"They therefore, when they were come together, asked Him, saying, Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? And He said unto them, It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath appointed within His own authority. But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when He had said these things, as they were looking, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight" Acts 1:6-9.
In this message we are aiming at simplicity in the presentation and to be pre-eminently practical. There will be nothing which in itself will be new, and nothing that will be very profound, but I trust that its impact and challenge will be new and that it will come to us in very truth as the Word of the Lord for this time.
The Need of a New Thing
There is a growing sense and conviction that a new thing on the Lord's part is a pressing necessity. There is a feeling that we have gone so far and have come to a place where it is at least difficult to go further without some fresh movement from the Lord's side. I think most of the Lord's true people are sensing something like that, and it is put into this phrase - 'a new thing'. But we must be careful as to what we mean when we use a phrase like that.
What do we mean by a new thing on the Lord's part? We must be careful because we must realise that the Lord has not been experimenting and as the result of His experiments, finding things to fail and discarding them and then trying something else. That is not the case. The Lord has never experimented. Experimentation on His part would imply at once a limitation of knowledge, that He did not know how things would work out, and that He was just trying it out to see. When the Lord started, He started with what was absolutely successful. There is no question there. The Lord's first way and first means were absolutely successful. It is Christianity that has deviated from the effective, successful way of the Lord, so that what will be a "new thing" with the Lord's people will just be a return to the original. Perhaps it sounds like a charge, almost an accusation, to say that to return to the original would be quite a new thing. Nevertheless, to a very large extent that is true, and the necessity for that return proves the validity of the original. You will have to come back to it because it is the only way.
So then, the beginning of God's work in this dispensation and the nature of that work throughout this dispensation is summed up and found in germ and essence in these three verses which we have read in Acts 1:6-9. But of course what is needed is an adequate recognition and apprehension of what is included in this statement and of how it is to be fulfilled. There has been an all-too-superficial grasping of this statement. It has been taken up with and run off with: "Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." It is only a part of the statement and I repeat that it is very necessary to have an adequate recognition and apprehension of what is in the whole statement before the thing can be effective. Very largely, Christianity has been based upon this eighth verse; at any rate, upon a part of it. The whole idea of the worldwide mission of Christianity takes its rise from this word here, superficially grasped it is true, but nevertheless from this - "My witnesses... unto the uttermost part of the earth." But who will say that Christianity has been anything like as effective as at the beginning? It has not maintained or preserved its original character and force, and that for this reason: that it has been so superficially grasped.
The Negative Side
Well now, let us approach the whole statement. First of all, there is a negative and a positive side to it. "They therefore, when they were come together, asked Him, saying, Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? And He said unto them, It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath appointed by His own authority." That is the negative side. "It is not..." is the negative aspect of the statement, and it is of as vital consequence as the positive, as the other side.
The 'not' relates to their question and dismisses a whole misconception concerning this dispensation. This is not the kingdom age in the sense in which they asked their question. The fundamental mistake throughout has been the constant endeavour to give to this present age and dispensation an imprint which God never meant it to bear. As you look at Christianity today - the word 'Christendom' might be better - you see it is stamped throughout by this misconception and the endeavour to carry the misconception into operation. God never did intend that in this dispensation His Kingdom, the kingdom of God, should be a temporal system on this earth with the church in the position of power here to rule in social, political or material things. That is the kingdom of God for the next dispensation, not this. You can see gathered up into that numerous things.
The temptation is always there, the tendency is always there. It finds its way in where people do not intend it to come in, but it is a part of this whole make-up of the self-life of even Christians to see something here on this earth as a monument and as a demonstration, a proof and evidence, an order of things which is the kingdom of God. It is found right at the very heart of evangelical enterprise; it is a spirit which works through all Christian activity. It is the constant peril of everything that is truly spiritual to be resolved into something here with a name, a title, a reputation, a recognition, an acceptance and a proof in the realm of the senses. It becomes something here of this world and in this world.
