|Vol. 6, No. 3, May - June 1977
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
THE EXCEEDING ABUNDANTLY ABLE GOD
"Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that
we ask or think,
according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church
Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen." (Ephesians
Arthur E. Gove
HOWEVER discouraged or disheartened a Christian may feel, this passage
brings a forceful reminder that God is waiting to do new things for him.
The whole prayer is full of spiritual inspiration but we limit ourselves
to this last part, which is a doxology.
The Epistle to the Ephesians contains two striking prayers. The first
is found in 1:15-23 and the second in 3:14-21. There is a marvellous interdependence
between them. It may be helpful to compare them. We see that whereas in the
first the prayer is: "that ye may know ...", the central theme of the second
is: "that ye might be ..." (v.19). The first is directed to spiritual apprehension,
or revelation, while the second is concerned with spiritual appropriation
and is a prayer for realisation. While the first points us to God and His
riches in glory, the second stresses that power that works in the believer.
In both cases, however, the emphasis is upon the character of our exceeding
abundantly able God.
God does not promise us something that He is incapable of doing. He is
not suggesting that He should provide us with that which is beyond His resources.
On the contrary the words mount up to assure us of His absolute sufficiency.
God is able. God is abundantly able. God is exceeding abundantly able. Wonder
succeeds wonder. He can still go on working after all our ideas are exhausted
and our prayers finished. When unbelief has stopped further asking and stifled
our thanksgiving, then God still delights to go on working far beyond what
we deserve or demand.
WE are the ones who limit God. Our little faith is rebuked by the story
of the dying Elisha. We are told in 2 Kings 13:14 how the young king, Joash,
burst into the sickroom where the prophet lay dying and appealed for help
in the light of the Syrian attack on the nation. "What shall we do?", Joash
asked, and the dying prophet immediately became alert and began to give his
orders, "Take bow and arrows," he commanded. "Now open the window eastward.
Now let me put my hands on yours as you hold the bow. Now shoot." The young
king twanged the arrow through the opened window and away it went. There
was no mistaking the meaning of the speeding arrow. It was a signal of the
victory which the Lord would give to Israel. Then Elisha's last effort was
to stir up the sluggish young king who lacked enthusiasm, passion and courage,
so after his shout of triumph, the prophet told the king to take up the rest
of the arrows and smite them on the ground. Whether he was to bang them on
the ground or loose them into the ground, does not matter. The point is
that he should have made use of every arrow in the quiver, five or six of
them. Instead of doing this the king only had faith to expect a thrice repeated
victory. He smote three times and then stopped. Elisha was disgusted at
this half-hearted response. The king clearly could not believe in a God who
gives complete victory. Elisha reproached him for limiting a limitless God.
Unbelief does just that. It hinders God from revealing His true character
as exceeding abundantly able. He has to say to us, as Elisha said to Joash:
"According to your faith be it unto you". You could have known complete victory,
but your feeble faith has deprived you of it.
God is the exceeding abundantly above God. If He is limited, it will
be because we have limited Him. Both personally and corporately, God is
urging us to get our eyes on Him, to believe for His power for the full
realisation of His purposes. In this section of chapter 3 we are reminded
four times of these purposes by the use of "that". The last of these is:
"that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God". This points to the climax
of the Holy Spirit's work in the believer; this is God's ultimate purpose
for all His children, that they may be filled with His fulness. You cannot
have more than that. Indeed it will only be fully realised when we are all
glorified and have come "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of
Christ". But God [41/42] is able to do it. Even NOW
He is able to do so much more than we could think possible, and that is why
the whole prayer is covered by a doxology.
A DOXOLOGY is an expression of adoration which rises above the level
of ordinary speech. It is a fervent utterance of praise from those who are
lost in wonder and love because of the ineffable glory of God. Well may we
glory when we have such an abundantly able God. He is able to make all grace
abound to us (2 Corinthians 9:8); able to succour those that are tempted
(Hebrews 2:18); able to save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25); and able to
keep us from falling (Jude 24). What a list this is! Scripture abounds with
descriptions of what God is able to do. Is there anything which God is not
able to do? He can save, succour, subdue, sanctify, secure, supply and satisfy.
He is not only omnipotent but munificent; He is not only abundantly powerful
but abundantly generous.
I know that He must be all this because of what He has already done for
me. Was it because of my merit that I was elected and had my name written
in the Lamb's book of life? Was it by some effort of mine that I now stand
justified before a holy God? Did I have any part in the wonderful scheme
of salvation? Was it not all of God, whose Spirit showed me my need and revealed
to me the Saviour whom He had provided? Why already I have proof enough of
the wonder-working power of my exceeding abundantly able God. So much so
that I pause to ask myself what effect all this has upon my soul. What does
this doxology do to me?
1. It makes me ashamed of my unbelief
How humbled I am that I could ever doubt Him. This unbelief of mine ties
the hands of the Saviour. Every possible evil seems to be included in this
one great sin of unbelief. Is it possible that with me, as in the gospel
days, the Lord cannot do many mighty works because of my unbelief? Are we
not ashamed of our grovelling petitions? Is it not sad that we make such petty
requests to the almighty King of heaven? How we should deplore our low spiritual
attainments. Is it not true that we have so often behaved like king Joash,
contenting ourselves with three feeble taps when we could have claimed and
received a great victory? The fact is that we have not yet learned to trust
God to be to us what He says He is.
2. It comes as a great challenge
It is God Himself who challenges us: "Prove me now herewith, if I will
not open the windows of heaven to you, and pour you out a blessing that
there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10). In Carey's
words, we are not only to ask great things of God but also to expect great
things from God. Was there not abundance at Cana of Galilee when Mary responded
to the challenge of Jesus; "Leave it to me" (John 2:4 Weymouth). Was the Lord
Jesus displeased with the four friends who let down their companion through
the roof? Did He rebuke the centurion who sought help for his sick servant?
Did He ignore that desperate cry at the eleventh hour when the crucified thief
asked for His mercy? Does He chide us if we ask for wisdom from above? No,
He ever delights to give, and to give abundantly, when we take up the challenge
of the impossible. He gives liberally, and He takes great pleasure in being
trusted to do so.
3. It teaches me ever to seek the glory of God
This is the most important lesson of all, that everything is intended
that He shall have the glory. We sometimes ask the Lord to teach us to pray,
forgetting that He has already done just this: "Whatsoever ye shall ask in
my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John
14:13). Our foolishness consists in that we insert a full stop where there
is none, and simply finish at the words: "that will I do". But there is no
such period, since the purpose that the Father should be glorified is meant
to actuate and regulate all our praying. In the Lord's prayer the objective
is that His should be the kingdom, the power and the glory. So it was that
the psalmist prayed: "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of
thy name" (Psalm 79:9). As Matthew Henry says: 'When we come to ask grace
from God, we ought to give glory to God'.
God has joined together His glory and our good. "Unto him be the glory"
was certainly the governing motive in the life of the apostle himself. He
seems, however, to have felt that this was inadequate, so he enlarged the
concept to include all believers: "in the church". But even glory in the
church was not enough. She is the subject and the instrument of God's glory,
but even she is not sufficient to express the superlative glory of God. Let
the whole church seek the glory of God, but even then this is not enough,
so the doxology continues: "and in Christ Jesus". In Him glory finds its fullness.
[42/43] "Thou Lord Jesus, Thou art He alone among
men eloquent enough to express the glory of God. Grace is poured into Thy
lips and Thou canst declare our praises" (Spurgeon). We feel that there the
apostle will end, but no, this is not enough. God must go on getting glory;
it must be: "Throughout all ages, world without end". There must be praise
and glory to God during all time and through all eternity. Only so can we
say our Amen. May this ever be our aim and objective.
4. It gives me great encouragement
I find great comfort in realising that the God in whom I put my trust
really is and will always be the exceeding abundantly able God. I think of
what He did for His people Israel. When they came to the impassable Red Sea,
He made a way for them. When they were confronted by the mighty obstacle of
Jericho, He made the walls fall flat. Note that He did not just take out a
stone or two for them to crawl through, but brought the whole mighty wall
down to ground level so that they could go straight up before them. He was
exceeding abundantly able then. And later, when Elijah stood on Mount Carmel
and prayed, "Please send the fire", the Lord's reply was so wonderful that
His fire not only burned up the inflammable elements but even burned the things
that would not burn. We must not confine our petitions for the burning of
what is capable of being burnt, but expect Him to burn what cannot be burned.
Then the next prophet, Elisha, proved in the case of the widow who had nothing
in her house, that God is still the same. It was not only that in her hitherto
empty house the oil flowed, but that in fact it overflowed. He has always
been the exceeding abundantly able God.
And what shall we say of New Testament days? Nobody but God could have
fed the five thousand, but as if that were not enough, He provided twelve
baskets over from the fragments left behind. When the disciples could catch
nothing He did not intervene just to give them a fish or two, but gave them
such a catch that the nets began to break, and the boat to sink, so that
they needed to call in their partners in order to cope with the abundance.
My encouragement is reinforced by the reminder that the Lord works in this
way: "according to the power that worketh in us". God has given us His Holy
Spirit to make Christ real and regnant in our lives and to be to us the pledge
of His limitless power. How can we be so discouraged or disheartened with
such an exceeding abundantly able God?
