|Vol. 15, No. 6, Nov. - Dec. 1986
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
IN his inspired writings, Paul coined some wonderful phrases which have
been a comfort and an inspiration to multitudes of tried believers. I venture
to suggest that, of all the treasured verses, the most popular of all is
the assurance, 'My grace is sufficient for thee' (2 Corinthians 12:9). In
this case he did not originate the phrase but just passed it on by reporting
that it had been spoken to him directly by the Lord. His message to us not
only contains the divine assurance of sufficiency but tells us why and when
the words were spoken to him in the first place. The story brings little credit
to him -- it is not meant to do so -- but it magnifies God's grace in a most
satisfying way and gives us some light on God's way of dealing with His servants.
Before proceeding with the explanation, may I indicate a point which,
though simple and perhaps obvious, is not unimportant? It is that the actual
words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were also the fruit of Paul's deep travail.
Not the words only but the total context can provide for us a new and fuller
understanding of whatever trials have come or may yet come to us. Paul was
a great preacher; many of his passages are profoundly moving. He was also
a great teacher, whose lucid and logical doctrines have brought enlightenment
to us all. We are nearer to the point when we remind ourselves that he was
also a great sufferer and that the ministry to our hearts in this case was
not his gifted teaching or preaching, but the fruit of his acute suffering.
What greatly impresses me is that for fourteen years he let others see the
anguish but never explained its spiritual significance.
He kept the matter secret and when mentioning it declared that he was
forbidden to tell anything about that privileged visit of his to the third
heaven with its majestic mysteries. Presumably it would not edify us if he
tried to do so. It might even lessen the spiritual values if he had disclosed
what through the centuries has been constantly argued, namely, what exactly
was the thorn? We are given just the slightest insight into a harrowing
trial with an explanation which we might not have credited -- that it was
given for Paul's own good. But there is more to it than that. In 2 Corinthians
we are coming near to the climax of an exposition of the relationship of suffering
to ministry. As we read the story we rightly conclude that the same grace
which was sufficient for Paul is to be available to us. And that means that
others are to reap spiritual profit from our trials.
Is this what the apostle meant when he wrote of filling up in his flesh
that which was lacking of the afflictions of Christ for the sake of others
(Colossians 1:24)? To know that others are benefitting, or may benefit, from
our trials is itself a comfort. The horrifying list of Paul's trials is
given in Chapter 11. The last three verses of that chapter may at first glance
seem to be just an additional note, but their importance is stressed by the
apostle's solemn appeal to God the Father (v.31). To be let down in a hamper
like an escaping criminal was doubtless a sore and humiliating trial for
a man like Paul. We might have concluded, then, that this was his most bitter
But no! The chapter may end there, but not the sequence of the argument
for, ignoring later chapter divisions, the apostle's words go on to describe
the most excruciating of all pains -- "a thorn in the flesh, a messenger
of Satan, sent to buffet (torment, torture, rack, bruise, harass) me" (v.7).
The different alternative words here quoted are but a few of the renderings
of various versions. The most usual is 'buffet'; Darby so translates
it, adding a brief but poignant footnote, 'as in Matthew 26:27'. This, so
it seems, was the worst and most mysterious of all Paul's pains.
Paul took his problem to the throne of grace, pleading for the removal
of the 'thorn'. At the first attempt he found no answer. Did his own heart
answer that he was being punished because God was displeased with him? That
is often our own reaction, and it is fostered by the satanic Accuser. In
any case he wisely returned to his Lord on the throne and repeated his plea.
Still no answer came! Had the Lord forgotten him? [101/102]
That is a foolish -- though biblical -- question and certainly not in
keeping with the throne of grace. So for the third time the apostle
voiced his complaint. He did not get what he clearly expected, but what he
did get was better. What is more, that simple divine speaking silenced all
further questions for him and is meant to do so for us, since God used His
servant's painful trial to provide this Scriptural gem for the comfort of
us all. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews used the term 'throne of
grace' in an assurance that if we make our application there, the answer
will be "grace to help in time of need" (4:16). That is precisely what the
apostle found. While the pain was not relieved, a most satisfying answer
Satisfying, but somewhat humiliating, for God's explanation gave no indication
of Paul's outflowing ministry but explained that the whole thing was devised
because of the apostle's capacity to become conceited. To his great credit,
Paul apparently accepted this without argument. Was it possible that God
could not trust him? All enlightenment from God carries with it accompanying
perils and, the greater the enlightenment, the greater the peril. This is
always the case. Paul's most privileged session with his God in the heavenly
garden of Paradise might be calculated to expose the holiest of men to the
temptation of spiritual pride. That, alas, is not seldom the outcome of great
spiritual blessing. In this case it would have been tragic. The Lord loved
Paul and had too much bound up with his ministry to take such a risk.
To add to the various other questions, we may ask if the thorn continued
for long. There is no answer given, so it would not help us to know. What
matters is that we should share the apostle's release of joy at God's gracious
sufficiency and remember that there may be far more value for God than we
realise in our own tribulations.
(Some thoughts on old age)
"The path of the righteous is as the light of dawn that shines
more and more unto the perfect day." Proverbs 4:18
FOR the believer there are two ways of viewing the closing period of
one's life -- increasing eclipse or growing splendour. King Solomon describes
them both. In his down-to-earth book of Ecclesiastes he calls us to face
the inevitable prospect of mounting physical deterioration (12:3-7). There
is the growing feebleness of limbs (when the keepers of the house tremble
); the loss of teeth (when the grinders cease because they are few
); the failing eyesight (those looking through the windows are dimmed
); the oncoming deafness (when the doors in the street are closed, and
the sound of the grinders is low), and uncertainty of step and dizziness
(afraid of heights and dangers in the streets). So the poet goes on
right to the final moment when the heart ceases to beat (the wheel is broken
at the cistern) and the dust returns to the earth. This is the darkening
prospect which faces all humans, whether they be unbelievers or believers.
It is moving poetry, but it is also stern reality. "It is appointed unto
men once to die" (Hebrews 9:27).
The same Solomon, however, gives us an entirely different prospect which
opens out to the justified believer. That, he says, is like the steady change
of growing daylight, beginning at dawn and leading on with ever increasing
glory until the climax of the full day.
This speaks not of weakening but of growing strength; not of a sad sense
of failing powers but of the steady increase of light leading up to the great
peak of eternal noonday. This is also poetry, but it is reality too. This
is what God can do for elderly saints. The two contrasting movements are
gathered up in one New Testament verse: "Though outwardly we are wasting away,
yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Here is the prospect for those who are already ageing, and indeed for
younger ones too, who will find sooner or later that their present bodies
are both lowly and mortal. I have often found helpful illustrations of Bible
truths in Old Testament [102/103] personalities and
in this case feel drawn to the closing period of the life of Jacob as described
in Genesis 46 to 50. He is the man whose story often helps us because we
so readily identify with him. Hebrews 11 suggests that the supreme climax
of his life of faith was at the end: "By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed
each of Joseph's sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff"
His life had unexpectedly been prolonged for seventeen years after he
went to live in Egypt (Genesis 47:28). When he had at last been convinced
that Joseph was still alive, he agreed to be carried down into Egypt, fully
expecting that this would be the end: "I will go and see him before I die"
(45:28). God rather seemed to confirm that this is what would happen for
He encouraged the old man to go with the promise that Joseph would close
his eyes (46:4), a reference to the mourners acknowledgement of death. Jacob
could see nothing beyond. When he appeared before Pharaoh, he confessed that
his life had been a failure and was being cut short (47:9).
To Jacob this seemed the eclipse of his life, but in the providence of
God he still had a good number of years to live, perhaps the best years
of his life. For us the allotted span is seventy years. People tend to describe
anything that goes beyond that as 'borrowed time'. I prefer to call it 'overtime',
and I recall that although this may involve extra demands it also produces
Jacob's end was not darkening evening but blazing noontide glory. In
the Old Testament funerals often express the verdict on a man's life. One
non-royal man was buried among the kings because of his faithfulness, while
one of the actual kings was not buried among the kings and one had "the burial
of an ass". With that in mind let us note the extraordinary tributes paid
to Jacob. Crowds of important officials accompanied the whole of his great
household in the burial cortege, with horses and chariots in attendance.
"It was a great company" (50:9). The local inhabitants were amazed, as well
they might be. This self-confessed failure had become a truly great man.
Was this not due in part to those last declining seventeen years which had
been full of immense spiritual gains? There were inward values: he mellowed.
