"... 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. 14, No. 2, Mar. - Apr. 1985 EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster

God's Spiritual House 21
Healthy Church Life 24
Secrets Of Spiritual Constancy (1) 27
The Way Of Holiness [Hebrews] (13) 30
Learning To Know God (1) 33
Isaiah And The Gospel (2) 36
Old Testament Parentheses (14) ibc



(A meditation on Psalm 122)

Michael Wilcock

WE have no information as to the historical setting of this psalm of David's. Although it begins in a personal way, "I was glad ...", it is certainly not an individual matter for it is about a corporate stirring up of the people of God to seek His face. It touches something even deeper than emotions, though it includes them, for it reaches right down into their hearts to stir them spiritually, and it does so to all alike, however different they may be in themselves and whatever are their ways of thinking in other matters, or their cultural backgrounds. The psalm is surely given to us that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may find we are stirred up to a new devotion to the Church of Christ which He has purchased by His own blood.

Introduction. Verses 1 and 2

"I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord. Our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem."

The words 'shall stand' are a mistranslation; the speakers claim that now they are actually standing within Jerusalem's gates. The theme is the house of God and its significance to those who are privileged to stand in it. We will not be concerned with the arguments about when it was written. If David wrote it, then it clearly speaks of the time before Solomon's Temple was built. On the other hand there are those who find references in it to the time of Nehemiah and so judge that it refers to a time after the exile. It is of the very essence of the psalm that it partakes of the timeless nature of so many Scriptures. It can therefore apply to many Old Testament occasions and can equally be applicable to us today.

The Old Testament view of history has as one of its essential marks that it overcomes the time factor that separates historical events from one another, and so is fundamentally different from the modern approach to history which majors on the time factor. We look at history nowadays in terms of the lapse of time between events, the stretches of the centuries which divide one event from another. The Bible way of looking at history is quite the reverse. It looks at the events themselves, as though the time between them is of little or no importance.

The Bible, then, gives us a vista of Jerusalem as if we were on ground level, and not from the bird's-eye view of modern thinking, which looks down on great stretches of time as though on a map. By the Scriptures, though, we put ourselves right down into history and look along it, seeing events in a line, with the distances between them of no importance. It is the events which are meaningful and we need to think of Jerusalem in this way.

This psalm is about David's Jerusalem, but it equally applies to the heavenly Jerusalem to which we in this dispensation are come (Hebrews 12:22) and in which all who belong to the Lord Jesus have a part. Moreover it looks beyond that to the heavenly Jerusalem as the eternal and ultimate city described in Revelation 21. Being down on a level with them, we see one behind the other, and the views of Jerusalem merge so that they are seen as one, and in fact spiritually they are one and the same.

So it is that as we read about the Old Testament Jerusalem in this psalm, it suddenly dawns upon us that now our feet are standing within its gates. It is the same city. We are the same people of God. We belong to that city as much as those men of God of old ever did. This is the corporate unity that stretches across the centuries and in our time binds us together.

With that background in mind, I want us to apply these things in the psalm to ourselves and to think of ourselves as being in the city of God, the heavenly Zion. We are right to do so but we must be sure to be truly involved with a group which, in however small a way, does represent the Church. When we regularly meet together, we are the people of God in that place; we are part of the great heavenly nation and we are in the spiritual reality of Zion. As we gather together we can then right affirm that "our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem". We are one with God's people down the ages as [21/22] well as today. That is why we may take what the psalmist says here about the city of God and apply it to ourselves.

1. Unity of Fellowship in Christ. Verse 3

"Jerusalem, that art builded as a city that is compact together; "

The first feature of this city is its compactness; it consists of those who are 'bound firmly together'. The psalmist may here have spoken of its architectural compactness, a city with its buildings all close together, or he may have had in mind the social unity which is expressed in the Coverdale Version which reads: "Jerusalem is a city that is at unity in itself". All who belong to Zion know that they belong together. They have the tremendous gift that God gives to His people in that they are a community, with the accent on the unity.

He gives us unity in the fellowship of the Spirit in which we are firmly bound together; we are all together, whether we like it or not! Moreover this togetherness is not merely a theoretical togetherness but one which is fully understood and always observed. Peter says that we are "as living stones, built up a spiritual house ..." (1 Peter 2:5). It may help us to understand our togetherness if we consider this spiritual image of an actual building.

We are not inanimate objects, dead stones to be placed together in an outward arrangement, so the apostle was careful to tell us that we are living stones with living relationships with other stones who have the same life. We are not just dead blocks, since God has given us life; nevertheless there is value in our realising that we are like stones entirely at the disposal of the Architect who puts us together in accordance with His own plans. It is by no means always as we would plan; indeed He puts each stone alongside other stones which may well not be the kind of fellows which they would have chosen. In His overall plan, however, this is how He is compacting the city together in unity.

The danger is that we may resist His plans or at best endure the juxta-position just as long as we have to, being glad to get out of it as soon as we can. We must remember that it is His city and for the time being we must accept that God has put us together as He wishes, giving to us the unity of the fellowship of His people. I have often preached on this -- so much so that people laughingly misquote:

Ten-thousand thousand are his texts,

But all his sermons one!

but I have done so because I am convinced of its great importance. At times I have had to speak to those who started off by being a mere collection of units who congregated at times for an hour or so and then dispersed and I have tried to get across to them this great lesson that such a procedure is not at all what the Church is. We are not just an aggregation of bits and pieces but parts of a whole which God intends to knit together in unity. We need to consider carefully what this involves.

From a human point of view we are a miscellany of all sorts, but from the divine point of view there is a plan in our having been put together with other believers, just as each stone is part of the whole building design; each part belongs together and each needs its companions. Your fellow believers may be those whom you hardly know; there may be some whom you do not understand and even some whom you do not like, but the Lord is knitting you together in unity. That is what the Bible means when it speaks about our being at peace with one another; not a detente but a holy harmony.

2. Unity in Worship of the Name. Verse 4

"Whither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord, For a testimony unto Israel, To give thanks unto the name of the Lord." Another version reads: "To which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel ...".

Here in the various tribes we have the same thought of the miscellaneous and heterogeneous nature of the Church of Christ. It is described here and made to lead on to their essential unity. They were an extraordinary mixture, those twelve tribes of the Lord. How different they were! There were big tribes and little tribes, peaceful and warlike, rich and poor; there were all sorts. I am sure that by means of this and the history of Israel God intended to get this message across, the truth of unity in diversity.

What a mixture they were and yet they all went up to Jerusalem, to the house of the Lord, for they all belonged to Him. And they went to give [22/23] thanks to the name of the Lord, for this was the bond which held them together. It is true that the miscellany of different people were for a long time united by the city itself. There it was, at the centre of the nation and it provided a focal point of unity for the whole people. That was why Jeroboam set up his rival system, for he knew that even after the division of the ten tribes and the two, men would still go up to Jerusalem. It was natural for them to do so, for the city was the focal point of the nation.

I would suggest, though, that before Jerusalem became this rallying point, there was something else, something deeper and higher, which united the tribes. When they did go up to Jerusalem it was to give thanks to the name of the Lord. That name was what united them. There was precious little else that did. They were one in the fact that they worshipped the name of the Lord. However different we may be, that is also the uniting factor in our fellowship. The tribes came together because that was a decree for Israel; that was what the Lord intended for them, to be worshippers of the name.

What does that name mean? In the Old Testament there are many titles given to the Lord, He is Jehovah-Sabbaoth, Jehovah-Jireh, Jehovah-Nissi, Jehovah-Shalom and many more. This is the multiple name of the Lord our God, a name which has many facets. I can say, 'This is what the Lord is to me, and this is what He is to my fellow-believer', so that in the end it is this name which binds us together. We may be different the one from the other, but we come together to give thanks to this glorious and all-inclusive name. It is summed up for us in the New Testament in the words of the angels, "A Saviour who is Christ, the Lord" (Luke 2:11). This binds us together in the unity which God has given us, the unity of the precious name of Jesus. Those who honour that name are our brothers and sisters, and we are all one in Him. The tribes greatly differ from one another, but they are one in that they go up together to give thanks to His name.

3. Unity under the Authority of His Throne. Verse 5

"For there are set thrones for judgement, The thrones of the house of David."

