-creation Man, the First-born of this new creation, the new creation which Paul says is in Christ Jesus, and in this first Man of the new creation there is life. "As the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given the Son to have life in himself". It is in a Man, the Man Christ Jesus.
The Import of Union with Christ
What, then, is union with Christ? It is union with Him as the new creation, as the new creation Man; union with Him in the life which is the life of the new creation by the Spirit of Life. Our subject is, The Nature and Meaning of Union with Christ. It is union with Him as the new-creation Man in new-creation life by the eternal Spirit. What is the meaning of that union? It is that only by such union can God's works be done. What governed Him in relation to the Father governs us. Nothing can be done except on the ground of this union. It is not a matter of action, or of undertaking for God, however well intentioned. What we see as seeming necessary to be done for the Lord's glory is not the criterion of service.
Many things are embarked upon by the mere simple, though honest and sincere judgment of the heart, when confronted by what is judged as something to be done for God, something needing to be done. A tragic situation, for example, calls for action; we have the means to meet that situation, and so we embark upon it for the Lord. A vast variety of undertakings have been embarked upon in that way, from that basis, and the Lord Jesus in this chapter says, No! Not so! He is not governed by the apparent demand of a situation. He is not governed by the impact of things upon Himself, as calling for an undertaking. With Him it is a question of what God is doing, and doing just at the particular time. With one object, God does different things at different times, and has a different emphasis from time to time, and those who are really in union with Christ have to be governed by that which Christ at that particular time is Himself undertaking, is giving Himself to: "...what things soever he doeth these the Son also doeth in like manner". The whole question of spiritual perception in relation to the work of God is bound up with this union. We may embark upon many undertakings for the Lord; we have done it, and many are doing it. Sovereignly the Lord blesses and uses, but there is something which comes nearer to the heart of God than that, and which gets more directly and immediately to God's end. In a less roundabout way it gets right to the heart of things. It is that we should be found in that which is God's immediate object at a given time. Union with Christ brings us under that law. It is a matter of what God is doing, and life-union with Him in Christ for the accomplishment of that.
So then, we have to put back all our schemes, and all our plans, and all our arrangements, and all our programmes for the Lord, and in the secret place with the Lord get into the value of true, living, spiritual union with Him, that the purpose may not commence with us - in our thought, in our desire, in our will - but may begin with God and find a registration in us from God. He would have us see with spiritual perception what He is doing, and do it, and "in like manner"; for God is as particular about His method as He is about His purpose. The question is not one of doing a thing for God, but of God. That is why the Apostle adds that governing clause to his great statement about the new creation, when he says, "If any man be in Christ there is a new creation; old things have passed away, behold all things are become new. But all things are of (out from) God..." In the new creation all things are out from God.
There is a Man in the work of God. There is a Man to whom all the works of God are entrusted. There is one Man, only one. All the works of God are bound up with that Man in the glory. The important thing for us is to see what Christ is; not only who Christ is (though it is important to see that Christ is God), but what Christ is, that Christ is an inclusive new-creation Man; that He is a Divine humanity now, and that He fully and utterly, conclusively and finally, expresses the thought of God. There is no expression of God apart from Jesus Christ, so far as the new creation is concerned. God's thoughts, God's will, God's desires, God's works, are finished in Him. He is the First and the Last, and you cannot get outside of that.
Christ is representative and inclusive of the new creation. You and I, in order to come into the new creation, and to work according to the new creation, that is, according to God's thoughts, and will, and desire, and God's works, have to come into that union with the Lord Jesus Christ, and which means that we live by what He is. Our old humanity has to be set aside, and the new humanity of Christ has to take its place.