There were Godward values: he worshipped. There were outward values: he blessed
others. So, then, for us there are at least three main values which can come
from increasing old age. They are (1) Maturing Character, (2) Richer Worship
and (3) Help to the next generation. These are worth considering:
1. Inward Values -- Growing Likeness to Christ
It may boost our ego to think that God has prolonged our lives because
He had specially important tasks for us to perform. That may, of course,
be the case, but it will be healthier for us to realise that the stress is
not so much what we can do for God as What He needs to do in us. He still
has lessons to teach us.
In his earlier life Jacob had been self-centred and aggressive, grasping
everything for himself and fighting for his rights. He was born like that,
clutching at his twin brother's heel and he was governed by the same spirit
through most of his life. He even wrestled all night with God. There is no
evidence that he tried to get any personal advantage of Joseph's exalted
position, as the old Jacob would have done, but rather the reverse. Now he
thought of others and longed to give generously to them.
In the past Jacob had been an ambitious man who wanted to outdo others,
but now he was humble. To Pharaoh he did not boast of his clever scheming
and success in conquering poverty and accumulating wealth, but confessed
that he considered himself a failure. Now humility is not an automatic accompaniment
of increasing age -- quite the reverse in the case of Solomon and of his
royal successors, for even the best kings of Judah finished their lives in
defeat through pride. Listen to Jacob, though, as he makes his meek request
to his son, "If I have found grace in thy sight ... show me kindness ...".
There is probably no more Christlike virtue than that of true humility,
and a man's last years are well spent if he can be delivered from that certain
air of conceit and superiority which we can acquire and chooses rather to
appreciate the good qualities of his juniors.
Jacob had always been an impetuous and impatient man. Now we have to
note a personal exclamation which comes from him in the course of his prophecies
over his sons: "I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord" (49:18). Whenever
was the younger Jacob ready to wait patiently for God? I find it striking
that even after he was being carried in the waggon down to see the beloved
son whom he longed to see, Israel halted the whole procession in Beer-Sheba
and waited upon God by an altar to be assured that he was doing the right
thing. The answer came when God called him with a double call, "Jacob, Jacob"
and then said "Fear not to go down" (46:2). Passing years under the hand
of God had brought maturity of patience to this elderly saint.
Now the virtues of unselfishness, humility and patience are Christlike
ones, so that in his old age Jacob reminds us that we are still on this
earth in order that we might become more Christlike. There is a sense in
which we must wait until we actually see Christ to be changed into His image,
but there is also a sense in which every day is meant to find us in the
process of being made more like Him. God always has eternity in view in
His dealings with us, so that we may be sure that right to the very end
He is still working on us. Whether He plans to work through us is
His business; whether He is able to go on working with His transforming
power upon us calls for faith's cooperation on our part. Jesus spoke
to Peter of the time when in old age and especially in his death, he would
have the privilege of glorifying God. Did this mean martyrdom? The Bible
does not say. It certainly meant that the old Peter, like the old Jacob,
had become more Christlike. And that should be true of us all.
2. Upward Values -- Growing Appreciation of God's Grace
Old age is a time for memories. As more immediate things are forgotten
-- even people's names -- earlier recollections come crowding in upon our
minds. If my experience is anything to go by, the most vivid memories are
the sad ones. This was clearly true of Jacob. In his case, though, they
did not bring him depression but a deeper realisation of the greatness of
God's mercies. That was certainly true of the apostle Paul.
It was in his old age that he claimed to be the chief of sinners. I imagine
that Jacob would have disputed that claim and insisted that he deserved to
be given that title. His outstanding memory was that first night away from
home when deception and greed had forced him to go out into the unknown.
Towards the end of his life he told Joseph from his sick-bed, "El Shaddai
appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me" (48:3). How much
he realised of his own unworthiness at that time and how much he learned of
the depravity of his heart in the twenty years of his exile, we do not know,
but I do not doubt that during those declining years in Egypt he must have
been appalled at the memory of his faults and failings, as I am often appalled
at mine. It may seem strange to younger people but I have found that as the
end of life draws nearer a person is more than ever aware of his utter unworthiness.
Jacob did not dwell upon this matter and nor must we. He rather magnified
the grace of God. In his darkest hour God had met him, not with condemnation
but with mercy.
El Shaddai means that God is the All Sufficient One. It must have been
a surprise when God first spoke to him in that gracious way and no doubt
he was continually surprised, for nowhere do we read that God blamed or condemned
him but spoke to him only in terms of promise. The surprise drew out worship
from him as he more and more marvelled at what God had been to him. His grandfather
and his father had walked before El Shaddai. He dare not claim to have done
this but he could affirm, "He fed me all my life long unto this day" (48:15).
So he had become a true worshipper. [104/105]
Perhaps that is why God sometimes prolongs our lives. He has much worship
in heaven, but He treasures worship here on earth, and what is our worship
but amazed appreciation of His greatness and goodness? The more we remember
our past failures and the more we regret our present weakness, the more can
we offer that sacrifice of praise which is so precious to our Lord.
3. Outward Values -- A Part in the Future
The third benefit of old age is the privilege of encouraging the next
generation. Two whole chapters (48 & 49) are devoted to this vital activity
of old Jacob who had never expected to live so long. In this connection it
would be more correct to call him Israel rather than Jacob: "Israel
said ..." (48:11); "Israel stretched out his right hand ..." (v.14)
and "Israel said unto Joseph ..." (v.21). In himself he was still
the old Jacob, feeble, lame, bedridden and almost blind, yet in his princely
capacity as Israel he was in the noonday zenith of his service to God.
His natural sight was poor. To quote Solomon's expression, 'Those looking
through the windows were dim', but his spiritual sight was so keen that he
could see what was not visible to Joseph, that master of visions. The hands
that were stretched out to touch the two grandsons may have been feeble but
the spiritual hands which reached forward in loving and informed concern
for their future were mighty through God. What is more, Jacob not only gave
blessings to his especially beloved Joseph but was determined to bring the
whole family within the embrace of his prayers. He blessed them all, giving
to each the blessing appropriate to them (49:28). It was only when he was
satisfied that this task was accomplished that he could gather up his feet
into the bed and breathe his last.
This is a challenge and an example to us. Let us not spend our time regretting
that things are not as they used to be. If we do look back to the past let
it only be to magnify the grace of God. We may die, but the Church is immortal.
It will still go on after we have left the scene. We must seek to follow
Jacob's example and exert ourselves to bless and encourage our successors.
May I suggest two ways in which we can be helpful to those who are coming
i. By encouraging them
We must maintain our interest in them. We much prefer to reminisce about
ourselves. This is often a foible of the elderly. It is notable, though,
that old Jacob said very little about his colourful past, concentrating all
his concern on the future. It was the future which held his attention, even
though he knew that he himself would have no part in it. Our younger friends
may listen to our reminiscences, but it will probably only be out of polite
toleration, for that is only past history. They have to face the present,
and they may be helped much more if we can get them to do the talking, and
show interest and sympathy in their problems and prospects.
So, with but a parting reference to his own sorrows and joys, Jacob gathered
all his sons together and spoke to them of their future destiny. We are given
no details of the last moments of Moses, but we know that his last public
act was to encourage his successor (Deuteronomy 1:38). The aged David did
the same thing, though in his case there seems also to have been a mixture
of personal ill-will and doubtful advice (1 Kings 2:5-9).
ii. By praying for them
The other way of helpfulness still open to us is that of prayer -- and
this is by far the more important. If we wonder why God has left us here
on the earth, the answer may be that it is to bless others by our intercessions.
We have no ground for thinking that we shall be able to carry on this ministry
when we get to heaven, but we have every reason for affirming that the prayers
which we pray now will go on being answered after our lips have become silent.
This has been strikingly true in the case of dear ones who have gone to be
with Christ without ever seeing the answers to their prayers which we so
Israel said to Joseph, "Behold I die, but God will be with you and bring
you again into the land of your fathers" (48:21). It was literally centuries
after his death that those prayers of his were answered, but it happened,
even as he had prayed. In his earlier years he had been a man
[105/106] largely interested only in getting blessings for himself;
but in his last years in Egypt and in his final activities he gave all he
had to others and to their future. We are unlikely to reach his advanced
age, but even if we did so we could still have an active part in the future
of the gospel so long as we can still pray. To us even our prayers may seem
feebler than they used to be, but prayer is prayer and it can still be 'mighty
through God' if we persevere in it.
