|Vol. 17, No. 1, Jan. - Feb. 1988
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
THE FORM OF A SERVANT
John H. Paterson
"... took on him the form of a servant ..." (Philippians 2:7)
"Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not
what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends ..." (John 15:15)
THE phrase "the form of a servant" is one with which Bible readers are
very familiar. It describes the position adopted by the Lord Jesus during
His stay on earth. But it will be as well if we pause, once in a while,
to ask ourselves: what is "the form of a servant"? By what is it
distinguished? I want to call attention to three things about servants and
their service which we may otherwise overlook.
1. The Meaning of Service
The word "service" is one which has come, in our own times, to have a
very different meaning from that of New Testament days. It has become a word
in common and frequent usage: "Service with a smile"; "One-hour dry-cleaning
service"; "Servicing calls" by the gas board or the computer firm. By contrast,
however, the word "servant" is almost extinct. The servant class is non-existent,
and nobody would willingly describe him- or herself as a servant. We have
created fancy titles like "cleaning operative" precisely to get rid of the
It is, in particular, the idea of anyone being permanently a servant
that has disappeared from our thinking. Instead, we all take turns at being
servants -- temporarily. The dry-cleaner with his one-hour service is your
servant for that hour, but only for that hour: the next hour he may
be using a garage mechanic or a restaurant waiter as his servant.
The concept of service is, in other words, limited in time and function to
a specific act -- an act usually performed against payment -- and carries
with it no recognition of any bond or status continuing after the completion
of the act.
Whatever our view of this change in outlook of our society and our language,
it is quite clear that the biblical idea of a servant had nothing temporary
about it. In a world where servants were either slaves or, at the least,
bondservants (as the Revised Version is careful always to translate "servant"
in the New Testament), who were indentured to their masters for a specified
period, the name covered unlimited service, at all times and in all tasks.
We have probably confused ourselves about this by two other habits of
language into which Christians commonly fall. One is that we speak of someone
as being "in full-time service" by which we imply that the rest of us are
not. Full-time servants, in this context, are usually thought of as those
who, freed from the distractions of having to earn a living or bring up a
family, are available around the clock for the Lord's work. They, in other
words, are the bondservants (and, incidentally, how we do work them, at all
hours of the day and night!), while the rest of us come and go in service,
and do what we can find time for.
The other misleading use we make of the word "service" is when we refer
to our meetings with others of God's people as services, as in the phrase,
"Services will be held at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m." But in that case it is not
even clear who is serving whom. Since most of us go to church hoping, if
only sub-consciously, for a word from the Lord, then that, surely, would make
Him our servant, performing a service for us, just like the dry-cleaner!
That will hardly do. [1/2]
So, let us state this simple point as clearly as possible: to be servants
of God means committing ourselves to a permanent status of total availability.
During His years on earth, it was this "form of a servant" which the Lord
Jesus adopted; this availability for all purposes, "obedient unto death,
even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8).
It is, I think, a natural instinct, ingrained in us by our human condition,
to think of service as something to be performed in bursts, interspersed,
firstly, with rest periods (after all, even missionaries get furloughs!)
and, secondly, with rewards or payments of some kind for services rendered.
I well remember a student whom we once knew, and who had held office in her
Christian Union. When her term of service ended, she told us, "Now I'm going
to have a year off!" So far as we know, her "year off" has become twenty:
alas, she has never returned to the Lord's service.
That we should be rewarded for our services is something which is fundamental
to human thinking, but we shall only be misled if we apply the same thinking
to our service for the Lord. I am able to say this because Jesus specifically
raised this point with His disciples. Reward He promised them, certainly,
but only in the long run, just as He Himself could look forward to an ultimate
reward: "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name
which is above every name" (Philippians 2:9). In the short run, however,
His emphasis was quite different: "When ye shall have done all those things
which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that
which it was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10). That is to be the attitude of
the true "full-time" servant. And full-time service is the only kind of service
which the Scriptures recognise.
2. Service is for God and His People
Those who are servants of God are also servants of one another. The Lord
Jesus told His disciples, "I am among you as he that serveth" (Luke 22:27),
and gave remarkable expression to that role by washing their feet (John 13).
To play the part of a servant among God's people was also fundamental to
Paul's understanding of his calling as an apostle: "ourselves your servants
for Jesus' sake" (2 Corinthians 4:5). Not that Paul always sounded
like a servant, least of all to the Corinthian church! But he had grasped
the teaching of both Testaments, Old and New, that God's ideal of servanthood
is that figure who appears so often in their pages -- the servant-king; ruling,
leading, feeding others, but himself subject to God's rule, and devoting
himself to his people's welfare.
So, we arrive at the familiar idea of serving God by serving His people.
Let us beware of ever getting ourselves into the position of saying, in effect,
"I am too busy serving God to bother about you." The service of the bondservant
is not divisible in this way. There is not more virtue to be gained by serving
God than by serving His people: no scale of values whereby it counts more
to do one than the other. Whichever we do, we remain "unprofitable servants",
no more and no less.
3. Service is Constructive
All service for God is designed by Him to be formative or constructive
in the life of His servant. In our human tradition of servanthood, it has
all too often been the case that faithful service has been defined in terms
of an unchanging attention to unchanging duties which have led nowhere.
Then the highest virtue in the servant becomes, in the master's view, that
he or she performs the same menial tasks for year after year, with no change
in work or in relationship to the master. This kind of work experience may
form a servant; its shortcoming is, however, that it does not form anything
else! There is neither enlargement nor promotion, nor even understanding,
necessarily, of why tasks are being performed; they are simply the servant's
Once again, this is not how the Scriptures conceive of service. The
duty of the servant is obedience; of that there is no doubt. But the
purpose of servanthood is enlargement -- enlargement, firstly, of
the servant's knowledge and, secondly, of his relationship to the master.
Both these thoughts are combined in the Lord's words which stand at the
head of this article: "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant
knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things
that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you" (John 15:15).
A servant may spend his or her whole life being perfectly obedient, without
ever understanding the reason for what he is ordered to do. The only knowledge
he needs is the last order he has been given. Why the order was given, or
what the master had in mind, it is unnecessary for him to know. And mere
obedience, however perfect, will never change his standing as a servant,
for obedience is what a servant is there for! Even if he obeys, he is doing
no more than his duty.
The Lord Jesus, in the words John recorded, placed service for God in
a different category. This Master, He said, is not merely willing to have
His servants spend time trying to fathom His thoughts, but actually wants
to share with them. He wants His servants to know what He is doing,
and why, so that they may intelligently help in the fulfilment of His purposes.
And as this learning process goes on, the relationship between them changes
from master and servant to that of friends.
I suppose that the distinction between those two relationships is this:
that a master has nothing to communicate to a servant except orders, whereas
a friend is somebody to whom we should not ordinarily dream of giving orders,
but with whom we can discuss common interests, test ideas, and make plans.
And the Lord Jesus says here, in John 15, that this is the kind of relationship
God wants to build up with His servants.
If we ask, "Why should God choose this way, or this relationship?" then
there is at least one very practical reason for His doing so: a servant who
knows his master's wishes can anticipate them. Even if the master
is absent, the servant can confidently predict what orders would be
given if he were present. And this, of course, makes service much more effective.
It is no coincidence, I fancy, that the two men in the Old Testament
who are referred to as friends of God -- Abraham and Moses -- were notable
for this very ability to anticipate God's wishes, and so to advance His
interests. Think of that great servant of God, Abraham, when he was told
of the Lord's intention to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah: "Shall I hide from
Abraham that thing which I do ... for I know him" (Genesis 18:17-19). I
still hold my breath as I read Abraham's response, bargaining for the life
of Lot and his family, all the way down from 50 righteous people to ten!
Remember: this was a servant talking, but a servant "in the know" -- a friend
of God, and a friend who knew what God would, and would not, truly want to
do. "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" How effectively he interceded
for Lot, and how much depended on his knowledge!
Think, too, of Moses, that other great servant of God who, without (more
than once) ever departing from his servant's role, was able to rescue the
wayward, disobedient Children of Israel time and again when they sent astray,
simply by knowing what to say to God: that is, to what argument He was sure
to respond. There, indeed, was fruitful service!
