by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: Haggai 2:11-14; Zechariah 3:1-5.
Now I am, I think quite definitely, led (partly because no one else is led) to come with a fresh emphasis upon the condition necessary in such an instrument for the Holy Spirit to be able to do what He is desirous of doing. May I just in a further moment of retrospect remind you of a thing said more than once in this conference, that the peculiar ministry of the Holy Spirit, as differing from the work of the Father and the Son, is that of perfecting what the Father originated and the Son constituted. The Holy Spirit's work is to carry through to perfection what has been brought forth by the Father, and has been constituted in the Son. And the Holy Spirit has, then, as the governing object of all His activities, the making perfect of the purpose of God in Christ.
We are occupied very much with the need for further and fuller expressions of the Holy Spirit in our lives individually and collectively. We are tremendously exercised on this matter, that this is a time in which there is a desperate need for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing, to go forward in a new step to make His power in the work of God manifest anew; the work of God in our own hearts, in our own lives and the work of God in His people collectively. And this is really what governs us when we pray in our various ways concerning a new experience of the Holy Spirit.
Some people may use the term "baptism", some may use the word "anointing", some may speak of "filling", some may ask for "the power". Now, all these things may doctrinally and theologically relate to some specific line of the truth, but not all the Lord's people understand the doctrine so fully, or the theology so utterly, so they make up terms and phrases. But back of all this is a right motive, a true desire, and it is their way of seeking for some further and fuller realisation of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.
It is not my intention to stay to sort you out on this matter, but to take up the heart cry of the people of God and to seek to touch, as the Lord shall enable, upon some things which may be in the direction of the Lord being able to respond to that heart cry. It may be searching, it may test us; nevertheless if we are honest we will bear the word. But what we want all the time to keep in view is not something for personal good and blessing, but it is that the Lord might have His testimony in fulness, in glory, and that the Holy Spirit may be able to accomplish His work which is the consummating of the purpose of God in Christ. Now He has come for that. It is a blessed thing to remind our hearts of the fact that the Holy Spirit has come with one definite and all-inclusive object, and that that object is to perfect the work which God originated and initiated concerning His Son Jesus Christ, in the saints. Now that is the foundation upon which we stand and which is a strong confidence.
Yet with all, the Holy Spirit may be hindered so far as we are concerned. As we were saying earlier, we may not know the time of our visitation, and the responsibility is at our own door so that it is necessary for the Lord to speak to us as to the way necessary by which He shall be able to do the work for which He, in the Holy Spirit, is here. Thus I have read these portions which lead on to the summit in Zechariah 4:6: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts". "It will be done by My Spirit." But there is something that leads on to that.
Haggai and Zechariah go together as fellow prophets relating to the same object. In Haggai you noticed as we read, the word has to do with the people. It referred to the state of the people, to what the Lord called "uncleanness". In Zechariah it referred to Joshua, the high priest, who was seen to be in a similar state, clothed with filthy garments, and in both cases this is seen to be how heaven sees the situation; not how earth sees it, not how men see it, but how heaven sees it - the word in Haggai was: "...before Me, says the Lord". In all probability the people themselves were ignorant of it and not alive to it. If they had been told as man to man that Joshua's garments as high priest were filthy, well, they would not have accepted it; they probably would have repudiated it. If they had been told their hands were unclean, their sacrifices were unclean, the works of their hands were unclean, they might not have accepted it and they might have been offended. But it is clearly pointed out by the Holy Spirit here that this is how God sees it and how heaven sees it, "...before Me, says the Lord". That is the word in Haggai.
In Zechariah it is even more amazing because the third chapter opens with: "And he showed me..." Who is this? This is a heavenly messenger who is giving a vision to the Lord's servant, and it is as though the Lord's servant was caught up to heaven, and in heaven he sees the Lord and he sees Joshua standing as in the presence of the Lord, and he sees the head of that other heavenly hierarchy opposed to God: satan, the adversary. It almost reminds you of the beginning of the book of Job where the sons of God are presented before the Lord and satan came among them. It is up there that this is taking place, in the presence of the Lord, and it seems that what is encountered is a scandal to heaven. Men may not call it such but heaven calls it that - a high priest, clothed in filthy garments - how heaven sees things. And after all, that is the thing that matters. It is not what we see in ourselves, or think about ourselves, or what other people think or say; it is what the Lord sees and how we are, in the view of heaven.