* * * * *
IT may be good to let the apostle Paul have the last word in this matter.
He described himself as "such a one as Paul the aged" (Philemon 9). It seems
likely that he never reached the prescribed threescore years and ten but
no doubt he was in the category of the elderly when he confessed to the Philippians
that he would be thankful to go to be with Christ, but that he was having
his time extended on earth according to the will of God (1:23). His attitude
in this 'extra-time' period is made very clear. In it he never ceased from
his earnest pursuit of growing likeness to Christ (3:10-14) and he continued
to wait eagerly for the Coming from heaven of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus
Christ. On that great Day our body of humiliation -- and how humiliating
it sometimes grows! -- will give place to an altogether new and glorious resurrection
body. The light is getting brighter and brighter as we approach the noonday
splendour of the Day of Christ. En route we may be obliged to have
a brief sojourn in some Home for the Elderly, but our final destination is
the Father's House of Many Mansions.
PRESSURES IN THE REAL WORLD
Reading: Genesis 12, 13 & 14
WE may learn much from Abraham about how to withstand pressures in the
real world. There are those who would ridicule the idea of going to Genesis
to consider the real world and contemporary pressures, but we should know
that Genesis is indeed as relevant as any book in the matter of our contemporary
scene, especially when we think of this matter of 'pressure' which is so
often talked about today. The situation in the world in which we live is one
of constant pressure, and there is a reason for that.
It takes me back to my first science lesson when our new master told
us that although we are in the habit of speaking of pots and jugs as empty,
they are in reality full. What fills them may be invisible but it is a very
important substance called air. The only emptiness is a vacuum. He then gave
us an experiment, extracting the air from a tin and sealing the tin and then
telling us all to watch. There, before our very eyes, it began to crumple.
The tin crumpled and collapsed. We were told that this was due to the
pressure of the air all around it. It was the effect of air on a vacuum which
made the tin collapse. It was many years afterwards that I realised that
this illustrates a spiritual principle.
People today are full of vacuum -- if one can use the word 'full' in
this connection. If you and I are to withstand the pressures of life, our
natural vacuum must be replaced by God's grace, as was the case with Abraham.
We need to be filled with invisible air, the real air, the Spirit of God.
Instead of being full of a vacuum, we need to have an inward experience
of God's fullness.
This issue of pressures is a very important one. It is possible, even
as a believer, to be at a point of collapse, and it is then that we need
the encouragement of having God indwelling our hearts by faith. Only so can
we have within us that which will enable us to withstand the pressures of
life. In our reading we note that it says: "Then Abram set out and continued
..." (12:9 N.I.V.). The call of God and our setting out in faith are of crucial
importance, but the continuing, the persevering, the withstanding of the
pressure to give up is of equal importance.
We are thinking of pressures in the contemporary world and to some it
may seem strange that we make use of the early book of Genesis. In fact that
book gives us amazingly relevant stories. The world is really the same place
as it was so long ago and Abraham is the same kind of person as you and me.
What is more, Abraham's [106/107] God is still our
God. May I demonstrate the relevance of Genesis? We live in a world of division
and also in a world of civilization. So did Abraham.
Take the matter of division. I imagine that Abraham would have in his
possession the records of Genesis 1 to 10. Somebody kept the revelation given
by God and if Abraham's father were of the line of Seth, then it is most
likely that these would have been in his hands. In that case he would be
well aware of why there was division in the world. He would therefore have
seen that the basic division is that between man and God. That was why Abraham
needed to be called; he needed to be reconciled to God. The reason of the
division was that man had fallen into sin. This is still a basic division
in our world of today.
Then there were the divisions between man and man, and between man and
woman. This latter division between man and woman, with the strong atheist
feminist stress of today, a stress for which men have been partly or mainly
responsible, is described in Genesis 3. When sin came into the world, one
of the first things that the man did was to shift the blame and evade it:
"The woman that You put here with me -- she gave me ...". Abraham knew all
about this kind of division. We can see a bit of it in his own life. The
modem world is littered with it, this division between man and woman.
Then there is the division between man and man which we read about in
Genesis 4. There we read of the very first murder and it happened within
the circle of the family. If you examine the statistics of murder today,
you will find that the sphere of the family is still the area where most
murders are committed. Division in the family because of sin is indeed drastic.
One of the great tragedies in our time is that much of the murder in the
world has religious connotations. The first murder was that, it was a sectarian
murder. How can anyone say that Genesis is out of date? It speaks directly
of what lies at the heart of the nations in which we now live. The pressures
which came upon Abraham come now upon us.
Then there is the division between man and nature in what we call the
ecology problem. That was there, with the famine problem which arose then
and is acutely prevalent in our world. These problems of division in the family
and division among the nations are with us still. Therefore it is a great
blessing for us to move into Genesis 12 and find that God proposes to solve
all these problems. The God of glory not only called Abraham for his own
sake nor merely for his nation's sake, but expressed His great and glorious
purpose in the promise. "... all peoples on earth will be blessed through
you" (v.3). Abraham's call represented the fact that North, South, East and
West, God was providing for right living and right relationships on the basis
of faith in Himself. Such a divine purpose brought pressures upon Abraham
and bring them upon us who share his faith, for the Devil desperately hates
the coming together of believers. We find that he constantly pressurises in
the area of unity and harmony among believers. We might go on to notice that
Abraham's home was in Ur, the centre of a sophisticated civilization, so
that his was in its day a highly modern and civilized world, and we note incidentally
the sacrifice which Sarai made when she left that community to share in tent
life with her husband, just as many missionary wives today make similar sacrifices.
The point is that we identify with Abraham's world. When people try to tell
us that the Bible or the Old Testament is out of date, we can meet them face
on; we can appeal to the Word of God, apply it and be proud of it. Abraham's
world and our world cohere.
* * * * *
WE now turn to some of the specific pressure which the patriarch had
to face. The first was in the realm of partnership: "Now Sarai was barren;
she had no children" (11:30). This was an enormous load for them to bear
then, and infertility is still a problem today. The media are always talking
about it. Instead of learning the patience which God, under His providence,
would have us exercise, we are entering on all sorts of
[107/108] devices, some legitimate, some dangerous and some an
affront to the sovereignty of God. These are the great pressures for some
of our younger generation.
Abraham tried to solve it by making the mistake of surrogate motherhood.
He and his wife went down to Egypt and from there brought back Hagar as their
servant. From her Egyptian pagan society she brought back the idea of surrogacy.
In his impatience -- fully understandable -- and at the suggestion of his
wife, Abraham adopted this device, but it is clear enough to us that what
God wanted him to do was to be careful and wait. Impatience is often part
of the pressures of partnership.
Then there was the pressure of caring for parents. When they set out
from Ur they took their elderly father with them, but at a point he was
no longer able to stand the pace and chose to stay at Haran. This was a
major problem for Abraham. He had been called of God to go into the land
which God would show him, and now He had allowed him to enter into an experience
all too common to many of us now, namely, a delay and an obstacle to further
progress. This matter of caring for ageing parents may be an apparent hindrance,
but it may also not be a case of the frustrating of God's purpose but the
need to accept the fifth commandment and care for needy parents.
Years ago I was greatly blessed by meeting a woman who was first converted
herself and then saw her elderly parents come to Christ. She had a call to
the mission field, but she felt convinced that she should not go until her
parents no longer needed her. They both lived into their eighties, so that
it was only in her early fifties that she herself was able to go out to
S. E. Asia. I feel sure that in this long delay she had acquired spiritual
values which she otherwise would never have had. We tend to live in an instant
age and sometimes want to twist God's arm to avoid delays. Every case, of
course, must be judged as before Him and we have to discover God's will for
ourselves, but at least we must note that God sometimes allows problems in
our family to teach us how to serve.
Then there is the problem of togetherness. The word is a stress word.
Thank God, though, it is also a strength word. There is nothing like the
strength of being together, but in our homes and in our churches we also
find that there can also be great stress in living together. We will see
later how the fact that Abraham and Lot lived together made for a real stress
issue. In our generation, Satan is always attacking the issue of togetherness
and he does so because fellowship is vitally important, not only to us and
to others but to the Lord Himself. For the very reason that we are sinners,
however, it presents us with a challenge, though the stresses it causes God
can use as a means to mature us. We mature far better when we have to deal
with people who are difficult than we do with those with whom we always see
eye to eye.
