|Vol. 16, No. 6, Nov. - Dec. 1987
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
THE HIDDEN YEARS (1)
J. Alec Motyer
Matthew 1:1 to 4:16
MATTHEW'S Gospel often uses the time indication suggested by the word
'then'. A notable mention of time is found in the words, "From that time
began Jesus to preach" (4:17), so if we are to consider the prelude to Christ's
public ministry we have 4:16 as the terminus of our study because after that
Jesus was right out in the public gaze.
It is astonishing that the writer should start with a genealogy, "The
book of the generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham"
(1:1). If anyone wrote a book like that today no publisher would accept it.
What is more, no careful author would think of beginning with a genealogy.
Most people start reading books at the beginning, and they need something
to excite the imagination, but Matthew seems to kill all interest stone dead
and send his readers off to sleep. This opening section is, however, quite
deliberate and it proves that Matthew regards this as a most important feature
of his story. We will deal with this in more detail, but first suggest that
he bases his account of the birth, hidden years and prelude to ministry of
the Lord on nine facts.
i. The Genealogy (1:1-17)
This works steadily down the years and across the centuries from 1:1
to 1:16 until we come to that lovely man Joseph who was the husband of Mary.
Some of the names in this list are familiar to readers of the Bible, but
from verse 12 onwards it is different. First of all we have a few people who
are mentioned in the Bible, Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, but after that we are
told of successors in the line whom nobody knows. It must have looked as
though the line of David was running into the sand, just as Isaiah said it
would when he described the Lord as being "like a root out of a dry ground".
Had God given up on His purposes and promises?
Of course not! When God seems to be doing nothing, you may be certain
that He is quietly working out those purposes and keeping those promises.
All will be well. There is a great patience as well as an exactness in the
out-working of the plan of God, and this list reminds us that God works with
both grace and holiness. As to grace, although most of the mothers of these
babies are not mentioned, those who are will provoke real surprise. There
is Tamar (v.3) who was Judah's daughter-in-law. Genesis 38 describes how
this forbidden incestuous relationship took place, emphasising that grace
of God which overrules our mistakes and shortcomings, and gets glory for Himself
even when we do what we should never have done. Then there is Rahab (v.5),
for God caught her up into His holy purposes. Yes Rahab, Rahab the harlot
of Jericho, ended up in an honourable place, for God rules and overrules in
our sinfulness and frailty. Bathsheba is simply described as "her who had
been the wife of Uriah" (v.6). If the Bible had not been an honest book it
would never have mentioned that base behaviour of David, how David took another
man's wife, had him killed and then the two had a son whom they called Solomon
but whom God described in a message sent through Nathan as Jedediah, the
one whom the Lord loves. So we see glimpses of the great grace of God even
in this list.
But we must not presume on that grace, for God's ways are most holy.
So we read, "Josiah begat Jechoniah and his brethren, at the time of the
carrying away to Babylon" (v.11). The Lord knows when to let His patience
run out. He knew when to let judgment come upon His people. It was terrible.
They lost hearth and home and everything and were carried away 700 miles
to an alien land. They saw their lovely city pulled to pieces and their glorious
temple burnt to the ground. The Lord works out His p]an with grace but He
never goes back on His holiness. [101/102]
ii. The Birth (1:18-25)
And so we come to Joseph, the remarkable man who was chosen by God to
act as the father of the Lord Jesus. In Luke's Gospel we will read Mary's
side of the story of the Saviour's birth and will be told that the angel
came to a girl called Mary, but here we are told of how the angel came to
Joseph, so that, not by human arrangement but by the sovereign inspiration
of heaven, we are allowed to see the birth of Christ through both the eyes
of Mary and those of Joseph. Scandalised as he was by what was happening,
Joseph was too gentle and gracious to make her a public example but resolved
to divorce her quietly. This seemed understandable but the Lord told Joseph
that he was not to act in this way. He stopped Joseph in his tracks by sending
him an angel saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you
Mary your wife, for that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Ghost"
(v.20). The emphasis in that sentence is the word 'is'. It is of the
Holy Ghost. Mary had told him an unbelievable story, so privately he asked
her how she could have done it. Mary, however, replied that the baby had
been conceived by the Holy Ghost. Joseph went home scratching his head and
quite unable to accept this extraordinary story, so the angel said to him,
"Joseph, this child is conceived of the Holy Spirit, so now will you
take Mary to be your wife?" So Joseph was not allowed to step back from the
awesome task of acting as the parental guardian of the Lord Jesus.
iii. The Wise Men (2:1-12)
Next as the third of Matthew's chosen items of information we have the
coming of the wise men from the East. It is as though the world came crowding
in to acknowledge the One who had been born King of the Jews. Tradition
makes them kings but the New Testament passage says nothing of this. They
rejoiced to see again the guiding star (v.10) and they rejoiced to see the
young child with his mother but their worship was for Him only (v.11).
iv. The Flight to Egypt (2:13-18)
The Lord stopped Joseph from his impulsive action, why then did He not
stop Herod from his murderous crime? The power of Herod was nothing to the
Lord; Herod was of no significance beside divine sovereign authority. God
said, 'No' to Joseph; why did He not say 'No' to Herod? I do not know. I
confess that I would be easier in my mind if He had done so. But we must
not introduce our own feeble logic to God's sovereign will, even when that
seems most dreadful. He does all things well.
