by T. Austin-Sparks
If you'll take up the prophecies of Isaiah again and turn to that part that begins with the thirteenth verse of the fifty-second chapter, recalling that we are compassing the question that is raised in verse 1 of chapter 53: "To whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?" And inasmuch as this is prophecy in the sense of prediction, we have to recognise that it is a looking back as well as forward. So far as the prophet was concerned it was prediction, but the standpoint even then from which he prophesies, is backward; he is looking back upon the world's reactions to the Cross of the Lord Jesus. He is taking that sum of all that happened at calvary, of the report that went forth as to those happenings, and then the reactions to that report, "Who hath believed it?" And then in the light of the seeming tragedy of the cross, this question: "To whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?" And the answer, of course, is found in this whole section.
Now, we have noted this afternoon that with chapter 54 we find ourselves in God's movement toward recovery and rebuilding. The Cross has cleared the way, the Cross has provided the ground for this new prospect. And the new note is struck at this point with chapter 54 and you will notice how it begins. And there are, from that point onward, a number of these bright, hopeful notes that are struck leading on to such as, in the beginning of chapter 60: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."
Here, then, because of the foundation having been laid or provided by the Cross, the way opened, the ground cleared, the Lord is facing the whole matter of recovery, restoration, and rebuilding of His people. There's a new prospect, a new hope, a new message of encouragement. But even so, as you read these chapters, you've only to either recollect what you know about the later chapters of Isaiah, or to pass your eye over them hurriedly, even so, there are light and shades in this new prospect. The sun shines: "Thy light is come... the glory of the Lord is risen" - it's like the sun rising on an early summer day; and then, you know the feeling when you are sensitive to these things, when a heavy cloud passes over the face of the sun. It's only passing over, it may be only temporary, but just for that time you look to see what's happened; you wonder whether the whole prospect is going to change; whether the bright time is passing, whether that is the end.
It's just like that in these later chapters of Isaiah. Here it is: the sun is risen - the glory of the Lord - and there's a bright prospect. But then you light on things, here and there, like chapter 58: "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgression..." from place to place there are these clouds, dark clouds, that seem to pass over the face of the sun, that rise in the presence of this new prospect; and they bring to the heart a feeling of uncertainty. Is this 'radiant morn' going to pass away too soon? We have mixed feelings about it all. We're not absolutely assured yet that all is going to work out according to the seeming promise or going to follow through on this new prospect.
From the Lord's side, there is no question: the Lord has for Himself His ground, and the Lord shows Himself as One who means to be positive. He is not of two minds, there is no shadow cast by His turning, by His changing. Everything that comes from the Lord shows Him to be One who is out for something - really after a new day, a new situation. I say: the Lord is positive from His side.
But it would seem that He is having to go carefully. He wants to be positive, He wants to go right out and have no reserves, but... but... there seems to be something that is still holding this arm of the Lord; He just cannot go right on, as He indicates He would do. The ground, the old ground has suffered a fiery purging in the Cross; yes, all that stubble has been dealt with, all that tangle and network of thorns and briars, it's all been dealt with by the fires. He has come in and got His foundation there: but... there still seems to be a question. You cannot read through these chapters without feeling: 'We are not through with this business yet; we are not right out on the other side yet; we are not sure how it's going to work out yet.' The Lord is pretty sure; the Lord is encouraging; the Lord is saying that, as for Him, He is not holding back for Himself, but there's something that He is encountering.
Let me put it like this. The ground has been cleared, and the foundation has been laid; but now it's a question:
What is Going to be Built Upon that Foundation?
And that is just where the uncertainty comes in, it is now not the foundation - that's settled in the Cross - but it's the superstructure: it is what is going to be imposed upon that. What are you going to build on that foundation? And it's a question; it's a question. That is the point of the question, that's where the uncertainty comes in. The Lord is not sure what His people are going to put upon His foundation. So, you see, this is in Isaiah.