In Jerusalem all is under the authority of the throne of David. In those days the basis of unity was spiritual and temporal, the temple and the palace, the priest and the king. This reveals another aspect of the unity of God's people; it was given to them under the authority of His rule. We think, therefore, of Him not only as the Name whom we adore but also as the King whom we obey. Among God's people, in God's city, there are set thrones for judgment, the thrones of the royal house from which the law is given, under the sway of which we live our lives and to which we give all our loyalty. This is a further feature of the unity which God gives to us His people. It is that one and all we owe our allegiance to Him. Our thoughts, our words, our deeds are all under the authority of King Jesus; the way we live our lives and indeed, the way we live our lives together, one with the other, is to be altogether under His authority. He has given us His Word and His Spirit to regulate our lives, to regulate our community and to regulate our individual thinking and serving.

And we are united under that command. It is because we have that united allegiance that we should be more united than others who lack this total commitment to Christ's Word and His Spirit. It would be a great shame if it were not so. Our feet are standing within the gates of Jerusalem and therefore we put ourselves willingly and gladly under the authority of King Jesus. When He speaks, we obey; when His Spirit moves in our hearts, we follow.

I might have said that there is nothing that unites the Lord's people like the worship of His name, but I would then have to say that there is nothing that unites them like the authority of His rule. Each one of us individually learns to place himself or herself under that authority, but more than that, we also do so as a body of God's people. Thrones for judgment. There we humble ourselves and our own judgment and are glad to acknowledge His instead. That binds us together.

4. Unity in our Love for His Church. Verses 6 and 7

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem' They shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces."

Love for Christ's Church is all important. I hope and believe that God will plant in our hearts this love for the heavenly Jerusalem. Perhaps we need to recapture it. Again and [23/24] again we have to fight the legacy of individualism among evangelicals which tends to be concerned over spiritual things in a purely personal way -- 'Him and me!' Now this is a part of the truth, and a most precious part, but we must also think in terms of fellowship. We need to love the community of God's people. In spite of the contradictions and follies to be found among us, God has given us His city for us to love and pray for. The Church of Jesus Christ. I wonder how much you care for it. How much do you love it? It is a beautiful entity, though it may seem to be clad in rags at times. I care for it and I pray for its peace and I long for myself and all of us as we minister that we shall see the upbuilding of Zion as a result of our prayers and labours. We must always have in our distant vision the glory of God's city as shown in Revelation 21 with the beauty of that heavenly Jerusalem. That shows us God's people as they will one day be; let us strive with all our power that the spiritual reality may become true now.

Conclusion. Verses 8 and 9

"For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good. "

If anyone asks us why we should do this, the answer is: "For my brethren and companions' sakes". The psalm stresses the corporate nature of God's people and the glories of Jerusalem as a unity, something often lost sight of, but as we come to its close we see that the concern is truly for men and women as individuals. When all is said and done, Jerusalem is still made up of individuals, so that the Church can only be glorious as it is composed of you and me, actual living people. When I seek the good of the Church, I do so for the sake of individual Christians whom I know and love. I know them by name. I want them to have the Lord's richest blessing. I know, however, that such blessings call for new experiences of the reality of Zion , so it is for their sakes that I pray for the city and its peace.

But there is a further and even higher reason. I seek the good of Jerusalem "for the sake of the house of the Lord" or rather because this is God's own home and the delight of His heart. More than all else, it is for His sake that we must seek the good of the heavenly city. This city that is so compacted together and governed by the authority of the throne is not only the home of God's people; it is God's own home. For His sake, then, let us pray and work for His full purpose to be realised among His redeemed people.



Harry Foster

"The fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13:14

BOTH Paul's opening wishes for the Corinthian church and his closing wishes and command to its members were that they should be 'perfected' (1 Corinthians 1:10 and 2 Corinthians 13:9, 11). The word employed is one used to describe the activities of James and John when they were 'mending ' their nets (Matthew 4:21). What the two men were doing was putting right what was wrong, repairing and adjusting those nets of theirs. And that was what the apostle, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was endeavouring to do with the church at Corinth.

It is clear that more than two letters were written by Paul to the Corinthians, and it is by no means certain that the epistles reached Corinth in the arrangement and order in which they have been preserved for us. My purpose is not to discuss this, but simply to take them in the way in which the Holy Spirit presents them to us in our Bible, considering them as Part I and Part II of a divine message to all assemblies everywhere.

I suggest that the first Letter is largely concerned with matters which called for reparations, while the second stresses the divine provision for a healthy church. Taken thus, we find the letters complementary to each other, the first providing a diagnosis of a sick church and the second offering the spiritual remedy. May I explain? [24/25]

All through 1 Corinthians the reader becomes growingly aware that there were things that were wrong in the assembly there, but he begins to wonder if the various troubles were only some of the symptoms of a basic underlying disorder. The apostle passes from one matter to another, disclosing actions and attitudes which needed correcting, but not until the end of the Letter does he bring to light the fundamental disorder which was the root cause of their sickly condition.

Apart from some small matters dealt with in the Pastoral Epistles, there is no other New Testament Letter which deals with regulations for church procedure. The rest of the Epistles are devoted to spiritual principles which had to be worked out under the Holy Spirit in each individual assembly, rather than specifying instructions as to the functioning of a church. Why does this letter differ from the others? Was it perhaps a diagnosis of a disorderly condition? Or must we take it as a pattern for church life?

I am not suggesting that the apostolic allusions are unimportant. Not that! I would not dare to discredit or disregard any Scripture, however inconvenient it might be. Nevertheless it may well be that we get a clearer sense of spiritual values if we accompany the apostle in what may be called his enquiries in seeking to diagnose a sick situation among God's people.

What was wrong with the Corinthians? They boasted of their superior knowledge, they split up into cliques with divided loyalties, even making baptism what it was never meant to be. They tolerated impurity, they took one another to law, they talked when they should have been silent, they threw off reasonable restraints. They made a mockery of the Lord's Table, they despised those who had less spectacular gifts than they had and they threatened to turn what should have been joyful and loving worship into unholy and bewildering confusion. Paul had to beg them to stop being childish (14:20) and to come back to their senses (15:34 N.I.V.).

Clearly many things at Corinth were not as they should have been. At each point Paul gave some helpful comment but, as we pass from one disorder to another, it is almost as if he himself was perplexed concerning the root cause of their unhealthy condition. When we reach Chapter 13 we feel that perhaps he had put his finger on the trouble and that it was a matter of lack of love. In fact, however, the diagnosis did not end there but followed on with further concern about the happenings in their church meetings which betrayed the malaise in their corporate life. This occupies the whole of Chapter 14. Lack of love, then, was not in itself the peculiar problem at Corinth, so we still seek the fundamental diagnosis as we move on into Chapter 15.

THIS is the great chapter on resurrection and in it, so I myself feel, we reach the answer to what we have been seeking. The basic ill which could give rise to all the rest was disbelief or uncertainty about the resurrection. "How say some of you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (v.12); "If the dead are not raised ..." (v.16); "if the dead are not raised at all ..." (v.29); "If the dead are not raised ..." (v.32); "but some will say, How are the dead raised?" (v.35). This is an amazing state of affairs in a Christian assembly. Would it be too much to suggest that all their other wrongs were due to this basic error? Those who are wrong on the resurrection are wrong on everything. It appears from the argument of verse 16 that it was not only the personal resurrection of Christ that was in dispute, but the possibility of that resurrection working effectively in believers. A church whose members are not enjoying the reality of fellowship with Christ in His death and in His resurrection is indeed a sick church.

One day we will all experience a literal bodily resurrection, as this chapter goes on to affirm, but even now for us eternal life can only be resurrection life and this presupposes an acceptance of the principle of the cross. The Church is regarded as being risen with Christ. In His death we all died, and in His resurrection we were all raised from the dead (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). This is what the whole of the New Testament teaches. We must note Paul's use of the present tense in his famous words: "Thanks be unto God who gives us (now) the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57). The Corinthian assembly, alas, was not a victory celebration but a battlefield of unhappy defeats.

I have suggested that Paul's First Epistle was largely a diagnosis. His Second Letter surely provides and sets out in considerable detail the divine remedy, namely a daily experience of resurrection life based upon a daily willingness to take up the cross. We remember that it was the Lord Jesus Himself who laid this down as a condition for discipleship (Mark 8:34). In order [25/26] that this should be seen as a matter of experience as well as teaching, Paul did not hesitate to reinforce the truth with autobiographical illustrations, as we discover when we begin to study 2 Corinthians. It is true that this is to be an individual experience, as exemplified by Paul's own story, but individuals are members one of another in Christ and only by their accepting the working of the cross in their relationships can there be any hope of a healthy church life.