Herod was an extraordinarily savage king, more than usually jealous of
his position. This is established historically by authorities quite outside
of the Bible. Above all he had a morbid jealousy regarding his position
as king, as he often demonstrated. He gave vent to this savagery by seeking
to strike at the young child and destroying all who were within that age
group in Bethlehem. But the young child was protected by the overruling providence
of God and the family fled to Egypt and stayed there.
v. The Return to Nazareth (2:19-23)
"When Herod was dead an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph saying,
Arise, take the young child and his mother and go to the land of Israel".
So back they came, and apparently their first thought was to settle in the
vicinity of Jerusalem. They had come down from the North to Bethlehem, David's
city, and possibly they felt that God's designated King should be near the
capital. This was the way in which the minds of the wise men worked; when
they lost sight of the star they looked for information about the King in
the palace at Jerusalem. If only they had waited! What a lot of damage would
have been avoided. But logic came in instead of faith, and impatience missed
the blessing -- as impatience always does.
In Joseph's case, however, he heard that Archelaus was as savage as his
father and feared that the vendetta against the child might continue, so
they changed their minds and went back home. Of course we know from Luke that
they were in Nazareth at the beginning, but Matthew gives us this new piece
of information. To go back home could not have been an easy decision, because
Mary was going back to the place where she was branded with having conceived
a child out of wedlock and Joseph was going back to the place where they
doubtless put it down to his fault. But back to Nazareth they came, and this
was all in the sovereign purpose of God. [102/103]
vi. John the Baptist (3:1-12)
The sixth fact is the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist,
which Matthew uses as one of his notes of time. The great forerunner had
vii. The Baptism of Jesus (3:13-17)
This passage about the baptism of Jesus is a marvellous one. It tells
us of the wonderful way in which John bore witness to Jesus, and Jesus bore
witness to Himself and the heavens were opened and the Father bore witness
to Jesus. How dramatic it all was. Jesus came to share with sinners a baptism
which He did not for one moment need, but deliberately identified Himself
with sinners so that He might be "numbered with the transgressors". God Himself
tore the heavens apart with divine excitement at that identification, as
though He could not contain Himself in His beloved Son.
viii. The Temptation in the Wilderness (4:1-11)
The Lord Jesus had the dramatic spiritual experience of coming straight
down from the exalted experience at the Jordan to face the tempter in the
wilderness. There are many people in the Christian world today who promise
you an experience of the Holy Spirit such as Jesus had at His baptism and
will assure you that after that you will never be troubled again. We, however,
are to be made like the Son of God and not like Christian teachers. The Scriptures
tell us that this same Holy Spirit led Jesus from His exalted spiritual
experience into headlong confrontation with Satan and into a direct personal
experience of all the deprivations of human experience.
ix. The Prelude to Ministry (4:12-16)
Finally we come to the ninth section of Matthew's introduction and we
find that this consists almost entirely of a long quotation from the prophet
Isaiah. "Zebulun and Naphtali, toward the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of
the Gentiles. The people who sat in darkness saw a great light ...". It is
most moving to see the way in which Matthew puts his picture together and
brings us to the point where Jesus steps out as the great light sent from
God, the Overcomer of death and darkness. These nine facts are the beginning
of his portraiture of the Lord Jesus. They are hardly more than the preparation
of his canvas, but they are the divinely chosen preparation and are full
of spiritual meaning.
The Plan of God
If we stand back from these nine features the first thing that will strike
us is that it all happened according to the plan of God. That is what Matthew
intended us to note. There was nothing that was accidental but it all happened
according to divine planning, being designed by God from the first to the
last. The sections have a common feature and that is that again and again
Matthew tells us that what happened was in order that it might be fulfilled
which had been spoken by the prophet. Matthew notes the fulfilment of Scripture
in the birth narrative more than any other writer. John notes the fulfilment
of Scripture most in the death of the Lord Jesus, but Matthew crowds in Scripture
after Scripture into these narratives of the birth and the hidden years
and the prelude to ministry because he wishes to emphasise to us that everything
happened just as God intended and said it would be.
We see this in relation to the birth of Christ where the prophet's words
concerning the child were that He would be born by a virginal conception
and that He would be Immanuel -- God with us. The virgin birth and the truth
of incarnate deity were predicted and fulfilled (1:22). Matthew 2:5 gives
us the second reference to Scripture: "In Bethlehem of Judea" they said, "for
thus it is written by the prophet". The One exercising leadership as the
Shepherd of God's people was to come out of Bethlehem. And Bethlehem it was.
Then we have a further Scriptural reference: "That it might be fulfilled as
it was spoken by the Lord through the prophet saying, Out of Egypt did I
call my son" (2:15). Why did Joseph go down to Egypt? Well, many reasons could
be given. He went down to get away from the anger of Herod and the danger
to the child's life. Yes, but why did it have to be to Egypt? The answer
is that God was working to a plan, and that plan required that He would call
His Son out of Egypt.