I say it is the peril within the innermost circle of what is spiritual and it works out to that outer, wider circle of the Christianisation of the world and of society and of politics, and the reconstruction of a new world upon Christian principles; and it is all nonsense. God never intended that to be in this dispensation. That, I say, belongs to the next age, not to this. "Dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" That is dismissed as being a misconception of God's thought for this particular dispensation, and that misconception in its application and in its spirit, in its constant tendency, without intention has done more to delay the Lord's return than anything else. The fruit of that misconception in Christianity is the greatest menace to the Lord's purpose in this age that this world has seen.
If you ask concerning things here or abroad, "What is the great obstruction to the real spiritual purpose of God?" it will be told you without hesitation - the organised church, Christianity in its earthly form, its system. It is delaying the Lord's return, it has held up His coming. The Lord here is not giving any dates at all. He is carrying it out into the realm of things spiritual and the Lord does not say anything about whether it is now or then, but what He says, in effect, is this: The matter of the times and the seasons appointed by God in His authority is a matter of the Holy Spirit. It is not a matter of dates and times at all; it is a matter of how far the Holy Spirit can do His work. When the kingdom comes back to Israel, it will be on the consummation of the work of the Spirit, not necessarily any period of time, but primarily a matter of the Holy Spirit's free course to accomplish the Divine purpose.
This whole question of dispensations is to be taken up in the Holy Spirit; but it has been taken up in the flesh, and so, the Spirit being frustrated, the Lord's return has been delayed. It can be said that the Lord would have come back long ago if things had gone on as they were at the beginning. It answers a lot of your questions about why the apostles expected the Lord to come. They were in the flood of the Spirit and that was making the Lord's return very possible at any time, but when they began to see things changing in Christianity, falling out of the realm of the Spirit into the realm of things temporal, they began to realise that the Lord was not coming, because He could not come so soon. You notice a change even in the apostles on that matter. That is very important, and that bears upon this new thing which is old. If we want the Lord to come, we have to get back to the original to bring Him. The Lord's coming is primarily a spiritual matter. I do not mean He is not coming in person. It is a spiritual matter in this sense, that the Holy Spirit is the custodian of this dispensation, and it is only when the Holy Spirit's work is done that the Lord can come. Therefore He must have a new place to do the old thing and bring the Lord back.
The Positive Side
Now the other side. "But..." the positive side. "But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be My witnesses...". The 'but' relates to that side, and here you see it has three features: 1) The power of the Holy Spirit, 2) The world witness and witnesses, 3) The ascension of Christ. It is a comprehensive statement.
I have already said that you take out the heart of this thing - "Ye shall be My witnesses" - and run off with that. Come back, put that in relation to what has gone before and what follows. What has gone before is the dismissing of a whole false conception of what this witness is unto and what this witnessing is for. Then hold it again in relation to what is going to be said. "And when He had said these things", what did He do? Did He say: 'Let us go into the upper room and have a conference about this and draw up a programme?' No - "As they were looking, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight." He was received up into heaven and disappeared into glory. That is as vital a part of this whole matter of the world witness as anything else that is here. It carries with it the force of the whole character of this dispensation: that the Lord is not out to save the nations in this dispensation; He is out to take out of the nations and link with His Son in heaven in a heavenly way a people for His Name. That is the character of this dispensation. That is not new, not profound, but it is related to this whole matter.
Again, the misconception of saving the nations has led to all manner of activities which are not in the line of the Lord's purpose at all. His purpose is to take out of the nations a people and make of them a heavenly people by reason of their union with His Son in heaven - in the world not of it, is the old phrase: a heavenly people. "When He had said this, as they were looking, He was received up." The witnessing and the witnesses are related to that heavenly nature of things in the purpose of God in this dispensation. Someone has said that the headquarters of Christianity in this dispensation is in heaven and everything has got to come from there and go to there, and be constantly in touch with Him as there, drawing all its resources from Him there, taking its character from Him there. It is "the Holy Spirit sent forth from heaven" (1 Pet. 1:12), but always gravitating back again in every life where He has a place.
