|Vol. 12, No. 1, Jan. - Feb. 1983
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
WITH this issue we begin the twelfth year of TOWARD THE MARK. Every year
has brought new proofs of God's faithfulness in providing the messages, the
willing helpers, the necessary finance and, above all, the essential prayer
support. There are no words adequate to express my profound gratitude to
God and to so many of His servants.
If I do not describe the wonder of God's dealings it is only because
I feel it wiser to allow the story to be covered until the day when the
Lord will bring everything to light "and then shall each man have his praise
from God" (1 Corinthians 4:5). When does publicity become self-advertisement?
What is the difference between testifying and boasting? I do not know.
That these are not idle questions has been made clear to me by a reconsideration
of Hezekiah's experience with the Babylonian ambassadors (Isaiah 39). The
king had been miraculously brought back from the verge of death by a divine
miracle. Possibly the enterprising Babylonians thought that they could turn
this sensation to their own advantage by sending representatives to Jerusalem
on a goodwill mission. The outcome must have been a heartbreak to Isaiah.
The chapter marks a very striking crisis in his ministry though by no means
the lessening of its vision and spiritual power.
No-one can doubt that it would have been quite in order for Hezekiah
to have received the embassage courteously and taken advantage of his recent
deliverance to tell them of the God whom he had served and who had answered
his prayers in such a signal way. It seems, though, that he went beyond this.
He spoke freely to the Babylonians of his exploits and achievements, personally
displaying to them all his possessions.
One suspects that all the time he was uneasy about his actions, for he
neither consulted Isaiah, whose counsel and help he had hitherto valued
very much, nor did he inform the prophet of what had taken place. It was
only when Isaiah challenged him that he had to admit that there was not a
single area of his realm which he had kept sacred: "There is nothing ...
that I have not showed them."
It is evident that this indiscreet self-revelation was displeasing to
God, so much so that He there and then declared that there would be a total
loss of all that had been shown to the Babylonians. Nothing had been hidden:
nothing would be left. This was so severe that we must surely conclude that
it is intended to be an example to all God's people. If we expose what should
be kept sacred, we may lose all its value. If we boast, instead of being
humbly grateful, we provoke the displeasure of the God whom we desire to
I think that this principle can be verified and confirmed in the New
Testament and I imagine that it is also one which operates in merely human
relationships, in the sense that intimate secrets only preserve their value
by being kept secret. In my youth I once heard a respected servant of the
Lord warn against 'spiritual immodesty'. It is a phrase which I have never
In any case it will not be long before we gather in the eternal glory
of our heavenly Home. What stories we will have to tell and what discoveries
we will then make of the superlative faithfulness of our gracious Lord, when
together we know as we have been known and see Him face to face!
IS THERE ANY WORD FROM THE LORD?
"The king asked him secretly in his house,
and said, Is there any word from the Lord?
And Jeremiah said, There is." Jeremiah 37:17
1. THE PROPHETIC WORD
KING Zedekiah was surrounded by so-called 'Prophets', but when he asked
this question he was turning to the only man whom he could trust to have
a definite message from God for him. Zedekiah was far from being a satisfactory
king and he had treated Jeremiah badly; even [1/2]
now he spoke to him in secret, for he was ashamed that others should
know of his action. We imagine, though, that he was quite sincere when he
asked the prophet so earnestly, "Is there any word from the Lord?"
It was a true-to-life situation, this secret appeal to the unpopular
prophet. How many Christians have had to bear the unkindness and scorn of
neighbours or colleagues, only to find that when one of them was in real
trouble, he or she went for help not to their fellow scoffers but to the
very person whom they had hitherto reviled? Deep down in their conscience,
they know that this is the person who can be relied upon. It was so with
Zedekiah. In public he rejected Jeremiah's words (37:2), but when the crunch
came, he turned to him with the secret enquiry, "Is there any message from
God for me?"
Over thirty years before this, at the beginning of Jeremiah's ministry
and in the reign of Zedekiah's father, Josiah, there had been a re-discovery
of the book of the law of the Lord as given by Moses. During the cleansing
and restoration of the Temple, this long hidden book was brought to light
again. Many dreadful things had happened in the reign of the evil Manasseh;
the servants of the Lord were slain (perhaps Isaiah among them); the ark
of the covenant seems to have disappeared, and the Word of the Lord was driven
underground. In Josiah's reign they found the book (2 Chronicles 34:15),
a discovery which caused them much dismay but which also brought a new revelation
of the Lord and of His will for His people. Zedekiah, however, was not referring
to this, nor was he seeking an exposition of the Scriptures in a general
way. What he wanted was an indication of what, if anything, God had to say
to him in the light of current events.
Zedekiah needed more than a quotation from a book -- he needed a voice
which would convey to him the authentic speaking of God. Alas, when he had
it, he did not obey what was said, but his enquiry expresses what is surely
our own need. We too are justified in asking if there is any word of the
Lord for us. The Lord will only speak through the Bible, but it is well that
we should know what God has to say to us through His Word. It is not enough
to have a faith which is kept going by choruses, isolated texts and favourite
promises; we must know what the Lord has to say now to us. The prophet did
not tell Zedekiah to go off and study his Bible. He did not send him away
with generalities. He was dealing with a desperate man. And he himself was
so in touch with God that he could give an immediate answer to the enquiry,
for we read that "Jeremiah said, There is!"
Our first enquiry, then, is concerned with the man Jeremiah. How came
it that he could speak so clearly and positively for God? What makes anyone
a true prophet, a man to whom God could say, "Thou shalt be as my mouth" (15:19)?
1. Divine Initiative
The opening chapter shows how God took the initiative in his case. Concerning
the self-appointed or man-appointed prophets, the Lord complained: "I sent
not these prophets, yet they ran; I spake not unto them, yet they prophesied"
(23:21). They were not necessarily bad men. They probably began with a genuine
desire to serve God. Perhaps they had had some inward urge or some outside
influence which had persuaded them to volunteer to devote their whole time
to work for God. And now they had to get a living at their job. I have met
men like this and have felt sympathy for them as they lacked openings and
searched for a post 'in God's work'. How much better if they had kept at
their ordinary work until moved by a divine initiative!
Even before his birth, Jeremiah had been marked out by God for his life's
ministry (1:4). Far from being conceited to hear of this predestination,
he could only respond in deepest humility: "Ah Lord God! Behold I cannot ...".
He never wanted the task nor did he feel competent for it: it was God's idea
and not his. Later he claimed not to have run away from his pastoral responsibility
(17:16), which seems to suggest that he often wanted to do so. But he persevered.
The constraint upon him, though, was not that of having to live up to his
status as a prophet, but rather the knowledge that God's hand was upon him
for the work. None of us should be content with anything less.
Again and again Jeremiah writes, "The word of the Lord came to me ...",
and indeed the book opens with the disclosure that it was because that Word
first came to him that he [2/3] recorded "the words
of Jeremiah". It first came in the days of king Josiah and "it came also
in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah ... unto the carrying away of Jerusalem
captive" (1:1-3). Vivid as was that first speaking, it was but the beginning
of a lifetime of his uttering God's word because that word first came to
him direct from God. No man is justified in speaking for the Lord
unless the Lord has first spoken to him.
All through the book stress is laid on Jeremiah's personal experiences
of hearing God's speaking. The Lord called him by name (1:11), He touched
his mouth (1:9) and He undertook to give him full support (1:19). The Lord
told the prophet where to go (7:2 ff), told him not to marry (16:2) and
told him when and what to write (30:2). After he had wisely remained silent
in answer to a challenge, the Lord told him when it was right to speak up
(28:11-12) and the Lord advised and instructed him in preparation for the
visit of his cousin (32:6). On one occasion the Lord kept him prayerfully
waiting for ten days before speaking to him (42:7) but however long the delay
and however strange and difficult the message, God always took the initiative
in speaking to His prophetic servant. This, then, was the first explanation
of how Jeremiah had a clear answer for the man who asked if there were any
words from the Lord.
2. Continual Communion
Jeremiah responded to the Lord's initiative by taking care to maintain
close communion all through the long and varied experiences of his ministry.
However busy he was, and however unpleasant his surroundings, he was always
diligent in keeping close contact with the Lord. God's charge against the
false prophets was that they had never "stood in his council" (23:18 and
22). That could never be said about Jeremiah. The passage on the false prophets
says that they borrowed (or stole!) their message from one another (23:30),
that they said things which their own hearts suggested (23:16) and that
they tried to make themselves particularly impressive by recounting their
dreams (23:25-28). In contrast, Jeremiah waited on God and withdrew from
his merry-making companions to be alone with Him (15:17).
There is a beautiful passage which describes one of these times of sacred
communing with the Lord: "Thy words were found and I did eat them, and thy
word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart, for I am called by thy
name" (15:16). We have already referred to the discovery of a book which
happened to king Josiah. Strangely enough, when he found that book, the king
did not enquire of Jeremiah but of Huldah the prophetess (2 Chronicles 34:22).