What the Lord saw represented two factors. One: something with which He had a controversy, something with which He could not agree, something which brought about a conflict between the Lord and those there represented. And the other thing: that because there was such a basis, such a controversy, satan had a place of weakening by being the adversary and the accuser. Satan was in a position of power, and when the Lord said: "The Lord rebuke thee, O satan" you must remember that it was not merely and only because the Lord uttered a form of words that satan was rebuked and put out of his position of power. The Lord immediately proceeded to make His rebuke effective by calling for a change in the state of things. And there is no power in rebuking satan while a state of things which gives him power remains. There has to be a change of state in order to effect a rebuke to satan.
Now, Joshua sums up in his own person representatively, the people. They and he are one, so that you find in the rest of Haggai 2 an account of how the people were baffled and defeated. Their labours were very largely in vain. You may glance at it and you will see that there was a constant reduction in the fruit of their toil, a constant loss and leakage in the result of their labours. They hoped for so much; they got so much less. They laboured for a certain measure and it always fell short, and it was as though there was a blight upon things and everything was just failing and coming short and never coming up to the full measure of expectation. There was never anything commensurate with the output of the energy, the labour, and the struggle. The cost was always far greater than the result and that was the effect of satan's power and satan's position. He had ground - and even the Lord could not change the situation while they were giving him ground - and the rebuke of satan always goes with a full store. You remember Malachi who follows so quickly on here: "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in Mine house, and prove Me now herewith, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing". And what follows? "And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground". You see the two things: a state required in the people, and then the effective rebuke of the enemy so that he is not able to devour and take away from the fruitfulness of the Lord's people's labours.
Now having said that, we are able to come right to the heart of this. The heart of it is this something concerning which the Lord has a controversy. What is that something? It is one thing with many sides, many aspects, and it is represented by that strange interrogation of the priests: "If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread... shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No. Then said Haggai, if one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, it shall be unclean."
Touching the Realm of Death
In that interrogation you have got the sum total of this whole controversy of the Lord: touching a realm of death and thereby becoming defiled. And what is the realm of death? In the practical meaning of that, what is the realm of death? It is not a certain spiritual realm merely, an atmosphere, a region you call the region of death as some intangible thing, some indefinable thing; it is a very concrete thing: the realm of death.
If you turn over to your New Testament and begin to read Romans, and then Corinthians, and then some more in Colossians, you will soon become aware of what the realm of death is. In Colossians 2 you have the summing up of the whole thing in very few words: "In the putting off of the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism". What then does that grave stand for? The whole body of the flesh. That is the realm of death. The whole realm of death is the body of the flesh. And if one touch a dead body with holy things, they shall become unclean; they have touched the realm of death. Holy things in association with the flesh - or the flesh in association with holy things - raises a controversy with God. It brings us back into that great realm of the controversy of God in the curse.
Calvary represents God's universal controversy with fallen man, with man in his natural state by birth; God can have nothing to do with man. He had a controversy with that whole state in Adam, and against man in that state God has said forever, positively, "No, I have nothing whatever to do with that; I regard that as altogether outside of the realm of My interest to do anything more than that it shall be entirely put away, and that I shall have a new creation." And whenever that thing comes up, it raises the controversy again.
Now, the Lord Jesus representatively and voluntarily took the place of the whole Adam-fallen race, gathered up into Himself Adam's race as in opposition to God, and in the Cross of Calvary the darkness and the thunder and the billows and waves of God's wrath, the judgment of God, broke upon Him, because there He represented the whole body of the flesh which was in antagonism to God and with which God had this controversy. And so God had to forsake that and forever say that not one fragment of it was acceptable. And the circumcision of Christ was His Cross where the whole body of the flesh was cut off, put away, and buried forever. Now let any of that come up and the controversy starts again. And that is what is here: something with which God has a controversy because it belongs to the natural man and not to the new creation. That is a very inclusive thing. How many things are included in that! It is hopeless for me to attempt to cover that ground, but I may just touch it at one or two points.
We shall have to leave our hearts open to the Lord that if what I say should miss your particular point where the Lord has a controversy with you, you shall nevertheless not close the matter, but ask the Lord if there is any point in your own life, not mentioned, where He has a controversy with you, because the natural man, the body of the flesh comes up.
