|Vol. 14, No. 1, Jan. - Feb. 1985
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
WITH this issue we commence the fourteenth year of TOWARD THE MARK. What
in my own mind began as a brief bridging operation has become much more,
and has continued through the years until now. It will go on so long as the
Lord makes it possible.
In a sense my position as Editor is a simple one in that the ministry
can only go on so long as the Lord provides for it. This involves the Bible
material, graciously made available by the various brothers whose names must
now be familiar to you all, as well as the more hidden work of beloved friends
in London who take care of the not inconsiderable task of maintaining addresses
and attending to the despatch of almost four thousand copies every other
I am grateful, too, for the printing work which is done by a dear brother
in Christ and for the efficient and most helpful work of proof-reading which
is undertaken by a sister who for long has been a prized personal friend.
All these are unknown by name to readers, but their names are honourably
recorded in heaven.
Then, of course, the maintenance of the work requires ever-increasing
financial supplies which come from the kind gifts of readers. To avoid unnecessary
expense I usually do not acknowledge your gifts when they come by cheque (or
check!), but I would like to take this opportunity of thanking you all most
sincerely and assuring you that I do take your names to the Lord in prayer
as I give thanks for every one of your offerings. There are lands in Africa
and the East from which it is impossible to remit money. This I fully understand
and I rejoice that others who are better placed cover this deficiency. This
gives their generosity a 'missionary' flavour.
I am happy to report that 1984 has proved to be one more year of full
financial provision and balanced accounts. One of my happiest jobs through
the years has been to record this steady flow of material support. I quite
like book-keeping anyway, but only those who are completely cast on the Lord
for such provision can appreciate the thrills of wonder and worship which
I experience as I record your offerings. I feel -- with apologies to Leigh
Hunt -- like 'an angel writing in a book of gold'.
Not that I am an angel when it comes to faith. No, if everything depended
on my poor faith the prospect would be bleak. In fact it all depends on the
Lord's great grace and faithfulness. Daily I praise Him for His faithful
I suppose that the word 'steward' covers us all. And what an important
word it is! I have been struck by the Lord's words in this connection. When
He commanded His disciples to watch vigilantly for His Return, Peter asked
Him if this command referred only to some or to all. The Saviour's reply
was: "Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall set
over his household to give them their portion of food in due season?
Blessed is that servant whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing"
We want that blessing. Certainly the purpose of this magazine is to provide
spiritual food for some of the Lord's household, and my constant prayer is
that it may succeed in doing this. In the contemporary scene of evangelical
fellowship there seems at times to be a very limited amount of what may rightly
be described as spiritual food which is calculated to help God's children
to grow into Christ. We do well to remember God's ministering servants in
our prayers, asking that they themselves may have such a life in the Word
that they can provide both the sincere milk and the solid food of Scriptural
truth. According to the words of the Lord Jesus, that is one of the purposes
God had in mind when He set them in their places in the house of God.
This is not easy. There seems often so much to do, in personal affairs
and in the Lord's work, that His people fail to take time to do what the
psalmist calls 'meditating' in the Word of God. May He Himself create a new
appetite for the Word among all His believing people, and may there be those
'stewards' who are enabled to give them their spiritual food in due season.
This is my prayer for 1985. [1/2]
FURTHER STUDIES FROM MARK'S GOSPEL
J. Alec Motyer
5. Mark 10:32-45
IN our last two articles we have observed that Mark divides his account
into significant groupings by giving us little notes on the itinerary which
the Lord Jesus took on His way up to Jerusalem. Our passage now begins with
the last period of His journey and ends with the next journey note: "They
came to Jericho, and as he went out from Jericho" (v.46).
The Cross in the Mind of Jesus
Once more the Lord Jesus forecasts His death: "The Son of Man shall be
delivered up unto the chief priests and the scribes; and they shall condemn
him to death ..." (v.33). By now Peter had tired of reporting that they
did not understand what He said, but Mark implied this fact by his report
of the events which happened with James and John who showed their lack of
comprehension concerning the meaning of the cross by their request: "Would
You grant us our request, that we may sit one on each side of You in Your
kingdom?" So, not by a specific statement but by telling us this story Mark,
with Peter behind him, shows us in fact that they had failed to grasp the
message of the cross.
Far be it from us to blame them for that. Do we not read passages of
Scripture twenty, thirty, even fifty times and then, by God's goodness,
see new things in His Word? With the Scripture in our hands, our awareness
often becomes a dawning awareness; it is only by a flash of illumination
which the Lord graciously gives us that we see something else, not contradicting
what we saw before but adding to and amplifying it. This being so, we cannot
blame those early followers of the Lord Jesus for having their minds set
in another direction. James and John show that they were still thinking
in traditional Davidic terms, their expectation of the Messiah being political,
liberational, military and triumphalist. They thought that they could see
the new David coming, and the new army being raised and supernatural power
driving the Romans into the sea. They looked for a new David to sit on David's
throne, and this was very understandable; it was not that other dimensions
of Old Testament prediction were excluded from their minds, but that these
were not included in their Messianic scheme.
It seemed impossible for them to break through to the place where they
could understand that the One whom they had testified to be the Christ should
speak to them not about a throne but a cross. He did not speak to them about
victory but about apparent defeat, not about conquering the nations but
about dying at the hands of the nations. We cannot criticise them, for we
often find the same sort of thing in ourselves. We shrink from the way of
the cross. There are three places in Mark, spread out in this last journey
to Jerusalem, in which the Crucified speaks about the cross, the Lamb speaks
about Calvary. They are spaced out in chapters 8, 9 and 10. For the moment
we will consider what was happening as the Lord talked about His cross.
i. 8:27. The cross [is] central in Jesus' estimate of His Messiahship
The setting is familiar to us; in the villages of Caesarea Philippi Jesus
asked the key question, "Whom do you say that I am?" eliciting the great
testimony of Peter: "You are the Christ". In that setting, the Lord immediately
set about telling them what sort of Christ He is, for if He had simply left
that word in their minds, they would have been excited with all the traditional
expectations in which they had grown up and been instructed. So He had to
tell them what sort of Christ He is: "He charged them that they should tell
no man about him. And he began to teach them ..." (8:30). He spoke to them
"openly" (v.32), that is, clearly and forcefully. There was nothing lacking
in the Saviour's teaching method, though the teaching did not get through
to the disciples. He said that "the Son of Man must suffer many things and
be rejected by the chief priests ...". The word 'rejected' signifies, 'weighed
and found wanting', so that it involved not just a simple negative by the
priests and elders and scribes, but a weighing up of the matter and positive
rejection of Christ. The Lord said that He must "be killed, and after three
days rise again". To the Lord Jesus, everything that was forecast in Old
Testament Scriptures concerning the Coming One had to be
[2/3] brought under the heading of the cross. To Him the cross
was essential to His Messiahship.
ii. 9:30. The cross is essential truth for all who would follow Jesus
We have already seen that this passing through Galilee was the occasion
of a private journey. The Lord Jesus had not yet finished His convention
week with His followers. They had been on a walking holiday and [had] not
returned through well-known terrain but they did so in a secret enclave for
teaching purposes. And we are told what He was teaching them: "The Son of
Man is delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and when
he is killed, after three days he shall rise again". That is what the Lord
told His disciples when He had them on their own. He kept them in a secret
place with Himself because they had to learn about the cross. The cross is
essential truth for all who would follow Him.
iii. 10:32. The cross was the voluntary act of the Messiah
We read now that they were going up to Jerusalem. "Jesus was going before
them." Please note the fact that the Lord was not hanging back but leading
the way. Why were they going to Jerusalem? Simply because He was leading
them there. In the Greek the expression used by Mark is most emphatic, stressing
the leadership of Jesus in this journey to Jerusalem.
Looking back on this, Peter remembered the awe and trepidation which
spread, not only through the immediate knot of disciples, but through the
whole company which was going along with Jesus, so Mark recorded that "They
were amazed ..." and then that "they that followed were afraid". I suppose
that it is correct to divide these two verbs among the two companies of
people. The disciples who were going up to Jerusalem with Jesus were struck
with awe and the wider group of followers found a premonition taking hold
of them which gripped their hearts with a fear which they could not explain.
Another Gospel says that "Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem". There
was something so serious and solemn in His demeanour that it revealed His
sense of impending events. As we sometimes feel the force of someone else's
personality, they seemed to be affected by the human personality of the Lord
Jesus Christ at this momentous time. That which He alone knew, and which
to all eternity He alone will know in its fullness, was affecting them all
so that the little group intimately associated with Him were overwhelmed with
a sense of awe and even the wider company realised something of a fearful
sense of anticipation. As well they might!