That was a public event. This discovery of Jeremiah's seems to have been much
more personal and intimate --- "for I am called by thy name". What is more,
the prophet speaks not just of God's word but of His words, as though
the plural indicated an experience of having God speaking directly to him
word by word. Above all, he gives a graphic slant on this crisis by saying
that he had grasped and masticated every one of those words -- "I did eat
The heart that receives and chews over God's words is a happy heart.
Jeremiah reports that for him this experience was one of great joy. The
world of his day -- and of ours -- classifies him as a dismal kill-joy,
which is not surprising since the world has no way of knowing the deep and
satisfying pleasure of heart communion with God. The prophet found his heart
warming as he gratefully absorbed God's message to him. I wonder how much
or how often we share that thrilling experience. Perhaps it cannot be very
frequent, but it must be if we are to speak for God. Jeremiah had his dark
moments. It may be that for us also life can be so difficult that we are
tempted, like him, to regret that we were ever born, but it was just after
such a bout of depression (15:10), that he had this visitation and comfort
by a new discovery of the Lord in His word. We have to go down into the
valleys, but we are also lifted up to the heights.
Not all of us have to endure such sore discipline as that, but many of
us will have some fellow-feeling with him on the occasion when he decided
to keep silent in future: "Then I said, I will not make mention of him nor
speak any more in his name" (20:9). But it cannot be! The man who has such
vital dealings with God finds that the word burns like a fire in his bones,
and he has to give expression to the inner urge of God's speaking, as the
passage goes on to record. So Jeremiah's ministry was inspired and maintained
by this constant communion with his God. He knew that there was indeed a
word from the Lord. There will always be a word from the Lord
[3/4] through us, too, if we are careful to maintain constant communion
3. The Work of Intercession
Communion with God naturally involves praying, but not all prayer is
intercession. God's prophet must first be God's intercessor. I doubt whether
Jeremiah could adequately have responded to the king's plea for a word from
the Lord if his answer had not come from the background of a life of earnest
intercessory prayer. He belonged, of course, to the priestly family and
was consequently committed to intercede before God on behalf of the people,
but in his case it was more than an official office, for he had a heart
deeply exercised concerning the people among whom he lived and worked.
In a consideration of Jeremiah's prayers, it is difficult to know where
to begin. Perhaps one of the most startling features of his secret life with
God is that more than once he was told to stop praying (7:16; 11:14; 14:11).
This, of course, does not mean that God was displeased with his intercessions
-- far from it. In any case, Jeremiah just could not give up. "I am pained
at my heart," he exclaimed, "I cannot hold my peace, because thou hast heard,
O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war" (4:19).
It was not that God did not want Jeremiah to pray, but more probably
that He wanted the prophet to know that there could be no immediate and
superficial answer to his prayers for Jerusalem. Right throughout his ministry
Jeremiah constantly appealed to God for his beloved people and city, and
history shows that after his death those prayers were fully answered (2
Chronicles 36:22). The immediate lesson for us, though, is that the man
who spoke so powerfully for God only did so because he had first
learned to speak to God.
Among the many discouragements to prayer can be the indifference or even
wilfulness of those for whom we pray. Jeremiah had to face this but he never
gave up his work of intercession. After the majority of the people had been
taken away captive, the few who were left begged him to pray for them, which
he readily agreed to do (42:4). Alas, they were no better than the others
had been in refusing to answer the guidance which came after ten days of
prayer by Jeremiah. "You have dealt deceitfully against your own souls," he
told them. You asked me to pray for guidance and promised to obey it when
it came, and now "you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord God in anything
for the which he has sent me unto you" (vv.20-21). This is a common happening;
people ask for your prayers and your advice when they really only want you
to confirm them in their own ideas and plans. When you cannot do this, then
they go elsewhere or act on their own. The real test is, do you still go on
praying? Jeremiah did.
His last words are found in chapter 51 (v.64). The occasion was when
Jeremiah sent Seraiah to express God's condemnation of Babylon by throwing
the book into the Euphrates. Notice that the prophet first told him to cover
the matter with prayer: "Then thou shalt say, O Lord ..." (51:62). All this
emphasises the fact that the man who can answer the question, "is there any
word from the Lord?" is the man whose whole ministry is saturated with prayer.
The prophet's first ministry is prayer. The very first mention of the
word in Genesis makes this plain: "He is a prophet, and he shall pray for
thee" (Genesis 20:7), and Jeremiah challenged the false prophets in this
very matter: "If they be prophets, and if the word of the Lord be with them,
let them now make intercession to the Lord of hosts ..." (27:18).
4. A Positive Objective
If ever a prophet might have seemed to have a message of despair it was
Jeremiah. In fact, though, as we will see in our next study, the true thrust
of his message was that of hope. Twice over he calls God "the hope of Israel"
(14:8 and 17:13). Consider such utterances as these: "I know the thoughts
that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil,
to give you a future and a hope" (29:11) and "There is hope for thy latter
end, saith the Lord" (31:17). If a man has no positive message of helpfulness,
then it would be far better for him to remain silent. Certainly the purpose
of the gospel in speaking to men is to offer them blessing and comfort.
It is true that there was no hope for the people of Jerusalem in those
days, in spite of the pious platitudes and false expectations of the false
[4/5] prophets. There was no hope for Zedekiah if
-- as happened -- he rejected Jeremiah's call and persisted in his own self
will. That way lay disaster, so that the story of that period, whether as
told in the Chronicles or in Jeremiah, is one of ever-deepening calamity,
as it was bound to be. God's servant, however, kept his eyes on the eternal
throne and the faithfulness of his covenant-keeping Lord, so he always had
a message of hope for those who would receive it. Part of his ministry was
to warn both kings and people that all their ideas and efforts were bound
to fail, but the other side of that same ministry was to hold out before
them the prospect of mercy and ultimate recovery if only they would heed
what God said.
It is most important to realise that God's intention in speaking His
prophetic word is always a positive one. The preacher can get a great sense
of power while pronouncing judgment upon his hearers, but this, as is well
known is often illusory. The real power lies in the positive communication
of God's grace through His Word, but it may well leave the speaker painfully
aware of how weak and unworthy he is. Later we may be able to consider the
contribution which Jeremiah made to the recovery of God's testimony in Jerusalem
and the tremendous significance of the prophet's message about the New Covenant.
For the moment we re-emphasise the simple fact that his message was full of
positive content and that this was his real response to the question, "Is
there any word from the Lord?"
The book of Revelation gives us a final and inclusive seal to this matter
and focuses it all down upon the very person of the Lord Jesus. It was an
angel who informed John that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy"
(Revelation 19:10). What does this mean? Surely, that the very essence of
all the messages of all the prophets of both Old and New Testament is the
living reality of the truth as it is found in Jesus. So if any of us are
confronted with the question as to whether there is any word from the Lord,
our answer must always be: 'There is! It is all in Jesus!'
(To be continued)
POWERFUL AND EFFECTIVE PRAYER
J. Alec Motyer
"Is any among you sick? He is to call for the elders of the church;
and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall
raise him up, and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.
" James 5:14-15
THIS is, of course, a passage of Scripture which is used in the context
of a healing ministry, but I want to suggest that it must be considered in
a much wider context if we are to understand it properly.
1. The Context of Trouble
The whole passage concerns the diversity of circumstances in life, and
particularly the subject of trouble. It starts off by asking "Is any of
you in trouble?" The word used is quite general, not focusing on any particular
trouble which we call sickness, but trouble of any kind. Such a man is to
pray. It may be that he is feeling cheerful; in that case let him sing praises.
It begins with trouble, but I would prefer to speak of this context as that
of divine providence. How are we to behave through the whole of life?
It is comparatively easy to be cheerful and to acknowledge God's goodness
when the sun is shining and everything is marvellous, but life is by no means
always like that. Neither, of course, is it always all of the other sort.
Life is an extra-ordinary mixture, containing periods of trouble and periods
of cheerfulness and sometimes a blend of both of them. The opening question
of this passage in James 5 really amounts to this [5/6]
question: 'Is your God big enough for the whole of life?'
Some people have a God who is big enough for the cheerful bits, but then
they are completely bowled over by the adversities of life. Their God is
not big enough for every experience, and so the call in verse 13 is that we
should refer the whole of life to God. He is big enough for every situation;
if there is trouble, then He offers the resource of prayer, and if there is
cheerfulness, then there is the resource of praise.
2. The Context of Prayer
This gives us the key to the second context relating to our verse, and
that is the context of prayer. Really this, I think, is what the whole passage
is about. If we look from verse 13 onwards to verse 17, we find that prayer
is mentioned in almost every verse. This whole passage is concerned not with
a healing ministry but with the prayer life of the believer: "he is to pray"
(v.13), "let them pray over him" (v.14), "the prayer of faith" (v.15), "pray
for one another", "the supplication of a righteous man ..." (v.16). From
then until verse 18 we have our attention drawn to the prophet Elijah at
prayer. So the whole passage is about prayer, so much so that if we wish
to understand what it has to say about a healing ministry in the local church,
we must be careful that we do not interpret the reference to healing in a
way that violates the whole doctrine of praying.