These Old Testament examples merely point us forward to the Lord Jesus
Christ, and His perfect blend of obedience and knowledge. What made Him
so perfect was that He not only was always obedient to the will of God,
but He always knew what that will was. He understood perfectly the reasons
why the Father was choosing that particular road for Him, and why no other
road would do. If you are like me, you find that a major problem of the Christian
life is simply ignorance of which way is the right one. There are so many
times when I should gladly be obedient, if only I knew what to be obedient
Well, the servant must first obey the orders he has. And then he must
go on and look for -- pray for -- that increasing knowledge of his Master's
will which enables him to know what is right when there are no specific
orders. If he reaches that point, then he has grown out of the role of servant,
to that of friend. [3/4]
GOD AND HIS MESSENGER
Reading: Isaiah 49:1-6; 50:4-11
ONE of the characteristics of the prophetic Scriptures is that they have
a multiple application. Certain elements in Isaiah's prophecies about the
Servant of Jehovah concern the prophet alone. There are other elements which
concern Christ alone. And there are certain matters which apply to both,
and those features of the servant messenger which refer to Christ alone may
be taken as ideals to which the prophet himself was called, and indeed ideals
to which each of us must strive.
Because the Ethiopian described in Acts 8 was reading from Isaiah 53,
his question, "Of whom speaks the prophet this, of himself, or of some other?"
was answered by Philip in terms of the gospel of Jesus. Had the Ethiopian
been reading from Chapters 49 and 50 and asked the same question, Philip
might have replied, "Both". And he would have been right. In fact he would
have been right if he had added, "And not only both, but of you and me too".
As therefore we consider these "Servant" Scriptures of Isaiah, we must try
to decide what applies to the prophet, what applies to Christ, and what applies
The Call to the Ministry
The preparation of the messenger originates in God's call: "Before I
was born the Lord called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name."
This reminds us of God's words to Jeremiah (1:5). The truth applies not only
to Jeremiah and not only to Isaiah, but to all of us who are called to speak
for God. It is not unique to these two, but it is characteristic. Take,
for instance, John the Baptist. It was foretold of him centuries before,
that he would be called to go into the deserts to prepare the way of the
Lord and make a highway for God. The Lord had decided and written down in
advance what his ministry would be.
Certainly it was true of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the Lamb without
blemish or defect, chosen before the foundation of the world. It was the
same for the apostle Paul who could write: "God, who set me apart from the
first and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me that
I might preach him among the nations". He knew that he was no afterthought.
God had not adjusted His programme to take his conversion into account and
then decided to make use of him. The same is true of each one of us. We are
called by His grace to serve Him in a specific fashion.
We were created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in
advance for us to do. This is most reassuring, to know that God's decision
for each one of us regarding our ministry antedates our birth. In other
words, God made us in the light of the purpose that He had for us. As the
psalmist says: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before
one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16).
Training for the Ministry
The preparation of God's messenger originates in His call, but it goes
on in His work of training, a training that proceeds in secret. We have
it here: "He made my mouth like a sharpened sword. In the shadow of his
hand he hid me. He made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his
quiver" (49:2). Before the sword is drawn it is hidden in the shadow of
His hand. Before the arrow is placed in the bow for shooting it is concealed
in the quiver. It is always like that.
How long that was for the prophet Isaiah I do not know, but I can tell
you how long it was for that great Prophet of our God, the Lord Jesus Christ
-- it was thirty years. They were years of obscurity in a backwater called
Nazareth. Those silent or hidden years were all preparatory to the three
years of public ministry. From this we learn that God is not in a hurry, nor
is His Son [4/5] impatient. Sadly we are both, but
we must learn patience. Centuries before this, Moses had a lengthy period
of training. There were forty years in Egypt's Court and then forty years
in what the A.V. calls "The backside of the desert" where he was in obscurity,
looking after somebody else's sheep. This was all part of God's training
process for the forty years of leadership of God's people through the wilderness.
Luke says of John the Baptist that "he lived in the desert until he appeared
publicly in Israel", and it seems likely that Paul's stay in Arabia was to
a large extent the spiritual preparation for his life's work. So the emphasis
here in Isaiah 49:2 is on God's control of the timing of events and especially
in the training of His servant for the work that He has in hand. Let us
not rush our young people. Let God's training of them proceed. Let us be
observant and watch how things are going, encouraging wherever we can. But
do not let us pre-empt the work of God in and through them. We all need
to be under the disciplinary hand of our God to receive His training.
The Course of the Ministry
And now in verse 5 the prophet describes the course of his ministry as
it is unfolded to him: "Now the Lord says to me whom he formed in the womb
to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him and to gather Israel to himself".
This was a particular task for which this servant had been prepared before
he was born, to issue a rallying call to the people of God to leave Babylon
and to return to their own land, the land of promise. It was a noble piece
of work, and he could rightly say: "I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord."
Here was a man who had a high regard for his ministry. So, incidentally,
did the apostle Paul who said, "I make much of my ministry". Each one of us
should do that, we should regard our call to serve the Lord as high privilege,
whatever the nature of the work may be. We must avoid any unspiritual rivalry
in the relative ministries of God's servants. God Himself evaluates rightly
the ministry to which He calls us, and each is important in His eyes and should
be in ours.
For God's servant here, however, this was not the greatest thing to which
he was called, for God says to him: "It is too small a thing for you to be
my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel".
I am quite happy to employ a pagan to do that. I will take up Cyrus and use
him for that. I have something more important for you, "I will also make
you a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends
of the earth".
It had of course been God's plan for the nation Israel to be a missionary
nation and bring light to the ends of the earth, but tragically the nation
had failed in that respect. They clung closely to themselves and their privileged
status as the people of God, thinking little or nothing of those beyond the
pale, to whom God intended that they should go. They failed Him, but where
the nation failed this chosen servant would succeed. "He said to me, You
are my servant Israel, in whom I will display my splendour." As one writer
puts it: "He, that is the servant, and notably our Lord Jesus Christ, is in
His person the incarnation of all that Israel should have been but never was
nor could be."
That is why it is right to call this Servant Israel. He embodies all
that was intended to be, had not been, nor ever would be, as the one to
take the light to the nations and the knowledge of God's salvation to the
ends of the earth. Little wonder, then, that when the parents brought Jesus
into the temple, the aged Simeon took Him into his arms and said, "My eyes
have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.
A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
And as Christ's ministry unfolded, the light shone in the darkness, far beyond
the borders of Israel, so that a Canaanite woman, a Roman centurion and others
came to that light and to the brightness of its rising.
With Christ's resurrection and ascension the light extends. Jesus said.
"You will be my witnesses, both in Jerusalem, and in Judea and in Samaria,
and unto the uttermost parts of the earth." This, then, is the course of
the ministry. In fact we may say a ministry was accorded to Isaiah himself,
for when an Ethiopian purchased [5/6] a copy of Isaiah's
prophecy and Philip explained it to him, the light dawned in his mind and
he readily confessed his faith by baptism. That same Scripture from Chapter
53 which brought light to the Ethiopian has done the same for an innumerable
multitude of penitent believers. Fascinatingly, the only direct quotation
of this Scripture is found on the lips of the missionary apostle Paul, in
justification of his extending his ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47).
The Character of the Ministry
This messenger was given a call both of comfort and of challenge. The
opening verse of Chapter 40 speaks to God's disheartened people, "Comfort
ye, comfort ye my people, says your God." God had not abandoned them. "Speak
tenderly" says God, "With a language of love to the needs of this people".
This was certainly fulfilled in the case of the great Servant of Jehovah,
for the common people heard Him gladly as He brought words of comfort to the
But it is also a word of challenge. Listen as the servant of God is told
to cry out, lift up his voice with a shout and not to be afraid. This comes
to us today, and it comes as a command. We are to make the message clear
and plain. These, then, are the characteristics of the message and the messenger.
We have a word of challenge: "He has made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
like a polished arrow" (v.2). In his vision on Patmos, John saw the ascended
Christ with a sharp, double-edged sword in His mouth. What is this but the
Word of God, living and active and sharper than an two-edged sword! This
sword of the Spirit has been given to us so that we may provide the challenge
of God's Word.
I think that the sword is for general use and the arrow for specific
targets. A sword can slash here and there in a general way, but when it
comes to the arrow it has one target and if it is a polished arrow then
it will fly undeviatingly to its target. Years ago there were two students
travelling from Bermuda to Oxford, and on the ship the Christian student
sought to witness to his non-Christian companion. The latter was so opposed
to this that he would blaspheme, so eventually the Christian told him that
he could no longer discuss the matter but would leave one thought with him
and that was that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.