After this we have a part of the story that with all our hearts we wish
were not there. It concerns the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem: "Then
was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, a voice was
heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children"
(2:17-18). There it is. The marvel of the Bible is that it looks candidly
at the things we wish would go away and persists in its conviction that all
things are in the hand of God. Even this, then, was part of what was written
in God's book. [103/104]
Then there is the return home to Nazareth, a conscious choice but not
made because Joseph and Mary knew of any Scripture in that connection, for
there is no such verse in Scripture. They seem to have returned there because
it was the only thing left for them to do; they could not have been quoting
to each other "He shall be called a Nazarene", for there is no such verse
in the Bible. The quotation speaks of this in the words, "that it might be
fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets ..." (2:23), not appealing to any
single prophet but to the impression gathered from the prophets that He would
be called a Nazarene. Some take this to refer to the despised circumstances
of His life, such as is predicted in His being despised and rejected of men.
For my part I think that it is more likely that Matthew was gathering together
into one those various predictions which run through Isaiah, Jeremiah and
Zechariah which speak of the coming Messiah as the Branch of the Lord.
This is a family tree metaphor, by which Jesus is called the Branch because
He springs out of David on one side of His ancestry and from the Lord on
the other side of His ancestry. In this family tree picture He is the great
Descendant -- the Branch. One of the Old Testament words used for this word
'branch' is netser. The Lord is the branch man, He is the man from
The next reference to Scripture comes in connection with John the Baptist:
"This is he that was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet. A voice of one crying
in the wilderness" (3:3). The forerunner had to come so that the people would
be alerted. God does not take people by surprise but gives warning and puts
us on probation so that we know that the times and seasons are moving forward
according to His plan, and therefore He sent the forerunner whom He had
appointed. He told them that He would and He did. Moreover some hold that
this was but a foreshadowing of the great coming of Elijah which will precede
the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus. There are mysteries beyond most of
us. What the Bible does say -- and this moves and excites me very much --
is that before that Coming there will be the sign of the Son of Man in the
heavens (Matthew 24:30). Nobody will be able to say that it isn't fair because
God did not warn them.
The last of the references to the Scriptures is found in 4:14-16 which
tells of someone coming into the land of Zebulun and Naphtali and bringing
the light to those who walked in darkness. This is the one which was consciously
fulfilled as the Lord deliberately left Nazareth and came to Capernaum. In
this we see the Lord Jesus on the verge of His ministry and setting Himself
to fulfil the Word of God. Otherwise, with possibly one exception, these
outworkings of prophecy were brought about by circumstances, without the hand
of man being involved at all. They were done by the direct action of God.
In this one case where the Lord left the familiar place of Nazareth to go
to bustling Capernaum, it was done deliberately, but this only enhances the
rest for it shows our Lord's careful concern to work according to the divine
plan. We can take great comfort from this fact that God rules over all and
works out His purposes. If at the moment we cannot see that this is so, we
may rest upon it; our all-wise God is doing things according to His own perfect
will, and all will be well.
The Greatness of Jesus
But while we take that comfort, we must be impressed by these facts that
Jesus is special. These fulfilments of prophecy all point in one direction.
Did you ever know of anybody like Jesus? Did you ever know anybody who had
such a wealth of concentration of the purposes of God upon him? What a marvellous
person this must be if Scripture is concentrated upon Him and the purposes
of God make this intense focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.
So let us look at the greatness of Jesus as our final consideration of
these early chapters of Matthew. They give us the revelation of the purposes
of God, but they also give us the revelation of the greatness of Jesus.
May the Lord open our eyes to that greatness. All through these first four
chapters of the Gospel we are pointed to the greatness of the Person.
This starts at the beginning: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." That is who He is. Now if we were
writing this verse we would have put it the other way round. We would have
started at the [104/105] beginning and said, "The Son
of Abraham who was then the Son of David". Scripture, however, is always most
exact; nothing is there by accident and nothing is out of place. The truth
is that we can only see the Lord Jesus as the Son of David first because it
is only when He fulfils His role as the Son of David that He is in a position
to fulfil His role as the Son of Abraham. It has to be this way.
The Son of David is the world's King and He is the world's Saviour. This
is what the Old Testament tells us about the coming Messiah. It is declared
in the prophecies of Isaiah more marvellously than anywhere else in the Old
Testament; in them the Son of David is seen to be the appointed King and
the appointed Saviour. These are roles that He must fulfil before He can
function as the Son of Abraham, the one in whom all the kindreds of the earth
will find the blessing of God. The blessing of which God spoke to Abraham
comes through Jesus who is the Son of David.
The announcement of the Lord's human ancestry is followed by the lovely
interview with Joseph which tells us of another dimension to the Coming One.
He is not only the Son of David and the Son of Abraham, He is God come down
among us: "They shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted,
God with us" (1:23). Here then is the whole truth about Jesus: He is God
come down to earth.
Chapter 2 acknowledges and tests Him as the Son of David and Abraham
by means of the coming of the Wise Men who were looking for someone of worldwide
significance, for someone in whom the Abrahamic promise would be fulfilled,
someone who would be a blessing to the nations. But they were looking for
a king, so they asked "where is he that is born King of the Jews?" They found
Him at Bethlehem and there they worshipped Him.