There is the wonderful promise that "the prayer of faith shall save him
that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up" (v.15). Does that mean that
there is always going to be automatic healing if we operate the technique
as specified in verse 14 and get it right? To say that would be to violate
the Bible doctrine of praying. When we read what the Scriptures have to say
about praying, we find that over and over again we are enticed into the
of place of prayer by blank cheques from God. 'Whatever you ask you will
receive.' 'Come on,' says God, 'ask and it will be given you, seek and you
will find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.' If we want to change
the metaphor, we may say that the door of prayer swings open wide, though
I prefer that of the blank cheque. We are drawn into the place of prayer
by the sheer bounty of God. We must never forget, though, that there are
Scriptural safeguards in this matter. "If you abide in me, and my words abide
in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you" (John 15:7).
Commenting on this verse, Calvin says, 'God does not permit us undisciplined
asking'. Over and over again, prayer is hemmed in. If we ask contrary to
His Name, He will not give us what we ask. Pessimists may comment that they
knew that it was too good to be true and that they knew it couldn't happen
like that. What I want to ask you is if you ever thanked God that it can't
happen like that?
If automatically we got just what we asked, when we asked for it and
in the way that we have asked for it, we might soon be frightened ever to
pray again. Prayer is such a magnificent instrument that God can never give
it in an unrestricted way into the unwise hands of sinners. If we got automatically
whatever we asked, we would visit upon ourselves not blessing but a bane
and would minister to our friends not blessing but cursing. Prayer is hemmed
around by the benefits of the restrictive will of God so that He will only
give us that which is good.
I assert that there is nothing that I would not do for my son, yet in
fact I would never give him a razor blade, however much he asked for it.
He does ask, of course, for small boys have what amounts to a lust for razor
blades! The human father safeguards his gifts to his children and our heavenly
Father safeguards the wonder of prayer by the wonder of His own will. No,
God does not permit us undisciplined asking, and thank God for it! I feel
very deeply on this. What makes heaven to be heaven? It is the fact that
there God's will is perfectly done. The will of God is not restrictive on
the bounty we would grant ourselves; the will of God is the lifting of ourselves
into the bounty that He would grant us. It would not be right to focus this
section of James' Letter to a ministry of healing in a way that sets it outside
its own chosen context as a passage dealing with praying believers and a praying
3. The Context of Sin
This third context of sin has to be mentioned. It says here that "...
the Lord shall raise him up, and if he has committed sins, it shall be forgiven
him" (v.15). There is no automatic connection between the commitment of sin
and the onset of sickness. As we know in our own experience, we do not suffer
as we might deserve, because the Lord graciously stands between us and the
manifold disabilities which our sins [6/7] deserve
over and over again. If it were not for grace, they would overtake us. We
must remember, however, that equally from time to time He lifts His restraining
hand and allows His laws of providence to operate, bringing afflictions
upon us in the proportion in which He Himself has judged to be right. A
time of sickness is certainly a time for self examination by believers,
not in order to find the sin that has caused the sickness but lest there
should be anything outstanding in which they have grieved the Lord.
4. The Context of the Local Church
What singularly appeals to me in this passage is that it applies to the
continuing ministry of a local church and its officers. There is no reference
here to people who have singular gifts, but only to those who in the providence
of God hold some status in the local church. The ministry of healing is said
to be a continuing ministry of the local church, performed through its regular
officers. The words read: "Is any among you sick, then he is to call
(3rd person singular, imperative) for the elders of the church". English
is a difficult language into which to translate many statements. The expression,
"let him call" may suggest to us the idea of what is permissive, but the
Greek makes it imperative -- "he is to call".
This command has two implications. The first is that the sick man knows
that this ministry is available in his local church. It is clear that the
elders must know that this is a God-given ministry which they are to exercise,
so that those concerned may know with confidence that they can ask for the
ministry of prayer with anointing. The ministry itself is a ministry of prayer
but to be performed with the symbolism of anointing with oil: "Let them
pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord". The second
implication is that of submissiveness -- the prayer is in the name of the
The practice of the prophets in the Old Covenant was sometimes what we
call, the acted oracle. That is to say, the prophets used visual aids, but
these were more than illustrations, for they introduced divine actions.
We are told that Jeremiah took an earthen vessel and smashed it into pieces.
It was a visual aid of the shattering of the community, but it was much
more, for it was the embodiment and the release of the almighty word of
God which would effect that which it declared. When the prophets used such
a visual aid they reinforced their words. They did not just bring home the
words with more vividness to the mind of the hearers; they actually enhanced
the vigour of the word to be effective in that situation and to accomplish
that of which it spoke. So the anointing is an essential and vital part,
because it encapsulates the healing word of God. That which is asked for
in prayer is accepted in faith and applied in the power of the anointing.
There is no reference at all to the laying on of hands. We need to be
very careful to limit ourselves to what Scripture says. This is an action
of prayer which is visualised and applied by the action of anointing, but
it is all in the name of the Lord. That is to say, it is subject to His all
glorious will. It is not a technique for twisting the divine arm -- it is
submission to the name of the Lord. It is not a coin in the slot which ensures
the value of that coin coming out at the other end, but it is a personal
commitment to the will of God. For this reason, although the verse goes
on to say that the prayer of faith shall save the sick and the Lord shall
raise him up, that is subject to how the Lord wishes to respond to that prayer
in that given situation. The Lord may dramatically raise the sick man from
his bed or He may leave him on his sick bed and take him dramatically to
glory. That is the full Scriptural implication of the capacity of God to
answer the prayers of His people in whatever way will best match His own
holy name. The whole passage emphasises the effectiveness of a praying church
carrying on its Scriptural ministry. What could be greater than that!
Reading: Luke 12:1-12
IN our modern communities we often see warnings. Places are dangerous,
so we are commanded to keep out, or medicines are dangerous, so we are warned
not to exceed the prescribed dose or that some medicaments are not to be
taken internally, etc. All sensible people take due [7/8]
notice of such warnings of danger and act accordingly but strangely enough
Christians tend not to take some of the warnings of Scripture seriously,
even though it is the Lord Jesus Himself who cries, "Beware".
In this instance the Lord was surrounded by eager crowds, but it was
to His disciples that He spoke "first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of
the Pharisees which is hypocrisy". Here, then, is a solemn warning of danger
which the Lord directs to all of us who are disciples. We may be surprised
that such a warning was directed especially to them. Were they more in danger
of becoming hypocrites than the general mass of People? Yes indeed they were!
And so are we! Especially when we imagine ourselves to be exempt from this
sin. Perhaps it is just because we regard ourselves as out of danger that
we can be caught in this snare.
In fact a good deal is said in the New Testament about hypocrisy, so
the matter must be important. The Lord Jesus seems to have been more severe
about this sin than about most others. He called it "the leaven of
the Pharisees", presumably to stress how hypocrisy permeated everything they
said or did, even in those matters in which they appealed to be so pious
and sincere. Hypocrisy is a secret sin which can spread its influence in
ways which are not readily detected. The disciples were being warned about
a special kind of hypocrisy, for in the original it reads: "Beware ye of the
leaven of the Pharisees which is the hypocrisy". The Lord was speaking about
religious hypocrisy. Just as the principle of sin is more than just outward
acts of sinfulness, so hypocrisy is more than what might be obvious. It is
a power, just as sin is a power. And as every sinner is a slave of sin, so
every hypocrite is a slave of hypocrisy, though often quite unaware of his
bondage. The sinner thinks only of sin as a moral concept, not realising
that it is a spiritual power. In the same way, the hypocrite thinks only
of hypocrisy as of a moral concept and does not suspect that it is also a
spiritual power. He thinks that hypocrisy is putting on a show of godliness,
making out that one is what one is not, but the subsequent words of the Lord
Jesus reveal that there is much more to it than this.
Having given the warning to His disciples, the Lord Jesus went on to
say: "There is nothing covered up that shall not be revealed ... what you
have spoken in the ear in the inner chambers shall be proclaimed upon the
housetops" (vv.2-3). At first glance these words do not seem difficult to
understand, for the Lord was warning against that kind of hypocrisy which
we all detest, whispering bad things about people in so called 'confidences'
while speaking smoothly to the faces of those concerned. That is all too
common, but it is easy to understand. What is more difficult in this context
is the warning which follows. Having said that a day will come when He will
bring all those secret evils into the light, He continues: "I say unto you
my friends, Be not afraid of them which kill the body, and after that have
no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom you shall fear; Fear Him
which ... hath power to cast into Gehenna; yea, I say unto you, Fear him"
Here are two safeguards about hypocrisy. The first is that in the light
of the coming disclosures we should fear ourselves, but the second is the
suggestion that we shall be protected from hypocrisy if we truly fear God.
Why should we fear ourselves? Because it is all too possible to seek
to defend God's interests with a mind which is contrary to the mind of God.