Flesh - Man by Nature
You understand by now that when we speak here of "the flesh", we are not just meaning that positive ugly flesh which everybody hates, flesh in its naked form which we all dislike. We prefer to use another phrase, but it is weaker and it does not always have such a positive element, when we speak of 'man by nature'. However, it is the same thing; what man is apart from grace, what man is apart from regeneration, just as he is at his best outside of Christ, unregenerate; that is the whole body of the flesh. Oh, how I would love to be able to stay there and have an hour on that very thing, because it is just there so many people, especially thinking people, have all been led astray. The deception which has come, especially to thinking people, is along the line of what they would term "inherent religion", the inherent religious side of the nature of man. And upon that which is the inherent religion, the enemy has constructed upon that very foundation, upon what man calls inherent religion of man, human nature, the devil has constructed a whole philosophy which has had the effect of ruling out entirely the necessity for regeneration. That is, that if we cultivate the religious nature that is in every one of us, if we give attention to it and stimulate it outwardly and inwardly by meditation and prayers and worship, and all the things which are religious and fine, refined, and ascetic, that brings us to exactly the same place as regeneration would bring us to, and therefore regeneration is not necessary. I want to say to you, not without thought, not without many years of the deepest consideration of this thing, that that whole realm of things is a positive lie, and is from the devil. Man never will arrive in the presence of God by the development of his own religious nature apart from regeneration.
I was speaking about man by nature, and by that I mean whether he is religious more or less, whether he is very religious, or there seems to be no vestige of religion in him. It matters not. In any case he is still man by nature and is thereby alienated from the life of God. Man will only come, as the Lord Jesus said, into the kingdom of heaven by being born from above.
Now, it is when anything of that realm of man by nature comes up that a controversy starts between God and that person, or those people. You may take it along one or two lines.
We may take it along the line of natural reason. It is true that a great many good, honest, earnest, devoted, born-again children of God find their hold-up, their arrest, find themselves going round repeatedly in a circle and never arriving anywhere, always coming back to the point from which they started, because all the time they are trying to bring their own reason into the realm of Divine things. They are trying to get through by thinking it out with natural reason. Some truth, some thing that has come into view and been presented to them, and then they get their heads to work upon it and they begin an everlasting circle round that thing with the natural mind, the natural reason, and try to get through that way. On the one hand it is impossible, and on the other hand it arrests the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit cannot come along and carry us through to the realisation of God's purpose in power if we all the time are obtruding our natural reason into Divine things. There is a place for that, for meditation, but if we think we are going to apprehend the things of God by any natural quality or qualification, power or ability that we have, we are in a realm of utter impotence and failure. God's Word about this is perfectly explicit: "Now the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them because they are spiritually judged." And in this meaning 'the spiritual' is those who have the Spirit as their Teacher. And you and I will never know livingly, savingly, vitally, one fragment of the things of the Spirit of God, but only as the Holy Spirit reveals them to us. Never! And we are battering our heads against a wall when we try to take up truth and see it through with our natural reason. The faculty of understanding the things of God has gone out of the natural man, he has not got it, it is dead, it died when he sinned.
Now, this may mean nothing to many of you. You may not see how it applies, but I am quite sure I am saying what the Lord wants me to say and we shall have to come to a place over the things of God presented to us where we take this attitude: "Now Lord, either it does not appeal to me, to my reason, I cannot see that, I cannot understand that. It is contrary to my reason, I cannot get through there with my understanding, but that does not mean that it is wrong, that it is not wholly the truth, or that it is not meant for me. What I do recognise is this: that by nature I have no power of seeing through that, but if that is the truth, I ask for and count upon the Holy Spirit to make that live to me, to shine it into my heart."
We have to come to the place where the ground of controversy which closes the way to God is put aside. God has a controversy when we are trying to bring His holy things into touch with a dead body, and in the course of things we become defiled. "Evil communications corrupt good manners", and communication on our part with the old man in ourselves is a corrupting thing. I heard a preacher once say that we must stand back a thousand miles from ourselves. He illustrated it by a pair of fine scientific balances so finely poised that even within two yards radius the warmth of a human body would make them tremble, and he said the heat of our own natural lives will upset the balance of spiritual things; and that is very true. That is also true in the realm of natural reason in relation to Divine things.
What is true in the matter of the head may also be true in the matter of the heart. It may not only be a matter of 'cannot see' but it may be a matter of 'do not want': my natural desires about this, my natural likes and dislikes, what I feel about it, what I would prefer, and all these things which belong to the heart, so many things may just form a ground of controversy. Fear is a matter of the heart, and very often fear, fear for the consequences, fear for what it may cost, fear for what others may think and say, fear for the realm into which a suggested course will put us as to others and things, and that fear of our hearts coming up becomes at once the ground of Divine controversy with us, it closes the door; you never get through. It is a thing of the flesh and the natural life. It paralyses and shuts out the Holy Spirit, and it gives power to the devil to spoil us.