This was followed by the test. Is Jesus really the Davidic king? If so
He must be King over the kings of the earth. So we are left with the abhorrent
story of Herod, one which we would much rather ignore. It seems, though,
that Herod is set against Him that it may be clearly demonstrated that Herod
cannot win. This, of course, in no way explains why, in the providence of
God, the children of Bethlehem were caught up in this horror. There is no
way of explaining that. It does, however, put the incident in a biblical focus.
When Jesus quietly slips away from Herod's grasp, remains with His kingship
intact and then comes back to reign as King when Herod is dead and gone,
we have a foreshadowing of the fact that Jesus is the King of the kings of
Chapters 3 and 4 take up the other side of the story. They acknowledge
and test Him out as the Son of God. He was acknowledged and tested as the
Son of David and Abraham; now He is tested by Satan as to whether He is
truly the Son of God. In that He also triumphs. After the baptism the tempter
came to Him and said, "If you are the Son of God ...". You don't really believe
that, do you? That is something which needs proof. It cannot be taken on
hearsay. Go on! Put it to the proof. Don't believe it until you have tested
it out. But Jesus was not just the One who had heard a voice from heaven
saying, "You are My Son; He had the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit and
the evidence of His own divine nature within. He needed no external proof.
But Satan tried to bring Him down to a sinful, human level.
But Jesus triumphed marvellously. He is the Son of God. So now the stage
is set. There is nothing more for Matthew's prelude to His story. Jesus has
come to birth. He is the Son of David, the One who is King and Saviour. He
is the Son of Abraham, the One who is King and Saviour on a worldwide scale.
He is also the Son of God, born of a virgin. He has been declared the Son
of God and has proved His majesty as God's Son. Now what are we waiting
for? "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light". Out on
to the stage there steps this wonderful Jesus. May our eyes be opened to
the beauty and majesty of Him who is the Light of the world!
(To be continued) [105/106]
BRINGING MANY SONS TO GLORY
(The Epistle to the Hebrews)
5. SONSHIP'S PERILS
THIS book of the New Testament is unusual for various reasons, not the
least being that it contains certain solemn warnings which hardly seem fitting
in the case of true believers. Those addressed as brothers are yet warned
to take care that there is no evil heart of unbelief in them (3:12). In particular
there is a passage in Chapter 6 and yet another in Chapter 10 which have
led some to conclude that it is possible for a true believer to fall away
and be lost.
I do not propose to get involved in trying either to explain or to explain
away these solemn passages, except to comment that they cannot mean that
a person can move in and out of the number of the saved, for it is impossible
for God's Word to contradict itself. The whole Bible is the work of the one
inspiring Spirit who is never of two minds. We cannot therefore concentrate
on one statement as a thing in itself not to accord with others. It clearly
follows that there must be something wrong with any interpretation which
does not accord with the rest of Scripture. In any case the words of 6:6 rather
stress the impossibility of recovery for the one concerned, so in any case
a man cannot be regenerated twice.
Nevertheless we would be failing in true reverence if we just ignored
these seeming anomalies in 'Hebrews'. They demand our serious attention.
For my part I totally reject the suggestion that these warnings are only
applicable to Jewish believers. There is nothing in this Letter to warrant
such an explanation. I cannot accept as Scriptural any idea that there is
a special class of believers called 'Messianic Christians'. It is most emphatically
stated that in Christ there cannot be Jews and non-Jews (Colossians 3:11).
Nor is the title in our Bibles [--] that this is the Epistle of Paul the apostle
to the Hebrews [--] part of the inspired Word. The most that we can say is
that the original readers were very familiar with the Old Testament economy,
but that was surely a feature of all serious Christians. When people are
described as having been made partakers of the Holy Spirit and having tasted
the powers of the age to come (6:4-5), then surely they are to be included
in the family of holy brothers. For this reason we must all take seriously
the warnings contained in this document.
Our present approach to this Letter has been to consider it as directed
towards the operation of bringing many sons to glory. Believers have been
born into the family of God and can rightly call Him Father. They are now
in the process of being conformed to the one Perfect Son of the Father, and
it is God's stated purpose to bring them to the desired goal. On the way,
though, there are pitfalls and dangers. Let us try to understand some of
1. The Peril of Drifting (2:1)
Spiritual drift is a common enough peril among those who have complete
assurance of forgiveness and eternal life. It should not be so. Nothing
should spur us on to devoted living like the realisation of the marvel of
sovereign grace. The fact remains, however, that as time goes by (5:12)
it is all too easy to take spiritual values for granted with a true but
quite unscriptural phrase of 'Once saved always saved'.
This warning has to do with the peril of ignoring or neglecting the greatness
of our salvation. At first it seems wonderful but it may later almost seem
commonplace to realise that we have escaped eternal condemnation. Salvation
is much more than that. Its greatness consists in the prospect of public
recognition as God's sons and is associated [106/107]
with the rule of the world to come (2:5). The writer points out that if
those who received God's message through angels proved how important it was
to pay heed to it, we who have the direct message of the Son confirmed to
us by specially inspired witnesses must be all the more careful not to be
slack about it.