So they ceased conversing about the things of God. Three months later this
man came back to the Christian student saying, "I have not been able to
forget what you said, that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to
those who are perishing and I want now to become a believer." That is a good
example of the polished arrow with an effective challenge.
But the word that we are given is also a word of comfort. It is "a word
that sustains the weary" (50:4) and its secret is given to us: "He wakens
me morning by morning. He wakes my ear to listen like one being taught. The
sovereign Lord has opened my ears and I have not been rebellious. I have
not turned back". For this reason the Lord Jesus acknowledged that the words
spoken by Him came directly from the Father: "My teaching is not my own.
It comes from him who sent me." For Him the secret was that of the open ear:
"What I have heard from him I tell the world" (John 8:26). We are told by
the writer to the Hebrews that when the Lord Jesus came into the world, the
words which were on His lips were from Psalm 40: "Sacrifice and offering you
did not desire, but my ears have you opened ... it is written about me in
the scroll -- I have come to do your will, O God" (Hebrews 10:7). The ears
of Jesus were opened to God as He read the scroll of Scripture.
The same scroll is available to us. It should be true of all of us who
speak for God that we give men the words which the Father in His Word has
given to us. The prophet speaks of his own experience when he goes on to
say, "You have given me the instructed tongue", that is, the tongue of the
disciple. The prophet does not make conjectures, and nor should we. He does
not express his opinions, and nor should we. He does not share his doubts,
and nor should we. We read of the man whom Jesus healed who could hardly
talk, and we are told that this was not that he was incapable of speech but
because he had never heard. The first thing that Jesus did was to put His
fingers into the man's ears, and after that He touched his tongue (Mark 7:33).
Then [6/7] the man's ears were opened, his tongue
was loosed and he began to speak freely. If our ears were opened, perhaps
our tongues would be loosed. This was a habitual experience for the prophet.
"Morning by morning he waken's my ear". Can we say that? When God came
down to commune with Adam and Eve, we tend to imagine that the time designated,
namely, "the cool of the day" was in the evening. In fact it was probably
the morning. Calvin remarks, "It was the spring of the day; the cool, the
breath of the Day". That is the time, before the business of the day has
begun. The prophet goes on to say, "I have not been rebellious. I have not
turned back". The implication is that the messenger has first put the truth
into action, to live according to it. The Word must have an impact upon ourselves
if it is going to benefit others. If it sustains us when we are weary, then
it is likely to sustain others as we communicate it.
The Cost of the Ministry
We get a glimpse of the cost of this ministry if we consider the verse:
"But I have said, I have laboured to no purpose. I have spent my strength
in vain and for nothing" (49:4). We can understand how these might have applied
to Moses, who was burdened with the indiscipline of a mutinous people. We
can understand them on the lips of Elijah as he sat down under the tree and
wished to die. "I have spent my strength for nothing and laboured to no
purpose." They are the words of the disconsolate. They may well be the language
of the prophet Isaiah or other servants of God. It may even be of comfort
to us to know that even these great men of God experienced spiritual depression
and despondency. Periodically, at least, they were cast down. But how can
they apply to Christ, or how could they be fulfilled in Him?
I suggest that they are thoughts that must have occurred to Him, even
though He repulsed them. There was that first time in Nazareth when they
greeted His message with such enthusiasm, marvelling at the words of grace
that fell from His lips, and then a moment later tried to cast Him down from
the brow of the hill. Was it labour to no purpose? There were the cities
of Charazin, Bethsaida and others, where His mightiest miracles had been
performed, but they did not want to know. What did Jesus do? He took up the
spirit of this prophecy, "Yet what is due to me is in the Lord's hands, and
my reward is with my God". His actual response was to turn to the Father
and say: "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. Thou hast hid these
things from the wise and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father,
for so it seemed good in thy sight."
Disappointment certainly. But He stays Himself, as the prophet does here,
by saying that what is due to Him is in the Lord's hands and His reward is
with His God. The lesson for us is surely that faithful God-ordained and
God-controlled service will not always issue in immediate and obvious blessing.
Strength may be expended. Strength may be exhausted, with little to show
for it all, but we may leave that in the Lord's hands, confident that He
will not fail to fulfil His own purposes. But the cost can be great.
This costly suffering is more poignantly described in the next chapter:
"I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked out
my beard. I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting" (50:6). Yes,
that was Christ's experience. Even when He had spoken the word that sustained
the weary, that was how He was treated. And, as He Himself told us, that
has been the experience of all who have spoken for God, and as Stephen was
to confirm, "was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They
even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous".
The important thing, however, is not the suffering so much as the reaction
to it: "I have set my face like a flint". In true meekness, unresisting and
unretaliating, the Lord determined to go forward with God at whatever cost.
He refused to be diverted and went on to Calvary, helped by the Father. This
support is twice referred to: "Because the Sovereign Lord helps me I will
not be disgraced" (v.7); "It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who is
he that will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment. The moths
will eat them up" (v.9). The enemy will not have the last word. Many may
accuse and condemn, but God Himself will vindicate the servant messenger.
The apostle Peter applies this to Christ, but also applies it to us.
"When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate. When he suffered,
he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly"
and then he adds: "and to this you were called" (1 Peter 2:21-23). Whatever
the cost -- and there will be a cost -- let us be willing for it. We have
the great honour of being servant messengers of our Sovereign Lord.
The Servant's Patience
It is as though someone comes up to the prophet after he has given his
message and protests, "But I fear the Lord. I have obeyed the voice of his
servant. And yet I walk in the dark and have no light. What shall I do?"
In fact to fear and obey the Lord and yet to walk in darkness has been the
experience of some of God's greatest saints. Job was one such. Jeremiah and
John the Baptist were among these. It is always possible that this may be
our experience. What then? Here is the word to sustain the weary: "Let him
trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God" (50:10). The prophet goes
on to say that there is one thing not to do, and that is to light fires of
your own and try to solve the problem yourself. That way leads to disaster
-- you will lie down in torment. The servant who has the opened ear and the
instructed tongue must trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon his God.
This is his high privilege.
BRINGING MANY SONS TO GLORY
(The Epistle to the Hebrews)
6. SONSHIP'S REVERENCE
IN our previous article we considered the various references to perils
which accompany the pursuit of sonship. There is a further possibility,
not mentioned but implied, which we do well to consider. It is a danger
associated with familiarity with the things of God, namely, lack of reverence.
Put in positive terms, we who are being brought to glory as God's sons ought
to be growing in ever deepening reverence for Him.
As the Pioneer and pattern Son, Jesus made it plain that the privilege
of sonship should be safeguarded by filial reverence. One of the outstanding
and perhaps surprising verses of this whole treatise is that which tells
us that the prayers of Jesus to His Father were answered because of His "godly
fear" or "reverent submission" (5:7). With the dignity of sonship, Jesus
maintained filial fear. His relationship with the Father was a happy one,
but it was never casual or presumptuous.
Now this element of reverence is the more important because the Letter
to the Hebrews lays stress not only on the glories of the Redeemer but on
the amazing privileges of those who are redeemed. It is a remarkable document.
It is in full harmony with the rest of the New Testament, but it contains
some striking references to the Christian's high calling in Christ. Those
who lack discipline may easily lose their heads as they read what is said
of them in the inspired Word.
We are not surprised that it is said of the Lord Jesus that as Son He
is to be Heir of all things, but before we have finished the first chapter
we are reminded that saved sinners are also heirs. We gladly accept the stress
on the glorious supremacy of God's Son, but are immediately reminded that
the Father is engaged in bringing us as His many sons to glory. What is
more we find it revealed that the Church consists of God's firstborn sons
(12:23). We are told how the risen Christ ascended and passed through the
heavens, but then we ourselves are encouraged to press on into the Holiest
of All as those who are accepted in Him. We are rightly amazed to know that
He is not ashamed to call us His brothers. This is confirmed when later we
read that we have become partners, sharers with Him (3:14). These and other
statements reveal to us the astonishing privileges of the believer who is
even described as one who has "tasted the powers of the age to come" (6:5).
Doubtless the Lord's purpose in inspiring these Scriptures is to make
us realise the dignity of the Christian's calling and destiny, but one thing
is certain, and that is that it was never meant to justify a wrong sort of
familiarity with the Lord Jesus or with our Father God.