In Chapter 12 we read of how the delay was ended; there was a green light
and he was able to go on again. The Lord had said, and at last he
had the thrill and excitement of finding avenues opened up for him. The principle,
put in theological terms, was that of the link of promise, fulfilment in
actual history and all by supernatural power. It was all to be by what God
God's promises do not float in the air; they come down into the history
of our everyday life. When they are fulfilled, though, it is supernaturally,
that is by His Spirit. We ourselves form part of that glorious promise that
through Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Here was one
man -- a solitary figure -- with the Word of God ringing in his heart but
no sign of fulfilment, but still he believed God. This is the challenge which
comes to us as individuals in any particular context; if God has promised,
then He will never fail us.
Some time ago we had a Korean pastor staying with us. He had come to
Wales because originally the gospel came to Korea through a Welshman, and
he wanted to see where that man was born. The name was Thomas Jeremiah.
To my surprise I found that the birthplace was in our own town
[108/109] of Abergavenny. Thomas was a linguistic genius who, having
excelled in European languages, was called by God to China. He went out
with the L.M.S. in 1840, but when he reached China eighteen months later
he saw his wife and child die. Pressure! But God had called him! The Missionary
Society then decided that he should seek to open work in Korea so, working
in lonely seclusion, he translated the Scriptures into Korean and when he
heard of an American ship going to Korea he embarked on it, not knowing
that there was a plan to murder all on that ship. And they were all murdered
-- including Thomas Jeremiah. However three copies of the Korean New Testament
were taken ashore and were picked up by children who took them home. The
Korean parents papered their walls with the pages of Scripture. Then -- so
the young pastor told me -- they started to read their wallpaper, with the
result that they were both saved and one of their children became the first
Korean evangelist. A wonderful illustration of victory over pressure.
The next pressure came from deprivation, for there was a famine in the
land and Abraham was forced to go down into Egypt. We cannot really fault
him for this. As we see horrific pictures of famine on our T.V. we have
to ask ourselves if we would not do the same in such an emergency. In our
society the pressure can come from unemployment or for men who have to travel
a long way to work, leaving their families solitary.
In this case Abraham had to go down to a pagan context and there he became
afraid and arranged with Sarai, his half-sister, that they would tell a half
truth. His reason was given in the words, "... so I will be treated well
for your sake, and my life will be spared because of you" (12:13). Have you
ever heard of a worse male double-standard? With us there will be a different
application but the principle is the same, namely that the pressure of deprivation
brings its own temptations and dangers.
Abraham was at fault, but was rescued by a special intervention from
God. Thankful that the Lord had been so merciful to him, even in spite of
his selfish folly, he returned to where his tent had been before and there
"Abram called on the name of the Lord" (13:4). Surely the main purpose of
that call was to express his thanks for the Lord's great mercy to him. We
fail. We let the Lord down, so much so that we wonder if we can ever look
Him in the face again. But although Abraham had slipped up, he knew that
he had been called and could call on the name of the Lord for forgiveness.
So he was restored and renewed and enabled to continue.
For us, happily, there is no need to build an altar, since Christ dying
on the cross is our altar; however many mistakes we make, we can go back
there again and call on the name of Jesus who can cleanse us from sin. We
must not let our faults or Satan's accusations hinder our onward progress.
Like Abraham, having begun we must at all costs continue.
A further pressure arose for Abraham over the matter of togetherness.
He and Lot quarrelled. There is much that might be said about this episode
but we look at it from Lot's viewpoint and have to conclude that he made
a wrong decision. At any rate what he did not do was to bear in mind the
consequences of his decision. He looked out on the marvellously beautiful
plain, which is no longer there because of divine judgment on its cities,
and chose to go that way without bringing it to the Lord and weighing the
possible consequences of what he was doing. In the event he lost his wife,
his possessions and the morality of his daughters, and had to be pried out
of the situation by his uncle who first rescued him and then later prayed
for his deliverance.
Lot teaches us to beware of spiritual brinkmanship. We are responsible
for the decisions we make for ourselves and our family. Lot had no special
guidance from God and we may have no magical light or infallible indication
of what is best, but the Lord knows what is right and wrong and He can save
us from the consequences of a world of sin round about us. Lot took the
risk. He pitched his tent towards Sodom. When we pray, "Lead us not into
temptation" it is sheer hypocrisy if then we proceed to put ourselves in
temptation's way. We must beware of moral brinkmanship. If we go to the
edge we may fall in. [109/110]
Lot succumbed to pressure but we now reach a point in Abraham's story
where we find how fully he was able to resist the world's pressure. Chapter
14 tells us that Lot passed from living near Sodom to moving in, and so becoming
involved in its battles. His capture led Abraham to react in concern for his
believing relative and mount a campaign to rescue him. It was a commando affair
and wholly successful and led to one of the most striking encounters in history.
Returning with the spoils, Abraham was in real danger. The pressure of the
world was about to come upon him, but at that point he was visited by the
marvellous mysterious figure of Melchizedek. The king of Sodom was ready
to patronise God's servant but he was forestalled by the king of Salem concerning
whom the New Testament comments that he had no beginning and no end. He is
certainly a picture of the great and glorious Lord Jesus, King of Righteousness
and King of Peace who is for ever and ever.
We need Him on the Lord's Day. It is marvellous when we come into new
contact with the Lord in His Word and can then go out into a world from which
we need protection. As we humbly pray, "Lead us not into temptation", we
are able to add, "But if we do have to meet it, O Lord deliver us from the
In many subtle ways the pressure of the world upon us can be involved
with the matter of money. When Abraham had been inwardly strengthened, he
was able to affirm: "I have lift up my hand unto the Lord God Most High ...
that I will not take ... aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have
made Abram rich" (14:22-23). Let us be careful of the deceitfulness of riches.
And if, in the providence of God we do get legitimate wealth, let us never
touch anything that is questionable, for that would give the Devil the opportunity
he is always seeking to mar our testimony. Let there be nothing tainted.
There followed the pressure of fear. This came just because he had made
his decision to be true to the Lord. He had been met by the marvellous king
Melchizedek and been blessed by him, but now Melchizedek had gone and perhaps
he lay in the night watches suffering a reaction. It is at about 3 a.m. that
such anxieties come upon us. He may have asked himself, 'Was I right? Should
I have said No?' We can imagine him lying under the night sky and wondering
about the future. It is true that with this 318 men he had defeated an army,
but it was a kind of commando raid and when the enemy discovered how small
the group was, would they try to come after him? It is no surprise to us
to realise that a man of faith may be attacked by fear. But in the quiet
there, the Lord reassured him. "Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield." Those
318 men were very effective but the fact is that I am the One who protects
you! Perhaps then Abraham asked himself if he had not been foolish to reject
all that money, but if so, God's reply was, "It is I who am your exceeding
The final pressure comes again from the matter of delay. It was all right
to have a promise, but Abraham had to ask, 'How can You give me the land
and bless people through me when I haven't even got a son? My servant will
have to be heir for I am childless.' Our passage ends with God's response
to that pressure with a repetition of the promise, with the divine call to
'Look up'. That is what God says to us all. Look up! Abraham's response of
faith, often quoted in the New Testament, is that he met that pressure by
simple faith: "Abraham believed God". So brothers and sisters, let us also
look up. The end of all pressures will be glory. If the Lord Jesus dwells
in us by faith we will never collapse like that empty tin, but survive and
THREE IMPORTANT 'BUT'S'
(A Comment on Psalm 22)
John H. Paterson
THE twenty-second psalm of David is generally regarded by Christians
as "messianic"; that is, as looking forward in a way which David himself
could never realise to the experiences of the Lord Jesus Christ. The prophetic
notes are dramatically obvious. On the cross, the Lord spoke the opening words
of the psalm, just as we have them here: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken
me?" The detail of the later verses finds its amazing counterpart in the
narrative of those awful hours, centuries later; for example, "They part
my garments among them, and upon my vesture do they cast lots" (verse 18).
So close, in fact, is the parallel that we may well find ourselves imagining
that these actual words went through the mind of the Lord Jesus following
His lonely cry on the cross. Perhaps they did, and if they did I want
to suggest to you that, in a remarkable way, they trace for us a proper response
-- indeed the only proper response -- to the situation in which the
Lord Jesus found Himself as He hung, abandoned, between heaven and earth.
