We noticed in the previous chapter that this is not an outward law of commandments contained in ordinances, but a vital inward principle of action working; not in any haphazard way, but in fixed and regular ways which correspond to a law. We also said that, since we have the Spirit of Life in us, He who, having begun a good work, is obliged to perfect it. Our wisdom and our maturity lie in the direction of obedience to the law of the Spirit.
We saw in Ezekiel that when everything lives and it is all glory because the river is in full flood, it is not just something that has happened casually. Ezekiel was taken right to the source and shown that that river has its principles, its laws and, speaking broadly, we may say they are threefold.
There is the altar; that is the explanation of the river. There is the throne. It does not actually say in Ezekiel 47 that the throne is there, but in an earlier chapter, in Ezekiel 43:7, the Lord had said concerning that place: "Son of man, this is the place of My feet". You will recollect that in Revelation where the great spiritual reality of it all is finally demonstrated, the river of the water of Life flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. And then, of course, there is the house. So, when we speak of the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, we may, for convenience, include in that law three lesser contributory laws. It is a threefold law: the law of the altar, the law of the throne, and the law of the house. When these laws are obeyed, the Spirit will see to it that we reach the day of the manifestation of the sons of God in glory.
The Law of the Altar
Now I want to talk about the first of them, that which
corresponds to the altar. In each of the three we can find an Old
Testament character peculiarly illustrative of the law. This first
one, the law of the altar, can be illustrated by Abraham. And I
will not call it the law of the altar any more, but call it now
the law of resurrection; that includes the Cross, because it
brings the true issue of the Cross into view. Yes, indeed, it is
the Law of the Cross.
The Holy Spirit came in His great fulness to the church, and
comes to your life and mine on the basis of the Cross, but the
Holy Spirit also leads to the Cross. The Lord Jesus Christ was
here on earth as a Man full of the Spirit. The Spirit's direction,
the Spirit's law in His life led Him to the cross. It looked as
though that was a path of lessening and fading out. He began His
ministry with the crowds and the multitudes, the signs and
wonders, the popular response of the masses. But the disciples
found, to their perplexity, that the course which the Lord Jesus
deliberately took during the years of His ministry, led Him
steadily, directly, undeviatingly, to the cross. And they thought,
"What a pity!" - "Lord, that shall never be to Thee", said Peter,
but it was so. Why did the Spirit do that? It was, of course, for
your salvation and mine. But why did He do it peculiarly in
relation to the Lord Jesus, who was so responsive to His gentle
government? He did it because He was seeking enlargement; He was
Speaking in purely human terms, what comparison could there possibly be between the life that the Lord Jesus, as a Man, was living in those little hamlets and byways of a very small country (even when the crowds were round Him, it was all very small and limited) what comparison could there be between that day and the day in which, in a thousand languages, in every continent, through the ages, God is known through Jesus Christ? Well, there is no comparison. The Lord Jesus, of course, being a Man of the Spirit, knew what the disciples did not know, and He Himself said, "I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished". He knew it and therefore was prepared to pay the price and so be guided by the Spirit to the cross. For the Cross is the law of the Spirit, but not as an end in itself, but rather as a means of new Life, fulness of Life.
That is the law, and if you read Romans 8, this is exactly what the Holy Spirit does to us and with us, "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (v.12). There is a superficial attitude towards the Cross that assumes that, with one recognition of, and capitulation to the crucified Lord, everything is settled, and now it is no more Cross, but all Spirit - no more death, but just an easy life and glory, that the Spirit leads us away from the Cross. Oh no! He begins at the Cross, but He is always leading us back to it. It is one of His principles that from that death there might emerge the true Life. It is the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, and the Life in Christ Jesus for us is always resurrection Life.
Abraham is the great type of this law of the Spirit. In the Old Testament it does not say that Abraham was anointed, nor is there any particular reference made to the Holy Spirit in his case, but when we come over to the letter to the Galatians we find that in the thought of God, he is very much associated with the Holy Spirit. Christ is made a curse for us that on us may come the blessing of Abraham, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit, through faith. Abraham speaks to us of the promise. It is a significant word: "the promise of the Spirit". And he speaks to us of faith. For Abraham was a man who came to know at various stages of his life the practical power of the Cross, and each time his experience of the Cross brought him into a very enlarged and full experience of Life.