He was leading His own to Jerusalem. He knew everything that was coming
to Him there even as He led them on. So we see that the cross was the voluntary
act of the Messiah. The Lord Jesus was not compelled; He was not the victim
of circumstances; He was self-committed to the cross. We need to keep this
fact in mind as we look again over the three passages and discover that at
the cross of Christ, three agencies met.
Three Agencies at work in the Cross
A further reconsideration of these three passages will enable us to discover
the three agencies at work to bring about the cross of Christ:
i. The Determinate Directive Will of God
In the first passage we find that the Lord Jesus affirmed that "the Son
of Man must suffer many things ..." (8:31). The same stress is found
in Matthew where it says that "From that time began Jesus to show unto his
disciples, how he must go unto Jerusalem ..." (Matthew 16:21). In
Matthew 24:6 we find the Lord looking forward to the end and concerning all
the events of world history then saying, "You shall hear of wars and rumours
of wars; see that ye be not troubled; for these things must need come
to pass ...". Why must they come to pass? Well, because world history is in
the hands of God, and He had determined the course of events leading up to
the end. So we are in the presence of divine imperatives.
The first words that the Lord Jesus is ever recorded to have said contain
this word, 'must': "Did you not know that I must be about My Father's
business?" The 'must' points to the will of God, and here the passage we
are considering in Mark 8 is informing us that one of the agencies operating
at the cross of Calvary is the great agency of the will of God. It was "by
the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" that [3/4]
Jesus went to the cross. God planned it, and therefore He planned all
that led up to it because this was what He had determined should happen.
When we come to the other two statements about the cross in Chapters
9 and 10, we find that the Lord used passive verbs, not stating the subject
of the verb but the person upon whom the verbal action would come. So we
find: "The Son of Man is delivered up into the hands of men" (9:31) and "The
Son of Man shall be delivered ..." (10:33). This confirms what we noted in
the first case, namely that the Agent of the 'must' was none other than God
Himself. The cross came about by the will of the Father of our Lord Jesus
ii. The Sinful Agency of Men
I have already pointed out to you that in rejecting the Lord Jesus, the
chief priests, elders and scribes gave a calculated 'No' to Him. So it was
the mind of man which operated to bring about the crucifixion. They had given
full consideration to the claims of Jesus, to the sort of Messiahship which
He seemed intent on practising and the sort of Messiahship which at that
point He seemed intent upon refusing. In the words which the Lord Jesus had
put into their mouths in His parable, they said, "We will not have this man
to reign over us". In this chapter we note the sinful agency of man bringing
Jesus to the cross in terms of the human mind.
In Chapter 8 it is the mind of man that assesses and then rejects, but
in Chapter 9 we see that sinful agency working in a different aspect: "The
Son of Man is delivered up into the hands of men" (9:31). It was
the hands of man that arrested Christ in the garden and bound Him; it was
the hands of man that subjected Him to humiliation and torture; it was the
hands of man that nailed Him to the cross. Oh, how that expression "the
hands of man" must have wrought upon the sensitive imagination of the Lord.
Our hands are capable of transmitting the tenderest messages of love, and
our hands are capable of inflicting the extremities of pain. It was the
latter and not the former which played their part in the crucifixion.
When we come to Chapter 10 this element of human agency is continued
and taken one step further: "The Son of Man shall be delivered to the chief
priests and they shall ... deliver him to the Gentiles, and they shall mock
him" (10:33). The agency that brought the Lord Jesus to the cross was the
common consent of the whole human race, here represented in its two Biblical
divisions, the Jews and the Gentiles. It was the agency of human sinfulness
which was at work at Calvary. We notice that in his pentecostal sermon Peter
took account of this saying, "Being delivered up by the determinate council
and will of God, ye, by the hands of wicked men, did crucify and slay". The
Holy Spirit brought back to Peter's memory all that Jesus had taught.
iii. The Voluntary Acquiescence of Jesus
This third agency, the voluntary acquiescence of Jesus, moves us to our
depths. We must say it softly; this is what melts our hearts. We look up
with awe and amazement that the Father should send the Son to die for the
world; we look with shame when we see that it was human hands that did the
deed; but we fall down and worship when we see that what made the Lord Jesus
the Lamb of Calvary was His own voluntary acquiescence. This, of course, is
the implication of the Lord's words that He must suffer. He felt upon
Himself the holy constraint of the will of God, a constraint which excited
the glad responsiveness and affirmation of His own heart for He could claim
that "I do always the things that please him".
The will of the Father did not work in Him by any machine-like necessity
but by the voluntary 'Yes' of His own spirit. Though He spoke so gravely
of the hands of men, it was He Himself who accepted those wicked hands. John
tells us that in the Garden He asked, "Whom seek ye?" and they replied "Jesus
of Nazareth" only to be told "I am he" and then "they went back and fell
to the ground". The hands of men could not touch the Son of God unless He
willed that they should do so. "No-one takes my life from me; I lay it down
So it was that Mark, presumably guided by Peter, emphasised the way in
which the Lord stepped out ahead on the road to Jerusalem. Those who followed
felt the foreboding but He stepped bravely and resolutely on with His face
set. As He did so He gave the fullest statement of His sufferings of the
cross and what would lead up to them: "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem and
the Son of Man shall be delivered ... and they shall mock him and spit upon
him, and scourge him and kill him" (10:33-34). He went; He was neither driven
nor dragged. He went to [4/5] all that cruelty though
He did not have to endure it. He went because He chose to go.
At the end of this passage He explained His attitude in this way: "The
Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his
life a ransom for many" (10:45). What a marvellous picture this gives us
of the cross. The Father was there in all His holiness, intent upon saving
sinners -- voluntarily. Sinners were there in all the climatic enormity of
their sin -- voluntarily. And Jesus was there, obedient to the Father and
bearing all our sins in His holy body on the tree -- voluntarily.
The Cross in the Life-style of Jesus
Having studied together the cross in the mind of Jesus, we now turn to
the same passage again to consider the cross in the life-style of Jesus.
That is to say, He teaches us about the cross not only that we may be secure
in our knowledge of the means of salvation, but also that we may have a directive,
a pattern and a principle to live out in our own daily life.
Each of these passages is followed by a disclosure of human misunderstanding
because what Jesus taught about the cross was not grasped and indeed could
not be grasped at that particular time. Luke very properly says that it was
hidden from them. On each occasion an error arose and had to be corrected.
After the Lord Jesus had announced His cross, "Peter took him and began
to rebuke him" (8:32). The actual words which Peter used were "Far be it
from thee, O Lord". The mind of man cannot comprehend the reason and the necessity
of the cross. Even to this day, the mind of unilluminated man cannot comprehend
this need; the cross is an offence to the thoughtful man, according to Paul.
We need somehow to have the stamp of the cross upon our thinking; to get
away from the arrogant mind of the sinner to that aspect of the human mind
which the New Testament underlines over and over again, which is humble-mindedness.
Humility is usually the first in the list of Christian virtues -- not always
but usually. What sort of a life-style, we ask, would that lead to? A mind
that is ready to accept all the teaching of God humbly and submissively,
saying 'Yes' to whatever He says. I hold myself bound to believe all that
the Bible is found to teach. I would not call myself a humble-minded person,
but I would aim to be so and have a submissive mind to God's Word.
In the second passage we have the great statement of the cross put in
the context of the controversy about greatness. The Lord teaches them about
the cross (9:31), they do not understand and are too overwhelmed with nervousness
to ask (v.32). They came to Capernaum and when He was in the house He asked
them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" (v.33). They were silent
because they had been disputing which of them was the greatest. You may remember
that we had an imaginative picture of them walking single file along the
track with everybody knowing who was at the head of the procession and who
was bringing up the rear, and there was a bit of jockeying for position to
be the next behind Jesus. This may be so; at any rate it illustrates what
was happening. Within the apostolic fellowship, within that tiny church of
the Lord Jesus Christ, there was a dispute about greatness.
This shows us the uprising of human failure to understand about the cross
for it is certainly not the life-style of the cross to desire to occupy the
arrogant place in church fellowship, being the one whom everybody else is
afraid to talk freely to or to antagonize. So the Lord took a little child
and, wrapping His own arms around it, He said, "Look at that! The one with
whom I am identified is the little one, the one who is down at the bottom
of the heap. That is true greatness". That is the life-style of the cross.