For you will notice, I am sure, the greatest problem He faced -- and
which we in our measure may also face. It was the problem of how to react,
and the most difficult part of it was not caused by His enemies, the men
who had put Him there on the cross. In a dreadful sense, that was the least
part of the problem, for He can have had no doubt about the proper response
towards them: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." But
if God forsook Him: what could possibly be The 'right' response
to that? Blame? Reproach? Anger? All three were impossible for the Son of
God: all three are equally out of the question for us as believers in our
times of trial. How then ought we to react?
As I read this psalm, I find a short chain of clues to the answer to
this question, each of them marked in the Authorised and Revised Versions
of our Bible by the word 'but'. This is, of course, only the work of the
translators of the original Hebrew: there are actually no 'buts' in it!
Nevertheless, I feel that they give a structure to the text. They mark a
succession of thoughts which seem to have occurred in sequence to the writer,
as he tried to reason his way out of the dilemma into which he had been thrown
by his apparent abandonment by God. They mark, if you like, stages in his
return to confidence, a return culminating in verse 22 and onwards: "I will
declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will
I praise thee".
There are, of course, different kinds of 'but' that we use in our speech
and writing. We probably all know people who use 'but' mainly as an objection.
They use it to interrupt your story, or to refuse you help, or to foresee
obstacles in your path. This kind of 'but' can be very vexatious! There is,
however, another kind of 'but' such as mathematicians and scholars use, which
is a help and not a hindrance. It says, "But we already know that, so we
don't need to go over it again: we can move on from here, because what lies
on the other side of that 'but' is common ground, or common knowledge, and
we don't have to argue about it a second time."
This is the kind of 'but' which the translators have given us in Psalm
22:3, 6 and 9, the 'but' of a man climbing logically out of an apparently
impossible situation step by step. Here are three statements:
But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel ...
But I am a worm, and no man ...
But thou art he that took me out of the womb ...
These are the words of a man who is seeking an explanation of the fact
that God appears to have forsaken him; who has been tempted to think ill
of God. All the explanations that spring to his mind in his sorrow are critical
of God: [111/112] they put the blame on Him. And
each 'but' represents a shake of this man's head as he rejects the too-facile
explanation that it is somehow God's fault.
Explaining the Forsaken Feeling
Let me suggest to you how this works out. A person -- be he David, or
the Son of God, or you, or I -- who feels that God has forsaken him might
well be tempted to jump to the conclusion that this is because God has in
some way changed. It God is capricious -- like, say, the old Greek gods who
were always playing tricks on each other and on men -- then He may change
from one moment to the next. He may be interested in a man one day, and turn
His attention elsewhere on another. He may demand something of a man one
day, and the next day demand the opposite. So the simplest explanation for
that feeling of forsaking is: God has changed His mind about me.
How simple -- yet how dangerous! For if we allow that conclusion to take
hold of us we are impugning the character of God, and that will never do.
Whatever may be the explanation of this position in which we find ourselves,
the right answer can never be that God has somehow changed. And this
brings us to our first 'but', the subject of which is, precisely, the character
of God: "But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel."
If there was one thing more than another which David and his ancestors
had learned about God, it was that He is consistently, unchangingly holy.
A moment's thought, the briefest review of Israel's history (and you will
find David making just such a review in verses 4 and 5 of this psalm) would
demonstrate beyond doubt God's absolute consistency to His own divine character.
So what David tells himself is this: To argue that I am now forsaken because
God has somehow changed would be to suppose that, after centuries of that
consistency God has suddenly, in my case, made an exception. How preposterous!
Surely this can be eliminated from my explanation right away!
No: it is not that God has ceased to be holy, or just, or anything else
that He has always been. But just supposing that the incredible has happened
and He has changed (and here we move on to the second temptation),
why should he pick on me to be made the exception? I am no worse than
anyone else. My ancestors -- Israel -- were a terrible lot, and somehow He
kept faith with them! They disobeyed Him times without number, and yet He
seems to have let them 'get away with it.' Compared with them, He surely
can't complain about me?
Do you see what has happened? We have rebounded from one false position
-- that God is inconsistent -- to another: that I deserve better treatment
than He is giving me! This, too, is a temptation that needs to be countered,
so notice the psalmist's response: "But I am a worm, and no man."
David, in other words, is taking exactly the opposite position from the
one I have just described as a temptation. He is arguing not that he deserves
treatment from God every bit as good as that accorded to his ancestors, but
that he deserves nothing at all. It is not that God is being unfair
to him personally by singling him out for this treatment, but that he is
in a category -- "a worm and no man" -- which does not qualify for any treatment
Verses 6 to 8 of the psalm dwell briefly on the treatment that men accord
to worms. Human worms are the object of scorn and reproach: they have no
claim upon the kind of consideration that might be accorded to people
. The worm has no claim upon life at all. There is here no ground for complaint
against God. It is not that His love or care have failed at a critical moment
of trial, so that He can be accused of unfaithfulness. There was never any
way of qualifying for that love or care in the first place. As Paul was later
to ask, rhetorically, "Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it,
Why didst thou make me thus?" (Romans 9:20)
This second 'but' may avoid the temptation of thinking ill of God, but
it leaves the psalmist in very depressing circumstances! If his first 'but'
gave him some encouragement, his second leaves him with little ground for
hope. And so we come to the third, the balancing, 'but': "But thou art he
that took me out of the womb." [112/113]
The psalmist, as he looks about for some ground of reassurance, realises
this: that God has shown His interest in him over many years already. It
would make very little sense for God to bring him into life, watch over him,
and instil in him a feeling of trust (verse 9b), only now suddenly to abandon
him at a later date. David's argument here is one that he may -- and certainly
could -- have taken straight out of Israel's history. It is this: God is
a God of purpose, and we can rely on Him, once He has declared a purpose and
committed Himself to it, to see it through and not to abandon it half-way.
Where might David have got this idea from? Why, from Moses, of course!
Do you remember those occasions when God said to Moses, "These people are
impossible. I am going to abandon (forsake) them right here and now, in
the wilderness, and start afresh", and Moses said, "You can't do that!"
(Exodus 32:11-13: Numbers 14:13-16)?
The perceptive man of God realised that what was at stake in these cases
was not simply the completion of an important part of God's purpose
but also His reputation; "And Moses said unto the Lord, Then the
Egyptians shall hear it ... then the nations which have heard the fame of
thee will speak, saying, Because the Lord was not able ..." (Numbers 14:13,
Behind God's purpose, then, stands God's reputation: He acts, as the
Old Testament so often expresses it, "for His great name's sake." And this,
to judge by the use made of the knowledge by Moses and David, is the most
powerful argument that can be advanced before God to move Him to act. It
is therefore also the most powerful assurance that can be offered to anyone
who, somewhere along life's way, feels that God has finally given them up:
"No, He has begun something in me, in you, and I am sure that, if He begins,
He will finish what He has once begun."
"Being confident of this very thing, that he which began a good work
in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).
Let me now summarise what we have here. The believer feels himself forsaken
by God. Searching for an explanation of why this might be so, he thinks of
i. God has changed;
ii. God is being unfair;
iii. God has abandoned His purpose.
But his knowledge of God and his experience of Him immediately counter
these three hypotheses with three rebuttals:
i. God could not change without ceasing to be God;
ii. Someone who owes you nothing cannot be unfair;
iii. God could not abandon His purpose, once begun, without jeopardising
His very reputation as God.
Therefore, with the psalmist, we can praise Him, for whatever may be
the real explanation of our circumstances, it is certainly not one
of these three!
That is great but it does not tell us, of course, what the true explanation
actually is. I believe, however, that even to know what it is not
may be helpful to us. The 'explanation' of that feeling of abandonment
which the Lord Jesus experienced on the cross involved a purpose which was,
and is, cosmic in scale and which, in some senses, remains a mystery to this
day. It may be that the explanation of our own trials and testing will have
to await the fuller light of another world:
I'll bless the hand that guided,
I'll bless the heart that planned,
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel's land.
But at least, for the present, let us boldly reject and eliminate the
false explanations. Let us not for a moment accept, even in our deepest distress,
the calumnies upon the name and character of the Lord which their acceptance
would involve. This, if you recall, was what Job had to do, and he had to
keep it up through 40 long chapters of our Bible! His friends came to him
and offered a dozen or more explanations of the disasters which had befallen
him, and Job rejected them all. To every one of them he replied, "No. I
have no idea what the right explanation is, but I know it's not that
If the record of Scripture shows us Job following this course, can we
not with the utmost reverence imagine these 'explanations' of God's conduct
flashing into the mind of that lonely and suffering Man on the cross, and
being instantly rejected just as, once before in the wilderness, we know
that He had instantly rejected the temptations put before Him by the devil?