We therefore conclude that the first and perhaps the most common of all
spiritual perils is to take for granted that we know all that one needs to
know and possess all that can be experienced of the immense range of our
eternal salvation in Christ. This salvation covers the past -- thank God
for that -- but it also looks forward to the world to come, involving us
with what the psalmist has to say about man's divinely chosen destiny to
reign with Christ. We are called to recognise that God's gospel message to
us is directed towards what the apostle Paul calls, "the prize of the on-high
calling of God" (Philippians 3:14).
The non-Christian cannot avoid total loss if he ignores God's call to
him. This Letter, however, is not written to unbelievers but to brothers
in Christ. Is there the possibility of some kind of loss to those who drift
away from the will of God in their daily living? Seemingly there is. Some
of Christ's parables about unfaithful servants suggest this and Paul's disclosure
concerning the Judgment Seat of Christ reinforces this idea. The aged Peter
warned his brothers to beware of short-sightedness over the matter of their
calling and election (2 Peter 1:8-10), while his even older colleague John
provided some stern challenges to the readers of his First Letter.
At all costs we must avoid drift. Mature sonship is not automatic or
inevitable; Christians do not drift into it, though unhappily they may drift
away from it if they are not careful. We need the Lord's constant help to
keep moving steadily forwards in God's will. Chapter 2 ends on a note of
reassurance, reminding us that we have been provided with the great High
Priest who can deliver us from this and very other temptation.
2. The Peril of Coming Short (4:1)
In Chapters 3 and 4 the writer illustrates his warning not to fall short
of God's purpose by means of the sad story of Israel's failure in the wilderness,
and then completes the section by repeating what Chapter 2 has to say about
our great High Priest (4:14-16).
Paul had already cited the tragic story of Israel's shortcoming in the
warning which he made to the Corinthians. Having listed the great benefits
which came to God's redeemed people, delivered and provided for in wonderful
ways, he went on to point out that those favoured people failed to reach
God's objective for them and never entered the land of promise. Concerning
them, the apostle declared that "with most of them God was not well pleased"
(1 Corinthians 10:5). Such a condition is the very reverse of sonship.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to speculate about the spiritual
fate of the multitudes who perished in the wilderness, especially as they
included Aaron and Miriam. One cannot form doctrines from allegories. This
double use of the failure on the part of those whom God rejected is meant
to stress one point, and that is the danger of not holding fast (3:6), and
failing to enter in (4:1). Their fate should alert us to the possibility
of displeasing our Father by our lack of trust. He has an end in view which
He calls "My rest". We must make every effort to enter into that rest. He
has provided every resource for the purpose -- "the works were finished from
the foundation of the world" (4:3) -- so that for us it is not a matter of
relying on our works (4:10) but of a constancy of trust in Him.
Here we have the strongest possible warning based on a divine oath (3:11).
Clearly this must be a matter of grave concern to our Father who has an implacable
opposition to unbelief as is evidenced by His angry negative (3:11 &
4:5). In the case of the unfulfilled Israelites there were reasons for their
refusal to move on with God. The "rest" offered to them was not a pushover.
There were walled-up cities to be attacked and giants to be overcome. But
the basic cause of their failure was not the strength of the opposition but
what the writer here describes as "an evil heart of unbelief" (3:12). The
Israelites had faith to come out of Egypt but they lacked the persevering
faith required for those who were to enjoy the planned inheritance. The readers
of this Letter had begun in faith, for they were holy brothers by new birth,
but they needed to take heed to maintain a simple constancy of faith to the
end, as Joshua and Caleb most certainly did. [107/108]
Growth into spiritual maturity involves facing walled-up cities of difficulties
and gigantic opposition from many directions, so that we are constantly being
challenged as to whether we will give up or move on in faith. Those who
received this Letter were told to remember their former days of triumph by
grace (10:32) and patiently press on towards the Return of Christ. For us
all new birth was a beginning, not a goal, so in the light of our need to
hold fast we must attend to the constant call of the Holy Spirit to be up-to-date
in our faith. Again and again He reminds us that today is the opportunity
to exercise new faith; "Today ... harden not your hearts" (3:7, 15; 4:7).
Since this is essentially a heart matter we welcome what we are told
about the living and powerful Word of God piercing through merely outward
appearances and exposing inner realities. If there is hidden unbelief in
us, we want it identified and put away; if our faithfulness is not apparent
to others, we are glad to know that the Lord recognises and responds to it.
Our lives are not just governed by a book but by the Lord of the Book (4:13).
3. The Peril of Wasted Time (5:12)
The man who wrote this Letter was limited and frustrated by what he virtually
describes as infantile behaviour on the part of his readers. They liked the
milky diet of babyhood, which means that they seemingly circled round and
round the first principles of Christ and asked for nothing more. They had
had an elementary faith in Him but they had no desire for more and failed
to appreciate that it was high time that they took divine concerns more seriously.
For the believer time on earth is limited and very precious.
The words "it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance ..."