You will remember how he began, how God appeared to him when he
lived in Ur, and virtually said to him, "Abraham, I know who you
are and what you are". We do not know what Abraham was, what
position he held, but we may be sure that it was dear to him, just
as what we are is always dear to us. God said to him, "Whatever
you are, Abraham, and whatever you have, I want you to leave it. I
want that to be finished. Get out! Get thee out". So the Cross, in
the first place, as applied by the Holy Spirit, divides and severs
us from the position that we hold here on the earth. We are not
told in Genesis that there were any evil associations in Ur from
which Abraham was to separate himself. Not until the end of the
book of Joshua do we hear about the idolatry that was practised in
those days. It is not that it is merely a deliverance from evil, a
separation from that which is not right, but something far deeper
than that. The Holy Spirit impresses upon us that His first law is
that the cross has got to cut us clean away from the position that
we hold here on the earth; that is a law of the Spirit. "Get thee
out... So Abraham went out".
Abraham was prepared to pay the price: to move from what he was
and from what he held and had, from what, doubtless, was of value
and interest to him - from that which constituted his life. He
went a long way and he had a delayed journey, and then in the end,
he came into the land which the Lord had promised him. But,
perhaps to his surprise, and to our surprise if we had never read
the story before, we would find that God never did what we might
have expected Him to do. He took Abraham out of one home, but He
did not give him another home. He took him from a great city, but
gave him no city to come into. He said, "Get thee out... from your
father's house and your country" to get out of one land, but He
gave him no possession in the other.
As Stephen impressed upon his hearers in Acts 7, nothing ever came to Abraham by way of possession, as a result of his coming out of Ur. What does that mean? Well, the letter to the Hebrews will tell us. Abraham learned that he was not to look for a city in Canaan, in Palestine; he was to look for a city in heaven. He was not to look for an exchange of possessions on earth, out of one earthly position into another earthly position, but he was lifted out from the earth and the life that he knew here. The riches and the glory that came to him were not in another earthly realm in another country, but in a realm which does not belong to earth, but belongs to heaven, although he lived and walked down here. That is a law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus.
Now, much has been said about Abraham leaving his home, being
willing to go at the Lord's call, not knowing where he was going.
We can talk about Abraham, and quite enjoy talking about Abraham,
but we are not here to talk about Abraham, except as it relates to
us. What is this law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus? It is
that the first thing that the Cross has to do once we belong to
the Lord is to slay in us every desire, every craving for
security, position and recognition here on earth. That is how it
worked with Abraham, and that is how it works with you and me. It
is a law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus. That makes it
sound, perhaps, rather a severe law. Well, in one sense, it was
severe for Abraham: the land of his fathers, the associations, the
friends, the interests, the position. Ur was no small city, but a
very great, highly developed one. For all we know, Abraham may
have had a good position in it; doubtless, he would enjoy the
amenities and importance of being associated with it. From that
point of view, Abraham lost a lot. But, just as in the case of the
Lord Jesus, the path that seemed to lead downwards into ever
greater limitation was the Spirit's way of bringing him into great
fulness and abundance and glory.
What a great man in the Scriptures is Abraham! What a tremendous thing that, when the apostle is writing to the Galatians, he can think of no greater description of the blessing, the fulness, the glory of the Holy Spirit, than to describe it as the blessing of Abraham; the promise of the Spirit through faith. And Abraham knew that from the first. The Cross may have come to him with a challenge, but when Abraham left Ur, he left it with the light of glory on his face. It was not because the Lord had come to him and said, "Look here, Abraham, this is a bad place you are in; there is a lot of compromise, there are a lot of unsatisfactory things here, this life is a disappointing life, this life is not right. You must get out of this". That is often the way we move, and we move from bad to worse on that basis. That is not the Cross. The God of glory appeared unto Abraham, and though the Cross struck deeply into his heart at what he had to leave, the glory shone on his face as he turned towards that to which he was going, "Get thee out; get thee out".
No doubt they said in Abraham's day, as they have said ever since, "What a pity Abraham is leaving us! Abraham is getting out; what is he going to belong to now?" And if they get news from Palestine that he has joined another city over there, that is all right. But the news went from bad to worse: "He does not belong to anything. What has happened to poor Abraham?" What happened to the poor people who stayed in Ur? You don't hear anything more about them; they stayed there. Abraham was a man of faith. He did not just get out for getting out's sake. He got out to go on with the Lord, and it cost him to go on with the Lord. Some of us get out because things get so difficult, "Rotten place, Ur! We don't seem able to get on with anybody in Ur. I will get out; everybody is difficult, and I think I will get out." It is just the very opposite. If Abraham had felt like that about Ur, the Lord would probably have said, "Abraham, you stay there and live for Me there; and I will meet you there. That will be your Cross." Abraham did not want to go. It cost him everything to go, and it was the way of faith, the way of the Cross it is true, but also the way of resurrection.