Reverence is not a greatly sought-after virtue in the contemporary evangelical
scene. Is this partly caused by an inadequate appreciation of the essential
dignity of true sons of God? Is it due to a stress on corporate worship which
largely ignores personal communing in the secret place? Most of all, may
it be due to a failure to recognise that our Redeemer is also our Creator?
In reading this Letter have we rushed on too eagerly to consider how He has
made purification for our sins without giving due heed to what we are first
told about this Redeemer, that is, that He is the One through whom God made
the worlds (1:2)? Like the apostles, I shrink from the idea of just calling
Him 'Jesus' and want always to think of Him as Lord.
Now it is true that the apostles did refer to Him as Jesus in their writings
and this Letter employs the simple name no less than eight times. The purpose
is, of course, to insist that He is not only truly God but also truly Man.
That is why we have the awe-inspiring reminder that "During the days of Jesus'
life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears
to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his
reverent submission" (5:7). We must not pass over this mention of His prayers
in a cursory way, but we must remember that it has already been stated that
this very human Jesus was also the eternal God, who is introduced by the
writer as the one who in the beginning laid the foundations of the earth
and created the heavenly bodies (1:10).
It may help us to get a clearer impression of Christ's example of a Son's
reverence for His Father if we dwell for a little on this first element in
the divine Word: "through whom also he made the worlds". The Gospels give
us lovely glimpses of the essential humanity of our Lord, but they also
provide vivid examples of His authority as Creator. I avoid consideration
of His miracles of healing, not because I doubt them but because I find that
from time to time claims are made by Christians who reckon to repeat those
miracles, even basing their claims on His words: "greater works than these
shall he do" (John 14:12). For my part I have never witnessed any such demonstrations,
though I have seen and enjoyed wonders of divine provision and deliverance,
and I feel bound to point out that what we will now consider will be miraculous
signs that were never repeated, not even by the chiefest of the apostles.
These actions revealed in a unique way the fact that the Redeemer was also
He began by turning the water into wine, accomplishing by a word and
in a moment a natural process by which water passes through a vine and is
transformed into grapes. John tells us that by this act Jesus "manifested
his glory" (John 2:11). Surely that was the glory of the Creator.
Then there were the miracles of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes,
actions performed in two different localities among different people and
with the involvement of different numbers. Repetition is, of course, the Scriptural
method of emphasis and this fact is stressed also by the fact that feeding
of the five thousand is the only miracle reported by all four Gospels. The
Lord Jesus is the Creator of the vegetable world, so He multiplied the loaves.
He is the Creator of the animal kingdom, so the Evangelists are careful to
report that fishes were also included in His miracles. We must not forget
the fishes. Indeed Mark, who was always keen to present Jesus as truly God,
adds his own little eye-witness touch to the story of the four thousand by
telling first of how the disciples carried the bread from the seven loaves
to the seated crowd and then adds: "They had a few small fishes as well;
he gave thanks for them also, and told His disciples to distribute
them" (Mark 8:7).
Other actions of the Lord -- quite unique and never repeated since --
concerned the inorganic kingdom. He quietened violent winds with a word and,
what is more, included the troubled waves in His command, so that not only
did the wind die down but the waves suddenly became completely calm. This
was a double miracle. No [9/10] wonder that the disciples
"feared exceedingly, and said to one another, Who then is this?" (Mark 4:41).
It was the Creator.
What is more, the Man Jesus walked serenely upon rough waters, not even
bothering to smooth His path by quietening them as He went forward. It was
after He was in the boat, and only then, that He subdued the troublesome
wind (Mark 6:51). He who sat as King at the Flood was still in kingly command
(Psalm 29:10). The spiritual implications of this bring us great comfort when
we are storm-tossed:
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
But now my point is that the Lord Jesus literally did the miracles that
no-one, including the greatest apostles, could ever have done. Later on those
apostles were enabled to do some miracles of healing in His name, but not
even they could perform these essentially 'Creator' miracles which are recorded
in the Gospels. No doubt Paul would very much have liked to have had power
to quieten storms and avoid shipwreck, but he could not and wisely never
tried. Certainly it would have been great for him to have been able to walk
on the sea after the shipwreck at Malta, but whether by swimming or by clinging
to wreckage, he escaped to land just like the rest -- cold and very wet (Acts
We read of one occasion when the apostle was able to ride into a city,
as Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem. He, however, was provided with beasts
which had been tamed and disciplined by Roman soldiery and rode in the quietness,
whereas Jesus rode bareback on a completely unbroken animal when He rode
into Jerusalem, and He did it with the animal not a bit disturbed by the waving
coats and branches and by the yelling crowds. Like the winds and the waves,
that young ass recognised its Creator-Master and was unafraid.
All this, and much more, adds up to a Scriptural background for the claim
made by the writer of this Epistle that Jesus is the eternal God. With that
in mind we are the more impressed by the beautiful humility of reverence
from Son to Father which He expressed in His life and in His prayers. Jesus
was indeed "moved by filial fear" even while He was upholding all things by
the word of His power. It was in this spirit that He prayed. Whatever the
significance of that intimate address "Abba, Father" may be -- and we note
that He is only recorded as using it as He lay prostrate on His face -- we
must not overlook the fact that He, the eternal Lord, also prayed " Holy
Father" and "Righteous Father" (John 17:11 & 25).
Other Scriptures reinforce this quiet reverence of the divine Son. "He
was tempted in every way just as we are" (4:15). "He learned obedience by
the things that he suffered" (5:8). This cannot refer to His sacrificial
sufferings at the crucifixion but rather to the daily humiliations of life
which befell Him; things which we might well resent if they happened to us,
but which He accepted as part of the Father's wishes for Him. In the Gospels
we read much of what He said concerning the heavenly Father's love and protection
which He enjoyed more than any, but in His own case He spoke much more of
His submissive filial procedure, insisting that He only went where He was
sent, only spoke as He was instructed and had as His constant concern the
doing of the things which pleased His Father (John 8:28-29).
In the prophetic announcement of His incarnation, the Lord is quoted
as saying: "Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared
for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings You were not well pleased.
Then said I, Here I am ... I have come to do Your will, O my God" (10:5-7).
This is the supreme purpose of all true sonship, to bring pleasure to the
heart of the father. It was demonstrated in the Man Jesus, who is the criterion
for us who in Him are sons. What is more, by His shed blood and resurrection
life, He has made it possible for this to be realised in our case -- hence
the prayer that the God of peace may "work in us that which is well pleasing
to him" (13:21). That is what this Epistle is talking about when it so stresses
the matter of the New Covenant.
If I am correct in suggesting that perhaps the main body of the treatise
ends with Chapter 12, all that we have been considering is confirmed by the
final exhortation to inheriting sons: "Let us have grace, whereby we may
offer sacrifice [10/11] well-pleasing to God with reverence
and awe" (12:28). Reverence and awe! This does not imply what we have come
to classify as behaviour which is "pi" [sic]. It is not artificial
solemnity. It is joyful liberty. We are reminded that the great Son was anointed
with the oil of gladness in a superlative way (1:9). It is true that Jesus
was destined to be called a "Man of sorrows", but that does not mean that
He was not radiant and attractive. He was warm-hearted. Children flocked
to Him. Despised and frail women gladly trusted Him. Those tough disciples
dearly loved Him. Jesus had a close and privileged relationship with the
Father which made Him a Man of dignity, free and joyful. Nevertheless His
demeanour was characterised by "godly fear". And so should ours be, since
"Our God is a consuming fire".
(To be concluded)
THE HIDDEN YEARS (2)
J. Alec Motyer
IN our second study we turn to the opening chapters of Luke's Gospel.
Matthew tells us about prophecy being fulfilled, giving us the picture of
God presiding over everything according to His own pre-arranged plan. Luke
also tells us that prophecy is being fulfilled. He does not leave that out.
His chief concern seems, however, to describe ordinary people obeying God's
word. It is all very homely, right down on our level and describes people
living their daily lives according to the dictates of God's Word. Luke does
not stand back in the grand manner of Matthew and say, "See how prophecy
is being fulfilled!" but comes in to tell us about people, saying, "Let me
tell you about God's plan working out in ordinary lives. There were Zechariah
and Elizabeth, a delightful couple wholly committed to the will of God. And
there was another couple, Joseph and Mary, planning their simple wedding.
And this is their story."
It is striking to notice how differently God deals with people. As we
know, Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly people who had long been praying
for a family, but had no word from the Lord about the matter. Gabriel's news
came as a shock and a surprise to them. Contrast God's way with Simeon. Of
him we learn that "it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he
should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (2:26). He had
been alerted to this well in advance; he knew what was coming and he knew
that all he had to do was to wait, but nothing like this had ever been said
to the godly Zechariah.