Not unsympathetic with it humanly, not inconsiderate for the fearful does one speak like this, and yet there is a place where the Lord calls us to lay hold of His strength, and in laying hold of His strength to sweep aside our fears. There is a time when the Lord says: "Let him that is fearful and afraid go home; he is not in this thing." He said that to Gideon's army and very few remained, but they were those who were putting fear aside and were going on with God no matter what it cost them. There is a time when our fear to open our lips may give a great occasion to the devil to bring condemnation and accusation upon us, and close the way to the Holy Spirit helping us in the matter of testimony.
Sometimes there has been an occasion to speak to someone about the Lord and their spiritual interests, and fear has closed our lips, and afterwards the devil has ridden in full charge and made us as miserable as sin, weakening our position. And we know the Lord is displeased, and we have had to go back to the Lord and plead that that thing be wiped out and be put right. On the other hand, an opportunity has arisen of like kind, fear has come, but we have looked to the Lord and said: "Lord, Your strength for this", and in that attitude we have set aside our fear and given our testimony. As we started we gained boldness and confidence and the Spirit has come in and when through we have such a blessed sense of Divine approval and joy, and very often the outcome has given us good reason to know the devil would have kept us quiet if he could have; but this thing was of the Lord.
Sometimes the same principle applies in the matter of our prayer in the gathering for prayer. Fear can silence us and give the enemy occasion, and spoil us, and make us know that there is a shadow over the Divine face, while on the other hand, with all the fear rising up, we have felt the Lord would have us open our lips and we have taken His strength and done it and found to our amazement certain liberty we never thought we should have. Afterwards there is such a joy, a sense of the Divine approval, and the enemy has had a set-back.
These are simple, but far-reaching ways of illustration. Fear may be a thing of the flesh and while allowed to remain, may constitute a basis of controversy with God, a coming up of the natural man and having his way. It is so in many other things of the heart, as I have said, things we would like, or things we do not like, things which are natural preferences, sympathies or antipathies which come from nature, and actuate, and so very often bring us into direct collision with the Lord. This is a matter then, in which our hearts must be settled and we have to take an attitude: "It is not what I like or dislike, or prefer, or what appeals to my sympathies, or agrees with my antipathies. No, it is: Is this thing of the Lord? It does not matter what I would like, it is what the Lord wants; it does not matter what I feel about it, it is what the Lord reveals." It is repudiating the whole body of the flesh and putting it back where God has put it outside in the death. But come into touch with it and you will be defiled, and there is a controversy in heaven.
What is true of the mind and heart may also be true of the soul, and many of the deepest and greatest battles of the Lord's own people have been in this realm.
We sometimes sing, and I wonder if we believe it and accept the truth of the words that we sing, "My stubborn will at last has yielded." Whoever wrote that hymn evidently knew something about that, that there are things in the will of God for us which run entirely counter to our natural will, against which we revolt, concerning which we say "No, we will not."
There may be some here to whom the Lord has spoken, whom He has sought to reach, to draw them out in a certain direction, and they say that it will involve this and that and something else; the thing runs counter to their will, their like, their idea of things. May I plead with you in the Name of the Lord that you will not allow a ground of controversy between you and God to remain. Believe me, if you do, that controversy will go on and on and that until you lose your rest, your peace, until you come to a place where the joy of life goes out and where you have become a misfit in this world. And if you go on long enough you may finally close the door even in this life to the overtures of God, and know that your day of visitation is past and you cannot recover that which was offered to you. Do not allow the controversy to go on. Do not allow these things to come up from yourself, or anyone else's impact upon your thought and imagination, do not allow anything in that realm to come and create for you a ground upon which the Lord cannot agree, and which brings you into dispute with Him, and Him to a dispute with you.
The Lord set us free from our filthy garments. It is a strong word, but it simply means that the natural life is wrapping us round; the body of the flesh is just holding us in its grip and influence, controlling us. Oh that these filthy garments may be taken away, and then, clothed in fine raiment we may be in a place of acceptance with the Lord where He says: "If thou wilt walk in My ways, and if thou wilt keep My charge, then thou shalt also judge My house... and I will give thee places to walk among these that stand by. "
That is the way of the Holy Spirit's accomplishment of the great eternal purpose of God. It is the way to: "...by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts". It is the way of putting aside the whole body of the flesh in the death of the Lord Jesus. May we take that position if needs be, on any matter whatsoever, for His Name's sake.