Can we not imagine Him being distantly aware of them and, weak and dying though
He was, slamming the mental doors shut upon them to keep them out? Our own
reaction to them is likely to be less immediate or perceptive but, once
we see them for what they are, shall we not also bar the door to 'explanations'
such as these, and rather join with the psalmist in his declaration of faith
"For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him he heard."
A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES
"But we will continue steadfastly in prayer
and in the ministry of the word." Acts 6:4
I think that it is obvious that the establishing of these priorities
so early in the church's life was absolutely crucial for its future, and
I have little doubt that a similar approach can be equally crucial for permanent
profit in our own lives and ministry. Of course the establishing of priorities
is always a vital matter in every sphere; our time, our energy and our money
are all limited and need to be wisely used. In fact we disclose where our
priorities really lie by the time to which we devote to them. The apostles
found that they had clearly to establish their priorities. Their decision
arose out of what seemed at the moment to be a trivial incident, but the
principle that arises from it is far from incidental.
There was some ill-feeling between the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews)
and the Hebrews (probably the Aramaic-speaking Jews); The Hellenists felt
that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. It was
a matter of social concern and practical Christian care for the needy. The
message of the passage is not that it is unimportant whether the Church of
Christ becomes a caring and concerned fellowship. That is a matter of enormous
importance to God, and it ought to be so to us. What we need to note is
that the apostles recognised a sinister attempt by Satan to divert them
from the true business of their lives. The whole future of the Church was,
in a sense, in the balance.
There had been two such attempts before. The devil had tried to disable
them through discouragement, opposition and persecution when Peter and John
were imprisoned and commanded to speak no longer in the name of Jesus. The
church responded to that danger by coming into the presence of God and pleading
with Him as the sovereign Lord (4:24). In Chapter 5 we read of how the whole
issue was raised again by the sinister work of the devil in introducing hypocrisy
into the church through Ananias and Sapphira. There was subtlety in that
intrusion of a diabolic attempt to introduce corruption into the Church of
In Chapter 6 we find that Satan seeks to work more subtly still. Clearly
there was the danger of division, discord, disharmony and mutual suspicion,
but the deeper danger was that the apostles might become absorbed with good
things, and become distracted from the things that were vital. But they said,
'We will not be diverted; we will give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry
of the word.' I believe that in the Church of Jesus Christ in this generation
we face precisely this kind of danger; that of forgetting where our true
priorities lie, of failing to distinguish between the merely good, and the
vital and fundamental. We need to have a clarifying of our vision and a re-echoing
of this holy determination of the apostles. The focus of our concentration
needs to be a wholehearted commitment to prayer and the Word of God.
The Priority of Prayer
The Authorised Version reads: "We will give ourselves continually ...".
Phillips says: "... wholeheartedly ...". What are they saying? Not simply
that prayer is important, that every Christian ought to pray, every convention
should begin the day with prayer, every church ought to have a prayer meeting;
what they are saying is that the chief business of the Church is prayer,
and the greatest need of a confused, sick and desperately needy world is a
praying Church. Do we really believe that? Let me spell it out a little more
in two propositions which seem to me to arise from the context of this passage:
i. Prayer is the basic form of Christian work
You will notice that I am not saying that prayer is the best way of supporting
Christian work. It is much more than that. The constant theme of Scripture
is that prayer is work. Paul appeals to the Romans: "Strive together with
me." The verb he uses indicates what we have brought into our language with
the word 'agony'. The real work which the apostles did was done in the place
of prayer. Again and again they proved that prayer bring down the power of
God. The basic form of Christian work is prayer.
Professor O. Hallesby, in that remarkable little book Prayer,
says that the work of prayer was a prerequisite for all other work in the
kingdom for the simple reason that it is by prayer that we couple the power
of heaven to our helplessness. It is therefore necessary for the Spirit
of God to burn this mystery into our hearts. The most important work we
have to do is that which must be done alone with God, away from the bustle
of the world and the plaudits of men.
To this I would add the simple reminder that prayer is so important because
the work we are engaged in is not man's work but God's. There are many things
that man can do by himself. He can move people emotionally. He can convince
them intellectually. He can indoctrinate them as to orthodoxy. But only the
living God can spiritually resurrect them, eternally save them, inwardly
transform them into the image of the Lord Jesus. And this, after all, is what
we are concerned with. Only God can give the increase. If this is so, then
prayer becomes fundamental rather than supplemental. That it is often not
so is the great tragedy of the Christian Church.
ii. Prayer is the basic form of Christian warfare
Prayer is not only the basic form of Christian work; it is also the basic
form of Christian warfare. The apostolic Church was clearly engaged, corporately
and individually, in warfare. It was locked in mortal combat with the powers
of darkness who resisted every advance of the kingdom of God. That is really
the record of the Book of the Acts: of advances by the Church met by counter-thrusts
from the powers of darkness coming in all sorts of ways.
This happens individually as well as corporately. This is the background
of our Christian life, for every move by the Spirit of God in our lives will
be resisted by the powers of evil. All true Christian living involves spiritual
warfare, and we need to be reminded that the pressures and difficulties which
many are undergoing are the norm for Christian experience. But the real
question we have to ask is, Where is the front line of this battle? The
fundamental question is, Where is it that the issues are really being decided?
The Biblical answer is clear. It is the place of prayer. That is the testimony
of the whole Book of Acts. The front line of every situation is to be found
in the place of prayer.
This is supremely illustrated in Exodus 17, which tells of Israel's first
battle after their release from Egypt. The Amalekites came against them in
Rephidim and the reaction of Moses must have seemed most extraordinary. Though
he was the people's leader, he did not himself go into the battlefield but
told Joshua to choose men to go out and fight while he and those that were
with him would go to the mountain top. So Moses and Aaron and Hur went to
the mountain, while Joshua mustered the army in the plain. The progress of
the battle fluctuated astonishingly as they discovered that the issue of
the battle lay, not with the combatants on the field, but with the intercessors
on the mountain top. When Moses lifted up his hands, Israel prevailed; when
he let them down, Amalek did. In all the work of God world-wide, this is
the principle which ought to govern God's people in the great spiritual conflict
concerning the gospel. [115/116]
There are, of course, various ways in which we can react to this apostolic
determination, the commonest among evangelicals being to insist that there
are other things to do besides praying. 'Does the man not understand' they
protest 'that we live in a complicated, needy world, with mountains of things
to do besides praying? He should be more practical.' Well, there are other
things we need to do, but that is not the lesson which we need to learn.
We are -- by and large -- good at those other things; what mostly we are weak
in is the task of battling through in prayer.
The Priority of the Ministry of the Word
We now turn to the other part of the apostles' resolve, "We will give
ourselves to the ministry of the word." This literally means, 'to the service
of the word' since the word has the same root as is used in the phrase 'to
serve tables' in verse 2 and it has precisely the same meaning. As to status,
there was no distinction between those groups of people, but the apostles
had discovered their primary calling, namely, that they were to be the servants
of the Word of God. This implies two things:
i. Submission to the authority of God's Word
As against this phrase of 'servants of God's Word', many might tend to
respond that it is to God that they are servants. It is, however, impossible
to be submitted to Him without being submitted to the authority of His Word.
Again and again through history this has been the focal point for the Church,
and it is certainly so today. I am sure that Francis Schaeffer is right
when he speaks of this as the watershed for evangelicalism in our generation.
This is where the crucial issues really concentrate for us, on our whole approach
to Scripture, and perhaps above all our submission to its authority.
Let me draw your attention to some words of Dr. J. Packer: 'The decision
facing Christians today is simply whether we take our lead as to the authority
of Scripture from Jesus and the apostles, or not. Will we let ourselves be
guided by a Bible received as inspired and therefore wholly true, or will
we strike out against our Lord and His most authoritative representatives
on a line of our own? If we do this latter, we have already resolved in principle
to be led not by the Bible as given, but by the Bible as we edit and reduce
ii. Determination to minister the Word
The apostles' resolve involves something more. They were determined not
only to submit to the Scriptures' authority but to preach them in their ministry.
They were not merely determining upon an academic attitude to Scripture.
They would not only serve it -- they would serve it up! This was the diet
on which the early Church grew up and thrived, as was seen at once by the
witness of Stephen as he sought to proclaim holy Scripture in all its rich
His story dominates the whole of the passage from Acts 6:5 to 8:3. This
man was full of the Spirit and so we are told that "they were not able to
withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke" (6:10). It was not
the weight of his own learning; it is not really an academic thing at all.