Paul was not merely writing to individual saints in Corinth; he was writing to have a sick church turned into a healthy one. They needed not only to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God, but also the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). It is a sad fact that there seems at times to be a big gap between individual Christians who talk of glorying in the cross and Christian communities where that truth is demonstrated in their fellowship life and relationships. This surely ought not to be the case.

IN common with many other Christians, I have sometimes been in danger of some confusion as I have worked my way through 1 Corinthians. May I suggest, in all humility, that there can be real spiritual gain in reading straight on into 2 Corinthians, as though the two letters are parts of a whole. There can be no doubt that in this second letter great emphasis is placed on sharing in Christ's death in order also to share in His resurrection.

The opening verses give an intimate revelation of some drastic experience which Paul passed through. We do not know, nor do we need to know, the actual circumstances; we only know that he described it as "so great a death" (1:10). The important lesson was not so much God's wonderful power to deliver but the divine principle which he had learned by passing through it. He, the great apostle, had to learn "that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead" (v.9).

Despairing, as he did, of his own ability to continue, he cast himself on the Lord and so had a new experience of the reality of the God of resurrection. When I was younger I used to hear godly men calling for their hearers to 'Let go and let God'. Nowadays this is usually rejected as being unrealistic. For my part I agree that this is only part of the truth and is dangerous if it is taken in isolation, but I suggest that it does put into a pithy phrase a principle which is truly Biblical, given that the action is one of letting go to God. If the Corinthians had 'let go' of their partisanships, their intolerance of the convictions of others, their exaggerated attempts at liberty and their preoccupation with sensational gifts and learned to trust in God who raiseth the dead, they would surely have been a community enjoying constant renewal.

This brings me to another point mentioned in the letter, namely, human weakness as a basis for divine power. Unlike many modern Christians, Paul freely admitted the diminution of his physical powers (4:6). Whether we think of him as an ageing man, conscious that even if he had had experiences of bodily healing, his was still a 'mortal', that is, a dying body; or whether we interpret his words as stressing the wear and tear of his sufferings for Christ, the fact remains that he recognized that his outward man was decaying, even while he rejoiced that his inward man was being renewed day by day. Perhaps the acceptance of the one brought about the enjoyment of the other. It is sometimes like this.

In any case this most important passage in Chapter 4, beginning with the reminder that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" is truly relevant. In the course of it the apostle makes a quotation from Psalm 116 which itself is an amazing commentary on this whole matter of resurrection life. He adds to the psalmist's claim, "I believed, therefore did I speak" his own personal assertion that he spoke out of experimental proving of the reality of the God of resurrection. The context shows that what he believed was bound up with the fact that death was working in him: "So then death worketh in us" and that the consequence of this was a free flow of life for others.

It was working in him because of his faith-committal to God. It was not accidental; it was not merely mortal decay; it was the operation of the cross in his daily procedure, brought about by his own acceptance of the death of Christ in terms of glad surrender to the will of God. "I die daily", he had affirmed in 1 Corinthians 15:31. He now amplified this statement by saying that he was always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be manifested in his body (v.10). [26/27]

How different would have been the story of the Corinthian church if its members could rightly have claimed with Paul: "We which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake ...". All their petty differences would have perished "for Jesus' sake", and they would have had a taste here on earth of the heavenly unity of the glorified. After all, the Holy Spirit is given as a foretaste of the experience when "what is mortal will be swallowed up of life" (5:4-5).

I have known those who confessed to having had a great spiritual crisis, the crisis of the cross, in which the whole issue of their being dead with Christ has been made real to them in an overwhelming way so that they have never been the same again. I understand that George Muller was such a one. Perhaps it could be argued that Paul had such a moment in his life. But, crisis or no crisis, it is plain that for him the challenge came up again and again, as it does for us, and that he accepted the way of the cross, confident by faith that this was the secret of resurrection life. As we read through 2 Corinthians we find the truth set before us in many aspects, not just as a matter of doctrine but of day to day experiences, sometimes painful but always God-glorifying.

I began this article by referring to Paul's prayer for the Corinthians that they should be perfected, The N.I.V. renders his last appeal to them in these words: "Aim for perfection" (13:11). It may sound like impossible idealism. It is not that. It simply means that in church life as well as in our private experiences, the goal should be likeness to Christ. That is the realm for the operation of "the fellowship of the Holy Spirit".



"I have told you all this to guard you against
the breakdown of your faith.
" John 16:1

J. Alec Motyer


IN His last long discourse, the Lord Jesus explained that His words were intended to safe-guard His disciples against the possibility of spiritual breakdown: "These things have I spoken unto you, that you should not be made to stumble" (John 16:1).

The verb 'to cause to stumble', skandalizo, is an important one and is variously rendered, with possibly the most helpful translation that given by the N.E.B.: "to guard you against the breakdown of your faith". By this verse we see the purpose that the Lord Jesus had in the teaching which comprises the three most important chapters of John 14, 15 and 16. It provides a recipe which will keep us from breaking down spiritually.

A concordance study gives us a passage which encapsulates all that the New Testament implies in its use of skandalizo. This is found in Romans 14:21: "It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbles". If we consider the passage which leads up to that verse we will find that a certain number of other verbs are used before what we may call this key verb appears. There is "grieve" and "destroy not" (v.15) and a very strong verb translated "overthrow" (v.20) which has the implication of pulling down a building. Then there are the opposite ideas which contrast with these three negatives, namely, "the things which make for peace, and the things whereby we may edify one another" (v.19). These, then, are the ideas which cluster around the verb skandalizo . There is a kind of behaviour in others, both Christians and non-Christians, and also in the incessant pressure of circumstances, which can pull down a believer and work to destroy him.

This is all real to experience. The world is littered with people who once ran well. Why did they stop running well? Something caused them [27/28] to stumble; it entered in as a grief, it imperilled their peace and then it went on to erode the foundations of faith. This happens to some people at some times; it is a threat to all of us all the time. We call it 'backsliding'. In John 16:1 the Lord Jesus exposed the danger and He also prescribed the remedy. This remedy is found in the totality of the Lord's discourse recorded in John Chapters 14 to 16 and on into His prayer in Chapter 17.

I have tried to sort out four lines of teaching which appear in these chapters, so that we can say to one another, Well, at least these are some of the things which will guard us against the breakdown of our faith and give us greater knowledge of the ongoing peace and edification which there is in Christ. The first of the four is The Safeguarding Power of Prayer:

1. 14:13-14 "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do."

This has often been called the blank cheque of prayer. The words 'anything' and 'whatsoever' inform us as to the bounty of God and so entice us into the place of prayer. What is it that you need? What is it that is grieving you, destroying your peace and pulling you down instead of building you up? Have you prayed about it? Have you availed yourself of this counsel of your Lord?

The first part of verse 13 and the first part of verse 14 are parallel in their command that we ask. Why then did the Lord suddenly introduce that second part of verse 13 with the allusion to the Son and the Father? Twice over the Lord stresses the bounty and the liberality that is there waiting for us in the place of prayer; twice over He drives it home, but why does He place in between the explanation: "That the Father may be glorified in the Son"? May I use an illustration? If you are skilled in the running of a car, for you to say that it is running well would be using a statement in a different way from me. You would base your appreciation of the car on quite a different set of evidences from mine if I said that it was running well. What I would mean is that I know what it does when I do things to it. I know what happens when I turn on the ignition and I know what happens when I press the accelerator. I know the feel of a car that is running well. You however, if you are skilled, know what is going on under the bonnet and have an informed basis on which to base your opinion.

I suggest that this is what is happening in these statements about prayer. In the first part of verse 13 and the first part of verse 14, the Lord Jesus is speaking the plain truth of that fact when it is running well; it is a simple matter of asking and receiving: But the second part of verse 13 lifts up the bonnet, as it were, and lets us look inside to see what is going on in the unseen realm. In effect the transmission whereby this thing works with power is introduced to us: the fact of the Father in heaven and His own work of mediation. In the experience of prayer made and prayer answered in the name of Jesus, the Father is glorified because the prayer goes to Him through the Son and the answer comes back from Him through the Son.