In Chapter 10 we have another aspect of human misunderstanding, though
this statement of the cross in 10:33-34 is not followed by an actual statement
to that effect but by an incident which shows that the message and meaning
of the cross had not yet been grasped. James and John came to the Lord Jesus
and really they came with a vote of confidence, not because they thought
little of Him but rather because they thought so much of Him. He was going
to Jerusalem and it seemed that any minute He would be on the throne. Their
request was a magnificent vote of confidence in Him; it reflected their sense
of His greatness and of His invincibility. "There is no power on earth," they
said to themselves, "that can stand in the way of Jesus" and, since He was
going to Jerusalem and the kingdom was about [5/6]
to be established (Luke 19:11), they asked to be one on each side of Him
as He sat on His throne.
Of course, their request was vain-glorious, but who would not wish to
be by the side of Jesus for all eternity? Surely at least we can credit them
with some godly ambition. But what did the Lord reply to them? He told them
that their spiritual ambition needed to be brought into touch with the cross,
for the only way to glory is through the cross. The Lord Jesus said to them:
"You know not what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup? There is no way
to get near the throne except through the cross". The only way into fulfilment
of a glorious spiritual ambition is to live a life that is identified with
the Christ of Calvary, to have the cross stamped upon our mind and upon
The Cross in the Teaching of Jesus
There is so much more that we could discover by going backwards and forwards
through these verses, but we move on to speak of the cross in the teaching
of Jesus; how He communicated the message and meaning of the cross to those
around Him and therefore how He communicates it to us. He immediately began
to speak of "a cup". James and John said that they would like to sit on each
side of Him in the glory and He asked them, "Are you able to drink of the
cup that I drink?" He then went on to speak of "a baptism", "or to be baptized
with the baptism that I am to be baptized with?"
Of course they cannot drink His cup, nor are they able to be baptized
with His baptism, but they can show the marks of the cross in the life-style
they adopt, and so can be on their way to glory. One imagines that the rest
of the little band were indignant that the two brothers had got in first
with their request, but Jesus said not only to James and John but to the
whole apostolic band: "You know that they which are accounted to rule over
the Gentiles lord it over them ..." (v.42). He really said: "Those great ones
exercise a domineering authority", since the word speaks of coming down on
people. The Lord went on, "but not among you. Whosoever wishes to be great
among you shall be your minister, and whosoever wishes to be first among you
shall be the slave of all". That is the true style of leadership in the Church
-- servants and slaves.
Those two words largely overlap in their meaning but insofar as we can
distinguish the servant and the slave, then the servant is active for the
good of others and the slave waits for the demands of others. According
to the Lord Jesus, it is the servant who reaches out in helpfulness and
the slave who waits for what others may demand, who qualify for leadership
and are on the way to glory. Why are they to be like that? Because that is
what He is like. This is the greatness of Jesus. Having used the illustrative
statements of "a cup" and "a baptism", the Lord made the incomparably clear
statement: "The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister,
and to give his life a ransom for many".
The Cross and the Greatness of Jesus
What did the Lord mean by describing His cross as a cup? "The cup which
my Father hath given me to drink, shall I not drink it?" This was the destiny
appointed for Him by the Father, but since the Lord Jesus was such a lover
of Scripture, as He used that word there must have crowded into His mind
all those verses in the Old Testament which predominantly use the picture
of a cup as that in which the anger or wrath of God has been mixed and is
waiting to be drunk. The cup which the Father gave to the Son was the cup
of His own holy wrath, which the Son drank in our place. The Lord spoke not
only of the cup but also of the baptism with which He was to be baptised.
Once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and also in Greek literature
outside of the Bible, the figure of 'baptism' is used to denote flooding,
overwhelming trouble. It is possible, therefore, that in speaking of His
cross as a baptism, the Lord Jesus may have had specifically in mind the sufferings
of the cross which were to come upon Him as an overwhelming flood. "All thy
waves and thy billows are gone over me" (Psalm 42:7).
In any case an earlier baptism had entered into His experience when He
stood in the waters of baptism beside John (Matthew 3:13). I want you to
imagine that at the end of that particular day, John's disciples were highly
delighted, for they had been counting the number of people who had been baptised
that day (there is always somebody who is counting heads!) and were thrilled
to report how many there were. They included Jesus in their statistics, and
in a sense that is what it means when it says that Jesus "was numbered among
the transgressors". In the eyes of the watching crowd, in the eyes of John's
[6/7] disciples who were not privy to the secret conversation,
the name of Jesus would have been high on the list as one who had been included
in the sinners' baptism for the cleansing of sin.
We know that this was far from the truth. His action was in fact the
first step in that supreme baptism of the cross, where the Sinless One took
the place of sinners. The Caesarea Philippi commitment, when He first announced
the cross to His disciples, was the second step. The third step was when
He again told them of the impending cross, and the fourth was on this last
leg of the journey when He said that He must go up to Jerusalem. The full
baptism, however, was when He was nailed to the cross, for there His identification
with sinners was finally completed and settled. That was the great and final
time when "He was numbered with the transgressors".
We marvel at the greatness of Christ as displayed in His cross. There
the Son of Man -- the One who possesses totally and fully the quality of
perfect humanity -- gave His life a ransom for us. A ransom is the price
paid for someone else's release. He paid it for our sakes and the cross was
a price wholly satisfactory to the Father. I love the description of the
death of Christ as "a perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the
sins of the whole world". God was content with that offering. By His act
in raising the Son from the dead, the Father said, "Yes, that is enough.
I am completely satisfied".
Even the most perfect animal sacrifice had this one defect; in this case
there was no consenting will. No animal ever chose to be a sacrifice. Yet
the very heart of our sinfulness lies in the will, so that through the era
of animal sacrifice, the mercy of God prevailed, but it could never be more
than a picture of substitution until there came the One who deliberately
chose to be the victim. The Lord Jesus prophetically declared that He chose
the altar of the cross: "In the volume of the book it is written of me, I
come to do thy will, O my God" (Hebrews 10:7).
Because of this we are redeemed and get the blessing, but all the glory
is given to Christ. Since He was content to go to the cross, "God hath highly
exalted him and given him the name which is above every name; that in the
name of Jesus every knee shall bow" (Philippians 2:9-10). We who are redeemed
long earnestly for the Day of the universal revelation of that greatness.
Brothers, this Lord Jesus
Shall return again,
With His Father's glory,
With His angel-train;
For all wreaths of empire
Meet upon His brow,
And our hearts confess Him
King of glory now.
"HAIL, ABRAHAM'S GOD AND MINE!"
(Names by which Abraham came to know God)
4. EL OLAM -- GOD EVERLASTING
"ABRAHAM planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the
name of the LORD, the Everlasting God" (Genesis 21:33). This title El
Olam , is one of the most far-reaching names by which Abraham came to
know God. It is not strictly speaking a name, for the name of God is Yahweh
, which is also found in this verse, but it is a descriptive title.
We have considered other aspects of the character of God and seen that
the titles used came to Abraham in very practical ways. This is no exception;
it was at a practical point of need that Abraham was taught to call on the
LORD as El Olam. It is also true in our case that every situation
of need demands for us some new gift from God, by which we are expected to
learn more of Him.
If on our daily course our mind
Is set to hallow all we find
we will certainly be learning more new things about the Lord in our varying
circumstances. In [7/8] fact it was in this way that
Abraham discovered this fresh title, El Olam.
The Constant Need
The background to this story is that of a constant need for water. It
all arose out of a dispute in the Negeb, a dispute over the well at Beer-sheba.
No-one would want to be in a desert, and no-one could live there, unless
there was a supply of water. That was so then and is the same now. Water is
the most precious commodity in such a place.
It is interesting to follow through the story of Abraham and to find
how often he was drawn to that most unlikely place, the Negeb. He moved
first to the East of Bethel and then moved on, going towards the Negeb (Genesis
12:9). After that there was a famine so he went down into Egypt, but as soon
as he came back he returned to the Negeb (13:1). Lot cast his covetous eye
on the Jordan Valley (13:10) which was already well watered everywhere, but
for Abraham it was a case of continuing in the dry areas. When he sent his
slave-wife, Hagar, away from home, the Angel of the Lord found her by a
spring of water in the wilderness the first time, but the second time she
was out in the wilderness of Beer-sheba and there was no water (21:14). Water
was the one essential: without water you perished and your flocks perished
Now for twenty-five years this had been Abraham's way of life, always
looking for water. It was a case of his flocks needing water day after day,
and that is what I mean by a practical point of need. For all those years
his need had been constant, a fact which perhaps reminds us of our spiritual
daily need: "O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee; my soul thirsteth
for thee ... in a dry and weary land where no water is" (Psalm 63:1). Water
is my constant need and it was literally so for Abraham as he was to settle
down at Beer-sheba. That was where the well was, and that was where Abraham
intended to live.