This is indeed the leaven of the Pharisees for they fought wholeheartedly
for what they imagined to be the will of God. Perhaps that is why the Lord
amplified this warning about the leaven of the Pharisees by His subsequent
words about those who can kill the body, for He went on to enlarge on this
theme by foretelling the behaviour of these hypocrites who would persecute
and seek to destroy the disciples (verse 11). Why would they act in this way?
Simply out of a mistaken zeal for God. Saul of Tarsus is the great example.
Who was more wholehearted than he? No doubt he detested obvious hypocrisy,
as we all detest being something in secret that is not true openly, yet he
was a slave of hypocrisy for he sought to defend God's interests with a heart
that was hard and quite contrary to God.
How easily can we do the same! If we think of the words of Jesus which
say that to be angry is to kill, we wonder what will be manifested when
our true spirit in His service is brought into the light. Has it not been
hypocrisy when we have fought for the truth with hard and angry hearts?
We think that God is with us as the Pharisees also thought, but we are quite
mistaken. God is never on the side of the Pharisees. [8/9]
We might think it unnecessary to warn true disciples about this kind
of hypocrisy, but has it not so often been evidenced by Christians who have
sought to serve Christ in an unchristlike spirit? If there has been anything
which has characterised the history of the Church, it is fighting for the
truth with an unbroken heart, fighting for God without really fearing Him.
Men have been adept at taking the lives of other believers, robbing them of
their honour and reputation, instead of being adept at laying down their lives
for one another, as true Christians should. Alas, much that has claimed to
be zeal for the Lord can only really be described as "the leaven of the Pharisees".
THEN how shall we fight for the truth? There is a parallel passage earlier
in this Gospel which affirms this same truth that "nothing shall be hid that
shall not be made manifest; nor anything secret that shall not be known and
come to light" (Luke 8:17). It is commenting on "the good ground, those who
have an honest and good heart, having heard the word, hold it fast and bring
forth fruit with patience" (8:15). This is the positive side of 12:2-3, for
it encourages us by saying that the hidden work of the Word will later be
revealed and the secrets (of the inner life) be finally displayed in their
full glory. It reminds us that all we have whispered in the inner chambers
of secret prayer will be proclaimed from the housetops.
We will be delivered from hypocrisy if we are careful to see that God's
interests are served by keeping close to Him, hiding His Word daily deep
in our hearts and proving that the Holy Spirit will teach us what we ought
to say (12:12). To have recourse to carnal means in an attempt to serve God's
interests will bring us under the power of hypocrisy. Clearly, then, the
Lord Jesus was telling the disciples to find their liberation from hypocrisy
by fearing themselves and fearing God. So shall we best serve Him.
But what if this provokes the persecutors to kill us? It is in this connection
that the Lord Jesus spoke His comforting words about the five sparrows and
the hairs of our head (vv.6-7). What is more striking is that He had already
disclosed that God's wisdom governs all: "Therefore also said the wisdom
of God, I will send unto them prophets and apostles; and some of them
they shall kill and persecute ..." (Luke 11:49). So it is the wisdom of God
which governs what happens to His servants, and it is the same wisdom which
will be given by the Spirit to teach them what to say under such circumstances
WHAT is true of us personally is also true of our service, the word committed
to us. We have to look back to verses 2 and 3 to remind ourselves that nothing
of the glory and riches of the Word which seemed hidden in our hearts will
remain so, but will be revealed and proclaimed from the housetops. In other
words, this means that our words will be proclaimed much more widely and
with much more effect than we can imagine when they are being met by hatred
and persecution. Our task therefore is just this, to confess the Lord before
men and not deny Him (vv.8-9).
But here again, it is so important that we beware of hypocrisy, for the
words of our confession must be matched by concern never to meet our adversaries
with enmity and bitterness, but only in the Spirit of Christ. If we truly
confess the Lord by having a right heart attitude towards Him, then nobody
can hinder that testimony from being spread abroad. Who can destroy the power
of our prayers whispered in the inner chambers? No-one! Nothing!
We glory in the title of 'Evangelical Christians' and are perhaps inclined
to feel that we know the truth better than others, being specialists about
the infallibility of the Bible and the doctrine of justification by faith.
This is excellent, but only if our testimony is substantiated by that sacrificial
love which is the mark of what belongs to the gospel and can therefore truly
be called 'Evangelical'. We must agree that there can be no greater catastrophe
than that evangelical Christians should be exposed as hypocrites.
Yet everything that calls itself Christian and does not correspond to
Christ is stamped by the Lord as hypocrisy. And it is in the realm of love
that the peril of hypocrisy is greatest, not least when we think that our
own love is the same as the love of Christ. We are inclined to be severe when
our Lord is mild and then tolerant when He is severe, and even when we are
rightly severe in our attitude, we can be inwardly lacking in the tender
compassion of the Saviour. It is temptingly easy for us to express our natural
feelings and [9/10] imagine that these are the same
as the love of Christ, or to put on some outward show of what we think is
love without having the inward reality. Do we not know that without the mind
of Jesus, that is, without His pure, self-sacrificing love, all our critical
words about our brothers, however much they may seem to be justified, make
us into sounding brass or clanging cymbals or, in other words, hypocrites.
NOW I will not enlarge on this further, for surely it is clear to us
that hypocrisy is a deceptive power, just like sin, and that in ourselves
we are just as helpless and powerless as regards hypocrisy as we are with
regard to sin. The difference may be that we are more on our guard against
what we know to be sin, whereas we need to be constantly warned about hypocrisy.
In a sense, hypocrisy is an intensified form of sin; I might even say that
it is the sin to which Christians are most prone.
Yet we need not despair, however much we may or should be afraid of ourselves
in this connection for, with regard to hypocrisy in its innumberable shapes
and forms, Christ is our perfect Redeemer. When the trembling sinner comes
to Him with all his sin, he finds grace and freedom and is relieved -- not
in the sense that the lightening of his conscience makes him treat sin lightly,
but in the sense that he knows himself to be liberated from his guilt and
sin. In the same way, when the trembling disciple comes to Christ with his
hypocrisy, which may seem to him so great, he also finds grace and can breathe
freely again -- not that he treats hypocrisy lightly but that he now keeps
closer to his Saviour than ever before and finds that heart fellowship with
Christ brings him deliverance from hypocrisy. In this passage Luke reminds
us that the Lord not only voiced a solemn warning but also gave real heart
encouragement. In the same passage in which He tells us to beware, He also
speaks His gracious words, "Fear not!" (verse 7).
GOD'S CONCERN FOR THE NATIONS (1)
"The scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by
faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, In you shall all
the nations be blessed. So then, those who are men of faith are blessed
with Abraham who had faith." Galatians 3:8-9
IF we look at the world around us as God sees it, we see it as a truly
international community in which boundaries between nations matter a great
deal less than they often seem to to those who are not God's people. God
has an 'international' view of His world, and we need to see what He offers
to this world because of His dealings with it on that basis. In His gospel,
God makes a universal offer: He places a choice before all the nations alike.
It is not a choice for us and another choice for someone else; not one choice
for the Jews and a different one for the Gentiles; it was not one choice
before the time of Christ and a different choice afterwards. It is always
and in all places the same choice with which God confronts the nations.
We find it in the first great Bible figure who appears before us after
the division of the nations which is described in Genesis 10 where God tells
us how the single root of humanity began to be divided up into the great
nationalities which have existed ever since in our world. The first figure
who arises in Bible history after that event is that of Abraham. Genesis 12
introduces us to that truly international man who began from the great civilisation
of the ancient world in the valley of the Euphrates and the Tigris, Mesopotamia
(or Iraq as we call it today) and who then travelled across such frontiers
as there were in those days, settling for a time in Egypt at the other end
of the civilised world. He then moved away from there and settled among the
nations in the land of Canaan, remaining there for very many years. We are
told in Hebrews that all the time he was seeking a homeland. Neither Ur nor
Egypt nor even Canaan in which he settled, was his homeland. Had they been
mindful of the [10/11] country from which they went
out, the chance would have come sooner or later for them to return to it,
but they were desiring a better country than Ur or Egypt or Canaan: "They
desire a better country, that is a heavenly" (Hebrews 11:16). Deeper than
anything else, Abraham had an allegiance to his heavenly home. That is God's
concern for all men.
1. The Blessing which God sets before the nations
There is one great blessing which God holds out to men of every race
and colour, every creed and culture -- it is the blessing of justification.
The heart of God's desire for the world is to justify men. Our thoughts naturally
turn to evangelistic missions and the worldwide spread of the good news,
but we have to record that a good deal beside evangelism has gone with Christian
missions. All sorts of things have gone on under the umbrella of missions,
and rightly so. The classical period of Christian missions in the 19th century
was marked by the fact that when the missionary went off to the benighted
corners of the globe all those years ago, he found people who had none of
our advantages. The folk of those foreign lands had all sorts of needs.