BUILDING WITH GOD
(Studies in the book of Nehemiah)
J. Alec Motyer
3. LIVING IN THE CITY OF GOD (7:1 TO 9:36)
THE city is now contained within its walls and as Nehemiah turns his
gaze inward, he begins to see how to order life within the city of God.
We are no longer therefore dealing with the principles of building, but
rather with the principles of the life of God's people within the city.
We have now come to a slightly less-known part of the book, and it may therefore
be helpful to take a quick review of the content of the passage which lies
before us. [Chapter] 6:15 draws a line across the story. Up to this point
we have been preoccupied with what Nehemiah himself calls "a great work",
the work of building the wall. Now the work is finished; but we shall see
that the danger still remains.
Summary of This Section
The danger continues. "Indeed in those days the nobles of Judah sent
many letters unto Tobiah, and letters of Tobiah came to them" (6:17). There
was already a fifth column in the city. The wall has been built but vigilance
must not be relaxed. Nehemiah charged the faithful governor to appoint watchers
(7:1-3) so that the city might be kept from its enemies. At this point Nehemiah
rather delightfully takes us inside his own thinking. He was so thrilled
with this wide and large city that the question arose as to who was going
to live there. "My God put into my heart to gather together the nobles and
the rulers [43/44] and the people, that they might
be reckoned by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of them which
came up at the first." He did not want unsuitable people living in his city.
The thought had come to him: "Here is a work fresh from the hand of God; here
is the city of God. I want people living there who are as special and as
fresh as the city itself."
Believing that this thought came to him from God he began to search the
records and this leads us to a long list of names which continues virtually
to the end of chapter 7. Yet life goes on in the city and not just in Nehemiah's
head. He is planning for the future population, but in the meantime the characteristic
life of the city of God is beginning to take shape. If you look back to
6:15 you will there find a date, the twenty-fifth day of the month of Elul,
which was the sixth month of the calendar. Then you will find that "the
seventh month was approaching ..." (7:73). There was therefore only a few
days between the completion of the wall and this dawning of the seventh
month. As we read through chapter 7 it takes us such a long time to stumble
through all the names that we may get the impression that quite a long time
had passed, but that was not the case. The wall was finished, and almost
immediately there came the thought that the seventh month was upon them.
Now this was a great month in the calendar of the Old Testament church and
brought very significant events into the life of the city of God. It is
necessary for us to note that the most important feature of this seventh
month was the reading of the Word of God. This is to be our main point in
this present article.
Within a week of the wall being completed, making the city for the first
time a single, visible entity, public reading of the Word of God set its
hallmark on the life of its inhabitants (8:1). That reading of the Word led
to a particular act of obedience, the keeping of the Feast of Tabernacles
(8:18). In turn this led to a season of national repentance and individual
re-dedication (Chapter 9). So we have cast an eye over the area of our present
study and can return to the beginning.
Chapter 6:15 introduces us to a new theme, a new pre-occupation. Up to
this point Nehemiah has been almost exclusively looking outwards. The enemy
had been pressing upon the City of God, trying to cause the building to
cease, so that Nehemiah's gaze had been constantly outward, to guard the
city and the people from his assaults. Now, however, a new topic is announced
as God's servant turns his gaze inward. It is announced in a sinister fashion
as Nehemiah becomes aware of those who live in the city but have their allegiance
outside. Letters were being exchanged with Tobiah, "for there were many in
Judah sworn to him" (v.18). This new theme is most significant and gives
a solemn warning to those who seek to live in the City of God in our day
and must therefore watch for the work of the enemy within the gates. So Nehemiah
turns his gaze inward. We are no longer dealing with the principles of building,
but with the principles of living within the sphere of that building.
1. Ceaseless Vigilance as the Price of Life
The first of those principles comes straight away at the beginning of
chapter 7. The wall is built: the war goes on. This stresses a basic principle
that the price of life within the city is ceaseless vigilance. The enemy
has not been banished by the building of the wall. The mere building of a
wall does not remove Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arabian and all
the rest. They are still near at hand. They are hostile still. The building
of the wall has neither ended their presence nor terminated their animosity.
When they first heard of the building, they hated it; and now that the building
is complete, they hate it still.
This is a foundational fact of life for the people of God to which we
must pay heed: there is no experience and there is no stage in experience
which removes the need for vigilance. So long as they are in this world,
there is no spiritual experience which can come either to the individual believer
or to the whole company of believers which relieves them from the need for
watching against the enemy. Vigilance is the price of life. Nehemiah is fully
aware of this and gives us a visual aid to what will be the experience of
the individual believer and of the whole Church until Jesus comes again. For
until He comes, in the will of God we are in the presence of a hostile and
hating enemy. Nothing will remove us from the presence and animosity of that
foe except the Second Coming. Vigilance must go on, so "I gave my brother
Hanaru and Hananiah, the governor of the castle, charge over Jerusalem, for
he was a faithful man" (7:2). There is a contrast between the nobles alluded
to at the end of chapter 6. Look at them: they [44/45]
are sworn to Tobiah. Now look at Hananiah: "he was in the category of
a faithful man", which would be nearer to a literal translation. This man
could be trusted and, what is more, he was a man that feared God above many.
Twice already we have heard God described as "The God of heaven, the Great
and Awesome" and then "The Sovereign One, the Great and Awesome". The sense
of the awesomeness of God which should be felt by God's people is one of
the striking features of Nehemiah's testimony. Because of his fear of God
this man was safe to be put in charge of God's work since he would not watch
the faces of men but would keep his eyes on the face of God.
Then Nehemiah makes conditions for the safety of the city. In verse 3
he is making very strict regulations about when the city gates are to be
opened and when they are to be kept shut. This is one of quite a few verses
in Nehemiah which is difficult to translate but, as is so often the case
in Scripture, such a difficulty hardly affects the essential meaning. It
is clear here that nothing is to be left to chance. For my part I prefer a
translation which would run like this: 'Let not the gates be opened while
the sun is hot; and while they are standing at ease, let them shut the doors.'
Nehemiah is aware that they will make sensible arrangements about keeping
the gates closed at night time, but he fears that in the drowsy mid-afternoon
they may be forgetful, so he gives instructions that while the sun is hot
and men are having their siesta, standing at ease, then they should be very
careful to shut the gates. That subtle enemy might well attack when you are
not expecting him. Vigilance is the price of life.
At the end of this verse Nehemiah makes a comprehensive obligation for
everybody to watch: "everyone over against his house". Nehemiah was second
to none when it came to clear thinking, and he knew that if a man will watch
over anything, he will watch over his own patch. So he suggested that in
addition to taking their turn on watch duty, men should be always on guard
around their own houses. Vigilance! Vigilance! It must never be relaxed.
You must have gate-keepers; you must have an officer in charge overall; you
must have a faithful God-fearing man in charge; you must have regulations
about opening and shutting of the gates; you must have a citizen guard. Everybody
must be involved in this task of watching. This means, of course, that although
the wall is built, the very same principles which obtained then are still
valid. No spiritual experience can ever nullify the need for vigilance, since
the threat is constant. It is so easy to get into an alliance with Tobiah:
it is so difficult to be a faithful man who will fear God above many. The
people of God still need the means of grace to keep them alert.
2. The Individual Basis of Membership
The second principle of life in the City of God is enshrined in the long
list of names which occupies almost all of the rest of this chapter. It is
concerned with the individual basis of membership. "The city," says Nehemiah,
"was wide and large, while the people were few. God therefore put it into
my heart to gather together the nobles and rulers, that they might be reckoned
by genealogy." Nehemiah was not collecting names. He was not taking a census.
He was registering claims. The question was as to who had a right to live
in the city. So Nehemiah was going back by way of genealogy to see who had
the right pedigree for membership, and naturally this involved not looking
at people in bulk but weighing them individually. Nehemiah wanted to people
his city only with those who had a valid claim to membership, those who had
this as their birthright.
It is very interesting to notice how he decided the validity of such
a claim. He did not go back to Abraham. He says: "I found the book of the
genealogy of them that came up at the first" (v.5). This means that he found
a list of people with a genuine commitment to the cause of God. Within the
broad, sweeping factor of descent from Abraham he looked for those who had
been unwilling to settle down to the comfortable life of the Persian Empire
and had therefore been prepared to commit themselves to the hardships of
a return to the City of God. Who has the birthright? Who are the committed
people? What is the hall-mark of the individual citizen? As we would say,
It is the new birth. He must be able to trace back his pedigree to our Heavenly
Father who, of His own will, brought him forth by the word of truth. The
member of this community must have the assurance of divine approval, and
the consecration of practical holiness seen in the handing over of his goods
to the cause of God. All these features can be found in chapter 7.
3. Rejoicing in the Knowledge of God's Word
We come on now to chapter 8, to find there the third principle of life
in the City of God. We [45/46] have had Vigilance
and Individual Membership, and we pass to this matter of Rejoicing in the
Knowledge of God's Word. I have tried to define this carefully because it
has a threefold content: first there is the recognition of that Word, secondly
there is the knowledge of it and then, thirdly, joy in that knowledge.