So far as that Old Testament is concerned, the answer to that question, as to the new building on that new ground, as far as that is concerned, the answer of course is found in what we call the post-exilic prophets, the prophets after the Exile - Zechariah, and Haggai and Malachi. The answer is there: what the people would put upon the foundation, the new building, of what sort it was. But, as I said this afternoon, you might say, "Well, that's 'Old Testament'. That's long ago, far away, remote from us". But you remember this afternoon I told you that in the New Testament there's the counterpart of this in our very own dispensation. And the letter to the Romans stands right in there with Isaiah 53, where the Cross, the Cross encounters all the old rubbish and evil and tangle, and deals with it in fiery judgment, and clears the ground for a new prospect, which new prospect brings into view in chapter 8. And with chapter 8 of the letter to the Romans God has got His foundation.
But what is the counterpart of this other, this following part of Isaiah? It's the first letter to the Corinthians; so patent as you look at it. You know that the apostle, coming to Corinth, said: "When I came unto you... I determined" - the language is: "I deliberately made up my mind that I would know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified". The foundation has been laid, chapter 3, verse 19: "As the wise masterbuilder I laid the foundation" - the foundation: Christ crucified, you see. The foundation is laid. The Cross in "Romans" has secured the ground for the foundation; it's laid. It's there, so to speak, in Corinth - Christ crucified: the foundation. But as you read on into this letter, your heart almost stands still. You hear Paul saying: "I have laid a foundation; and another buildeth thereon and it's possible to build on this wood, hay, stubble, or gold, silver, precious stones; and every man's work shall be tried by fire, of what sort it is. If any man's work suffers loss in the fire - well, what happens? Well, he shall be saved - he will just get in - but so as by fire; he will have lost everything".
It's a big question here: what are you going to put on the foundation? What are you going to superimpose upon that ground of the Cross? Are you going to bring back things that are absolutely contradictory to the Cross? If so, you see what happens.
Now, this first letter to the Corinthians is not the letter of the foundation - Romans is that - it is the letter of the building. That is seen in what I have just said: "I determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified - I laid a foundation, I laid a foundation". The foundation is laid. But now: "Let every one take heed what he buildeth thereon". What he buildeth thereon! And it is impressive, and I'm so sorry that the translators have not helped us in this, it is impressive to notice that the original word which means 'building', has been translated into 'edify' or 'edification' - which is entirely false leading. According to our mentality if you use that word edifying today, as I have so often said, you think it means "headifying"; informing your head, getting information into your head, head-knowledge, and it doesn't mean that at all. The word edifying is the original word for building, see?
I would suggest to you that you follow through the eight times in this first letter to the Corinthians where that word is used. It's most searching, it's most enlightening! It touches on so many things: this whole matter of spiritual gifts is summed up in that one word - do they build up? If they don't, they are no good in the purpose of God; you can rule them out; they have missed their point. You see, even Divine gifts can miss the point, can be side-tracked; we will have to touch on that again. But many things like that, the governing thing, the governing point, the governing word on all sorts of things - eight different kinds of connections - is this word: building! Building, building! It is the spiritually constructional side of things that is in this first letter to the Corinthians. Yes, the foundation is laid: Christ crucified. Now the building!
And, when you come to the building, a real battle starts up. The question is:
What are You Going to Put on that Foundation?
Let me put it another way: what is God going to allow you to put on His foundation? And you have right through this letter a long series of 'No's'. 'No's' - things to which God says: "No, not that on My foundation, please; I have no place for that on My foundation. If you put that on My foundation, I'll let loose the fire. You may spend your whole life on that, and then it all goes up in smoke. It is not suitable to My foundation; it is not according to the Cross of the Lord Jesus."