Some of them had far too many wives, some lived in grass huts; they didn't
have medicine, they didn't have schools and in some remote places they didn't
even have clothes.
The result was that, along with the gospel, missionaries took with them
all those other benefits which they understood to be part and parcel of a
'Christian civilisation', Christian hospitals, Christian schools and many
agencies which provided improvements together with the gospel. These things
were good and we rightly supported them, but it is hard now for some Christians
to understand that in many parts of the world those needs are passing or
have already passed but a fundamental need remains. We have therefore to think
again and to ask what is that which still persists even when Western benefits
are no longer lacking. The answer of course is that the blessing which is
still to be offered, whatever needs may or may not still apply, is the blessing
It may be that in some ways the world of the 1980s is not so different
from that of the 1800s. There is still a third world, there are still needy
people who lack the good things which we have. Christians therefore tend
to feel that what such people need is food from us who have so much, so modern
agencies arise like that of Christian Aid. The hungry must be fed -- and
this is truly something which Christians should be doing. Or people must
have help to feed themselves, so agricultural instruments and know-how are
sent instead of food, and this is rightly seen as Christian activity. What
we must never forget, though, is that if such needs did not exist, men still
need the supreme blessing, that is the blessing of justification by which
they are made right with God.
There are also Christians who argue that the real problem in so many
lands is not so much economic but political; they suffer oppression by the
governments under which they live. So Christians who are exercised by those
who are under right-wing dictatorships have no way forward but to be helped
by left-wing activities and all over the third world there has arisen what
is called 'Liberation theology'. Discussions go on as to whether it is right
for Christians to take up arms against repressive governments. Is it right
or is it wrong?
I am not prepared to get involved in such matters but what I do know
is that according to Galatians 3:8 the fact remains that under it all and
behind it all, the blessing which God wants men to have is more than political
freedom or a full belly -- it is the blessing of justification, that men
should become right with God. We may be concerned for the rights, but what
about the oppressors? What about the right-wing dictators, don't they have
spiritual needs too? Do we not have to witness to all alike, to the one on
top as well as to the underdog, to the right-wing as well as to the left-wing,
to the 'haves' as well as to the 'have-nots', challenging them all in the
name of Christ? In that sense it may be right for Christians to get more
involved in the world than they have previously done, but always remembering
that the heart of the Christian gospel is whether a man in his spirit is right
with God or is not right with God. When all the economics are put right, when
all the politics are functioning as they should, the question is still the
matter of justification before God.
We who have so little by way of need, we who generally speaking are well
off and comfortable therefore feel challenged by the condition of
[11/12] those who are otherwise. The Spirit of God says, 'You live
in the world of the 1980s and you must feel concerned about this, and this,
and this'. We cannot avoid these world issues. Yet behind them all, Galatians
3:8 keeps reminding us that what God really wants to do is to justify men.
Never be deflected from that central message of the gospel. God cares for
the nations and wants them to be right with Himself, for the greatest need
of all men is to have bridged that barrier of sin which has separated them
at the deepest of all levels from their Maker. That is what God desires --
that is the great blessing which He sets before all nations.
When I ministered in a church in Kent, not far from the North Downs,
it was a thing which never ceased to amaze me that wherever I travelled
around, in the town, again and again as I came round a bend in the street
or over the crest of a hill, I never failed to be confronted by the line
of the hills. The hills were all around that town in the valley of the River
Medway, and the sight of them met one at every turn. It is so spiritually.
At every corner and over every crest, the main feature of the landscape
is the need for man to be right with God. You cannot miss it. When all the
other needs are met, this remains universal. The blessing needed by all
is that of justification before God.
2. The Means which God sets before the nations
If the blessing which God wishes to provide for all is the same, then
He also provides the same means. If the blessing is the same for all, wherever
they live, whenever they live, then so is the means for obtaining that blessing.
We are told here that God wanted to justify the Gentiles by faith. Faith
is something which everyone can grasp. Faith is universally possible. There
are parts of Scripture which are not easy to translate, to interpret or to
understand. We even have that famous admission of Peter's that his dear brother
Paul sometimes wrote things hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Of course there
are depths in Christian theology that we cannot grapple with and some which
we may never understand until we get to glory. But faith is simple and clear.
It seems to be a principle of understanding Scripture that God has caused
to be unmistakably clear those things which He wants everybody to know. We
may even suggest that things which are preached in our churches which have
to be dug up from the depths and take a great deal of explanation because
they are so difficult to understand are, by that very token, of less importance.
God knows very well the things which He wants us to be absolutely clear about,
and He has seen to it that the issue of faith is very clear. Have you ever
noticed how He so often uses the basic illustrations which everyone can
understand by comparing spiritual truth to such simple matters as water,
or bread or light? These are things which anyone of any culture in any part
of the world and at any time in history can understand perfectly well. So
it is with faith.
There are great differences between the nations, but in this respect
we can say that every nation equally can be regarded as susceptible to faith.
Anyone can believe. It is certainly true that anyone can and does exercise
unbelief. In the first chapter of Romans Paul sets out very clearly the universal
unbelief of man: "they do not see fit to acknowledge God" (Romans 1:28)
is only one of the many references to unbelief in this disclosure of man's
sin. Anyone can exercise unbelief and therefore its opposite, faith, is
also available to all men. There is no-one who will be able to stand up
at the last day and accuse the Lord of offering a way of salvation which he
was not capable of using.
We probably know the acrostic for FAITH which reads: Forsaking All I
Trust Him. In the last analysis, anybody knows what it means to say: "Lord,
I leave behind me all the things that I do, all the things that I think,
all the religious practices that I perform to make myself right with You.
I leave them all behind and put all my reliance on Christ. Amen!" That is
faith, and that is what God sets before all the nations. All the great qualities
that there may have been in Abraham counted for nothing in his search for
justification with God. The one thing that mattered, even in his case, was
that he turned from himself and cast himself upon God. And that anyone can
Now of course we have to translate the gospel into other people's way
of thinking and ways of speaking -- that is one of the great enterprises
of the missionary movement -- but what is to be translated is always the same.
The heart of the matter, that which everybody can understand once it gets
across, is that what is needed is [12/13] simple faith.
I realise that it is all too easy just to state that, but we have to face
the question as to what exactly is faith and how does it work out in experience.
And that is why, knowing our weakness, God has given us a living example.
He doesn't explain it in theological terms or talk in abstract phrases but
answers the question as to what faith is by calling us to look at one example.
Abraham is not just for Jews: he is the one example which God has set before
all the nations.
3. The Example which God sets before the nations
To help all the nations appreciate the true nature of faith, God calls
our attention to Abraham, that grand, simple and original example. "Thus
Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness." "So
you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham." "And the scripture,
foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel
beforehand ...". With his New Testament gospel, Paul takes us back to the
Old Testament, to tell us this abiding truth. In three verses he brings before
us the three important parts of the story of Abraham by means of three quotations.
First he takes Genesis 12:3 and reminds us of the words, "in you shall
all the nations be blessed". Then he quotes Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed
God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness". Finally he repeats the
statement about world blessing by quoting from Genesis 22:18. We therefore
have three quotations from Genesis. What happened on those three occasions?
They are the three great stages of experience of this man who is God's example
of faith given to all of us. Genesis 12 shows us the Word of God. Genesis
15 shows Abraham's response and Genesis 22 shows us how he proved his faith
by obedience. First there was the promise. God told Abraham that He had a
great purpose for him, you are going to be so blessed that through you all
the nations will be blessed. Abraham had nothing but the word of God to
go on. There was no evidence of the promise, no son born as yet, but this
promise that there would be became the first stage in his experience as
a man of faith. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham believed God. The promise
had been repeated again and again and he trusted it so that it was counted
unto him for righteousness. Three times over in the New Testament this statement
is repeated (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23). Finally we have the
third stage in Abraham's experience as described in Genesis 22. Told by God
to offer up his only and much loved son Isaac, he went to do it. Against all
appearance, against his better judgment, against all considerations of humanity,
even against what he understood of his God who so commanded him, Abraham
proved his faith by obeying. "Do you want to know what faith is?" God asks,
"then look back to My great example Abraham."
This is the example which God has set before all nations. By this God
preached the gospel beforehand. What was Abraham's experience? God spoke
to him. He believed it. He acted upon it. The question for us now is what
does God say to us. In the past, maybe years ago, He told us that we must
be born again, or words to that effect. We believed and acted upon it. "Repent
and believe", He said, "Follow Me", "Go into all the world". We heard; we
believed; and we acted upon it. Still today God speaks, putting His finger
on this and that in our lives. He touches our will, He tells us what is His
will, and we do something about it. It may seem strange that when we are talking
about the grand New Testament truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ which we
want all men to hear about, God should ask us to turn back to the Old Testament
to see the shining example of faith. How comes it that this Old Testament
figure fits in with our New Testament faith? Well, that brings us to our
4. God sets the Gospel before all nations
It is one gospel, it is one Scripture, it is one revelation. God has
the same message all through time. The fact that it became explicit and
we understood for the first time who Jesus was when He actually came into
the world at Bethlehem, that is neither here nor there. It is the same gospel
through the whole of history and the Scripture was preaching that gospel
for all the nations. This is the gospel of the cross and the resurrection.