We have already seen how quickly life in the city got going. They just
had time to collect their wits, wash their hands, change their dungarees
for their best suits, and they were away! So life in the city began very
quickly and it immediately assumed a very significant shape. There was a
book which held the foremost place in the life of the city, and we read now
of their first communal act as a company of citizenry: "All the people gathered
themselves together as one man in the broad place that was before the Watergate,
and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses
which the Lord had commanded to Israel." They were of a single mind in this
first act. Bring out the Book! What is more, they saw it as a Book which
commanded the attention of all alike (vv.1 and 2). "They caused the people
to understand the law" (v.7); "And they read the book distinctly and gave
the sense, so that they understood the reading" (v.8) and "They gave attention
to the words of the law" (v.13). Trace the family down to the lowest age
at which understanding of the things of God is possible, and the Book demanded
their attention, and that not a passing touch but a prolonged and repeated
attention. "He read therein before the broad place ... from early morning
until midday" (v.3), "Also, day by day, from the first day until the last
day, he read in the book of the law of God" (v.18). "Now in the twenty and
fourth day of this month ... they stood up in their place and they read in
the book of the law of the Lord their God a fourth part of the day" (9:3).
It is most impressive to notice the prolonged, repeated attention which they
gave to God's Book.
This Book began from the start to dominate the common life of the people
of God, exercising its claim upon all alike, men and women and any who could
hear with understanding, and holding their concentrated attention. There
were special holy days appointed by God which occurred in this seventh month,
but the chapter begins with an ordinary day, not specially designated by God
but set apart by the people for this purpose. They marked the day by giving
a quarter of the time to listening to God's Word. In our next study we will
encounter another such special day set aside by the wish of the people for
this same purpose, for from the first they were dominated by this glad submission
to the authority of the Law of the Lord. The Book was at the centre of their
Now let us see together how that Book is described. "They spoke to Ezra
the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord commanded
to Israel" (8:1). (See also vv.3, 7, 8, 14, 18; 9:3, 20, 29.) To summarise,
the Book is described as to its origin: that is, the Lord; as to its communication:
it was taught by the Spirit and given through Moses; as to its form: it is
a book; as to its content: law, commandments, statutes and judgments; and
as to its recipients: it was given to Israel. It will be profitable to consider
each of these five factors, for what we find so clearly stated in the book
of Nehemiah can be taken from this setting and applied to the whole of the
1. Its Origin
In 2 Timothy 3:16 we read that "Every Scripture is inspired by God",
which is an adequate translation, but it does not give full value to the
Greek. The only way in which we can do this is to invent an English word
and say: "Every Scripture is God-breathed". That is to say, it had its origin
in God as His own very breath; it has come right out from Him. Inspiration
means something much more than His approval. There never was an occasion
on which God said to Himself: "My word, that man Isaiah is a good preacher.
He has some wonderful ideas. I think that perhaps I will listen to one or
two of his sermons, and if I approve, I will give them a little extra polish
and call them inspiration." No! No! Inspiration is not like the seal of the
Good-housekeeping Institute. The sort of thing that happens for that is
that some inventive person labours night and day to produce a saucepan from
which it is impossible to pour milk without spilling it, and then finds a
firm who will only market it if it first obtains the seal of the Good-housekeeping
Institute. It is therefore taken and -- as they say -- tested to destruction,
and when they find that in fact one cannot pour milk out of it without spilling
it, they give it their Seal! Now inspiration is not like that. It never means
that God came in to improve or approve work done by somebody else. The Word
was breathed by God Himself. It had its origin in Him. [46/47]
2. Its Transmission
"No prophecy ever came by the will of man, but human beings spoke from
God, being moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). How aptly Peter sums
up what we have found in Nehemiah, and does so in a doctrinal statement.
No prophecy ever came by the will of man. It was not that Isaiah had conceived
a good idea for a sermon, but that he was moved by the Spirit. This gives
us Nehemiah's double testimony: the Book was taught by the Spirit and given
through Moses. This is true of the whole Bible; it came from God, human
agents being taken up and moved by the Holy Spirit. Peter uses the same
word as is employed to describe Paul's shipwreck: "the ship being driven
by a mighty wind" (Acts 27:15). So it was when the writers of the Scripture
were moved by God. This was no ordinary or calm action of the Spirit; it
was not a gentle push, but rather a howling gale of the Spirit of God as
He took hold of human agents and made them into men capable of bringing
His own very Word to the Church.
That has resulted in what we call: "verbal inspiration", this marvel
of the words of man being truly the Word of God. Paul makes this claim:
"... which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches,
but which the Spirit teaches" (1 Corinthians 2:13). This is possible because
the Holy Spirit so presides over the whole business that it is not just the
drift of ideas but the very word in which the message is expressed which has
been superintended by the inspiring Spirit working through the human agent.
For some this poses a problem and they ask how a man can become the vehicle
of the Word of God without losing his individuality and sacrificing his personality.
"Is it right," they ask, "that a man should be used by God as a mere typewriter?"
Well now, for my part I can only say that if God asked if He could use me
as His typewriter, I would reply: "Please feel free, Lord. I would be honoured",
since I do not think that it in any way detracts from the dignity of any
man to be taken up and used by God. In fact, however, it was not like that,
and there was no trespass on the dignity of human personality.
There are those who qualify inspiration by using the illustration of
a stained glass window. "Outside," they say, "you have the 'pure light of
the sun', but when that strikes upon such a window you see inside no longer
the pure light but light which has become tainted and tinged by passing
through the stained glass. It is thus modified in its purity because it
has passed through an impure agent." They go on to argue that although the
Word came by inspiration and therefore left heaven untainted, it has now
come to us with the tinges and discolourations of a sinful humanity full
of proneness to error. I accept the analogy of a stained glass window, but
suggest that it should be considered in another way. In the best sort of
stained glass window every colour is there and every pattern is used and
every figuration given a part because the designer so intended. He planned
that window precisely so as to bring the pure sunlight into the building
to fulfil his own purpose. The light, therefore, far from being distorted,
is in fact expressing the perfect plan and purpose of the designer. The
Lord told Jeremiah that He had planned for the prophet before ever he had
been conceived (Jeremiah 1:5). Jeremiah was told that he had not come to
birth by accident nor by the will of man alone, but because God had a purpose
for him in his day and generation which would continue so long as the Church
is here on earth. He was told that in being moved by the Holy Spirit to speak
God's Word he would serve as a kind of stained glass window of God's design
to transmit heaven's light to man.
The nearer a man comes to God, the more he becomes a man. That is why
Jesus is the perfect Man. The nearer a man comes to God and the more he submits
to the will of God, the more human he is. This is no devaluation of human
personality, for this is the definition of what man was meant to be, that
is made in the image of God. These Bible writers were not only men planned
by God but were brought into such intimate fellowship with Him that they
were able, in Jeremiah's words, to stand in His council (Jeremiah 23:22).
Being brought into that intimate communion, they heard the very words which
God wished them to speak, and so they became verbally inspired to speak to
the Church on earth. So much for the transmission of the Book.
3. Its Form
To use the expression of Nehemiah, the form of this revelation is a book.
Probably the force of this term is to impress upon us the fixity of the message.
We have a book. It is deliberately planned in its content; it has a beginning,
a middle and an end. It is not subject to revision, [47/48]
subtraction or alteration. It remains as a fixed entity. When Ezekiel
saw God open the roll of the book, he noted that it was written within and
on the reverse side: there was no room left for Ezekiel's own thoughts.
4. Its Content
We find that Nehemiah uses four words to describe the content of this
book: he describes it as Law, Commandments, Statutes and Judgments.
LAW. The word "law" is a particularly unfortunate translation. We can
catch the feeling intended if we remember that in the book of the Proverbs
we read such things as: "My son, hear the law of your father". Law is instruction
given by a loving parent to a beloved child. That is how God speaks to His
people. He speaks to them as their Teacher whose instructions come from a
loving Father to provide them with educative guidance which they need for
life in this world.
JUDGMENTS. Even in English this word implies authority. The judge on
the bench makes a pronouncement which brooks no contradiction. This is what
the word really means. There is a decision to be made. The royal mind comes
down on one side and not on the other, and the matter is finally decided
and fixed. When the Word of God is called a judgment, this is what it means,
namely that God has made up His mind and spoken with authority.
STATUTES. The word is based on a verb which means: "to engrave, as on
a rock". When the Word of God is called his "statutes", this speaks of its
abiding and unalterable character. It cannot be rubbed out with an eraser,
or blotted out by any artifice known to man; it is graven as on a rock for
permanency. "The word of the Lord which lives and abides for ever."
COMMANDMENTS. This speaks of its application to life. It makes us aware
that God takes His abiding principles and His eternal decrees and brings
them down for our obedience in the practical details of daily life. Such is
the wealth of Scripture that these practical commandments come to us in a
variety of ways. Sometimes they are absolutely straight down the line: Do
this, and Do not do that! Sometimes they are enshrined in the example of
one of the great gallery of people who are there described. Sometimes they
are stated in principles which we have to work with to discover before God
just how they apply to us. Matthew 12:1-8 gives us an excellent example of
how Jesus used the Bible in the form of precepts, principles and examples.