There is no other way of explaining how, in the matter of prevailing prayer, the Father is glorified in the Son. It is as though the Lord says: 'See what is going on when you pray to Me and your prayer goes through Me to the Father, and see what happens when the answer comes back from the Father through the Son'. Prayer is therefore a living experience and a proof of the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus speaks of prayer and answers to prayer as that which is powerful to safeguard us from the breakdown of faith. It imposes on our experience the wonder of our salvation. Praying as those whom God has saved through the mediation of Jesus Christ, we have the blessed experience of a proof of the real fact that Jesus is at the Father's side and that His mediation is real and effective.

2. 15:7 "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you."

Once again we find the great word 'whosoever', and notice that there is no diminution of that wide-open word. "And it shall be done unto you." Here again we have the glorious bounty of God to His praying people. Notice, however, that it is all related to a condition. If you abide ... then it shall be done. Not that this in any way reduces the dimensions of the 'whosoever'.

People often ask, 'Do we have to say in prayer, Thy will be done? Do we have to talk like this?' Well, ask yourself what lies behind that question. [28/29] Why do people look tragedy in the face and so often resignedly say, 'Thy will be done'? One surmises that the implication of this is that if only we had the running of things, how much better that would be. If only we could ask and get just what we wanted!

But see what you are doing when you ask in His name. You are praying in the name of the One in whom all the fullness dwells. This cannot be limitation at all, this bringing our requests into the name of this One. It rather lifts up the 'whatsoever' into a much larger bounty than we could ever hope to achieve. Furthermore, to pray in the name of Jesus is the blessed safeguard of prayer. I affirm one thing to you and it is this: that if we got everything we ask for in prayer, when we ask for it and in the measure in which we ask for it, we would stop praying tomorrow. We would find that we had far too dangerous a weapon in our hands. For such a liberality of prayer and such an automatic efficaciousness of prayer committed to our poor wisdom would be nothing less than a gun pressed to our head. To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray in the blessed conditions which He lays down which not only lifts prayer into a greater bounty and a greater liberality but puts prayer into the only place where it is safe.

Prayer is efficacious for those who are joined to Christ and keep His word; it is for those who abide in Him in the light of His word. Notice that the two things are put together; we must abide in Him but not in a Christ of our imagination, not in some Jesus we have fancied for ourselves, but in Him as He has made Himself known by His word. In this way we are living with Him in the light of what He has revealed about Himself. In that case we may ask what we will, and it will be done for us. We pray as those who are joined to Christ and in the experience of efficacious prayer we learn the reality of being at one with Him.

I remember years ago Billy Graham came over for one of his campaigns and in a T.V. interview was confronted with that extraordinarily pervasive bogey about having a closed mind. Billy Graham was not a bit abashed. He said, 'Of course I've got a closed mind'. He said, 'Consider, for example, the question of marriage. My wife and I have been happily married for many years and over the course of our married life, my mind has been completely closed to the thought of ever going with any other woman'. He said, 'I wouldn't want it any other way. The experience of happy marriage has closed my mind so that it snapped tight and remains so'.

So it is that in the experience of prayer our minds can snap tight on the reality of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, so that this becomes something upon which the mind is closed. So it henceforth becomes axiomatic: 'I am one with Jesus'. Prayer, bringing us that assurance, brings us into the place of security from breakdown. When prayer is the fruit of union, then in prayer the union comes alive and its living power places us beyond the possibility of any insecurity.

3. 15:16 "Ye did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide; that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. "

Here prayer is set before us as one item in an age-long programme of God. Prayer is a part of a plan God has made for us and part of a plan which he is implementing for us. The plan began in His own mind, He chose us: "Ye did not choose me, but I chose you ...". Isn't it extraordinary that over and over again the Bible expresses its vast impenetrable truths in language that cannot be misunderstood. In this sentence there is not a word beyond one syllable, yet you could exhaust your mind from now until the Day of the Coming of Christ without penetrating its full meaning. Nevertheless it is as plain and clear as it can be.

We may say, 'But I did choose you Lord. I remember the occasion well. It was at 7:15 in the evening of 23rd February in the year 1940. I remember it so well. That was when I chose you'. To which the Lord will reply, 'But dear child, you are like a young man who runs up to a girl who has taken his fancy and says, "The Lord has told me to marry you". She, however, being a well-instructed young lady may reply, "Well, He hasn't told me that I'm to marry you". In that case your choice of her would be invalid, and would remain so until it was made valid by her choice of you. And you, my child, could only choose Me validly because I first chose you'.

Behind all is the great and blissful reality that He determined to have you. He chose! He appointed you to this circumstance. He appointed [29/30] you that you should go and in your obedient going to discover that obedience is a fruit-bearing business; so to you He opened the avenue of answered prayer. You are to ask 'whatsoever', and God will give it you. What does this teach us about prayer? It is that in prayer we discover and experience our position of security in the will of Christ. Prayer is not something isolated; it belongs with the four-fold reality of His choice, His appointment, His commandment and His promise.

And as we act upon the promise and find it true, we realise the validity of those things which lie behind the promise. Yes indeed, He chose me; yes indeed, He appointed me; yes indeed, He commanded me, and here I am living within the eternal counsels of God,

4. 16:23-27 "In that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If ye shall ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be fulfilled. ... In that day ye shall ask in my name; and I say not unto you that I will pray the Father for you; for my Father himself loveth you ...".

Our final point is that prayer brings us into direct touch with the loving Father. Of course the Lord Jesus did not mean that He would not pray for us. He is eternally the Mediator, as verse 23 reminds us. Jesus never steps out of His mediatorial role; we can never come to the Father by any other way than in Him by the Spirit. But in verse 26 He tells us so graciously that His mediatorial role runs on oiled wheels, so that we do not notice it. The reality which it secures is the reality which He shares with us, so that we are aware of direct access to the Father. It seems that the Lord was concerned that at that moment they should not think so much of His part by mediation as of the direct relationship with the Father which He secures for His people. Just then He was not telling the disciples of His prayer to the Father because He wanted them to realise how much the Father loved them. This is the privilege which Christ has won for us, the privilege of access to the Father, an access in which we bask in the Father's love.

How, then, does prayer safeguard us against breakdown? What are the edifying powers of prayer? In a word, they are experience. In the place of prayer we come into immediate experimental awareness of the truths which would otherwise just be facts expressed in a creed. In Chapter 14 we have the Reality of our Salvation. We are informed of Christ's role as Mediator, bringing us to God and keeping us with God. In Chapter 15 we are given the Reality of our Security as those whom God has chosen and included in His eternal purpose. In Chapter 16 we are told of the Reality of our Welcome before the Father's throne. These are great truths, but are they meaningful truths to us, are they nourishing truths?

Truth in a creed is like food in a freezer. It is potentially nourishing but it is not actually nourishing anybody. Its nourishment is locked up inside it. To get its value you must take it out of the deep freeze, bring it to the cooker and put it into boiling water. Then it must go on a plate and be dealt with by knives and forks. NOW it is truly nourishing. The truths have become experimental.

Here then are four great truths, set out before us that we may experience them in the place of prayer. It is there that we enter into the nourishment of them and into their power to safeguard us from any breakdown in our faith.

(To be continued)


(Some comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews -- 13)

John H. Paterson

1. In Retrospect

AS we approach the end of this series of studies in Hebrews, it may help us to recall what have been the main emphases which we have identified in the epistle.

Firstly, and I hope justifiably, I have treated the epistle as an argument about which of the two ways of God is better -- an old one or a new. The writer was evidently seeking to convince [30/31] some Hebrew Christians that, in accepting Christ as God's new Way to Himself, they had not made a terrible mistake. He wanted to reassure them that this new way to God was indeed better.

But note, in passing, that word better. He did not set out to try to convince them that the old way which they knew, and to which they were tempted to return, was no good at all. Far from it: by that old way, men had undoubtedly made contact with God. It was a good way. He simply wished to argue that the new way through Christ was better -- more certain; more accessible; permanent. It was an argument which had to be delicately presented to people proud of their spiritual heritage and, in this writer's capable hands, it was!

Secondly, however, we have been trying to answer this question: Why did doubts arise about the new way in the first place? If it was so much better than the old, why were these Hebrew Christians hesitating about following it? Why were its advantages not obvious to them?

I think that the epistle itself gives us plenty of clues. The trouble lay in the expectations with which these believers had started out on the Christian life. Who had given them the false impressions we shall never know, but it seems clear that they imagined that, since Christ is so great and the new way to God so wide, their passage over that way would be swift and easy. They would be borne along it in triumph and never again have any troubles. And when, in reality, troubles did arise -- doubts, failures, persecution -- they seem naturally to have concluded that this was not, after all, a journey they wished to make!

