"... reaching forth unto those things which are before ...
toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus
(Philippians 3:13-14)

Previous issue | Next issue


Vol. 5, No. 4, July - Aug. 1976 EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster

The Prophetic Word 61
The Perfect Law Of Liberty (4) 64
The Minor Prophets (12) 68
Patient Teacher And Slow Disciples (2) 71
The Well Within 73
Preparations For The Kingdom (10) 76
Inspired Parentheses (2) ibc



Poul Madsen

THE prophets of the Lord met their greatest problem and their most dangerous opponents in the persons of the false prophets. In the Old Testament there were swarms of these, and they were always in the majority. The Bible teaches us that the downfall of the people of Israel was occasioned by their listening to the false prophets instead of heeding the messengers of the Lord. All spiritual calamity is caused by listening to the wrong things, accepting falsehood and so becoming deceived.

The false prophets were hardly ever called this but usually described as prophets. They prophesied in the name of the Lord and frequented His Temple. Many of them attended the schools of the prophets and were familiar with the scriptures. They experienced spiritual ecstasies, did symbolical acts and spoke convincingly: the large majority of the people accepted them unquestioningly as speaking for God. They could tell the crowds that they had had wonderful dreams and seen marvellous visions; they spoke about the future with confidence, and they were listened to with appreciation and pleasure.

The true prophets are hardly ever distinguished as such, but just like the others they are called prophets, or prophets of the Lord. They were often quite alone and always in the minority. Happily most of what the false prophets said has long ago been forgotten. Hardly anything of their work has been preserved as have the prophecies of the true prophets. Therefore it is not difficult for us to discern between the false and the true prophets of the past . If, however, we had been their contemporaries, would we have been able so to discern? The question is not irrelevant, for each generation has its share of prophetic utterances demanding discernment, and the problem of distinguishing between true and false speaking in the Lord's name will become more and more important as we approach the coming of the Lord.

Prophetic speech is speaking in the name of God and on His behalf -- in other words, what we call preaching. The prophets were preachers; they all spoke on the Lord's behalf, they all introduced their messages with: 'Thus saith the Lord' and they all had some kind of association with a profession of faith in Him. (I am not thinking of heathen prophets, the prophets of Baal and Ashera and such like. These were quite different and easy to distinguish.) What was not easy for the contemporary people of God was to discern between true and false messages in the Lord's name, for those speaking all seemed so convincing, and all sought support from the promises of God's Word.

The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah especially give us an insight into their continuous conflict with the false prophets, revealing how often their own inspired messages were countered by these deceived men. Ezekiel emphasises that these so-called 'colleagues' prophesied out of their own heart (see Ezekiel 13:2 and 17). They spoke because a situation arose where they felt that they must say something. This does not sound so unreasonable, especially when we remember that the situation in which the people found themselves was often catastrophic, calling for some word from the Lord. Yet they did not get direct contact with Him but spoke out of their own heart, and this was the basic reason for the way in which the people were led astray. It stands in complete contrast with the words of Jesus. He never spoke out of His own heart, but only said what He had heard the Father say. Paul did the same: "As of God, in the sight of God, speak we in Christ" (Danish -- "Out of God we speak in Christ before the face of God") (2 Corinthians 2:17).

WORDS can be extremely dangerous. We not only influence others but also ourselves by what we say. It often happens that it is our words which form our thoughts and opinions, whereas they should spring from and express them. Having spoken in this way, we are apt to become bound by our own words, and then our wrong opinions take hold on us and we become prisoners to them. From this state of bondage we are all too ready to continue bombarding other people with our words. The prophets of Ezekiel's day followed their own spirit, without having seen anything from God (Ezekiel 13:3). Today we would say that they spoke subjectively, that is to say from their own feelings and the imagined inspiration of their own senses. Far too often we hear a talk which begins with: 'I feel that ...' and continues with some thin discourse which has little or no [61/62] substance. Surely to follow your own spirit becomes the same as preaching yourself, drawing attention to yourself, whereas Paul said plainly: "We preach not ourselves" (2 Corinthians 4:5). He knew, as we should also know, that God frowns on this kind of preaching.

Ezekiel tells us that these prophets saw vanity and prophesied lies, even while they were using the orthodox formula: 'the Lord saith' (Ezekiel 13:6). The amazing thing is that they themselves expected that their words would be confirmed by the Lord. They were acting in what we would call 'good faith'. They were not aware that the Lord was not with them. They were subjectively convinced that they spoke on the Lord's behalf and that He would act in accordance with their words. That was why they spoke with such confidence, the people being persuaded by their very earnestness.

Jeremiah gives us the basic description of the difference between true and false prophets. As to the latter he says: "They speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:16). This corresponds to what Ezekiel had to say about subjective preaching, which sprang from the prophet himself and not from God. In order to attract the attention of their hearers, these prophets often said: "I have dreamed, I have dreamed" (Jeremiah 23:25). This made people listen with wrapt attention, captivated by these strange and attractive men who had had such a marvellous experience as a dream in which the Lord had spoken to them. 'What more can we ask for?', they said to one another. 'If it was a dream it must surely be from heaven.'

BECAUSE these false prophets spoke out from themselves according to the situation in which they were found, they spoke the kind of words that the people wanted to hear. In the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God's people were in the most acute crisis condition. Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar, and they wanted to know how it would turn out. What should the prophets say? Their own heart, their own spirit, urged them to proclaim to the people some good news that the Lord was about to intervene. This was the kind of message that the people's desperate plight demanded and it was naturally what they all wanted. What is more, their reasoning suggested that the Lord simply must intervene -- He could do no other. Firstly because the remnant of Judah who were left in the land were beset by heathen, and surely God would never let such a remnant be given over into the hands of idolaters. Then Jerusalem was God's chosen city which could therefore never be overthrown. Finally, and most important of all, it was the place where stood His holy Temple, the house which Solomon had built, the house which had been filled with God's glory. Was not the mercy seat there in the Holy of Holies? Had not the Lord Himself promised that when the people were in need and prayed towards that house, then He would hear and would deliver? What else could the prophets proclaim but an optimistic assurance that for His name's sake, the Lord would intervene and repeat the marvellous deliverance which He had given when the Assyrians besieged the city in the time of Hezekiah? They wanted to say it and the people wanted to hear it and would have no patience to listen to anything other than this man-made 'gospel'. Before we hastily condemn them, should we not ask ourselves if under such conditions we would be able to discern and reject this message of deliverance as utterly false? Would we perhaps be beguiled by the wrong use of the name of the Lord?

Remember, it was God's people and not the heathen who welcomed this kind of ministry. It was they who allowed the false prophets to hold their attention and gain their popularity as fine preachers. They enjoyed hearing what in their own hearts they would have liked God to say. When Jeremiah stood up boldly among them and said: "Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these" (Jeremiah 7:4), who could accept that this was the true word of the Lord? Not one of them. How could he say that it was not the temple of the Lord when their past history and their present reasoning told them that it was?

Jeremiah also said: "The prophets prophesy lies in my name; I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake I unto them: they prophesy unto you a lying vision, and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their own hearts" (14:14). He advised the people: "Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that speak unto you saying, Ye shall not serve the king of Babylon; for they prophesy a lie unto you" (27:14). Who was prepared to accept such a message? Nobody! In their eyes, Jeremiah was a traitor who, in its most desperate situation, [62/63] deprived the nation of both courage and hope. Like Ahab of old they said: "There is one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord. but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil" (1 Kings 22:8). So they acclaimed the prophet Hananiah as a real spokesman for the Lord, and greatly enjoyed his dramatic promise of deliverance when he took the bar from off the prophet Jeremiah's neck and broke it (28:10). No hasty reply came from Jeremiah. He just went quietly away and waited until he had fresh instructions from the mouth of the Lord. His experience was sadly like to that of the Lord Jesus who later prophesied among these same people of Israel: "Because I say the truth, ye believe me not" (John 8:45).

THE reason why Jeremiah so differed from the prophets of his time was that, unlike them, he "stood in the council of the Lord, that he should perceive and hear his word; he marked his word and heard it" (23:18). He was a man who sought quietness in the Lord's presence, a man who waited on God and listened to Him. He knew that his own thoughts would not be the same as God's thoughts and that his own ways would be different from God's ways, so he neither listened to the people nor to his own ideas, but made it his business to keep close to the Lord and be sensitive to His voice. Others could make themselves popular by telling the people what they wanted to hear, but he could only seek the mind of God and then proclaim it. God's thoughts were so diametrically opposed to what the people thought and wanted, that nobody would listen to Jeremiah.

"The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak faithfully. What is the straw to the wheat? saith the Lord. Therefore I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words everyone from his neighbour. Behold I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy lying dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their vain boasting: yet I sent them not, nor commanded them; neither shall they profit this people at all, saith the Lord" (23:28-32). As we have already said, words can be very dangerous. If such words purport to come from the Lord they are the most dangerous of all unless, of course, they are truly from Him and not just human opinions. Those of us who speak to others in the name of the Lord truly carry a very heavy responsibility. The fact that some of those prophets were sincere did not alter the case at all; they were false prophets. deceiving themselves and leading others astray.