The trouble was, though, that Abimelech was there also, a petty king
who appears several times in the story of Abraham, and with whom he made
an alliance over the matter (21:22-24). Not long after there was a clash
and Abraham had to complain to Abimelech about the violent seizure of the
well by his followers (v.25). The clash concerned water, which was their
constant need. Abraham was a newcomer; Abimelech lived some way away; neither
of them had an altogether solid claim to it, hence their agreement. It may
be that in verse 25 the force of the verb is that "Abraham had to complain
...", as if it was a repeated action which in the end made Abraham feel that,
alliance or no alliance, he had to say something to Abimelech. This was because
it represented an urgent and constant requirement. Many of our needs are
just passing matters and we can justly say to ourselves -- even if it were
rude to say it to others -- that it will all be the same a hundred years
on from now. But there are things which are not in this category
-- vital and constant needs -- and this is underlined by this need for water.
A Constant Reminder
This came by means of a treaty. It was this that came first and was meant
to be a perpetual agreement: "Abimelech said to Abraham, Swear to me here
by God that you will not deal falsely either with me or with my offspring
or with my posterity" (verse 23). He wanted a perpetual agreement, but it
was after that supposedly perpetual pact that the quarrel arose, for they
found that it was not being honoured.
This brought about a crisis and the swearing of an oath made to establish
that the agreement was not just a matter of words but was to be lastingly
binding. The 'Beer' half of the name speaks to us of the constant need for
the well of water, while the 'sheba' half of the name speaks of the oath
that had to be sworn there. It became therefore 'The well of the oath', to
be a constant reminder of this vital and most important matter.
We may ask what was the importance of that treaty. What was it for? It
is worth noting that so far as Abimelech's men were concerned it was just
a piece of paper, or whatever. It could not make them do what they were
supposed to do and nobody was compelled to obey it. In fact when we move
on into Chapter 26 we find that in Isaac's day he had to dig again the wells
of water which had been dug in the time of his father Abraham because the
Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham's death. So there was no binding
force about that 'piece of paper'. The importance of the treaty, therefore,
was not [8/9] what it could make them do but rather
that it was a reminder. It simply said to them constantly that they had made
an agreement. A week later, if the need arose again, the well was still there,
there was still the possibility of trouble about it but the oath would be
there to be appealed to. A year might go by; the same need would be there,
the water was still there and there was still the chance of a squabble,
but still there was the agreement to which appeal could be made. Ten years
later, fifty years later -- still the need, still the water, still the chance
of a quarrel and still the agreement. So it was that the oath stood as a
Now faithfulness is a great virtue; God approves of the man who sticks
to what he has sworn, even though it turns out to his own hurt (Psalm 15:4).
In our New Testament days, faithfulness is part of the fruit of the Spirit.
And Abraham, who was the father of the faithful in the sense that he was
the first man to believe, was also faithful in this sense, that he was loyal
to what had been agreed. His dependents looked to him, and they were not disappointed.
Whenever the problem arose again, the household of Abraham could look to
its father and appeal to the oath which he had sworn. Abraham would never
let them down. His oath would always stand. That is what I mean by speaking
of a constant reminder.
A Constant Word
Now there is a word to describe all this and it is the word 'olam
'. I hesitate to introduce niceties of the Hebrew language, but Dr. Young's
Concordance will show that the general use of this lovely word is to translate
it as 'everlasting', but to mean something special by its use. The Bible
will not allow us to confuse this word, 'everlasting', with another word which
we may think is the same, and that is the word 'eternal'. They are not the
same. Eternity has the context of two different worlds; that which is eternal
has to do with that other world which is not the world of time.
This is not the significance of the word 'olam' for which we use
the adjective 'everlasting', since this means something more like what we
might describe as 'constancy'. It does not have to do with the world to come,
but has very much to do with this world. If we did a word study on this
we would find that the Scripture speaks of the Law, the Old Testament Law
as being everlasting, meaning that it is a constant obligation of the people
of God every day of their lives. It is the everlasting Law. The same is
said of the Sabbath, which is everlasting in the sense that it is a constant
rest for the people of God every week till the end of time -- but not after.
The priesthood of the Old Testament was 'an everlasting priesthood', yet
we know very well that the Old Testament priesthood came to an end in Christ.
He finished, completed and fulfilled it, nevertheless, for its period, the
Old Testament priesthood was everlasting in the sense that it was constantly
The throne of the kingdom of Israel was spoken of as an everlasting throne.
We may spiritualise this and say that in Christ the throne of the King is
indeed eternal, and rightly so, but what the Scripture meant at that time
was that the throne was not eternal but everlasting in that throughout that
period it constantly stood. So, in a curiously paradoxical sense, 'everlasting'
does not mean anything like 'eternal', being definitely restricted to this
world and this life.
Now we seek to know what Abraham meant when he used this word. He knew
it before he employed it at Beer-sheba. When, for instance, after Lot had
separated from him, God said to Abram: "Lift up your eyes and look from
the place where you are, north, south, east and west; all the land which
you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever" (13:14).
The word 'olam ' is here employed in the sense of everlasting. When
God said that the covenant was an everlasting covenant, and that the land
was to be Abraham's everlasting possession (17:7 and 8) He did not mean that
they were eternal but that, as far as Abraham and his descendants were concerned,
they were perpetual. Here, then, by the well at Beer-sheba and against the
background of the constant need of his household and his flocks for water,
something new dawned upon Abraham. There was the constant possibility that
the provision of water might be taken from them, the constant threat of
a dispute from which one of those days his shepherds might have to appeal
to him for his authority in the time of need, and the constant responsibility
that rested upon him to act on their behalf, yet there was One to whom he
himself might appeal. For the rest of his life the call might come for him
to act over the need for water, but it suddenly dawned upon him that
[9/10] as he stood for his people, so God stood for him. He is the
Constant God. Therefore Abraham called upon YAHWEH, with this extra definition
of EL OLAM -- the God of Constancy.
The Constant God
This is my last point. God Everlasting is not here the same as the Eternal
God, though of course He is that. He will be the God of Eternity when we
meet Him in heaven, with this time and this world finished, but that it not
the significance of this name. This reminds us that He is the Everlasting
God because of His perpetual activity. Every day, for the rest of his life,
Abraham knew that his God would rise to the occasion; every single day, for
the rest of his life, he knew that God would never for a moment fail him.
To Abraham He had been The Constant God through every period of his life.
When, at seventy-five, Abram left Ur of the Chaldees, God was there with
him. When he was eighty-six and Ishmael was born, God was still there. When
he was ninety-nine and the promise was made to him of Isaac, it was God who
was there and made it, and when he was a hundred and the child was born, it
was God who was there. And however many years later, when he went to Mount
Moriah and was ready to sacrifice his son on the altar, God -- the Constant
God -- was there too. He is always El Olam.
It is as God Everlasting that God would be known by Abraham's descendants
after him. Isaac would know that Yahweh is the Constant God; Jacob would
know that He is the Constant God, and so would the twelve patriarchs. Moses
would know it and would pronounce: "The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath
are the everlasting arms" (Deuteronomy 33:27). David would know it
and record the words: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in every generation;
e'er the mountains were formed, or the earth or the world came into being.
From everlasting to everlasting you are God" (Psalm 90:1).
Isaiah would know it: "Have you not known, have you not heard? The Lord, the
Everlasting God ... fainteth not neither is weary" (Isaiah 40:28).
It was this God who moved Abraham to plant a tamarisk tree by that well
at Beer-sheba. In my gardening book on the subject, though it is speaking
of a different climate with salt winds rather than sandstorms, it says that
it is 'particularly resistant and tolerant to salt in winds; ideally suited
to a sunny, exposed position'. This tree to me looks like a remarkable symbol
of God, even though some question Abraham's action as being akin to pagan
worship. It illustrates this truth of The Constant God.
The chapter closes with the information that "Abraham sojourned in the
Philistine's land many days" (v.34). That is where he lived for a long time,
there by the well which spoke of the need which would be constantly repeated,
having the oath which acted as a constant reminder to him and to his people
that there by the tamarisk tree which stands up to all weathers and survives
them all, they had a God who is The Constant God. Many of us have to live
for days or even years in the land of the Philistines; thank God that wherever
we may be and for however long, our Lord is EL OLAM, The Everlasting God.
FAITH AND GOD'S BETTER THING?