Much more could be said about these three things: the power of the Holy Spirit, the worldwide witnesses and witness, and the ascension of Christ.
For a little while we are going to fix upon the second, the worldwide witnesses: "Ye shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth."
First of all, let us be reminded that the word or title, 'witnesses' - carries with it something much more than a verbal statement of truth or of facts. The power of the Holy Spirit is not necessary to state historical facts; it is not even necessary to verbally state truths. 'Witnesses' involves the people themselves in the truths which they state. It is the same word as 'martyr'. Martyr is only another English word for the same original word as 'witness'. We often think of the witness rather in the light of the thing said, but here it is the person bound up with the thing said, and they are both one. Or, to put it in another way, the believer and Christ are always regarded in the New Testament as being one, so that where believers are, Christ is by implication, and ought to be in spiritual reality. A witness therefore, is not one who goes out to declare either facts or truths as such, but who goes out on the principle of representation of those things, which means identification with them, that the thing said is already there in the person of the one who says it. We are not here to maintain and propagate a system of Christian teaching more or less, less or more; we are here as Christ. The world thrust Him out; He has come back again and He is not out. He has come back in mighty power. That is what it is to be a witness; that the presence of witnesses is the presence of Christ in this world. Everything then, begins with a testimony resultant from a revelation of Christ in each individual concerned; witness means that.
The Need for Adjustableness in Response to Revelation
That revelation, of course, is capable of immense enlargement, and that fact demands that we shall remain very free and adjustable. If we become fixed in the revelation of Christ which we have, and put a fence up representing the boundary of our apprehension of Christ, then that is our doom. We must keep very free right to the end, because every new enlargement of the revelation of Christ will call for a fresh adjustment and we have got to be free to adjust. Peter got an enlarged revelation of Christ just before he went to Caesarea (Acts 10), and as you know, at that moment he was perilously near cutting short the great dispensation purpose of God.
When he saw the sheet let down from heaven with all manner of creeping things and reptiles, he had a controversy with the Lord. When the Lord said, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat", he said, "Not so, Lord." He had put up his fence. The whole dispensation purpose of God was in jeopardy for Peter by reason of that fence. Had Peter not been adjustable, he would have lost immensely himself and would have narrowed the goings of God at that time. It is just an illustration.
Oh, the revelation of Christ is capable of endless, inexhaustible expansion. Presently it will come to the point where, with Paul, we may see the Godhead in the counsels of eternity past laying the great plan of ages, all of which was to issue in the summing up of all things in Christ. Who has comprehended the purpose which He purposed in Christ? It is immense, and it calls for constant adjustment and adjustableness. But it all begins - it may be in a limited way, a comparatively simple way - but nevertheless it begins in a positive way with a testimony born of a revelation to each individual. And that revelation is concerning the significance of Jesus. Jesus becomes seen in the light of the Godhead, in the light of eternity, in the light of the universe. Of course, we are suffering terribly by our Christian history and tradition. It was a much simpler matter for people in those days. It was a terrific thing for them in those days to see Jesus of Nazareth in the light of heaven; even for the most religious person, steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures, suddenly to have it broken upon them from heaven that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, universal Lord. It well might drive even a man like Saul of Tarsus into the desert for three years and leave a scar upon him to the end of his life. It is like that.
You say, 'Surely we are not going to have or to expect something like that?' Whether we have it in that degree of force and power or not, the fact is that this dispensation is marked by this thing throughout, that everyone who comes into fellowship with God does so on this ground and on this wise, that they personally have a revelation of Jesus Christ to their own hearts which makes them a captive, which is an apprehending from heaven, and which makes Him the supreme reality in God's universe. Nothing less than that will make Christianity effective. It is a revelation of God's Son in the heart of each individual which creates the testimony because it has already created the witness.