WHAT can we say about the true prophets? Firstly that they were all men who trembled before the Lord and His word, men who were quick to listen and slow to speak. Moses would rather not have accepted God's call; Jeremiah also asked to be excused; while Isaiah cried: "Woe is me for I am undone" (literally, 'I am silenced'). None of them were masters of the word of God, but all were mastered by it. As men with contrite hearts and humble spirits, they constantly stood in the council of the Lord. When we compare ourselves with them, we may well ask whether we are at all competent to speak in the Lord's name. Have we become professionals, glib talkers, polished preachers? Do we write or speak because we like to do so, because others invite us do so, or under divine constraint? Would we prefer to be silent? We need to beware of being carried along with the tide of the many who readily speak and write in the name of the Lord today.

There were times when Jeremiah determined never to preach again, but the Lord overrode his decisions and sent him out again with the fire burning in his bones. Elijah wanted to hand in his resignation and was ready to run away. The angel of the Lord, however, met him and led him to the mount where he was re-commissioned and sent back to the task. Amos refused to call himself a prophet at all -- he was a dresser of sycamore trees. None of these men wanted to speak. That is probably why they were the very men to do so.

So again I ask, What about us who have been so ready to speak and write on spiritual matters? We must take nothing for granted in our ministry. Paul trembled at the responsibility of the task. He understood that even the forming of the message, that is the right choice of words, was of the utmost importance. 'Pray also for me that I may preach it with the right words,' he appeals, 'for you cannot preach the gospel with words taught by man's wisdom, but only with words which the Spirit teaches' (1 Corinthians 2:13). Since, then, not only the content of the message but also its expression in words is the responsibility of the man who speaks on God's behalf, we certainly need earnest prayer before we speak. [63/64] We need to spend more time in God's council chamber and we need to speak when God gives a message and not just when people want to hear us, to speak as 'in the sight of God'. It may well be that we shall use less words when we so speak, but they will be true and life-giving. Above all we need much closer communion with Him who is Himself the Word.



(Messages from the Sermon on the Mount)


J. Alec Motyer

IT ought to come as no surprise to us that Jesus speaks about righteousness. He has represented righteousness as being central to the life of the disciple, the son of the Father, the member of the kingdom. In verses 3 and 10, which represent the outer casing of this disciple life, Jesus said that on one side, the inner side, is the reality of his life with God as being a person poor in spirit. He recognises that in spiritual matters he is a beggar; he acknowledges his helplessness, his uselessness and his worthlessness, and he looks to God for all. He is a beggar. The corresponding outward side, however, is that this spiritual beggar lives a life of manifested righteousness. The one who is persecuted for righteousness's sake suffers because he bears the mark of a person who is intent upon doing all that pleases God. In this way we find that righteousness has a part in the basic definition of a kingdom member. He is a man who inwardly lives humbly and dependently upon God and outwardly manifests the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is righteousness, that which is right with God, in conformity with His good, perfect and acceptable will. Again, right in the centre of this description of things, Jesus speaks of His kingdom member as one who is hungry for righteousness.

It is no surprise, therefore, that He should turn again to this topic of righteousness: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ..." (v.20). No, it is no surprise that it should be spoken of, but it must have been a matter of absolute astonishment to the people to whom Jesus spoke when He referred to their righteousness in such exalted terms. That is how it must have seemed to them, for He takes the specialists of the day, the scribes and Pharisees, and tells His disciples that compared with these specialists they must have an exceeding righteousness. They must exceed men's best. Suppose that He were to tell us that to be a member of the kingdom of heaven we must be able to get over hurdles faster than an Olympic gold-medalist! Suppose that He insisted that we must be more competent than world-renowned surgeons! Suppose that Jesus were to take specialists in any field and say to us: 'Entrance into the kingdom of heaven is related to your ability to outdo that man'. It would be fantastic. Yet that is precisely what He is saying in the matter of righteousness. Take the specialist in righteousness of the time, and then know that there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven unless you can exceed him. Startling words then, and startling words still!

Now we must always be careful to keep Scripture within the bounds of Scripture; most particularly so in this very pithy sermon of the Lord's, when He says so many things in a crisp, ear-touching way. We must be careful not to misunderstand our Lord's words. What the whole of Scripture requires us to understand and what Jesus in His Sermon was explaining is that this righteousness is not the price of membership but the evidence of that membership. We have to go back to verses 3 and 10, to remind ourselves that the one who is in an assured possession of the kingdom of God has a penitential dependence upon God in spiritual matters and a manifested righteousness of life as other people see him. It is not that he pays a down-payment of righteousness to get in, but that the righteousness of his life is clear evidence that he is in. What is more, Jesus does not say that this evidence of righteousness is the mark of maturity; He says that it is the mark of entrance. We cannot excuse ourselves from the responsibility of righteousness by saying: [64/65] 'Ah, but that is for the mature; that is for the person who is gifted beyond any gifts that I have, for the person who has walked with the Lord Jesus for twenty years or more.' No, Jesus relates the evidential fact of superior righteousness to the matter of entrance, to the beginning, to the first steps in the kingdom. What a tremendous requirement of righteousness! And yet, brothers and sisters, this is the matter which will dominate the Lord until the end of His sermon. Right to the end of His message He carries forward the demand for exceeding, superior righteousness.

HE works the matter out by the contrast between your righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now our Lord Jesus is a careful teacher, and will not leave us with an abstract like that, but will reduce the abstract principle to a series of clear precepts or teachings whereby we will be able to understand what He means. So this contrast of verse 20 is spelt out in a series of contrasts which run right through to the end of this chapter. "You have heard that it was said ... but I say unto you ..." (v.21). There was a righteousness which was inadequate; here is a righteousness which is required. "You have heard that it was said ... But I say unto you ..." (vv.27-8). There is a righteousness that will not suffice; here is a righteousness which I require. We find the matter repeated in the following verses, as Jesus sets up a method of teaching based on the comparison: Here is the old righteousness which will not do, and here is the righteousness which I require of you. So we see that Jesus sets out and defines righteousness in the remainder of chapter 5.

In the next chapter He re-introduces this theme of righteousness: "Take heed that you do not your righteousness before men" (6:1). As you are intent to live out the life which proves the good, perfect and acceptable will of God, to do what is right in His sight, see that you do so with the correct motive, rejecting self-advertisement. Here Jesus safeguards righteousness, safeguards it from falling back into the Pharisaic pit from which He has rescued it. For the Pharisees were totally outward. It is as though Jesus said: 'As soon as I set out for you what righteousness requires, you will again be in danger of looking upon it as an outward code, so I want to warn you against that, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.' This, then, becomes the basis of the teaching which runs on to 6:18. "Not," He says, "as the hypocrites," touching on that which we do man-ward -- the giving of alms; that which we do God-ward -- the saying and making of prayers; and that which we do self-ward -- the practice of fasting and bringing our bodies under discipline. He reviews therefore the whole of life, and in each department He safeguards righteousness from falling into the pit of mere externalism. Righteousness must be of the heart.

THEN from chapter 6:19 onwards you will find that Jesus makes use of the imperative form of speech, giving in fact six commandments. The rest of His sermon, therefore, represents righteousness commanded. There are six imperatives, three negatives: "Lay not up" (6:19), "Judge not" (7:1), "Give not" (1:6), followed by three positives: "Ask" (7:7), "Enter" (7:13) and "Beware" (7:15). If you wish to trace these out you will find that the same three directions are followed: God-ward, man-ward and self-ward. The Lord Jesus is dominated by this thought of His people discharging all that is right in the sight of God and, in doing so, manifesting a righteousness which is of a different nature and quality from that which the specialists of the day were practising.

Having set up this background in which we have tried to see how Jesus is dominated by this concept and concern for righteousness, let us now come back and ask what is the first element in His righteousness requirement. We have found that this Sermon on the Mount is not a haphazard collection of helpful thoughts, but a carefully constructed message. We will therefore return to the beginning of our passage where Jesus says: "Your righteousness must exceed ...", and ask where will this righteousness begin to show itself. The answer is that it will show itself in our relationships with one another. Please weigh this thought in your mind. Superior righteousness has its first manifestation in relationships.

"You have heard that it was said of old time, Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment, and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council ..." (5:21-22). From this we see that a proper understanding of Scripture focuses attention on the importance of being at peace with one another. Here the Lord reminds us of the sixth commandment -- "Thou shalt not kill", and of the danger of the judgment, which was the way [65/66] by which the Lord offered a summary of much else that is in the Scriptures. Far from denying what was in the Old Testament, He insists that He had come not to destroy but to fulfil. He used a beautiful expression: "Till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall in any way pass away from the law". This refers to the written form of Holy Scripture, the jot being the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the tittle a tiny extra mark which distinguishes certain letters from others. Jesus reverenced the written Word of God so greatly that He said that it will not perish. 'The real force of this Scripture,' the Lord Jesus said, 'is that it deals with this matter of living at peace with one another.' He is tackling a piece of Pharisaic legalism and outwardness. The Pharisees made their understanding of the sixth commandment the same as their understanding of the criminal code, making the commandment to apply only to that which might be brought before the courts, and so narrowing down the force of the commandment to outward actions which were chargeable at law.