5. Its Recipients
This is by no means of least importance. "The law of Moses which the
Lord commanded to Israel" (8:1). The law was not only given by Moses, it
was given to Israel. This is not an accidental addition. Today there are
people who speak of the Bible as the Church's book. "The Church gave the
Bible to the world," I have heard people say. Nothing could be further from
the truth. God, through man, gave the Bible to the Church. The Bible is
not the Church's book in any sense that the Church has authority to change
it, add to it or subtract from it. On the contrary, God gave the Book to
the Church that she should accept it, submit to it and live by it. The people
of God are most characteristically described as "the people that belong to
the Book"! At its most fundamental level, the Church is to be defined as
a keeper and a witness in this matter of Holy Writ. A keeper, because God
has given to His people the responsibility of safeguarding it and handing
it on; and as a witness, because they have the responsibility of testifying
to the world of what God has written in His Book. The Book is over the Church.
It is given to her by God and through men.
The Book is directed primarily to the understanding. It was to be read
before men and women and "all that could hear with understanding" (8:2).
That was the qualification. That is what matters. Whatever their age, can
they hear with understanding? (vv.3, 7, 8 & 12). So there is this constant
repetition about understanding. This is the proper response of the Church
to the Word of God -- to understand what is there, to grasp it with a sanctified
mind. God gave this Book through His chosen instruments so that His people
should submit their minds in seeking to understand it and use every spiritual
means to that end. See how the people needed correction over this matter
by reason of their emotional response. Nehemiah and Ezra had to say to them:
"This day is holy unto the Lord your God. Mourn not nor weep; for all the
people were mourning and weeping when they heard the words of the law" (v.9).
The words of the law affected their feelings. As they listened to its rebuke
and became aware of their shortcomings, they gave themselves up to an emotional
response by weeping. Nehemiah, however, deliberately [48/49]
turned them away from this reaction of their feelings about the Word
of God, in order to make them focus their attention on the proper response,
a true understanding of that Word. This is the pearl of great price -- a spiritual
understanding of what God has said. Nehemiah taught the people to put their
minds before their emotions in relation to Holy Scripture. "And all the people
went their way ... to make great mirth, because they had understood the words
that were declared unto them" (v.12). They realised that they were to let
nothing come between them and a right understanding. It is moreover in that
connection that we find the lovely and widely known verse: "The joy of the
Lord is your strength".
Joy in the Lord is your strength! What a remarkable verse! They were
weeping because the law had rebuked them, but Nehemiah assured them that
they could find joy in the God of rebukes. The only way to flee from the
wrath of God is to flee to God and to rejoice that in Him there is a sure
stronghold. The joy of the Lord is your fortress. They had been building
this massive wall all around the city, but now Nehemiah confidently tells
them that their real safety lay in sheltering in the unchanging joy of the
Lord. It is clear that he was not speaking to tell of joys in general, but
in the context of this joy of understanding the law of God.
The law of God led the people to the spiritual experience of repentance:
"They wept when they understood the word". The law of God led them to mirth,
also because they understood. Weeping and laughter are complementary parts
of spiritual growth. The law led them on as individuals in their spiritual
experience and it led them together into a life of obedience, passing from
repentance to worship and dedication. Do please note, dear readers, that
understanding the Law of God is not an arid, intellectual exercise. It is
the key to spiritual advance. It is the key to life in the City of God.
(To be continued)
PURPOSE AND PATTERN
(Studies in the Epistle to the Ephesians)
John H. Paterson
4. WHAT IS THE CHURCH FOR?
TWICE over in his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul refers to God's eternal
purpose. We considered in our last study the first of these two references
(1:11), the one in which Paul defines the purpose in general terms. God's
great plan is to sum up all things in Christ. But so great a purpose requires
the participation of many agents, each of whom will play a specific part
in bringing the plan to fruition. Just as a general before a battle will assign
his various units their particular tasks -- one to capture a village, another
to occupy a hill, a third to cut the line of the enemy withdrawal -- so God
has planned the involvement in the purpose of all His agents. And among those
agents the Church is assigned a key role.
It is the role of the Church which forms the subject of the second reference
(3:10-11). Basically, says Paul, that role is to supply evidence:
to put on exhibition the manifold wisdom of God. By doing this, evidently,
the Church will be contributing in the most direct way possible to the ongoing
purpose of God.
I wonder whether, like me, you find this statement surprising? What a
curious choice on God's part! Is it for this that God has been training His
people, and preparing His Church? Was it for this that the Lord Jesus began,
so carefully and patiently, the training of the first disciples before He
left them -- not apparently to fight for Him against the forces of evil,
but just to be a kind of exhibition? It sounds rather as if our general trained
a crack regiment of his troops for jungle warfare, and then sent them off
to give concerts on the bandstand back at home!
WE can only conclude that this matter of supplying evidence is of vital
importance. What is required, says Paul, is evidence of God's wisdom; not
of His power, or His love, or His holiness, but of His wisdom. That is where
the Church plays the key part. [49/50]
But, surely, everybody knows that God is wise? That goes with
the very concept of being God. If, however, that is our reaction, we are
all being very naive. For where in this sad old world of ours is the evidence
that God is wonderfully wise? Is it in the earthquakes and avalanches
that blot out whole villages of people, good and bad alike? Is it in the
birth of deformed babies? Is it in the prosperity of the unscrupulous moneymaker
or the denial of justice to the poor? If there is a God at all, and that
God is very wise, why does He allow all those things to happen? And if you
reply that they are not really His will but are the outcome of man's sin and
fall, then whose sin caused the earthquake that kills thousands, and why
should a wise God have created in the first place a world in which such things
happen? Surely wisdom would have foreseen it all and chosen primaeval chaos
rather than a creation of such hideous potentialities?
The fact of the matter is that while Christians believe in the
wisdom of God, even they sometimes admit to wondering why that wisdom remains
hidden. Job did; so did the psalmist; so, too, did Elijah and Jeremiah and
Habakkuk and others of the prophets. The best that that great servant of
God, Samuel Rutherford, could do was to hold on to the belief that one
day his experience would be seen as the work of a wise God, even though
it made no sense at the time:
"I'll bless the hand that guided,
I'll bless the heart that planned,
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel's land."
And if God's wisdom is not apparent to us who are predisposed in His
favour, you may be sure that the generality of mankind greets the idea of
a God who is wise with scorn and disbelief.
ONE day, the wisdom of God will be manifest to everyone, along with His
power and His love and all those other attributes which, for the time being,
may be hidden from the eyes of the world. It is for this 'time being' that
the Church must supply the evidence of His wisdom. But how is this to be
done? Certainly not by closing our eyes to all that evidence of apparent 'un-wisdom'
which weights so heavily with ordinary people. God's people must develop
in honesty, humility and compassion their responses to the realities of life
in a suffering creation; they must show by their reaction to a creation that
'groans and travails' their confidence in the ultimate wisdom and goodwill
of its Creator. That said, perhaps a general answer to our question: 'How
can the Church provide evidence of God's wisdom?' might be: By its indifference
to the received wisdom of this world; that is, by its exhibiting another
and higher wisdom, and by its confident insistence that what the word judges
to be wise, and accepts as such, may really be folly.
To go into a detailed examination of what this involves would require
more space than we have here. But in the context of the Ephesian letter Paul
draws particular attention to certain aspects of the higher wisdom of God.
He suggests to us that the Church expresses that wisdom among other things:
1. By its declaration of independence from the "prince of the power of
the air" (2:2); that is, by its openly-expressed preference for the rule
of another. Considering that, to remain under Satan's control, man needs
to do nothing at all; considering, too, all the hardships and dangers involved
in declaring independence from his control, the Church's repeated insistence
that it will not accept him as its lord is powerful evidence that
it has found a better and a wiser Ruler.
2. By its indifference to historic divisions of mankind which others
have accepted as immovable barriers -- first and foremost the division between
Jew and Gentile which has been swept away in Christ -- and their replacement
by positive, fruitful, functioning relationships -- between master
and servant, parent and child, husband and wife.
3. By its life together (4:1-3) in unity, harmony and mutual help; that
is, as an exhibition in microcosm of how the human race was intended all
along to function.
4. By its choice of standards; that is, by its refusal to "walk as other
Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind" (or "with their good-for-nothing
notions" as the New English Bible translates 4:17). The Church sets
its standards regardless of what is, or is not, accepted by the world as
a whole; it recongnises that there is a conduct suited to the "old man" and
a quite different standard for the new (4:22-24).
Let us notice two other things about this task to which the Church is
called. One of them, [50/51] according to Paul, is
the audience to whom this exhibition is to be presented: "that now
unto the principalities and powers in the heavenly places might be known by
the Church the manifold wisdom of God." Not to men and women, but to principalities:
We can only speculate here, but the most likely answer would seem to
be: because men and women are so easily deceived that their criteria of
spiritual wisdom are totally unreliable. To convince them would be
no guarantee of the truth. But the principalities and powers know precisely
how things stand. They have the spiritual intelligence to 'know the
score'. One has only to listen to ordinary people discussing the 'wisdom'
of God as it is seen through the ordinary disasters of everyday life to
realise their ignorance, and their inability to make true judgments. It is
not necessarily people's own fault that they cannot discern spiritual wisdom;
as Paul comments to the Corinthians: "the god of this world has blinded the
minds of them which believe not". So let us not waste time, says Paul, in
offering proof of the divine wisdom to those who in any case will not recognise
it. Let us realise that the real audience which we have to convince is made
up of super-intelligent beings who know very well what is at stake -- their
THE second and final comment on Paul's statement of God's purpose for
His Church is that he speaks of God's wisdom as being "manifold". This word
is variously translated by reputable scholars as "the innumerable aspects
of God's wisdom" (Weymouth), "the many-sided wisdom" (Godspeed), "the complex
wisdom of God's plan" (Phillips); all of them carry the same thought. God's
wisdom is so great and so many-sided that no single human witness could provide
evidence of the whole of it. Nothing less than the whole Church could be
adequate for this task. At the very heart of God's purpose for His people
is found this fact: the Christian life is a life together or it is nothing.