Now, it would take us a long time to go through this letter and see all the things to which God says: 'No'. We might just touch on two or three perhaps, which are indicative of much more, you can read the letter. And you can read it with this in mind: will God allow anything like that to be put on His foundation? And then the answer. Very well, if not, let's have the Cross consume that right away, let the Cross deal with that immediately. We don't want that to be held over to an application of the meaning of the Cross when it's too late, and we just scramble into Heaven without anything that we can take with us of a lifework - that's the issue. We don't want that; for the Cross to come late or too late to save our life-work, to save the fruit of all our energies.
Well, you begin with chapter 3: "I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not with meat; for ye were not yet able to bear it: nay, not even now are ye able; for ye are yet carnal: for" - this is the description of carnality - "for whereas there is among you jealousies...". Oh, let's weigh it, even if it's to our own judgment and condemnation; it's better the Cross comes right in now. There are among you jealousies? God says 'No' to that on His foundation: "None of that please on My foundation. The Cross, which is My foundation, says 'No' to that."
"There are among you jealousies and strife..." Strife! You must think this through and face this honestly. It may seem very elementary, my dear friends, but here we are: we are not facing the world, the unconverted here; we are right here in the Church: believers, amongst believers; we are dealing with that and those amongst whom God's foundation has been laid. It's been laid; who are "called to be saints"; that is, who are regarded by God as His own people. Strife? God says 'No' to that on His foundation. If you have that you know what is going to happen? Sooner or later, it is going to be exposed as wood, hay and stubble - going up in smoke - that is the value of it.
"Are ye not carnal, and walk after the manner of men?" Oh! You are not allowed to walk after the manner of men on God's foundation! You are just not allowed. God says 'No' to "the manner of men" on His foundation. "For when one saith, I am of..." and I'll leave you to put the names in, names right up to date; names right in your own circle, names in your own assembly; names in your own Christian world, or historic religious names. Put it in, what you like, "One saith, I am of... and another, I am of...; and yet another, I am of..." human partialities, human preferences, human likes and human dislikes, which produce division. God says: "No. Not on My foundation; that's not My Church, that's not My building. I never build with that, and you may not. You may have a wonderful set-up! A wonderful set-up of your own making - with material like that, with stuff of that kind - it's going up in smoke. In the end you will have nothing; however much you had in the meantime."
Shall we go on? You see what I mean? If you pursue the whole letter like that: partialities, what a lot there is about "the wisdom of the world" here in this early section - the wisdom of the world, the wisdom of man, man's mind about things. And God says: "None of that on My foundation; none of that". There is no place for your mind at all on God's foundation, there is only place for the mind of the Spirit. If we have not got the mind of the Spirit, we have no right to be doing anything on God's foundation. Forgive me for being so exacting, so searching. But you see, are not, after all, these the troubles, the troubles, are not these the very things that are blighting Christianity today? They are! And don't let us think of Christianity objectively, it comes very near. These are the things, dear friends, that are doing the mischief, perhaps even amongst us: we are bringing on to God's foundation a mentality that is not the mentality of the Spirit. That's what this amounts to - a mentality. "What things knoweth a man, concerning a man, save the spirit of a man, which is in him? What things knoweth a man, what things knoweth the Spirit of God, what man knoweth the things of the Spirit of God except the Spirit of God that is in him?" These are two different mentalities, you see - the natural mind and the spiritual mind. God says: "None of the natural mind or mentality at all on My foundation."
Paul here calls this the 'world' coming in, and constructing something upon God's foundation. The world is coming in and God says: "There is no place whatever for the world in any form on My foundation." If you look at it closely, you'll find that it searches out so much: how the world thinks, the world's standards of judgment of values, how the world does things. See, what was happening here was these Corinthians were trying to make an impression, trying to make an impression by natural means. The Cross of Isaiah 53 is not a very 'impressive' thing of that nature, is it? There is nothing there that popularises the gospel - I say, as I said yesterday, it is more offensive, than anything else.