THE Lord, however, tells us that if we only understand God's meaning in giving this commandment we will see that it has a wide bearing covering a total range of human relationships, including things which cannot be brought before the courts because they rest in the heart of the individual. "Whosoever is angry with his brother ... Whosoever speaks an ill word of his brother -- Raca, or Fool", this is the spirit behind the sixth commandment. Pharisaic legalism, the righteousness which they sought to practise and enforce, was a righteousness of conformity to an outward code, and the avoidance of the condemnatory outward action. 'No,' says Jesus, 'this will not do. Rightly to understand Scripture brings matters into a different court altogether, the court which demands that all our relationships should be in accord with the will of God.' "If therefore thou art offering the gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer the gift." Notice how for Jesus life is all of a piece. He has been talking about the general relationships of life (vv.21-22), and then He passes to a man's relationship with God, his attendance at the altar in the house of God (vv.23-14), and He connects them by the word 'therefore'. He admits of no gap between the secular and the spiritual.

We should notice how He individualises. This is one of the places in which an older version of the Bible will stand you in better stead than a modern version, because it distinguishes the plural from the singular. Addressing the whole company of His disciples, He says: "Ye have heard ..." (v.21), and: "But I say unto you" (v.22) -- all of you who are disciples and sons of the Father. But then: "If therefore thou ..." (v.23), bringing the matter right to the individual disciple and laying it as a responsibility upon the individual conscience. How marvellously this story of the man coming to the altar illustrates the first pair of beatitudes: "Blessed are they that mourn ..." and "Blessed are the meek ...". Here, let us say, is a man who comes as a penitent before His God, bringing his gift to the altar; and while he thus mourns before God the thought is borne in upon him that his brother has a complaint against him. Meekness must send him out to that brother, to submit to what he thinks and get that matter put right, so that then he can return to his place before God. Those who would mourn before God must be meek before men.

UNHAPPILY, in this world of sinners, a situation arises where matters cannot be mended. We may go in obedience to our Lord to the brother or sister who has something against us and find that they refuse to listen, they will not allow for the matter to be put right. Does this mean, then, that we are for ever cut off from the benefits of the altar of God, which for us is Calvary? Surely not! Another Scripture will help us in this: "If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men" (Romans 12:18). The point is that before we bring our gift to the altar we must do all that we possibly can do to live at peace with one another. The most precious possession of all, peace with God, is suspended by Jesus, where the condition of being at peace with one another is ignored. Again, not that we purchase peace with God by practising peace with each other; that is not the case at all. May I put it this way? God could very well say to us: 'But why should I give you My peace? You do not love peace. You do not value peace; How can I believe that you are sincere in your asking if you do not pursue peace with all your might?

In the third place we see that a right understanding of the judgment to come focuses attention on the importance of being at peace with one another: "Agree with thine adversary quickly [66/67] while thou art in the way with him, lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence until thou hast paid the last farthing" (vv.25-26). We need a right understanding of judgment to come.

It is a general truth for everyday life that it is better to settle out of court. But when we delve into this practical observation, we discover that it is very likely that the Lord Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in their own language. They had a graduated series of courts -- "the judgment", "the Council", the "hell of fire" (v.22). This was typical Pharisaic type thinking, that smaller offences are dealt with in lower courts, and middle offences in middle courts, and higher offences in higher courts; everything being weighed out and parcelled, so that each offence was dealt with in its proper court. It was as though the Lord expressed the heavenly means of analogy with the earthly. 'Lift your eyes then', He says, 'to the eternal Tribunal', realising that it is better to settle things quickly here and now, than to reach the divine Tribunal and discover in the light of God's all-searching eye that you were not so much in the right as you thought you were. A right understanding of judgment to come focuses attention on the importance of being at peace with each other. We must think beyond earth to heaven, not merely judging matters as they seem now but foreseeing the day when with other Christians we will stand before the all-seeing eye of God. Such foresight should dominate all our relationships here and now.

In conclusion we ask what are the practical implications of this teaching of Jesus.

1. The Inward Look

Jesus calls us to look in three directions, not one after the other, but all at the same time, to be people of a three-fold gaze. First of all we need the inward look -- watchfulness of our own hearts and tongues. This runs right through the passage. For instance, when the would-be worshipper is offering his gift at the altar, he needs the inward look to discern that his conscience is saying something to him. Even in the final passage about agreeing quickly with our adversary, we need the inward look to be of a harmonious disposition. Make sure that there is harmony in your heart, a willingness to see things put right straight away. But especially in what is found in verses 21 and 22. Jesus uses the procedure of the court illustratively. It must be an illustration, because no judge can sit in judgment on the inner life but only on that which is outwardly observable. But by implication Jesus says that as man devises a complicated procedure to cover every sort of offence, then be certain that the Searcher of hearts will not be deceived. Three aspects of anger are alluded to. There is its hiddenness: he is angry in his heart. At this stage he does not do anything about it, but just feels it. He may not even show it in his face, but it is anger, even in the heart. Then there is the pride of anger. Nobody is quite certain of all that is implied in the word 'Raca', but it is probably a word of contempt. It indicates the imagined superiority of the angry one -- his anger puts him up and puts the other man down. And then there is the fact that anger usurps the position of God as Judge. The word 'fool' implies a person of total worthlessness. It may even be a Hebrew word which has been brought over into Greek spelling, in which case it would mean one who is in rebellion against God, and therefore one whom God judges and dismisses. It seems to suggest that there is an anger which puts the self into the seat of judgment, passing condemnation upon the one against whom the anger is directed. 'Be careful,' says Jesus, 'about anger.' Jesus could be angry. Jesus could use the word 'Fool'. He could do it, but we cannot. Scripture lets us know that theoretically there is a thing called 'Righteous anger', but we must beware, for it is most unlikely that we will ever experience it. James tells us: "The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God", because James knew the human heart. Is there a person who can be angry without sin? The Lord Jesus can, but can we? Note that it does not speak of being angry without a cause or having prolonged anger, but just says: "Whosoever is angry with his brother"!

2. The Outward Look

Secondly there is the outward look, the look that is directed towards our brother and sister in Christ Jesus. All this is centralised in verses 23 and 24, where the man who is offering his gift at the altar must look to God but must also have a look towards men, an outward look. We must banish grievances from our own hearts, but this is not enough. 'I have nothing against any other Christian.' That is not what Jesus is saying. 'There is no substance in the charge which he makes against me.' That will not do. Jesus says that if there is a brother who has a charge against me, I must enquire no further but go and put that [67/68] matter right insofar as it rests with me to do so. "First be reconciled ...". Reconciliation means: 'taking away the offence from the one who feels it', which is what reconciliation means in the New Testament. Here is a brother of mine who feels offended. Reconciliation is taking away the offence and the sense of offence out of the heart of the one who has been offended. That is what Jesus did when He reconciled us to God. He took away the offendedness out of the heart of God. That is why one of our Thirty-nine Church of England Articles describes the work of Jesus as this: 'He reconciled His Father to us. He took away the wrath out of the heart of God; all the offence that we had caused, He took it away.' That is the very centrepiece of salvation. Very good, but we have got to interpret that in earthly terms, and find the brother or sister in whose mind rankles some offence, real or imaginary, and go and put it right. How searching Jesus is! He says: "If your brother has ought against you ..." and uses there the shortest word in the Greek language. The word could not be shorter -- it is the word 'ti'. If your brother has 'ti' against you ... That is enough. Leave your gift and go and put that right.

3. The Upward Look

Thirdly Jesus calls us to the upward look: "... lest he deliver thee to the judge" (v.25). We look up to God as Law-giver. He expects us to conform to His law. We understand the law in the light of Jesus' amplifications and fulfilment of it, filling it out with meaning. The law of God extends to all relationships of life and we must live with eyes constantly up to Him, the Law-giver and the Saviour who opens the way of salvation to us. Whether it be the sinner coming with his gift to the altar or the believer coming with his thank-offering, it makes possible a sweet relationship with God which we wish to enjoy, but we cannot enter into it until we enter into peace with our brother. We must not imagine, though, that peace with our brother is enough or is the same as peace with God. There are two basic commandments in the Law, Jesus tells us, and although one is to love your neighbour as yourself, the other and the first is to love the Lord your God. These are not identical. They are alike, but fulfilling one does not fulfil the other. So you must first go and be reconciled to your brother, but then you must come again and offer your gift. What a beautiful thought! Coming to the altar of God, the believer finds something which renders him unfit to be there, and God says to him: 'Never mind, I am ready to wait. Never mind. The door will stay open. Leave your gift at the altar. Don't take it away, leave it there, for I am quite ready to wait for you.' And when the man comes back, the gift is still there, the altar is there, and the God of all love and mercy is still there. 'Keep your eyes full of Him as Saviour' urges Jesus, 'and look up to Him as Judge.' We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. There we will all be manifested in our true colours. Let then our life here and now be lived in the light of that coming Day.