What it is to Live Wholly by Christ
In the next chapter of John you will hear mysterious sayings, so mysterious that many of His disciples said of one of these, "This is a hard saying", and from that time went away and walked no more with Him. These, then, are among the sayings you will hear: "He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life..."; "He that eateth me shall live by me"; "I live by the Father". No wonder they could not understand. What is it to feed upon Christ, to eat His flesh, and to drink His blood? for we mark that it is something to be done. The text there does not indicate that it is something done once for all, but a continuous process. Literally it is, He that keeps on eating and drinking shall live (have life) by Me. What does He mean? What do we mean when we gather around the Lord's Table and in symbol eat His flesh and drink His blood? The deep mystery of Christ and union with Christ is this, that by, and in, the Holy Spirit, in the one life which we thus share with Christ, we are living upon His glorified, perfected humanity. That is to say, what Christ is as Man in the glory is our life. When we take food and drink we take it into our very tissue, and that food becomes us physically. You know how that works in various ways. You become the kind of person you are physically, very largely, because of the kind of food you eat. You can tell very often what people feed upon by looking at them. It could be illustrated in many ways.
That is the governing law here in things spiritual. God has a standard Man in His presence. God has a conception of humanity realised in His presence. God says, For Me that standard, that conception governs everything, and you have to live according to that, and that has to become you. What Christ is has to become you, to become the very life of your life, the innermost reality of your being.
Your food becomes your power of thought. You do not know how it is done, but you can prove it; for if you but abstain from food long enough, you will have no more thoughts. How your daily food is translated into the letters you write, the poems you may compose, you do not know, but it is a fact. Stop your daily food and there will be no more letters and no more poems. You cannot trace the relationship, but it is a fact. Your food becomes your activity. That is your food in action. Stop your food and you do, nothing more. You see the illustration.
Christ is God's standard, God's mind, God's thought, and in the Spirit, by union with Him, you have to live on Him, be governed by Him, open your being to Him, and think your thoughts, speak your words, do your deeds after Him, let Him become your mind, your utterance, your activity. That is the clear teaching of the New Testament. "Not doing thine own ways... nor speaking thine own words", said the Lord by the mouth of Isaiah. The Son does not speak His own words. "The words that I say unto you I speak not from myself" (John 14:10). "Not in the wisdom of words, but in words which the Holy Ghost teacheth", says Paul. What is that then? It is simply Christ finding expression; not things springing from us, but coming out from Him. That is the meaning of union with Christ.
The Choice of the Heart
Is your reaction to all this, much as follows: Oh, well, how few know it, and how few live like that. With ninety percent it is just the opposite of that, it is a case of works for the Lord, according to the judgment of the one or more concerned, and so the Lord has done His work through the generations! Are we going to reason like that? First of all, we must ask ourselves, Is this what is set forth in the Word of God? After all, that must govern us. There are a few other considerations besides, of course, which influence the matter. Are we quite sure, for example, that in comparison with all the mass of undertakings for God, the spiritual result is commensurate? Surely that is a question we need to ask ourselves? If we are influenced by the Word of God, we shall be brought to the position where we have to say: Well, the Word of God makes it perfectly clear that everything begins with God. The words "In the beginning God..." express a ruling principle, and as in the old creation, so in the new. Everything is out from God, and the Holy Spirit is the executive member of the Godhead. He alone knows what God would do, and He alone can accomplish it. Now, am I to abandon myself to what that implies, or am I, in all sincerity and earnestness, according to the best light I have, and the best desires I possess, to launch out in a lot of under-takings for God? They are two quite different things. We shall, if we are honest, sooner or later be brought to the position where, however things may appear, and however small may be that which lives according to this standard, we cannot help ourselves, we must capitulate to this law, namely, that it must be the Lord initiating, the Lord projecting, the Lord energising, the Lord directing; it must all come from the Lord. It is not for me to sit down and plan things for God, it must come to me by the quickening movement of the Holy Spirit. That is the meaning of union with Christ.
Oh, for a revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul said, "It pleased God... to reveal his Son in me..." That is the explanation of everything that followed in the life of the Apostle. If you read his life purely from a human standpoint, as so many have done, and run through his life as though it were the life of any other man lived for God, then you may argue for human initiative, human enterprise; but to get back of all that, and to see God, to see Christ, that alone can truly account for the effect of that life.