It might be argued that if Zechariah had been as spiritual as Simeon,
if he had walked closely with God as Simeon did, then he would have not received
this sudden shock. Against this we must note that it is said of Zechariah
and Elizabeth that "They walked in the commandments and ordinances of the
Lord, blameless" (1:6). The truth is that God deals with us in different
ways. We must learn not to compare ourselves with others in a wrong way, nor
to afflict ourselves when things are working out for us in the time-table
and nature of things which the Lord has in mind for us. We must not compare
ourselves with others but rather accept our life from the hand of God and
walk faithfully with Him.
Compare Zechariah and Elizabeth with Joseph and Mary. When the former
heard that they were to have a baby, their cup of happiness was complete.
That was what they had longed for; now their marriage was as fulfilled as
they always prayed that it might be. But when Joseph and Mary knew that they
were to receive a baby, their lives were shattered, or seemed to be. They
had been planning their wedding and looking forward to it; now everything
was in jeopardy and all because God made it known that Mary was to be a mother.
For them it was all so different. They were to be given the supreme privilege
of providing the setting for the coming and the nurture of the Lord Jesus,
and this coming broke all their plans apart, and threatened to leave their
reputations in tatters. Yet it was all the perfect will of God.
We are talking about people, but most particularly about the people whom
God took up as His instruments. They are characterised by two factors which
we should covet and cultivate for ourselves. These were the people through
whom the Lord brought His eternal counsels to pass and who had a central
place in the bringing about of those counsels.
i. The Word of God
We are told of Zechariah and Elizabeth that they walked in all the commandments
and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. The character and quality of their
lives came from tying themselves to the Word of God. We find that this was
also characteristic of the lives of Joseph and Mary. "When eight days were
fulfilled for circumcising him" (2:21). Their first concern for the Baby
was to get Him in line with the commandments of God. Again, "When the days
for their purification according to the law of Moses was fulfilled ..." (2:22).
See how they allowed the Word of God to dictate their pathway in the bringing
up of the Child. They brought Him to the temple and they brought the appointed
offering (v.24). Simeon came into the temple in the Spirit "When the parents
brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required"
(v.27). Again we are told that "When Joseph and Mary had done everything
required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee" (v.39). Quite clearly
their lives were governed by that which God had written in His Word. The
same impression is made by Luke's words that "Every year his parents went
to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old,
they went up to the Feast according to the custom ..." (vv.41-42).
These couples, who were central people among whom God's plan came to
maturity, were devoted to His Word. In the one case they were concerned
with the birth of the forerunner who would announce the coming of the Christ
and in the other the coming of Christ Himself, and in both cases we see the
same characteristic of being wedded in obedience to the Word of God. We
note that in the first case John the Baptist was said to be one who would
be great in the sight of the Lord (1:15). All Christian parents long that
this might be spoken of their children, that they might be those who would
be devoted personally to the Lord, walking before the Lord and making ready
a people against His coming. We must look from the child to the parents;
they provide a beautiful and moving picture of parent/child relationship,
and one that is deeply challenging. "Do you see a man who is righteous in
his ways? Blessed shall be his children after him" (Proverbs 20:7). The
whole Bible stresses this great truth.
ii. The Importance of Prayer
The other feature of the lives of the kind of people who are at the centre
of God's plan is that of their prayer life. Zechariah and Elizabeth at last
had their prayers answered (1:13). Behind that fact there lay days of praying
in the home of that devout couple. This is a topic to which Luke constantly
returns. He it is who tells us of that unknown elderly lady, Anna, whose
name is the Greek form of the Old Testament "Hannah" which denotes a woman
of grace. She belonged to a keen home-group which was dominated by a longing
for the coming of the Messiah. She was a great woman of prayer and her supplications
had been concerned with the coming of the Messiah. When therefore she actually
met Him in the temple she was able joyfully to announce to her prayer group:
"It has happened! Our prayers have been answered!"
Then we read of the baptism of Jesus and find that Luke is the only one
of the four Evangelists who tells us that it was as Jesus was continuing
in prayer that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him.
God does His great and choicest things in answer to prayer. This was true
even of Jesus. Why was John the Baptist born? Because Zechariah and Elizabeth
prayed. What part had Anna and her home group in the coming of the Redeemer?
It is quite true that it can be argued that these things were planned
from eternity. The great prediction of the coming of the forerunner and the
consequent coming of the Messiah were made through Malachi who lived about
four hundred years before the Lord Jesus came. In a sense it
[12/13] was all signed, sealed and settled in the plan of God,
so that mockers could protest that prayer was quite unnecessary since it
would have happened anyway. That is something that we cannot prove, what
we do know is that although God's plans are drawn up from eternity, He brings
those plans into being when His people pray. And He brought His Son Jesus
to birth among a praying people.
When Gabriel came to the old man Zechariah, it would have been perfectly
true if he had called attention to the predictions of Isaiah and Malachi.
He could quite rightly have spoken to the aged servant of God concerning
the fulfilment of predictive prophecy. However he did not begin in that way
at all, but simply gave the cheering assurance, "Your prayers are answered".
God's instruments begin their work in the prayer chamber.
God's Sovereign Government
Luke also tells us that God brought to pass His plan because of His sovereign
management of the rulers of the earth. He uses the rulers when He wishes
to use them and He sets them aside when He does not so wish; He both takes
them up and puts them down. He is sovereign Lord of the kings of the earth.
We get a first glimpse of this in the words, "It came to pass in those
days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world
should be enrolled" (2:1). We remember that in the Roman Empire the census
forms also governed the taxation system and were not to be disobeyed. So
far as Caesar was concerned, it was a matter of revising the taxation rules
in order to provide his income, but it was a decree which made havoc for
Mary and Joseph. At the time when her baby was about to be born she might
naturally have wished more than ever to be at home and near her mother. Why
ever did a ridiculous emperor want to call for a census at such an inconvenient
moment? Everyone had to go to his own city, which meant that Joseph had to
go from Nazareth up to David's city, which was Bethlehem.
God could have done it anyway. The Christmas story is full of angels,
so why did He not at this time again send an angel to Joseph and Mary in
order to ensure that the divine Baby should be born in David's city? In fact
He got hold of Caesar Augustus and so squeezed the will of the great Caesar
until it matched His own will. "Command a census!" You see how God controls
the kings of the earth to bring about His own purposes.
When it suits Him, then He bypasses them as though they did not exist,
or perhaps makes use of them as time-indications. So the next chapter of
Luke's Gospel opens in this way: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias
Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch
of Galilee and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas
..." What happened then? Why, the word of God came unto John the son of Zechariah
in the wilderness! Those great ones of the earth were mere irrelevancies.
They may have been important in affairs of state and of the church, but God
ignored them and gave His word to the isolated, even lonely man, who from
his earliest days had lived in the desert. This was the key, not those mighty
rulers but John the son of Zechariah. The only reason they are mentioned
is because Luke had an interest in the fixing of the time. When God wants
to use rulers, He takes them up; when He has no use for them He bypasses them
in His own onward march of purpose.
God's Holy Spirit
It is striking to notice how often the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the
opening chapters of Luke's Gospel. The first mention tells that John the
Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth (1:15). There
is a lovely contrast in the next reference which speaks of the Lord Jesus
whose forerunner John was, for in His case what the angel said to Mary was,
"the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High shall
over-shadow you. Wherefore also that which is to be born shall be called
holy, the Son of God" (1:35). Notice the distinction which is drawn between
John and Jesus. When John is born, the Holy Spirit fills him. Jesus, however,
comes to birth by the Holy Spirit and when He comes He is already the Holy
Son of God. [13/14]
The next reference occurs with the story of how Mary goes off to visit
Elizabeth and when she arrives, Elizabeth is herself filled with the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit comes to give understanding, so that God's people will be
aware of what is happening; He is the Lord of instruction and illumination
(1:41). This is followed by the record of how John's father was filled with
the Holy Spirit so that he could prophesy. So it is that the man who had
doubted now sees everything clearly and announces that his little boy, just
eight days old, is to go before the great Lord Himself. So John, his mother
and then his father, were all filled with the Holy Spirit (1:67).