To use an image which our writer himself is about to introduce to us (Hebrews 12:1-2), they were like runners enthusiastically entering for a race which they took to be a hundred-metre sprint, straight down the track, only to find after it had started, that it was actually a six-mile cross-county run on which there were fences, steep hills, and bystanders only too ready to misdirect them!

In several of our past studies, we have seen by what means our writer tried to counteract this view of the Christian life. He insisted on the need for faith and patience; faith because the finishing post of this race is far ahead, and out of sight and patience because we all have a long way to run. But while admitting that the Christian life is no hundred-metre dash, he was insistent that these believers must on no account give up. And so we come to the start of Chapter 12.

"Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. "

2. Why So Long A Race?

But now, if you were a Hebrew Christian and had been following the argument up to this point, you would want, I think, to make an objection! The question you would want to ask, and have answered, is this: If Christ is so great, and if He really has done, by His work as priest and sacrifice, all that Hebrews 5 - 10 tells us He has, then why is victory not immediate? Why are there still problems and obstacles? Has He not removed them all?

These are valid questions, and we can only hope that our writer has an adequate answer to them. But he does! And that is what Hebrews 12 is about. It is his answer to the legitimate worry of these Christians as to where the new way to God seems to be leading them.

He had, actually, three answers, of which it is the third which will specially concern us here. His first answer we have already read, in the eleventh chapter. It was that all those who follow the way to God have always encountered difficulties on the way and, and a matter of fact, the need for faith and patience on the old way -- to which, let us again remind ourselves, they were thinking of returning -- was much greater, the trials much more severe, than anything they themselves had encountered. Those who nevertheless won God's approval in this hard way now surrounded them like a great cloud of witnesses.

The writer's second answer was to point them (12:2-3) to the Lord Jesus Christ. His was the supreme life of victory, was it not? He it was who fulfilled the law, delivered mankind, brought down him who had the power of death, and now "hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God". What a triumphant life! But consider, [31/32] said the writer, think about that life: consider, in particular, "such gainsaying of sinners". Consider the obstacles, the opposition, the trials, the hatred which that life of Christ provoked. And He was the Son of God; yet for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame. What are you complaining about?

3. God's Purpose in Delay

But these first two of the writer's answers are rather cold comfort. To be told that your own troubles are so much smaller than other people's that they hardly count at all is not very satisfying! The third answer, however, is much more positive and it this: the Christian way, the Christian life, is not intended simply to be a means of getting the believer from earth to heaven as quickly as possible. There is something to be achieved on the road. The purpose of God is to obtain fruit from our lives (12:11), and the means He employs to get it is training (12:5-10). The fruit is the fruit of righteousness, and it is to be borne in the lives of those who are made "partakers of His holiness".

Now this idea was by no means new to the Jewish people, for we find the writer quoting the Book of Proverbs to support his argument. The idea that God's people should be trained and educated through His dealings with them was written deeply into their experiences of the exodus and wilderness years. It was part of the old way to God, so why not of the new?

Nor was this all. A God who arranged to bring people into His presence without paying any attention to their state or welfare would be like a parent who never disciplined or trained his child. While all the other children were being told to get home by 9 o'clock and never to play on the main road, here would be one child whose parents told it nothing at all; gave no instructions. Soon the child would ask itself, 'Don't they care whether I come home or not? Don't they mind if I'm run over? Maybe they don't love me at all'. Yet, said the writer in 12:8, the complaints of the Hebrew Christians betray a failure to grasp this very principle -- that training is a sign of love, not of ill-will!

So God's training is intended to make us holy -- or, as Paul expressed it to the Romans, to conform us to the image of His Son. If anybody thinks that that can be done in a few short days, let them think again! What is required is nothing less than moral transformation.

Now that is, of course, what God intended for Israel also and, if the idea seemed novel or surprising to these first-century Hebrew Christians, then perhaps one reason may have been that Israel's training achieved so little -- that the work of training or character-building bore so little fruit in their lives. You can tell this if you read the words of the prophets, who railed against Israel for the most flagrant transgressions of the law of holiness, centuries after their training began. They complained over and over again, that Israel were no different from their heathen neighbours.

4. A Warning

It must not happen again! Alarmed that it might, the writer of the epistle wanted to warn his readers of the twin dangers that confront those whom God plans to lead through His training course, and of both dangers the Old Testament has an example to offer.

Faced with the challenge of growing in holiness, the believer may make the mistake, said the writer, of either despising or refusing: "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord"; "See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh". Of the first error the best example is provided by Esau; of the second, the Children of Israel.

In the face of God's declared interest in making us partakers of His holiness, it is possible to adopt the attitude that it doesn't matter about being holy. Holiness, we may argue, is an extra in the Christian life; it is for the experts and professionals, like saints and pastors and missionaries, and not for 'ordinary' Christians like us. Let us leave it to those who are keen on that sort of thing!

But, argued the writer, think of Esau. He despised his birthright, and look what happened to him! Esau was the inheritor of the firstborn right in the family which God had chosen out of all the families on earth to bless. Then he sold that birthright for soup. By doing so he showed himself to be, says verse 16, a "fornicator" and a "profane person". The Greek word translated fornicator has as its root the idea of selling -- [32/33] selling a body; selling a birthright; in either case selling something which ought not to be sold, something holy. The word translated profane carries the sense of stepping over a threshold or limit; it is the same idea that we have in English about stepping in where angels fear to tread. It is the idea, in both cases, of despising the quality of holiness; of treating something as common rather than sacred (cf. Hebrews 10:29); or regarding holiness as unimportant.

Holiness is important; without it no man shall see the Lord (12:14). So there really is not a choice, as the Hebrew Christians seemed to think, between riding along the way to God as a kind of passenger and running an exhausting training race on foot. Holiness is not for experts: it is God purpose for all His people.

The writer's second warning is about refusing enrolment in God's training course. He had no difficulty in identifying the best example in the Old Testament of what that would lead to: he found it in the Children of Israel, and in their "entreating that no word more should be spoken to them" (12:19). The fire and thunder of Sinai made them feel that theirs was a God with whom they did not really wish to become acquainted too closely: life with Him, they could see, was going to be uncomfortable. So they simply opted out: in the most literal sense of our modern phrase, 'they didn't want to know'. So they refused to hear His words, and went their own way, and the writer was concerned lest his readers might do the same -- might say, in effect, 'No: this new way to God through Christ is too dangerous, too demanding, too costly, and we're going to turn back while there is still time.'

Not if he could help it! His closing words to them in Hebrews 12 are very solemn. He even puts in a good word, a word of excuse if you like, for Israel of old, to make the case that they had extenuating circumstances, which do not apply to us. After all, he said, Israel's experience at Sinai, the experience which led to their saying, "no more!" was a terrifying one. They knew practically nothing of this God of theirs, and the first thing they found out was that contact with Him was, quite literally, fatal: "If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned". Even Moses, their leader, said, "I exceedingly fear and quake". Coming to Mount Sinai was no picnic; we can feel sorry, I think, for those who were encountering, in these circumstances, Israel's God for the first time!

But if these circumstances constituted a kind of excuse for them, we have none if we do not hear His word. Read again, if you will, the description in verses 22-24 of our conditions of access to God and contrast them, phrase by phrase, with the thunder, darkness and absolute solitude of Sinai. They may have been scared to listen: we have not that excuse. See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh!

On the open way to God through Christ, shall any person ever dream of turning back?



(Some thoughts from the Pentateuch)

Poul Madsen

1. GENESIS. God the Creator

THE Bible has been given to us in order that we may learn to know God. The fact is that since the Fall of Man, not one of us sinners can learn to know Him by our own efforts. No-one can reason his way to God or find Him by mysticism, meditation or religious practice. God is who He is, and only when He makes Himself known by revelation can we learn to know Him. He has therefore given us the Bible so that we may learn to know Him. There He reveals Himself and the growing revelation is gathered up and perfected in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nowadays man is so interested in learning to know himself, but his efforts are futile, for [33/34] no-one can do this, but if we learn to know God, then from Him we learn to know ourselves.

