|Vol. 14, No. 4, July - Aug. 1985
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
SECRETS OF SPIRITUAL CONSTANCY
"I have told you all this to guard you against
the breakdown of your faith." John 16:1
J. Alec Motyer
3. THE SAFEGUARDING POWER OF THE TRUTH OF THE TRINITY
OUR key verse is John 16:1 but first of all I would ask you to consider
Joshua 2 where we find a sequence of verses which remind us what a powerful
thing the truth is. Rahab said to Joshua's spies: "I know that the Lord has
given you the land, and your terror has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants
of the land melt away before you, for we have heard how the Lord dried up
the water of the Red Sea before you" (2:10). Joshua may have been in great
anxiety as to how to conquer Jericho, but in fact Jericho was already conquered.
Jericho's armies were already overcome; the mortar between the stones of
its walls was already loosened and ready to fall out; and the agent which
had done the work of overcoming was the truth about God.
According to Joshua 2:9-11, truth is powerful in the conquest of the
world. Once the truth about God penetrates, the world's defences begin to
Christian liberty in individual experience is related to the liberating
power of the truth as it operates for those who make God's Word their home.
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him: "If you make my word your home,
then are you truly my disciples". This, I feel, is a very vivid translation
and is followed by the assurance: "... then are you truly my disciples, and
you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32).
As we follow the sequence in John's Gospel we find the Lord Jesus saying:
"This is life eternal, that they should know thee, the only true God, and
him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ" (John 17:3). The very possession
of life depends upon this knowledge of the truth. What a powerful thing the
truth is, God's truth! Powerful against the world, powerful to bring life
to the Christian, powerful to bring the Christian into the full enjoyment
When we come to John 16:1 we find that the Lord Jesus referred to this
matter when He said: "These things have I spoken unto you ...". I have shared
this truth with you because it is so powerful that once it enters into you,
then there will be no breakdown of your faith. The truth will hold you in
Christian constancy. This is the recipe and remedy for spiritual breakdown,
the guarantee of a steady course against life's pressures and the sudden
onslaughts of the world, the flesh and the Devil, namely, the knowledge of
Our privilege now is that we are not considering what might be called
an ordinary truth, not even an ordinary truth about the Lord Jesus, but the
truth about all truth, the truth about The Godhead. Our privilege is to listen
to God talking about God. There are four statements in this connection.
"I will pray the Father and he shall give you another Companion."
"But the Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my
name, he shall teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that
I said to you."
"When the Companion is come whom I will send unto you from the Father,
even the Spirit of truth which proceedeth from the Father, he shall bear
witness of me."
"All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine, therefore I said that
he taketh of mine and shall declare it unto you." [61/62]
We are confronted with what God says about God, the doctrine of the Holy
Trinity. This is the ultimate truth, and it is therefore the ultimately safeguarding
truth. The Holy Trinity is not a mathematical puzzle. God is not a subject
for curiosity or research. Consequently we read that Mount Sinai was guarded
by a clear boundary lest, as the Lord said to Moses, "the people break through
unto the Lord to gaze ..." (Exodus 19:21). God is not to be the object of
man's curiosity. That is why the cherubim covered their faces (Isaiah 6:2).
Why did they do this? Because God is not to become a matter of curiosity,
He is not there for research, even by the cherubim.
The Biblical revelation of God the Holy Trinity is not given to satisfy
our logical curiosity about the nature of deity, but to bring us into the
ultimate safeguarding truth which above all truths will guard us against
the breakdown of faith. This was St. Patrick's breastplate:
I bind unto myself the strong name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same, the three in one and one in three.
Against the demon snares of sin, the vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within, the hostile men that mar my course.
Or few or many, far or nigh, in every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers.
So, with the teaching of the Lord Jesus, we bind ourselves to the strong
name of the Trinity, trying to approximate our thinking in some measure to
His as we contemplate the mystery of the Three who are also One.
The Unity of Complementariness
I am not at all sure that complementariness is the best word to use,
but it is as good as any to describe what in the first place I want to share
with you, the idea of the dove-tailing functions within the Holy Trinity as
affirmed in these four passages. The unity is displayed in the absolute integration
and interlocking of activities.
i. The Presidency of the Father
Within the Trinity there is the presidency of the Father. It is His prerogative
to act and to take the initiative in blessing: "I will pray to the Father
and he will give you"; "The Holy Spirit whom the Father will send ...". Likewise
it is the Father who has the resources to perform the actions and to bring
blessing to the Church: "The Companion whom I will send to you from
the Father". The resources are stored up in the Father and come from Him.
Likewise, the Father possesses the authority which rules over all: "...
the Father is greater" (14:28) and "I am the true vine. My Father is the
husbandman" (15:1). These few verses bring out the obvious thought that
there is a presidency and primacy of the Father, as the very name Father,
in relation to the name Son, would of course suggest. It is worth reminding
ourselves that other Scriptures relate that presidency not only to experiences
of blessing for the Church, but even to deity itself.
When we speak of the Father and the Son, we are not taking something
that in the first place is true upon earth and speaking by way of analogy
of what is true in heaven, but rather of that which is first true in heaven
and has its only perfect expression in heaven, and then is reflected in the
pale and feeble analogy that we see in the father/son relationship on earth.
This seems to be the plain meaning of Ephesians 3:14-15 which speaks of the
Father "from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth gets its name". In heaven
there is a reality of fatherhood and sonship which itself means that there
is a primacy and presidency of God the Father even within the mystery of
the Holy Trinity. This is certainly brought out in Hebrews 1:1-3 where the
Lord Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is not only spoken of as Son,
but is described as "the brightness of his glory and the express image of
his person", as though to say that the Father Himself is light and the effulgence
which derives from the light is the Son. The Father is the essence of deity
concentrated, and the Son is that essence stamped out as wax upon a seal.
These are the images which the writer uses and they stress the presidency
of the Father.
ii. The Mediation of the Son
Secondly, in the interlocking functions there is the mediation of the
Son. The Son has the office of bringing our needs to God the Father, who
is the source and giver of all, and of bringing back from the Father all
the resources which He wishes to lavish upon us. So He says: "I will pray
the Father, and he will give ..." (14:16). The Son brings our needs to the
Father, and in His [62/63] mediatorship and intercession,
what the Father possesses becomes ours. The other side of this is found in
the statement, "When the Companion is come, whom I will send to you from
the Father" (15:26). Here again the Son occupies the middle place. As He
brings our needs to the Father so He brings the Father's bounty to us in
the Person of the Holy Spirit.
iii. The Applicatory Word of the Spirit
In the complementary functions of the three Persons, it is the work of
the Holy Spirit to apply the blessings of God. What the Father wills and
the Son mediates, the Spirit brings to us: "All things whatsoever the Father
hath are mine; therefore said I that he shall take of mine, and shall shew
it unto you" (16:15). In the gracious and almost unobtrusive way in which
Jesus fulfils His mediatorial role He mentions that because things belong
to the Father, they belong also to the Son, and in the same gracious way
the Holy Spirit does the applicatory work. The Father is the Source, the Son
is the Ground and the Holy Spirit is the Means of blessing to the Church.
The Unity of Indivisibility
There is the unity of true one-ness, the unity of indivisibility. Behind
the functional unity there is the unity of nature: they cannot be divided
from each other. The Lord Jesus, who understands all things, does not make
this a subject of explanation, but rather a subject for simple statement.
There is a one-ness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit which is an
indivisible unity. Let us see how the Lord Jesus tells us how this works
First of all, Jesus says that where the Spirit is, there He Himself is:
"I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Companion that he may
be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive,
for it beholdeth him not neither knoweth him. You know him, for he abides
with you and shall be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come
to you" (14:16-18). When the Spirit comes as that other Companion, it means
the presence of the Lord Jesus, the abiding Companion of His people. Where
the Spirit is, there Jesus is.
Secondly, where the Son is, the Father is. To know the Son is to know
the Father: "If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father ... Have
I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he
that hath seen me hath seen the Father ... Believest thou not that I am in
the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak
not of myself; but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works" (14:7-10).
To listen to Jesus, to see Jesus operating, is to hear the words of the Father
and to see the works of the Father. Where the Son is, there is the Father.
What is more, the indwelling Son means the indwelling Father, as the
Lord told Judas (not Iscariot): "If a man love me, he will keep my words;
and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode
with him" (14:23). The indwelling Son means the indwelling Father. The explanation
of this lies in Christ's words, "I and the Father are one" (10:30). The Greek
New Testament shows us that the numeral 'one' in this case is neuter, that
is, 'I and the Father are one thing'. A Concordance will show you that this
neuter pronoun can mean 'one in intent and purpose'. However it can also
mean 'one' in the inner reality of being -- one and only one in indivisible
unity. So it is that Paul wrote in Ephesians of how the Lord Jesus had broken
down the middle wall of partition and of the two who were formerly sundered,
might make "one new man" (Ephesians 2:15), so defining the indissoluble but
very complex unity of the people of God as the one new man in Christ.