Now, how does this apply to us? I have made these remarks about
getting out, and I think it is incumbent upon me, therefore, to
continue upon this line. What really is represented to us by what
Abraham did? I think it may mean, with many of us, the severing of
earthly ties which have had real value, but which are now holding
us to earth. But that is something which we must leave with the
Lord. That is not the immediate lesson of Abraham's move.
Abraham's move speaks to us, not of handing in our resignation
anywhere, or leaving anything, but of getting clear from this
earth in spirit: "Get out", the Lord says. What He meant, and what
He means to us is, "Get lifted up to another realm". You may not
move geographically; you may live and remain just where you are.
In fact, you must do that until any movement that you make is an
expression of a spiritual removal. You only hinder what the Lord
is trying to do with you when you precipitate movement in this
sphere as it were, horizontal movement out of one place into
another, looking about to try and be like Abraham. You have missed
the point. This getting out is a getting up and away and that is a
costly thing; it is really costly.
We have sometimes been very distressed that the Lord has not raised up - as we had expected - local assemblies on a large scale, to express His mind. I do not pretend to know why He has not, but one of the dangers which might have arisen if He had, would be that if people saw something a bit more scriptural, a bit more according to what they felt was the Lord and corresponded to the Lord's will, it would be to them but one more thing on this earth. They would be very glad to move out of the particular situations that they are in, which are unsatisfactory, to new ones that are much more satisfactory, but it would be a move on an earth level, and they would not be any different in themselves. Abraham not only went to another country; he became another man, and that is far more important. He did not set up an Ur in Palestine, he hadn't an inch of territory to call his own; he became a heavenly man. "A pilgrim and a stranger", is what the Bible calls him and others in Hebrews 11. What the law of the Spirit is working towards in every life that is yielded to Him is to reach this goal by means of leading us to the Cross, that it might do its work of severance from things as they are on the earth: what we are, and what we have as people down here.
This may sound interesting, but it is so much easier to talk about it than to experience it. When we are in the hands of the Spirit it is not merely a crisis for us, as expressed in the life of Abraham, it is a lifelong law; the law of the Spirit of Life. If you take the position with the Lord that you want heavenly, and not earthly glory, the Lord, the devil, and sometimes the Lord's people will see to it that that matter is pressed home to you and it becomes a question: is it what you are, or who you are that matters, after all? And we all find how quick we are to respond, and how resentful we are at anything that sets us aside, that does not recognise us, that fails to give us our place. This work will go on all the time, if we are going on to glory, when this principle of being nothing and having nothing here on the earth is pressed in, deeper and ever deeper. If there is one thing I want the Lord to say, more than another, it is this: that the Cross is not merely an initial experience, but opens the way for the fulness of the Spirit in our lives. True as that may be, it is only half the truth. The Cross is an abiding rule and principle, which the Spirit is all the time bringing us back to, and is all the time calling for our surrender and acceptance in that respect. Spiritual growth is not one great crisis of acceptance of the Cross in a more or less theoretical and imaginary way, spiritual growth is the daily taking up of the Cross, the daily acceptance of the Lord's Word saying, "Nothing here, Abraham, you have got nothing here; you are nobody and you have nothing". And all the time Abraham said, "I do not care; I have the God of glory. I have nothing here, but I have everything". Why, we can hear the apostle Paul speaking! It is the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus.
How we need the Holy Spirit to help us co-operate with Him in this matter, to remember that every painful experience, every humiliation, every difficulty, everything that goes against the grain, is not just the difficulty of things, and it is not because the Lord does not love us. It is the Lord once again saying, "If you will take this Cross, I have the other side of it - a new resurrection morning for you. There is fulness of Life and power and glory this way". You say, "I do not like this way". No, it would not be the Cross if we liked it; or, rather, you would not be you if you liked the Cross. Our nature and the Cross are incompatible. We do not like it, and if we begin to look at it as merely that which threatens our lives and challenges our desires, we shall never get on with the Lord. I am afraid that some are not moving on with the Lord for that very reason. Oh, you would have other explanations, and yet you know that in six months, a year, two years or more you have not grown spiritually; you do not count more for the Lord than before... you are, perhaps, further away from the Lord. Why is this? You have believed on Him, the Spirit is in you; He is the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus. You can quite sincerely say that you have not wandered away into sin, that you have not disobeyed the Lord in that sense, and yet you know, and it may be that others watching you and praying for you know, that yours is not a satisfactory spiritual life. The river may have got to the ankles, but it seems to get shallower again, rather than otherwise. It does not show any signs of flowing on to that full flood. Well, may not this be the reason? In some one matter that may be very clear to you, or perhaps in some little points that you could not recollect if you tried, the Lord has brought you up against this law of the Spirit, this Law of the Cross, or, as I prefer to call it, this Law of Resurrection. You know that resurrection can only come after death, and there is only one death that can lead us to resurrection, and that is the death of the Cross. This may be because of some matter - it may be very small - in some attitude or outlook in life, in the things of the Lord or the people of the Lord, or some challenge of the Lord which has hurt or annoyed you, and you have said "No", and you have felt right in saying no.