Everything begins with a testimony resultant from such a personal revelation of Christ. Do not get mentalities about revelations and visions. You know what I mean. You know quite well whether it is true in your case that the Lord has done something in you, whether in an act at one time or by a deep working process, which has had this result, that you can say, 'Jesus is all the world to me, the supreme object in God's universe for me.' You can put it like that or in other words. You can say, 'I could not go on without Him; what would life be if Christ were taken out of it?' Put it how you like, but the fact is that He has become absolutely essential and indispensable. That is what happened at the beginning, and am I wrong in saying that it may be that a new thing which is the old thing is becoming very necessary for many Christians? Well, right at the very beginning, initially, it is the breaking upon the heart of something of the significance of Jesus, with an impact upon our consciences. If this thing does not touch our conscience, it has not gone far enough. At the beginning the breaking upon hearts of Who Jesus of Nazareth was involved the whole question of their having put Him to death and that is a matter of conscience; of their being involved in the responsibility for His rejection.
The sin question arises, not first of all in relation to ourselves - and that is the weakness of evangelicalism today. The gospel that is preached today so largely centres upon the individual: "You are a sinner and you need salvation." Then it resolves itself into: "I am a sinner and I am miserable because of it; let me be saved, I do not want to be miserable." But in the Word of God sin is against heaven and in His sight. It is a matter of my relation to God's Son. "He... will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on Me" (John 16:8-9). Sin is focussed upon God's Son. Christ is right in His theology when He puts into the prodigal's mouth the words: "Father, I have sinned..." not against myself, society, my earthly family, but "I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight" (Luke 15:21). That is where sin registers itself. The revelation of Jesus Christ to the heart touches the conscience because it has to do with the place of God's Son, sent into this world to deal with the sin question. That is where the testimony begins, that is where the witnesses begin, with something like that.
I do not want to exaggerate, I do not want to make difficulties for you by saying that this thing should be more than is necessary as an initial thing, but I do want to say that in some way every one of us who is a Christian should have, at some period in our life if not at some hour, come very forcibly up against this fact that God has done something in us in relation to His Son which has made Christ supreme for us in the whole universe, and absolutely indispensable. And this is something that has that effect and has become a conscience matter with us; more than that, of course, it has put us under a great debt and under a tremendous sense of obligation.
Witness Spontaneous, Not Official
That leads us to this, that such a revelation to the heart, such a work of God in our lives, becomes expulsive; and it is here that the great divide to which we have referred begins to operate: between the spontaneous and the organised. The organising of Christianity into official bodies has very largely put things in a false position.
Let me put it like this. Young people, everybody, if you were accepted by an official body as an accredited representative with a title such as missionary, Christian worker, minister, whatever you like, and were sent by them with their backing to any place on this earth, and it was known where you went, that you were sent and backed by this recognised and accredited organisation to be their representative there and to do the work, would you be more of a witness than you are without any of that? Then the whole thing is false! All that has put things on a false basis, and that is not what God is looking for in this dispensation at all.
At the beginning, His missionaries, His witnesses, were such because they were that before they went anywhere, before anybody took any notice of them. They did not get a title, much less a uniform or special clothing; they did not get a society behind them with a reputation. They got nothing whatever. They were just there where they were, and they were witnesses. The thing that had happened in them was expulsive, and they needed no machinery to bring it out. That is a challenge. What is the Lord waiting for? He is not waiting for you to join a missionary society, to be sent out at all by anything like that. He is waiting for you to be a witness just where you are. If the Lord is going to have His full thought where you are concerned, nothing will happen until you are that where you are. He did not say, "You shall be fully accredited ministers or missionaries or Christian workers, and I will give you a badge and a uniform, and I will let people know where you are going." He said, "Ye shall be My witnesses." May that not be, strange as it may sound, a new thing? I am not so sure that there are not very real signs that the Lord is pressing into that.
The days of the official or professional missionaries in many countries are numbered. In many countries the future holds only a place for living witnesses, not for official missionaries; but for people who are going to live with the expulsive power of a personal life with Christ.