It is not the wisdom which comes from the university or the seminary. It
comes with a growth in grace and godliness, with a life that is filled with
the fullness of God. It is possible for a man to be greatly gifted intellectually
and yet be a baby in wisdom; and it is possible for another man to have very
little intellectual training and yet in godly wisdom to be a giant.
The fullness of the Spirit produces a love of Scripture. This is the
most obvious conclusion one can draw about Stephen for in Acts 7 we read
how it just poured out of him, for his heart and mind were steeped in it.
And this is a vital index to the character of the man.
May I press this especially upon young people whom God is shaping for
the future? We older people are looking to you in these exciting and tremendously
significant years of the last part of the twentieth century. I say to you,
above all other things that you concentrate on, give yourselves to an earnest,
serious study of the Word of God. Nothing will form your character more than
that, nothing shape you more for the future, and nothing create of you a
fruitful servant of God more than that. [116/117]
Not all of us are called to be scholars, but every one of us is called
to be a student of Holy Scripture. Prayer for a new love of the Scripture
and a deeper appetite. In this realm the French proverb is true, 'The appetite
grows with eating.'
We live in crucial times; in many ways these are intriguing times. Never
has the Church more needed to have this holy resolve burned upon its soul:
"We will give ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word."
LIFE IN THE HEAVENLIES
(The Epistle to the Ephesians)
6. TESTIMONY IN THE HEAVENLIES (3:1 - 6:9)
"To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers
in the heavenly places might be made known through the
church the manifold wisdom of God." Ephesians 3:10
NO sooner had Paul completed the amplification and explanation of his
threefold petition, than he was ready to return again to the Lord to pray.
He began: "For this cause ...", but then he was diverted to the subject of
the mystery, and only returned to his intercessory work after he had inserted
the parenthetical verses of 3:2-13, when he resumed his reference to his
praying with a repetition of the phrase, "For this cause ..." (v.14). The
parenthesis is most important. What was it that arrested his attention and
interrupted his prayer? The passage deserves our special consideration, particularly
as it is marked by a further allusion to the heavenlies.
Reading this short passage, we sense that the age-long secret which had
been released from the hidden counsels of God was something of prime importance
to the apostle who knew himself to be especially commissioned among his fellow
apostles and prophets to disclose it. It represented a ministry entrusted
to him on behalf of all believers, this thrilling secret which had never
before been made known. What, we may well ask, is this divine mystery?
Comprehensively, as the whole Epistle makes clear, it is bound up with
the Church which is Christ's body. In this passage, however, the emphasis
is placed on the matter of testimony. We are to consider the Church's testimony
or, better still, the Testimony of Jesus which has been committed to the
Church of this age. So the apostle writes: "to the intent that now
... might be made known through the church ...".
From the first formation of the blood-bought Church which was brought
about as it emerged from Egypt, right to the final revelation about the Church
which is found in the last book of the Bible, great stress is laid upon the
Lord's Testimony. We read about it in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and
we find a concentrated expression of it in the ark of the covenant, which
is also called the ark of the testimony (Exodus 16:34). The conclusion of
the matter is stated by the angel in his words to John, explaining to him
that "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10).
What is this Testimony? What does it all mean?
It certainly means something more than those individual testimonies which
we give -- and rightly so -- in our fellowship together and in our message
to the world around. It is not wordless, though it is not limited to words.
It is the setting forth in living expression of the person of Jesus Christ.
John was not exiled to Patmos just for some utterances of his, but because
of what he stood for. Probably his words formed part of the charges made
against him, but it was because of his commitment to Christ that he was made
a prisoner. "I was in the isle that is called Patmos for the Word of God and
for the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 1:9). The apostle's words give us
the written Word and the living Word associated together as his reason for
suffering banishment. [117/118]
Perhaps the Old Testament will make the matter of the Testimony clearer
to us. When Jordan's waters parted to allow the Israelites through, much
was made to depend upon the central feature, "the ark of the testimony" (Joshua
4:16). Again, when Jericho's walls fell flat at the people's cry, the key
to that victory was the ark (Joshua 6:4). On the first occasion, the priests
stood in Jordan with that ark, and later they led the procession around Jericho
carrying the same ark. They did this in obedience to God's specific command.
Now even the most elementary Bible student knows that the ark of the covenant,
with its blood-stained mercy seat and its sacred contents, typified the
person and work of the Lord Jesus.
Perhaps it will be enough to take the contents of that ark. First of
all there were the unbroken tablets of the law, testifying that Christ,
by his own perfect righteousness, had replaced those shattered tablets which
had been broken as a result of the people's sin. So long as the ark survived,
those unbroken testimonies to the fulfilment of God's law had remained within
it. In the ark there was also the golden pot of ever-fresh manna, speaking
of Christ as the bread of life sent down from heaven to feed God's people.
And there was also Aaron's rod that blossomed and gave fruit, providing a
perpetual reminder of the fullness of resurrection life miraculously displayed
in the One who had passed through the dark night of being a cut-off branch.
Every thing about the ark and within it was a testimony to Christ. It was
the Lord's Testimony.
Now, of course, these were only symbols, but they were symbols of mighty
spiritual realities, and their effect on Satan and death in every form was
superlatively triumphant. This ark, however, was not self-propelling; it
had to be carried on the shoulders of God's people. In a similar way, the
great Testimony to Christ's victorious Person and work must be carried or
borne by the Church. It is through the Church that it is to be made known.
And it is to be made known to the unseen hosts of the heavenlies. The
phrase 'principalities and powers' which appears several times in this Letter
applies to very real beings, both good and bad. To draw attention to them
by no means implies that for one moment we may relax our task of witnessing
to sinful men, but it has this added feature that its full effectiveness
reaches beyond the visible to the unseen, and such a testimony demands absolute
There was a time in Israel's history when the people lived in unholiness
and yet tried to use the ark for their own purposes. Having suffered defeat
by the Philistines, they said to one another, "Let us fetch the ark of the
covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that it may come among us and
save us ..." (1 Samuel 4:3). This certainly frightened their enemies, whose
reaction was to exclaim in fear, "God is come into the camp ... Woe unto
us!" They need not have worried, for 'it' did not save Israel. 'It' never
can save, for 'it' denotes an empty profession, a mere matter of forms and
words, or even of traditions. This represents a powerless testimony.
The Testimony to the manifold wisdom of God demands holy living. It has
to be effective in the unseen realm where spiritual intelligences, both good
and evil, are able to perceive inward reality, or the lack of it. They are
not deceived, as men may be, by outward appearances; they see into us or,
as we would say, they see through us!
The people in Ephesus were given a startling example of this truth. Two
of the sons of Sceva tried to jump on to the gospel band-wagon by using the
names of Jesus and Paul in an attempted exorcism. Their seemingly orthodox
phraseology proved utterly futile. They were totally discredited. "Jesus
I recognize" said the evil spirit, "and Paul I am acquainted with; but
who are you?" (Acts 19:15). The pair of them were no match for the
spirit and were publicly shamed and severely manhandled by it. Their pious
words were not backed by holiness of life and so were powerless. I imagine
that in Ephesus the need for reality in the Church's testimony was high-lighted
by this incident. We are told that "the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified"
by it. That is the one great purpose of the Holy Spirit: that is the supreme
objective of life in the heavenlies; that the name of the Lord Jesus may
The bearing of the Testimony of Christ is the Church's great privilege.
We live at a time when witnessing is almost entirely limited to the presentation
of the gospel for the evangelization of the unsaved. Now if that were the
be-all and end-all of the gospel mystery, why was the Letter to the Ephesians
first written and then preserved as part of Holy Writ? And why was so much
[118/119] else of the New Testament similarly provided
for us? The converted sinner may give his gospel testimony and point others
to the Saviour. The saved Church may give its united testimony, and do so
the more effectively by reason of its united voice. But is this all? If so,
why did the Lord Jesus give that extended talk and pray that impassioned
prayer as recorded in John Chapters 14 to 17? And why didn't Paul close his
Letter to the Ephesians at Chapter 2? The answer is, of course, that the growth
and spiritual vitality of the Church is all-important to the Lord for it
is the vessel of His Testimony.
We notice that God's wisdom is described as 'manifold' or variegated.