This is true not just in the negative sense -- that divisions in the Church
are regrettable and spoil the Church's testimony. It is also true in the
positive sense -- that the task is so great that only the whole of the Church,
every single member of it, is a sufficient vehicle for this purpose. Nothing
less will do, and that is what Paul is going on to point out in Ephesians
4. How could the many-sided wisdom of God find expression in anything less
than the whole people, "the fulness of him that filleth all in all"?
So the Church's task is to exhibit God's wisdom. Is it cynical or unreasonable
to comment that, in too much of church history, wisdom is precisely what
has not been on display? Church history, alas, bears testimony to pettiness,
silliness and disputes arising out of sheer ignorance. Yet God in His grace
perseveres with this, His special 'task force'. He commits to it, for the
time being, His own reputation, and relies upon it to provide the evidence
that, contrary to all appearances, He has acted from the first in wisdom.
And He awaits a day when, unlikely though it must at present seem, He will
be vindicated by this same faltering, imperfect task force, His Church.
"When he shall come to be glorified in his saints,
and to be marvelled at in all them that believe."
(To be continued)
Reading: Revelation 2:8-11
WE are not told how John's Revelation to the churches was delivered to
the Christians in those seven towns of Asia Minor. There can be no doubt
that they were conveyed by hand, but what we do not know is whether they
were all taken by the same messenger. If this were the case, then it would
be interesting to know the reactions of the man concerned as he visited the
different assemblies and observed from the human viewpoint those seven groups
whose spiritual conditions were so vividly described by the risen Lord as
He walked among them. [51/52]
What about the church at Ephesus? 'Oh,' the messenger might well exclaim,
'that is a thriving fellowship. They are very active and very orthodox --
one of the best!' After all, a mere observer would hardly discern that fatal
lack of love to Himself which made the Lord wonder whether He would remove
the lampstand. And what about Laodicea? Unless our imaginary visitor were
a man of spiritual discernment, he would probably place this church in the
highest category. The church members themselves boasted of their wealth and
complete sufficiency. It is possible that their self-congratulations were
connected with material affluence, but it may well have been that the whole
set-up was seemingly wealthy in talent, popularity and outward success. 'What
a wonderful church; they have everything,' we can imagine the visitor exclaiming,
unless, of course, he was aware of Christ's scathing denunciation in their
And what about the church in Smyrna? What indeed? Would our supposed
messenger have answered that question with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders
or a pitying shake of the head? It was a poor little church, beset by a
multitude of difficulties. If the bearer of the letters had read their contents
for himself, he might perhaps have pointed out that even the Lord wrote
so briefly and seemed to have little to offer them. His promises to the
overcomers in the other churches had held out many amazing and thrilling
prospects, while to those in Smyrna He merely gave the assurance that they
would escape the second death. This seems rather a common place benefit
in comparison with the morning stars, hidden manna and thrones proffered
to the others.
Poor Smyrna! Yes, that is what men would and did say about them. That
moreover is what they said about themselves. 'We are poor and we are in real
trouble. For us the prospects are very poor,' might quite truly have been
their sad verdict on themselves. Christ, however, would have none of this.
Far from commiserating with them, He congratulated them. 'I know all about
your tribulations, yes and your poverty too,' He said, 'BUT you are rich.'
The conjunction is quite an emphatic one, showing that the Lord's verdict
was another and an altogether different one. It is as though He said 'Not
at all! It is rich that you are! Whatever others say, and whatever you yourselves
feel, I, the Lord of the churches, say that you are the richest of them
all.' This seems a reasonable enough exegesis of the four little words which
have been placed in double brackets.
What is more, we must take note of the Lord's use of the present tense.
He did not say that they used to be rich. That was what He implied about
Ephesus. Alas! It may easily be the case with us that our vital spiritual
experiences are limited to past history. There are few sadder things than
that the Lord should have to say of a church, as through Jeremiah He did say
to Israel: "I remember concerning thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love
of thine espousals", because of its departure from that first love. The Ephesians
had once been rich in their love relationship with Christ, but they had frittered
away that wealth. Happily Smyrna's wealth was not just a matter of past history.
Nor was it merely a hope for the future. Thank God for His grace! Even the
Laodiceans had the possibility of becoming wealthy: "I counsel thee to buy
of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich". There is hope
for the poorest of us that we may yet become spiritually affluent if we are
prepared to pay the price of the refining fire. Smyrna, however, had Christ's
riches as her present possession. So far as she was concerned, the Lord's
clear verdict was that in her present condition she was then and there a
spiritually wealthy assembly.
"Thou art rich!" I would love to be a member of such a church, especially
to be an "angel" there (whatever that may mean). Nothing more wonderful could
ever be possible than to be judged rich by divine assessment. Even more,
perhaps, I would find it wonderful to have this said of me personally. I
can imagine no deeper heart satisfaction in life than to receive a personal
message from the risen Christ to say that He counted me among His wealthy
disciples. All true lovers of the Lord must feel like this.
We must remember, however, the circumstances and trials of this rich
church. The 'but' of contrast relates not only to human opposing judgments,
their own or others, but to the cold hard facts. They were being sorely
tried. They were really poor. Was this why they were so wealthy? Can it be
that tribulation and deprivation are the necessary background to such a condition
of spiritual affluence? Must we go through what Smyrna endured to acquire
the riches which Smyrna possessed? We do not know, [52/53]
but at least we may get some help in the matter if we consider more closely
the actual condition of these wealthy saints. In what were they rich?
1. Christ was Everything to Them
There are many definitions of a local church, and many ideas as to its
correct procedure. Here we keep to the simplest possible description, namely
that it was composed of a truly born-again group of believers, gathered
in such a way as to provide opportunity for the Holy Spirit to voice among
them the timely message of the risen Christ. This was certainly true at
Smyrna. Their life together was based absolutely on the Lord Jesus Himself.
No mention is made of their activities, though we can be sure that they
worked for Him; no mention is made of their doctrinal niceties, though since
Christ was the First and the Last to them, we can be sure that they were
Scriptural; and no mention is made of their failures or weaknesses, though
doubtless they were far from perfect. It is as though Christ filled their
whole horizon. He was the First and He was also the Last, and He was everything
Some time ago we had in our home a doctor from Hungary. He himself had
been in prison for his faith and his son had been shot. We tried to get
him to talk about events in his land, but every time he smilingly changed
the conversation to talking about our glorious Saviour and Lord. He knew
tribulation and poverty, but he was rich. Much richer than those of us who
wanted to be so sorry for him. Similarly we are not told what the tribulations
were which beset the church in Smyrna; we only know that they loved to meditate
on the Saviour who had been crucified for them and was now sharing His risen
life with them.
When you went home from a church service in Smyrna, you did not discuss
the moving sermon, the gratifying collection or the beautiful music -- you
just thanked the Lord that you had met Christ, that He had spoken timely
words of comfort to your soul, and that He had enabled you to lift your eyes
away from present trials to His throne in the glory. Those who can do that
are rich indeed. 'I know that you are a poor church,' the Lord said, 'everybody
knows that. But in My estimation you are the richest of them all.' It is
His opinion which matters. As Laodicea shows, it is fleshly and calamitous
to boast of your own riches. It is both humbling and inspiring, though, to
boast in Christ and to have the Spirit's witness that all His riches are yours.
"Fear not," was a specially intimate word of comfort for them alone.
Those words of re-assurance had often been on the lips of Christ as He walked
on this earth. He had spoken them, too, to John, when the apostle was overwhelmed
by the greatness of the revelation (1:17). John, however, was the great and
beloved apostle, whereas they were nobodies. How surprising and thrilling
that He should say the same to them. His message of comfort was not only
for those who were to be imprisoned, but to the whole church: "I will give
thee the crown of life". There was to be no easy future for them, but they
must remember that He would be appreciatively watching their loyalty all the
time and would be personally there at the end of the way, waiting to bestow
a further crown to complete all their other riches. When Christ is both First
and Last, you are not over-concerned with synagogues and prisons.
2. They Shared the Reproach of Christ
Even greater than their poverty was the painful matter of their sufferings.
"I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty", the Lord assured them.
These tried saints did not have much time for speculating about the "Great
Tribulation" for, in all conscience, their own tribulation was great enough
and threatened to become greater. In this connection there is a startling
use of the word 'blasphemy'. Normally this is a word which is reserved for
God, implying contempt and indignity concerning the Deity. Here, however,
it is used to describe the insulting attitude of this "synagogue of Satan"
towards the saints in Smyrna. It suggests that the sneers and lies of the
hypocritical mockers were really directed against Christ, and that He took
them as a personal insult. The attacks on the believers in Smyrna were really
attacks upon their Lord, for it is He whom Satan hates. His people were therefore
bearing His reproach. This made all the difference. Nobody likes being ridiculed
or maligned, but how much more bearable it becomes when we realise that what
is really happening is that we are bearing the reproach of Christ.