You say that you are praying for the Lord to show you something, for the Lord to do something, for the Lord to give you a way. Well, may not this be it? I know it is not a thing we would jump at; it is not just the thing we are expecting and looking for. There is something much more glamorous than that in our idea and thought of going into the Lord's work. No, just there; "Ye shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem." I know there is a dispensational connection with that, but there is also a spiritual connection. In Jerusalem, the headquarters of religious tradition, the seat of religious prejudice, the place where the likelihood of acceptance was least, and the place where the disciples had failed and most likely their failure was known and would be thrown up at them. They all forsook Him and fled; one denied Him with oaths and curses. Do you not think that had got out? Rumour has a strange way of getting out, and facts too. They had failed, and, whether it was public property or not, they knew it. They had failed in Jerusalem, they had broken down in Jerusalem. "My witnesses in Jerusalem", and your testimony recovered in the place where you had failed, your testimony established just where you had broken down. That is difficult, but that is the Lord's way. "Beginning at Jerusalem". It is so much easier if only all that could be cut out and written off and we could go out and start afresh in another sphere where we are not known. That is easy. But where we are known, and especially known as failures, that is more difficult.
"Ye shall be My witnesses." Yes, but when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, not in your own strength. That is our assurance, our comfort; not left to ourselves to reconstruct the testimony out of the ruins of the past. There is the Holy Spirit for this. We have to recognize where it is to be and under what conditions, and the Holy Spirit is sufficient for that. That is very practical, very elementary. It is getting back to the original.
Have you got these thoughts? A personal revelation of Christ which has really gained our hearts to the extent that we live under a deep sense of indebtedness and obligation, which produces the expulsiveness that we must let it out, others must know, He cannot be hid. And that is not to be something within the framework of an organisation to help it out. It is to be spontaneous, it is to be upon the perfectly natural basis (if I may use that word in connection with the spiritual) that we are people who have something we cannot keep in. We do not need any society to help us out with it at all; it is going out. That is simple. "Witnesses unto Me", and that it starts here, right where we are now, our Jerusalem, or where our Jerusalem was, in so far as we can get back and rectify our testimony in the place where it broke down or failed or there was none, and then the sovereignty of the Lord comes in and deals with everything else. You need not worry as to where or how. The sovereignty of the Lord took that in hand, took hold of that matter in Jerusalem, and in His own sovereign way, in a way that looked like destruction and the end of everything, He scattered them abroad, they went to Judea and Samaria, then to the uttermost parts of the earth. They that were scattered abroad because of the persecution that arose with the death of Stephen, went everywhere preaching the Word (Acts 8:1-4). The sovereignty of the Lord saw to the rest. What we have to see to is that we are witnesses, that is all, and the Lord will dispose of His witnesses and put us in the way sovereignly.
Although this is no new ground, I do feel it does represent something of tremendous recovery and account to the Lord. Oh, Lord, get every one of us there! If we are only where we are in the good of this, something is going to happen, and if our fuller teaching, our larger truth has in any way had the effect of curtailing our power of witness in the world, something is wrong with it. No, the true effect of a true revelation is that we can no more contain it all ourselves; the world must have it, the ends of the earth must know it. This is something which cannot be kept hid. It will burst if it does not go out.
Do not let us get the great living things of the Spirit into watertight compartments and kill them. I remember sitting in a dining-car of a train with the late John MacNeil. We began to talk about different great leaders in evangelical Christianity, and we lighted upon a certain one, a great well-known Bible teacher, who wrote a book on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and in that book he said that when the Holy Spirit came upon the church at the beginning it produced an ecstasy. Old John turned to me in his own way and said, "Do you know Dr.__ who wrote that book? Could you ever imagine him getting into an ecstasy? Why, the grapes of Eshcol would have become raisins in his hands!" Do not let us turn the grapes of Eshcol into raisins. You can have great vistas of truth and it all become negative or inoperative. If it is really living, it has got to be fruit for the world. "The leaves of the tree for the health of the nations" (Rev. 22:2). It has got to come out. There is something wrong with it if it does not have that effect.