Now it is quite true that by the time he came to die, Abraham had not actually
received the promise, but according to Hebrews 11:13 he had seen it afar
off and he had greeted it. He understood as much as he needed to understand
of what the promise was going to be. It was, in fact, the New Testament promise,
the promise of the cross and the resurrection. [13/14]
That it was the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that the Scripture was
speaking beforehand is vouched for by the Lord Himself: "Your father Abraham
rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad" (John 8:56). I wonder
when it was that Abraham saw the day of Jesus Christ. I think it may have
been on Mount Moriah when he offered Isaac. There, when in the nick of time
his hand was stayed and the knife did not descend, God provided a creature
substitute to take the knife for Isaac. Abraham's words are taken by some
as being "In the mount of the Lord it shall be provided", and of course
that was true for the ram was provided in the place of Isaac. It seems more
likely that what he said was, "In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen".
I would not be surprised to know that from that moment onward, to the end
of his life, Abraham had more than an inkling of what the gospel was going
Maybe Bethlehem was not thought of in his day. He knew nothing of Galilee
and the Son to be born to the wife of a carpenter, but he knew that God was
going to do something which would make him right with God and that the something
had to do with an offering on an altar. It was the gospel, the gospel of
our Lord Jesus Christ, and it was the gospel for the whole world. God was
saying, 'Abraham, I have got something good for you.' 'What is it Lord?'
'It is justification, Abraham. You can be right with Me. You can belong to
Me, be My son and live with Me in heaven for ever.' 'Justification, Lord,
how do I get it?' 'By faith, Abraham. By believing. That is all you have to
do. By forsaking all else and trusting Me.' 'That's great, Lord. Do I just
do that?' 'That is right, Abraham, and you become My example for the rest
of history. You will stand there at the head of history, all ages and nations
understanding through you what faith is all about.' 'Isn't that grand, Lord'
says Abraham, 'Just me?' 'No, not just for you. A blessing to you and so
the gospel for all nations. It is to be passed on.'
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about the story of Abraham
is that even as he grasped the blessing for himself, he was told that it
was for someone else. "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."
We hear much about the exclusiveness of the Jewish faith and there are things
in the Bible which seem to make it an exclusive thing but whenever the people
of Israel built walls around themselves and tried to keep their faith to
themselves alone, they lacked the true spirit of Abraham. Thomas Chalmers,
the great Scottish divine, spoke of this matter as not providing for exclusiveness
but for 'a most expansive liberality'. The very thing which set the Jews
apart and made them God's own distinct people was what God intended to lead
to a most expansive liberality. The same applies to us. When the gospel comes
to us and we respond to it by faith and act upon that faith, we find that
it becomes a challenge to us to pass it on to others beside. God's intention
is to set the gospel before all nations.
(To be continued)
PICTURES IN A BOOK
(Some comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews -- 2)
John H. Paterson
"His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also
He made the worlds ... when he had made purification of sins, sat down ...
having become by so much better than the angels ..." (Hebrews 1:2-4).
THE Epistle to the Hebrews is a finely-argued letter but, to the thoughtful
reader, it begins in a rather strange way. Let me express that strangeness
in the form of a question and ask you: if you were setting out to convince
a non-Christian of the validity of the Gospel; if you wanted to show him
the excellencies of Christ, and the superiority of the way to God through
Him to all other ways; if you wanted -- as this writer evidently did -- to
make that case in the clearest fashion imaginable, would you begin by discussing
I do not for one moment believe that you would! Yet that is the subject
to which this writer devoted almost the whole of the first chapter of his
letter. And to that curious method of approach he added a further peculiarity
-- he took the existence of God for granted, and did not 'discuss' Him at
all! He simply began, "God ... has spoken".
Now if you are like me, you would argue this case just the other way
round. You would say to yourself, 'What I have to make them see absolutely
clearly is that God exists. I must begin by convincing them of His
reality, His character, His goodwill.' As to the subject of angels, you
would say to yourself, 'What in the world have they to do with the
case?' And you might then go on to feel, as I should, that the angels are
not only irrelevant to the argument but are actually likely to prove highly
embarrassing in the discussion that is to follow. After all, one of the
standing reproaches against the Christian church is that, when it should
have been seeking men's salvation, it was wasting time arguing about how
many angels could stand on the head of a pin.
No: when you and I find ourselves in discussion with friends or acquaintances
outside the Christian faith, the subject of angels is not only unlikely to
come up but is one which we shall probably do our best to avoid. The last
thing we want to suggest in these troubled times is that the Gospel is about
white-winged beings who are outside the realm of human suffering and need.
And from the point of view of a person trying to follow the logic of the
argument in this letter, angels would seem to form a complete non sequitur
. What can they have to do with Christ and His salvation today?
What indeed? Well, they evidently have some connection, because
this writer to the Hebrews was a very astute person, and we may be sure
that, if he brought up the matter of angels, it was not just to form some
kind of polite introduction to his letter. Sometimes, my students do that
in writing their essays; they seem reluctant to come straight to the business
of answering the question -- perhaps because they have not yet made up their
minds what the answer is going to be! -- and so they write a paragraph or
two about nothing in particular, before they get down to business.
For the writer of this epistle, angels evidently were his business,
and his first business at that. To see why, we must try to understand the
structure of the epistle.
The Structure of Hebrews
Let us then remind ourselves that Hebrews was written to demonstrate
the superiority of the way to God through Christ over another way
-- the way that Israel knew in Old Testament days, and to which the Jewish
people still held. I almost wrote the word 'clung' instead of 'held', but
for this writer that is rather an important distinction to make; the Jews
did not 'cling' like a drowning man to a lifebelt or a falling man to a window-ledge
-- they 'held' consciously and proudly to their old faith. After all, when
God chose Israel they were the only nation who possessed any 'way to
God' at all. It might be a narrow, difficult, circumscribed way but it worked
and it was real and they knew, because God had told them so, that they had
been chosen out of all the nations on earth to be the vehicle of His revelation
We shall seriously misunderstand the epistle writer's task if we fail
to see this: if we imagine that between Christ and the Old Testament order
there was, as the Americans say, 'no contest'. On the contrary, anything
that was superior to that Old Testament way must be very special indeed.
What could it conceivably do that the old way did not itself accomplish?
In setting out to demonstrate that the new way to God was superior to the
old, the writer was confronting a truly formidable task.
He faced it by making a comparison between the various elements of the
Jewish faith and the Christian. Between the two, he admitted many points
of real comparison. You can find some of them in Hebrews 3:2 and 5:4-5, in
such phrases as: "... (Christ) was faithful to him that appointed him, as
also Moses was faithful in all his house" and "... no man taketh this honour
unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. So also Christ
But he also had a sharp eye for the contrasts between the two faiths;
to be exact, for the weaknesses of the old way. He went systematically through
its features and showed how, at every level, Christ was greater than the
greatest of the [15/16] figures of the past; greater
than their marvellous institutions for bringing God and man together; greater
than all the sacrifices which God Himself had ordained through Moses. Step
by step and feature by feature he analysed these two ways, and showed that,
in turning to Christ, they had not been mistaken (as they evidently
feared), and so they should not contemplate turning back.
But where to begin? How does one set about making such a comparison?
Let us agree that the logical place to start is, quite reverently, with
God Himself. He is the great starting point. And here at once we may notice
the significant thing: between Jew and Christian there was no disagreement!
There was, on this subject, nothing to argue about! The writer of this epistle
was not going to complain that he and they worshipped different gods, or that
their claim to have God's revelation was false: he agreed with them! There
was no need for these people to waste time arguing, as you or I would have
to in our office or factory, about the existence of God and whether He is
really in control or not. All this, for Jew and Christian, was common ground.
So, at the start of this letter, not a word is wasted: the first word
is "God". The first thought is of God, creating, speaking, acting. In these
two faiths, or systems of religion and life, there is at the top a common
element -- the one true God.
But now we have to try to understand about those angels! -- "... having
become so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained
a more excellent name than they" (1:4). Immediately, you will notice, the
tone has become argumentative; we are off the common ground. And I believe
that the train of thought is this: that if you begin with God, who is all-powerful
-- who has the "word of power" (1:3) -- and move down through the system
(or what today we should call the 'power structure'), you will come to the
next level or layer, the one below the top, and you will ask, 'After God,
who is the next most powerful?'
In Old Testament days, there was very little doubt about the answer you
would have received: the angels! Think of all the occasions in Israel's history
when one of these mysterious beings appeared, and the upheavals and cataclysms
that followed! The angel was more powerful than the great king, David, who
saw him striking his people with pestilence as a consequence of David's
own sin (2 Samuel 24:16-17). There were Abraham at the altar and Moses at
the burning bush, great men both of them, but taking orders from angels.
