by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: John 20-21.
Our last meditation in this series finds us right on the ground that we have been governed by all the way through, that is, resurrection ground. Everything has been in the light of resurrection.
At the outset, by way of a general survey of the chapters, we might follow the outline again of "A Companion to the Gospel by John", and then perhaps make a few specific remarks.
This section of the gospel may very well be gathered up into those words of the apostle at the close of the letter to the Hebrews: "Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead that great shepherd of the sheep, in (Greek translation) the blood of the everlasting covenant, even Jesus, make you perfect in every good thing to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, to whom be glory for ever and ever." You will have no difficulty in breaking that comprehensive word up into parts, and seeing how these two chapters can be arranged under those parts.
The Great Shepherd Returns
Here we have the return of the Great Shepherd, brought up from among the dead, even our Lord Jesus.
Our outline follows this course, that these chapters are a very clear and concrete presentation of what the church is in principle.
First, it is an exclusive witness to the resurrection of Christ; that is, He confined the revelation of Himself as the risen Lord to the church, and never gives that to the world. Inasmuch as there are many who believe or accept the historic fact of His resurrection who cannot be regarded as of the church, this must be recognised to mean something more than just the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. It must carry with it a revelation by the Holy Spirit of the risen Lord in the heart. That is essential to constituting anyone a member of the church. The church was constituted by a personal, immediate, direct revelation of Himself as the Risen Lord, and such a revelation was regarded as indispensable as to the foundations of the church. The apostle to whom there was given the unique revelation of the church, was given a unique revelation of the Risen Lord.
That is the first thing, that the living knowledge of the risen Christ is bound up with the church, and the church takes its very being and character from that knowledge.
Secondly, because of that, He constitutes the church a resurrection company, and then a heavenly people, by first ascending to His Father as its Head (John 20:17). It is quite clear that something transpired in the way of His appearing in the presence of God at a given moment during the course of the forty days after His resurrection and early in that period, otherwise we cannot understand a seeming contradiction, for here He said to Mary: "Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended unto My Father", but in another place it says that they took Him, or held Him by the feet when they saw Him. There is no word of rebuke recorded, nothing which indicates or intimates that He pushed them away, but it says definitely that they did hold Him. Then later He said, "Reach hither thy hand... handle Me and see...".
We may regard the appearance to Mary as the first appearance after His resurrection, and between that and the subsequent appearances where they did hold Him and where He did say "handle Me", there must have taken place some appearance in the presence of the Father, as represented by these words: "I have not yet ascended".
So He constituted His church a heavenly people by first appearing in the presence of His Father as the Head of the church. We shall see more about that in a moment.
In the third place He constitutes the church upon the basis of the peace which He has made by the blood of His Cross (verses 19, 20 and 26). It is upon the ground of that peace that the church rests, the peace that He has made by the blood of His Cross.
Next, He establishes the fact that the Holy Spirit will be the governing reality of the church in this age (verse 22): "When He had said this, He breathed on them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Spirit". That was prospective, not actual at the moment; that is, they did not receive the Holy Spirit at that moment when He breathed upon them. That is quite clear; but it was a symbolic act, which secured unto them the reception of the Spirit who came later. The symbolism will be mentioned again presently, but the point here is this, that the fact was then established that the Holy Spirit would be the governing reality of the church in this age.
Then again, He makes it clear that the full blessing of fellowship with Him as risen, is through faith (verses 24 and 29). Thomas was absent for eight days through unbelief, and eventually when he was present and convinced, the Lord said, "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed". It is a greater blessing and the full blessing of fellowship with Him as risen is through faith.
In the sixth place, He gives the church the beautiful character of a family: "Go to My brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and your Father".
Now, that is all a summary of points and principles which show what the church is from the Lord's standpoint.
Attachment to Him on the Basis of Resurrection
Passing on to John 21 we note that this chapter is an after-inspiration. It is fairly clear that John closed his narrative with verse 31 of chapter 20 and then, as by a new inspiration, he added what is chapter 21. This chapter tells of the events of Christ's third appearance to them after His resurrection. John says, "This is the third time Jesus appeared unto them".
What have we here represented? Inclusively it is a new attaching of His own to Himself on the basis which resurrection represents. There is an entirely new position represented by resurrection, and in that new position He seeks to bring them into an attachment with Himself. The old kind of attachment has been broken; that is all at an end, it has been taken away from them; it is as though they were suspended between heaven and earth without any kind of solid ground under their feet. Their relationship is a very indefinite and uncertain one, and in this third appearance He seeks to make definite the new relationship on the new ground.