But that is not the end. "There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was
Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of
Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him" (2:25). Revelation was given him by
the Spirit (2:26) and "he came in the Spirit into the temple" (2:27). So,
at the time of the birth of the Lord Jesus, there is this cluster of references
to the Holy Spirit. He is found everywhere.
So it goes on. John, now fully involved in his ministry, looks forward
to the coming of Jesus, saying, "I indeed baptize you with water; but one
comes who is mightier than I ... He will baptize with the Holy Spirit" (3:16).
It will be the prerogative of Jesus to give the fullness of the Spirit. This
is followed by a reference to the Spirit coming as a special endowment on
Jesus at His baptism. It is indeed a revelation of God, Father, Son and Holy
Spirit, but especially of the Holy Spirit who descended in bodily form like
a dove upon Jesus, and it was the supernatural sign promised to John.
Next we come to the temptations: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned
from Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, tempted
of the devil" (4:1). "And he returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee"
(4:14). Emphasis is laid on the gentleness of the Spirit as He comes upon
Jesus as a bird lights on the branch of a tree. But if we look for the first
mark of a person who is full of the Spirit as exemplified by the experience
of Jesus, we have to say that he or she will be led by the Spirit to be
tempted of the devil.
Many will confess that they found life easier before they became Christians.
Naturally, for they were not then in the conflict and had not been led into
the arena of tense spiritual battle. But look at the blessed results of that
conflict -- Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit. We want this in reverse.
We say that we expect to start with the power and are then ready to go into
the conflict, but the example of Jesus suggests that the power of the Spirit
is learned and acquired in the course of the battle.
The Divine Person
When the great Gabriel is talking to Zechariah and telling him about
the child that will be born, he says that this child "shall go before his
face." Zechariah did not ask "Whose face?", for he knew Malachi's prophecy
about the Lord coming to His temple. Later Zechariah himself was able to
make it a little plainer: "Yea and thou, child, shall be called the prophet
of the Most High: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make
ready his ways" (1:76). It was God Himself who was coming. So later the
shepherds were given a lovely three-fold description of Jesus: "There is
born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord."
In his commentary on Luke, which I commend to you, Michael Wilcock
writes: "Luke's Gospel has used the word 'Lord' twenty times and every
one of them is a reference to the God of Israel. But now, Lo within the
manager lies He who built the starry skies. You go to the manger and you
will find the Saviour who is Christ and is the Lord by His own divine nature."
Mary asked, "How shall this be? I am not married", to which the archangel
Gabriel replied: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the
Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also that which is to be born shall
be called holy, the Son of God". There can be nothing clearer than that;
this child will be God Himself. He is genuinely Mary's son and He is truly
David's son: "He shall be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord will
give him the throne of his father David" (1:32). So He has a family tree,
a veritable human ancestry. [14/15]
The scene of Mary's visit to the house of Elizabeth is touching and beautiful.
I feel sure that Mary must have been frantic with anxiety at this point.
Having been told by the archangel that she was to have a baby, she had not
told her mother or Joseph or anybody yet. She probably told her mother about
the visit of Gabriel by saying that she had heard that cousin Elizabeth was
at last going to have a baby. Perhaps her mother replied by telling her that
she ought to go and stay with Elizabeth for a couple of months. She would
need help and after all, she was getting on in life. I imagine that was how
it happened so that "Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country"
every step being a step of anxiety. How could she face the future? How could
she tell mother? What would her father say? And above all, what would be
Joseph's reaction to the news? And how was she going to tell even Elizabeth?
She need not have worried about that, for seemingly Elizabeth already
knew. No sooner had Mary asked, "Is anybody at home?" than the babe leapt
in her womb. "Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she lifted up
her voice with a great cry" (v.42). "Blessed art thou among women!" Where
had Mary heard those words before if not from the lips of the archangel himself?
How marvellous that confirmation must have been to Mary. How did Elizabeth
know that she was pregnant? She had been taught by the Holy Spirit, for Mary
had not yet spoken. "Whence is this that the mother of my Lord should come
to me?" In that phrase we have the truth in a nutshell, the divine and the
human nature of the Lord Jesus Christ. No doubt Luke gently ferreted all this
information from Mary, exercising his kindly medical procedures. This was
a unique happening, that one who had not been involved in the normal human
procedure that leads to a birth should have a baby. It was not going to
be a normal baby; the conception would be the work of the Holy Spirit.
We pass on to the place of birth being Bethlehem. Following the edict
of the emperor, Joseph had to move down to Bethlehem "to enrol himself with
Mary who was betrothed to him, being great with child" (2:5). They must have
been married by this time, Joseph having taken her to be his wife following
the commandment of the angel. They could not have travelled together in this
way unless they had been legally married, but Matthew assures us that the
marriage had not then been consummated (Matthew 1:25).
Very little indeed is said about what the hymn calls "His wondrous childhood"
but Luke tells us two things. The first concerns His real humanity, and it
is that like any other little boy He experienced human growth: "the child
grew and waxed strong ..." He grew in mind and He grew in body so we are
told that "Jesus advanced in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and
man" (2:52). There is a sense in which the one story which Luke recounts shows
how truly boylike He was. When He was twelve years old He made His first
visit to Jerusalem with His parents for the Passover which they always attended.
Can we say that, boylike, it never occurred to Him that His parents would
be anxious when He stayed behind after they had begun to return home? Such
an attitude is not a mark of sinfulness in a child. We may say that a boy
ought to know better, but children don't know better. He reacted as a genuine
native child. He did not expect them to worry. It was a sort of shock to
Him. After all they were His parents, weren't they? They were grown up? Surely
they would know that He must be about His Father's business.
In this matter He was like any other child, and yet at the heart of the
story we have the other side of His divine nature, an awareness of His great
difference. The dear couple came bustling in relieved to find Him in the
temple and quite angry, as in such circumstances of anxiety parents can be:
"Why have you dealt with us like this?" Just like a mother, Mary complained,
"Your father and I have sought you sorrowing" and Jesus demurred at this use
of the word 'father'. He expected them to remember who was His true Father.
They ought to have known of His divine origin and His call to be wholly involved
in the business of His heavenly Father. He knew, and they knew, and now we
also know that the Son of Mary was also the Son of God. When the years had
passed and the right moment arrived, a voice from heaven would announce,
"You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased". The hidden years
were over. [15/16]
THE Book of Revelation gives us in picture form a glimpse of the eternal
world. The elders around the throne of God fall down again and again before
Him who sits on the throne, worshipping and praising Him. They are full both
of holy fear and glad devotion. The fear of God has not disappeared because
they have reached perfection. Worship characterises heaven. There the innumerable
multitude of the redeemed share in the worship. "Fear God and give him glory
-- worship him that made the heaven and the earth and the sea and the fountains
of water" comes the cry from heaven, and we will listen to that exhortation.
Christ the Worshipper
We usually turn to the Lord Jesus when we want to know what spiritual
life is really like, so we naturally ask if He was a worshipper. The answer
is an emphatic Yes! Worship means to give God the glory, and the Lord never
did anything else than that. He never sought His own glory. Everything that
He did and all that He said sprang from one motive -- to glorify God
Occasionally His prayers are recorded. Once He rejoiced in the Spirit
and said: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth ..." and then,
without any pause, He turned to the people and continued: "Come unto me,
all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew
11:25-30). This was no interruption of the worship. The Father listened to
the latter words with as much pleasure as to the former, and received glory
from both. His prayers take us on to holy ground, and then all was perfected
in Gethsemane and on the cross. If Jesus had sought His own glory, He would
have come down from the cross and been hailed as an all-time wonder worker;
but even in the incomprehensible pain of the cross He glorified the Father
and performed His worship in Spirit and in truth. From our Lord and Saviour
we learn, then, that worship is to give God glory with our life, whether
it be by deed or by word.
Not all words glorifying God are necessarily worship. "This people honour
me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" God said on one occasion.
So worship is first and foremost a matter of the heart. This does not mean
that it is a matter of feelings, as though we should only worship God when
we feel like it. According to the Bible, the will is involved in the heart,
so that when we say that worship is a matter of the heart, we make it a question
of purpose. Not that we have anything to give God other than what first
comes from Him. He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world;
He opened our eyes to salvation; He has blotted out all our transgressions,
and has never turned His back upon us. Every day and every hour is His gift
to us; He makes all things work together for our good and, when the time
comes, instead of allowing us just to die off, He will glorify us with His
Son. How can we refrain from worshipping Him with our whole being?