There was the father of Samson, who was convinced that, because he had seen
an angel, he was bound to die (Judges 13:22). The association between angels
and power, in the mind of the Jews, was very clear.
I think that this was the sequence of ideas which our writer was logically
following. To prove the superiority -- indeed the perfection -- of Christ
he had to start at the top of the 'power structure' and work down. If he
had simply argued that Christ was greater than men, he would have left
himself open to the rebuttal that men were, in Jewish experience, dominated
by angels and that perhaps Christ was, too. As we now know, he was really
going to argue just the opposite (Hebrews 1:14): that the angels are actually
sent to "minister for" men. It was a step in his reasoning which, however,
he could not omit, given the background of the readers he had to convince.
If Christ is not greater than the angels, then His power is limited.
But He is greater! There are in Hebrews 1 three grounds for this
claim. Very briefly, Christ is greater than the angels because He has:
(1) A better name
(2) A permanent throne
(3) A finished work behind Him
A better name -- the name of Son of God. The angels who appeared
in Israel's history seldom had names. They were discreet, self-effacing,
delivering messages but revealing little else. Only someone who shared a family
tie with God could have spoken of Him as freely and fully as Jesus did. The
angels could deliver a message but they could not, or would not, explain
the thought behind it. Only a Son could do that.
A permanent throne. The angels are the most impermanent of beings,
insubstantial as flames (1:7), unpredictable in their comings and goings.
They never stayed for long; yet their presence made such a difference! If
only the contact with God could be permanent, assured, continuous! And in
Christ it is, for He is permanent though [16/17]
heaven itself perish (1:11): "Thou art the same, and thy years shall
not fail". He is permanently seated on a throne to which He is entitled
not only by inheritance, as God's Son, but also by His achievements (1:9):
"Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even
thy God, has anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows."
A finished work. Did God ever say to an angel, "Sit thou at my
right hand" (1:13)? The implication is that the person who is invited to
sit down has finished his work. This is simply not true of angels. Far from
having completed their tasks, they are obliged even now to be continuously
active. Who would be prepared to have his guardian angel stop work and relax?
Which of us is prepared to say, 'Thank you; you can sit down. I don't need
you any more'?
No: the irony of the position is this -- that, powerful as angels are,
their real task is simply to serve men. And this is just the first
step in the argument of this writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that
Christ is greater than all. In that fact we can rejoice!
(To be continued)
THE SECOND COMING OF THE LORD (1)
Reading: 1 John 3:1-3
WHEN we speak of the Coming of the Lord Jesus, we are dealing with something
which lies quite outside of a historical subject. We cannot rightly call
it a historical event. Neither the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus nor His resurrection
from the dead can be called historical events in the ordinary sense of the
words, even though they happened in the course of history. They were rather
the mighty works of God, and perhaps that is why they are not mentioned in
the world's history books. When Jesus comes again, it will not be just a
historical event, though it will take place in a moment of time, but rather
a matter of God's intervening.
More Than An Interesting Subject
For this reason we do not find this matter treated systematically in
the New Testament. It bursts the bounds of any system. It is something that
is revealed and if we have the least ear to hear we will not think in terms
of an 'interesting' subject, but rather bow and tremble at its personal and
practical implications in our own lives. If anyone begins to read this series
in order to know when Armageddon will take place and what it will consist
of, the reader should be warned straight away that I do not propose to deal
with the variety of events but simply with the fact that Christ is coming
In 1952 Professor Niels Bohr gave a lecture on nuclear physics, and was
surprised to get no reaction from his audience. His comment was: 'If they
were not terrified, then they did not understand me at all'. Since then the
world has come to understand, and no longer considers it an 'interesting'
subject, but one that inspires fear. When we talk of the Second Coming, the
same danger is possible, and is more like trying to fit the pieces of a
jigsaw puzzle into their place. If that is our attitude, then we have entirely
missed the point. Surely if there is anything calculated to inspire concern
it is the fact that Christ is coming visibly. If we know ourselves, we will
fear and tremble, for who are we to speak glibly of so meeting Him?
Far be it from us to indulge in sensationalism over world events. Do
you find Christ crucified a subject of sensationalism? Do you think that
the resurrection of our Lord was in such a category? No, we read that they
were terrified when they saw Him; they fled in terror from the empty tomb.
On that great Day of His Coming, people will not invite one another to enjoy
an exciting sensation. It will be the appearing of the Holy One, and the only
concern will be our personal and responsible relationship to Him.
Rather than a new development in history, this Coming will be the conclusion
of history. That which is entirely new and divinely new, which no-one can
even imagine, will come into being in a moment. We need grace to consider
the matter rightly, and not drag it down into a 'subject' which can be enjoyed
and then discuss [17/18] its details over cups of
coffee, approving or disapproving of some points which may or may not be Scriptural.
The central point, according to John, is that in the light of His pure presence
we must purify ourselves. We now consider our great hope in this spirit.
The Future Aspect of Salvation
To a great extent, salvation lies in the future. Thank God that there
is complete salvation today, "For by one offering he hath perfected for ever
them that are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14). Yet while it is perfect, it
is also interim, for the same letter tells us that our Saviour will appear
"unto salvation for them that wait for him" (9:28). In other words, those
who are saved are still waiting for salvation. Then we will be delivered
not only from an earthly body but also from a carnal nature which still exists.
This interim experience of salvation is everywhere made a matter of contrast
in the New Testament; salvation is now, for it is now that we have
peace with God, now that we are justified, now is the day of salvation, and
yet Paul insists that he had not already obtained nor was already made perfect
(Philippians 3:12). Paul preached that salvation is now, and yet
knew that he still waited for the fulness. We are called 'saints' and yet
deceive ourselves if we deny that we are sinners. Satan is conquered by
the cross of Christ (Colossians 2:15) and yet he is still very active (1
Thessalonians 2:18). Death is defeated by Christ's resurrection and yet death
is still active. All these things will change when Christ returns and there
will be nothing that remains interim. That is why we long for His Coming.
No Deficiency In Our Salvation
This condition in which we find ourselves does not mean that there is
any lack in our salvation. Is it a lack that we grow old, that our body wears
out, that it is not yet redeemed? Those who think so make a great mistake.
This is the will of God and must be the case until Christ comes. This is
the interim period in which God wants us to learn to trust Him. Some might
argue that this gap between our actual condition and the future that we long
for is due to a lack of faith. This is almost as bad as the false teaching,
exposed by Paul, which said that the resurrection had already taken place.
It has not!
It is in the wisdom of God that we grow old and grey, no longer being
able to do the things which we could do twenty or so years ago and groaning
for our new resurrection body. Paul tells us that we have received "the spirit
of adoption" but in that very same chapter he reminds us that "we are waiting
for our adoption, the redemption of our body" (Romans 8:15 and 23).
No, there is no deficiency in our salvation, but since at the moment
our salvation is outwardly invisible, we are called upon to fight the good
fight of faith. When people of the world come and look at us they do not
say that obviously we are saved, for our life is hid with Christ in God.
They cannot discern suffering believers in lands of oppression as children
of God, and might well be inclined to argue that if there is a God He must
have forgotten them since they have no power and little or no comforts.
Faith wins the greatest victories in circumstances in which superficial
preachers regard it as having failed. If God wants to give more power to
a sick body, He is well able to do so, but if He does not so wish, then He
gives all the more grace. No-one -- not even the one who has been healed --
avoids growing old and the loss of physical powers. This is the dispensation
of faith, the interim when all the real treasures are hidden. We are still
waiting for the redemption of the body.
If, however, the world cannot recognise our salvation by other means,
there is a way by which it can be known, and that is by a holy life. Such
a life of holiness can be the means by which men are convicted of sin by
the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, something very different from sensational
manifestations. Salvation is a mystery. It is called so in the New Testament.
Faith is a mystery. The world can neither understand salvation nor faith;
and it can be difficult enough even for us when things go in the opposite
way from which we had expected to be the case for a man or woman of God. It
is the way of the cross, and it calls for ever-growing faith.
The Final Denouement
When Christ comes, the interim will be changed into the final, the imperfect
to the perfect, the hidden to the visible. This will not be a gradual change
or development but will happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. And
it will be by reason of the intervention of God. For that reason, in principle
it will not be one more phase of history, but something entirely new; something
[18/19] created by God and quite beyond our understanding.
In a sense, everything will come to an end and everything will become new.
This is quite beyond all schemes of events and diagrammatical demonstrations,
for it will be God Himself who appears. It will be so surprising that even
the deepest students will be unable to claim that they foresaw it just like
that. No, for it will be what no eye has seen, no ear heard, what has never
entered into the heart of man to conceive. It will not just be an occasion
-- it will be a Person.