And where the Spirit is, there are the Father and the Son, for in this
passage where the Lord Jesus says, "We will come unto him and make our abode
with him", it is of the coming of the Comforter that He is speaking. 'I
am going away' the Lord Jesus said, 'and He, the other Companion, will come,
and when He comes, I will come.' The Father and the Son come, so in the
coming of the Holy Spirit, there is the coming of the Holy Trinity to dwell
within the believer.
Of course the Lord Jesus is there in the central place. He is the key,
for His condition is, "If a man love Me" (14:23). He is the ground
and Mediator, but the operative act of love is the love of the Father, "My
Father will love him". So as a consequence of that love of the Father, there
is the indwelling of Holy Trinity applied and made real by the presence
of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus is always the way in, for salvation is
of Christ the Lord, but those who enter into that salvation which Christ
brings, enter into the experience of the indwelling of the total indivisible
Beloved friends, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is not a mathematical
puzzle, but it is the ground and essence of our salvation and of our security.
The greatness of our God quite surpasses our understanding. The first time
that the Holy Trinity is revealed in the Bible was at the baptism of the
Lord Jesus. That is the first time in which the Father, the Son and the
Holy Spirit appear in the one text. The Father spoke from heaven to the
Son as He was in the waters of baptism, and the Holy Spirit appeared in
visible form as a dove descending from the Father to the Son. As we recall,
when the Lord Jesus came to be baptised by John they spoke together in the
river. But then everybody who had gone into the water to stand by John spoke
to him, for they were openly confessing sin. No doubt those who watched on
the bank nodded their heads together in their conversation, presuming that
He too was confessing sin. In fact, however, the talking was that although
John had not yet seen the Spirit descending, he did not feel that he could
baptise this cousin of his. He recognised that Jesus had no need of a baptism
of repentance for the remission of sins, but the Lord said to him: "Suffer
it to be so now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness". What
did this mean? At its simplest level it was as though He said, 'We must go
on with this, John, for this is the way to do what God wants'. What then
did God want? He wanted His sinless Son to identify Himself with sinners,
and when the Lord did this, the Father could contain Himself no longer and
decided that what had been hid for all eternity must be publicly declared,
so the heavens were torn apart, the Spirit descended and the Triune God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit stood revealed as the Saviour of sinners.
The Unity of Unanimity
Towards us the Holy Trinity is a unity of unanimity. Not the impersonal
unity of a machine delivering the goods, but the unity of a Person, intently
and lovingly determined upon our welfare. As we re-read those key verses,
we sense again the confidence which they breathe, as they assume the goodwill
of God, the willingness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bless us. "I will
pray the Father and he will give you another Companion, that he may be with
you for ever" (14:16). "will pray ..." -- the readiness of Jesus.
"... he will give ..." -- the readiness of the Father. "... that
he may be with you for ever" -- the readiness of the Holy Spirit. "The
Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will
teach you ...". He is ready to come; the Father is ready to send Him; the
Lord Jesus is ready to lend His name to the enterprise. "All things whatsoever
the Father hath are mine; therefore said I, that he taketh of mine and shall
declare it unto you" (16:15). In these words we feel and sense the willingness
of God to give us without restraint the very outflow of Himself.
Chapter 14 stresses the willingness of the Father in this enterprise:
" He will give you ..." (v.16), "whom the Father will send" (v.26).
Then in Chapter 15 we are told of the willingness of the Son: "When the Companion
is come whom I will send ..." (v.26); while Chapter 16 emphasises
the willingness of the Spirit: "He shall glorify me, for he shall
take of mine and declare it unto you" (v.15). Father, Son and Spirit are
bound together in the unanimity of determination to bless the Church.
Here, then, in the great truth of the Holy Trinity, we can find the most
powerful safeguard against any breakdown of our faith. If we alter Paul's
words in Romans 8:31 ever so slightly, we may say in the light of this study
of the teaching of the Lord Jesus: "If this God is for us, then who can be
(To be concluded)
LEARNING TO KNOW GOD
(Some thoughts from the Pentateuch)
3. LEVITICUS AND NUMBERS. God the Sanctifier
IN going through Genesis we have spoken about the holiness of God and
realised that it should not be limited to what is negative. We do not dare
to say that God's reason for not doing certain things is just because He is
holy, or indeed that His holiness consists in what He refrains from doing.
It would be almost blasphemous to assert that God does not sin, and that
this fact [64/65] defines His holiness. No, the first
and foremost aspect of holiness is found in positive terms. He is holy in
all that He does; it is because He is holy that He actually works to help
and to save. Holiness culminates at the cross of Calvary. That is where we
see His holiness in the giving of His Son to save sinners. Because He is perfect
in all that He is, He does not leave His creation to its fate.
Leviticus may help us to understand something of the meaning of holiness.
"Notwithstanding, no devoted thing that a man may devote unto the Lord of
all that he has, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession,
shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord.
None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be ransomed; he shall
surely be put to death. And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed
of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's; it is holy unto the
When we read this, we perceive that to be holy unto the Lord does not
in the first instance have anything to do with ethical or moral qualities.
The tithes of the land were neither good nor evil; they were fruit. The devoted
thing was to be destroyed as being most holy. The field was holy because
it belonged to the Lord, and we read also of holy oil, but in neither case
was it a matter of being good or bad; ethical and moral qualities were not
involved and yet they were holy to the Lord.
This shows that the basic meaning of something being holy is that God
has laid His hand upon it and claimed it as His own. The fundamental meaning
of being holy is to be set apart as belonging to the Lord. Some things were
to be destroyed, others to be used in His service, but all had been given
over to Him. Without this basic meaning, we can hardly avoid wrong thinking
about holiness. What God has laid claim to is holy; some of it is to be most
holy, some is to be put to death and some to be used. We must exclude from
our thinking all subjective moral qualities, for they are not directly concerned
with the matter. 'Holy' is that which God has laid claim to whether it is
gold, silver, oil, tithes or men.
God had sanctified the people of Israel. He had chosen them, taken them
out of the nations for Himself: "Thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy
God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself,
above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth" (Deuteronomy 14:2).
No-one imagines that the Israelites were paragons of virtue, and nothing like
that is said about them, but they were holy unto the Lord because He Himself
had chosen them.
This placed an obligation upon them: "Ye shall keep my statutes and do
them; I am the Lord which sanctify you" (Leviticus 20:8). This means that
when a people or a family or a person is sanctified by the Lord, there are
certain consequences of this fact. So it is that we read, "Sanctify yourselves
therefore, and be ye holy; for I am the Lord your God" (20:7). The Lord
says that He has sanctified us; we must sanctify ourselves. We must say
'Yes' to the fact, we must acknowledge it; we must allow it to dominate our
consciousness that the Lord now declares us to be sanctified. In this personal
sense of which I am now speaking, to be holy means to accept the consequences
of the divine fact that the Lord lays total claim to us. He has separated
us for Himself.
From this fact comes the question dealt with by these two books of Leviticus
and Numbers, that is, the practical outworking of holiness. God chose Israel
sovereignly; they had no special qualities in themselves; indeed He told
them not to think that He had selected them because they were better or greater
than others. Virtue was not the ground for His choice -- far from it -- and
the same applies to us. We must never imagine that God chose us because of
our superiority over others. The reverse may well be true. Yet we are to
How then can sinners carry through practical holiness? First we must
be clear about what is involved in the word 'sin', especially as we are
so used to the term that we tend only to apply it to specific transgressions.
When he was little, the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard upset the salt cellar
on the table and was scolded by his father for doing so. Soren remonstrated,
saying that it was not fair that he should be so treated when some days previously
his sister had broken a precious soup tureen and not been scolded at all,
whereas now his father was severely reprimanding him about a mere salt cellar.
The father explained that in the case of his sister, the soup tureen was
so valuable that she herself knew that [65/66] she
had done wrong, so it was not necessary to scold her. It was just because
Soren's fault had been so small that he needed to be blamed. Many years afterwards,
Soren remembered this, and realised that the father's correction was not
due to any anger on his part, but it was necessary just because the fault
was such a small one.
The same applies to us. If we commit great sins, we are shocked by them.
When, however, our sins seem petty, such as gossiping with the kind of criticism
which makes us feel more 'holy' than those of whom we speak, we do not recognise
this as unholiness. This is because we do not measure our perfection with
God's. Yet Jesus said, "Ye shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"
(Matthew 5:48). We may apply this to the Jews or to the future, asserting
that it is different for us since we live under grace. In this way it seems
comparatively easy for us to have to do with God, for we feel that we do
not have to take Him too seriously. It was quite different with the people
of Israel. They knew that the Lord their God was holy. At Mount Sinai they
trembled and feared to draw near to Him. Even so, they were told that because
He is holy, they were to be holy. Any Israelite who had the least sense of
God must have wondered how that could be.
Hence this book of Leviticus. It begins with several chapters which we
may find unpleasant because of the constant emphasis on sacrifice. There
were morning offerings and evening offerings, repeated every day and leading
up to the great Day of Atonement. I confess that I could feel offended when
I read of the thousands and thousands of sacrificial beasts being slaughtered,
but I find comfort in remembering that He who does not let a sparrow fall
to the ground unnoticed, must have known each trembling animal that was being
led to the slaughter. There was a reason, and if we ask what it was all
for, we must surely agree that for anyone who truly feared God it was a
constant reminder of the seriousness of sin.
Not that those sacrifices could of themselves bring peace to the troubled
conscience. The truth was that all who truly believed received forgiveness
for their unwitting sin because God knew that in His Son, before the foundation
of the world, provision was to be made for the sin of that world. We can
appreciate, though, that part of God's intention in ordering these constant
sacrifices was to preserve among His people the need for dealing with sin.
Alas, what is often repeated tends to lose its power by reason of familiarity,
and it did this with many. We who have the one all-inclusive sacrifice of
Christ must never fall into this error for, "By one offering He has perfected
for ever them that are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14). When sin has been
taken away, then the way has been made open for approach to the holy God.
That is what the New Testament emphasises for us that, unlike the Israelites
who were excluded except for the High Priest's annual entry on the Day of
Atonement, we may go into God's presence with boldness, as children coming
into the intimacy of fellowship with the Father. Our basis of fellowship
with the holy God is the shed blood of the Lord Jesus.
But when we speak of holiness we must not limit our thoughts to the passive
concept of cleansing. It is perhaps right for us to emphasise the meaning
of the word to that of the exclusion of what defiles, but such in itself
would be a limited holiness, a quality which we can prize but which will not
be of much help to others. The Levitical sacrifices illustrate this but they
also depict the positive holiness of a life wholly surrendered to the will
of God. The first three sacrifices were a sweet savour to the Lord. This
is not said of the other two, the sin and the trespass offerings which were
truly a "shadow of the reality" of Christ's death on the cross which has
taken away our sin and opened for us a way into the Holy of holies. But we
must not overlook the significance of the "sweet savour" offerings, namely
the burnt, the meal and the peace offerings.
These also speak of the Lord Jesus and indeed we know that He is the
only One of whom God could say, "... in him I am well pleased". It is "
in Him " that God has taken away all our sin and guilt. But He has also
provided for us that we might have perfect acceptance with the Father in
the active sense of holiness, that is, in knowing the will of God and doing
it. In every religion there is a man-made holiness which wins the admiration
of its followers but is quite false. When I was in India I saw a man sweeping
the path before him as he walked; his purpose was to avoid treading upon
any living insect, and for this he was considered to be very holy. Self-made
holiness is false and creates false standards. That is not what the Lord
calls holiness. The Christian [66/67] faith does not
produce that special kind of 'holy' man or woman. For us holiness is not
a matter of special words or tone of voice or behaviour and it is not a
speciality for the few, since we are all a holy people in which the Lord
is gradually forming His own likeness, making us into those who learn to
know His will and to do it.
So we are made to realise that holiness is a matter of obeying God. It
also involves worshipping Him. These two aspects are disclosed to us in
the books of Leviticus and Numbers where, by positive example and by negative
failure, we are shown what is involved in learning to grow in true holiness.
We see in these two books the actual course of the sanctification of the
people of Israel in terms of obedience. Several times they gave abundantly
to God, and on one occasion they had to be restrained from bringing more.
The leaders and the people brought their treasures because there was something
in their hearts that spontaneously expressed itself by their glad and generous
giving. Far from despising this, the Scriptures record it, for our example.
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that love is essential for
true obedience, and the Holy Spirit within us has written God's perfect
and good will in our hearts as well as conveying it to our minds. The Christian
who longs for holiness not only has the Word of God to guide him but he
can read it with the Spirit in his heart to turn what would otherwise be
the dead letter into glorious liberty to obey gladly what he reads. Such
a person is sanctified by having Christ formed in him, but he does not notice
this himself, for he is always looking at the Lord Jesus and not at himself.
Paul tells us that all the commandments, moral, ethical, ceremonial, about
uncleanness and cleanness, about fasts and feasts, can be summed up in the
single phrase: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Romans 13:9).
Growth in holiness consists of gradually learning to discern what is the
will of God and then being constrained by the love of God to obey Him from
True holiness means worship. In the Old Testament rules were given in
the greatest detail for the worship of God, for the erection of the Tabernacle
in the wilderness, the priesthood, the Levites, the Sabbaths and the various
feasts. The history of Israel soon showed that they neglected and soon forgot
many of these things, and later we read in the historical books of their
sudden discovery of the lost and wasted years. Not that outer ordinances lead
to the worthy worship of God, but for them it was an opportunity to learn
that true worship in the Spirit which characterises holiness.
Unhappily we find in the book of Numbers how badly Israel failed in this
matter of worship and faith. No people had more wonders done for them than
Israel, both in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet signs and miracles did not
create faith in them any more than they do now, though they can strengthen
and support confidence in the Lord. All that God did for Israel did not lead
them to learn to know Him. Even Moses -- and there was no-one like Moses
-- did not reach the goal of perfect sanctification. That was found alone
in the Lord Jesus.
And what shall we say of Aaron, the High Priest, who sank so low as to
provide the golden calf and who allowed Miriam to influence him to be jealous
of Moses. She herself had led the women in the praises of God after they
had come through the Red Sea but later the tongue that had sung God's praises
was employed in jealous criticism of her brother and she spread an atmosphere
of poison around her. Then there were Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, who
offered strange fire and Korah who stirred up such a rebellion that he with
Dathan and Abiram went screaming into despair as the earth opened to swallow
them. There seems no end to the unholy behaviour of the Israelites.
So sanctification was not attained? Yes it was, for God remained holy.
He was not dragged down by His people but maintained His unchanging holiness.
And though all except Caleb and Joshua failed and were excluded from the
land, God continued to do them good. He did not take away the pillar of fire
and cloud, nor the manna. When the fiery serpents came He gave them healing
through the brazen serpent lifted up. He gave His people victory. He led them
on. He is faithful and good, and will never abandon the work of His hands.
He is the Lord who has sanctified us. We are holy and therefore we are
called upon to learn holiness. In Leviticus 19, a chapter full of practical
commands, there is the constant repetition [67/68]
of the phrase: "I am the Lord". God's purpose for us is that daily and
in every detail of life we may learn to be committed to His Lordship. In verse
2 we read, "Ye shall be holy; for I am holy". This is our comfort. Our Lord
is not only God the Creator and God the Redeemer; He is also God the Sanctifier.
(To be concluded)
HOW SHALL THEY HEAR WITHOUT A PREACHER (1)
John H. Paterson
THE presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has, from the beginning,
been the fundamental task of the Church. Recognising this, Christians have
for almost as long been discussing -- and disagreeing about -- a 'right'
way to present it. We have how-to-do-it manuals on evangelism, and great campaigns,
and Christians who believe that great campaigns are an equally great mistake.
We have testimony meetings, but we also have those who believe that personal
experience is irrelevant to the proclamation of God's message of grace.
This being the case, it is instructive to turn to the Book of the Acts
and ask how the earliest Gospel preachers presented the message of Christ.
What 'technique', if any, did they adopt? For Acts is full of preaching
and witnessing, and although it seems unlikely that the accounts we have
are in every case full reports of what was said, we can at least trace the
outlines of approach and emphasis in the preaching.
The two servants of God of whose preaching we have most evidence are
Peter and Paul. And straight away we can say that the proclamation of the
Gospel varied from individual to individual. The message might be the same
-- and woe betide anyone who preached 'another gospel' while Paul was within
earshot! -- but the sermons were different.
This brief study will be concerned mainly with the preaching of Paul.
That is not, however, because I want to denigrate the work of Peter. He was,
after all, the very first preacher of the Gospel; his is the first sermon
on record, preached as it was on the day of Pentecost. My point is rather
going to be that the first sermon was the one Peter went on preaching
for the rest of his ministry! In the best possible sense, Peter was a one-sermon
As time went by, he marvellously elaborated his theme, with quotations
from Scripture (and how, everybody asked, would a fisherman be able to do
that?) and references to Jewish history. But what he was saying in Acts
2, 3, 4 and 5 formed, basically, a single theme and, whenever Peter returned
to it, it seems to have had tremendous impact. If our one sermon were as
effective as Peter's, I suspect that many of us preachers would gladly be
And that effect was felt not only by his Jewish audiences but equally
by the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10). One of the delightfully human touches
in the story of Peter is his appearance at the house of Cornelius and his
response to the invitation to preach. What, in effect, he said was, 'Well,
you're Gentiles, and I haven't the slightest idea what the message to you
people is supposed to be, but what we've been telling the Jews is this!'
Whereupon he preached 'his' sermon and, before he had finished and to the
astonishment of all -- including himself -- the Holy Spirit fell on his hearers.
We shall not consider Peter's sermon in detail here: my purpose is rather
to call attention to the contrast between his preaching, as we have it recorded,
and that of Paul. A particular feature of the latter's was the way in which
Paul varied his approach to suit his audience. After all, except for
the occasion in the house of Cornelius, Peter had the same kind of audience
on all the occasions when he spoke. How would he have reacted to a synagogue
audience or a mildly interested crowd of amateur philosophers in Athens we
do not know. But we do know that Paul's audiences included both these
types and several more, and that the record shows him carefully adapting
his message to suit the occasion.
It has, of course, sometimes been argued that Paul ought not to have
done this -- that if he had [68/69] stuck to the
'simple' proclamation of Jesus Christ, as Peter did, he might have achieved
something worthwhile at Athens, for example, instead of that "some laughed
... but few joined him" (Acts 17:32-34, Living Bible). That is what
happens, it is argued, when the preacher tries to become a philosopher! I
have to say that I do not share this view, and that I think the matter is
rather more complex.
According to the Book of Acts, Paul faced, at one time or another, four
kinds of audience, and the book gives us one or more examples of his reactions
to each of the four.
(1) There was the audience made up of listeners who had no idea at all
of the Gospel message -- who had never heard of Jesus and were simply ignorant
of everything about Him. Of this first type of audiences the crowd on Mars
Hill (Acts 17) was a clear and self-avowed example: "He seemeth to be a setter
forth of strange gods ... thou bringest certain strange things to our ears;
we would know therefore what these things mean" (vv.18-20). In the same
category, although we have few details, we might place Paul's 'reasoning'
with Felix recorded in Acts 24:25.
(2) Some of Paul's audiences were in Jewish synagogues, for it seems
to have been his policy to join in synagogue worship whenever the opportunity
arose. Here, his audience would consist of godly Jews, worshipping on in
the tradition of centuries, looking -- perhaps despairingly -- for the promised
Messiah. Since some of these synagogues were far from Jerusalem, in Asia
Minor or Greece, Paul could assume little or no knowledge of the events which
had convulsed Judea: until he himself spoke it, some of these audiences would
never have heard the name of Jesus. Paul's sermon in the synagogue at Antioch
in Asia Minor, reported in Acts 13, is the case study here.
(3) On other occasions, Paul confronted an audience who knew all about
Jesus. He did so when he spoke, "standing on the stairs ... in the Hebrew
language" (Acts 21:40; 22:2) in Jerusalem itself and, again before Agrippa,
when he expressed his satisfaction, "especially because thou art expert
in all customs and questions which are among the Jews" (Acts 26:3). It is
always a relief to a preacher when he can assume that his audience has some
starting knowledge of what he is going to talk about!
(4) The fourth category of audience by which Paul was confronted was
made up of those who not only knew about Jesus, as in the previous
category, but had been instrumental in bringing about His death and that
of some of His followers. Their stronghold was, of course, in "the council"
of the Jews. Twice (Acts 23 and 24) Paul confronted these men in a court
hearing. How he reacted to them should prove interesting!
(1) Paul and the Pagan Outsider
Let us consider Paul's approach to each of these audiences, beginning
with the least-informed category -- those to whom the name of Jesus was quite
unknown. How do you present the Gospel under these circumstances? It
seems to me that you make a start where Paul did, not only here but in the
other categories as well: you look for whatever there is of common ground
between you and your audience, and you begin there.
So, whatever common ground was there between Paul and his Athenian listeners?
With regard to the Lord Jesus and His role -- none! The only common ground
between them consisted of a few very basic assumptions: the world exists,
and we exist. However, from what Paul had seen in Athens, he could tell that
his audience were prepared to go a step further; to account for the
fact that the world exists, they were prepared to assume the existence of
gods -- that is, the existence of another dimension of reality beyond the
It wasn't much to go on! However, we may as well note in passing that
this 'common ground' was similar to that which the average missionary has
to work on, and a good deal more extensive than Paul could rely on if he
were to come back and preach to the same audience in contemporary Britain.
Here, he might well fail to find any agreement at all over the existence of
a god or gods, whether "unknown" (Acts 17:23) or otherwise. But the approach
he adopted is surely relevant to all preaching: find the common ground you
share with your hearers and work from that -- from the known to the unknown;
from the accepted spokesman ("... as certain even of your own poets have said
...") to the new voice ("God commands all men everywhere ...").
What Paul did to begin with was to establish the fact that he and his
audience did have something to talk about. He had, if I may use a
[69/70] geographer's terms, located himself on their mental maps.
They could no longer pretend that he was a "babbler" (17:18). He was talking
their language! From here, he went on to focus on the weakness of their position
-- on its inconsistency. He said, in effect, 'I understand your position,
but I don't see how sensible people can hold it'. Quite simply, if there
is a God at all (and they believed there is), then He cannot by definition
be anything like we imagine Him to be. It belongs to the idea of God that
He makes us, we do not make Him.
Interestingly, Paul did not seek to prove that the making and worshipping
of idols was morally wrong; that might have taken him all day and
left them unconvinced. He simply chose to demonstrate that it was logically
wrong, which was much quicker and easier, since he could do it by appealing
not to some outside factor but to their own arguments.
If God is not to be found, then, in wood or stone, where or how can
we know Him? Paul's answer to this implied question was very careful
-- carefully limited. He appealed to the universal sense that there is about
the world of nature and man a suggestion of order. Not total order,
but the feeling that there is a hand at work. It is like going into a garden
and noticing evidence suggesting that a gardener has been there. We do not
see the gardener, but there is evidence enough to make us feel that, behind
the next box hedge, we shall come upon him planting or trimming: that "he
is not far from each of us". And this is the atmosphere, said Paul, in which
all human races exist: in it -- in Him -- "we live and move and have our
Please let us notice that this was as far as Paul went. He did not argue
-- and neither should we -- that nature proves God's existence, let
alone His character. We cannot find God by this means: we can only
take the hints that we do see, and keep looking. If we confine the search
for God to the evidence of nature, then we shall never arrive. Sooner or
later (and for Paul the moment had arrived!) we depend on God revealing Himself.
Quite abruptly, therefore, Paul changed his tone. Having, as he hoped,
carried his hearers as far along their philosophical paths as he could,
he knew the moment had come (17:30-31) for a declaration: evidence and logic
could only carry them so far and, beyond that point, he must simply tell
There is a real God, and we are His creatures.
He has declared His laws.
He will impose those laws or standards on all men in judgment.
He demands the submission of all men.
The change in tone is abrupt, from philosophy and Greek poetry to what
we may be inclined to call 'real' Gospel! But I suggest that what this shows
us is not that Paul was making a mistake, or suddenly realised that philosophy
was getting him nowhere, and 'switched tracks'. Rather, he knew the limitations
of the approach he was using, and employed it only up to that point where
its usefulness ended. He used it to carry with him, as far as he could, an
audience whom otherwise he would have lost at the outset, or who would have
stalled him with endless preliminary questions.
But now that he had switched from logic to declaration, Paul knew that
the situation had changed. Although he had chosen his time well, in focusing
upon the universal uncertainty of mankind about future judgment, he knew
that he must immediately confront two questions: (1) how do you know by
what standards this God of yours will judge? and (2) what evidence
can you produce to support your assertions? No Athenian audience could fail
to demand satisfaction on those points; at least, they would have got no
marks in my university if they did fail to do so!
Judgment of all kinds, whether in court or at a flower show implies standards.
People tend -- and perhaps the Athenians did so -- to excuse themselves and
their conduct by arguing that, since in the moral field we have no way of
knowing precisely what the moral standards are, we cannot be held accountable
to them. It is a comfortable refuge, but Paul took the roof off it! "The
times of this ignorance God winked at" (17:30); that is, He did not
at once make clear to everybody what His standard is: "but now" things
have changed. Now the standard is absolutely explicit, and we either meet
it or we do not. The standard is Jesus Christ, "that man
[70/71] whom He hath ordained". There can no longer be any plea
To tell a pagan audience who worshipped countless gods that the one
true God was going to judge them by the standard of one man far away
of whom, until that very moment, they had never heard was bound to raise
the second question: 'Whatever is your evidence for making this astonishing
assertion?' Why Jesus? Why not Socrates, or Aristotle, or Moses, or Caesar?
Why not somebody famous? The objection was so obvious that Paul anticipated
it without pausing to draw breath. It was his last point -- or, rather, the
last point he was able to make before the meeting broke up. What is the basis
for arguing that Jesus Christ, rather than anyone else who ever lived, is
God's Man, God's standard? The answer is, of course: God raised Him from
the dead. By doing so, He served notice that there is one morally perfect
person by whom we are all to be judged, and He is alive.
Let me review in this closing [sic] study, what I have so far
suggested. It is that Paul adapted his preaching on each occasion to his
perception of the audience before him -- to their existing beliefs and their
world view. He started out from what he judged to be the common ground that
he and they occupied, and moved from there to the weakness of their case
and the Christian alternative. The end point of the message was always the
same, but the route to that end varied, as we shall see next time. In the
pagan world which we inhabit, the route that Paul took at Athens should
be of particular interest to us, and will repay closer study.
(To be continued)
ISAIAH AND THE GOSPEL
4. CHRIST'S FULLNESS OF THE SPIRIT (11:1-3)
IN the course of his life and ministry Isaiah has given us a glimpse
of the incarnate Son of God, sharing our adversity and reigning in majestic
power. This third prophetic utterance in Chapter 11 foretells His Spirit-filled
Commentators have often associated this passage with the New Testament
allusions to the seven-fold Spirit as described in the book of the Revelation
(1:4, 4:5 and 5:6). Some find the parallel with the sacred seven-branched
lampstand with the main stem of the divine lamp "The Spirit of Jehovah"
and the three sets of twin branches, "wisdom and understanding", "counsel
and might" and "knowledge and the fear of the Lord". Be this as it may,
we note that the permanence of Christ's enduement with the Spirit is indicated
by the phrase "rest upon him" which was precisely what marked out the Lord
to John the Baptist who had not really known Christ until he could say:
"I have beheld the Spirit descending ... and abiding upon him" (John 1:32-33).
I am not competent to deal with the words used to describe each facet
of the individual features of Christ in His seven-fold fullness of the Spirit,
but from them I make the comment that they totally cover the understanding
of the Lord Jesus and His activities.
Christ Understood by the Spirit
By the use of the various words, Isaiah stresses the discernment and
insight given to God's Son by the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We may say
that He understood:
i. The Father's will
It is one of the main functions of the Holy Spirit to make known the
will of God in every matter. In the case of Jesus Christ this comes out
even before His enduement with the Spirit at Jordan, for in His first recorded
utterance He made it quite clear when He informed Mary: "I must be occupied
with my Father's affairs" (Luke 2:49). The Lord frequently used this word
'must' in regard to His procedure, showing that He was always aware of what
the Father wanted and acted accordingly. He went so far as to say that this
will governed His every act: "I do always the things that are pleasing to
him" (John 8:29). [71/72]
Our weakness is not only that we sometimes lack the determination to
please God but that there are times when we find ourselves in real doubt
as to what that will might be. The Lord Jesus never had such doubts. His
was a perfect sensitivity to the will of God. We are natural men: He was
the spiritual Man. This, however, does not only mean that He had a spiritual
nature, as contrasted with our carnal one, but that He was at all times under
the direct guidance and control of the Holy Spirit.
We are told that it was the Holy Spirit who deliberately led Him into
the desert for the forty days of testing (Matthew 4:1). Subsequently He announced
to the people of Nazareth in their synagogue that God had anointed Him with
the Spirit. After that not much is mentioned in the Gospels of how the Spirit
led Him, but in his later preaching Peter disclosed that the whole ministry
of the Lord Jesus was under the Spirit's government: "God anointed him with
the Holy Spirit and with power; who went about doing good ... for God was
with him" (Acts 10:38).
At that time God was also with Peter, for he shared in the Spirit's anointing.
Happily the same Holy Spirit has now come to dwell in the Church so that
He may give insight as to the will of God to each one of us individually and
especially to us in our life together.
ii. The Word of God
The Lord Jesus began His public work for God with a severe satanic examination;
He emerged from that wilderness test with complete success and He did so
because He knew both the letter and the spirit of the Word of God. Various
people tried at times to trip Him up over the Scriptures, especially in the
matter of the law, but He always displayed a superior insight into its true
Speaking prophetically of the Servant of the Lord, Isaiah declared: "The
Lord hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I should know
how to sustain with words him that is weary; he wakeneth morning by morning,
he wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught" (50:4). What a vivid
picture this gives us of the deep life in the Word which Jesus had. He was
truly Spirit-taught. It was not just that He knew the words, but that God
spoke directly to Him through those words. When Satan tried to deceive Him
by misquoting the Scriptures, the Lord not only countered the tempter with
another Scripture but made the additional thrust: "It is said ..."
The diligent student may become accomplished as to the letter of the
Word, but only those who are equipped by God's Holy Spirit can discern its
full spiritual import. The Sadducees tried to entrap the Lord by means of
a Mosaic law about marriage which they twisted to argue the absurdity of
a resurrection, but Jesus turned on them with the searing accusation of
culpable ignorance: "Is it not for this cause that ye err, that ye know
not the scriptures nor the power of God?" (Mark 12:24). Those who try to
use the Bible for their own purposes without the enlightenment of the Holy
Spirit are bound to be mistaken. It is surely not without significance that
although the various descriptions of the Holy Spirit include the quality
of 'might' (11:2), the main emphasis of the other aspects is on spiritual
The Lord Jesus was so filled with the Spirit that He had perfect understanding
of the Word of God. His repeated comment on the Old Testament in the Sermon
on the Mount of the words "But I say unto you ..." was not in any way a contrast
or a correction but rather a disclosure of God's true purpose in all these
It should be a great comfort to us to know that one of the main purposes
of the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives is to give us inward enlightenment,
"a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him" (Ephesians 1:17).
This is not apart from the Bible or in addition to it, but revelation by
means of the inspired Word.
iii. The hearts of men
May we not rightly assert that Christ's incredible insight into the minds
of men was made possible by the Holy Spirit? We read, "He knew all men" and
"He himself knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25) and very soon afterwards
we are told that God gave His Son the Spirit without measure (John 3:34).
I suggest that the latter explains the former. This is in accordance with
Isaiah's prophecy, for he followed his list of the Spirit's activities in
the Messiah by saying: "He shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither
decide after the hearing of his ears; but [72/73]
with righteousness shall he judge ..." (11:3-4). This spiritual insight
would guarantee equity and faithfulness.
Such discernment can be disconcerting, but it can also be supremely comforting.
John followed his words about Jesus knowing what was in man by the
illustration, "Now there was a man ..." (John 3:1). The chapter tells
us of a man who by any superficial judgment might have seemed and sounded
a great acquisition to the apostolic band, but who was nonetheless checked
and even repelled by Christ's categorical demand for a new birth (3:5). The
Lord Jesus had ability to perceive that Nicodemus was not really troubled
about his sins, so He wisely refrained from accepting him prematurely. That
was the kind of spiritual insight which all personal workers need. In this
case happily the lasting fruit became apparent later when Nicodemus came
to true faith and must have had the amazing experience of actually seeing
the Son of Man lifted up.
If in our reading we pass on to the very next chapter we will read of
an encounter which Jesus had with a female member of the race of men. He
knew what was in her too. Judged by the seeing of the eyes and the hearing
of the ears, she represented hopeless material for His kingdom, yet the Lord
Jesus both revealed Himself intimately to her (4:26) and encouraged her to
ask for the indwelling fountain of life. The truth was, of course, that He
discerned that underneath that unpromising exterior there was a contrite heart,
thirsty for God. The rest of the story proves how right was His judgement,
and how faithful "the sash round his waist" (Isaiah 11:5 N.I.V.).
So we might go on. Again and again in the Gospels we read of the Spirit-filled
Saviour's ability to discern men's inner thoughts, both of His own disciples
and the crowds and also of His enemies. He saw through people. And
He never made a single mistake, not even with that arch-deceiver Judas Iscariot.
In the case of this man, however, the Lord kept silence until the end, for
His own wise reasons.
Christ Acted by the Spirit
So much for wisdom and understanding, but the Spirit empowered Him not
only to think aright but also to act. The Lord Jesus not only knew the will
of God; He did it. He not only understood the Scriptures; He fulfilled them.
He not only perceived men's hidden needs; He graciously provided for them.
And He did it all by the Spirit, for wisdom is knowledge in action.
i. The Father's will
We must not exaggerate the time which the Lord Jesus spent in prayer,
for the Gospels make few allusions to the length of His prayer times. Those
which are made, however, are most significant. We are told that He went apart
very early to pray (Mark 1:35), and the occasion was important because it
followed an avalanche of sick candidates for healing as the Sabbath ended
and "All the city was gathered at the door". This left Him in acute need
of knowing how He should react. Should He continue this healing session,
as Peter seemingly urged Him to do? In the early morning solitary time of
prayer and waiting on the Father, it became clear to Him that He must move
on and concentrate on His main task, which was not healing but preaching.
For Him to know was to act, so He paid no heed to Simon's implied plea for
a return to the scene of the night before but replied, "Let us go elsewhere
into the next towns, that I may preach there also; for to this end came I
forth" (Mark 1:38).
Then we are told of the great crisis when, from among His many eager
followers, He chose the Twelve who would be His apostles. Before making
these momentous decisions, He spent the whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12).
It was so important not to be governed by the sight of the eyes or the hearing
of the ears in any choices based on personal preference. I wonder how much
of that fateful night was spent over the question -- perhaps the agonised
question -- of the problem posed by Judas Iscariot. In any case, His choice
was quite a deliberate one, and it was an informed one too. For Him to know
the Father's will was to obey it by the Spirit, however great the cost in
terms of His own suffering.
He obviously prayed about Lazarus (John 11:41), and may well have stayed
the three days away from Bethany as a result of the Spirit's guidance. It
must have been painful for Him to bear the reproaches of His beloved Martha
and Mary -- "Lord, if thou hadst been here ...". Humanly speaking He might
have longed to hasten to them at the first moment of their anguished appeal.
Had it been the will of God, He would doubtless have been there, but His
[73/74] prayer life and the Spirit's check called
for the temporary and wise delay.
Then there was the question about the cross, posed in John 12:27: "What
shall I say, Father save me from this hour?" The prayer would doubtless have
been answered if He had so prayed, but He never did. The question was even
more acutely voiced in the garden: "Abba, Father, if it be possible, remove
this cup from me ..." (Mark 14:36). If I am correct in the suggestion that
in His prayers the Lord was seeking to know the Father's will, it is clear
that there would be no question about doing it. He went on to the cross.
It was by the eternal Spirit that He did so (Hebrews 9:14 ). This is always
true wisdom -- to obey known light.
Not that the Lord advertised the fact of His having the fullness of the
Spirit. In fact He said surprisingly little about it. We can have no doubt,
though, that His movements -- or His lack of movement -- arose from that
filial Spirit which is described as "the fear of the Lord". "The Spirit of
knowledge and of the fear of the Lord" means that to know is to obey.
ii. The Word of God
One of the striking features of our Spirit-filled Saviour was His evident
reverence for the Word of God. From His wilderness sword-thrusts against
Satan ("It is written") to His last Calvary utterance ("Into thy hands I commend
my spirit") the Lord Jesus rightly based His whole life and ministry on the
Bible. He understood it as none other ever did. He obeyed it in its entirety
as none other could. He fulfilled it in the power of the seven-fold Spirit
The fact that the Holy Spirit gave Him power to fulfil the Scriptures
did not diminish the personal costliness of such obedience. He enjoyed its
promises, but He must have been challenged over and over again by the stark
horrors of what is written there of His redemptive sacrifice. He not only
became familiar with the glorious commission recorded in Isaiah 61:1: "The
Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the Lord has appointed me to preach
the good tidings ..." but He had to prepare for the time when He would have
to say: "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked
off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting" and in a wonderful
way He kept true to the subsequent words: "I have set my face like a flint
For us, mercifully, the trials that await us are usually unexpected ones;
for God's Christ they were all too clearly predicted in the prophetic Word.
In a further article we will consider something of what Isaiah himself had
to say about the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus, but we must never forget
the deep costliness to Him of accepting the government of the Scriptures
at every point of His earthly life.
Happily the same Spirit who interpreted to Him the passages which speak
of dread sufferings, gave also to Him the inspiring comfort of God's Word.
Even in the darkest hours He was able with confidence to look forward to
that "third day" of which He so consistently spoke, and He must have found
grace needed to go through with it from the predictions that He would see
His seed, that the pleasure of the Lord would prosper in His hand, and that
He would see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied (53:10-11).
So it is that the Lord Jesus has become for us the Pioneer of that Spirit-filled
life of blessing available to those who live by God's Word. Such a life is
never easy, but it has been made gloriously possible even for us since God
has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts and we, too, may cry,
iii. The blessing of men
This brings us to the most notable reference to Christ's experience of
the Spirit, namely, the one which formed the basis of His first -- and only
-- sermon in Nazareth. We read in Luke 4:16-21 how He described His ministry
to the people who must already have been very familiar with Him but had missed
Him for a time while He was in Judea and now crowded to hear what He had
to say in His home town: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the
Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings ... to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives ... to proclaim the acceptable year of
the Lord" (61:1-2). Perhaps they listened to this familiar Scripture with
impatience, since what they were seeking was something sensational.
This people of Nazareth wanted to see some of His miracles. What they
got was the message of inspired Scripture. The Lord made it plain
[74/75] that even though He was able to heal the sick, His priority
was the preaching of the gospel. The anointing Spirit was the Spirit of wisdom
and understanding, as well as the Spirit of might, and so Christ concentrated
on what God saw to be their greatest need, which was the healing of their
souls. What was more, His gospel was for all nations, as it is declared
in the quotation from Isaiah 42:1: "He shall declare judgment to the Gentiles
..." as the scope of His ministry. The Lord illustrated this by the experiences
of Elijah and Elisha, but the people of Nazareth did not like this, refused
to listen and turned upon Him in angry rejection. "But he passing through
the midst of them went his way."
The actions of Jesus were prompted by this spiritual discernment which
penetrated to men's deepest needs. The obvious example of this was His instant
response to the sudden appearance before Him of the paralysed man who had
been let down through the roof: "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5).
It may be that for the moment the healed man was more thrilled at being
able to walk than at his spiritual healing and forgiveness, but we may be
sure that as time went on, and certainly in eternity, the pardon of his
sins was what most mattered. For one fleeting second did the penitent thief
hope that Jesus on the cross might do what the other crucified thief suggested,
"Save thyself and us"? That would indeed have been a sensational miracle
if his tortured body could be freed and healed. It was not to be. But what
he did have was infinitely better, as manifested by Christ's words: "Amen
-- today -- with Me -- in Paradise". This was the greatest miracle of all,
though unobserved and unappreciated by men, for he became the very first
blood-cleansed sinner to pass through the rent veil into the Holiest of All.
When we speak of wisdom we tend to visualise something rather complex
and abstruse, yet the words of the Lord Jesus (like the words of Isaiah which
his hearers rejected as 'kindergarten stuff' -- 28:9) were simple and plain.
We are never told that He spoke in an unknown tongue. What He did say, though,
had all the power of God behind it. He said, "Follow me" -- and they followed.
He said to the woman, "Go in peace" -- and she did just that. He called
out, "Lazarus, come forth" -- and out of the grave came the man who had
been dead for four days. The simplest words, spoken in the power of the
Spirit, can be full of effectiveness. The Spirit of Christ is the "Spirit
of counsel and might.
There is a final statement about the Spirit-filled Christ contained in
the words: "His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord" (11:3). Concerning
this, Sir George Adam Smith, whom I once met in the home of a friend, has
written: "The phrase may as well mean, He shall draw his breath in the
fear of the Lord; and it is a great pity that our revisers have not even
in the margin given to English readers any suggestion of so picturesque,
and probably so correct, a rendering. It is a most expressive definition of
sinlessness -- sinlessness which was the attribute of Christ alone. We, however
purely intentioned we be, are compassed about by an atmosphere of sin. We
cannot help breathing what now inflames our passions, now chills our warmest
feelings, and makes our throats incapable of honest testimony or glorious
praise. As oxygen to a dying fire, so the worldliness we breathe is to the
sin within us. We cannot help it; it is the atmosphere into which we are
born. But from this Christ alone is free. He was His own atmosphere, drawing
breath in the fear of the Lord. Of Him alone is it recorded that, though
living in the world, He was never infected with the world's sin. Even here
on earth the Lord carried around His own atmosphere of 'the fear of the Lord
which is clean, enduring for ever' (Psalm 19:9)."
I wonder if that is what is meant by the Lord's words to Nicodemus: "No
man ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son
of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13). He breathed the heavenly atmosphere
even while He walked here on earth. As Dr. Adam Smith goes on to say, "And
what is heaven to be if not this? God, we are told, shall be its Sun, but
its atmosphere shall be His fear, which is clean and endureth for ever. Heaven
seems most real as a moral open-air, where every breath is an inspiration,
and every pulse a healthy joy, where no thoughts from within us find breath
but those of obedience and praise, and all our passions and inspirations
are the will of God. He that lives near to Christ, and by Christ often seeks
God in prayer, may create for himself even on earth such a heaven, perfecting
holiness in the fear of God."
(To be continued) [75/76]
O LORD, REVIVE THY WORK
The Prayer of Habakkuk
PRAYER is not the only thing, but it is paramount. When the Israelites
emerged from Egypt to find themselves committed to a conflict, it may at
first sight appear that Joshua was given the hard task as he led the fighting,
while Moses himself chose a softer option by going up into the place of prayer.
This was far from the case. Moses was the man who needed support in the well-nigh
impossible task of keeping his hands aloft, while Joshua moved steadily
into victory so long as those interceding arms were held up to heaven. At
the end of that battle and with the assurance of Jehovah-nissi --
The Lord is my banner -- Joshua was informed that this divine warfare would
continue "from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16). Centuries later
Habakkuk found himself committed to this spiritual conflict.
It seems that his rather unusual name was derived from an intensive form
of a verb which means 'to embrace'. It has been variously explained as one
who lovingly embraces God's purposes or alternatively as a man grappling
with spiritual problems in the locking embrace of a wrestler. The very first
verses clearly show us the prophet getting to grips with a major problem,
so I rather favour the thought of wrestling, especially as this is the idea
of prayer suggested by Ephesians 6:12. For Habakkuk's main business was prayer.
His short book does not deal with the usual ministry of a prophet, namely
of speaking to men on God's behalf, but rather depicts the activity
of speaking to God on behalf of His people. This must always be a prophetic
priority: "He is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee", God said at the
beginning of things (Genesis 20:7). For Habakkuk praying was no easy task.
He lived in a troubled world, as we do. It is not necessary for us to preoccupy
ourselves with the historical allusions in the book, but at least we can
readily identify with a man who is bewildered by current events, especially
among God's people, and tempted to question the activities -- or perhaps
the inactivity -- of his God. We take the chapters one by one.
Chapter One. Faith's Problem
It is not surprising that the man who so took God's interests to heart
should be crying, "How long?" and be driven almost to desperation in his
questioning, "Why ...?" On every hand he could see the enemies of the Church
threatening to bring in defeat and destruction, and to him it looked as though
the Lord would neither hear His servant nor deliver His people. This was
not the petty questioning of a man over his personal problems, reasonable
as that might be, but the vast question of God's interests in His redeemed
people. Some of his words have an unhappy familiarity to us: 'spoiling',
'violence', 'strife', 'strife and contention', 'perverted judgment'. We feel
so helpless. So did Habakkuk. But a man is never helpless when he has access
From verse 5 to verse 11 we have God's immediate response to the prophet's
agonised complaint. It gave little reassurance and certainly offered no explanation,
its tenor being a warning that matters would get still worse. Things were
going to happen which would be hard to believe. Not that they were or would
ever be out of hand. Oh no! The startling and dreadful events would be God's
work: "For lo, I raise up the Chaldeans ...". The praying man must
never lose sight of the sovereignty of God. Nevertheless the prospect was
daunting indeed; there was no swift or easy answer to Habakkuk's enquiry.
Why did the Lord so respond to His servant's prayer? None of us understands
God's ways, but may I suggest that it was in accordance with that frequent
way that He has of putting faith to severe tests. The spiritual infant gets
quick answers to his prayers. He needs them. The more adult he becomes in
his walk with God, the more likely is it that he will be faced by delays
and enigmas. If this was so in the case of our prophet, then he emerged magnificently
from this first test. Undeterred by what had been told him, he made further
appeals to God, keeping well in view the One to whom his prayers were directed,
the eternal and holy God whom His people know as the Rock (verse 12). If
Habakkuk teaches us nothing more, he at least demonstrates that we must never
give up, but go on praying. We note, however, that this further prayer only
ends in a question mark (v.17). [76/77]
Chapter Two. God's Answer
Having seemingly prayed himself to a standstill Habakkuk turned away
from God to muse with himself: "I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon
my tower, and will look forth to see what he will speak with me" (v.1).
Perhaps we may rightly interpret these words to mean that he would stop
speaking for the moment and listen to what God would say. He seems to have
realised that such an activity would be fiercely contested so he would have
to mount guard over this place of communion, making the place of prayer a
veritable fortress and resisting every effort to make him quit it. Listening
is always an important part of praying; like the telephone, prayer is not
a Tannoy [(brand-name) audio] system for hailing God but a two-way instrument
of communication; but if prayer is subjected to many pressures, perhaps quietly
listening to God is even more contested.
How long he had to wait we do not know. In the narrative we get the impression
that the divine response was immediate and this is not surprising, for often
God's greatest difficulty is to get His people to be quiet before Him. God's
words spoke of both vision and action: "Write ... read ... run ...". Far
from being a waste of time to wait before God, this is the surest and quickest
means of getting things done. The central chapter of this short prophecy
provides the heart of Habakkuk's message. It has three main points, which
I will take in reverse order.
i. God's Sovereignty
"But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before
him" (v.20). It is not much use praying if we are not wholly convinced of
the absolute sovereignty of the God to whom we pray. God is quite unmoved
by the strange things which may trouble us here on the earth. In fact this
verse suggests to us that earth's events are really decided in the hidden
realms of heaven.
The Lord did not reprove His servant for raising the many controversial
points which he voiced in his prayer, but He quietened the prophet with the
assurance that He knew all about them and was overruling in the violence
and chaos of it all, insisting that it was due to Him, the Lord of hosts,
that the nations of the earth were wearing themselves out "for vanity" (v.13).
They did not realise their own futility, but it was to them, as much as to
His own people, that He commanded: "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm
46:10). But He says it to us also. As we say -- sometimes, I fear, rather
glibly -- 'God is still on the throne'. Appearances may be all against this,
so much so that to use the phrase could be superficial and even smug. It
is easy for us to say or sing it while we are in some safe and comfortable
circumstances, but might not be so easy if we were in the earth's trouble
spots. But even if it would not be easy, it would still be true. He is
far above all.
How can we be sure of this, for we are shut up to faith, never having
seen that throne? Well, faith need not falter, since the Word of God makes
His sovereignty very plain. It does so in actual words, with strong assurances
from the God who cannot lie. But it also does so in historical examples,
not least in the Gospels. There are very few matters which are stated four
times over in all the Gospels, but it is not without significance that in
each one of the four we are told how the Lord Jesus stilled the winds and
the waves. This was clearly a notable miracle, and in some of the accounts
we are informed that the Lord actually walked on those tempestuous waters
before silencing them. Others may have done some of the miracles which He
performed, but nobody else has ever or can ever display this complete mastery
of the creation. It may not strike those unacquainted with animals that His
entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was at all miraculous, but in fact the
quiet acceptance of a rider by this unbroken donkey and its obedient progress
through the midst of an enormous crowd-demonstration was a further and unique
proof of the same mastery.
When the disciples appealed to Jesus to calm the storm, He did not commend
their cry to Him but rather rebuked them for their lack of faith (Mark 4:40).
Clearly then, and certainly later with the apostle Paul (Acts 27:25), the
most important thing is to experience that inner peace which can trust Him
in the fiercest storm:
Be still, my soul! the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
This is a challenge to us all. For the most part the problems of my readers
will not be as sensational as what happened to the apostles, but they may
be just as acute to us. In my secluded home [77/78]
I hear not only of oppressed believers abroad but also of divided churches
at home and grieve at the satanic inroads upon the unity and spirituality
of God's true people. It would not be difficult to become as dejected and
desperate as Habakkuk or to cry out, as he did, in puzzled dismay at the
way in which the enemy seems to be catching God's people in his net and generally
having all his own way (1:15). If Christ is really the Head of His Church
and if it is the work of the Holy Spirit to administer His lordship, then
how much longer do we have to wait to see these facts in full operation?
There can only be one answer to these questions and that is to keep on
believing that the throne of the universe is occupied by our almighty Lord.
What we must do is to wait and worship. And, of course, to go on praying.
ii. The Coming Glory
Though the vision linger, we must wait for it, for it will certainly
come in God's own appointed time (v.3). When the writer to the Hebrews took
up this verse, he focused the divine words of hope upon the person of the
Coming Lord. "He who is coming will come, and will not delay" he wrote,
adding his own comment that it will be "in just a very little while" (Hebrews
10:37). God may seem remote but He is working purposefully to a plan and
that plan is one of universal glory: "For the earth will be filled with
the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (v.14).
When the Lord Jesus breaks through into this earthly scene it will be so
wonderful that it will have been worth waiting for.
We must not be too surprised if the time is long. The Lord Jesus spoke
in His parables of servants reasoning, "My lord delayeth his coming" (Matthew
24:48) and of the lord returning, "after a long time" (Matthew 25:19), while
Peter explained that the delay is not due to any slackness on the part of
the Lord but rather to His long suffering (2 Peter 3:9). In doing so he quoted
from the Psalm of Moses and enjoined his readers not to forget that with
the Lord "a thousand years are as one day". If that is the case, then perhaps
we may suggest that it is not yet two days since the angels announced that
"this same Jesus ... shall so come in like manner as you saw him going into
heaven" (Acts 1:11).
Habakkuk began his prophecies with the question, "How long?" It is one
which the Church has long been posing, and it seems that the "souls under
the altar" re-echo that enquiry (Revelation 6:10-11). For us, as well as
for them, John recorded the divine injunction to "wait a little longer",
for the purposes of God must await His wise choice of "the hour and day and
month and year" (Revelation 9:15). The purposes of God take their time, but
we may be certain that they will be totally fulfilled. The Lord Jesus will
come again. Of that we may be assured. If therefore the depressing circumstances
of the present darkness oppress our spirits, we must mount to our watch-tower
and look again at what God has to say in His Word of the coming Day of glory.
The seas around us may seem rough now but the time will come when that glory
will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk had to face the growing darkness of the Captivity. In that testing
time he was to be silenced by the conviction that the Lord was in His holy
temple. The captivity came and was eventually followed by the glad day of
release. When the captives were back in the land, another prophet was privileged
to call all flesh to be silent, only this time he was able to declare that
God was on the move: "Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord; for he is waked
up out of his holy habitation" (Zechariah 2:13). Perhaps that return from
the Captivity was a tiny foreshadowing of the great and final Restoration
of all things. Who knows? It may be that we are about to witness the supreme
moment when the Lord will rouse Himself from His holy dwelling and come back
with power and great glory. In any case we are advised to silence all our
doubts and questionings, for that Coming is as certain as the dawn.
iii. The Call for Faith
We have worked back from verse 20 and through verse 14 and now find ourselves
at the beginning of this second chapter. Here we are told of the divine ruling
that God's justified servants must go on living by faith: "The just shall
live by his faith" (v.4). The alternative rendering, "... by his faithfulness"
does not lessen the thrust of the command, for what is faith if it does not
make the one who exercises it faithful? Or could it be that implicit in
this sentence is a reference to the faithfulness of God: "The just
[78/79] shall live by His faithfulness?" What, after all,
is faith but total confidence in the faithfulness of God?
Nevertheless the New Testament makes it plain that the right translation
is 'faith' and twice uses this sentence in connection with the initial act
of faith by the believer. In fact the words, "The just shall live by faith"
proved the foundational Scripture appealed to by Paul, and later by Luther
and other reformers in their teaching concerning the justification of the
sinner by faith alone. In Romans 1:17 the words are cited as forming the
heart of the gospel message and in Galatians 3:11 as the complete repudiation
of any idea of working for one's salvation. In both of these cases the emphasis
is placed on the initial experience of salvation by which the repentant sinner
is justified through the gospel.
There is a third occurrence which is more advanced; it is addressed to
those who are already believers and is used to remind them that we are never
to be static in our faith but must always remember that every phase of the
Christian life demands active faith. From the beginning at conversion to
the climax of glorification, the believer must keep on believing. There is
no other way of enjoying spiritual vigour and victory than by an up-to-date
exercise of active faith.
This quotation is found in Hebrews 10:38 and it was made to those who
had a good record in the past but who were being subjected to new testings
and so were in danger of losing heart and failing to hold on to the promises
of God. The verse reads rather differently from our Old Testament version
of Habakkuk, for it uses the Greek Version (as Hebrews often does)
and instead of saying, "His soul is puffed up and is not upright in him",
it reads, "If he shrink back, my soul has no pleasure in him". There is not
a lot of difference. Questioning and reasoning produce a 'puffed up' soul;
they also result in a shrinking back instead of pressing on. Such behaviour
by those who have already tasted God's grace is obviously displeasing to Him.
Habakkuk, then, and the Hebrew Christians, and we of the Twentieth Century
must maintain our place with those who keep right on in faith and so bring
pleasure to the heart of our God.
Chapter Three. Habakkuk's Response
This third chapter is largely poetical, but it nevertheless has a very
practical message for us. In it Habakkuk reports his own reaction to God's
speaking and presents us with a challenge to our own response to God's Word.
We have faced the problems of faith; we have been given the answer in terms
of the divine sovereignty, the divine objective and the divine call. Can
we match this Old Testament character in his triumphant victory of faith?
True to his name, he embraced the promises of God, but he did more than
that for he also embraced the opportunities of the time in which he lived,
a time which he described as "the midst of the years" (v.2). It may be that
we have tended to skip over the books of the Minor Prophets, imagining that
they have little relevance to our own times. That, of course, is quite untrue.
In previous articles I have tried to show that Haggai and Zechariah are full
of up-to-date helpfulness for the days in which we live. Now I hope that
in Habakkuk we can find great gain in paying attention to his example.
It seems to me that in his reaction to God's speaking we may perceive
how the true believer should look beyond immediate circumstances and keep
his gaze on the unseen realities of heaven. In that way we not only serve
God in our generation but find personal renewal and ascendancy. The people
for whom the prophet prayed may not have known the reviving power of the
Spirit but it is quite evident that in his own heart Habakkuk enjoyed an
amazing revival. The chapter has a double message:
i. Faith expressed in prayer. Verse 2
The substance of his prayer forms the title of this article: "O Lord,
revive thy work in the midst of the years". There must be wrath, but may
there also be mercy. We are under no illusions as to our own unworthiness
but we have immense expectation in the undeserved goodness of our gracious
God. Habakkuk had been told that he must be prepared to wait. What should
he do in this interim period, "the midst of the years"? How could he best
wait? Surely by redoubled effort in prayer.
In verses 3 to 15 he sought to describe what he had heard of God's past
activities in salvation and judgment, with the confession that this exercise
left him with his heart panting and his limbs trembling. There was nothing
slick or superficial in his plea for revival. It is an awesome matter to
be found in the midst of a divine visitation. Yet he prayed that there might
be one. [79/80] It is never enough to think only of
the past and it is useless to try to get the Lord to put back His clock.
The thrust of our praying must be that now, in our day, God will express Himself
in terms of salvation and that the power hidden in His hand (v.4) might once
more be released (v.13).
The man who prayed that God would renew His activities was no light-hearted
optimist. His was not a request for exciting sensations but it was a humble
plea that the holiness of God might be manifested, humbling all pride and
enforcing His own rule. For all my Christian life I have heard God's people
praying for revival and have added my Amens to their prayers. But how will
they be answered? Will it be in local and temporary visitations by the Spirit
of God, or will it be the final showdown of the Return of Christ? I do not
Nor do I think that Habakkuk had any clear idea of how and when God would
work in answer to his prayer. He was prepared, if necessary, to face even
darker days before the great dawn. One thing is clear, though, and that is
that his recipe for unanswered prayer is simply to go on praying. He began
with the complaint, "How long?" (1:2). God's reply seems to suggest that
he would have to go on waiting still longer. Now, however, he had recovered
his spiritual second wind and realised that the important thing was still
to go on praying. In doing so he seems to have found that promised "peace
that passes all understanding" -- "That I should rest in the day of trouble"
(v.16). What is more, the revival began at once in his own heart. How else
can we describe his over-flowing joy in the midst of surrounding calamities
and his delighted report that he was enjoying mountain top experiences (vv.18-19)?
His prophecy begins with a cry of anguish and ends with a dedication to the
choirmaster and stringed instruments. Persistence in the place of prayer
brings its own reward.
ii. Faith expressed in praise. Verses 17-19
I have said that Habakkuk did not know how his prayer for revival would
be answered. It certainly seems, though, that he expected no sensational
changing of the situation straight away, but rather braced himself for further
times of testing. I am aware of the hopes of many that the Return of Christ
will be preceded by out-poured blessings on a new scale. I will rejoice if
their expectations are fulfilled. For me, however, the main stress of New
Testament teaching on this subject seems to be on the increasing evil of the
"perilous times" of the last days.
In any case, Habakkuk's closing verses are full of inspiration. "Let
the worst happen" he sings, "let every kind of evil come upon us -- no blossom,
no fruit, no meat, no herd ... yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy
in the God of my salvation." So the story which began with gloom ends with
glory. It is possible to be gloomy and still pray, but it is quite impossible
to remain gloomy when one is praising the Lord. If Habakkuk were asked what
there was to be jubilant about, he could only answer that he rejoiced not
in things but in the Lord Himself.
It must be noted, though, that this joyfulness was essentially personal;
Habakkuk had no burden for himself but he still carried a heavy burden of
concern for God's interests in the world and for the state of His people.
Praise is most important, but it must never be superficial pretence that
things are all right when they are not. So far as he personally was concerned,
Habakkuk was able to report that divine strength made him light of foot and
uplifted in spirit, but I imagine that even while he praised, he continued
with his earnest appeal: "O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years".
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (16)
"(Now Joram and all Israel had been defending Ramoth Gilead
... but King Joram had returned to Jezreel to recover from the
wounds which the Syrians had given him ...)" 2 Kings 9:14-15
THIS has a connection with the previous parenthesis, for it concerns
Ahab's son, Joram, and the fulfilment of the prophecies which Elijah the
Tishbite had made about him.
THE purpose of the parenthesis is to explain why Joram was at that time
in the family palace at Jezreel. He had gone there for convalescence. When
Jehu was commissioned to execute this evil king, he fully expected to do
so at Jezreel and for this reason tried to avoid any information reaching
the king there (v.15).
IT was to Jezreel that Jehu was seen to be driving with such furious
determination (v.20) and in fact it was there that Jezebel was killed in
fulfilment of Elijah's prophecy (v.36). In a strange way, however, God had
other purposes for the appointed judgment on Ahab's son, and Joram helped
to fulfil them by his action in going out to meet the aggressor. God had
determined the actual place where the death was to take place; it was to
be in the property which Ahab had so wickedly acquired but which never bore
his name, for it was still called "the portion of Naboth the Jezreelite"
AT first Joram was confident that he could handle the situation with
regard to Jehu and went out to challenge him. Whether his action was due
to foolhardiness or whether it was genuine courage, the fact remains that
he went as far as Naboth's land before realising too late that he had been
IT was no chance happening that the encounter took place on "the portion
of the field of Naboth" and that it was there that Ahab's son met his end.
His body was thrown out of the chariot and abandoned in that same field.
GOD had announced His condemnation of Naboth's murder by Ahab and Jezebel
and affirmed that it would be avenged. Jezebel's end was to be that her body
would be devoured by dogs in the city of Jezreel (1 Kings 21:23) and so
it was. So far as Ahab's son was concerned, the place of reckoning would
be the very place which had been so wrongfully acquired by his parents. After
he had made the kill, Jehu remembered the prophecy made at the time (v.26).
He little realised how he himself would be used by God to fulfil it.
THE fate of both Joram and Jezebel makes gruesome reading, but it pinpoints
the accuracy of God's judgments. He had made it clear that Joram's death
was to be in Naboth's field, and so it happened. We may take courage from
this happening by realising that if the Lord watched over the actual place
and circumstances of the deaths of such sinners, He will not be less concerned
with the place and manner of the departure of His believing people when the
time comes for us to leave the earth. We can trust Him that He has got it
all in hand.
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Psalm
WORSHIP GOD! FOR THE TESTIMONY OF
JESUS IS THE SPIRIT OF PROPHECY.
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