(6:46) may in fact be a straightforward argument that no person can be saved
twice. If, as some have assumed, it teaches that enlightened and born-again
believers can lose their salvation, then logically it would mean that there
is no chance afterwards that they could ever be reconciled to God. This
is so contrary to the rest of Scripture that it cannot be what is meant.
Does it not rather argue that the Christian can never start over again,
he can never again come to the cross as a sinner needing salvation? From
the viewpoint of eternal security, this is excellent news. We can never
be born from above again because that can never happen twice.
Our appreciation of this fact must not deaden the thrust of this warning.
If we are considering the Judgment Seat of Christ, this possibility of being
rejected and near to a curse (6:8) is not an imaginary one. None of us will
question the fact that the pre-conversion section of our lives is not only
forgiven but forgotten too. It is as though it had never existed. But what
about our post-conversion years? They will all come under review. This means
that unfruitful areas will be like burnt wasteland. It is even possible,
as Paul points out, that eternity may evidence Christians whose circumstances
are so devoid of spiritual values that those concerned may be described as
"saved so as by fire" (1 Corinthians 3:15), rendered by Phillips: "He personally
will be safe, though rather like a man rescued from a fire."
Put like this, the implications of the solemn warnings of 6:4-8 are that
sections of our Christian lives may prove to have been completely wasted,
just as lands producing only thorns and thistles are waste land. I am ashamedly
conscious that this may be the final verdict on parts of my own spiritual
history. I am glad that it will all be burned up, but grieve that it will
represent wasted time.
It would be unwise of us to ignore this solemn warning to those called
to be sons. The whole thrust of this passage is that we should learn lessons,
even from our failures, and see to it that precious time which can never
be recovered is not frittered away so that its end is to be burned. The Lord's
desire is that we should not grow slack, but follow the example of those
who through sheer patient faith came to possess the promises (6:12). The first
principles of Christ are meant to be springboards, not easy chairs!
4. The Peril of Discouragement (10:35)
The words of 10:26-31 are most difficult to reconcile with the precious
promises of grace in other Scriptures. Once again we note the mention of
fiery judgment (10:27) and at the end of this main body of the Letter we will
be given a reminder that "Our God is a consuming fire" (12:29). These solemn
verses of judgment are given in the setting of messages to those who have
the full right to draw near to God and who are [108/109]
exhorted to encourage one another, yet it seems that here once more we
are dealing with the possibility of being among those with whom God is displeased
(v.38). "We are not among those who shrink back" the writer affirms, in accord
with what he has already written, "But, beloved, we are persuaded better
things of you ..." (6:9). Thank God for that! We are grateful for reassurance.
It does seem, though, that we are confronted by real dangers, else why does
the Holy Spirit convey the inspired warning that "the Lord will judge his
people" (v.30)? This is not a matter of final condemnation but the reminder
that our procedure as Christians must come under God's scrutiny as He seeks
for sons in whom He may be well pleased. In this life it does happen that
children get discouraged by home conditions or by parental behaviour, and
consequently they lose patience and walk out on it all. This causes great
pain to their fathers and mothers who were hoping for mature filial relationships.
In human affairs the children may or may not be justified. Parents can be
very foolish or misguided. In our case, however, we are related to our perfect
heavenly Father; to treat Him like that would be to spurn Christ and to insult
the Spirit of grace.
One of Satan's favourite weapons is that of discouragement. He will do
his utmost to prevent a person from becoming a child of God, and when he
fails to do that he will concentrate his efforts on doing whatever he can
to hinder growth into maturity. One of the Christian's greatest needs is
that of patience (v.36). Whatever happens to us and however harsh life may
appear, we must never lose patience with God and succumb to the discouragement
which tempts us to walk out on Him.
I am well aware that I have not given a full explanation of what is meant
by the solemn warnings of 10:25-36, but out of these sombre verses which
most of us find difficult to understand or explain, we may learn of dangers
and of their remedy. The warning is not to throw away the confidence which
so far God has given us, not to move away from a relationship of grace which
the Holy Spirit has provided for us and not to turn away or shrink back from
the painful path of sonship. The remedy is to remember how in the past God
has given us grace to be faithful to Him through many trials (vv.32-34) and
to be assured that simple faith in our soon-coming Lord will lift us above
the discouragements which come from the stresses and injustices of life
as we know it. We must be resolute in refusing to accept discouragement and
maintain the faith of those who are true sons. The phrase, "faith unto the
gaining of the soul" (v.39) links up with the words of the Lord Jesus, "In
your patience you will win your souls" (Luke 21:19). Faith and patience must
work together in those who are to inherit the promises (6:12).
5. The Peril of Lack of Grace (12:15)
The actual warning in this section is, "See to it that no-one misses
the grace of God", but included here is the warning against a "root of bitterness",
against being "profane" or unspiritual, and against refusing God When He
speaks (v.25). Esau ignored or despised the grace of God when he sold his
birthright and it was that, and not just the schemings of Jacob, which caused
that irrevocable loss of sonship. We might brush off this example of Esau
since he was not God's chosen man, but we dare not gloss over the fact that
we are all exhorted to look carefully that we do not follow his example. Perhaps
the challenge centres upon our need to make full use of the grace so freely
given to us in Christ.