(Some comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews -- 12)
John H. Paterson
IN our studies of the men of faith and patience in Hebrews 11, we now
come to Moses. And here I have to admit to a certain embarrassment. For Moses
is, by a wide margin, my favourite Old Testament character and, if you happen
to have kept a file of back numbers of Toward The Mark , you will
find that at least half of the articles I have contributed contrive to bring
in Moses in one context or another! Consequently, I have very little to
say about Moses that I have not said before and, in this study, I want only
to bring out one basic principle of Moses' life, the [10/11]
one which makes him a very special example to us among the great men in
the list of Hebrews 11.
Faith to deal with what is spiritual and invisible; patience to accept
the timing of a God who is eternal; these, as we have repeatedly seen, are
the qualities which God looks for and values in His servants. In the case
of Moses, I am inclined to think that it is quite realistic to separate
the two. Faith in the invisible was evidently not a problem for Moses:
the writer assures us (Hebrews 11:27) that "he endured as seeing him who
is invisible" or, as Kenneth Taylor paraphrased that in The Living Bible
, "it seemed as though he could see God actually there with him". And
why not? We may well feel that if we had met God in a burning bush and a
burning mountain, and had thereafter been spoken to "face to face, as a
man speaketh unto his friend" (Exodus 33:11), then we, too, should have
no great difficulty in believing in the otherwise invisible! For Moses,
that was the easy part!
But patience: that was another thing. To appreciate just how severe
were the tests that Moses had to undergo on this score, I recommend that
you read not only his life story but also two psalms, one attributed to Moses
-- Psalm 90 -- and the other describing his life and trials -- Psalm 106.
Here you have a man who, at the age of forty, felt called to help his
people, who were also God's people. Forty years after that, he received
God's commission to lead them out of Egypt: at the age of eighty, if you
like, he began his life's work. But because of the invincible reluctance of
the people to go where God intended them to go, that life's work, which should
have taken just two years, took forty.
No wonder, then, that he tells us that, even if we survive eighty years,
"yet is their strength but labour and sorrow" (Psalm 90:10)! But what we
need to notice is that, at each stage, Moses had an alternative choice which
he might have made. When he saw the Egyptian smiting the Hebrew (Exodus 2:11),
he might have turned a blind eye, and gone on, privileged and secure,
enjoying "the pleasures of sin for a season". When he married Zipporah daughter
of the priest of Midian, and started raising a family, he might have
settled down to a peaceful existence, enjoying the rustic charms of the "back
of the wilderness" (Exodus 2:21-22; 3:1). When he was called by God to return
to Egypt he might -- he did -- try to excuse himself from going.
And when he finally had the people of Israel on the move he was offered,
not once or twice but several times, the chance to leave them to their fate
and go on alone with God.
The writer to the Hebrews points out, with a sure touch, the crucial
decisions of Moses' career. Here they are: "choosing rather to suffer
affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for
a season; accounting the reproach of Christ greater riches than
the treasures of Egypt" (Hebrews 11:25-26). And we now know, what Moses
could not have known at the time, that by making those choices he was committing
himself to spending two-thirds of his whole life in the desert; committing
himself to endless irritation and frustration and, eventually, committing
himself to the loss, at the very last moment, of his life's goal of leading
the people into the Land of Promise.
How was he able to do it? Evidently because, through the grace of God,
he was able to subordinate all his personal interests to those of God's
people as a whole. He was resolved that, however slow was their progress
-- and can we even begin to imagine how slow was the movement of 600,000
reluctant men, and then women, children, flocks and herds (Exodus 12:37-38)?
-- he was going to stay with them through 40 years of a journey which he
could have made alone in a week. He realised that the purpose which God had
declared was a purpose for the whole people, requiring a fulfilment for the
whole people. A fulfilment which included no one but Moses (Exodus 32:9-13)
was worse than no fulfilment at all; it would only make the heathen nations
We can do nothing but marvel -- at the patience of Moses; at his loyalty
to the people; at the utter ingratitude on the part of those for whom all
his sacrifices were made. What new dimension this gives to that simple statement
in Hebrews 10:36, "Ye have need of patience ..."!
The lesson is simple: I have written it in these pages before, and shall
probably write it many times again before I myself learn the reality of it
-- the Christian life is a life together, or it is nothing. There is not
one of us who does not feel that we could make faster progress if it were
[11/12] not for those dreadfully slow-moving Christians
in such-and-such a church, or that obstructive Brother X or Sister Y. Going
it alone is the answer!
No: going it alone is not the answer, because the purpose of God is for
Brother X and Sister Y as well as for me. The purpose is not reserved for
a few fast movers or high fliers, and a solution which leaves me inside and
X and Y outside is simply no solution at all. And if, by any chance, it
comes to a question: Do I 'get in', or do X and Y instead of me? then, although
the question is strictly hypothetical, we know what the answer is, don't
we? Moses gave it in Exodus 32:32.
What a great man Moses was! Of course, says the writer, he was
doing it for the reward. That may come as rather a shock, as if we heard
it said of a famous preacher, 'Of course, he only does it for the money!'
But the writer is quite specific: "Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater
riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect unto the recompense
of the reward" (Hebrews 11:26). He put two things into the balance and decided
that one weighed more heavily than the other, and therefore chose God's people
and their fate, rather than the treasures of Egypt.
That phrase, "the recompense of the reward" in the Authorised Version
is the translation of a single word in the Greek, and I am not sure why the
translators used two words for one, for 'recompense' (or, to use a word with
which today we are more familiar, 'compensation') and 'reward' are by no
means the same thing. The Greek word evidently carries a little of both meanings.
Compensation carries the idea of repayment, of making amends -- in Moses'
case, amends for the loss of the treasures of Egypt. Reward, says my dictionary,
means a gift, given in recognition of merit, or given in return for good
If we ask what, in the life of Moses, was the compensation he
received for the loss of Egypt, then it was certainly not money, or luxury,
or comfort, for he had none of those, once he left Pharaoh's palace. It
was not the exercise of power, for he was the meekest of men (Numbers 12:3),
and complained constantly about his responsibilities. His only compensation
for all the loss, all the trouble, all the burdens, was that he saw God's
purpose fulfilled. The people reached the land; the promise of God was fulfilled;
the reputation of God was secured. That was all. Are we going to be
content, at the end of our lives, with 'compensation' like that?
And Moses' reward: what was that? Simply, I suggest, the enjoyment
of a relationship with God unique in its intimacy. Such a relationship could
only be established by the gift of God; it is not something that any man,
however holy and obedient, could demand. For Moses it was, in the
full dictionary sense of the word, a reward -- a gift which makes him the
envy of every believer from that day to this:
There arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses,
whom the Lord knew face to face.
* * *
SO much for Moses and the Life Together. Let us now look ahead in this
list of men and women of faith to the last names (Hebrews 11:32); 'David,
Samuel and the prophets'. You will, I am sure, have noticed, and perhaps
been worried by, the obvious chronological error of the writer here -- he
has placed David before Samuel, whereas all the other characters in his list
appear in their historical order. Have you ever wondered why this is?
I have an idea, although that is all that it can ever be. But let us
ask ourselves: what are the lessons of faith in the lives of David and Samuel?
In the case of David, we should certainly focus on the killing of Goliath,
and we should be reminded, no doubt, that David was a man after God's own
heart. And then what? What are we to make of the closing years of David's
life? What about that confused, tragic relationship with Absalom, the flight
from Jerusalem, the bickering family, the plotting and deceit? If you were
drawing up a list of great men of faith in the Old Testament, would you end
it there -- with an old, baffled man whose family were running rings round
him, his giant-killing days far in the past?
I think not! Let us remember that the aim of the epistle's writer was
to encourage: to urge those doubting Christians to go on. To do that,
he needed a more stirring climax! And so he turned to 'Samuel and the prophets'.
Consider, if you will, the career of Samuel. He grew up in the tabernacle
under a high priest who, physically and spiritually, was as blind as a bat.
He came to manhood in a nation being destroyed by its enemies. He had no
sooner come to a place of power and influence in this nation when the people
demanded a king, which he knew was a wrong choice. And then for the
rest of his life he had to live under this king, who turned out to be as bad
as he had feared, and then somewhat worse, and see victory turn to defeat
and God's true king -- David -- in peril of his life.
We cannot but admire Samuel for the steadfast way in which he stood by
this nation: "God forbid that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to
pray for you" (1 Samuel 12:23). And if we ask the question, 'In what way
did the life of Samuel display faith and patience?' then the
answer, I suggest, is to be found here: that Samuel never lost his confidence
that God could do better than this!
Through all those weary years of spiritual blindness under Eli, of military
defeat and of Saul's dictatorship, Samuel never gave up his belief that none
of this represented God's best and that, under God's real man, better things
were in store. His faith and patience were unshaken by the fact that, so
far as we know, he did not live to see it. And this was, of course, far
more true of 'the prophets', whom our writer links here with Samuel.