God is the Creator, a fact that cannot be grasped except by faith. In this way we understand that He has created all things out of nothing. No-one else can do that! We must have material to start with; God had only Himself, His own wisdom, His own holiness, His own eternal plan, and He it was who created the heaven and the earth. He did this by His Word: He spoke and it was there. This suggests to us that whenever we really hear His word, we experience His creative power. Every time God speaks and some really hear, it is an event, a creative event, for then God creates by His word, which is Spirit and life.

TIME and again in Genesis we read that after the Fall God revealed Himself to men. The God of glory appeared to Abram while he was still in Ur, in Mesopotamia, and was a heathen. He knew nothing of the God of Glory until God revealed Himself. Everything that God does begins with Himself and ends with Himself; it comes forth from Him and leads back to Him. And He sustains everything. If He withdrew His breath we would all become as dust. While we sit down in safety, every breath we breathe is only possible because God sustains us. In the first book of the Bible He is called "God Almighty" (17:1 etc.). When Abraham was an old man the Lord appeared to him and told him that he was to have an heir, but before He disclosed this coming event, He affirmed, "I am God Almighty". Omnipotence is not something magical: it is the very nature of God. It means that all that in His wisdom He wants to do, He can do and He does it even though it may be something quite impossible for everyone else. This does not mean, however, that His omnipotence is at the disposal of our wishes, for He is God.

In this book He is also called The Most High, words quickly read but calculated to act as a tremendous blow to our pride when we begin to realise their meaning. Genesis therefore reveals God as the Almighty and the Most High, governing nature. He could send the Flood, and when He did so, no-one could stop Him or prevent it happening. He could send famine, and did so for seven years in Egypt. Men are not lords of creation and science is certainly not lord of creation, so we do well to thank God every time we eat.

He is the Sovereign Lord of the nations, as we shall see throughout the Pentateuch. As for the tower of Babel -- He demolishes it. As for Pharaoh's might -- He destroys it. He goes on to destroy Amalek, Og of Bashan and the rest, for He is absolute Sovereign. It is good for us to remember this today. We live under the shadow of a so-called giant power, but we must remember that to God such worldly powers are a drop in the bucket, a speck of dust on the scales. He is Almighty over all the rulers of the earth from Nimrod, the first, to Antichrist, the last.

THE most wonderful thing is that He is Lord over me and over you; He is the Lord of the individual life. Through Joseph we are given some of the richest expressions of God's almightiness in the Bible, as he told his bothers: "Be not grieved nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God" (45:5 and 8). This is worth taking to heart. Think of the dastardly way in which they had treated him and then hear Joseph claim that it was God who had done it. Our enemies, those who wish to harm us, the chances of circumstance -- these do not have the last word. God alone has that!

Therefore sin is the real tragedy of life, for it is rebellion against Him who is the Almighty, the Most High God. Sin is more than a kind of human weakness; it is a power which keeps mankind deaf and blind to the reality of God's existence. Through the Fall, man no longer believes in God and this is the central nature of sin. It is a foolishness which defies description to go through this life with your back to God who has created all things; it is to be dead even while you live. After Adam there was no direct law until Moses, yet sin and death reigned, for men had turned their backs on God. The whole of humanity is turned the wrong way round from God. When man has only himself, his own opinions, even his own religion and good intentions, he is completely lost. Being without God he is also without hope.

Yet, if I may say so, man's sin has made no change in God Himself, for He remains who He is, holy, perfect and almighty. So we find in Genesis and indeed throughout the Pentateuch, a consistent description of God's holiness and righteousness. This holiness is not what we commonly think of when we describe a person as [34/35] 'holy', for our tendency is to think of what such a person refrains from doing, whereas real holiness can never be described negatively. God's holiness does not consist in what He does not do, but shows itself first and foremost in His active working to save. Holiness is not so much a passive characteristic in a protected sphere, but it is active in outgoing helpful love.

There are not many abstract descriptions of God in the Pentateuch -- nor indeed in the rest of the Bible -- but there are accounts of His acting and intervening, and all that He does is in righteousness. Not that God is subject to any judgment as to righteousness in any higher court; it is not that we set our standards and then call upon God to answer to them or be tried by them. God is righteous, and therefore no institution or court can be above Him, to question or accuse Him, though alas, many people persist in doing so. This is due to the limited ideas of small men.

God punished the world with a Flood. Was that cruel? We might say that it was, especially if we ourselves had been involved in the calamity. Not that our opinions would have helped. Only humble faith could do that. God punished Egypt. In that He was wholly righteous, even though it may seem to us to be going rather too far when the firstborn was struck down in every home. If, however, in all their distress the Egyptians had acknowledged His righteousness, there would have been hope for them.

ONE area in which we are inclined to think ourselves more righteous than God is in the matter of His sovereign election, which is a great theme of Genesis. God chooses. He elects. He chose Abraham and in doing so acted in supreme wisdom. It is rather more difficult for us to accept His choice of Isaac, especially as this was accompanied by His rejection of Ishmael: "Cast out the bondwoman and her son ... he shall not inherit" (21:10). The worst case seems to us to be that of Jacob and Esau. Certainly Jacob could not be said to be better than Esau ethically or morally, but God made His choice between them, and God is righteous. In those most difficult chapters, Romans 9, 10 and 11, we are just told that God is righteous: "O man, who art thou that repliest against God?", in other words, 'Who are we that dare to think that we understand righteousness and love better than God?'

Later we shall read: "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples: but because the Lord loveth you ..." (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). It is good to submit to God. It is hard to believe and almost impossible to understand that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Why should He? Why indeed! Jesus said clearly, "You did not choose me, but I chose you" (John 15:16).

Scriptures also tell us that those whom God chose, He also foreknew. I am glad of this for, as life has unfolded I have learned to know myself and know what a disappointing person I am. Happily God knew it all before I did. Election is the unmotivated love of God: it has no basis in the one elected but only in the fact of God's sovereign love.

What perhaps is most difficult for us to understand is that God is wholly righteous when He justifies a sinner. To me the most important verse in Genesis is that which informs us that after God had given almost unbelievable promises to Abraham, "he believed the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness" (15:6).

Genesis tells us not only about Abraham but about many other people, such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and not one of them was ethically perfect. In a religious sense we would not say that anyone of them was specially characterised by holiness, but God is righteous in His election and is righteous when He justifies the man who believes in Him. No man can give God any greater honour than to believe Him. In doing so, Abraham recognised God to be God; he acknowledged Him as the Almighty. Jacob did the same, although his development took a very long time. Joseph was another who acknowledged God's absolute sovereignty. The New Testament emphasises for us the fact that all these men pleased God, and that they did so not by their ethics, for they were very faulty, and not just by their piety, for at times that was mediocre, but by their faith.

SO then, right from this first book of Genesis the Bible makes it clear that there is a basic difference between religion and revelation. There is no road from man to God, but there is a road from God to man. The Lord never accommodates [35/36] Himself to human thoughts. We can understand His choosing such a fine character as Joseph, but when we remember how Abraham committed such a grave deceit which endangered his wife, and then even repeated the same sin, we might imagine that he had surely forfeited his righteousness. Humanly speaking, he had, but salvation rests on something deeper than that, on God's eternal election, so in the final issue everything depended upon Abraham's Saviour who provided the Lamb of God, slain in the divine intention before the foundation of the world, but historically crucified just outside Jerusalem.

Because God is Creator He had every right to say to Abraham: "Get thee out of thy country" and it is equally true, though much harder to understand, that He could say: "Take thy son whom thou lovest and offer him as a burnt offering". Abraham by that time knew God so well, better indeed than any other living person, that he unhesitatingly set out to obey.

To listen to what God says is a man's duty, though it is a task too heavy for us. We need more grace for it than we realise, but such grace is available for the Bible repeatedly says that they are blessed who have ears to hear. What God says cannot be supported by arguments; the more you try to argue about it, the more you devaluate its divinity. No, its support can only be the fact that God is who He is, and it is our privilege to submit to Him and believe in Him.

What a gracious experience it is to listen to Him and then obey Him. We do not learn practical holiness and righteousness by passive observation, but by obedience in daily life. This is the reason why Genesis often informs us about points of time, how old people were and what they did. We are reminded that it may be the work of the Lord to look after sheep, to dig wells, to carry provisions to others, for it is in our daily life that the knowledge of the Lord can develop. Abraham never preached a sermon, and in fact there are not many sermons in the whole gook of Genesis, but Abraham walked with God, as did also Enoch and Noah and Jacob. Great events are described in Genesis, but also the small things of daily life have much prominence. Our job is to read the book with our eyes upon God, always asking what He did there and what He said about things and how did He evaluate those circumstances.