It fills us with awe. If the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord,
then surely this truth is relevant with regard to the Coming of Christ. There
is a right kind of fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) and it is with
this that we face the prospect of Christ's Coming. God never comes without
judgment, so this Coming will bring us into the light of what we really
are. Everything will be made clear, "For we shall stand before the judgment
seat of Christ as we are" (Danish). It will not be as we have
appeared to others, or as we have hidden behind a screen of piety, but as
we have been abiding in Him (1 John 2:28). I know, of course, that this is
not the whole story, but it will not hurt us to replace mental interest in
the subject of the Second Coming by a deep respect and awe. On that day we
will fall on our faces and worship.
The work of judgment goes on all the time, though at present it is largely
hidden. A sensitive conscience makes us aware of God's mind. On that day,
however, the judgment will not be hidden but openly manifest at Christ's
judgment seat. That is why John tells us that everyone who has this hope in
Christ "purifies himself, even as he is pure". At present grace reigns. Then
it will be glory that reigns, then, but not till then. Until then we prepare
ourselves. Until then we follow the Lamb. Until then we commit ourselves to
There are many 'subjects' connected with the Coming; the rapture, the
millenium, the judgments, etc., but His Coming is more than a subject, it
is a hope which should both awe and thrill our hearts. "We shall see Him as
(To be continued)
HELPED BY HIS HAND
(Some comments on Ezra)
IN 1 Corinthians 12:31 the apostle exhorts us eagerly to desire the greater
spiritual gifts. I cannot aspire to the highest ones of apostleship or prophetic
office but at least I can work up the list to that most desirable gift of
what are classified as 'helps'. I am encouraged to pray for this gift since
it has a whole book of the Old Testament devoted to it under the title of
Ezra. Now, of course, Ezra was a historic character, but the word actually
means 'help' as, for example, "a very present help in trouble" (Psalm
46:1). If God is an 'Ezra', a Help, then I would earnestly desire to have
this spiritual gift too.
The man Ezra was a kind of second or third generation man, for in his
book he himself only appears from chapter 7 onwards. Others had pioneered
the return from the captivity -- Zerubbabel and the others -- while Ezra came
in at a later date to help the work on. He explains how he was able to do
this with the phrase about the hand of his God being upon him, an expression
which he repeats six times in chapters 7 and 8. They may repay a closer examination.
1. Purpose (7:6)
He discloses what was in his heart by his words of praise about Artaxerxes:
"Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing
as this in the king's heart, to beautify the house of the Lord" (7:27). Well,
it was only in the king's heart because it began in the heart of Ezra himself
who had his request to the king granted, "according to the hand of the Lord
his God upon him". Surely this was a noble purpose of Ezra's -- to beautify
the house of the Lord.
It was not an impulse or his own bright idea, but the effect of having
the sense of a grip of God upon his life. This is where it should all begin.
Those who take up some task for any lesser reason will sooner or later discover
that the thing is too big or too hard for them. But [19/20]
none need hesitate or delay. The honour of God's house should be our
first concern and if it is we will soon find our whole outlook mastered
by a divine purpose.
2. Progress (7:9)
Ezra was a man of prayer but he was equally a man of action. It took
four months of arduous travelling for him even to get to grips with the
work in hand, but he was able to make progress along that daunting journey
because he had not only the hand, but "the good hand" of his God upon him.
The same avails for us. Our faith and patience may be tried by difficulties
and delays but we will always find the good hand of our God upon us if we
persevere in that to which we have been called. We notice that he not only
began with a set purpose but made his progress in the same spirit for "Ezra
had set his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach
..." (v.10). With our set hearts and God's good hand, how can we fail to
make spiritual progress?
3. Power (7:28)
Nothing really worthwhile is easy. Whether Ezra was a strong character
or not, he soon found that he needed divine energy and encouragement if
he was to press on with his task. And so do we. The question is not whether
we are strong types or not, but whether we are enjoying constant renewals
of strength, as Ezra did, according to the good hand of the Lord our God
upon us. This is only another way of describing the working of the Holy Spirit,
the One who gives power for building in God's house. Remember, we began
by a reference to 'helps' as spiritual, charismatic, gifts. There is no
reason, therefore, for us to be discouraged or deterred, since power for
service comes from God. Somehow faith is infectious. In Ezra's case it meant
that he was able to gather together choice colleagues to share his encouragement
of heart as they faced the work.
4. Partnership (8:18)
"According to the good hand of our God upon us they brought us a man
...". In the end there was quite a group of them. No-one can worship or
serve in isolation. Whether or not a church can find it sufficient to have
one apostle or just one miracle-worker, I do not know, but I do believe
that it will be a feeble and unfruitful church if it does not have real co-operation
in this sphere of being helpful. In their three-day encampment by the river,
Ezra realised the great need for partners in the work of God's house. The
hand of God provided them -- "all of them were expressed by name" (v.20).
What about your name?
5. Prayer (8:22)
No doubt Ezra had been a man of prayer all the time but at this juncture
he felt that special prayer was called for, so they humbled themselves before
the God whose hand they so desperately needed and concerning whom they so
boldly testified. To me it is always inspiring to read that Ezra was "ashamed"
to ask for human help. This, surely, is the right kind of shame. Having testified
so confidently to the king that God's hand was upon those who trusted Him,
how could he then turn and request assistance from the world? Incidentally,
he had mentioned to the king that God's hand was far from being on those
who forsake God, so it would have been a shameful thing for Ezra even to
appear to have done that. May the Lord give us that kind of shame and that
kind of faith -- it will surely help to beautify His house.
6. Protection (8:31)
The whole story is a thrilling one of how the whole band was prospered
and protected in its journey, finally reaching the goal with no loss at
all of the treasure committed to them. It was not without its hazards. There
were -- and still are -- many enemies and "liers in wait" in the path of
those who seek the honour of the Lord's house, but how can there be failure
or loss when men have the overshadowing of the hand of the Lord as they move
forward in His will?
7. Provision (7:22)
There are only six references to God's hand but I suggest that the story
is better for being completed by just one more reference which lists the
provisions laid down by statute so that everything should be as God would
have it. It is wholly adequate. We read of "an hundred" in the list of talents,
measures, baths, etc., but the final item of salt is described as being "without
prescribing how much"! The vital ingredient, never to be lacking in the whole
range of sacrifices, was to be provided unstintingly and without measure.
This seems to reassure us that when we humbly know the good hand of our God
upon us in any enterprise, we can always count on an adequate supply of life
and grace to meet every need. [20/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (1)
"(is it not a little one?)" Genesis 19:20
THERE has been so much appreciation of the series on "Spiritual Parentheses"
that I feel encouraged to embark now on the Old Testament, continuing to
try to find spiritual values in phrases which are enclosed in brackets in
our English versions. This one: "is it not a little one?" could easily have
been passed over, for it is so insignificant. It centres on Zoar which itself
LOT was not an attractive character. Somehow the whining, wheedling request
to be allowed to find shelter in Zoar seems to fit the man. It was the little
prayer of a little man.
HE was little in the eyes of the Sodomites (19:9) as also in the eyes
of his sons-in-law (19:14). He was little to his wife, for she seemingly
walked out on him from Zoar and little indeed to those two daughters of his,
who thought nothing of using him for their own purposes (19:32). His prayer
about Zoar was answered, but did him little good, for he was soon afraid
to stay there and went up into the mountains after all (19:30) only to get
involved in those disgraceful episodes which produced two great enemies of
God's people -- the Moabites and the Ammonites.
IT would hardly be worth writing about this little prayer if it were
not for the background of the great prayer of Lot's kinsman Abraham (19:27-29).
It is amazing that, in answering Lot's prayer, the destroying angel confessed
that he was powerless to rain down the fires of judgment until Lot was safe:
"I cannot do anything till thou be come hither" (verse 22).
IT was really Abraham's prayer that God was answering. The pettiness
of Lot's plea about Zoar was completely swallowed up by the greatness of
his kinsman's mighty persistence in prevailing prayer (18:20-33). I am inclined
to despise Lot's self-centred prayer which was not about Zoar or even his
family, but just about his own safety. I marvel that it received such acceptance
and that Zoar was spared for his sake. Yet who am I to do that? Possibly
I have often been a little man praying little and unworthy prayers, but even
so I can testify that my prayers have been heard and wonderfully answered.
THE explanation of Lot's experience was that, in the presence of God,
he had a kinsman-redeemer whose prayers were accepted and remembered. The
same explanation is surely valid in relation to our prayers. We have the
Lord Jesus, our great Kinsman-Intercessor ever living to pray for us. That
is why we are not only to be saved but saved "to the uttermost" (Hebrews 7:25).
That is why our prayers are so graciously answered.
LOT only prayed for selfish reasons but in fact Zoar was spared for his
sake (19:21) and was still there as the last place which Moses saw when he
surveyed the land from Mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34:3). What a wonderful
prayer-answering God we have. Zoar may have been a very little place, but
it brings us a big lesson about a great Saviour.
A GLORIOUS THRONE, SET ON HIGH FROM THE
BEGINNING, IS THE PLACE OF OUR SANCTUARY.
Printed by The Invil Press, 4/5 Brownlow Mews, London
WC1N 2LD -- Telephone: 01-242 7454