John H. Paterson

WE come now to the last of the Minor Prophets, Malachi, and with him not simply to the end of a series of studies but to the end of the Old Testament; that is, to the end of the Scriptures as our Lord Jesus and the early Church knew them. How many sermons, I wonder, have been preached about these closing words of the Old Testament and, especially, about the stern final phrase: "lest I come and smite the earth with a curse"? How often has the point been made that the old covenant comes to an end with a curse, while the new covenant brings with it a blessing? And how unsatisfactory a view that is! Given the position of Malachi as the last prophet of the old order, we surely need an understanding of him more in keeping with what had gone before and with his bridging role between the Testaments -- with the blessings that God had already given to mankind, even under the old covenant, and with His purpose to go on blessing, by sending His own Son to earth. If it seems to us that, as the last words of an earlier dispensation, Malachi's prophecies strike a sour note, then it may be that we have not fully grasped the overall scope of God's [68/70] purpose, first and last, and in that case we certainly need to look at Malachi again.

The argument of each of these studies has been that the twelve Minor Prophets were called by God to draw attention to aspects of His character and being which, in the circumstances of the times, were being overloooked or neglected. As a result of this neglect, a false conception of God had gained currency, and it was the prophet's task to set the record straight. By the time we come to Malachi, we have already compiled an impressive word-picture of God; the eleven earlier prophets have presented many aspects of His character, from Hosea and the God of love to Zechariah and the God of hope. So now we can ask: What else is there to be said about Him? What feature or characteristic is missing from our list? Given that He is all that the earlier prophets have described, what divine quality remains to be stressed? Putting the question in a rather different form, what else is there concerning God about which we might still need to be reassured?

It seems to me that the omission is clear: in this sense, I already knew what I hoped to find there before I read Malachi's book. At least, I knew that if it was not there, then all the tremendous encouragement and reassurance conveyed by the earlier prophets was at risk. There had to be one more prophet and this had to be his message!

TO understand the situation, it may help us to imagine a visit to a factory, in which we are shown some enormous piece of machinery. We watch fascinated as huge hammers fall, or molten metal flows, or thousands of volts of electricity power the drive wheels. But then to our consternation we notice that the whole building is rocking and cracking; the molten metal is spilling in deadly streams and electricity is arcing between unintended points because the machine is not secured to a firm foundation. We begin to wish that, before switching on all that awesome energy, someone had taken care to make sure that the machine was properly bolted down!

The other eleven prophets have depicted a God of awesome energy, who loves and feels and acts. But the question still remains: on what basis does He act? If, as Nahum stressed in his prophecy, God is always perfectly consistent then the question is: consistently what? I knew a colonel in the army who, when he was saying goodbye to the long-suffering officers who had been under his command, said: 'You may feel that I have been bad-tempered, but at least you'll agree that I have been consistently bad-tempered!' To be consistent in itself guarantees nothing. But Malachi, the last of the prophets, has a reassuring answer to our question: God is consistently true. He is a God of truth.

This is the fundamental and all-important fact about God. This is the basis of the creature's confidence in his Creator. For if He were not true, we could do nothing about it. We cannot change Him or oblige Him to conform to rules of our own, and if He decided to be capricious and change Himself, then we should be lost; we should have no way of discovering in which direction He was moving. Unless, ultimately, He Himself is true to some constant standard of truth, then all His activity, all His feeling for His creatures, is a threat and not a comfort.

What a relief it is, then, to find that truth is indeed the theme of Malachi's prophecies! He was sent to protest against the lack of truth in the nation's spiritual life -- the hypocrisy of its worship and the tone of false innocence in which the people kept asking: 'But what are we doing wrong?' (1:6, 7; 2:13, 17; 3:7, 8, 13). Truth had vanished from their relationship with God, and now an even worse situation had arisen: they had begun to attribute to God the same cynical hypocrisy of which they themselves were guilty. Chapter 1 depicts them bringing rubbish to offer to God; since they regarded the whole exercise as a waste of time anyway (1:13a), they evidently assumed that God felt the same about it as they did. Chapter 2 finds them asserting that God had changed His mind and His standards: "Everyone that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delighteth in them" (2:17). Chapter 3 falls to new depths of casuistry as they ask: "What profit is it that we have kept his charge?" They are struck by the appearance that the proud are happy and that those who do wickedly prosper (3:14-15). They attribute to God the same low standards of truth and integrity which mark their own lives.

All this God condemned. And happily for them, He is nothing like His own people. This is brought sharply into focus by one of the Old Testament's most jolting verses: "For I the Lord change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (3:6). It is jolting because, in the context of [69/70] Malachi's stern denunciations, it says just the opposite of what one might expect. The previous verses prepare us for the text to read: '... therefore for your sins you will be consumed'. Had God's people but realised it, all that stood between them and consuming judgment was the fact that God is always true. He is true to the truth; that is, He voluntarily accepts the limitation upon Himself of always acting upon the same basis of truth, whatever the circumstances -- or, we may add, whatever the provocation.

SEEN in this light, the book of Malachi brings the Old Testament to an end on a clear and joyful note, despite the failure and the gloom with which the prophecies are so largely concerned. For what the prophet has to say about God -- and that, after all, has been our emphasis throughout these studies -- is immensely reassuring. It is that our God is absolutely unchanging in His insistence on truth, not only in His creatures but also in Himself.

The reassurance and the challenge which this fact provides may be needed in two contexts, the personal and the general. In the personal context, God's people need to know the firm principle on which He is ordering their lives; it then becomes their ground of safety and of appeal in their relationship with Him. The first man to realise this seems to have been Abraham. In his remarkable negotiations -- there is no other word for them -- with God over the fate of Sodom, he was conducting the argument on one simple principle -- that the Judge of all the earth must do right (Genesis 18:25). If He did not, then words and actions would have no meaning, it would be a random world. God accepted this argument; Abraham was on the surest ground imaginable.

Even more interesting is the way in which this feature of God's character entered into the experience of Moses. It was Moses who first used the term "a God of truth" (Deuteronomy 32:4). But let us notice the circumstances in which he used it, and be encouraged by them. Moses had led the people of Israel faithfully for many years, often under extreme provocation, until one day they "angered him" and he struck a rock which he had not been told to strike (Psalm 106:32). For this apparently trivial misdemeanour, he was barred from the Promised Land. Reading the story in Numbers 20, we find ourselves wanting to protest against the unfairness of it all. What kind of a God would reward years of perfect service by picking His servant up on a single, trifling error under extreme provocation.

A God of truth would do so. And while we may feel sorry for Moses, we do not read that he felt sorry for himself. In a curious way, he seems to have been relieved; we get the impression that he would have been worried if God had not reacted in this way. Of the God of the rock who had just sentenced him to exclusion from the land he had this to say: "He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he." Only a God of truth could inspire such confidence, but He can do so in all His people: "And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God ... just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints" (Revelation 15:3).

This brings us to the more general application of Malachi's message. There is little to choose between his age and our own. The idea that there is a ground of ultimate truth, and that men should act consistently on this ground, is as foreign to our own contemporaries as it was to Malachi's. In our own day we have seen plenty of examples of what were formerly regarded as offences against the truth being extolled as virtues (Malachi 2:17). Lack of self-control becomes 'freedom of expression'. Adultery, another subject of which Malachi spoke (2:14-16) becomes, in the jargon of the day: 'constructive infidelity'. But God's laws do not change, because they are not merely His personal whims; they are truth. He will not change them to suit Himself and neither can we. His ideal man, according to Malachi (2:4-6), was Levi, who had the "law of truth" in his mouth and who maintained that law, even at the cost of his own relationship with family and friends. The message that is appropriate to people who have lost their commitment to truth is that represented by Moses and Elijah (4:4-5); by the man who gave Israel the unchanging law at Sinai and by that other man who stood alone for the true God against the false beliefs of a whole nation. The man of God is called, in a striking phrase of Elizabeth Elliot's, to 'do the truth'. It is the only sure ground -- and the only basis of blessing. For Malachi, of course, is the most notable of all the prophets who foretold blessing. If men will only 'do the truth', then God will open the windows of heaven, and pour out a blessing "such that there shall not be room enough to receive it". [70/71]



Bill Thompson

Reading: Mark 8:11-21

THE nine questions which the Lord Jesus put to His disciples arose from their extreme slowness in learning spiritual lessons from the feeding of the multitudes. The immediate occasion had been the public request for a sign by the Pharisees, a request which was not in any sense prompted by a desire to believe but solely out of hostile unbelief. The only response from Jesus was a deep sigh. It caused Him great grief to meet this absolute hardness of heart, and He firmly refused to pander to their curiosity. We wonder, however, if He did not also sigh over His disciples. He had given them the sign of the broken bread, and had done it so that they could get to know and trust Him better but, for the moment, it seemed all to have been in vain. They did not yet understand.