They prophesied, most of them, in times of utter chaos and disaster, of a
bright future which, in many respects, has even yet not come to pass. They
looked around at the state of God's people -- which was invariably bad --
and their message was, "God can do better than this!"
And that, I suspect, is the note which our writer wanted to strike as
he came to the end of his list: not the uncertain note of David's later years,
but the full affirmative of prophet after prophet whose faith carried him
forward, out of his own time, into God's time and the better thing in store.
This list is not closed, but open-ended: there is always more to come.
I suspect that this is the explanation of that curious reversal in the
names because, after all, the writer himself supplies us with a clue, by
ending his list with these very words:
These all ... received not the promise,
God having foreseen some better thing concerning us,
that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
(To be continued)
THE OLD FASHIONED GOSPEL
"For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
being justified freely by his grace through the redemption
that is in Jesus Christ." Romans 3:23-24
A PERIL which may beset Christians who constantly listen to evangelistic
preaching is that they become so familiar with the message of justification
by faith that they imagine that they know all about it, and take it as a
matter of course.
"... all have sinned ..."
This is the most dreadful thing that can be said of us: I have
sinned; you have sinned; all have sinned. Some sin openly and
others in secret; some sin elegantly and wittily and others in a rough and
vulgar way; some sin and get away with it, others have spoiled their lives
by their sin; some are hardened, others suffer continually from a guilty
conscience. But all have sinned.
It is sad if these words have lost their powerful impact upon us. We
change it slightly and instead of saying with dread: 'All have sinned',
[13/14] we shrug our shoulders and admit that 'of
course we are all sinners', as though this sounds less ugly. This easy affirmation
of the fact without a corresponding sense of responsibility for it is so
widespread that the fear of God has almost disappeared. We tend to treat
our sins lightly, especially those of temper or disposition, but just imagine
that if one single harsh or impatient word had been found on the lips of
Jesus as He hung upon the cross, none of us could ever have known eternal
salvation! Even the smallest sin is as serious as that.
Sin is always that which is committed directly against the Almighty God.
Every sin is an offence against Him. That is why sin causes a shudder in
the whole universe. Because of it the land trembles and is laid waste, the
powers of nature rave as though they were out of control; society is disintegrating
for sin has filled our nation's soul with indifference as to what is right
and good, debasing and degrading God's creation. The eyes of God are everywhere;
God sees everything, and He is justifiably angry about it all.
"... and fall short of the glory of God ..."
Our sin has deprived us of purity and the powerful radiation of personality
which should result from man's being created in the image of God. We are
fallen people, though few have any inkling of how deeply we have fallen. It
occasionally happens that a hardened sinner bursts into tears when an innocent
baby is placed in his arms. The child knows nothing of the man's sin but
lies gurgling happily in his arms, in such stark contrast with the corrupted
state of him who holds it that for a moment the clear light reveals his transgression
and he loathes himself. That, however, is only a very faint reflection of
the glory of God, a slight reminder of the penetrating light that issues
from the holy and perfect God. Surely, then, no-one can imagine that he can
stand covered with shame before the glory of God and still survive!
"... being justified ..."
We who can remember the liberation in 1945 will never forget the moment
when the announcement came over the radio: 'Denmark is free!' Lights were
lit in every window, the Danish flag was hoisted everywhere; there was singing
and rejoicing at the wonderful news of freedom. The joy was indescribable,
though the news did not come as a surprise, for we had known that our enemies
were on the verge of defeat and we expected the liberation. In this case,
however, the joyful message of the gospel breaks in unexpectedly from what
has gone before: "All have sinned -- being justified freely ...".
To the sinner this comes as a complete surprise; it comes from a realm
which he knows nothing about, for it comes direct from God. We wonder how
can we who are saturated with sin and conscious of our guilt, not daring
even to lift our eyes to heaven, be justified -- accounted righteous. We
have tried to justify ourselves and have failed miserably, even when we made
our best efforts. Here Paul says nothing about making ourselves righteous,
for he knows how impossible that would be.
As he dictated these words to Tertius, he remembered how hard he had
once tried to make himself righteous before God and for a time had thought
that he had succeeded, but at that time he knew nothing of the light of
the glory of God penetrating to the depths of his heart and revealing what
was lurking there. When, on the road to Damascus, he saw that light and
fell to the ground in dismay, he began to know himself as the chief of sinners.
From that time on he was determined never to be found trusting in his own
righteousness which is by the law, for that is not the righteousness of God.
Although we agree that it is useless to try to justify ourselves, that
is what we so often attempt to do, both in our relationship to God and our
attitudes to one another. A great deal of strife among Christians arises
from the fact that both sides insist that they are righteous, forgetting
that this does not necessarily make them righteous in the sight of God. It
is hard to let go of our own righteousness, even though we have come to realise
how poor it is. The gospel does not ask us to make ourselves righteous,
but it calls us to be made righteous, an experience which is as far removed
from our own ideas of righteousness as the heavens are above the earth.
To be made righteous is to get back from God the lost glory of purity
and blamelessness. Unbelievable as this may seem, it means that none of the
sinner's sin and guilt, his transgressions and omissions, his selfishness
and self-seeking, his disobedience and defiance, his bitterness and anger,
his hypocrisy and cowardice, his [14/15] foolish remarks
and unkind words are ascribed or reckoned to him and he bears no blame at
all for them.
The fact that we can stand justified -- made righteous -- and clothed
with the glory of God is, and will always remain for time and eternity, the
wonder of all wonders. How can any of us dare to think that we know all
about justification by faith? No, all that the saved sinner can do is to
worship in wonder and amazement.
"... freely ..."
There had been a time when Saul of Tarsus, being more zealous than any
of his contemporaries, possibly felt that God owed him something. He may
well have imagined that his zeal ought to be credited to his account with
God as a balance in his favour. Such an idea can be deeply rooted
in all of us Christians, as though our efforts have given us a credit balance
with God. Well, if Saul did have that mistaken idea, it all changed when
on the Damascus road he learned to know himself as he could be seen in the
light of the glory of God. After that experience, the word freely
-- undeserved -- was full of meaning in Paul's thoughts and words.
Freely means that in no sense is it a return and still less a reward,
for anything that we have done, not even for our repentance since, if justification
were in return for repentance it would also be in proportion to it and in
this case we could never be eternally sure that our position before God was
valid or perfect if our repentance were not absolutely perfect too. It never
is. Even our greatest pain and regret over sin is always imperfect, but
God's free gift of justification is perfect and is freely given without any
merit on our part.
"... by his grace ..."
I well remember the judicial purge after the German occupation. Several
traitors were condemned to death and shot, but some of the condemned men
were reprieved. This meant that instead of being executed, they were sentenced
to life imprisonment. The reprieve was therefore only a change of punishment;
those concerned were released from the sentence of death but not from punishment.
And none of those so reprieved were ever loved and embraced by the judge
who gave them the reprieve.
The grace of God is entirely different from this. Firstly, it is not
a change of punishment, but a free and full acquittal not only from punishment
but from the guilt which deserved it. Secondly, it does not come from a
cold decision but from the father-heart of God who loves the one whom He
has pardoned. The sinner may forget all his guilt and shame if he can --
indeed the heavenly Pardoner wishes him to do this -- so that he may now
feel eternally secure in the unchanging love of God.
"... through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ..."
Although it may not seem important at the time, every sin is, as it were,
doubly recorded. It does not disappear but is noted both in God's book of
reckoning and in the register of man's own conscience, and on the day of
the judgment seat of Christ it will be found that the two records agree.
Both show such a negative result that the debt can never be repaid, in
time or eternity UNLESS those records contain a receipt showing that the
sum total of all the debit entries has been fully paid. This is the case
for all who know the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. He alone was competent
to discharge the debt and He has done so. Every sinner who puts his trust
in Christ as Redeemer is discharged from the deficit in his account, however
great that debt may have been. And what is more, he can never go spiritually
bankrupt, for his balance will always show a surplus of grace. Praise God
that all the righteousness of God is credited to me!
"... whom God set forth to be a propitiation ... by his blood ..."
It is not difficult to wipe out debit entries on an earthly account --
all that is needed is sufficient money to cover the debt. But who can blot
out that which is against us in the divine reckoning? How can anger, hate,
envy, impurity, evil thoughts and deeds, negligent omission be cancelled
out? If in eternity we were to remember how we had wounded others, spoiled
their joy and hope, made bad impressions upon them from [15/16]
which they will never be rid, this would ruin everything for us. But
more than that, if we came to realise how we had thrown sin after sin into
the very face of God, turning our back on Him, defying Him, refusing to
trust Him, how could we think of repaying that great mountain of debt and
having it cancelled?