Are you trying to make the work of God successful by an appeal to the natural man? Now, I hold no brief for ugliness, I believe that God is a God of beauty; or for crudeness; but if we think we are going to make God's work successful and acceptable by display, by appeal to the soul of man - artistically or aesthetically or anything like that, we are on wrong lines. Let me put it the other way: the 'appeal', the 'impression', the 'grip', the 'overwhelming', has got to be essentially and only of spiritual value, of an inward kind, not what appeals at all to the natural fancies of people. The arm of the Lord will not be revealed to the 'natural man' in any way. The arm of the Lord will not be revealed to the 'world' for its good. The arm of the Lord will not be revealed to any mentality of man, see, only against it. That is what is here.
To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? You move on into this letter, and you find that the Cross touches so many other things. It touches our emotions, our passions, there is a lot about that here, isn't there? The natural emotions and the natural passions, not only the mentality, but our feelings, our emotions. And the Lord says: "None of that on My foundation, none whatever." Oh, there is so much that the Cross here says 'No', to as to building. I invite you to look at it more closely; it is not my purpose to give an exposition of the letter to the Corinthians. I want to get to the heart of things.
What is it that God says may be put on His foundation? Because there's a positive side in this letter. It would be very pathetic, wouldn't it, if it were all negative, if all the way through to the end it was: "No, no, no, no no! Never!" Take account of that, because you notice that I've said before today, you can never come into God's 'Yes' until you have accepted God's 'No'. But there is a God's yes and a very mighty 'Yes', in this letter. What is it? What is it? Let us look at it. We think we know it, well, perhaps we know the letters, perhaps we know the words; I suggest that we know practically nothing of the thing itself.
Chapter 13. The apostle when he reaches this point writes off everything that is not spiritually constructive; though, mark you, it may have been something that God gave, it has been taken hold of and used for man's gratification, for man's pleasure, for man's satisfaction, for man's glory. Spiritual gifts - tongues and all those things - they have brought the mind, and emotion, and mentality of the natural man down upon those very Divine things and robbed them of their value to build up, and made them just display things - glorying in spiritual gifts. And the apostle here writes that all off, and says they were never given for that; and even though given of God, they amount to nothing when it comes to building - that's the word he uses here you know, "If I speak with the tongue of men and of angels but have not love, I am become sounding brass, a clanging cymbal." Exit spiritual gifts which have failed to fulfil their purpose: building the house of God. You don't cling to anything that does not serve that purpose. Paul dismisses it; but notice he is reaching after the positive through the negative all the time.
"And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains..." quite scriptural, quite scriptural - that is what the Lord Jesus said: "if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, be thou removed and cast into the midst of the sea; and it shall be done". That is perfectly scriptural; and you can be perfectly scriptural and you can have faith like that, and it can mean nothing if it fails to build up the House of God, if it does not result in this spiritual structure, it becomes negative. Exit all knowledge of mysteries, and secret lore, and faith that removes mountains. "Out you go if you do not, do not build up! That's the value of you - nothing! "If I have not love, I am nothing". With all that, I am nothing!
"And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned...", if I am a philanthropist, if I am most charitable, if I am even sacrificial in my giving; even if I am a martyr and give my body to be burned; that can all be done without any constructive value in the building of the House of God. And if that is so, that is nothing:"and have not love, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing".
Now, that is the showing out of court of things - wonderful things in themselves - but which have failed to serve the purpose for which they were given and that is spiritual building.
Now the positive.
What May You Build on this Foundation?
Let us bring in that to which God says: Yes! He says 'No' to that, and no to that, and no to that; but now, where does His 'Yes' lie? Here it is: love! Love!
"Love suffereth long..." that's a wholesale rebuke to Corinthians who went to court against their own brethren in Christ because their rights were injured or taken from them, and so they dragged them before the magistrate, right away. "Love suffereth long, and is kind...", you may put that on the foundation; that kind of thing is constructive, isn't it? Yes!
"Love envieth not..." I don't know how you feel, dear friends, when we really quietly like this work our way into and through every clause, you want to stop and say: "Say no more - that finds me out too much". But we must go on, for, after all, it is what God is calling for.