Two outstanding hindrances to faith were indicated in the warning to these slow disciples to beware of the leaven both of the Pharisees and of Herod. The two were such poles apart, the Pharisees who were so intent on orthodoxy and Herod who was so ready to compromise, that it seems strange to connect them in this way. In each case, however, the word 'leaven' gives the clue, the implication being that even a little of what they represented would corrupt and destroy true faith. A little pharisaic pride would make it impossible to profit from the simple evidence of the broken bread, and a little of Herod's worldly wisdom and self-interest would harden the heart as to God's Son. The leaven of the Pharisees, said the Lord, is hypocrisy. Pride inevitably leads to that. The leaven of Herod we might call expediency, a factor which makes for insensitivity to the simple challenge of the broken bread.

Out of the disciples' muddled concern because they lacked bread arose the obvious evidence that so far the deep lessons of the feeding of the multitudes had not been grasped at all. Happily the Patient Teacher did not give them up in despair, and happily the same Teacher is patient with the slowness of our hearts. We now have the lesson before us and we may well feel that the great Scriptural emphasis upon this miracle of the multiplied loaves is part of His kind perseverance in showing us more of Himself. It is with this hope in our hearts that we turn again to the story.

We have already considered some of the practical lessons which arise, and we now turn to the real purpose of the story, which is spiritual perception of Christ as the Bread of Life. Every act of God, and therefore every act of Christ, has spiritual significance. This is true, even of very small matters; sometimes the small things are the most significant. The Lord put these nine questions to the disciples in an attempt to provoke spiritual exercise and perception. We have already remarked that He has perfect patience, never yielding to irritability, but we know also that He has perfect understanding, for He is the One with eyes like a flame of fire. He could penetrate their secret thoughts, and asked the questions not because He did not know but because He wanted them to be alerted to their own weaknesses.

In the same way He questions us, seeking that the process of answering may become one of blessing, as we are made aware of what our Master wants to teach us. For all disciples there must be a constant battle with hardness of heart and personal inability to perceive essentially spiritual truths. When the Scripture speaks of the Twelve having their hearts hardened, it does not mean that they were stubborn and unloving, but rather that they were imperceptive and insensitive to Him. Mind you, the Lord did not expect the impossible of them. They might have argued that they were not clever men, they had not had the educational advantages or opportunities of others, but this was not the problem. And it is not the problem with us either. In this basic matter of spiritual understanding we are all levelled off; we all begin at zero. So their lack was not one of culture or training. When, however, the Lord takes men in hand to be His disciples, He expects us to learn of Him, and what seemed so incredible in their case was that they were missing the obvious. Perhaps the very simplicity of it all baffled them. Often in spiritual matters it is the simple things which are the deepest and most important. If we approach things in a childlike way, we will usually find it easier to trust, for it is a feature of human life that simplicity often leads to faith. The multiplying of the loaves took place so quietly that those concerned were liable to miss the miracle, and certainly many of us have often taken this matter [71/72] rather for granted. Let us humbly ask our Patient Teacher what are the lessons which we were meant to learn from it.

The Lesson of Dependence

We come back, then, to the events which led up to these searching questions. We read how the Lord Jesus went out on to the lake to meet His disciples in the storm, how He joined them in the boat and demonstrated His power to quieten the winds. Their amazement is not praised, but rather rebuked (Mark 6:52). Their hearts were hardened. These men had taken part in the feeding of the five thousand, but seemingly had derived no benefit from it. They had eaten some of the bread, but they had not learned more of their Lord, as they should have done. It seems that this sign-miracle was intended primarily for their benefit. The crowds had certainly derived immediate help from it, but it was the disciples who were so personally involved who should have received lasting spiritual profit. Here were they, faced with the need of those around them and completely unable to meet that need; then the Lord Jesus assumed responsibility, took possession of the pitifully inadequate supplies, and turned the lack into abundant sufficiency. In this way they were able to do what had until then been impossible and quite beyond them. "Give ye them to eat", the Lord had said; and this they had done. The secret was not, of course, in themselves but in Christ Jesus. And part of the secret was this wonder, that in feeding others through Him, they had each tasted of His sufficiency for their own personal needs.

Should not this always be true in evangelism and ministry? There is blessing for those who are reached and brought to a saving knowledge of Christ, but there should be far greater blessing for those who are workers together with the Saviour. There is blessing for those who are helped by our ministry, but in the will of God the ministers themselves should get a double blessing. It has often been stressed that God's work in His servants is even more important than His work through them. This, then, was their unhappy position. They had seen the Lord work wonders, they had had an active part in what happened, and yet it had not left them with a deeper knowledge of Him.

They had seen Him work wonders. When they were completely non-plussed; when humanly speaking the whole situation was hopeless; Jesus had broken the bread and satisfied a multitude. They had shared in the miracle. It is true that Jesus said: "I AM", but on this occasion He did not say: 'I will', for He had planned that it would be they who would do the work of conveying the food to the people. When later He said to them: "All power is given unto me ...", He also added: "Go ye therefore ...". Disciples are called into partnership with their Master. Yet these men who had been so privileged were slow to learn the simple but profound lesson of complete dependence on Him. When challenged by a further need for bread (Mark 8:16), they fussed and worried, instead of happily relying on His sufficiency. That is what He called hardness of heart. If they had really appreciated that His words are always valid: "I am the Bread of Life", they would not have behaved in this fashion.

The Lesson of Breaking

Although they were all called in to help, there was a work which they could never do, and that was the breaking and blessing of the loaves. It was in this breaking that the multiplication took place, and that was an activity reserved for Christ alone. So far as He was concerned, once the little loaves were put into His hands, then there was a ceaseless flow of bread which the disciples had only to distribute. There was no hint of cessation so long as one single person of that great crowd of women and children as well as men was not fully satisfied. Then, when the distribution stopped because it was no longer necessary, they were able to gather up the remainder, and each have a lunch basket full for himself. In the second miracle there were only seven baskets of fragments, but there was no lack, for these were large hampers -- like the one in which Paul was lowered over the Damascus wall (Acts 9:25).

What could they have learned from this? What can we learn? Surely that from the breaking of the living Bread on the Cross abundance is made available to all who are hungry for Him. This is a wonderful picture of Christ's work today -- and of our part in it too. He is the one inexhaustible supply; we are the privileged distributors. And in the very work of ministering we find our personal needs fully met. Eternal life comes not from a teaching nor from human efforts and activities, but from a Person, even from Him who immediately afterwards began to affirm: "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35). How disappointingly slow the disciples were to learn this simple but basic lesson of the broken bread! [72/73]

This truth is a fundamental feature of the kingdom. When the Lord began His ministry, He was tested concerning the kingdom, and the first of the three temptations was concerned with this matter of a man's bread. Satan suggested that it could be obtained by the waving of a wand, by the sensational exercise of making a loaf out of a stone. Perhaps this kind of sensational wonder was what the Pharisees would have liked when they demanded a sign. Jesus refused to act in this way. He pointed out from the Scriptures that the real basis of the kingdom is that a man should live by the word of God. Now later on, in another wilderness, He made symbolically plain how human need was to be satisfied -- by the breaking of the bread. This was the spiritual sign which the disciples should have perceived, and which we must learn. Hungry men are not to be satisfied by mere sensationalism; only Christ crucified can meet their heart need.

The Lord Jesus had to fight to maintain this kingdom principle of brokenness. We are told that after the miracle of the five loaves, the crowds intended to force Him to be king (John 6:15). With the best of intentions, they were once again applying the satanic pressure on Jesus to get Him to seize the kingdom by force and to by-pass the Cross. He met this challenge alone, for possibly the disciples might have joined in the clamour. They might so have misunderstood the significance of the miracle as to have been misled by this deception of a short-cut to the kingdom. In any case, the real meaning of the broken bread was still completely obscured from them. When alone Jesus had triumphed over this temptation and came walking to them on the water, they still did not understand but had their heart hardened (Mark 6:52). They had not yet learned the lesson of breaking.

The Lesson of Resurrection

The Lord's last words after the wilderness feast were: "... that nothing be lost". Now I have already suggested that this gathering up of the fragments provides us with a reminder of the importance of tidiness, but of course the real spiritual message goes much deeper than that. Perhaps there is a vital connection between the use of the phrase about nothing being lost in John 6:12 with that in verse 39: "This is the will of him that sent me, that of all that which he hath given me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day". Just as the disciples went round and gathered up all the scattered pieces, so ensuring that nothing was lost, so will Christ gather, or raise up, in resurrection, making certain that nothing should be lost which belongs to God and is the result of His sacrifice.

This resurrection life is not only an experience for the future, but is the constantly repeated miracle of Him who is the Bread of Life. Like the manna of old, which was miraculously renewed daily, so in Christ the spiritual bread is constantly available and needing to be appropriated continually. Were the disciples wanting to live on the past, without having its up-to-date values before them? Or were they in danger of thinking that life with Christ means constant repetition of sensations? We do not know. We only know that right to the end of the gospel period and in the matter of Christ's resurrection power they were: "foolish and slow of heart to believe ..." (Luke 24:25). At last, however, they entered into the reality of resurrection and then, no doubt, they were able to appreciate something of the inner meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. They did not need to be faced with these nine questions. Their heart was no longer hardened. They understood now. Their radiant lives and fruitful ministries showed that they were in the full good of knowing Christ as the Bread of Life. We should be the same. These lessons of dependence, of breaking and of resurrection, will not only make us a channel of blessing to others but also mean that we bring joy to the heart of our Patient Teacher.