We may enquire of Moses what such a reproach entails. The Scriptures
state that he accounted it greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. It
seems, then, that Moses would have [53/54] been very
ready to confirm Christ's opinion that the church in Smyrna was indeed a
rich one. He was one of the few characters in the Bible who had a first-hand
knowledge of riches. As adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, he had been brought
up in extreme luxury. The museum pieces of priceless value which men now
marvel at were matters of daily commonplace to Moses. This was the man who
saw all that the wealthiest of nations had to offer, and doubtless had at
his disposal and within his expectations such affluence as would make modern
millionaires seem penurious; yet when he was able to make a quiet assessment
of it all, he decided that it was dross and tinsel compared with the reproach
of Christ. With hindsight we know that he was right. Moses the servant of
God was infinitely richer than Moses the prince of Egypt. It was true for
him. Yet if we had lived at Smyrna, or if we are passing through circumstances
similar to those of the saints there, we would find it hard to accept such
an assessment. This is not our natural idea of what it means to be rich.
It is therefore a timely reminder from the Lord that there is no wealth to
compare with the privilege of those who share His reproach.
"Which say they are Jews." The phraseology here employed indicates that
the harsh treatment came under the guise of religion. How often, through
the centuries, has official, institutional religion persecuted God's true
people. Probably there is less of this today, but in the lifetime of the older
generation, true believers were hounded and martyred by those who claimed
to be Christians. In any case, Satan always has his agents for venting upon
simple believers the intense hatred which he harbours against the Lord. It
is still possible for Christ's disciples to suffer at the hands of those who
claim to be God's people.
The message goes on to predict further tribulation for this sorely tried
church. Obviously their spiritual wealth did not bring ease and comfort in
circumstances. The treasures which they were to enjoy were what the prophet
called: "the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places" (Isaiah
45:3). So the same Lord who pronounced them rich, warned them of worse troubles
Concerning these impending trials, several points should be noticed.
First, although the actual imprisonment would only come to some of their
number, the whole church was being tried. So close is the relatedness of
spiritual fellowship that sorrows and burdens, as well as joys and victories,
are all shared. All at Smyrna were challenged to be faithful, and all were
promised the imperishable crown. This in itself gives point to Christ's
assertion that they were rich, for it is a blessing beyond price to participate
in the common love of Christ, a love in which sufferings and comforts alike
The second point to notice is that the Lord permitted and measured the
extent of their trials. "Ten days," Jesus said -- neither more nor less.
There is not the slightest hint that if the church members still at liberty
prayed harder and more earnestly, their imprisoned brethren could be released
after only nine or eight days! If Bible numbers mean anything, then the ten
is symbolic and speaks of a testing period carried through to its full. But
if the church cannot shorten the time, neither can man or devil lengthen
it. "Ten days," the Lord said, and ten days it would be.
It is possible that the symbolism is meant to emphasise the brevity of
the period. When Laban and his mother begged Abraham's servant to linger
another ten days before taking Rebekah back to his master's house, they were
arguing that they only wanted a short delay (Genesis 24:55). When Daniel
and his companions asked to be excused from eating the king's dainties, they
said: "Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days" (Daniel 1:12). That
will be long enough, they argued -- just ten days. And now it is as though
the risen Lord reassured His tried people by saying: "It will be only ten
days. For you, My elect's sake, I will shorten the days of trial." Rich indeed
are the sufferers who know that the Lord has perfect control of their trials,
has foreseen and measured them, and promised to be ever near throughout their
relatively short duration. This poor little church, then, was rich in the
present as it shared the reproach of Christ and soon to be enjoying even
greater riches, for they who suffer with Christ will reign with Him. Let
us not envy the bustling, successful Ephesian church, or the smug and prosperous
Laodiceans; let us rather envy those who, like the saints at Smyrna, have
the privilege of bearing the reproach of Christ.
3. They were Trusted by Christ
It may not be out of place to stress the brevity of this letter and the
seeming ordinariness of the promise to overcomers, for it is a strange fact
that often those who are being most pleasing [54/55]
to their Lord are given the least evidence of His blessing. Does this
sound strange? Is it not illustrated by those deeply satisfying human friendships
in which no words or acts of reassurance are necessary because perfect sympathy
and mutual trust guarantee the intimate relationship? Spiritual immaturity
makes it necessary for the Lord to give repeated proofs of His love and faithfulness
to weak believers. This is perhaps why we all have wonderful experiences
of divine blessing and answers to prayer in the early stages of our Christian
life. If the Lord did not multiply to us such exciting evidences of His
love we might faint or be discouraged. In our foolishness we sometimes imagine
that such actions on His part prove how close is our relationship with Him,
whereas precisely the opposite may be true.
The Old Testament gives a number of examples of how the Lord trusted
His maturest servants to press on in their spiritual life with scarcely
any apparent encouragement from Him. Job is an outstanding example of this
kind of mutual trustfulness. God knew that, however harsh circumstances
were, Job would never let Him down; and Job remained true just because he
was sure that the Lord would not let him down. Jeremiah was another man to
whom the Lord granted the honour of little or no encouragement over many
long and wearisome years. In our immaturity we might exclaim: 'Poor Jeremiah!'
but history has shown how rich he was and eternity will make that even more
And what shall we say of the New Testament, and especially of the beloved
Son of the Father? He had forty days alone in the wilderness, where there
was no voice from heaven, no miraculous provision of bread, but only wild
beasts and Satan. When the final victory of faith was won, then -- and not
till then -- the angels came and ministered to Him. So often the Father showed
how fully He trusted that perfect Son of His. There was a beautiful mutuality
of trust between the Father and the Son. It was only for the sake of the
bystanders that Jesus spoke His words of thanks at the tomb of Lazarus --
no words were needed to maintain this sublime companionship (John 11:42).
Then when the voice of approval came from heaven, the Lord Jesus clearly stated
that He Himself needed no such encouragement, but that the voice had come
for the benefit of those around (John 12:30). Finally, when seemingly forsaken
on the cross, with no sign at all that heaven cared for what was happening
to Him, the Lord quietly whispered: "Father, into thy hands I commend my
spirit", never for one moment doubting God's unchanging love.
Now if all this is true, and if it is a sign of His gracious approval
that God entrusts His servants with mysterious and unexplained trials, then
how rich are they so honoured. The saints of Smyrna were rich indeed for,
with a minimum of evidence of God's love, they endured as seeing Him who
is invisible just as the wealthy Moses had done before them. There is no
need to imagine that all those in Smyrna were martyred. To be faithful unto
death is not just a prospect opened to those who have to lay down their lives
for Christ. It is rather the call to all of us to be unmoved by circumstances
and unyielding in our testimony so long as we have life here on the earth.
People may pity us, but let us not pity ourselves. The Lord does not pity
us, for to all such He says: "But thou art rich".
These, then are the criteria of spiritual wealth. To be centred on Christ,
to be privileged to share His reproach and to go on in faithfulness without
quick relief or outward encouragement. Are we rich? Are we rich in His sight?
This is the only thing that matters.
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER THROUGH ROMANS
4. THE WRATH OF GOD (Chapter 1:18-32)
THREE times in his description of the gospel, the apostle develops his
thoughts with the aid of the word "for". "I am not ashamed of the gospel,
for it is the power of God ..." (verse 16) is the first occasion, and he
follows in the next verse with the words: "For therein is revealed a righteousness
of God ...". Finally, he explains: "For the wrath of God is revealed from
heaven against all ungodliness ..." (verse 18). It is clear, therefore,
that the gospel cannot [55/56] be preached except
in connection with the wrath of God. Right up to 3:20 this word "wrath"
is given prominence, as Paul stresses the grim fact that everyone who does
not stand under the righteousness of God, stands under His wrath. This applies
both to the Gentiles and to the Jews, who are not only under that wrath
now but are treasuring up for themselves wrath in the day of wrath and revelation
of the righteous judgment of God.
The wrath of God is His holy reaction against sinful man. It is revealed
from heaven. Just as the righteousness of God is not only a passive characteristic
of God but His active intervention to justify His elect, so is His wrath
not only a characteristic of His holiness but an active intervention by which
He gives men up to judgment. The same expression is used about this wrath
as about His righteousness, namely that it is "revealed from heaven". Does
this mean that this wrath would have been hidden from men if it had not been
so revealed? Probably yes, in the sense that men would not have known it
as wrath, unless God had so revealed it. The wrath would have been actively
in operation, but men would not have understood that God was expressing His
anger but might have ascribed their experiences to accidents or other possible
causes. However when the gospel is preached, then there is a revelation from
heaven of God's anger. The little word, "for", makes this close connection
of God's wrath with the gospel, showing what importance the apostle attached
to the true preaching of the gospel. Without this apostolic weight of emphasis,
preaching can easily become entertainment which does not create a healthy
fear of God. In this way the idea of "grace" can be so watered down as to
give the message a meaning which Paul would never countenance.