"Love suffereth long and is kind. Love envieth not. Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up..." Go back to chapter 8, and you will read this: "Knowledge puffeth up, love buildeth up". There is a great deal of difference between 'puffing up' inflating, filling with air and there's nothing after all in it, and 'building up'. Love is not puffed up: there is nothing false, artificial, inflated, make-believe, pretend, about love. Is not puffed up. It's the balloon idea, isn't it? Oh, how large you can blow it up, but you have only got to put the tiniest point of a needle in it - and where is it? It's gone. Alright, Paul says: "It is no use putting that on God's foundation". But love is not like that at all.
"Love is not puffed up... doth not behave itself unseemly". Unseemly behaviour: we could spend a lot of time on that, couldn't we? Is it seemly? Is it seemly? Does it become a Christian? Does it become the Lord Jesus? Does it become that holy House of God? Does it become the Cross of the Lord Jesus? Is it seemly? Love is seemly; it "doth not behave itself unseemly".
"Love... seeketh not its own" - does not want to have its own way, does not work to its own ends; does not draw to itself: "it seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth...".
You may think that I am not saying very much tonight, but I am saying a great deal. I'd like to read that chapter in a translation which I think a classic, if you'll allow it:
"I may speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but if I have not love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal; I may prophesy, fathom all mysteries and secret lore, I may have such absolute faith that I can move mountains from their place, but if I have not love, I count for nothing. I may distribute all I possess in charity, I may give up my body to be burnt, but if I have not love, I make nothing out of it. Love is very patient, very kind. Love knows no jealousy; love makes no parade, love gives itself no airs, is never rude, never selfish, never irritated, never resentful. Love is never glad when others go wrong, love is gladdened by goodness, always slow to expose, always eager to believe the best, always hopeful, always patient. Love never disappears."
You may put that on the foundation, and that is, all that, all that is what God says Yes to. To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? To that; to that - just to that, dear friends. Forgive me if I seem not to have given you a great fulness of new light, but I just feel so strongly that we've got to face this matter of what the Cross sets aside, and what the Cross brings in; what may be put on God's foundation, and what may not be put on it. It concerns every one of us, does it not, quite seriously, as to what there will be at the end - really, that's what matters: what there will be at the end. Not what there is now, gaudy and display and showy and popular, and receiving man's approval and applause; no, but what there will be at the end. And God is moving here, as you see, to build up, to build up, to build up; and then, having shown what He will not use in His building, He says: "Thisiswhat I will use; this is the stuff, the material of the building, the Church". And this is really what does build up: "Love buildeth up".
Oh, may the Lord use this word to our hearts, to smite our hearts if needs be, to enlighten our hearts as to what real values are. Oh no, all these things are not the real values, not even spiritual gifts are the real values, unless, mark you, the effect of them is real spiritual increase amongst the believers. That's the test. That's the test! It is not the things themselves, not their presence, not that the Lord gave them, but whatever those gifts may be, and there are many of them, the test, the test of every gift is: does it really build the Church? Does it really build the House? Is it really resulting in a larger measure of Christ? Is it?
For these things may be an obstruction to Christ. You see what this letter says so clearly is this: that spiritual gifts is no guarantee of spiritual maturity. Here you have the most immature of the churches! The most immature; he says: "I fed you with milk; you are babes, you are still babes" the most immature of the churches, yet, yet characterised by all these gifts. It is not that the gifts are wrong, but they have been sidetracked or they have been brought under arrest; they have not served the purpose for which they were given - that is, bringing to the full measure of Christ. The full measure of Christ! That's the object, and love does that, love brings to the full measure of Christ.
Oh, may we have that love, this kind of love! This is not natural love; this love springs out of the Cross. It's the love that comes right out of the work of the Cross in us. We cannot get it by striving after it; but it will, it will rise and grow as the Cross does its work in us, it just will be found: more and more love according to the work of the Cross in our hearts and in our natures. The Lord increase our love!