We cannot cheat with life's accounts and woe betide us if we tried to
do so. We cannot falsify the account which we submit to God and if we tried
we would find that He is an expert Accountant who would soon expose us. If
the debt is to be wiped out it can only be done by a full repayment, and certainly
any righteousness of ours is pitifully insufficient for this. The redemption
of our souls is too expensive for us: the price is altogether beyond us.
But in His infinite mercy God has set forth the means which atones for
all sin (The Danish word for 'propitiation' is literally 'means of atonement'),
so that each and every entry against the sinner can be blotted out. We have
said that this is impossible for us; it is possible for God but we must never
imagine that it was easy for Him. Happily He was able and willing to do
it. The cost was so great as to be beyond human comprehension, for the price
paid was the blood of His Son.
When Jesus hung as a public spectacle, out-stretched on the cross and
paying the price with His own life's blood, then there was set forth God's
infinitely merciful propitiation which is the eternally valid payment for
all our debt. The cross is the mercy-seat where the sinner finds salvation.
"... by faith ..."
For those who are prepared to accept this gift of God in simple faith,
there is given through Jesus Christ a righteousness which has no faults
or imperfection, a victorious righteousness which has already conquered
every temptation, a righteousness which cannot ever fail, even Christ's
Although it is manifested through the gospel (v.21), it is hidden from
our feelings and can only be embraced and possessed by faith. Not until
Jesus comes again will it be fully manifested. Now faith can be accompanied
by wonderful feelings in the heart such as happiness, peace, ecstatic enthusiasm
and so on, but none of these add to the righteousness from God which is freely
given to all who believe irrespective of feelings. Our emotions or experiences
do not increase this righteousness, and our lack of them does not diminish
it, for it is deeper than any feelings of ours. Earlier Paul had emphasised
that the righteousness of God is "from faith unto faith" (Romans 1:17), which
means that the justified one does not live by his feelings but solely by his
faith. This applies throughout life, however many or few may be the thrills
or emotions of the believer.
When we appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account,
we will not have to answer for our experiences but for our faith in Christ,
and if by grace we do that we will find that Christ answers for us.
ISAIAH AND THE GOSPEL
1. HIS GOSPEL EXPERIENCE
MARK did not call his book' A Gospel' but opened it with the intimation
that he was about to write of 'The Gospel', and in doing so he associated
what he had to say with the prophecies of Isaiah: "Even as it is written
in Isaiah the prophet" (Mark 1:2). This stresses Isaiah's great contribution
to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this series I do not propose to
try to deal with the book of Isaiah as a whole but hope to extract some gospel
features from this most evangelical of the prophets who was also the most
often quoted in the New Testament. [16/17]
In this first article we consider his calling and commission as he describes
it in the well-known sixth chapter. This account is essentially a personal
story, but it took place in the larger setting of a major crisis in Israel's
history, for it happened "in the year that king Uzziah died". From then onwards,
king Ahaz set the kingdom of Judah on its downward course which finished
with the captivity. In a sense the independent kingdom of Judah was doomed.
As always, the essential feature of the gospel is that it brings hope to
the hopeless. This was first the personal experience of Isaiah and it then
became the theme of his ministry.
When king Hezekiah made the captivity inevitable by his complicity with
the emissaries of the king of Babylon, it was Isaiah who had to make the
tragic announcement that everything would be carried away to that city and
nothing would be left (Isaiah 39:6). With his mouth Hezekiah -- an essentially
selfish man -- expressed a pious agreement with this divine verdict, but in
his heart he thought, "Why not, if there will be peace and security in my
days" (2 Kings 20:19). Seemingly he did not mind what happened to God's people
so long as he did not live to see it.
How different was the spirit of God's servant Isaiah, whose whole life
was devoted to God's future purposes. Warned from the first that those purposes
would only be fulfilled in a remnant and that his own messages would meet
with blind prejudice and misunderstanding, he turned at once from this tragic
situation to give himself with renewed self-forgetfulness to offer hope beyond
the calamity: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God" (40:1).
He saw only too clearly the sin and failure of the people but beyond
that, he saw the glorious triumph of the will of God. "What shall I cry?"
he asked himself. Well, he had to cry of the utter failure of what was merely
human ("All flesh is grass"), but he made the main theme of his message,
"The word of our God shall stand for ever" (40:8). Peter, who was a keen
student of Isaiah's prophecies, comments that this was "the word of good
tidings which was preached unto you" (1 Peter 1:25).
What is more, it was a gospel available to the whole world. Isaiah's
original vision was possibly received in the Jerusalem Temple but it was
accompanied by heaven's assertion that "the whole earth is full of his glory".
Time would show that the man who was thus gripped by a vision of the universal
King would become a messenger of hope to the whole wide world.
It may help us to consider a few features of what we might call Isaiah's
Ordination Service as it is found in Chapter 6. This was in a very real sense
a gospel experience. He was brought low with a realisation of his own sinfulness,
encouraged to faith by the cleansing power of the altar, and brought into
close communion with His Saviour and King so that he could hear His voice
and make his own willing response to it.
Nobody has a right to speak to others about their sinfulness who has
not first been made aware of how great a sinner he is in himself. This is
where the gospel begins. It began for Isaiah when in great dismay he cried
out "Woe is me" and then added, "for I am lost". The word involves the idea
of being silenced. He was struck dumb in the holy presence of God, as every
sinner will be -- later if not sooner (Romans 3:19). The man who encounters
God finds that he can no longer bring accusations against others or arguments
to justify or excuse himself.
It was his lips which were unclean. This, I believe, may have been an
indirect reference to leprosy. If so, it implies that Isaiah had discovered
that he was no better than Uzziah whose inner corruption of pride had become
a leprous physical condition which reduced him to ruin. It was not for Isaiah
to pity the fallen king, still less to condemn him, for the sight of a holy
God revealed that he himself was in the same ruined condition. One of Isaiah's
favourite descriptions of the Lord, equally found in the second part of his
book as in the first, was "The holy one of Israel". This was not merely phraseology
but the result of a most personal and intimate awareness of God's true nature
which came to him on the fateful day and laid him low in the dust.
As I have said, this is where the gospel begins but, as one who has been
preaching it for very many years, I ask the great question, 'How can sinful
man be convinced and convicted in this way?' In Isaiah's case it was not
the thunders [17/18] of the law, as such, that brought
him to repentance but it was a confrontation with the majesty of his holy
God. I believe that this is an important truth. The sinner needs more than
being challenged by commandments or threats; he needs to have the reality
of the holy presence of God communicated to him. What brought Peter to repentance?
Was it not a glimpse -- however partial -- of the majesty of Christ? (Luke
5:8). What brought the proud Pharisee Saul down into the dust in abject repentance?
Was it not his personal encounter with the risen Lord? (Acts 9:5). These
confirm the case of Isaiah, whose explanation for his cry of "woe is me"
was "for mine eyes have seen the king".
I believe that this lay behind the words of the Lord Jesus when He said
to His disciples: "I will send him (the Spirit) unto you. And he, when he
is come, will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment"
(John 16:7-8). The Lord plans to gather sinners to Himself by making His
presence a glorious reality in His Church. It is for this that the Spirit
It must have seemed like the end of the world to Isaiah. The ground rocked
under his feet, the vision of glory was blotted out from his sight by the
clouds of smoke, and the fiery seraphim flashed out their message of holiness.
Happily when Isaiah could see nothing else in that Temple, he could still
see the altar and, by a miracle of mercy, a heavenly messenger brought to
him a live coal from it and applied it to those unclean lips. Later on Isaiah
could preach, "Thus saith the high and lofty One, that inhabiteth eternity,
whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that
is of a contrite and humble spirit ..." (57:15). That heartening message
came from a firsthand experience of God's grace, as all effective gospel preaching
Now of course the value of the altar did not lie in its fire, but in
its victim. The divine solution to man's sinfulness is the death of a substitute.
But the glowing coal was a proof that the altar was actually functioning
at that moment and its application to Isaiah was an indication that God was
dealing with him on the basis of atonement and substitution. As the years
went on and the prophet grew in spiritual understanding, he was able to write
the most graphic and moving account of our sacrificial Saviour's sufferings
(Chapter 53), but happily the power of the cross does not depend upon our
understanding of it, so that immediately Isaiah could be told that his iniquity
was taken away and his sin purged. It was many years afterwards that he wrote
those tremendous words: "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all".
Even then he could not have known, as we now do, the mysteries of Calvary.