Here are things which we may regard as symbolic. The church as represented by them is on the sea, and we know the sea as a biblical type of humanity. It is as though the church here was represented as being in the world among men.
Then, it has toiled through the night and known failure for one reason, and that is because of self-energy. Peter said, "I go fishing." They said, "We also go with thee." They toiled all night and took nothing. It was a self-directed, and self-energised activity in the world, ending in failure.
Christ, however, is on the distant shore, and knows all about them, and all about their failure. But when eventually they come absolutely and completely under His government, the place of failure becomes the place of fulness. To come under His government, in their case meant the setting aside of the whole of their natural reasoning, "We have toiled all night" (the best time for fishing), and to let down a net in the light is not good sense to a fisherman. If you have failed in the dark you are not likely to succeed in the light; but all such natural reasoning, and the laws which govern the natural man in his activities, have to be set aside, or we have to be willing to surrender them when we come under the complete government of Christ. It is a matter of subjection to His Headship in mind, and heart, and will. When that is so, then that which has issued in failure may, under circumstances which the natural reasoning would dictate to be altogether contrary to any hope or expectation, be the very place of fulness.
Therefore the church's fulness does not depend upon favourable circumstances, but upon subjection to Christ. That is a principle, a law. The most unfavourable circumstances may prove very fruitful if it is in obedience to the Lord, while out of the Lord's will the most favourable conditions, naturally speaking, may prove utterly unfruitful.
Then you note the precision as to the number of fishes, "one hundred, and fifty, and three". If the Holy Spirit dictates the writing of any record, we may take it that He does not just use words for the sake of forming a narrative, but words weigh with Him, and if He inspired the writing of that statement, He evidently meant something. They counted the fish when they had brought them to land.
We are not going to stop with the symbolism of numbers. The point is the precision. To me this speaks of the elect gathered out of the sea of humanity in this age, under the direction of Christ, and this represents a special relationship to Himself. That is set forth in verses 15 to 18.
We are going to stop with that last paragraph for a moment. Let us say again about the matter of the elect and election, that all we mean by this is the fact that the Word of God states that there is such a thing as an elect, and reveals that the elect is the elect in relation to a purpose of God. The very thing that governs God in election is the realisation of a specific purpose. To put that in another way, the elect was an idea and a thought of God with a view to particular and peculiar service to the Lord that is to be in the closest relation to Him, and in the fullest expression of Him for the good of others.
Election does not begin and end with the matter of salvation. I do not know how far we may take it in relation to salvation. When we speak of the elect and of election, we have got to keep vocation always in mind as the thing which governs it. The elect simply stand in the counsels of God in a special relationship to Himself for a special purpose. That is all (but it is a mighty 'all'), and that is what we mean by election; a vessel, an instrument secured in the foreknowledge of God.
Always remember that it is: "elect according to the foreknowledge of God". God knows. God does not live in time. All time is present with Him; all that we call the future exists now in this moment with God. He is timeless. Get outside of the realm of our human senses and time ceases to be any consideration or factor at all. You know that when you go to sleep you lose consciousness. You might lose consciousness for some reason or another, for half-an-hour so thoroughly that when you regain consciousness it may be like years, a lifetime. The point is this: get outside of human sense and you get outside of time, and God is not governed by human sense; He is outside of all those things of our human life. Ages and ages in which He submits His purposes for outworking are all in the present moment with Him, and He knows the end; and if He knows that at a certain time, because of certain things, in His grace and in His activity and in His sovereign working certain people will respond to the calling, then in the knowledge of that He can ordain that those people shall constitute for Him that vessel for that special purpose.
That takes it outside of the mere level of God chooses some to be saved, and they cannot be lost, and those who are not chosen to be saved might be saved and might not be, but there is nothing whatever to go by in their case. Let us get outside of that realm of things, and see that election relates primarily, in the foreknowledge of God, to purpose, and the elect is a concrete Body. That elect belongs to this dispensation, and it is the church being gathered in this dispensation.
In our last meditation we said that the church, the elect, is not the only company that will be saved; others will be saved. But you will remember we were careful to say that we are not concerned with the time factor as to when the others will be saved, and we wholly repudiate the idea of universalism, that every being ever created will be saved, including the devil. We cannot tolerate such an idea. We do not believe it is Scriptural, however cleverly men have formatted a system which seems to their satisfaction to prove to the contrary.