FURTHER emphasis is given to the truth by the apostle's affirmation that
such a revelation comes "from heaven", that is, that the wrath really does
proceed from God. Nobody can stop it; nobody has any chance of avoiding it.
This is no accident, but it is directed by God and will fulfil its purpose.
Man has no excuse. He holds the truth in some measure, but he holds it down
in unrighteousness: "that which may be known of God is manifest in them;
for God manifested it to them". Paul here passes from consideration of the
revelation which takes place when the gospel is preached, to point out that
a revelation has already taken place. There is truth about God which is clear
for every man to see: "For the invisible things of him since the creation
of the world are clearly seen ..." (verse 20). The creation is a revelation
of God's being. He Himself is invisible but by creating He has revealed His
everlasting power and divinity. Not that there is any suggestion here that
men may succeed in finding God through creation, rather that through creation
God shows something of Himself to them. It is not a matter of sitting in a
study and reasoning about the theory of creation, but rather of standing alone
in nature and sensing the majesty of God.
The Danish translation says that it is a consequence of this revelation
in nature that men have no excuse: "so that they are without excuse". The
Greek, however, can just as well be translated: "that they may be without
excuse". This means that their being without excuse is not only a consequence
of the revelation but the object and purpose of it. This thought occurs again
in connection with the law, when Paul affirms: "We know that what things
soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law: that
every mouth may be stopped" (3:19).
"KNOWING God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks." This,
although few appreciate it, is the fundamental sin. There are many who show
a certain deference to God, and therefore might think to avoid His wrath.
It is, however, one thing to show such deference and respect, but quite another
to reverence Him as God, to glorify and thank Him, to love Him with
heart and soul and mind, to worship Him truly and without reserve. So often
we fail to treat God as God. We do not take Him seriously enough. We do
not think of Him as He is but rather as we wish Him to be. We push Him out
to the circumference of our lives.
So it is that men become vain in their reasoning, and their senseless
heart is darkened. This implies more than a question of difficulties about
believing; it explains that the explanation of man's spiritually empty mind
is due to the fact that he neither glorifies God nor gives Him thanks. The
phrase: "senseless heart" refers to man's whole being, his thoughts, feelings
and will; all is darkened. The result is that he has become such a fool that
even his wisdom is folly, but because he is so darkened, he calls that foolishness
wisdom and vainly imagines himself to be clever, though the madness of his
folly [56/57] expresses itself by his doing the very
opposite of what God has purposed for him. God made man in His image so that
he might have dominion over the animal creation, but now man makes gods in
his own image or even in the likeness of birds and four-footed beasts and
creeping things. As someone has rightly said: sin and insanity are synonymous!
When we read these verses we do not really feel the horror which filled
the apostle at the thought of humanity's sin and God's wrath. We ourselves
are so influenced by the foolishness and insanity of nature's darkness that
we do not realise how tragically terrible our condition is. Humanity's darkness
is so dense that we often fail to react with fear and trembling to the just
wrath of God; but that does not make it any less an inescapable fact.
AGAIN we have a threefold reference, this time to the fact that God gave
them up (vv.24, 26 & 28). It may be to our surprise that we do not read
that He gave them up to catastrophic accidents, earthquakes and similar calamities,
but on the contrary to an ugly life, to uncleanness, to vile passions and
to a reprobate mind. If you "do not count knowing God as something worth
while" (verse 28 Danish), so that you refuse to honour and thank Him, the
result is that God gives you up to a way of thinking and living which is
not only valueless but is positively shameful.
Is this picture of humanity under the wrath of God exaggerated? Are there
not many unbelieving people who live a respectable and praiseworthy life?
It may seem that the apostle ignores all such, but the truth is that he is
not arguing about individuals but considering humanity as a whole, as a
unity under one man, Adam, as its head. For this reason he alternates between
past and present as he makes a comprehensive description of all humanity.
At times he deals with the past (vv.21-31) and at other times his own day
(v.32), but in a sense this makes no difference, for from Adam until today
humanity is an organic whole, a spiritual unity, with its basic sin that
it never did glorify and thank God and that it still does not do so. It is
this failure which leads to such terrible moral consequences. Those who
have not fallen into direct depravity but live respectably and decently
are not thereby freed from their membership of the human race which is under
the wrath of God. What follows is an enlargement of this assertion.
When the gospel is preached, this awful truth dawns upon us. We begin
to see sin and its consequences as God sees them. We realise with horror
that we are under the wrath of God, lost -- hopelessly lost. We see that
God has given us up, and are then ready to perceive that the wrath of God
fell on us at Calvary, where God spared not His own Son, but "delivered
Him up for us all" (8:32). Here at the cross, more than anywhere else,
the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness,
and in this way the gospel gives a revelation of God's anger against sin.
It is a revelation of God's wrath and God's love, of His judgment and His
grace, in short, of His righteousness. Only in this way is the gospel the
power of God unto salvation to those who believe.
I TURN back now to the apostle's description of sin and its consequences,
because this is so timely in the light of modern thought. Certain church
circles assert that idolatry is a step on the way towards God, and should
therefore not be condemned but rather considered as a step in the right direction.
Such teaching demands that the churches be open and unprejudiced in their
relationship with heathen religions. God's Word affirms the direct opposite.
The apostle teaches us that idolatry is the depth of human depravity under
the dominion of sin and that it leads to the dishonouring of human life (vv.24-27)
and the disintegration of human fellowship. Far from being a step towards
God, it is a movement away from Him which is leading in entirely the wrong
It is further asserted that sin is first and foremost a matter of moral
relationship between men, with a kind of balancing contrast of evil and immorality
on one side and goodness, love and human righteousness on the other. If
sin is regarded only as a moral affair, then such a conclusion is inevitable.
Here, however, we are confronted with that which is on another level and
much more basic, namely that sin is first and foremost a wrong relationship
to God. In a word, it is unbelief (John 16:9). Consequently everyone who
is not in a right relationship with God is under the dominion of sin. This
is so, whether he behaves badly or measures well up to human standards of
goodness. Not that the apostle wishes to suggest that it does not matter
how a man acts, but that he emphasises that it is in the very nature of sin
that a person not being in the right relationship to God finds that his
[57/58] personal morality and goodness do not exclude him from the
dominion of sin with its consequence of the wrath of God.
Every superficial understanding of the nature of sin betrays a sadly
inadequate knowledge of God and lack of true reverential fear of Him. This
leads inevitably to weak preaching and unsatisfactory conversions. How different
from this was the apostle himself, who breaks in to his description of man's
ignorance and idolatry with an exclamation of worship. Seized by a mixture
of horror and holy reverence at the very thought of such depravity, he cries
out that the Creator is "blessed for ever. Amen" (v.25). To him God is and
remains God. This whole letter breathes the thrill, worship and gratitude
of his pure feat of the Lord. The reader finds himself brought by it into
the very presence of Almighty God.
(To be continued)
THE COMING OF THE CROWNING DAY
PETER, Paul, James and John all point us onward to the crowns which God
offers to His servants. In each case the thought is related to an ordeal,
whether it be a fight, a race or a trust. Three crowns are spoken of -- the
crown of righteousness, the crown of life and the crown of glory, and it
seems that what is meant by crowning is the sealing of a course in triumph
and with honour, the crown being a symbol both of victory and of honour.
1. The Crown of Righteousness
Righteousness is really a matter of God having His rights, that He shall
be all in all, everything being centred in Him and given to Him. Unrighteousness
is a disposition that we shall be the centre, and everything given to us,
which is, in fact, satanic. Sin is the dethroning of God from His true place:
righteousness is the bringing of God back into His place. That is what the
cross has done.
Paul was a great champion of the righteousness which is established by
the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and for that he fought
a good fight. So far as we are concerned there is a challenge as to how far
we will let go of our personal interests so that God should have His place.
This is the battleground. It is a very real battle. So far as Paul was concerned
he affirmed: "for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count
them but refuse ...", the issue being that he might be found in Christ,
not having a righteousness of his own, but that which comes through faith
in Christ. It has always been that by means of the people who have but one
interest, namely that the Lord should have His rightful place, that the
kingdom of Satan has been overthrown. That is righteousness and that is the
battleground. The apostle says that there is a crown of righteousness at
the end, awaiting those who have been willing to pour out their lives so
that the rights of God might be secured for Him by the cross of the Lord Jesus.
2. The Crown of Life
This crown is also placed in the setting of difficulty, suffering and
adversity. It is for the man who endures temptation (James 1:12). Whenever
we triumph on the battlefield for the rights of God, there is a new release
of His life. It is the objective of the enemy always to seek to quench that
life. The Word tells us that we are all in the battle for life. Satan at the
beginning schemed and worked in order that he should capture the race for
himself and defeat God's ends. Whenever he has succeeded it has been by hindering
men from having divine life; a life which is not only continuity of existence
but a quality of holy life.
Satan is now out to quench you. As the Lord's child, the question arises
as to just how much you will lay hold on the Lord's life and how much in
faith you will resist the working of spiritual death. You get up in the morning
wondering what is the matter with you. For no apparent reason you feel depressed,
"dead". What are you going to do about it? Will you yield to it? Or will
you put up a real fight in prayer? You will find that this is something more
[58/59] than just a passing bad feeling; you are in
the battle for life.