We have taken Paul as an example; we could well take the greater example of the Lord Jesus Himself. Write the life of Jesus on a human level, and you cannot explain it in that way. The influence, the power through all these centuries, the spontaneous growth, cannot be accounted for on the ground of His being just a man. In a lesser way that was so with the Apostle. Today Paul lives more than he did when he was here in the flesh. He has been growing all the time. The things which give men today their greatest trouble are the writings of Paul. He still beats them, and defies them all. If time goes on long enough, there will yet be worlds of literature built up upon the writings of Paul. What is the secret of that vitality? Why is it that we turn to those writings and every time we turn to them find something fresh? The explanation is union with Christ and in Christ, and thereby union with the Father; and you find at length it is a matter of what God is doing in the universe, not what a man did, or undertook to do. Our works will fail, will break down, will cease, and all works of men do. There are only two works that persist, one for the age, and one for the ages of the ages. One is the work of the Devil, which goes on, and on, and on. It is spiritual in the evil sense, and it goes on to the end of the age. The other is the work of God, which has no end. All other works come to an end. Union with Christ embraces the work of God, which is unto the ages of the ages.
There are those who want to build up a work which will for ever be a monument of their name. They are building tombs, like Absalom, to their own memory; but that is a poor thing, and is bound to fade sooner or later. That which shall abide for ever is that which comes out from God Himself and is not done by us, but through us, so that all things are of God.
Do you think that is a limiting relationship? No! For Paul who says, "but all things are of God", and seems by his "but" to limit things, also says, "I can do all things in Christ who strengtheneth me". There you have boundless possibility, and the only governing law is that all is out from God, and not out from ourselves.
A true knowledge of the Lord Jesus will reverse a good many of our ideas, and a good many of our procedures. A true knowledge of Christ and union with Christ, with all that that means, will make us go to work in entirely the opposite way from that in which we have been accustomed to go. We shall come to be governed by this one consideration, that it is not what we would do for the Lord, but what the Lord would do through us, that is alone to rule. It is a very testing way. You can hardly believe, unless you have been the same way, how often and intensely and bitterly the enemy fights and tempts you to come down on to a lower position, and to take up things again for God and launch big schemes, enter upon big undertakings, set up some thing on the earth that can be seen, because all those who are governed by that standard of things seen have said: You see, you are doing nothing! Show us what you are doing! You cannot show us anything for it all! Satan does work on that line. To the flesh that is not easy. To go on with God and have nothing to show for it, never to be able to have the work written up in the papers, to publish no reports, nor statistics, and yet to know in your heart of hearts that, although it is hidden, something is going on, and that you cannot do otherwise than you are doing, is far from being a path of ease to the flesh.
It is a testing way, but, blessed be God, if we do endure the testing and go on patiently with Him, in His time, when that flesh has been finally laid low; when the voice of natural ambition is no longer sounding and having influence, and we are now utterly at the place where if things are not going to be of the Lord then there is not going to be anything at all, the Lord has a free way, and He is able to indicate that all the time something has been going on. He shows how He has been at work, and how that in time there will be manifested a work of God, a work that shall have such a large percentage of spiritual value and meaning in it that you are very glad, after all, that you walked with God and not with men in the work of God.
It gets to the heart of things. If only we saw what Christ is to God, and to us-ward, it would reverse so many of our present ways, methods and procedure. The natural is put back all the time. In chapter 6 the Lord Jesus had been presenting this very truth, profound, mysterious, and from that time many of His disciples went back and walked no more with Him. Then what did He say? "Therefore, I said unto you that no one can come after me except the Father draw him". Oh, I see then, these many disciples that went away had come of their own accord; their coming was not a work of God! All natural inclination and undertaking in relation to the Lord is dispensed with; it does not get through, it is put back. Are you, because desirous or inclined in a natural way to things of the Lord, on that basis? Well, that will meet a terrible affront presently. The Lord will have to say to that, No! not out from you, not even in your discipleship, but out from God. All has to begin with God. No man can come after Me except the Father draw him! Relationship to Christ is a matter of God's work, not ours, and if it is not God's work, then at some point the mystery of things will offend us. We wanted something for ourselves, and this is far too other than self, and we cannot go on with it. This does not give us a place. All that is natural is put back if we are going on with God; we shall only do so on the basis of God's own work in us, "all things out from God".
We surely see the need for praying for more understanding and enablement to grasp the deepest realities of the things of Christ.