This is what relates to our own personal salvation, but true worship
has other motives than just God's goodness to us personally. The whole creation
is one great exhortation to unceasing worship. Moreover we appreciate the
might and wisdom of God as we consider the procession of history. The Almighty
is indeed Lord of the nations, casting down where He will and exalting when
He will. When Israel was a nation of oppressed slaves in Egypt, with no chance
of forming its own future, the Lord delivered them by the hand of Moses
and Aaron, His chosen. He divided the waters of the Red Sea so that the
Israelites went over dry-shod while the army of the Egyptians was destroyed
in that same sea. He led His people for forty years through the terrible wilderness,
satisfying them each day with heavenly food, and then led them into the Promised
Land. He has gone on to raise up one world kingdom after another and then
to end it when it has served His plans, all leading on to what the prophets
call The Day of the Lord, when everything will be subjected to Him.
What else can we do but worship Him! [16/17]
The Day of the Lord
All the prophets look forward to the Day of the Lord, that is, the day
when the will of God is done on earth as it is done in heaven, the day when
there will be no other will. The very expression indicates by implication
that present days are not of the Lord as they should be, since other wills
than His are allowed to intrude themselves.
For Christians the term "The Lord's Day" has a double meaning. The first,
as with the prophets, is the day when God will cause to cease every rebellion
against Himself and visibly establish His kingdom, which will happen at the
second coming of Christ. The second meaning is simply the first day of the
week. Its use in this sense reminds us that for the Church every Sunday
is a foretaste of the Day of the Lord in its fulness. As such, it emphasises
the worship of the saints. On the final Day, at the Appearing of Christ,
all will bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord, but already the Church
so worships Him. In the midst of the present darkness and perversity, not
by the inevitable compulsion of the future but by their own free will and
with joy, God's people proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
To know this is to understand a little of the nature and significance
of those "services" when we meet together for worship. It is a great privilege
to be part of that praising and worshipping company. It may be specially
true when we break bread, but the whole service should be worship, from first
to last. It is worship when we pray and when the Word of God is preached --
for everything is for the exaltation of the Lord. The aggregate worship of
the church in hymns of praise, in prayer, in the reading of the Scriptures
and exposition of them, in the breaking of bread and thanksgiving, mean more
in the history of mankind than all humanitarian and social efforts for the
improvement of human circumstances. Every Sunday the Church proclaims in
Spirit and in truth that the Lord's Day is coming. Then -- and not before
-- all weapons will be made into ploughshares, all social and international
need will cease, and then the will of God will be done on earth as it is done
We ought not to regard worship as our duty, but rather as our supreme
privilege. Duty has to do with law; joy belongs to the gospel. Sometimes
we lack that joy because we take God's mercies for granted. It may be many
years since we were first saved, but God's grace is new every morning, so
that we always have experiences as of being newly saved. The older we are
as children of God, the more newly-saved we should be. If that is the case,
then there can be no end and no limit to our worship.
The Worshipper's Words
When Mary broke out in worship, she used the words of Hannah and also
of the psalms. Can we say that they were her own words and that hers was
free worship? Yes indeed, for worship which can truly be described as personal
should yet be characterised by the worshipper's having really become personally
one with the Word of God. To worship God is not to use vain repetition. God
hates that. It does not please Him (Matthew 6:7). And of course, worship
is never merely a question of words, though it is by words that we express
The worship given to us in the Bible is often brief. Sometimes worship
is without words and consists of stillness before the Lord of the whole
earth. A restless and agitated soul is hardly able to worship the Most High
in spirit and truth.
Some people prefer liturgical worship and others tend to despise it and
to practise free worship. We can surely learn from both forms of worship
and must confess that while so-called free worship can be carnal and repetitious,
real worship can be "liturgical" in the sense that it is permeated by and
closely associated with the Word of God. The praises of the Lord are to be
from everlasting (Psalm 106:48) and can never pass away. They connect our
short present with eternal values and give our brief worship eternal weight.
AT first glance this psalm may seem to be offering an easy triumphalism:
"He will give you the desires of your heart"; "He will bring it to pass";
"He will make the justice of our cause shine like the noonday sun." But then
there is a sudden check. We are pulled up short and given a shock. Clearly
the worshipper is not given prospects of quick results, but rather has to
meet a demand for quiet patience, for the sheer persistence of faith: "Be
silent to the Lord; wait patiently for Him" (v.7).
What is more, as the psalm develops, it constantly reminds us that the
believer's prospects are focussed on the future, for the word "inherit"
is used six times (vv.9, 11, 18, 22, 29 & 34) and that is a word which
suggests what is not yet possessed. The psalm ends with a final comment
on the future to the effect that it is "the latter end" which really matters
(vv.37-38). The need is for patience, and in his long history David could
claim to have practised what be preached.
He was a man of courage and of action, as all God's people should be,
but be was also a humble and patient man. Even the least musical of us must
have been deeply moved by Mendelssohn's setting to the words, "O, rest in
the Lord, wait patiently for him." Later on in this psalm we read: "Wait for
the Lord and keep his way" (v.34). This was one of the psalmist's main themes
-- waiting on the Lord or waiting for the Lord. In Psalm 27 David confesses
that he would have fainted if he had not been ready to do just that, and
he concludes the psalm with the call: "Wait for the Lord, be strong and take
heart and wait for the Lord" (27:14).
This is an acrostic psalm, which means that it involved thoughtful planning,
but it was not mere theorising but must have been governed by what he himself
had learned under testing conditions. Three times over it orders us not to
fret (vv.1, 7, 8), a hard lesson for many of us and one that can only be
learned in the school of experience, which for us means the school of Christ.
David calls attention to the thrusters in this world, those who so often
seem to enjoy sensationally quick success, and reminds us that they have
no lasting future: "Though you look for them, they will not be found" (v.10).
Speaking as an old man with much personal experience behind him, he tells
us that he had seen people flourishing like green trees in their native soil,
only fated soon to disappear: "Though I looked for him, he could not be found
-- he soon passed away and was no more" (v.36).
There is no time indication in the heading of this psalm, but we know
that it was written after many years of experience: "I have been young and
now I am old" (v.25). Not that it is age which has made him value patience
since most of us find that we naturally tend to grow more impatient as we
get older. No, David speaks of patience as a spiritual grace, the disciplined
maintenance of committal to the Lord. It is a fruit of the Spirit. Paul uses
the term, "the patience of Christ" and John writes of "The patience of Jesus",
while even the activist James devotes quite a lot of attention to this Christlike
virtue, exhorting us to "let patience have its perfect work" (James 1:4).
Rather than attempting a detailed exposition of this psalm, I propose
to concentrate on the outworking of patience in David's own life, and especially
in the matter of the revealed will of God concerning his kingship.
The initiative in this matter came from God. It must have been a breath-taking
experience for the shepherd lad to have been solemnly anointed by God's great
prophet in the presence of the whole of Jesse's family. Without wrongly criticising
the patriarch Joseph, I would point out that his divine vision of future
advancement so affected him that he could not refrain from boasting about
his dreams to his brothers. David -- whose experience was even greater than
that of Joseph -- showed an amazing humility in what happened after he had
been so signally marked out by God. Even when there was an outward change
in his lifestyle, it was not brought about by any action of his, nor was
he even consulted, for Saul ordered his father, "Send me your son David, who
is with the sheep" (1 Samuel 16:19). The inspired record subsequently reports
a later request which reveals how David was still under his father's government:
"Allow David to remain in my service" (v.22). He was still treated as a nobody,
even though the anointing oil had been poured upon him.
The Bible seems to underline this humble and almost menial condition
when it explains that while Jesse's three oldest sons were army officers,
David "went back and forth from Saul to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem"
(1 Samuel 17:15). So far as the brothers were concerned David was still a
nonentity, despised by the others and challenged by the furious Eliab: "with
whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert?" (v.28).
Now wait a minute! This one being so treated was God's anointed, not
only specially marked out to rule His people but also given a great experience
of enduement by the Holy Spirit. He had both the sign and the living reality.
Where, then, were the signs following? Why was he still ordered hither and
thither by his father and roughly treated by his brothers? Above all, why
did he so meekly submit to this treatment when he had been specially blessed
by God both by outward anointing and by an inward experience of the Spirit?
This psalm gives us the answer. He committed his way to the Lord, trusted
also in Him and then waited for God to bring it to pass. He was learning
to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him. There is another of
David's psalms which begins with the confession: "I waited patiently for the
Lord" (40:1). In Hebrew the words are, "In waiting, I waited for the Lord"
an intense form which has also been true sometimes to our experiences. Perhaps
it would not be out of place for David (or for us!) to add the comment that
the time seemed interminable as the Lord kept us waiting.