When the God of glory withdrew from Ur and the light of a new day dawned, if Abraham had stopped to reason as the men of Ur reasoned, to think and feel as they all felt and thought around him, he would have said, "No, it is better here; I am not going". But he kept his eyes on the glory, and stopped his ears and closed his eyes to everything else; and so he came out, but you have not, because you have taken your eyes off the glory and have said, "Why should I?" And you have had a thousand arguments as to the position you hold and you can justify the way you have taken. Perhaps you can, but is it the way of the Spirit? Is it leading you on to greater fulness in the Spirit? Well no, you know it is not. Well then, the God of glory says there is only one way through for you, and that is to accept the Cross, to change your position, to stop arguing. Maybe you have a critical attitude towards the people of God, the testimony of the Lord, and because you have seen real or imaginary faults you have held aloof, and you have held your position and chosen your way. The Cross says to you, "You have got to relinquish that position; you have got to capitulate on that matter and you have got to say 'Yes' to the Lord." It is the law of the Spirit of Life, and the unsatisfactory spiritual state of a multitude of the people of God today can be traced back to this fact; not that they are in surroundings or associations that are unscriptural or unspiritual, but that they themselves have said "No" to the Lord when He has called them to follow Him in spirit, saying, "Get thee out".
We say this and preach it, not in an earthly way, but from a spiritual, heavenly attitude - get out of yourself, get out of things as men see them, get out of this position of being tied down to earth and belonging to earth; get out of it! What will God give you? On the one hand, you can say God will give you nothing, as He gave Abraham nothing; on the other hand, you can say God will give you everything. Abraham has become the heir, and through his seed the inheritance has been realised. The blessings of Abraham are for those who obey the law of the Spirit, which is the law of the Cross. Well, this is the beginning. I have not hurried, because we are not trying to finish a particular set message, but to allow the Lord to speak.
The Cross had many applications to Abraham. Leaving Ur was only the beginning. Abraham thought it was quite enough. He did not want any more; nor do we. But it will never end until we reach the glory, because it is a law of the spiritual life; it must be. And so they came into the land, and, no doubt, in many lesser ways Abraham was all the time learning this lesson and proving the Lord.
The Cross in the Matter of Isaac
But then the narrative focuses on to the more concentrated
expression of the principle in the matter of the son that God
promised to him, and Abraham had to learn that the Cross not only
slew in him any personal ability to serve the Lord, but also any
natural capacity for producing what God wanted and what God has
There was this matter of the son arising, of Isaac. That was the will of God for Abraham. It was the promise and yet we are told that for ten long years Abraham waited in vain. God did nothing. Well, that was the Cross all the time. God did nothing because He was seeking to impress on Abraham that when He did it, it was going to be all of Him, and if Abraham was under any misapprehension as to his ability to do the Lord's work, he had to realise this, learn his lesson, and be disillusioned. I wonder whether, perhaps, the time had almost come, for ten years is the time of testing and, as is so often the case, God's great thing was just round the corner. Anyhow, Abraham could not wait, and neither can any of us, for if there is one common mark of the natural man that seems to be found in us all, it is that the natural man cannot wait for God; he must do something.
To go back to that matter that I have spoken of - the disappointment that God did not raise up in many places a local expression of His will, as we had hoped - I wonder whether, in quite a few instances, the reason has not been that some "Abraham" has gone out in the will of God, that that might be realised, and then could not wait for God to do it. At any rate, that is what happened in Abraham's case; he could not wait any longer. And then Sarah comes into the story, and she has a solution to offer, and Egypt is near at hand, providing a means for the realisation. And the result of that attempt to help God out of His difficulty provided God with one of the greatest difficulties that He has ever had in this world. And that is what we do when we try and help the Lord.
We must not imagine that the birth of Ishmael was some moral
lapse upon Abraham's part. It was nothing of the kind. It was
nothing that, humanly, he had any reason to be ashamed of even as
before God, in the circumstances in which he lived. There was no
shame attached to the birth of Ishmael, except this greatest shame
to a man who would be spiritual: that he has got in the Lord's
way, that he has not waited for the Lord to do the thing
absolutely and altogether. He listened to Sarah which he should
not have done. Now, that is not saying anything wrong about Sarah.