This is the wonder of the gospel. The contrite sinner can find instantaneous
relief and perfect cleansing in a moment of time. Isaiah did not have to
rely on any action of his or on his feelings in the matter; heaven pronounced
his pardon and that was what mattered. Yet, marvellous as that was, we should
notice an equally great miracle, namely that of close communion between a
pardoned sinner and his holy God. At one moment the Lord seemed wholly remote
from Isaiah. He was high and lifted up on His throne, while the prophet was
abased on the quaking earth. No sooner had the contact been made from the
altar, however, than the prophet could actually hear the quiet conversations
of the Godhead. No longer was he repulsed by the forbidding voice of burning
seraphim but he was able to hear the confidential tones of the Lord Himself:
"Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" He could hear God for himself.
That is what salvation does for a man. And what is more, Isaiah could speak
freely and boldly to the thrice-holy God. "Here I am," he said, "send me."
Isaiah's Strange Commission
I wonder what Isaiah expected to hear in reply to his impulsive offer.
A kind rejection? A series of questions as to his fitness and the extent
of his commitment? In any case what he did hear was the simple word "Go!"
He was to have that command repeated as he moved in and out of affairs in
Jerusalem (20:2 and 22:15) and all his life he was given messages to speak
in the Lord's name, but this was a fundamental and unique experience; from
now on he would be a man with a commission from the King of kings.
But let us look closer at the terms of this divine mandate. In preaching
from this chapter I find that my messages have led up to this supreme "sending"
and stopped there. What I [18/19] have not done, and
what indeed I find very hard to do, is to apply to myself and my readers
the implications of what God actually said to Isaiah. Already I have described
it as 'Isaiah's Strange Commission' for on the surface it appears to be totally
negative. "Speak to them," said the Lord, "but they will not understand you.
Go on speaking and by your messages confirm them in their tragic ignorance."
No wonder that Isaiah's immediate reaction was to ask, "How long, Lord?"
The reply gave him little comfort but rather stressed the heavy nature of
the responsibility committed to him.
What can we make of this perplexing command to tell people not to understand
and so to speak to them that they gained no profit from his messages? There
are wise commentators who suggest that this was not literally Isaiah's call,
but reflects the disillusioning experiences which were to come to him through
the years as he laboured among his people and in his beloved Jerusalem. If,
however, we believe that this account is what truly happened to Isaiah, we
cannot accept this as a full explanation for we are told that these were
the words which the Lord actually used when appointing His volunteering servant.
There can be no doubt about their importance for they were quoted by
the Lord Jesus Himself as well as by His apostles John and Paul. The Lord
Jesus used the words to explain why He spoke in parables (Matthew 13:14-15),
not meaning to imply that He tried to make His messages obscure but the
very opposite. He used simple pictorial language in an attempt to get behind
their hardness of heart and inability to grasp His truths. Incidentally this
is how Isaiah operated, so much so that in their drunken carousels his critics
accused him of treating them like kindergarten infants. "Whom will he make
to understand the message?" they sneered, "small children?" (28:9). In the
Hebrew verse 10 is in short, reiterated mimicry -- virtual baby-talk -- for
which the N.I.V. is helpful with its rendering: "Do and do, rule on rule,
rule on rule, a little here, a little there". It was not too complicated but
There was nothing mysterious or esoteric in Isaiah's ministry, any more
than there was in the teaching of Jesus. It was clear enough to those who
listened in faith; it did not make sense only to those who were set in their
own preconceptions. The Lord Jesus prefaced His quotation of this part of
Isaiah 6 with the statement: "To him who has will more be given ... but from
him who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Matthew 13:12), meaning
surely that truth accepted becomes growingly clear while truth rejected becomes
even more obscure. It seems, then, that the Lord was preparing Isaiah for
popular rejection of his message.
John's quotation of this same passage silences straight away the suggestion
that there were two Isaiahs and stresses the stubbornness and prejudice which
made it impossible for the Jewish leaders to believe and be healed (John
12:38-41). They could not because they would not. Moreover John makes a close
connection between Isaiah's visions and the Lord Jesus Himself.
Came the cross, the resurrection and the wide-spread witness of the Church
and still Paul had to find in this quotation from Isaiah 6 the divine verdict
on his unbelieving compatriots (Acts 28:25-28). "The Holy Spirit was right
when He made this sad statement through Isaiah" he commented, but Paul did
not leave the matter in its apparently negative connotation for he added:
"The salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles and they will listen
We observe, then, that Isaiah was informed by God of the long history
of apparent failures which would come to His servants through the ages. It
must have opened up a daunting prospect for the prophet, but clearly he
was well aware of the positive implication of God's command to him: "As the
terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will
be the stump in the land" (v.13). So convinced was the prophet that his
ministry would ultimately prove successful that he gave to his firstborn
son the name, Shear-jashub, "A remnant will return".
We find no difficulty in sympathising with Isaiah's first reaction to
his so sombre commission, which must have been one of dismay. "Lord, how
long?" he asked, only to receive an answer which may appear to have given
him cold comfort. There was more to it than a negative message, though, for
the gospel is nothing if not positive. I suggest that in his heart the prophet
felt from the first a divine urge to convey to his hearers and readers a
vital revelation of the King [19/20] of kings whom
he had seen for himself on that critical visit to the Temple.
According to John 12:41 the One whom he saw was none other than Christ
in His glory and, as I hope we shall see in succeeding articles, his whole
life was devoted to sharing that vision with all who read his book. If that
was the task near to his heart, we have to confess that he succeeded in
a superlative way. How long, Isaiah? Why, until the last redeemed sinner
finds resurrection life through the exalted Saviour.
As a young pastor I used sometimes to visit an old lady in her nineties
who liked to tell me of her conversion many years before. It came about by
means of a message on the words: "Come now, let us reason together, says
the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow ..."
(Isaiah 1:18). This conversion took place when she was a young woman and
greatly delighted an old uncle, himself a believer, who had prayed much for
her. He called to see her and in his rather quaint old-fashioned way asked
her: 'Tell me, my dear, did you come to know the Saviour by the ministry of
Brother Paul or by that of Brother John?' She was equal to the occasion. 'It
was neither,' she replied, 'it was Brother Isaiah who led me to Christ!'
Thank God for 'Brother Isaiah'! In subsequent articles from this series
of 'Isaiah and the Gospel', I hope to be able to indicate some of the ways
in which the prophet's ministry can still lead us to Christ.
(To be continued) [20/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (13)
"(Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly; for it was so,
when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah
took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave,
and fed them with bread and water.)" 1 Kings 18:3-4
SINCE Obadiah himself described this incident to Elijah (v.13), we may
wonder why, in introducing the governor, the writer felt it necessary to
precede the story of his encounter with Elijah by giving us this parenthetical
account of what happened. Was it perhaps to ensure that we begin by seeing
Obadiah in a favourable light before half despising him for his rather apologetic
OBADIAH was not a heroic figure and may compare unfavourably with the
uncompromising Elijah. Later on, the prophet complained to God that he was
the only man left who had been true to his faith (19:10), so he evidently
had a poor opinion of this Obadiah who had remained a governor in the royal
palace during the evil reign of Ahab and Jezebel. It seems to me that the
Holy Spirit inserted this parenthesis to indicate that God appreciated what
the seeming compromiser had done in saving His prophets from Jezebel.
WHEN Elijah was hiding from the evil queen he was sustained miraculously,
first by the ravens and then by the inexhaustible supply of meal and oil
from the widow's scanty resources. Demanding as this experience was, it was
also exhilarating, for it meant living in the glow of a daily miracle. The
hundred prophets had a much less sensational diet. Can we say, though, that
to them this was less a miracle when the governor smuggled bread and water
to them in their caves? Elijah might consider Obadiah a compromiser, but the
hundred doubtless regarded him more like an angel from God.
THE truth is that each man stands or falls before the judgment of God
and not before that of men -- even godly men. It is probable that Elijah
could not understand how a man like Obadiah could claim to serve the Lord
and yet remain in Ahab's service. Yet both men feared the Lord and served
His people. It would not be difficult for us to condemn fellow believers
whose divine calling finds them in circumstances which we could never accept.
That is their business and God's. Ours is to be true to the Lord in the light
that He gives us and not to despise our fellow believers. No servant of God
must misunderstand or belittle a colleague whose course is different from
his own. Could it be that Obadiah had been guided by God just as much as Elijah
IN any case Elijah had no right to look down on men for hiding in a cave.
Was that not exactly what he himself did at a later date (19:9)?
WORSHIP GOD! FOR THE TESTIMONY OF
JESUS IS THE SPIRIT OF PROPHECY.
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