T. Austin-Sparks

"The water that I shall give him shall become in him
a well of water springing up into eternal life.
" (John 4:14)

"And Isaac digged again the well of water,
which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father;
for the Philistines had stopped them up ...
" (Genesis 26:18)

THE Word makes it clear that from the Lord's side the life of the Holy Spirit, with all its up-welling and outflowing, should be a spontaneous thing. On God's side there are no difficulties. So far as He is concerned there is nothing more to be done to make possible the [73/74] reality of the well within. The very fact that when the Lord Jesus ascended to glory in the power of a completed and perfected work, the Holy Spirit spontaneously came down from heaven, is proof that from God's side there was nothing remaining to be done to effect that release. The Lord had made full provision. On the other hand, though, such a spontaneity of up-welling and outflowing of the waters of the Spirit is not as general among Christians as it should be. It is our intention to seek some explanation of this limitation.

The well is there; the spring is provided. If we have believed into Christ and truly belong to him, then His Spirit is present as the well within. There can be no doubt about this if we are true believers. But we may have seen a swampy patch, with all the evidences of water but no freshness or flow, and have discovered that although a spring existed, its water was interrupted by some stone or obstacle which hindered its flow. This can happen in human life. The spring of the Spirit may be present, but with various obstructions lying heavily upon it, preventing the outflow in a definite course.

Abraham was noted for the wells which he dug. He was a man of faith, and faith always digs wells. The Philistines, however, blocked them up with rubbish after he died, so that his son, Isaac, had to unstop them. Isaac speaks of the power of a risen life in union with heaven, and this gives a good indication of the meaning of the opened wells. The Old Testament type finds its fulfilment in the Lord Jesus, the greater Isaac who, in the power of His resurrection, ascension and heavenly life, has opened up anew those fountains of the Spirit which had been blocked and choked by many things which were contrary to the will of God. The wells are opened in His resurrection. The Spirit is now freely given. But we have to see that no obstacles are allowed to hinder the flow. Perhaps it will help us to do so, if we consider a few of the hindrances which need to be removed if the well within is to be unstopped and the water allowed to flow freely.


Firstly, there are hindrances in the realm of the mind. We have been told that man is quite unable to cope mentally with the spiritual and heavenly things of God. For this reason God has provided the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of revelation and of spiritual knowledge. So there will obviously be hindrances to the free flow of the Spirit if we try to reason things out for ourselves instead of heeding the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. If we try to think things through ourselves, we become involved in all sorts of problems and questions. We are specifically told that: "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God ... he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged" (1 Corinthians 2:14), a fact which needs to be accepted and remembered by Christians for themselves, as well as for the world around. There will always arise moments of crisis or experiences full of perplexity and seeming contradiction, for which the only answer is that we must trust God. If we resolve that we will reason the matter out, or if we turn to other men for their explanations, we will never understand the ways of God. His Word is our only source of light. It will, at times, be hard to understand. It will, perhaps, be difficult or even impossible to explain. But if we heed its message we will be delivered from man's foolish reasoning, and we will have lifted off a load of rubbish which was blocking up the well within.

There are bound to be matters which defy analysis or argument, for the ways of God are past finding out. The real test is whether we will trust God when we cannot fathom His ways; whether we will deliberately and positively take up a position of faith reliance on His faithfulness. Even that may not provide us with an answer which satisfies our minds and solves all our intellectual problems, but it will bring us that blessed peace which is promised to those whose minds are stayed on the Lord. This is just the opposite of the mind of the man who is stayed on himself and his difficulty. "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee; because he trusteth in thee" (Isaiah 26:3). It does not say that his heart will be at peace because he knows the answers to all the questions. No! The basic thing is a faith attitude towards God's faithfulness. To act in this way is to remove a big stone, and I venture to say that it will clear the way for a new joy, and new peace and a new strength. The Holy Spirit has been pent up, blocked, hindered, arrested, by incessant reasonings of the natural mind. He is released by the simple exercise of a faith which feeds on God's Word and relies on His faithfulness. [74/75]


There is another possible realm of hindrances to the up-welling of the Spirit, and this is the realm of the heart. The Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of love. If there is coldness towards the Lord, a lack of true devotion to Him, then this is like a heavy stone which makes the life more like a quagmire than a fresh spring. Any reserve which we have, not in the knowing of God's will but in the willingness to do it, will inevitably stem the flow of the Spirit's power. It is always the work of God's enemy to clog up our lives by introducing love of self or love of the world, and it needs ruthless determination to remove the accumulated rubbish and re-dig the well in purity of devotion to Christ.

It may well be, though, that the hindrances arise from lack of love to our fellow believers. We must remember that the Holy Spirit can never have free course in us and through us if we harbour unloving thoughts concerning other of God's children, let alone put those thoughts into actions. He is the Spirit of fellowship, so that if we fail in that realm then we fail in the matter of love. It is so easy to allow unworthy considerations to quench brotherly love, to be clogged up with resentment or to be wrongly influenced by our susceptibilities or hurt feelings. What is more, we find it the easiest thing in the world to say or hear unkind things about others, things which put them in a bad light and somehow make us feel self-righteous. We must not dismiss such matters as unimportant, for although they may seem small in themselves, they become the deposits which unite to clog up the well of the Spirit.

This matter of personal relationships is one in which we have to set ourselves definitely to digging out the earthiness which stops up the wells of the Spirit. We must refuse to speak and refuse to listen to those critical accounts of other believers which would grieve them if they heard and do grieve the Spirit who is always present and who always hears. More than that, we have to be active in positive cultivation of fellowship. To some it is quite natural to be independent. For them deference to others represents a major difficulty. Sometimes they may deliberately ignore or despise others, but sometimes they just prefer to do it alone and never seriously think of inter-relatedness and inter-dependence.

The Word of God, however, is most explicit in ordering us to esteem one another, to submit to one another and to live and work together. The Holy Spirit demands that the people of God live according to a team order of things, that they should be governed by a family spirit. Anything which is of an isolated or detached nature, which fails to recognise and fully accept the family thought of God, is a check on Him. By failing to observe fellowship we quench the Spirit. It is not only a matter of avoiding giving offence but of active pursuit of fellowship. Some may be wondering why there is so little up-springing from the inner well, when they are sitting back in a wrong kind of modesty, failing to bring in their own personal contribution to fellowship life and ministry. Unkindness is not the only obstacle in this realm. Shyness and diffidence can equally rest like a stone on the flow of life. The only thing to do is to dig it up and move it away. Get in, get right in, and let yourself go! Do not always choose the back seat because you like to be left alone, but come forward in the Lord's name and give the Holy Spirit a free course in your lives. He is well able to check you if you become too self-assertive, but there is little He can do if your well is all stopped up with fears and inhibitions.


There is one more area of life in which this hindering work may be found, and that is that the flow of the Spirit may be checked by inconsistencies in the daily life. The question which constantly faces us is whether or not we want to know the free flow from the well within. Do we want that springing up of living water, of which the Lord Jesus spoke? Do we want that, as He promised, rivers of living water shall flow out from our inner life? If we do, then we must always give serious consideration to anything which may serve as a blockage. Any disobedience, yes, any reservation in obedience, from our side will be sure to hinder the flow from God's side, acting as a deterrent to the Holy Spirit in our lives. We can never know the well springing up and the river flowing out if at any point where God has revealed His will, we fail in the matter of obedience.

This well is choked by disobedience to the known will of God. It is choked and blocked by [75/76] inconsistency of walk. The Lord wants more than mental agreement with His Word; He expects to see it working out in practical terms. He is concerned with how we spend our time, how we manage our financial affairs, how we behave both alone and before others. He watches us in the home and at our work, as well as in our fellowship activities, always looking for a walk worthy of the gospel which we believe and preach. Not that He desires us to have a narrow life. Far from it! The Spirit has come to bring enrichment and fulfilment to us. God's command to us, though, is that we must not quench the Spirit nor must we grieve Him; in other words that we do not allow any rocks, stones or rubbish to accumulate as a hindrance to the springing-up well. We need to watch the practical expression of our daily life and so avoid a quagmire of suppression, whereas God provides for a well of water springing up into eternal life.



(Studies in 1 Samuel)

10. THE TRIPLE TEST (Chapters 24 - 26)

Harry Foster

WE have reached chapter 22 which tells us how David escaped to the cave of Adullam. I do not propose to deal with chapter 22 or 23, except to mention that in that cave there were gathered together a group of people called the discontented, the distressed and the indebted. This does not mean that these were chronic misfits, the awkward squad who could not get on anywhere else so decided to try being with David. No, not at all. These were the people who were feeling the strain and repression of Saul's misgovernment; those who were distressed not by some imagined grievances but by harsh ill use; they were in debt by no fault of their own but because of Saul's selfish regime. So, being forced out of their own towns and homes, they gathered together to David. From the beginning of chapter 23 we begin to encounter a growingly familiar phrase: "David and his men", and another very welcome change from the past: "Therefore David inquired of the Lord" (v.2). His experience with Achish has taught him the folly of not doing that. So from now on he was not alone, he was accompanied by his men; and from now on he made it his business to seek God's guidance in a new way.