Of course there were encouragements by the way. God does not try us above
that we are able to bear. He gave David a sensational victory over Goliath,
so that for a time even Saul appreciated him and decided that there must
now be no more shepherding for David. Furthermore, God gave him many victories
and great temporary popularity. But what about the anointing to be king?
What about the throne? Well, that was still a long way off and increasingly
seemed more and more unlikely. The great Samuel who had first acted in the
matter of his call to the throne was unable to do more than pray for him and
sympathise with him. In our impatience it sometimes seems futile just to
pray. It may even be irritating to have others tell us that they are remembering
us in prayer. Is that all that they can do? We want action. Was that all that
Samuel could do, just pray? Yes, it was all that he could do, and there was
still no sign that God was answering his prayers when the old prophet died
and the fugitive David had to move down into the desert (1 Samuel 25:1). David
had to learn what the apostle Paul later explained, "Let us rejoice in hope
of the glory of God. And not only so, but let us also rejoice in our tribulations;
knowing that tribulation works patience" (Romans 5:2-3).
It did so in David, for in all these vicissitudes he maintained a spirit
of praise, for his anointing had included his appointment as "the sweet psalmist
of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:1-2). It is impressive to trace in some of the psalm
headings the fact that he composed some of his most inspiring songs during
those long and painful years of waiting. This is true patience, not passive
acceptance, but strength to endure and to triumph in expectant praise. No-one
can accuse David of passivity. That was not how he waited. Indeed this very
psalm reminds us that a man's goings and his way are important to the Lord
(v.23). He went on, but he went on both waiting and praising, and in this
he is an example to every tried and baffled servant of the Lord.
One of the chief areas of testing for David was that of his refusal to
lift his hand against Saul. Twice over he was given easy opportunities to
handle the situation himself and take action which would rid him of this
antagonist and would-be assassin, first by a single thrust of his own dagger
(1 Samuel 24:4) and then by a mere nod to his aggressive nephew, Abishai,
who had his spear posed for the mortal blow (1 Samuel 26:8). These two stories
are divided by a third, in which we are told how David refrained from impulsive
action by reason of the wise advice of dear Abigail (whose name means "Father's
Delight") who urged him not to avenge himself by his own hand but to wait
for God (1 Samuel 25:26).
The operative word in each of these stories is "hand". Would David lift
his hand (24:6, 25:26 & 26:9) or would he wait for God to work for him?
Would he fight for himself or would he be patient until the Lord took the
necessary action? In the case of Nabal the Lord acted swiftly, for within
ten days the matter was terminated. Ten days! Sometimes even that seems far
too long for our impatient hearts. In the matter of Saul, the waiting time
was much longer. In all three cases, however, David was able to wait. It
is striking that his coming to the throne demanded victory
[19/29] in this threefold temptation to act independently, since
Christ, the true Anointed, was Himself subjected to a threefold test in the
wilderness, the crux of the temptations being whether or not He would take
matters into His own hands. On that occasion, and subsequently right through
to the cross, the Lord Jesus triumphed gloriously. His very last words were
self-committal to the Father's hands.
We magnify the grace of God given to David to foreshadow Christ in this
way. It is true that after his three triumphs he did have a reaction of impatience
and planned to run away from it all in despair (1 Samuel 27:1). Perhaps
that provoked his cry in another song: "Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest ... I would flee far away ..." (Psalm 55:6).
Who of us has not felt like that? We may even have acted on our despairing
impulse as David did. At that time his flight to Ziklag brought him and all
his companions to near disaster but, when he was at rock bottom, he acted
upon his own words: "Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you"
(Psalm 55:22). That, and not flying away from trials, is the answer to our
problems. It was not just David the poet but David the natural fighter who
sang about resting in the Lord and waiting patiently for Him.
Then came Saul's miserable end, even while David was suffering at Ziklag.
When the news came it must have seemed that at last the twelve years of testing
had ended and relief had come. The rejected ruler was dead, the persecution
was over and the way to the throne seemed to be open. In fact, however,
David's patience was to be tested for another seven and a half years before
he could take his place as the rightful king of Israel, having been finally
anointed head over the whole nation.
We note his reactions to the news of Saul's overthrow. He wholly disassociated
himself from any rejoicing and in fact executed the young Amalekite who --
rightly or wrongly -- claimed to have given Saul the coup de grace
, and brought the royal crown to the one who was to be the new king. It
was God for whom he had been waiting, and he certainly was not going to
accept the crown from a man, especially an Amalekite. There followed his
funeral oration. We understand his tribute to his dearest friend, Jonathan,
who had perished with his father, but we find that he magnanimously included
Saul in his lamentation. There was no place for exultation in the face of
such a sad tragedy.
In point of fact, Jonathan's death must have been a double blow to David
for it not only robbed him of his beloved "brother" but removed the very
man who was pledged to make him king. Jonathan had already renounced his rightful
claim to the throne in favour of David (1 Samuel 23:17). So the old order
persisted in the person of another of Saul's sons, Ish-bosheth and it did
so for more than seven years. David's restraint showed itself again in a
further enquiry of the Lord as to whether he should put in an appearance
in his own territory, and he was instructed to proceed to Hebron where "the
men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah"
(2 Samuel 2:4). This was another step forward, but not the full fulfilment.
Twice over we read that there was war between the two houses (2 Samuel
3:1 & 6), though we may be sure that David himself had no part in fighting
Saul's successor. He was prepared, however, to enter into a bargain with
the commander-in-chief, Abner, for a military coup in his favour, but Joab
saw to it that this was not implemented. Finally Ish-bosheth was assassinated.
David condemned the two conspirators who murdered his rival and claimed to
have served him and God in so doing. He was still waiting for the Lord. Then
God's time came and all the elders of Israel came to Hebron and duly anointed
him king over all Israel. It had been worth waiting for. It always is. David's
prayers were answered not by any scheming on his part but by the unanimous
recognition of all the tribes that this was God's purpose.
Patience was rewarded, as David's psalm declares it always will be, and
as his history amply confirms. His testings were not over. They never are
until we breathe our last prayer on earth, for he still had thirty three
years to prove this principle before "he died in a good old age, full of days,
riches and honour" (1 Chronicles 29:28). He had experienced the supreme blessedness
of those who commit their way unto the Lord and trust in Him, and he wrote
his own obituary in this psalm: "Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
there is a future for the man of peace" (v.37). [20/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
ON THE WAY UP (7)
Psalm 126 WAKING UP
THE singing pilgrim is in good company, for centuries later the apostle
Peter had such a marvellous experience of deliverance from captivity that
he could not believe that it was true but thought that he must be dreaming
THE release of Zion was no dream; it was glorious reality. Not just a
subjective thrill but an obvious miracle witnessed by surrounding people
who perhaps could not share their joy but readily agreed that the Lord had
done great things for His people.
THE deliverance was so sudden, so undeserved and so unexpected that it
is no wonder that they were surprised. There are times when the Lord seems
to take exceptional pleasure in suprising us. It is wonder that inspires
WHEN the praise and prayer had died down, the Lord reminded the psalmist
that there is always a price to be paid for His deliverances. The hidden
prelude to Zion's release from captivity had been the long travail of Jeremiah,
Ezekiel and Daniel. They had sown in tears to make possible the harvest of
SO the pilgrim had a double awakening. He woke to rejoice in what God
had done, and then he woke up to appreciate the costly "spade work" which
had made it possible. The superficial believer may cry out to God for the
reviving work of the "streams in the South", but he must wake up to the divine
principle behind spiritual harvest, namely, that someone must be willing
to go out to the heavy and painful task of carrying the seed basket if there
is to be a joyful day of reaping.
AS for us, we wake up both to the miracle of Christ's liberating work
of redemption and then we wake to realise how costly it was for Him to bring
it about. He sowed in tears that we might reap in joy. Truly our mouth should
be filled with laughter and our tongue with singing for the great thing which
He has done for us, but while we continue on our pilgrim way singing happily
of that, we must not fail to remember with awesome wonder the One who went
on His way bearing His cross so that He might sow Himself as the precious
seed which brings us eternal life.
THE LAW OF THY MOUTH IS BETTER UNTO ME
THAN THOUSANDS OF GOLD AND SILVER.
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