It is the man who is approved who will receive the crown of life. How
are you going to be approved? You have never seen a scholar approved who
threw aside his test paper and said: "I can never do anything like that!
It is no use trying!" or even one who said: "I cannot go on any more. I will
give it up!" No. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown
of life" (Revelation 2:10). Is it a battle? Well, do not give in. Is it a
race? Do not drop out. Is it a trust? Do not surrender your trust. Go right
through with it, and you will receive a crown of life.
3. The Crown of Glory
"When the chief Shepherd shall be manifested, ye shall receive the crown
of glory" (1 Peter 5:4). Sometimes you can almost see that in people here
and now. They have such an utterance of devotion to the Lord and such a complete
selflessness of life that they carry around with them a radiance of God's
glory. Put it the other way round and you will certainly agree that in people
who are always occupied with themselves and taken up with their own troubles
and difficulties, there seems to be a constant shadow. Such people bring
nothing of brightness and glory with them. Glory is really the nature of
righteousness and life manifesting itself.
It is very significant to notice the setting of Peter's words. He has
just been talking to the under-shepherds, and telling them to feed the flock
and to do it not for filthy lucre or the praise of men, but disinterestedly,
denying themselves in the interests of the Lord and His people. It may be
costly so to serve the Lord, Peter says, but if you do it with that spirit
then at the end there will be a crown of glory for you from the chief Shepherd
who is Himself crowned with glory.
So there is righteousness -- God having His place in all things. And
there is life -- victory in His name with His own eternal life regnant in
us. And finally there is glory -- the life of the Lord manifesting itself
in fullness in a glorious outbreaking of triumph over sin and death. These
three crowns, these three seals, these three marks that we have triumphed,
these are what the Lord has set His heart upon to give to us who are redeemed
by the blood of Christ and indwelt by His Spirit. May our hearts also be
set on obtaining them so that He may find satisfaction in us, through grace.
Let us make no mistake, though, that these will not come easily to us.
They are the fruits of battle, of fierce battle and very often of inward
battle. I sometimes think that it might be easier if our foes were more outward
and the battle objective easily discernible. It may be that in some cases
believers are cast into prison and tried for the sake of the Lord's name,
but in any case we are all put into positions where the responsibility for
the testimony of Jesus are worked out in us, and the principle of faithfulness
unto death operates in our case. When the thing to be overcome is inside,
when it is I myself who must be slain, then it may be ever harder. This,
then, is the moment to look away to Christ on the throne and to know that
He has provided a victory which we can daily enjoy.
There is a serious business on hand for the Church. It is nothing less
than the fulfilment of her vocation, the accomplishment of her course and
the preserving intact of her trust. We are called to stand for the absolute
lordship of Jesus Christ in a hostile world. What a privilege to be called
to stand for those sovereign rights, and then what a wonderful prospect
to be offered crowns for so doing. We want Christ to have all the crowns.
He wants to share crowns with us. He has been "crowned with glory and honour";
He calls us to be partners together with Him at the coming of His Crowning
CALIFORNIA, U.S.A. Readers in this area may wish to know that Mr. Foster
hopes to be the speaker at a Conference in the mountains near Cajon Pass.
Dates: August 8 to 13. Particulars from: P.O. Box 5271, Hacienda Heights,
CALIF: 91745. [59/60]
A SONG IN THE NIGHT
(This story is taken, by kind permission, from 'Exploits',
the magazine of the Slavic Gospel Association.)
FOR his Christian witness John had been sentenced to thirteen years'
imprisonment in his Communist country. After about ten years he committed
some small misdemeanour and was sent to an isolation block. Here complete
silence reigned as well as absolute solitude.
John became low in spirits and one day he cried to the Lord that he might
die. What was the use of living anyway? Ten years of suffering in the general
block, and now this! He felt (and who can blame him?) that it was more than
he could take. But after a while he pulled himself together and, feeling
thoroughly ashamed of his lapse in faith, he began very softly to sing to
himself the hymn: "Count your blessings".
"When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done."
As he sang quietly, he could hear the fellow in the cell next door pacing
up and down, backwards and forwards. Suddenly John could restrain himself
no longer and burst into loud song, realising subconsciously that the guards
would come and beat him. Who knows? -- perhaps they might even pound him
to death! Maybe this was the way in which God was going to answer his prayer!
As these thoughts were flashing through his mind, his brain was also registering
that the prisoner's footsteps next door had stopped.
"Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by."
John sang his way through the verses of the hymn, becoming louder and
more confident with each chorus, and listening with one ear for the jangling
of the keys of the warder and his angry, heavy footsteps. At any moment he
expected the door to be opened and the beatings with the heavy truncheon
"So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be disheartened, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey's end."
But nothing happened! No guards came! All was silent, except for a heavy
plop on the floor in the next cell. That poor chap, thought John, must have
collapsed. Perhaps he had even died.
The weeks went by and John, having served his time in solitary confinement,
was taken back to the general prison block. There he at least had company,
and the diet was a little better than the stale bread and water he had been
living on for the past three months. One evening, as he was sitting down
after the days work, and feeling so grateful to God for preserving his life,
he began to hum: "Count your blessings" to himself. He hadn't got very far
when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and turning, he saw another prisoner
"Listen," the man said, "Were you in Cell No. so-and-so in the isolation
block at such-and-such a time?" "I was," replied John. "I heard you," said
the man with mounting excitement. "I heard you! You sang that tune and those
words. I was just going to kill myself, having made a noose out of my underwear
and fixed it up to the ceiling. Just before you sang I stopped my pacing
in the cell, stood on the chair and put my head in the noose. Then you started
to sing. You sang louder and louder and the words came through stronger and
stronger, and I was waiting for the guards to come and silence you for good.
Then I decided that if there was someone in this prison who could sing fearlessly
like that about a God who cared, then life must be worth living after all.
I took my head out of the noose and dropped to the floor. Now tell me about
this God and this faith that you have, because I want to share it too."
Thrilled, John told the man about the love of God and the salvation offered
through Jesus Christ, and there and then, he led him to the Saviour. Now
these men are both free and are deacons together in one of the churches behind
the Iron Curtain. [60/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
INSPIRED PARENTHESES (7)
"(the number of names together were about one hundred and twenty
)" (Acts 1:15)
THE use of double brackets by the transscribers of the Bible seems at
times to suggest that the phrase so enclosed is a kind of inspired afterthought.
This is all the more possible in the above statement of Luke's, for he does
not normally appear to be very interested in statistics. In rebuttal of this
some may point out the mention of three thousand (2:41) and five thousand
(4:4). This is true but the fact remains that no further records are given
concerning any other church, unless it be the beginning of things at Ephesus,
when there were "about twelve" (19:7). This lack of figures is typical of
the whole New Testament. We have no idea of the actual numbers in the many
churches written to or described.
This being so, we may well ask why the Holy Spirit urged Luke to record
the number of names of these brethren as being about one hundred and twenty.
Perhaps it was to put the apostles in their right setting, as members of
a much larger group. Those eleven men were at the heart of things but there
were many more who were equally called to wait together upon God and in due
course to be endued with power from on high. The other statistic which applies
to this period tells us that there were over five hundred brethren who together
met the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6). Quite clearly, then, we are meant
to appreciate that even before Pentecost there were many who knew and loved
At His interrogation by the high priest, Jesus was sneeringly asked about
His disciples and His teaching. He ignored the former and spoke only of His
teaching. What could He say of those poor disciples? For the moment there
seemed to be none worthy of the name. But appearances are often deceptive.
The earthly ministry of Jesus was not the failure that it might have seemed.
Note this, says Luke to us all, there were about a hundred and twenty men
and women of faith who were obeying the Lord's command to "tarry in Jerusalem
THE happy use of the word "names", instead of "persons", accentuates
the importance to God of this group. If the New Testament takes little notice
of numbers, it pays great attention to names. Everyone of these six score
persons had a personal history with God. This was certainly true of the mother
of Jesus and His brethren, but there must also have been names which have
since become familiar to us all. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were
surely there, and probably Zacchaeus too. Mary and Martha of Bethany and
their resurrected brother, Lazarus, could hardly have been absent. Then there
were individuals whose stories are well known to us if not their names --
the man born blind, the woman taken in adultery, the owner of the upper room
and the unnamed companion of Cleopas who had, with his friend, walked sadly
to Emmaus, run back joyfully to Jerusalem and there been told not to go back
to Emmaus again until they had been endued with power from on high.
PENTECOSTAL blessing fuses men and women together in the living warmth
of Church life, but it does not rob them of their individuality. So everyone
of those disciples was a "name", contributing his or her part to the prayer
and fellowship of that waiting period. To us it seems a pity that Luke was
not authorised to describe their subsequent stories. He was not even permitted
to tell us anything more of most of the twelve. After all, our life here
is but a parenthesis. We live within the double brackets of a brief earthly
span. Soon, however, we shall find ourselves in eternity. Nobody will be able
to compute the multitude which will forever be gathered there. Everyone, though,
will be a "name", an individual with a personal record of the great triumph
and glory of our beloved Saviour.
"THEY THAT SOW IN TEARS SHALL REAP IN JOY."
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