The stories of these men are written for our learning. As we grow in obedience and the knowledge of God, we shall find ourselves in the same family as these great patriarchal figures, the family which is the Church of all time, chosen and loved by the Creator God. Those men of old learned to know Him. When their time was over some went home to God full of days; others perhaps, like Jacob, felt that "few and evil were their days" and that they did not attain, but they are safely in the glory by the grace of our faithful Creator who is also our Redeemer.

(To be continued)


Harry Foster

2. CHRIST'S INCARNATION (7:1 to 8:8)

THE Christian is not called upon to grope his way through the Old Testament but rather to read it with the hindsight given him by the New. It follows, therefore, that we should be familiar first with Matthew 1:18-25 and by this means clearly identify Isaiah's name of Immanuel with Joseph's adopted son, Jesus. Having established this astounding and yet very logical truth of the virgin birth, we may now marvel afresh at the accuracy and significance of the prophet's statement in 7:14.

Those of us who are not Hebrew scholars can always make use of Young's Concordance, and in this case we can verify that the word used by Isaiah is the same as the one employed to describe the virgin Rebecca (Genesis 24:43) and the virgins of Song of Solomon 1:3 and 6:8. Perhaps simple people like most of us may be permitted to ask how there could possibly be a Person who was truly God yet truly Man without such a virgin birth? Without that, the name Immanuel does not make sense. [36/37]

The truth surely is that to question Isaiah's prophecy about the virginity of Immanuel's mother is to deny the essential deity of the Babe of Bethlehem. The two stand or fall together. So far as Isaiah's language is concerned, we can always rely on the way in which the Bible uses Bible words, and if we do that we have every reason for saying that Isaiah did define the coming child as truly born of a virgin. That was the beginning of his gospel as it is the beginning of ours, He was "conceived of the Holy Spirit". The first feature of the gospel is the Incarnation.

We find the circumstances described in Chapter 7. King Ahaz had refused to ask for a sign. The issue at stake was the continuation of his royal dynasty. At this time the Assyrians were enlarging their empire to global proportions, planning to nullify the other world power, Egypt, by taking possession of the buffer states of Syria, Israel and Judah. The kings of Syria and the Northern kingdom of Israel got busy making a defence pact against this potential aggressor and pressed Judah to join them in a grand alliance.

This the kings of Judah had refused to do, so that the two combined kingdoms agreed to force this defence pact and counselled: "Let us go against Judah ... and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeel" (7:6). They reckoned to achieve their alliance by first deposing the new king Ahaz.

Uzziah, the powerful ruler of the past, had died. Ahaz, his grandson, was powerless because of his estrangement from God. He and his people therefore suffered a great wave of terror at the prospect of this imminent invasion by Syria and Ephraim. Ahaz, the man of no-faith, could only counter this peril by appealing to the Assyrian world power for protection from his neighbours.

While he was gloomily inspecting the vulnerable water supply of Jerusalem -- "the waters of Shiloah that go softly" (8:6) -- Isaiah went out to challenge him in the name of the Lord. His message could have been a cheering one, for he called the two enemy kings damp squibs (7:4) and announced that God would not let them capture Jerusalem (v.7), but it also brought to Ahaz the challenge of desisting from his appeal to Assyria and trusting the Lord. Faith was then -- as it always is -- the victory that overcomes.

Isaiah tried to help Ahaz by inviting him to ask for the kind of sign that God is ready to give to those whose faith needs it. This would have been some practical evidence of God's power, to give encouragement for trusting Him. But Ahaz had no intention of trusting God; he was setting his hopes on his treaty with Tiglath-pileser of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7). He therefore declined to ask for a sign, not out of humility but because it would have committed him to obey -- and this he had no intention of doing.

"All right," said Isaiah, "That marks the end for you. If you will not believe, you will not be established" (v.9). Syria and Israel would fail in their efforts to depose him -- God would attend to them -- but the sovereign kingdom of Judah under Ahaz's dynasty would henceforth be on its way out.

At this point Isaiah passed beyond the present, to the distant prospect of that new Member of David's line who would come to rescue the remnant of God's people and fulfil all His will in them. The warning of general rejection given him at his first vision was proving valid, but then he had also been assured that there would be a faithful remnant, emerging like a new shoot from a fallen tree (6:13), and had been so assured of this promise that he had given his son the name Shear-jashub, a remnant shall return.

With this son by his side, Isaiah now announced the divine sign -- Immanuel. This was not the kind of practical sign that Ahaz might have received or that his son Hezekiah later had (38:7), but a vast dispensational sign, namely that God Himself would come in human form to be His people's deliverer. Such a new beginning necessitated a virgin birth, and this would indeed take place in due course. It would, however, be quite different from the glorious appearance of the Messiah which God's people had envisaged, for the child would be born into conditions of material distress in which butter and honey -- the food of privation -- was the common lot. His coming would be to a land depopulated and devastated by an enemy: "All the land shall be briars and thorns" (7:23).

It is not easy for us to distinguish between the actual conditions of Isaiah's day and the future which they portended. The immediate threat of devastation was real enough. The spiritual implications, however, were no less real for, when the [37/38] Babe was born in Bethlehem, God's people were a captive people and their spiritual state was pitiful. What is more, Jesus was born in distressful circumstances, not only coming into a poor family associated with the despised Nazareth, but specifically reduced to shelter in a stable by virtue of the Roman conqueror's pressure in the form of a census.

This then was Isaiah's gospel, as it is ours. Into a confused and defeated world, hope comes in the person of a virgin's Son, a Baby who was called both Jesus and Immanuel. A remnant (not only from Israel but from all the nations) will emerge as the fruit of this divine intervention. The accompaniments of this cosmic 'sign' are referred to from time to time in Isaiah's ministry when he speaks of "a shoot out of the stock of Jesse" (11:1), a Servant bringing forth judgment to the nations who would not "cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street" (42:2), and who would grow up as a root out of a dry ground, without form or comeliness, "despised and rejected of men" (53:2-3).

This, for Isaiah and for us, is the beginning of the gospel of the Incarnate Son of God. It may give us some personal help if we consider some of the implications of this 'sign' of incarnation by virgin birth.

1. Holiness

The first matter which arises is holiness, not that there is anything unholy about the normal birth process but that this birth was unique. When Isaiah was first called, it was amid the ardent cries of "Holy, holy, holy". Throughout the course of his book he uses the phrase, "The Holy One of Israel" some thirty times. The virgin birth was not only a miraculous act; it involved the introduction into the human race of this divine holiness. When Mary received her own intimation of the coming event she was told: "that which is to be born shall be called holy ..." (Luke 1:35).

The word implies that which is entirely different from everything else and infinitely above it. This is the primary emphasis of Isaiah's first reference to the Christ of the Gospels and should be a subject not for discussion but for awe and wonder. Here was a Being who was truly man, a son of Abraham and of David, yet also truly God. The God of creation set aside His normal laws of procreation not just to show His miraculous power but to give us Himself in human form -- Immanuel.

Apart from a reference by David in Psalm 51:11, Isaiah alone uses the title Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (63:10-11). The mention makes reference to God's presence with the redeemed people led out of Egypt by Moses, but we see a deeper meaning in the reminder that "In all their afflictions, he was afflicted" (63:9): to the contrite believer there is something attractive and tender about the holiness of our Saviour.

But we must not ignore the other side of holiness. The Holy Spirit is "the spirit of burning" (4:4). Holiness is a fierce flame which blazes out against all that is unclean or unseemly. While we rejoice in the reality of Immanuel, we are never to forget that this God who is with us is Himself "a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29).

Who can bear to live at close quarters with such a God? This was the question raised in the hearts of the besieged inhabitants of Jerusalem as they found themselves hemmed in by the hordes of Assyrians. "The sinners in Zion are afraid ... who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with the everlasting burnings?" (33:14). It is all very well to want God to execute fiery judgment on their enemies, but if they themselves were to survive they had somehow to live in proximity to the Holy One of Israel with his fiery anger against sin. The only answer to this question was -- and always is -- that salvation means uprightness of life (33:15).