She is one of the most honoured women in the Bible. She is the
only woman whose age is mentioned when she died; that, at least,
is a peculiar position! There is nothing to be said against Sarah,
nor against a man listening to his wife; there is a lot to be said
for it. But the spiritual meaning is that Abraham listened and
responded to that which was expressing natural ideas and emotions,
and was not the voice of God. Because his was the responsibility,
as Adam's had been in his day, he should have refused to accept
that advice. It was very natural; it was done with the best of
intentions. Sarah really wanted to be helpful to Abraham and there
is always somebody who really wants to be helpful to you. They
come along and say, "You have waited too long. Look! I will show
you what to do, and you can reach the Lord's end." This business
of waiting for the Lord is very unpractical, "Be a practical
Christian and help the Lord a little" - that is the advice that
Abraham got, and he fell into the trap. So do we so often, alas!
And then Ishmael came.
God would never accept Ishmael. It is seen as time goes on that Abraham is fond of Ishmael. You know, there are some things which we do in the flesh and we are glad when the Lord says, "Turn this out". We want to get rid of it. We realise that Ishmael was a blunder, and if the Lord will despatch it and its mother as far as possible, we shall be thankful. There are expressions of the natural life that are like that, but this is something far more spiritual and deep than that - Abraham loved Ishmael. It was a grievous thing to Abraham when the suggestion arose that Ishmael should leave the home. And when, on the very verge of the appearance of Isaac Abraham was communing with the Lord and had had the promise renewed to him once again after thirteen years, you find him saying, "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee... I wish You would accept Ishmael!" The Lord never would. That was a great sorrow to Abraham, and it may be a sorrow to us who have tried to help the Lord. It is not a blunder, in our opinion, but something very dear that has been produced. We say, "Lord, if only You would accept this; if only this could have Your blessing..." but the Lord says "No". "But Lord, it was done after prayer! It was done with the best of intentions. It was done because the promise had to be realised." But the Lord still says, "No". "Well, Lord, there is nothing else possible now. It was impossible thirteen years ago; it is far more impossible now." The Lord says, "Never mind what you think about possible or impossible. Will you let go of your doubts and questions and abandon all your efforts and trust Me?"
The word is recorded and written again and again by the apostle Paul, (and there seems to come a sense of awe over him as he writes) it is one of the most wonderful things in history: "Abraham believed God". His own body was as good as dead. The whole situation spoke of death; but God said "No", and He said, "I want you to take action, to do something which will express, once and for all, that this whole Ishmael principle is repudiated by you." And the Lord brought in the institution, the ordinance, of circumcision, and it was at the time when Abraham believed God. You cannot believe God and have something of the flesh in which you are still trusting. That circumcision meant the cutting off of a whole order of things, a whole life which can never fulfil the law of God; and so he did it. So strangely earthbound is man that the very thing which was to be the mark of the repudiation of all earthliness became, in the hands of the Judaizers, the hallmark of religion. That is how deceitful the human heart is. It turns the very things that were meant to lift us up to heaven and it makes them bind us down to earth. Baptism can do the same thing in our day, as circumcision did in Abraham's day.
The whole point of miracles and manifestations of the power of the Lord in the early church, the whole point of them was to make people know that heaven was come upon them, and the very meaning of them was to lift them out of the earth. The whole point of them in our day seems to be to bend man back to earth, to keep the glory of the Lord away, instead of lifting man up to glory. It is the tragedy of the human heart that will turn anything, the holiest or the best thing, from heaven to earth, if it can.
Well, Isaac was born, and in Isaac all the promises of God found realisation. It is not the end of the story, but it is the end of our consideration of it. Once more, do not go away thinking about Abraham. Let the Lord apply the lesson to you and to me. How ready we are to try and help the Lord to do His work, to provide for the Lord that which will meet His end! Indeed, the law of the Spirit is all the time, through all our lives, bringing us back to the place where we know we can do nothing, and where we accept the fact that we can do nothing. Instead of rebelling, resisting, striving, we must take up the position that Abraham took up: that God is the God of resurrection and that if the Cross, through Jesus Christ, smites me and places me in an impossible position in which all His promises and all the vision I have received seem most impossible, well, it is up to Him to get me out of that difficulty. But it is up to me to yield to Him. The law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, not the law of the spirit of death, thank God, it takes us from death, because death is the way through to Life.
May the Lord lead us there, for His Name's sake.