We pass, then, to chapter 24 and find that it is the first of three chapters in which David was subjected to a similar temptation. I therefore call it his triple test. It is not surprising that he should have been tested on the same point three times over, for this is in keeping with so much more in the Scriptures. Did not our story begin with young Samuel being called three times? Did not our Lord Jesus begin His public ministry with the three temptations in the wilderness, and finish it with the three-fold prayer in the garden? Peter also had a thrice repeated test, which he failed, and a thrice repeated opportunity to confess his love for Christ after he had been restored. What is more, he had a challenge on the house top at Joppa which was repeated three times. Then Paul prayed three times about his thorn in the flesh. David, therefore, was in good company. This seems to be part of the rigorous experience of a man called to the kingdom; when the test has been faced and overcome three times, then something has been established in the life for the glory of God.

We come back, then, to the first of these provings, with David being found in another cave, Engeddi (24:2), which Saul entered when he was leading a large troup of men in search of the fugitive. A reference to Psalm 57 will disclose that it has the heading: "To the chief musician, David, when he fled from Saul in the cave". Psalm 142 also speaks of David in a cave, but it is my opinion that this refers to the cave of Adullam, whereas the cave associated with Psalm 57 was that one in which David could so easily have ended his immediate difficulties by killing the king. The first six verses of this psalm speak of the calamities which have come upon him and then there follows his declaration: "My heart is fixed" [76/77] (v.7). The words are repeated. It was a momentous decision. They are then followed by songs of praise; and no wonder!

The story is set out for us in 1 Samuel 24. David and his men were waiting hidden until Saul's army had passed. But the king wished to have some moments of privacy, and therefore entered the cave quite alone. It was probably a big cave, and David and his men kept back in its recesses, so that to all intents and purposes Saul had walked right into a trap. David's men excitedly suggested that this was the day of which the Lord had spoken when He would give Saul into his hand to do what he liked with him (v.4); not that the Lord ever had said that, but it is easy to invent a text to suit the occasion. They were quite wrong, though understandably so, for it did look as though the Lord had delivered Saul into his hands. "And David arose and stealthily cut off the skirt of Saul's robe", an action which suggests that he was inclined to do what his men were urging him to do, but then his heart smote him (v.5). I have said this already and repeat it now, that none of us is infallible but always capable of moving in the wrong direction, thinking that it is right for us to do so, especially if we are egged on by the advice of our friends. We are not infallible and would err but for the Holy Spirit's inward check. If we are sensitive enough we will feel his restraint and be saved from making a mistake. The same thing had happened in the matter of Saul's armour which David put on and then removed because he had inward misgivings. So now again David is checked, and decides that it would be quite wrong for him to take matters into his own hands. This was his temptation, to take action to solve his own problem, and we shall find it repeated three times in these three chapters.

We all have to face this test. Everyone of us is tempted to cut short our trials or to force the issue of our rights. Saul was occupying the throne which God had now given to David, so naturally his companions felt that he should stand up for his rights. He very nearly did, but then his heart smote him. David's heart was fixed (Psalm 57:7). He had been instructed that it was necessary for him to wait for God, so even when Saul was delivered into his hand he refused to lift that hand for self vindication. Three times over he assured Saul that he was determined to hold his hand (verses 10, 12 and 13). How important it is to learn divine principles and then stick to them. Other people will urge otherwise, and circumstances may suggest that this case is exceptional, but it is essential that, when we know the right course, we should have a fixed heart in the matter. Having repeated that his heart was so fixed, David could go on to say: "I will sing, yea I will sing praises". You have a horrible feeling afterwards if you force matters when you know that you should have left them to God, but great joy comes to those who have been given grace to refuse to take matters into their own hands.

Now look at Saul. After he had left the cave, David followed and called to him. I suppose that he was on a rocky path on which a man could stand relatively near to another and yet divided by a gulf. So from such a safe vantage point David called out to Saul: "Wherefore hearkenest thou to men's words, saying, Behold David seeketh thy hurt? Behold this day thine eyes have seen how that the Lord had delivered thee today into mine hand in the cave ..." (v.10). There was a sense in which the Lord had permitted circumstances in which Saul was at David's mercy, but He did it as a test to His servant. Not that the Lord puts us to a test in order to see us fail, but rather because He wants to give us the joy of overcoming in His name. He wants to display His grace in us. As God's people we are on trial, with evil as well as good powers looking on, for the Church is being observed by the hosts of light and the hosts of darkness, as God displays His grace in us (Ephesians 3:10). In this case we can imagine God saying: 'Look at David! He had his enemy in his hands, but he trusted Me. He would not act for himself; He preferred to leave his case with Me.'

David went on talking to Saul: "After whom is the king of Israel come out? after whom dost thou pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea?" In other words: 'Where is your dignity, man? Is this the way for a king to behave?' Poor Saul had no dignity left. When a man wallows in self-pity and changes so quickly from anger to tears, he loses all claim to respect. Saul spoke of the Lord delivering him into David's hand and expressed the wish that the Lord would reward David for good, but it sounds quite unreal and the very reverse of a man whose heart is fixed. Saul was all over the place. He admitted that he was wrong, and yet he continued to do the wrong; he professed to be grateful to God and yet he made no attempt to change his ways. He even went so far as to admit that he was now convinced that David would be given the throne, yet though [77/78] he knew the will of God he continued to fight against it. He is shown up as a pitiful character, especially as he finished up with a selfish, almost whining, request to David (v.21). There is nothing more tragic than to see a man who was called to the kingdom behaving as a despicable slave. David might almost have wished that he had finished him off in that cave! But for what it was worth he again assured Saul that he had no evil intentions towards him or his family, and with that Saul went home to sulk.


David has passed his first test, and had received some help in the matter since he could truly say that Saul was still the anointed king. Now, however, we come to chapter 25, and the test is the more severe because he had a clash with Nabal who had no redeeming features at all. His name apparently means 'Fool', and his own wife admitted that it fitted him well, while his workmen said that he was so churlish that nobody could even speak to him. Incidentally, we are informed that by this time Samuel had died (v.1), so David now had no human support at all. The temptation, then, was to strike back at Nabal, and it brought the same test to David but in a more acute form.

The story is a simple one. David had acted as a protection to Nabal and his workers. As these said: "The men were very good to us, and we were not hurt, neither missed we anything, as long as we were conversant with them, when they were in the fields: they were a wall unto us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep". At the time of shearing, therefore, David did what was quite reasonable and normal, he sent down some of his men to request some recompense for their services. Nabal, however, flew at them, refusing to give them anything and speaking about David in a most insulting way. When the report was taken back to David, he resented such surly treatment and issued an immediate call to arms to his fighting men, and they all hurried off to avenge the insult. Nabal's men must have known what to expect, for one of them immediately informed the wife, Abigail, of what had happened and she, for her part, did not lose a moment in making contact with David.

She herself was in no danger, for it was specifically stated that it was the men and not the women who would be attacked. What is more, she must have been disgusted with this quarrelsome, drunken husband of hers and glad enough to face the prospect of being freed from him. She seems to have been a godly woman and also to have had a genuine concern for David. She knew that he was destined to be Israel's king and that just then he was being provoked to act in an unworthy way, so she gave a timely warning over this matter of taking things into his own hand (v.26) instead of waiting for the vindication of his God. As I have said, Nabal was certainly not the Lord's anointed. There was nothing at all to be said in his favour. Nevertheless this discerning woman knew that if David acted in self-vindication, he would have an indelible blot on his record which would mar the glory of his future with God. How right she was! Her name means: 'The Father's Joy', and she was as true to it as Nabal was to his, for it always brings joy to the heart of the Father to see men displaying the spirit of His Son: "who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously" (1 Peter 2:23).

So Abigail, who knew that David was being prepared for the kingdom, dissuaded him from an action which would have shed blood causelessly and avenged himself. That is the test. Will he lift his hand to avenge himself? He would have done, if it had not been for the timely intervention of Abigail. Thank God for discerning women, for those who have no public ministry but are wise to warn and to advise. David thanked God for her, and he thanked her for keeping him from this ignoble act. In the course of her remonstration with him she used a most heartwarming phrase: "the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God" (v.29). She was only a farmer's wife, but she had wonderful spiritual understanding. Not only David but multitudes since have been greatly comforted by this expression -- to be bound up in the bundle of life with the Lord. This speaks of the closest possible relationship, and it should also restrain us from impulsive words and actions. 'If you are bound up in that bundle,' she said, 'you cannot possibly start fighting for your own interests, but you must quietly leave it all to Him.' In some ways we are not surprised that David took her for his wife as soon as she was free. Abigail was a wise woman. She said nothing about all this to Nabal so long as he was having his drunken carousal, but waited until the next [78/79] morning (v.37). The result was startling. He had a stroke and within ten days he was dead. When the news reached David it evoked further thanks to God. He knew how narrowly he had escaped doing wrong through impatience. He had been in danger of imitating his predecessor, Saul, who took things into his own hands when God's answer was just, as it were, around the corner, and who had forfeited the kingdom for his impatience. Just ten short days, and God had cleared up the whole issue for David! No wonder the psalms ring with the advice that men should rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him.