It seems that there is nothing more obnoxious to God than outward religious forms with inconsistent lives. Isaiah constantly blazed against religious humbug, with its meaningless sacrifices and prayers (1:11-15) and its contentious fasts and ceremonies (58:3). The Holy Son of God was equally fiery against religious hypocrisy and even quoted Isaiah in His denunciation of the Pharisees: "Well did Isaiah prophecy of you, saying This people honoureth me with their lips but their heart is far from me" (Matthew 15:7-8).

We misunderstand the meaning of Immanuel if we fail to face the solemn implications of the presence of Him whose eyes are "as a flame of fire" (Rev.1:14). [38/39]

2. Identification

Though truly God, the Lord Jesus had a human birth by a human mother, and so is genuinely one of us. Later in this series we will consider the tremendous significance of His identification with us in death, but for the moment what concerns us is His identification with us in the circumstances of daily life. What we need to realise is that in the Lord Jesus we do not only have the phenomenon of One who came to live for over thirty years as a man and then returned to what had been before, but that this coming into the human race was eternal and irrevocable. Christ is God but He is also a Man. He is one with us all:

i. In our simplicity

When Isaiah first spoke to Ahaz, the king was looking despondently at the feeble water supply of Jerusalem. This was "the waters of Shiloah that go softly" (8:6) and he despised them in comparison with Abanah and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, and the great water systems of Assyria. In point of fact those waters which he envied, "the waters of the River, strong and mighty, even the king of Assyria and all his glory" would come like a mighty flood to engulf the kingdom of Ahaz, overflowing Judah "even to the neck" (8:7-8). Since, however, God's time had not yet come for Jerusalem's overthrow, the reality of Immanuel, His merciful presence, would preserve the city. The small, softly flowing waters would prove mightier than the great Assyrian River.

It is a feature of the gospel that it lays no claim to worldly greatness but is weak and foolish in men's eyes. "Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself", Isaiah rightly asserted (45:15). When he made that statement he was able to glory in the great deliverances which had come to God's people, but I imagine that what he meant was that for long he had had to trust God in the dark, with no apparent sign of His working. Most of us have to pass through such experiences, when our God seems to be hiding Himself from our situation and needs. When the Babe was born in Bethlehem He could say: "In the shadow of his hand hath he hid me ... and in his quiver he kept me close" (49:2).

The marvel was that old Simeon had the spiritual discernment to recognise the reality. He looked down at the tiny helpless Baby in his arms and then began to speak in superlative terms: "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples" (Luke 2:30-31). I think that Simeon must have known the connection with Isaiah 7:14 for he addressed his words not to both of the parents who were present but only to "Mary his mother" (Luke 2:34). The Spirit enabled him to announce the wonder of the Incarnation, though to other onlookers the occasion must have appeared to be just one more Infant Presentation. Later on at Jordan, the crowd must have imagined that they were seeing just one more contrite sinner being baptised. Only John knew that this was indeed the Son of God. There was something majestically modest about the coming to this earth of God's eternal Son, as there was always a beautiful simplicity in the years He spent here.

ii. In our adversity

His incarnation means not only identification with us in our simplicity but also in our adversity. He is one with us in all our sorrows and trials. The prophet made special mention of this in connection with Immanuel, for the only prospect which he could offer to Ahaz was "briars and thorns" (7:23, 24, 25). The prophet's first son had declared by his name Shear-jashub , that it would only be a remnant which would return and now further indications of adversity were to be made by the name of the second son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz , telling of speedy defeat and disaster. Isaiah was told to emphasise this in a special way by writing a kind of poster carrying the baby's name (8:1). He then stood with his two sons as signs from God (8:18) proclaiming to all and sundry that harsh events were impending.

These, then, were the circumstances into which Immanuel would come; He would share our woes: "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (53:4), words which Matthew quotes in describing Christ's healing ministry (Matthew 8:17). Isaiah's gospel was no fairy story of easy religion, but it was a message of comfort for the fearful and troubled, a realisation that God Himself had come down to share men's adversities.

The prophet lived in times of political uncertainty and threats of impending calamity. There were the threatening neighbours, Syria and Israel; the menacing world power of Assyria and to the South another menacing world power, Egypt, which was ready enough to make secret treaties [39/40] but was powerless to implement them (30:7). In fact Isaiah's world was very much like ours. He did not try to opt out of it but all the time he maintained his steady insistence that faith is the way of victory: "In returning and in rest shall you be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength" (30:14-15). Only those who know the reality of Immanuel can do that.

3. Sympathy

The Incarnation also assures us of the Lord's sympathy: "I, even I, am he that comforteth you. Who art thou that art afraid ...?" (51:12). No wonder that Isaiah's command to Ahaz was: "Take heed, and be quiet" (7:4). It is the beauty of the name Immanuel that it assures us of an understanding and sympathising friend. More than a friend, for the prophet declared: "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" (66:13). Those were almost his last words. It only remained to point on to the new heavens and the new earth (66:22) which we have been promised.

I think that it is fair comment to say that as the days grew steadily darker in that period of Isaiah's ministry, so his messages of cheer and comfort became stronger and clearer. My personal suggestion is that the second part of his book may have been written when he himself was more or less 'underground' in Manasseh's reign of terror. No mention is found in it of the personal activities of the prophet, and the legend persisted that he was the man sawn in two by that foul monarch. If so, then this corresponds in part to Paul's prison epistles. In any case there can be no doubt that the vision of Immanuel became ever clearer to Isaiah. May the same be true of us.

(To be continued)


It has been brought to my notice that some of the works of the late T. Austin-Sparks are being circulated in Chinese by those who have no right to do this. In 1969 Mr. Sparks specifically named Mr. Newman Sze of the Testimony of Christ Mission to be the sole person responsible for any translations and publications in Chinese of his writings. This authorization still stands, and the work is being done by our beloved and respected brother Newman Sze.

The Editor [40/ibc]


[Inside back cover]


"(For the Lord hath given me many sons)" 1 Chronicles 28:5

ALTHOUGH David's words suggest that he was proud of his offspring, we may perhaps be forgiven if we question any such emotion. The names of six of these sons are given in 2 Samuel 3:3. They make sorry reading.

AMNON'S disgraceful behaviour makes us almost ready to tolerate violence on the part of Absalom, his half-brother, though of course we cannot condone treacherous murder. The story of Amnon's infamy, including his disgraceful repudiation of the girl he had wronged, is told in 2 Samuel 13:14-17; and then we are informed, if you please, that "When king David heard of all these things, he was very wroth" (v.21). He was furious, was he? Yet he did nothing at all to punish the offender. Perhaps it was his own bad conscience over that sort of thing which restrained him, or was it regarded as just a family matter?

THIS brings us to Absalom, David's son by another wife. As I have said, we feel some sympathy with him over the wrong done to his sister but, as the story unfolds, we soon lose any better feelings for him, since he turned out to be so ambitious and treacherous that he was ready to kill off his father as he had already murdered one of that father's sons (2 Samuel 16:11). He did not succeed, for God had purposes of great importance bound up with David, so it was Absalom who himself died, though that was quite against David's wishes. The grief which the king felt when Absalom was killed may arouse our compassion, but we find it hard to disagree with Joab who called him to his senses, charging him with being more indulgent to this enemy than he was grateful to his loyal helpers (2 Samuel 19:6).

WE are not told how David treated three of the others, but we are informed that he thoroughly spoiled his eldest surviving son, Adonijah (l Kings 1:6). The result of this indulgence was disastrous. The man became a crafty plotter who did his best to usurp the throne which the Lord destined for yet another of David's sons, Solomon. Once again the attempted coup failed, but the whole episode was sordid and God-dishonouring.

WE therefore have to report that while David could thank God for giving him many sons, his home and his family provided little honour for God's name and much that was discreditable to a man so blessed. David wept over one of them: God might well have wept over all these three.

SO much for our parenthesis. The surrounding narrative presents to us the chosen successor to David's throne whose earlier years were highly satisfactory to God and beneficial to the people. From the first Solomon had been chosen by God above his brothers, just as David himself had been preferred to the rest of Jesse's sons, and in the end he became Israel's great king. There was little to David's credit in this, except that to judge by Solomon's words in Proverbs 3:11-12, this son at least had known the disciplining hand of his loving father.

WHAT emerges so encouragingly for us is the realisation that not all the follies and failures of God's servants can affect His sovereign will. In spite of everything God's perfect plan was realised. When it comes to it, we all have our foolish parentheses of which we do well to be ashamed. Thank God that His sovereign purpose goes steadily forward. He will work and no-one shall hinder Him.


[Back cover]

Revelation 19:10

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