The point is this, that the elect are being gathered out in this dispensation, or this part of the dispensation, and there will come a point at which the church will be translated. But that is not the end of the age of grace; that is not the end of the salvation of men. There is Israel to come in yet, and Israel is not of the church. The church is something altogether different. Israel will be saved, and there will be those yet of the nations who will be saved. That is all we meant by saying that the elect is a particular company for a particular purpose, which constitutes the main object of this dispensation.
If you prefer to think of the dispensation going on after the translation of the church we do not dispute that the dispensation may not conclude with the translation of the church. There may be other happenings before the whole dispensation is wound up. But that is not the point, and this is all that we meant by election and salvation coming to others beyond the church.
I have read again through those letters in the book of the Revelation carefully, from start to finish, and one thing that has come to me with renewed force is this: that as you move through that book you find different companies in heaven at different times, and you find at a given point when certain companies are already represented as in heaven, the angel going forth with the everlasting gospel. There is something in the everlasting gospel which is probably another gospel than the gospel of the grace of God at this time in the dispensation, probably a different gospel from the gospel of the Kingdom. We do not profess to understand it, but we see that is there, and the point is that you have different companies in heaven at different times, and you find the range widening, and when you come to the end you have actually got the Lamb, and the Bride, the Lamb's wife, and you have got those who are bidden to the feast who are the guests, and then you have the appeal to some larger company (and, mark you, this is where a great many people have gone astray, and where our hymns have led us astray): "The Spirit and the bride say, Come, and let him that is athirst come...". That has been said to be the Spirit and the church saying to the Lord Jesus, 'Come'. But look at the setting. You have got the river of the water of Life (Rev. 22:1), and you have the church, the bride, the Lamb's wife. The marriage supper has taken place, and there is the City, the River, the Lamb and His Bride already there, and then this: "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come..." (v.17). To whom? "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely". It is not a call to the Lord Jesus to come. It is an invitation to others to receive of that Life, to enjoy that Life which is here in the church, in the City: "And I saw... the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven... as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2). You see you have a good deal to get over if you are at all disposed to argue that the church is the only saved company for ever and ever. Not at all.
Now, when Christ breathed upon the disciples it was a symbolic act, which suggested or set forth the new creation in resurrection. God breathed into the first Adam the breath of life, and he became a living soul. That is how the first creation, the first race, became animate, intended to show forth the glory of God. It has failed, and God has a new creation in Christ Jesus, coming out of His death, raised up in His resurrection, and on those who represent that new creation at the outset, He breathes in a symbolic act. They are the first of that new creation by the Spirit of God, and that creation is destined in Christ to reveal to a wondering universe what God is like. That is the elect.
So the apostle urges: "Give the more diligence to make your calling and election sure." The apostle got that from the races with which he was familiar in the Greek world, the Olympic games. As the runners went forth into the race, at a certain point in the course there was a bend, and from that point it was the homeward lap, and as they came round that bend the goal was before them, the prize was in view, and just at that point a notice was put up, a notice of encouragement, with words which in English mean, "Make speed". As they rounded that bend, and saw that notice, the crowd gathered there shouted and encouraged and did everything they could to make those words living words, with power in them, "Make speed! The goal is in view, do not drop out now, it is the last lap!"
The apostle took that up, and said, "Give more speed to make your calling and election sure. You are on the last lap now; do not drop out here, do not let go here - make speed!" Is that not the spirit of Paul? "Brethren, I count not myself to have attained, neither am I already perfect (complete), this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and looking forward to those things which are before, I press towards the mark of the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ... I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus My Lord." I make speed, I give the more diligence.
You see what the prize is and what the goal is. The letter to the Hebrews tells us, "Wherefore, holy brethren, partners in a heavenly calling... We see Jesus crowned with glory and honour... bringing many sons to glory". It is the throne, the shared glory for the elect, for those who come through to sonship and maturity, who go right on with the Lord. That surely is the word today for the Lord's people: Make speed! Give the more diligence!
The note which rings out, and will ring out everywhere, is sonship, the inheritance, the throne, the partnership with Him in the glory for administrative purposes in the ages to come.
May the Lord put His own urgency into our hearts, and give us a clear apprehension of what it is He is seeking to say to us, and through us to all His people.