As we read on in the Letter we get some idea of what this means when we read
of each Christian having his own personal gift of grace (4:7) and then read
of advice for husbands and wives, parents and children, servants and masters
(5:22 - 6:9). Christ is so infinitely great that it needs all of us (each
different from the other but all like Him) to give the full testimony to
His glorious Person.
One of the worst and most foolish attempts at Christian testimony is
the almost inveterate demand for uniformity which disfigures so many movements
and so many local fellowships. There are, of course, times when it is most
praiseworthy to have unanimity among a people, but it can sometimes be much
more glorifying to Christ if there is unity even with differences of opinion
on secondary matters. I deplore so-called 'charismatic' groups just as much
as I equally deplore avowedly 'anti-charismatic' groups. "Is Christ divided?"
Paul asked in his day, while much earlier the psalmist exclaimed, "Behold,
how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"
Psalm 133 terminates by pointing out that this is not only good and pleasant
but is the secret of vital testimony: "For there the Lord commanded the blessing."
This does not mean that the Church is just a group of associated individuals
or pairs like that other 'ark' which Noah constructed. No, it is an integrated
community or family, living together, growing together, witnessing together
and perhaps even suffering together. The Lord Jesus pointed on to this when
He asserted that His personal presence (if you like, His Testimony) would
be known when two or three were gathered together in His name (Matthew 18:20).
"Two or three" puts no premium on small numbers, though my own view is that
very large numbers can sometimes lessen effectiveness. It is not intended
as a norm but as a stress on the corporate nature of discipleship. Note the
expression carefully. It does not suggest that the Church consists of people
who had agreed to join together or gathered themselves, but rather that
they had been gathered (by God), with the added thrust of that gathering
being 'into' the Lord's name.
By this I do not refer to a pervading atmosphere but to an active functioning
in concert. The ascended Lord gives His gifts to us, not that we may serve
some individual purpose, however praiseworthy, but that we make our contribution
to the whole. Each of us has an individual gift, each is a distinctive member,
and each must contribute to the growth and maturity of the whole body: "For
it is from the head that the whole body, as a harmonious structure knit together
by the joints with which it is provided, grows by the proper functioning
of individual parts to its full maturity in love" (4:16).
It took a Midianite outsider to alert Moses to the principle of delegation.
Of the many sovereign interventions of God into his experience, a striking
one was the visit of his father-in-law (Exodus 18). Apart from the restoration
of Moses' family and the spiritual fellowship of the occasion, the one practical
result of that visit was that Moses stopped trying to do it all himself and
sought the active co-operation of very many helpers. A one-man band may
be an agreeable sensation but a well-conducted symphony is much more agreeable,
even if not so sensational. It is interesting to find that, once this suggestion
had been made, Jethro went back happily to his own land. Since the inspiring
Spirit has devoted a whole chapter of the Bible to this incident, we are
evidently meant to take it seriously.
That perhaps refers to leadership, but we can also get a beautiful illustration
of harmonious functioning if we picture to ourselves the constant movements
of the whole people. There were chosen men who carried the ark, but a whole
host of people united in conveying the Tabernacle of Testimony in its many
parts, and some were [119/120] limited to the lowly
task of handling the sockets and pins and cords (Numbers 3:37). Those little
men only carried a tent-peg or socket, they may even only have loaded and
unloaded them from the wagons, and possibly felt very insignificant. But
those sockets and tent-pegs were absolutely vital to the functioning of the
whole. Without them nothing would have been possible. This is a parable for
us. The difference is that their goal was only the promised land whereas ours
is to be "Till we all attain unto the unity of ... the knowledge of the Son
of God ... unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." Every
saint has a part to play in this.
"Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other ...
The outward harmony of action demands an inward harmony of relationships,
and this I have labelled 'Charity'. I have said that God's people must not
only live together but if necessary suffer together, and I notice that the
short section at the beginning of Chapter 3 ends with the words: "I ask that
you faint not at my tribulations for you ..." (v.13). No doubt the reference
is to the special sufferings which the apostle of the mystery of Christ
had to undergo, but in fact all who share in this Testimony must be prepared
to suffer for it. Our next article will deal with the spiritual conflict
in the heavenlies -- that is the battle with external forces -- but before
that we do well to observe that for all involved in the Testimony of Jesus
there is a price to be paid.
The reminder that in order to express His love for the Church, Christ
"gave himself up" (5:2) refers chiefly to His sacrifice at Calvary, but we
must not forget that out of love for His friends, the Lord Jesus took up
His cross daily. Who can tell the cost to His sensitive soul of having to
show unfailing kindness and tenderheartedness to those blundering and sometimes
quarrelsome disciples of His? Was He never tempted to speak a harsh word,
to feel impatience or harshness or to display coldness to those faulty companions
of His? He must have been! The miracle of His perfect holiness was that
He never yielded to such a temptation: "Having loved his own who were in
the world, he loved them to the uttermost" (John 13:1).
This, then, is the Testimony of Jesus. This is the spirit of grace and
kindliness which is to mark the people of the heavenlies. Keep yourself
apart alone, or restrict your relationships to your own cronies, and you
will not have to suffer in this way. But neither will you demonstrate in
true testimony the manifold wisdom of God's grace.
Under this heading I include what the Letter has to say in the section
from 5:22 to 6:9, for this forms part of the passage devoted to the Testimony.
Those 'principalities and powers' are not just churchgoers -- though they
are that. They are also home visitors and business inspectors, always on
the watch, always observing our behaviour and peering into our intimate lives.
This is a disturbing thought to those who have shameful things to hide.
I am so glad to know for certain that they see marvellous manifestations
of Christlikeness in many godly wives whose inner lives are beautiful to
God. I know, too, that they see some husbands who constantly and sacrificially
show Christ's love to their wives. I cannot speak much about parents, but
I can vouch for sons and daughters (especially daughters!) whose care of
their parents has been marked by that 'extra mile' of devotion, and I have
known workers who have adorned the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things
by their conscientious devotion to duty. I am glad to close with this positive
emphasis. The manifold wisdom of God is being demonstrated by His Church
all day and every day. Many have been won to Christ by this Testimony. May
it grow and increase in us all!
(To be concluded) [120/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
OLD TESTAMENT PARENTHESES (24)
"(Now his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem)"
IT might be thought that this is just an incidental remark about Daniel's
residence if it were not for the fact that clearly chapter 9 tells of the
earlier exercise in prayer over Jerusalem's restoration so that his daily
prayer and giving of thanks centred upon the assurance that his earnest prayers
had been heard and would be answered. The open windows seem to have a spiritual
significance. They indicated the objective of Daniel's persistent ministry
HE could have closed the windows and been effectively shielded from the
prying eyes of his enemies. That might have spared him from accusation, but
to him it would have represented spiritual defeat. It is true that he could
not see the far distant Jerusalem, and had he done so, would have had little
to give thanks for, since the city was in ruins. But faith can see the invisible;
it can so embrace the promises of God as to give substance to what has not
yet taken place. Daniel had prayed for God's city and for God's people (9:17-19)
and knew that his prayer had been heard.
DANIEL was not praying for himself; he could do that behind closed doors.
He was maintaining a thrice daily prayer watch until the promised answer
was realised. That answer centred in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and faith
demanded that he keep his windows open in that direction as he prayed. There
is something magnificently inspiring in the statement that when he knew of
the fatal decree, he just went on with his customary praying (6:10). The man
of faith does not panic.
PRESUMABLY it was after his third session of prayer that Daniel was thrown
into the lions' den. Since he was released, quite unharmed, very early on
the following morning, we may also presume that he went back home, fell on
his knees and carried on with his holy privilege of thanksgiving and prayer.
The windows were certainly still open. Jerusalem's future was still the
objective of his intercessions. And in the first year of Cyrus, captives
were released to go back and rebuild the city.
THE lessons to me are to keep on praying about the Lord's interests and
leave Him to look after ours. We should not pray in front of a mirror (though
we need to pray for ourselves). We should not pray with the limited outlook
of our own room, however important that may be. We need to keep the windows
open towards God's objective when we pray. And though all Hell should scheme
to have those windows closed and that prayer silenced, we should go quietly
and purposefully on.
POOR Daniel was not permitted to return with the released captives. That
may well have been a great disappointment to him. However his prayers played
a vital part in the restoration of the city and, what is more, he was guaranteed
an honoured place in the heavenly and eternal Jerusalem, for he was told,
"Thou shalt stand in thy lot at the end of the days" (12:13).
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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