Earlier on we had been urged not to forsake the practice of fellowship
with our brothers (10:25). Now this whole matter of relationships is brought
to the fore. A root of bitterness in one heart can spread its defiling influence
over a whole community so that many are troubled by it. Sonship is a corporate
experience: Christ is bringing many sons to glory. If those sons cannot find
sufficient grace to save them from bitterness of spirit towards their brothers
how can they claim to be advancing to glory, for glory comes from grace?
I suggest, then, that the final warning is bound up with our taking the
grace of God seriously. Those who do that are not daunted by the reminder
that our God is a consuming fire, for they truly desire to be rid of "the
things that are shaken", the wood, hay and stubble which have no lasting
value. As by God's grace we can avoid all these dangers and press on to our
destiny in Christ, we will find, as the psalmist promised, that God will give
grace and glory.
(To be continued) [109/110]
THE TOUCHY TRIBE
John H. Paterson
"Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols?
I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green
fir tree. From me is thy fruit found." Hosea 14:8
THE history of the Children of Israel forms one of the principal themes
of the Old Testament. It is the theme of God's dealings with a chosen group
of men and women, through whom He wished to make Himself known to the rest
That being the case, have you ever wondered why the Bible dwells at such
length upon the fact that, although there was only one people of Israel,
there were twelve tribes? About some of these tribes -- Judah, for example
-- we know a great deal, but of others very little. For all twelve of them
we have a most detailed listing of their borders, their territory and their
cities. We also know -- though what to make of it would be hard to say! --
that two and a half tribes decided not to enter the land of promise, but to
settle east of the River Jordan. Nothing in their subsequent history shows
them to have suffered by this decision, in which case we are left to wonder
about their choice.
That the tribes were different from one another early emerges from the
story. The point is made by Jacob's thumbnail sketches of his twelve sons
in Genesis 49. The successive censuses of the people (e.g. Numbers 2 and
26) show that some tribes became much more numerous than others as time went
by, and we can read of the rivalries and conflicts between them which help
to explain some of these differences (e.g. Judges 20:35). We know of the
special priestly role to which the tribe of Levi was called. And we know
that the birthright due to Jacob's oldest son, Reuben ("unstable as water,
thou shalt not excel", Genesis 49:4), was forfeited and transferred to Joseph
(1 Chronicles 5:1-2).
What all this suggests is that, if we can but trace them, we have here
twelve histories rather than just one. To pick out these histories in some
cases may well prove difficult, for we know so little of the tribe concerned.
But it is my guess that, if we could do so, we should be led to the conclusion
that the twelve tribes were intended by God to portray through their experiences
different aspects of His work and character in human lives. Together, the
twelve would then make up a united testimony that "blessed is the nation
whose God is the Lord" (Psalm 33:12).
Some of the tribes never really began to fulfil this role; their testimony
never "got off the ground". In one or two cases we can see, I believe, what
the lesson was supposed to be, and we can also see where the tribe
failed. If any reader can do this for all twelve tribes, then I hope that
the editor will afford him or her space in these pages for an appropriate
series of articles! For myself, I am taking the easy course of dealing here
with only one tribe, the one which seems to me most clearly to exemplify
the ideas I have so far suggested. That is the tribe of Ephraim.
The History of Ephraim
Let me start by recalling to you some incidents from the tribe's history
in the land of promise, incidents which seem to fit a pattern. In the first
place, we find the tribe complaining to Joshua (who was, of course, an Ephraimite
himself), that he had not allocated them a large enough territory for a tribe
of their size and importance (Joshua 17:14-18). But Joshua knew how to handle
his relatives. He said to them, in effect, "Certainly: take all the space
you want! All you have to do is to drive out the people in your way!"
[110/111] But the natives had chariots of iron, and Ephraim complained
that this made the task too difficult; in fact, they never did drive out
those inhabitants. The implication was that it was up to Joshua to send along
someone to help them: they were a great tribe, but not that great!
"The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in
the day of battle" (Psalm 78:9).
Then there are two incidents in Judges, both of which reveal a common
character trait. When Gideon had defeated the Midianites, he sent word to
the tribe of Ephraim to block the fords of Jordan and cut off the enemy's
retreat. This they did, apparently very effectively; it was a manoeuvre of
which any general might be proud (Judges 7:24-25), but notice the reaction
of Ephraim: "Why hast thou served us thus, that thou calledst us not, when
thou wentest out to fight with the Midianites? And they did chide him sharply"
(Judges 8:1). To be used just to block a retreat, rather than to be first-choice
troops to fight the battle, was not good enough for Ephraim, the super-tribe!
Almost unbelievably, they did the same thing again, a few years later.
This time, the Israelite leader was Jephthah, but the treatment he received
was even worse than that meted out to Gideon: "Wherefore passedst thou over
to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with
thee? We will burn thy house upon thee with fire" (Judges 12:1). But Jephthah
did not take this lying down; he pointed out that before the event,
when actual danger threatened, they had been deaf and blind to his need for
help. It was only after he had won the victory that they came accusing
him of acting without reference to them.