One of the most striking features of David's second test was the swift manner in which God acted on his behalf. It may well be that David reasoned that the same thing would happen with Saul. However, it was not so. David still had to wait. And he was to have one further test as to whether or not he could wait for God. The story is told in chapter 26. Saul did not fall ill and nor did he keep to his promise to David; he set out again to destroy him. Poor David found that the battle was still on. And once again he could so easily have lifted up his hand to finish it.

This time there was no cave and Saul had a large contingent with him. As David came secretly upon the king's encampment, he found that an extraordinary thing had happened; God had allowed them all to fall into a deep sleep. This was incredible! The sentries, even the king's trusted bodyguard, were fast asleep and Saul lay there completely at the mercy of David and his two trusted companions. So far as Abishai was concerned, this really was a God-given opportunity. He stood there with his upraised spear just waiting for David's permission to act, and assuring David that one single blow would end his troubles for ever. 'This is of God,' he said, and it certainly looked as though it were, but David's heart was fixed and he knew that God does not change in His principles. It is true that God had permitted the occasion, but He had done so in order to give His chosen king the third great opportunity to triumph in the trial of faith. And David did so triumph. One word, just one nod, and his enemy would have been destroyed. In this case David did not even have to act; it would all be done for him if he gave his consent. And what is more, he no longer had any reason to expect any improvement from Saul. On the previous occasion he may have felt that if he could reason with Saul, explaining that his fears were quite groundless, then perhaps the matter could be cleared up and some kind of understanding be reached. For the moment it seemed that this had happened, for Saul's tears and his protestations suggested that he would no longer persecute David. Now, however, David was convinced that there was no remedy and he told Abishai: "The Lord shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall go down into battle, and perish" (v.10). But concerning his own part, David was adamant: nothing would induce him to take the matter into his own hands. He would wait for God.

We marvel at his faith. Could you or I, with some major problem which has beset and troubled us again and again until life itself became almost impossible, having committed the matter to God and been given His assurance of help, could we resist the temptation to deal with it ourselves? Could we refuse the offer of a well-meaning friend to end it all at one stroke? Well David could and did. Surely this was his finest hour. It meant that he could receive the kingdom in due course with a clear conscience; with the satisfaction of knowing that it had not come to him because he grasped at it or fought for it, but because he had had the faith and patience to wait for God. His heart was fixed, fixed upon God Himself. He had no confidence in Saul but he had a new ground of appeal to the Lord, so he was able to say to the foolish king: "As thy life was much set by this day in mine eyes, so let my life be much set by in the eyes of the Lord, and let Him deliver me out of all tribulation." So even David's enemy had to admit that he would do mightily and surely prevail.

David's triumphant emergence from the triple test is not, however, the end of the story. It seems almost unkind to go on into chapter 27 after such stirring victories. We almost feel that we would rather not read this further chapter. But it is placed here by God, no doubt with David's full concurrence, so we are obliged to note that this was the very man who now says in his heart: "I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than that I should escape ...". Nothing better! Oh, David, is it possible that you should think this? Nothing better than escaping to the Philistines! Is it not better to trust in the Lord? We are appalled that David [79/80] could so reason; and yet it reminds us that this is the stuff that men -- all men -- are made of.

Had I been writing the Bible I would have been tempted to close this part of David's story with chapter 26, leaving him with his hour of triumphant faith. He had proved the Lord. In the cave, in the case of Nabal, and then with Abishai's spear poised for the kill, he had trusted and proved the Lord. Now he doubts and comes to terms, or tries to come to terms, with the eternal enemies of his people and his God. Is David's heart not really fixed then? I think that the answer is that God looks down deeper than the surface soul emotions of His servants, and He knew that underneath that disgraceful act of unbelief there lay a real love for Him. And that is what matters. God will demonstrate to us that He can forgive and deliver. This is not the tragic end of David's story, though it is a shameful episode in it. For most of us will find that the moment of our greatest triumph is also the moment of our fiercest temptation. There is only One who never failed. There is only One whose heart was perfectly fixed on the will of His Father. So while we will not pander to unbelief, in ourselves or in others, we take encouragement from the realisation that in this, as in all other matters, our only ground of confidence is the grace of God in Christ.

If only David had realised it, Saul's days were even now numbered and full deliverance was very near at hand. But we have already noticed on various occasions that the eve of deliverance is the very time of greatest test to faith and patience. When God is about to act, then the tempter is strongest in his efforts to make us doubt. This is true in individual experiences, and it seems likely to be true in the dispensational setting. When is it that God's people will be most tempted to despair? When is it that pressures of every kind will be applied to the faith of God's people? On the eve of the Coming again of the Lord Jesus. So we need to strengthen and encourage one another's faith all the more -- "as ye see the day drawing nigh" (Hebrews 10:25).

(To be concluded)

"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having
shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret ...
" (Matthew 6:6).

IN this case the phrase 'inner chamber' is figurative. Just as 'synagogues' and 'street corners' represent public and exposed places, so the 'inner chamber' is representative of a hidden place. Brothers and sisters, you may indeed find an inner chamber even on street corners and in synagogues, in the busy streets or travelling along the highways. Why? Because an inner chamber is the place where you have secret communion with God, lifting your heart to Him without any display to others. What the Lord is commanding is the shutting out of the world, closing the door, as it were, on everything and everybody, so that you can have secret audience with your Lord.

Such prayer requires faith. You must believe that God is in secret, beyond anything that can be observed here on earth. That He is really there. That He is all attention. That He really does intend to recompense you openly. Praise God that wherever you may be today there will be an 'inner chamber' where you can meet with him.

Watchman Nee [80/ibc]


[Inside back cover]


"(but the servants which had drawn the water knew)" (John 2:9)

THIS is an illuminating parenthesis, with a helpful spiritual lesson. The ruler of the feast (or master of ceremonies), was impressed with the quality of the wine but knew nothing of its origin, so he called the bridegroom over to discuss the matter with him. It is in the middle of this section that John interpolates the little reminder that the servants were in on the secret.

How could they be otherwise? They knew that the rich provision owed nothing to them. They also knew that it owed nothing to the bridegroom or any of the household; indeed not to man at all. This was the beginning of the manifestation of the glory of Jesus as the only begotten of the Father.

One imagines that Mary was closely involved in the running of the wedding feast. It may even be that she was responsible for the presence there of the twelve disciples as well as Jesus, and so felt some personal obligation to help the bridegroom in his sudden emergency. At any rate, the servants clearly went to her for instructions and, after the conversation between her and Jesus, they duly received them.

Strange instructions they turned out to be, and it is greatly to their credit that they obeyed them so promptly. We are told that the disciples of Jesus got a great blessing and a boost to faith as they witnessed the wonder of the water turned to wine, but we are told nothing more about the servants than this parenthetical observation that they of course knew the reality of the miracle which Jesus had performed.

It must have been the experience of a lifetime, and one which they never forgot, for they not only saw and tasted the miracle, as did the disciples and Mary, but they actually had a part in it, even though it may have been only a small part. They were the ones who filled the waterpots at His command, and it was they who carried the water become wine to the ruler of the feast.

It does not say that they knew how the miracle was done: Nobody knew that. It does not even say that they knew just when it was done, at what point the transformation took place. It just comments that they drew water and yet poured out wine -- the best wine at that -- for when Jesus found servants willing to obey His commands, He Himself took responsibility for the outcome. He always does!

This is surely a parable as well as a miracle. It stresses first of all the importance of Mary's instructions that they should give implicit obedience to Jesus. The Lord had to make it plain to her that He does not take orders, does not even welcome suggestions, but expects everything to be left in His hands. She saw the point. This simple sentence of hers should be engraved on the hearts of all who aspire to be God's servants: "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it".

The story also suggests that prompt service for Christ can have its own special reward, the reward of an insight into the wonders of His grace. However hard it may be at times to give that full obedience which the Lord requires of us, it will always be worthwhile when we find how He can use even us for His miracles of blessing. If He does so use us there will be no fear of our becoming conceited for -- like these servants -- we will know full well that none of the credit is due to us. They knew that so far as they were concerned they had simply been privileged to act as a link between the Blesser and the blessed. This was nothing to be proud of, and yet it is true, in a sense, that He could not have done without them. So we have the inspiring truth that if we are humble and obedient enough to be His servants, Jesus can use even us to provide an occasion for the demonstration of His own glory. What more can we ask?


[Back cover]

Psalm 46:11

Printed by The Invil Press, 4/5 Brownlow Mews, London WC1N 2LD -- Telephone: 01-242 7454

  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological
  • Topical
  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological
  • Topical
  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological
  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological