|Vol. 15, No. 4, July - Aug. 1986
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
THE LATE Mrs. F. AUSTIN-SPARKS
ON April 30th, Mrs. Florence Austin-Sparks completed her long God-honouring
life here below and left us to enter the heavenly Home where she had longed
I am sure that all who knew and love her will join with me in offering
sincere condolences to her large family who will miss her sorely but will
perhaps be thankful that she now has her heart's desire "to be with Christ
which is very far better."
I have known her for over half a century and had closer touches with
her in the later years of her widowhood. I feel truly indebted to her as
I pay this tribute.
Not that she would have wished for any publicity. She was one of those
Quiet in the Land of whom Poul Madsen wrote in our last issue: indeed
to my mind a very choice example of what was there described.
It was wholly due to her that I was entrusted with the Editorship of
this magazine. Mr. Austin-Sparks had left word that there should be no automatic
continuation of the magazine ministry which he had carried on for many
years, but his widow graciously agreed to my offer to lend a hand, the
one provision being that the name should be changed. She gave me every
sympathy and encouragement in this work.
She had worldwide interests, and she devoted herself to them in faithful
prayer and equally faithful correspondence. She showed a keen interest
in many of the Lord's Servants whom she had come to know at home in London
and Kilcreggan. and in her many journeys with her husband. I feel sure that
they would wish me to record on their behalf, how greatly they had been
cheered and helped by her letters.
More even than this, however, her ministry was that of intercession.
She made it her practice to pray daily for the three generations of her children,
and she also ranged the world in her prayers, as well as faithfully taking
her part in local church prayer meetings. She excelled in grace in her life
in the local assembly, being content to become just an ordinary church member
where her husband had been the father and the honoured leader. I was greatly
impressed by her willingness to bear with the new ways of younger generations,
a rare virtue in one of her age and past experience.
Whenever we stayed in her home she invariably read Psalm 121 at the
breakfast table on the day we left. She explained that for many years this
was what she had done when she and her husband went off on their travels.
She wanted to be sure that the Lord would bless the going out and the coming
in, and this is what has now happened in her case, "both now and for evermore."
-- The Editor
TIMES OF REFRESHING (2)
John H. Paterson
"Meanwhile, the church had peace throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria,
and grew in strength and numbers. The believers learned how to walk
fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit." Acts 9:31
( Living Bible)
IN a previous study, I suggested that it is instructive to notice how
the development and progress of the early Church, as reported in the Acts
of the Apostles, went by fits and starts. There were times of great expansion,
and others of great hostility or opposition but, in between these, there
were breathing spells when things seem to have gone quietly forward. For
these I borrowed the phrase used by the Apostle Peter in Acts 3:19: "times
In the early Church, as I also pointed out last time, disturbance or
disruption was due to two quite separate sets of causes -- external and internal.
As a matter of fact, in the record that we have in Acts, there is an almost
exact alternation [61/62] between the two: disturbance
from outside, caused by opposition to the Gospel, alternating with disturbance
from within, caused by spiritual conditions among God's people. It is on
this second type of disturbance that I want for the present to concentrate.
And the names I suggested for the "disturbances" in our previous study were
hypocrisy, envy, counterfeit spirituality and exclusiveness.
The Church's First Problem -- Hypocrisy
Those first days of the Church's history must have been breathlessly
exciting. A group of transformed disciples and their fellow-believers were
taking Jerusalem by storm: miracles were happening, and so far the authorities
were acting only cautiously against the followers of Jesus. There was every
reason to be happy!
So, what was it that first cast a shadow over this scene, and replaced
joy with fear (Acts 5:11)? It was the tragic fate of Ananias and Sapphira
-- tragic because, so far as we know, it really was the first break in the
continuity of fellowship which had begun at Pentecost.
It is important, of course, to be clear just what went wrong. Peter
himself, in judging the matter, was careful to eliminate some of the possible
charges against the pair (Acts 5:4). It was not that, as believers,
they were required to turn over all their property to the Church. It was
not that they were forbidden to decide what proportion of the
whole they should give. They were entirely free to do so. Their fault lay
in giving a part and pretending that it was the whole.
The conjunction of this story in Acts 5:1 with that of Barnabas in Acts
4:36-37 can hardly be fortuitous. To underline the connection, the translator
of the Living Bible begins Acts 5 with the words, "But in contrast
there was a man named Ananias ...". What had happened was that others,
Barnabas among them, had set a standard of full commitment to God and His
people, and Ananias and Sapphira did not want to seem to fall short of it.
They wanted to create the impression that their commitment, too, was total.
That was hypocrisy or, as my dictionary defines it, "a feigning to be better
than one is, or to be what one is not."
None of us can pretend to be ignorant of this; never to have experienced,
and probably taken part in, that kind of competition that sometimes occurs
among God's people to see who can set the highest standard of holy conduct,
or separation, or shock at what some other believer feels free to do. All
that is wearily familiar. Let us simply notice two things: firstly, that
this was indeed the very first thing to break the internal harmony of the
Church, so that it is the oldest source of weakness known to us; secondly,
that the outcome was so appalling.
Ananias and Sapphira dropped down dead; that was a stunning fact. But
now, consider: the only people within the knowledge of these Jewish Christians
to whom anything remotely so drastic had happened were guilty of enormous
crimes against God and His people. They were men like Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus
10) who, as priests, offered "strange fire", or Korah (Numbers 16) who
had directly set out to oppose Moses. To come under the direct judgement
of God was the fate of people like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Within their
own experience, nothing at all like this had occurred. Indeed, when some
Samaritans refused to receive Jesus (Luke 9:52-5) and His disciples wanted
to call down fire in the oldfashioned way, Jesus rebuked them. Not even
Judas Iscariot had been struck down like this for what he did; his own remorse
That was the background against which, quite suddenly, Ananias and Sapphira
met their fate. Can you imagine the impact upon the onlookers? It must
have been, in modem terms, like a bomb at a garden-party. As they tried
in the aftermath to piece together what had happened, they must have realised
with horror that hypocrisy, for which the Lord Jesus had endlessly denounced
the Scribes and Pharisees, had got into His Church as well. Hypocrisy, they
must have argued, puts us on a par with Sodom and Gomorrah, as objects of
God's peremptory judgement. How that realisation should persuade us all
to honesty with the Lord and with one another!
The Second Problem -- Envy
The next hold-up in the progress of the Church is reported in Acts 6:1.
That it should have happened not over some key theological principle but
over the handing out of food to the needy may strike us as ludicrous to
the point of absurdity, but anybody with an inside acquaintance with church
life will at once recognise this as quite authentic! I once worshipped in
a church which represented a merger of two companies of God's people. The
elders and deacons of the [62/63] combined church
got on together most harmoniously: the only real trouble arose among the
catering ladies over which former church's set of tea cups should be used
at church fellowships!
Envy may be provoked, as in the case before us, by a simple, practical
thing (and did you ever stop to think how remarkable it was that, at this
very early stage in the Church's life, a "daily ministration" to an ever-growing
number of needy believers already actually existed?), but it easily
spreads to other things -- spiritual gifts, for example. Envy over the
food programme may so easily be followed by envy over the preaching programme;
that is, the provision of spiritual food. A rivalry grows up among those
who are supposed to be ministering to the spiritual needs of God's people.
It was the late Watchman Nee who once remarked, "There was a time when I
had a lust for preaching.". It is easy to feel envy over others' gifts.
Small wonder, then, that the apostles took prompt action to nip this
problem in the bud. Small wonder, too, that the epistles are so full of pleas
and exhortations to put aside envy. How inconceivable that a Church, likened
by Paul to a body with arms and legs, should be hampered in its workings
by arms wishing to be legs, or toes complaining that fingers have more to
do, instead of rejoicing, all together, in the fact that the body exists:
that their is a "daily ministration" at all!
It all sounds rather petty, as we read Acts 6; yet how wonderfully God
turned this incident to good! For the result of this matter being
raised was that Stephen emerged on the scene. The setting up of a group of
deacons to deal with the practical side of the Church's life brought to prominence
a man who might otherwise have spent his years simply in the shadow of
the apostles. He himself was not an apostle. His emergence as a leader
cost him dearly in his brief career. But he was the very first non-apostle
to speak for the Church of Christ -- and what a speech he made! Under the
hand of God, we owe Acts 7 to some unknown widow lady complaining about the
size of her free meals.
The Third Problem -- A Counterfeit Spirituality
The third problem was one which was bound to arise in the early Church,
given its origins and setting in the world of first-century Palestine.
As the New Testament makes clear, that world was full of magic, movements
and messiahs. There were any number of false prophets, and the more conjuring
tricks they could do, the more likely they were to attract a crowd. Men
who had seen as many of these movements come and go as had the Jewish council
could well afford to adopt the wait-and-see attitude to the Christians
recommended by Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-40).
So, let us not imagine the early Church as growing up in a kind of vacuum
-- as the only candidate for public attention. The question which the Jews
had put to Jesus must have been asked repeatedly in that society: "By
what power are you doing these things?" It was put not only to Jesus
and the apostles, but to every claimant or charlatan who came along. Even
before anyone had time to ask it, it was answered by Peter (Acts 3:12-13)
when he healed the lame man at the gate of the Temple, because it was the
obvious question to ask: "Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this?
or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness
we had made this man to walk? ... His name through faith in his name hath
made this man strong."
In such a society, it was only a matter of time before the Church would
encounter the problem of distinguishing between true and false in its life
and teaching, and anyone who thinks that the problem has disappeared in
our own day has not read a newspaper lately! The passage or period with
which we are concerned here is that covered by Acts 8:4 - 9:30. Persecution
drove the believers out of Jerusalem and, among other places, to Samaria.
There, we are told, a remarkable work of God developed, evidenced by many
miracles and acts of healing.
I have always felt it significant that, at this point, Peter and John
were sent down to Samaria by the other apostles. The "Samaritan Revival"
was being led by Philip, but the coming of the Holy Spirit on these new
believers was delayed until Peter and John laid hands on them and prayed.
Much special pleading by Bible expositors has surrounded this particular
event but, in the context of this passage, and in view of the aftermath,
one explanation seems to me quite clear.
Samaria had for centuries been the great rival of Jerusalem, as capital
city and as religious [63/64] centre. Jew and Samaritan
were permanently at loggerheads. What more likely than that, if the preaching
of the Gospel in Samaria resulted in the Spirit's immediate coming upon
the believers there, the next step would be a renewal of the ancient rivalry,
with Samaria claiming that its spirit was different from, and more powerful
than, the Jerusalem Spirit? What more likely than that Jerusalem would
respond by denouncing the Samaritan Spirit as counterfeit, and claiming
(as certain firms used to do) that there was only one genuine article,
and that customers should refuse all substitutes?
It had to be made clear that there is only one Holy Spirit, and that
He is the same in both Jerusalem and Samaria. And there can have been, in
the mind of God at least, no question as to the priority of Jerusalem over
Samaria. For Samaria had never represented God's will. It was the capital
of a breakaway kingdom; it had been developed as a rival to Jerusalem. and
not one good king had ever reigned there. It had been a centre of idol worship
and the home of Ahab and Jezebel. God was not likely to overlook that; not
likely to allow the old rivalry to start up again within His own Church. And
that, I think, is why Samaria received the Spirit via Jerusalem ;
not so much to teach us the theology of the baptism or fulness of the Spirit
as to stress the overriding priority of the divine plan.
But that is to recognise what we might call the negative lesson of the
passage. The positive lesson was not long in emerging. The coming of the
Gospel to Samaria may be said to have put out of business a sorcerer called
Simon (Acts 8:9-11). He had built up a great reputation locally, but had now
been upstaged by Philip and his miracles. Simon professed conversion
and was baptized (8:13). However, when Simon later met Peter and John, and
saw what they could do, he at once betrayed his own ignorance by offering
them money to be taught this new trick!
Simon's foolish misunderstanding was only the first of a whole series
of incidents in Acts where the attribution of activity to the Holy Spirit
was in doubt. Was this, or that, really God at work? And lest you
feel that I am making rather a lot out of one small incident, let me call
your attention to the rest of our study passage, and point out that the
very next case of truth-or-counterfeit concerned no less a person than the
Apostle Paul himself!
You will remember that, when Saul of Tarsus was led, blinded, into Damascus
and, later, when he returned to Jerusalem, he encountered a lot of very
sceptical Christians. Was his sudden conversion real or counterfeit? Could
such a complete turn-around possibly be genuine? These questions were not
in the least theological: this was quite literally a life-and-death issue.
We have become in our century all too familiar with the idea of the "double
agent" -- the person who pretends to be on one side, but is actually working
for the other. What better device for Saul the persecutor to trap the Christians
than by loudly announcing his conversion, gaining the confidence of true
believers, and then rounding them up? No wonder that Ananias queried his
orders (Acts 9:13) to go and welcome Paul into the circle of the persecuted!
So the early Church confronted, and in dramatic ways, the permanent
problem of discerning the true from the false. This problem has in no way
diminished with the years; it is as difficult to solve as it ever was.
I have written before in these pages [see Vol.10, No.3,
"Surprised By The Spirit (2)"] of the few, rather general guidelines
which can be offered for its solution, and I shall make only the briefest
summary of those suggestions here.
How are we to judge whether what we witness is a work of God's Spirit
(1) The Spirit is the Spirit of truth. His business is to lead us into
all truth. No falsehood or prevarication can be from His hand. Our basic
criterion of truth lies in the Word of God.
(2) The Spirit's task is to glorify Christ. His business is not to give
us experiences of Himself, but to enlarge our appreciation of the Lord
(3) The Spirit always works to build up the body of Christ, not to disrupt
(4) With all this, the Spirit is sovereign. He does not work to our
order. We can never argue that, because He has done a thing once, He is
obliged to do it again. He has the prerogative of always beginning afresh.
The Fourth Problem -- Exclusiveness
While the early Church dealt briskly and, on the whole, well with these
problems, it could not know -- and it is perhaps as well that it did not
-- how long-continuing they were going to be. The fourth problem was the
most persistent of all -- to judge, at least, by the frequency with which
it cropped up in the apostolic period. To put things [64/65]
in their simplest terms, everything was going smoothly (we are now at
Acts 9:31) when, once again, the Church's peace was disturbed, this time
by Peter taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.
The question whether the message of Christ was for all men or only for
Jews was, I suppose, bound to crop up sooner rather than later in the mixed,
polyglot society of Palestine. Here once again, we must try to think ourselves
into the context of Acts, and realise how deeply the principle of separateness
from other nations was buried in the Jewish consciousness. Their forefathers
had suffered untold loss from mixing with other peoples; indeed, they had
been punished by God for doing so. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus had directed
His ministry almost wholly to Jews: had He not acquiesced in the idea of
children at the table being fed and dogs picking up the crumbs beneath it
So Peter's initial resistance to the idea of carrying the Gospel message
directly to a Gentile home was not merely a breach of some race-relations
act; it was not merely understandable reluctance at doing something for
the first time. In Old Testament terms it was right. He was evidently
bewildered at the reversal of God's instructions, and a lot more bewildered
when, while he was still speaking to Cornelius and his friends, the Holy
Spirit fell on them. But Peter responded magnificently at the time: after
that, all he had to do was to convince his fellow-believers back in Jerusalem!
So the long wrangle about Jew and Gentile began and continued. It was
to occupy Jerusalem on at least two occasions (Acts 11 and 15). It was
raised in most of Paul's epistles. The story is familiar enough, and I
make only one point here. With this problem, as with all the other three
we have studied, it is possible to overcome it on one occasion and to fail
miserably with the same problem on another. That, alas, is what happened
to Peter. Acts 10 and Galatians 2 stand in inevitable contrast. Exclusiveness,
like envy, is an attitude -- an attitude which needs to be guarded
against not once and then never again, but every day; every time a situation
arises, even if it is a situation we already know from yesterday. May the
Lord keep us watchful!
The Times of Restitution
At the beginning of the first portion of this study, I quoted the Apostle
Peter's words about "times of refreshing" -- breathing-spaces. But in that
same speech he referred to another sort of times -- times of "the restitution
of all things" (Acts 3:19-21). The word translated "restitution" means
to reconstitute, rather in the sense of a player at skittles standing up
the pins after they have been knocked over, and reconstituting the set
in its upright order.
As I have been pointing out in these studies, the Church's "times of
refreshing" have come and gone, not only in its early history but down to
the present day. God has given His people respite periods from struggle or
opposition, and graciously continues to do so. But "restitution" is evidently
another matter. That day, long ago, Peter declared that the breathing-spaces
were given until, in the future, there came the restitution of all
things -- the putting in order of a whole creation, starting with the putting
in His rightful place in that order of the Lord Jesus, whose place in any
order must be, quite simply, first (Colossians 1:18).
When that time comes, all that has been upset or, like our skittles,
knocked over, will be restored, including the overturned order of world rule,
and the overturning of justice, mercy and truth with which we have lived
so long. A new order, with the Lord Jesus at its head, will introduce a
reconstituted creation, and God will say, "Now let me show you how it was
meant to be from the beginning!" No more fits and starts after that,
and no more need for breathing-spaces!
THE SPIRIT IN ROMANS 8
4. THE MIND OF THE SPIRIT (Verses 26-30)
IN the middle of this section of Romans 8 we find the phrase, 'the mind
of the Spirit', and that will provide the key thought for this article.
This may be hard for us to grasp. If we cannot picture what the Spirit looks
like, how much less can we picture His mind. I am a great believer in pictures
and the use of the imagination and the mind's eye, but here we will be better
advised to [65/66] get away from such an idea. It
may help us more if we think of our subject as being what the Spirit has
in mind. What is His intention? That I find is a helpful way to approach
this whole paragraph. Even that, though, could be a little misleading because
there are certain people who often have things in mind but never get round
to doing them. That is certainly not true of the Spirit of God. When He intends
to do something, He does it. What the Spirit has in mind is to help the saints
1. The Spirit helps our weakness (verse 26)
This in itself is a great thought. We may sometimes think about God
as being such a busy Person with a great and complex universe to care for
while our place in that universe is so small as to seem almost incidental.
Yet we are told here that "In the same way, the Spirit also helps our infirmity".
But here we are told that the Spirit minds this particular thing among all
the other things which He does.
In particular Paul is talking about our weakness in prayer, for the
Spirit is concerned about this. It is because we are rather weak in this
area that the Spirit comes to our aid. There is, of course, much weakness
which is not so much that, as sheer laziness or lack of determination. We
all find prayer difficult and are consciously weak in our prayer life, often
because we just don't get down to it with purpose. That is not the kind
of weakness for which we can invoke the Spirit's aid. He would surely tell
us to get on with it and not be feeble or idle. But there is a genuine weakness
in prayer, as is seen by the fact that the apostle himself is included in
the statement, "We do not know how to pray as we ought." He was not
only speaking for the Romans and for his own companions, but was confessing
that his weakness lay in a genuine lack of knowledge.
In this realm we are assured that the Holy Spirit has it in mind to
help us. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this
word for 'help' is used. It is a very long word, far longer than our word
and is compounded of sun -- together with; anti -- over against;
[and] lambanomai -- take hold of. In actual fact what Martha said
to the Lord was, 'Get Mary to take hold of the other end of this tray with
me' (Luke 10:40). That was the kind of help she needed, someone to take hold
of the other side with her, and that is just the kind of help that the Spirit
gives to us. When we are struggling to handle a situation in prayer we wish
that somebody would take hold of the other end and help us, and the Holy
Spirit says that this is just what He has in mind.
2. The Spirit intercedes for us (verses 26-27)
The Spirit Himself intercedes for us. It is not just a matter of our
culpable ignorance. There are facts and needs which we could know about if
we took the trouble to find them out. The Spirit will tell us that it is
up to us to enquire and not leave that to Him. Notice, for example, the astonishing
knowledge which Paul had of Rome and the many different names he mentions
in Romans 16:1-16. We could no doubt say the same about every church which
he visited. Paul's confessed ignorance was not about the ultimate will of
God for those whom he prayed for, since it is clear that God's will for
them is that they may grow increasingly like Christ. No, what quite genuinely
we do not and cannot know is the manner in which God will work to bring that
about. Conformity to Christ is a life-long process, involving things which
we either know nothing about or may judge quite wrongly. It may seem to
us that a friend should be prospered in a project which he has in mind and
which may seem admirable to us, whereas God's plan is to teach him or lead
him in some other way so that He needs, for the moment, to frustrate and
not to prosper his activity. We tell the Lord that it is obvious that He
doesn't intend a child of His to suffer in a certain way, so we beg Him
to make the sufferer better. That may be the Lord's will -- but it may
not. What the Spirit has in mind for our friend is conformity to the image
of God's Son, and only He knows the best way to realise this purpose.
I am sure that the Lord accepts our prayers in the spirit in which they
are made and at times gives us great joy in doing what we ask. On the other
hand, God may have in mind something much more complex, something which
is a long-term blessing. The Spirit knows that, though we do not. It is
then that the Spirit takes over this task of intercession. He intercedes
in a detailed way for the particular will of God in that matter, since He
alone knows how God's purpose can best be fulfilled.
Thank God that intercession is always going on before the face of our
Father in heaven; He is [66/67] not just waiting
on my dilatory praying in order to work in answer to prayer. Just as in
other parts of the Bible we are told that the Son ever lives to intercede
for us, so we are here reminded that the Spirit is constantly interceding.
The Father is always listening to the prayers of the Spirit and the Son.
It is in the mind of the Spirit to intercede for the saints, even when they
fail to intercede for themselves.
3. The Spirit groans without words (verse 26)
Here at the end of the same verse we are told that what the Spirit has
in mind is to do a bit of groaning on behalf of the saints. Groaning may
seem a strange idea, especially when we are told that the whole creation groans
(v.22) and that we also groan (v.23). This is really halfway in the argument;
it began with the statement: "If we hope for what we do not see, then we
wait for it with patience, and in the same way the Spirit helps ...". These
two verses seem to connect together, as though the Spirit is sharing our
groaning as we wait for the unseen glory of the future.
There is the creation groaning; there are the Christians groaning; and
in the same way the Spirit (helping us in prayer) also groans. In a sense
these groans all come from different situations, and yet there is something
that links them all. It seems to me that they are groaning because the present
situation is painful and not as it should be, so we all long for that promised
better future. This is certainly true of the creation. The creation knows
that all is not well with it; it is inanimate without a mind or voice and
yet it is somehow aware that one day all that is wrong will be put right.
Now we know a great deal more clearly that this is so. As Christians we
are sure that the better future will come, but it is not here yet, and that
is why we groan. The Holy Spirit starts from a very different footing, but
He knows only too well that this world in which He is at work is full of
sin and He groans for the Day of its transformation.
The creation groans in the darkness; the Church groans with just a glimpse
of the light; but the Spirit groans in the full knowledge which is His.
As He helps us in prayer, His groans seem to assure us that He knows that
things are not what they ought to be and that it is a painful business for
us to be made conformable to God's Son, but the work will be brought to
its successful conclusion and then all our groans will be ended.
At the end of this verse Paul tells us that the Spirit groans 'without
words'. I am not at all sure that what this means is that His groanings are
too deep for words, that is, not able to be put into words. All that the
apostle says is that they just don't have words, which may well mean that
the whole issue is so complex that if it were put into words we could not
take it in. It is as if He says to us: 'The issues are so grand and glorious
and so complex that I groan without even trying to put them in words. The
Father knows and I know but you will only get glimpses of what I am about.'
The Father and the Spirit are so in accord that no words are needed. The mind
of God and the mind of the Spirit are one: what the Father wills and what
the Spirit prays are identical in every respect. At times we ourselves have
no words, but as we kneel down and pray our feeble prayers, we can tell the
Lord that although we regret their poverty-stricken character, we count on
the unutterable groans of the Spirit of God on our behalf.
4. The Spirit wants nothing but our good (verse 28)
This verse is often taken out of its context, and there is no reason
why it should not be, for as it stands it is a great truth in itself. But
when we look at its context, we find that it is part of the Holy Spirit's
mind in helping the saints. And we notice the contrast between verse 26 and
28: we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but we do know that
all things work together for good in our case. We have already seen that
it is the will of God which shapes the prayer of the Spirit, so that if
it is the will of God that all things should work together for good to those
who love God, then we know that this is the prayer of the Spirit and how
can it fail to happen? If this is what my Father wants and if this -- over
and above that -- is what the Spirit is praying will happen, then I may be
certain that all things will work together for my good.
Other versions record this fact in the words which say that "God works
in all things for good for those who love him", and in fact the issue is
more complicated than that. I turn to my two volumes on Romans by Charles
Cranfield , and find that he says that there are at least eight possible
[67/68] interpretations that have to be taken in
mind with regard to this verse. I will not weary you with them all but only
conclude with his comment on what the Authorised Version said all along, namely,
"... all things work together for good ...". He points out that to say that
God works in all things for our good is wonderful but the old traditional
statement actually heightens the truth, for it shows that God is so totally
in control that even what the things themselves do is what He wants to have
done. They cannot do otherwise.
Now I confess that this does raise questions in the minds of Christians
who are going through difficult times. On the one hand we have varied fortunes,
even the things we have already seen in this chapter, the facts of the
wearing out of our mortal body and the sufferings of this present life.
These are facts. There is suffering, and there is groaning in the experience
of Christian people. All is not well. Things do seem to go wrong. Satan
does seem to be very powerful and active. These are the facts which must
On the other side, however, we accept as facts the mind of the Spirit
which is identical with the will of the Father. We have then to join these
two lots of facts and recognise that even if we stumble and fall, if we
are hurt, if we are ill and frustrated, and even if I sin against my Father,
it is nevertheless a fact that in the long run, in the long term, in the
purpose of God, all things are being made to work together for our good.
Forgive an illustration taken from my love of steam engines. If I look
at that complex machine as it thunders along the track, I see that the whole
thing is going in one direction. If, however, I were to look closely at the
various details of the machinery I would find that certain parts of it are
moving in the opposite direction. As the whole thing is going forwards, there
are certain rods and pistons which are going backwards, but nevertheless
the whole machine is moving straight forward. In experience the same thing
is true; there may be all sorts of bits and pieces that many times in my life
seem to be going backwards, but in point of fact, for those who love God,
all things are working together to move me on in His will. And this is the
mind of the Spirit, so that when I am on my knees in prayer, what the Holy
Spirit is praying to the Father about is that for me and for those for whom
I am praying, all things will indeed be made to produce not necessarily what
I am thinking about but what is the will of the One who knows best.
5. The Spirit's mind is to perfect the saints (verses 29-30)
If verse 28 is one of the great texts, what about this which must be
one of the greatest passages in the New Testament! In a sense they are a
sort of appendage. Having written of the work of the Spirit and the mind
of the Spirit in the matter of praying, Paul goes on to say, 'And by the
way, I may have mentioned this before elsewhere, but those whom God foreknew
He also predestined, and those whom He predestined He also called, and those
whom He called He also justified, and those He justified He also glorified.'
What a theme to put in a footnote! What it does is to remind us that what
the Spirit has in mind is to perfect the saints.
What is it that the Father wants? What is it that the Spirit is praying
for? The object of the whole exercise is given here: "To be conformed to
the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren."
You will know, of course, that the first man, Adam, was made in the image
of God, [and] that the second Man, Christ, actually is the image
of God. So God is repairing what man made go wrong in the Garden of Eden,
not just creating a new humanity only like Him in the sense that Adam was,
but an entirely different human race whose members would be conformed to
His Son who actually is His image. What the Spirit has in mind is to perfect
the saints so that in the end they are totally conformed to the Son, making
Him the firstborn among many brethren.
The object, then, is that we shall all have the family likeness in perfection
and the process towards that object is what is sometimes called 'The golden
chain' of Romans 8:29-30, beginning with predestination and ending with
being glorified. The Spirit has been minded to help God's people, to intercede
for them, to benefit them and perfect them, working His way link by link
through this golden chain. The Spirit was there before all time, when God
foreknew His people and we who are known to be God's people from all eternity
were therefore predestined to be conformed by the Spirit until we were like
the Son. The Spirit was there when God chose each one to be His and
[68/69] the Spirit was there as each one was called and when they
responded. He has been there through the whole process of our salvation.
May I close be telling you of a friend in Durham who is Jewish and who
was converted to Christ in 1984. At his baptism he gave his testimony to
the whole church. He began by saying that at the baptismal service he had
thought of saying how he had been brought to the church by his wife, had been
greatly impressed by the love of all the Christians and, having heard the
Word of God preached, had decided to be a Christian. That, he told us, was
what he might have said. But instead he told us that as he looked back he
could see all his family circumstances and everything which led to him being
there for baptism as being part of a divine working of grace, so that he
would not so much say that he had found Christ as that Christ had found him.
So all through that process the Spirit was there. From then on the Spirit
had begun the last stage of the operation which is the glorifying of the
people of God. This will last all through our lives until the Holy Spirit
has completed the process in the glory of eternity.
Never let us imagine that the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit,
is away in heaven busy on some other affairs and only occasionally glimpsing
in our direction. No, the whole Trinity is concerned with us and the Spirit's
mind is to implement the divine purpose until we reach perfection. If that
is what He is doing, how then can we fail?
(To be continued)
LET HIM WHO BOASTS BOAST IN THE LORD
(Studies in 1 Corinthians 1 to 4)
3. THE WORK OF GOD (3:1-15)
CHAPTER 3 is a highly significant chapter in these four which we are
considering. One of the major problems in the Church at Corinth was their
man-centredness in all their thinking, and one of the derivatives from this
was their false view of Christian leadership. The symptoms of this are described
in 1:12, where one group claimed to follow Paul, another to follow Apollos
etc. They attached themselves to men, making invidious comparisons, playing
one off against another, and thereby degraded and endangered the whole cause
of the gospel.
This is the issue which Paul takes up in Chapter 3 and in dealing with
it he sets before us some highly significant principles for Christian leadership
and the whole theme of being engaged in God's work. There are four such
1. That God's Primary Concern is with the Worker rather than with the
God's pre-occupation is not so much with our service as with our character.
What matters to Him is not so much what we do as what we are
. This is an unchanging law in the work of God. The root problem which
distorted all the Corinthians' thinking and which marred their service
was that they were carnal rather than spiritual. "I could not speak unto
you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ ...
ye are yet carnal". It is important to notice the language Paul uses. He
does not call them 'natural' men, for he does not deny that they possess
the Spirit, but he cannot call them 'spiritual' men, for they are not led
and controlled by the Spirit; so he uses a third term, carnal men, by which
he means men who are indwelt by the Spirit but apparently not controlled
Now it is significant that their carnality is evidenced, not in some
moral sphere, but in the simple fact that they were refusing to grow up.
In verses 1 and 2 Paul's concern is that they are spiritual babies. All the
attributes of babies are attractive and appropriate during babyhood, but
when they persist into later life, that becomes a tragedy. The particular
attribute of babyhood which he here identifies is appetite: "I fed you with
milk, not with meat; for ye were not yet able to bear it; nay not even
now are ye able". In the [69/70] physical realm,
that is an indication that something is radically wrong, and in the spiritual
life there is something far wrong with those whose appetite is only for
spiritual milk and they cannot take solid food. The apostle was concerned
that with the Corinthians this babyhood persisted over the years; they were
still the same. We need to examine ourselves before God on this issue. If
we are concerned about the whole area of leadership and service, the cause
of the gospel and the work of God in our churches, let us realise that the
prime issue is growth in the knowledge of God. In this realm what matters
to God is what a man is rather than what he is doing.
That may not be true in almost every other sphere of life, people may
be able to divorce their personal life from their professional competence,
but that is not a separation which can be made in the service of God. God's
great business is the training of character. We may become the most scintillating
experts in methodology of every kind, but God's prime concern is not that
but the creation of men and women whose lives will tell for Him. May I
quote from a book called Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds:
"We are constantly on a stretch to devise new methods, new plans and
new organizations to advance The Church and ensure success for the gospel.
The trend of the day is to lose sight of the man and think in terms of machinery.
Men are God's methods. What He needs today is not more machinery or better,
not new organizations or more novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost
can use. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods but through men. He
does not come upon machinery but upon men. He does not anoint plans but
"The Church is looking for better methods, whereas God is looking for
better men. It is not great talents, nor great learning, nor great preachers
that God needs, but men great in holiness, great in faith ... great for
It is very interesting that the particular expression of carnality of
which the apostle speaks in verse 3 is jealousy and strife. These are among
the marks of refusing to grow up, for the centre of a baby's life is self.
They are the marks of childhood but they are also the marks of the lives
of men and women who are living as though they had never been touched by
the grace of God. Paul challenges the Corinthians with this: "Are you not
behaving like ordinary men?" (v.3). It is a real test of character for me
to ask myself, 'Can I truly and genuinely be glad when God is blessing
and using someone else in a way that He is not blessing and using me?'
That will decide whether my consuming passion is for the honour and glory
of God and not just for my own reputation.
I used to think that when Scripture enjoined us to rejoice with those
who rejoice and to weep with those who weep that it was very easy to rejoice
with those who rejoice and the difficult thing was to weep with those who
weep. I don't think like that now. I think that it is comparatively easy
to weep with those who weep but it is a different thing genuinely to enter
into the joy of those who are being blessed in a way that you may not be.
We are bound to confess that the jealousy and strife of first century
Corinth are not so far removed from the Church of our day. But they are
just symptoms of that basic disease which Paul here diagnoses as a refusal
to grow up into spiritual manhood or womanhood. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote
to a young ordinand on 2nd October 1840, 'It is not great talents God blesses,
so much as great likeness to Jesus.' In the kingdom of God what matters
more than all in His service is Christlike character, so our great business
must be to guard our own souls that we may truly reflect the beauty of the
Lord in our daily lives.
2. That the Work is God's Work and not Ours
Paul now goes on in verses 5 to 9 to show that although God makes much
of the man in the sense of being concerned with his character, the man whom
He uses is the man who is ready to be nothing, so that the excellency of
the power may be all of God. So Paul sets about demolishing their adulation
of men by asking, 'What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?' You will
notice the gender that the apostle uses. Grammatically, of course, he ought
to have said, 'Who is Apollos and who is Paul?' but he uses the neuter gender
and asks literally, 'What thing is Apollos' and 'What thing is Paul?' He
uses this not because his grammar is confused, but he is ridiculing their
tendency to make much of men. [70/71]
Paul answers his own question by saying that they are diakonoi
, they are only servants. The word is not used here in any technical sense,
as 'deacons' but it is really the word for a waiter at table, and stresses
the lowly character of the service rendered. Now Paul is stressing this emphasis
because he is hyper-sensitive to anything that would detract from the glory
of God in the work of God -- "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."
So Paul clarifies the place that he and Apollos had in planting the
Church at Corinth, saying that they were not the cause of men coming to
faith but only the instruments which God used. He then goes on to expand
this thought with a horticultural metaphor: "I planted the seed, Apollos
watered it". That may mean that Paul was the first evangelist to work in
Corinth and that Apollos followed and helped in the building up of the Church,
but Paul's point is that planting and watering are not the efficient causes
of vegetation. That is God's part, for only He, by His life-giving power,
can give growth. When we talk in the missionary realm about church planters
and church planting we need to remember that planting and watering are
men's work, but the vital issue is the superior power which brings life.
God gave the growth. That's the answer to Paul's question, 'what thing
is Apollos and what thing is Paul'. They are 'no-thing': only God
is anything in the work of God.
Left to ourselves, of course, there are all sorts of things that we
are entirely capable of doing. We can interest people and we can influence
them. We can indoctrinate them and organise them. We can educate them,
we can move them emotionally and convince them intellectually. This we may
do, but only God the Holy Spirit can regenerate them and change them into
the image and beauty of Christ. Only God can do that. All your skill, all
your gifts, all your training and all your reputation will never touch that
sphere. That is the sphere of God alone.
Now you will all subscribe to that. You will say that all of us who
are true believers will agree that only God can raise the spiritually dead
and only God can regenerate men into eternal life. All of us claim to believe
that. But there is one thing which gives the total lie to that profession,
and that is the condition of prayer meetings in the churches of Great Britain.
If we really believed that this is God's work and not ours, then prayer
in our churches would become fundamental to us instead of supplemental.
In the life of the Christian worker this is a principle which is logically
obvious, but so often practically ignored. And yet the work that really
matters is God's work and not ours. And He is jealous that all the glory
shall be His. To recognise this should produce two results in us, says Paul:
i. Humility before God
"Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything but only God ..."
(v.7). Now humility is one of those very difficult things to talk about.
Yet I am more and more persuaded that true biblical humility is one of the
key elements in true usefulness to God. Of course it must be distinguished
from the self-conscious grovelling that under the guise of humility only parades
itself. The fruit of true Christlike lowliness of heart is quite unconscious
to the one who shows it. I think that it derives basically from God being
at the centre of life, instead of self. Biblical humility and lowliness of
mind is very costly. It is not an affected matter; it is not having a naturally
diffident or retiring personality. Indeed it has nothing to do with personality
but is something which flows from a work of grace.
Alexander Whyte on one occasion had preaching in his Church a young
man who was acquiring great fame as a preacher in the city of Edinburgh.
The Church was packed, all being eager with expectation to hear the oratory
of this young luminary. When the time came for the sermon, the young man
bounded up the pulpit steps full of confidence and stood there -- no Bible,
no notes -- and then suddenly his mind went a total blank. He couldn't
think of a thing that he had to say! He stumbled out a few incoherent sentences
and crawled down the stairs again a broken man and went into the vestry and
dolefully enquired as to what had gone wrong. Whyte said gently to him,
"Well, laddie, if you had gone up the way you came down, you would have
had more chance of coming down the way you went up."
ii. Equality before one another
"He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his
wages according to his labour" (v.8). The N.I.V. says that the man who plants
and the man who waters have one purpose, [71/72] but
the meaning seems rather to be that there is equality, which follows what
has been said about humility, for it is the same spirit which creates a
lack of humility that also creates a lack of equality. The same pride which
refuses to give God His place leads on to unwillingness to give another brother
It is all too possible in our attitudes to refuse equality towards our
brother or sister, and we can affect a superiority of intellect, age, gifts
or status which, apart from anything else, makes us grossly unteachable.
It is God alone who can make the assessment, and His rewards at the end of
time will produce a whole lot of surprises. Not that this equality implies
similarity, but it does banish a spirit of imagined superiority. Paul underlines
this principle of equality in verse 9 by emphasising that the work and the
workers alike belong to God. "We are God's fellow-workers ...". This leads
me to the third principle, which is enunciated in verses 10 and 11:
3. That God's Work must be done in God's Way
Paul's metaphor has moved from the horticultural to the architectural:
"You are God's field; you are God's building." He goes on to develope this
metaphor of building: "According to the grace of God given me, like a skilled
master builder, I laid a foundation" (v.10). Although the Greek word is the
one from which we get our word 'architect', I do not think that Paul is
thinking of an architect in our terms, but rather a kind of supervisor of
building works. You will notice, in passing, that Paul once more attributes
his ministry in Corinth to the grace of God.
What really strikes me is the evidence of his wisdom in setting about
the building of the Church of God in Corinth according to God's specification.
It all had to do with laying a foundation. Someone else was building upon
it, but that was another evidence of the parity and equality of the servants
of God. The evidence of Paul's wisdom was that he recognised that the primary
principle of good building is the patient laying of the right foundation.
If we are going to be God's fellow-workers, we will need to do God's work
in God's way. And God's way stresses the importance of foundations.
This is the principle that Jesus applies in terms of character and personal
obedience in His parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. He told
the story of two builders, the first of whom was not interested in foundations
but gave himself to building on the sand. That man does not begin to look
to the future and the long term, but is only interested in getting the
edifice up quickly, so he goes ahead, building on the sand. The second
man begins to dig deep and gradually disappears from public view, going
farther and farther down, because he is determined not to begin to build
up until he has provided for a solid foundation. People watching these two
might get entirely the wrong ideas about them. They might get the impression
that the first man was really getting on with the job. 'Look at the edifice
which he has put up and the short time in which it has appeared! That's a
man who really knows what he is doing. What that other fool is doing down
in his hole nobody can tell.' This erroneous view was contradicted by the
Lord Jesus who asserted that the wise man was the one who built by patiently
giving himself to getting solid foundations. This same principle applies
in the service of God.
The significant thing about foundations is that they are hidden. They
attract very little public acclaim and hardly any attention. So if your
task is foundation-laying, let me press upon you in God's name never to
be diverted from it. When critics say, 'What is old So-and-So doing in the
Lord's work these days? He doesn't seem to have much to show', do not allow
their opinions to divert you from laying the solid foundation of which Paul
speaks here, through the patient preaching and teaching of Christ in all
the Scriptures. All sorts of shortcuts will be presented to you but -- Nehemiah-like
-- you will have to say: "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down".
4. That God's Work done in God's Way Involves Great Cost and Corresponding
Halfway through verse 10 we are introduced to the next stage of the
building metaphor: "Someone else is building on (the foundation). But each
one should be careful how he builds."
i. The foundation. With respect to the foundation, the grave
danger is the possibility that someone may try to tamper with it. There
is only one foundation for the Church of God and that is Jesus Christ as
the Scriptures have revealed Him and as Paul preached Him: fully God, fully
Man, born of a virgin, perfect in His obedience, offering the one perfect
and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of men in His death, raised bodily
on the third [72/73] day, exalted to the Father's
right hand in glory, from thence returning to be the Judge of all the earth.
This is the Jesus whom the Scriptures reveal and who is the foundation
of the Church. Therefore any attack upon the Person or work of the Lord Jesus
is an assault upon the very foundation of the Church. It is not a novel
or Twentieth Century phenomenon for people to be making that kind of attack.
It is as old as the First Century. Let me quote some words of C. K. Barrett,
lately professor of divinity at Durham University: "Man has no choice in
the matter of the foundation of the Church, namely Jesus Christ. Paul does
not mean that it would be impossible to construct a community on a different
basis, only that such a community would not be the Church."
ii. The Material. The second way in which the builder needs to
be warned to take care refers to building with the wrong kind of materials.
"If any man buildeth on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood,
hay, stubble" (v.12). The groups of materials are distinguished from each
other in two ways. The first are costly materials while wood, hay and straw
are cheap materials. The other distinction is that the first are permanent,
the others being temporary. Gold, silver and precious stones last. The fire
only purifies them. Wood, hay and straw are consumed by fire. They are only
The simple point is, of course, that building something of eternal worth
is always infinitely costly. There is no telling in which way it will be
costly since for each of us the cost will be very different. I tell you,
though, that if you are set on building for eternal worth and for God's eternal
glory, then be sure that your work will be at great cost. It is possible,
of course, to build in a certain way that will impress men (if that is your
aim and interest), and perhaps to impress the whole evangelical world, while
yet avoiding that cost. But it will be shoddy building and on the judgment
day it will be revealed by fire "and the fire itself shall prove each man's
work of what sort it is" (v.13).
Fruitful Christian service and fruitful engagement in the cause of the
gospel is costly. It costs in terms of time and energy, not only physical
energy but emotional energy and nervous energy, but above all in spiritual
energy in spiritual warfare and battle and prayer. Supremely it is costly
in terms of being ready for self and pride and self-glory and self-interest
to be cast down into the dust so that the Lord may be everything. "And from
the ground there blossoms red" there will flow that "life that shall endless
Paul knew the travail of death working in him so that Christ might be
formed in others. And if we are going through some anguish that we are
unable to describe in human language, if we are enduring pain that may
seem to be unproductive, we must remember that there is a certain pain in
the natural world that is productive and who knows whether our suffering
and agony may not be that we are enduring the birth-pangs of spiritual life
which God means to bring forth somewhere?
But the cost of serving God is only one side of the story: "If any man's
work shall abide which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward" (v.14).
There is an infinite and an astonishing reward in serving God. Most astonishing
perhaps is that there should be such a reward. Nothing passes human understanding
and is more baffling to the human mind than that the eternal God should
stoop down in His infinite grace and take poor redeemed sinners, with all
their frailty and faithlessness, use them as vehicles for His glory and
then reward them for being so used.
What the reward is, it may be difficult for us ever to understand in
this world. We know that it is not salvation. Paul speaks about a reward
given to some and a loss suffered by others, but in neither case is the reward
or the loss a matter of salvation. The reward is clearly a reward for faithful
service. As to its nature we must remain agnostic. The loss will presumably
be the failure to enjoy the reward. But I want to concentrate on the fact
that the reward is not merely left until the Day of Judgment. It is projected
back into our present experience so that -- like Moses' mother -- we have
the joy of doing what is nearest our heart and being paid for it. There
is nothing more glorious in the wide world than to be called to serve God
with all our energy through all our days. And that is the spirit which should
permeate all our service for God; not a sense of grudging but a sense of
glory and wonder that God permits us to work for Him.
(To be concluded) [73/74]
FOURFOLD VIEW OF THE EVERLASTING GOD
J. Alec Motyer
Genesis Chapters 20 & 21
"ABRAHAM planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on
the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God" (Genesis 21:33). Abraham wanted
a perpetual reminder that the Lord whom he worshipped is the God of eternity.
This gives focus to the four stories of which this is the last. Chapters
20 and 21 seem almost deliberately to be a cluster of stories brought together.
On one side of them is the completion of the story about Lot which leads
to the end of chapter 19. At the other side of these stories is the great
chapter 22 with the story of Abraham's offering of Isaac. Here in between
these rather fixed points in the history we find this little cluster of four
1. God's Faithfulness in Human Failure (20:1-18)
One of the saddest things one finds in one's own life is how easy it
is to live below the level that should be true of those who know the grace
of the Lord Jesus and rely on His Word. There was a day when Peter started
out with such high ambitions: "Though all should deny thee, yet will not
I. I am ready to go to prison and to death ..." and at the end of the day
"he went out and wept bitterly." Sometimes it is like that in one of our
days. Our aspirations have not been valid; we have not managed to carry them
through; we have lived below the level which, at the day's outset, we knew
that God could make possible for us. I am not talking about those times
when we set out with unreal ambitions, aiming at things which the Scriptures
never promised could be. No, I refer to those occasions when we deal with
Biblical realities but live below the level that could have been ours. This,
then, is the time for us to lay hold anew on the God who always abides faithful.
This first story tells how Abraham betrayed Sarah. Afraid that if he
said that Sarah was his wife the wicked men of the place would so covet her
that they would kill him in order to dissolve the marriage and take her
for themselves, he said that she was his sister. So Sarah was bartered away
by Abraham's cowardice and found herself in Abimelech's household among his
wives and concubines.
Abraham's experience in this matter shows how easy it is to lapse. He
was prepared to shelter behind her welfare and by deceitfulness to barter
her for his own safety.
i. He lapsed from the truth. Because he said that Sarah was his
sister, Abimelech took her and was promptly challenged by God who told him
in a dream that he was about to die because he had taken another man's wife.
He was innocent and replied, "Oh Sovereign One, wilt thou slay even a righteous
nation?" I have no doubt that he really did say this, but I marvel at the
subtlety with which the Bible records these words, so reminding us that
in fact Abraham himself had already prayed in this way concerning Sodom.
He asked God, "Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked" and went
on to ask, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25).
Abraham knew very well that the Judge of all the earth rules and reigns
in righteousness, but he found that this was a truth that was much easier
to assert on behalf of somebody else than to live by himself. He lapsed
from the truth.
ii. He lapsed from the place of prayer. When Abraham was faced
by the crisis of Sodom and Lot's peril, he knew how to deal with that.
He drew near to the Lord in the place of prayer and found (what he had
known already) that to intercede before God is both powerful and protective.
God brought Lot out of Sodom. But he found it easier to pray believingly
for somebody else than to rely on prayer for his own safety. He lapsed
from the place of prayer.
iii. He lapsed from the place of trust. When asked why he had
done such a thing as to play fast and loose with Sarah's wellbeing and honour,
he replied, "Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place
..." (20:11). He saw no fear of God and therefore doubted if even the presence
of God was there. But he had already addressed the Lord as "The God of
all the earth." Had he forgotten that? Notice how, in his explanation he
states, "... when God caused [74/75] me to wander
..." (v.13). From the very beginning God had given him a lovely testimony
which would apply at every point of his experience. When he was about to
leave Ur of the Chaldees and was asked by his neighbours why he was abandoning
such comfort and security, he could assert that God caused him to wander.
When the party arrived at Haran, they could rest in Abraham's testimony
'God has caused me to wander'. When asked why he had left Haran to go into
an unknown land, he could reply, 'God has caused me to wander'. And now he
has come to Gerar, and it was as if he felt that he was on his own and had
to make arrangements for his own safety. He had lapsed from his trust. Ask
him to give his testimony and he will declare, 'God has caused me to wander'
but ask him to act on that testimony and he fails to do so.
iv. He lapsed from the lessons of experience. I put this last
because I think that it is least, but it is true all the same. Already, once
before, there is a record of Abraham's hiding behind Sarah's skirts in exactly
this way (12:10-20). In the land of Egypt, when he was still called Abram,
he asked Sarai to say that she was his sister because she was so beautiful
that they would kill him to take possession of her. Well, she was taken into
Pharaoh's household but they discovered that God could look after them even
in the land of Egypt. What, then, was so special about the land of Gerar
that God couldn't protect them there?
It is so easy to live below our true level, the level of what we know
of God, and prayer and trust and even below the level of what He has already
taught us about His ways with us. It is so sadly easy. But it is marvellous
to be able to write against all this: "Yet he abideth faithful." The story
concludes with Sarah safely back with Abraham to prove this great fact
of the faithfulness of the eternal God. It was Paul who affirmed that "If
we are faithless he abideth faithful", going on with the explanation that
"He cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). That Letter is full of references
to God's power, but it includes this thing which God is powerless to do
-- He has no power to deny Himself. Even when we lapse, the Everlasting
God will never fail.
2. God's Faithfulness in Keeping His Promises (21:1-7)
The second story reminds us of that facet of experience when we are
weary in waiting for the promises of God to come to pass. We have a clear
awareness of what has been pledged by God, but so often it seems to involve
testing delays. I have a friend who is now in glory but who used to make
the comment that "When God ripens apples, 'e don't 'urry!" He would give
one about thirty seconds to digest this truth and then would add another,
"ane 'e don't make no noise!"
It may be easy to talk like that, but how often the realities of life
are far from easy. It is hard to long before God for something that lies
within His competence and lies within His promises, and may even seem to
lie within direct personal pledges to us and yet it does not happen. We
may grow weary in waiting for God's promises to come to pass.
Because ours is the eternal and faithful God, time may pass and impossibilities
mount, but in His right time the promises are kept. So we read that the
Lord visited Sarah "as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had
spoken ... at the set time of which God had spoken" to Abraham. Three times
over we are told that this happened in fulfilment of promise. It took a
long time to happen, so long in fact that people were compelled to comment,
"Who would have thought it?" (v.7). Sarah was ninety years old at this time,
and she finally lived to be one hundred and thirty seven. We must therefore
not think of her as being like those rather remarkable people who live to
be ninety in our day, but think of a life span spread out rather differently
from our time. Working back from her age at death I would imagine that
she could have been a woman in her early to middle fifties. She was still
a beautiful woman though she was past child-bearing.
The chances of this couple producing that promised child were nil --
so people rightly said. Who would have said that Abraham would give Sarah
a child? Nobody! At the end of the preceding chapter we are told how Abimelech's
womenfolk had children in answer to Abraham's prayer, but did this encourage
him to take up believing prayer for Sarah? We do not know, but the message
of the little story is plain enough. To the human eye the time may be long
since gone when God can keep His promises, but this means nothing to the
faithful God who is everlasting. The promise will be kept. His only reply
to their astonishment would be, 'But did I not tell you that I would?' The
Lord visited Sarah 'as He had said'. [75/76]
3. God's Faithfulness in Affliction (21:8-21)
There can also be a set of life's circumstances in which things are
so tangled that there seems to be no way forward. It may involve a place
of deep despair and sorrow, a place where it seems that there is nothing
to do but to sit down and cry. This brings us to the rather horrid story
in connection with Hagar. Abraham had two wives in his entourage, Sarah the
chief wife and Hagar the secondary wife. Not surprisingly, there was tension
in that complicated household, for the Bible constantly tells us that its
requirement of monogamous marriage is to be taken seriously. Because of the
tension Abraham found himself in an absolute dilemma which he could only solve
at Hagar's expense. What was he to do? There seemed no way through. He was
caught in a crux of a situation. In the event God directed him to send Hagar
out into the wilderness.
"The thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son"
(v.11). Ishmael was a prize to Abraham, for he loved the boy, and now he
was faced with this cruel dilemma of having to put him out of the house. The
Lord who reads our hearts exactly knew that there was more grief for Abraham
even than that, for we read, "God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous
in thy sight because of the lad and because of your slave wife" (v.12). There
seems to have been a deep affection between Abraham and Hagar. Well, he should
never have taken her in the first place and, since God saw that his marriage
to Sarah must come first and must be honoured, this had to be.
But think of Hagar. She was brought into this whole situation without
asking; she never chose to be Abram's wife; she never asked to be made
a substitute for the barren Sarah. It was not of her doing. She was brought
in as an undeserving victim into this situation, and then she was treated
roughly and finally put out, being made the subject of an affliction which
was not her fault. That is the hardest kind of affliction to bear.
She found, however, that God cares for the helpless and makes provision
for the put-upon, and in that she is a lesson to us. When she faced hardship
she cried out. When Abraham faced hardship he schemed. When Hagar faced
affliction she recognised her helplessness; she lifted up her voice and
wept (v.16). "Put my tears into thy bottle; are not these things not in
thy book?" (Psalm 56:8). But more than that, God had a miraculous provision
waiting there; indeed not really miraculous since it had been there all the
time but had hitherto gone unnoticed by the woman whose eyes were full of
tears. So God showed her a provision which had been made long since, a provision
by which He, the Everlasting God, had prepared just for this situation. So
it is that He meets the needs of His troubled ones. Oh the faithfulness of
our Eternal God! In the place of bitter tears, there is a well of water.
4. The Faithful God and the Watching World (21:22-34)
The last of the stories is in many ways the most surprising of them
all -- that Abimelech should be impressed with Abraham. Is it not one of
our problems today to discover how the world can ever come to be impressed
with the Church of God? We live at a time when it seems that the influence
of the Church is a receding influence, sometimes by the design of church
leaders who prefer retrenchment to advance. For this also we need to fall
back upon the great faithfulness of our Everlasting God.
In Abraham's case the watching world knew what a fraud he was. Abimelech
knew that Abraham was a man who lived in terms of half-truths -- "she is
indeed, my sister" (v.12). That was manifestly a half-truth. He was willing
to hide behind his wife's honour, putting her in jeopardy in order to secure
his own safety. How could the watching world in the person of Abimelech
be impressed by such a man? The truth is that he was impressed by God's
faithfulness. The watching world can take note of a faithful God. As against
the fraudulence of this unimpressive man, Abraham, the king of Gerar came
face to face with a God who answers prayer for, when Abraham had prayed,
God had healed Abimelech and his wife ..." (20:17). The people of God
per se may be unimpressive, deceitful, cowardly, living below their
true level, but put them into the place of prayer and they can make a tremendous
impression, not of themselves but of their faithful God.
All that is plain in the story, but now I would like to tell you of
what I imagine could have happened. We are told that when Isaac grew and
was weaned "Abraham made a great feast" (v.8) to celebrate the occasion.
Since many were invited it seems reasonable to conclude that the king of
Gerar would have been present and would have heard what Abraham said when
he stood up to tell the assembled guests why he had invited them. He would
probably have informed them that the child had been born according to promise.
Over thirteen years before God had promised him a son and now they could
all see the living fulfilment of that promise. In the light of that story
Abimelech was ready to confess, "God is with thee in all that thou doest"
The implication is that the watching world will only be impressed when
it sees a Church that lives by the Word of God's promise. The world will
never be impressed with a Church that runs itself as though it were merely
the branch of a supermarket, subject to the laws of economics. It will only
be impressed when it sees a Church that lives in terms of spiritual resources,
the things that it receives from God in answer to prayer. The watching
world takes note of a faithful God.
Our Eternal God is always faithful. I would say that when He brought
Sarah safely out of Abimelech's household. that was the mercy of faithfulness.
When, after a long delay but at the end of His own planned period, He gave
Isaac to Sarah and Abraham, that was the patience of faithfulness.
When Hagar wept in the wilderness because there was no water and the Lord
opened her eyes to see a well, I would call that the providence of
faithfulness. And when, after all that, "it came to pass that Abimelech
and Phico the captain of his host spake unto Abraham saying, 'God is with
thee ...', that was surely the victory of faithfulness. That is when
the distinctiveness of the Lord's people is that God is with them. That
is the point where the world is impressed.
So Abraham planted his tree and called upon the name of the Everlasting
God in all His great faithfulness. Every time he looked at it, he said
to himself, My God is the Everlasting God. We do not have a tree but we
have a banner which proclaims the same glorious truth, and this we can
pick up and carry in the name of the same unfailing and unchanging Lord.
LIFE IN THE HEAVENLIES
(The Epistle to the Ephesians)
4. POWER IN THE HEAVENLIES (1:15-23)
THIS prayer of Paul's for the Ephesians was in three parts, each one
demanding their thoughtful consideration, and each one intended to produce
practical results in their lives. The first concerned their eternal hope
and surely had as its purpose that they should learn to live in the light
of their eternal destiny. The second concerned God's heritage, challenging
them to be sure that everything in their church life ministered to the good
pleasure of God. This third section relates to God's power and its exceeding
greatness on their behalf, with the clear implication that divine resources
are readily available to make possible in the heavenly places a God-glorifying
life and a God-satisfying Church.
We therefore find ourselves directed now to the subject of power. Every
sincere Christian longs and prays for a greater spiritual power. We would
think of this in terms of the power of the Holy Spirit, which of course
it is, but the focus of this part of the apostle's prayer is not so much
on the Spirit as on the Son and the Father. The ministration of power comes
through the Holy Spirit, but its source and basis are shown to be found in
the Father's action of raising His Son from the dead.
There are two prayers in this Letter. One gets the impression that while
Paul was writing or dictating, there were moments when he stopped those
activities and fell on his knees to pray. No [77/78]
doubt he needed to ask for spiritual wisdom for himself so that he might
express the truth of God adequately, but here it seems that his greater
concern was that his readers might have spiritual wisdom and revelation
as they read, so that his words might be brought to life in them by the
Holy Spirit. In this first prayer he asks for appreciation of God's power
"to usward who believe" (1:19), while the second prayer refers to "the power
that is working in us" (3:20). We see then that the matter at issue is a
personal experience of God's mighty power. In this no reference is made
to any feelings or sensations that we might have, but our whole attention
is directed to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; not so much to the fact
(which is taken for granted in the case of true believers) but to the tremendous
implications of the fact. These are so vast and revolutionary that we need
the eyes of our heart enlightened to comprehend them. The resurrection certainly
happened, but have the Ephesians or the rest of us grasped just what it
entails for the Church?
The eternal life which we have as believers comes by the Holy Spirit,
but it is essentially resurrection life. This is a basic article of our
faith. It follows, then, that the only kind of power which we can have by
the Spirit is resurrection power. That is why we must begin our quest for
enlightenment concerning God's power in our lives by considering afresh
Christ's resurrection. God's general power is evident in the universe around
us; God's personalized power is only evident in Christ. In Him we see its
greatness, its true nature and its fullness.
1. The Range of God's Power
i. It raised Jesus from infinitely profound depths
"He raised him from the dead" (v.20). Jesus really was dead. His friends
proved this by their behaviour in burying Him and bringing their spices
to the tomb to embalm His body. The soldiers proved it, first by agreeing
that they did not need to break His legs and then by the action of the one
who pierced His side, making a hole into which a man's hand could be thrust.
Pilate proved it by his official release of the body (Mark 15:43-45). God
Himself accepted the fact, for He left the body in the grave throughout
the inactivity of the Sabbath. Jesus, the Son of God, was dead.
But consider the appalling circumstances of His death, not only the
barbaric torture of the body but the moral and spiritual implications of
death being able to touch God's perfect Son. He could only die because
all the sins of the world were laid upon Him. Now one man's sins would be
enough to bury him deep and if possible the dreadful offences of outrageous
sinners would accentuate the depth into which they would be plunged. Jesus,
however, went deeper than all others, for the accumulated sin of mankind
was concentrated on His holy head. It is impossible for us to measure the
condition to which the wages of sin brought Him. That most awesome of all
psalms gives some indications of it: "I am as a man that hath no help; cast
off among the dead ... Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in dark places,
in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me and thou hast afflicted me with
all thy waves" (Psalm 88:4-7).
There are mysteries about the activities during the waiting period of
the spirit of the Lord Jesus which in dying He had commended to His Father,
mysteries which we must be content to leave with God, but there was no
mystery about that sacred body which lay in Joseph's tomb. It was dead!
And it remained so over the Sabbath, leaving both His loved ones and His
enemies with the impression that this was the end. That grave surely represented
the nadir of despair and would have remained so if it had not been for
those sweet Bible words; "BUT GOD ...".
It is as if for Him, this needed a supreme exercise of His might. There
is something awesomely impressive in the great act of God's power by which,
without ostentation or excitement, Jesus was released from death's thraldom.
Early on the morning of that momentous first day of the week, the glory
of the Holy Trinity came into that dark and lonely tomb. The Father -- the
Father of glory -- was there (Romans 6:4). The Holy Spirit -- the Spirit
of glory -- was there (Romans 8:11). The Son was there and His dead body
became "The body of his glory" (Philippians 3:21). Was there ever such an
exercise of God's sovereign power?
ii. It raised Jesus to the highest possible heights
This, though, was only the beginning of God's action for it was followed
by an even further demonstration of that holy energy when the Lord Jesus,
after forty days among His disciples, was [78/79]
placed "Far above all ... not only in this world but also in that which
is to come" (v.21). He was not only raised from the deepest depths: He was
lifted to the highest heights. He ascended. The heavenly gates and the everlasting
doors lifted up their heads to acclaim the conquering King of glory (Psalm
24:7-10). The Father gave His royal command: "Sit thou at my right hand."
This was no surprise to the Lord Jesus, for He had often quoted Psalm 110
as a prediction that this would happen (Matthew 22:44), but it is a great
surprise to all others, and a glorious reality to all believers.
This power is for us. This 'far above' represents our destiny. But though
we are privileged to be members of His body and joint-heirs with Him, we
focus all our attention upon Him. True knowledge of the exalted Christ will
never diminish our reverence of Him, but rather increase it. One somehow
feels that even the beloved John would not have been safe just to witness
the glories of the Revelation if he had not first fallen at the feet of the
exalted Lord "as one dead" (Revelation 1:17). Nevertheless the amazing truth
remains that the infinite power of God which exalted Him is the same power
which is operating toward us and in us. Renewed vision of Him should result
in a new experience of the Spirit's power.
2. The True Nature of God's Power
"He raised him ... He made him to sit ... He gave him to be head
... " (vv.20-22).
We rightly rejoice in the cross of Christ and that first day of His
passion. We rightly proclaim the glories of the third day and His resurrection.
How seldom, though, do we consider the significance of the day in between
-- the second day? It will repay thought.
It was by divine overruling that the second day was a Sabbath. Moreover
it was by God's sovereign ordering that it was that one special Sabbath
in all the Jewish calendar which John describes as 'a high Sabbath' (John
19:31). The Jewish leaders had not wanted this and in fact had decided against
it (Matthew 26:5), but the Father ruled otherwise.
Perhaps we need to revise our views about the Sabbath. In our minds
it can so easily become connected with negative ideas, whereas the Lord
Jesus made it plain that its whole purpose was positive. This is God's special
day; not a day of paralysis but of power -- His power and His alone. I know
that modern Bible teachers condemn the phrase, 'Let go, and let God', and
I appreciate that it can give a wrong impression but, used wisely, it surely
throws light on the principle of the Sabbath. "He that is entered into His
rest has himself rested from his works as God did from His" (Hebrews 4:10).
Perhaps that advice of other days might be more correct if it were phrased,
'Let go of your own strength and appropriate God's.'
To return, however, to the theme of the positive aspect of Sabbath keeping.
This was demonstrated by Jesus in gospel days. His repeated choice of the
Sabbath Day for His healing miracles was not intended just to outrage the
Pharisees, though it certainly did this, but to stress the power which
God will put forth when in faith men look to Him alone. There was no atmosphere
of tension and no sense of concentrated soul effort when Jesus healed.
We might almost say that it just happened! In a moment, with a word or
with a touch, sometimes without His actual presence on the scene, Jesus
conveyed the power of God to those who had no power of their own and, as
He did so, He insisted that He did nothing of Himself. He explained that
when He acted on the Sabbath, He did so because the Father was already
at work (John 5:17).
We return to the second day. When He died, the Lord Jesus had commended
His Spirit to the Father. That was Scriptural and in a sense it was final.
He had not struggled to avoid death and now He was not going to struggle
to emerge from death. Everything was committed to the Father. The Lord Jesus
did not fight His way up but was raised. And He was raised on the third
day. This, I submit, was in the true spirit of Sabbath rest. It involves
a submission which is not passivity, and an activity which is not self-effort.
It provides for an expression of divine power on the basis of submissive
cooperation by faith.
This was the secret of the second day. It points us to the true nature
of spiritual power. Christ was not only raised to the glory, He was
raised [79/80] by the glory of the Father.
That same glory will provide resurrection power for us in response to patient
and obedient faith.
3. The Fullness of God's Power
"He gave him to be head over all things to the church which is his
body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all" (vv.22-23).
In this closing passage we have the first actual mention of the Church.
So far as I can understand it, there is a double statement, first that
for the Church, Christ is Head over all things. When the prophet first
recorded the oft-repeated phase, "Sit thou at my right hand" he added a
time-qualifying phrase, "until I make thine enemies the footstool of thy
feet". One of the New Testament quotations of this verse goes on to comment,
"from henceforth expecting ..." (Hebrews 10:13). Clearly, then, the time
for the universal recognition of Christ's rule has not yet come. He and
we are waiting for it, and we are confident that it will come.
How exactly The Lord at present exercises His capacity to reign in the
midst of His enemies we do not fully understand, though we believe it. Perhaps
we can best describe this activity as overruling. Ultimately He will be
fully and universally recognised but even now and for the Church
He is indeed Head over all things. For us He works everything after the
counsel of His own will and makes everything work together for our good
in the light of His eternal purpose (Romans 8:28). We admit no second causes.
We rely implicitly on His absolute sovereignty. We remember that before
His ascension to heaven He categorically assured His disciples that all
authority in heaven and upon earth had been given to him.
This second explanation of the statement therefore comes as a reminder
that in a peculiar and explicit way Christ is now Head of the Church. This
is different and much more intimate than His general headship, for we are
His body, we cling to Him as our Head in a vital relationship and we choose
to be governed by Him. The consequence of this is that we are brought into
the realm of divine fullness -- "the fullness of him that filleth all in
This is a profound statement and there are various explanations of this
phrase. I do not propose to examine them except to reaffirm that Paul's
prayer is that we may have the eyes of our heart enlightened to appreciate
that, in the risen and ascended Christ, the Church has its fullness. This
is not here made a matter of command or exhortation, but just stated as
a fact. What we need is faith's apprehension of the truth that all the fullness
of God dwells in Christ, and that by Him we have been brought into that fullness.
The climax of Paul's second prayer is a request that we "may be filled
into all the fullness of God" (3:19) with the threefold doxology
which tells us that this is to be realised by the inward working of God's
power, that in fact this exceeds all that we are capable of appreciating and
that God's purpose in His powerful working is to have the glory of Christ
expressed in the Church for ever and ever.
The purpose of the apostle's two prayers seems to be that we should
always count on the fullness and seek to grow up into what he calls "the
measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (4:13). What is a perfect
Christian? Surely it is a person completely filled with Christ. We know
that this will never be true of any of us in this life, but nonetheless
we are under obligation to move purposefully towards that goal, the Day
when it really will be none of self and all of Him.
What is true of an individual Christian is also true of the Church.
One day there will be a perfect Church which will be the embodiment of
Christ corporate. It is into that Church that we have all been baptised
by the Spirit. Meanwhile every church is under a divine obligation to bow
to the rule of Christ in ever way in which light is given to it. We are
to receive God's revealed truth with meekness and to learn how it applies
to us. No church should be spiritually static. It is not an institution
but a body -- His body. Indwelt by Christ, rooted and grounded in love, strengthened
for loving fellowship, ever increasing in our knowledge of that infinite
love, we are called to move steadily onwards into the fullness of God. He
is able -- in other words, He has the power -- to bring this about. In the
heavenlies, the only concern about spiritual power is that it may minister
to the glory of God and that so it may continue to work in us.
(To be continued) [80/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (22)
"(After that Jeconiah, the king, and the queen-mother, and the
eunuchs, and the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the craftsmen
and the smiths, were departed from Jerusalem)" Jeremiah 29:2
THIS is one of the least interesting of the Scriptural parentheses and
seems largely to be interpolated as an indication of the actual time when
Jeremiah wrote his letter from Jerusalem to the captive Jewish leaders in
Babylon. It might have been enough to name Jeconiah, without specifying his
entourage and the skilled men who accompanied him, so this appears to have
more significance than a mere fixing of a date.
PERHAPS the parenthesis gives point to the contents of Jeremiah's letter.
It seems that, as in Jerusalem so in the captivity, there were still plenty
of those who blithely claimed to be prophets, finding popularity for themselves
and raising false hopes among the bewildered people of God.
THE Word of the Lord had already been spoken. The land was to remain
desolate for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11). In his letter Jeremiah had to
re-iterate this truth to the cheap optimists who were prophesying dreams
which had no divine reality. The prophet's letter advised God's people to
accept His Word and to order their lives in accordance with it.
FAR from being negative, Jeremiah's message assured his readers that
God's ultimate purpose for them was one of peace and hope (v.11). The immediate
need, however, was that they should humble themselves under the mighty
hand of God instead of being influenced by the superficial inventions of
those who based their ideas on natural and sentimental emotions, instead
of being governed by God's Word. They ought to be giving themselves to
God-glorifying, prayerful daily living instead of being carried about by
IT seems to me that Jeremiah's letter found an echo in some of the New
Testament Letters. The circumstances were, of course, very different, but
the principle is the same. "That ye study to be quiet, and to do your own
business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you" (1 Thessalonians
BUT why was Jeconiah singled out in this connection? What had he to
do with Jeremiah's letter? Perhaps it was because he was the one king who
had listened to Jeremiah and had surrendered to the Chaldeans. In himself
he was no better than the other members of his family, but he did obey the
prophet's call to accept the captivity as a divine judgement and not try
to avoid or resist it.
IN the end he was justified, as all will be who humble themselves before
the Lord and obey His Word. Interestingly enough, it was Jeremiah himself
who was able to record the ultimate mercy of God by which, after thirty
seven years, Jeconiah was not only released from his prison but given kindness,
honour and a continual allowance for the rest of his days (Jeremiah 52:31-34).
THOSE who have only a superficial acquaintance with the Bible are always
ready to attach the label 'dismal' to Jeremiah. If they would look for
themselves, they could find many proofs of how wrong such a designation
is. Among them would be this letter with its assurance to humble believers
that God's thoughts are always to give peace and to provide a future and
THE GRACE OF GOD THAT BRINGS SALVATION
HAS APPEARED TO ALL MEN. IT TEACHES US ...
TO LIVE SELF-CONTROLLED, UPRIGHT AND GODLY
LIVES IN THIS PRESENT AGE, WHILE WE WAIT FOR
THE BLESSED HOPE -- THE GLORIOUS APPEARING
OF OUR GREAT GOD AND SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST
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