We get the impression that, as a tribe, Ephraim was touchy in the extreme:
status-conscious is a modern word which we might use. Nobody was supposed
to do anything without giving Ephraim first refusal!
In this respect, if there was one tribe more than another which worried
proud Ephraim, it was Judah. The birthright of Reuben, as we are told in
1 Chronicles 5:1-2, might have been transferred to Joseph, Ephraim's father,
but "Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler"
-- the royal house. On this basis, any priority, any preeminence among the
tribes of Israel that Ephraim might claim had to be shared with Judah. This
so worried Ephraim that the prophet Isaiah, in that wonderful eleventh chapter
which begins, "there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse" (a
man of Judah!), can foresee no greater bliss, in that great and coming day,
than that "the envy also of Ephraim shall depart ... Ephraim shall not envy
Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim" (Isaiah 11:13).
The Role of Ephraim
Now all of these characteristics are, you may feel, simply indicative
of human weakness: we all know "me-too" people like Ephraim and, indeed,
there is a bit of Ephraim in all of us. However, if we bear in mind God's
often-declared purpose that His people should represent Him and, by their
quality, should testify to His power and greatness, then we are entitled
to enquire a little further into this matter and ask: what was it that
this tribe, in particular, might have been expected to exhibit in its
character, and how does its actual conduct contrast with this intention?
Well, Ephraim, far from being the super-tribe it evidently considered
itself to be, was the tribe that had no right to be there at all.
Ephraim was not one of the twelve sons of Jacob, but one of Jacob's grandsons.
Ephraim and Manasseh were just there to make up the numbers! Levi, as the
priestly tribe, was not to be counted as one of the twelve, and Joseph was
to be counted twice, because his descendants had become so numerous (Joshua
But this was only the last in a long series of events that brought Ephraim
to a position of power -- a sequence of divine choices which no human logic
could justify. Consider: Ephraim was where he was because Jacob had blessed
him ahead of his elder brother, Manasseh (Genesis 48:10-20). Ephraim's father
Joseph was where he was, the ruler of Egypt and holder of the family
birthright, because he had been blessed ahead of all his brothers: God had
made him "to be fruitful in the land of my affliction" (Genesis 41:52), which
was how and why Ephraim (-- fruitful) had received his name.
But then we go on: Jacob was where he was because he had been
preferred, in his turn, to his elder brother Esau (Genesis 25:23), and that
quite independently of his own strenuous efforts at self-advancement. And
Jacob's father, Isaac, was where he was because he, in turn, had
been preferred to his elder brother, Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-19).
What an extraordinary series of events! Four times over, at least, God
allowed the natural sequence to be overturned and, at the end of the sequence,
there was Ephraim, the product of God's successive interventions. Perhaps
we can visualise a modern parallel of someone who joined a firm as an office-boy
and then, without ever going near the office in question, was promoted to
departmental head, to managing director and, a few days later, to chairman
of the board!
Now when we are thinking of God and His actions towards men and women
we have a name for this kind of unmerited preferment that Ephraim received.
We call it Sovereign Grace. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, Ephraim was the
one which, more than all the others, ought to have been aware of God's amazing
grace, and lived in the light of it -- of a four-times-over promotion, at
the end of which the tribe enjoyed a status that, by nature, it could never
for a moment claim.
Here, then, was a tribe whose true destiny was, surely, to be a prime
exemplar of God's grace at work in human lives. If anybody could appreciate
the meaning and extent of that grace it should have been Ephraim. But, as
we have seen, the reverse was the case: touchy, status-conscious, this tribe
saw an entitlement where it should have seen the gift of God's grace.
Grace is, I think, the hardest of God's gifts for men and women to appreciate.
Indeed, in the whole of the Scriptures, how many men -- and, especially,
women -- can you think of who accepted it, humbly and immediately? Ruth and
Mary the mother of Jesus would certainly head my list; after them perhaps
Hannah; perhaps David in 2 Samuel 7. But the list cannot be much longer than
that: for all the others, let alone for ourselves, the acceptance of grace
caused, and causes, awful problems!
Think of Joseph, Ephraim's father, who when he was young, sounded exactly
as his son was later to sound: "Behold, I have dreamed a dream ... the sun
and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me" (Genesis 37:9). What
a long and weary way Joseph had to go, through hatred, injustice and neglect,
before he came to accept that "God meant it unto good" (Genesis 50:20)!
Think, too, of Jacob, Ephraim's grandfather who, before he learned the
meaning of grace, had cheated and been cheated halfway across the Middle
East. What travels and trials before the startling realisation came: "God
hath dealt graciously with me and ... I have enough" (Genesis 33:11)! It
is a lesson which most of us will finally learn only in the glory of another
Day -- to be recipients of the grace of God and to recognise that we have
nothing to do but to accept it. And the most difficult "status" of all to
maintain is that of the recipient who says, "I have done nothing. I deserve
nothing. I am where I am because of God's grace and nothing else."
Ephraim and Israel
Let me, if I may, add another dimension to this story of grace unappreciated.
One has only to spend a few minutes with a concordance to realise that the
name Ephraim is not used in the Bible for this one tribe alone. It is also
frequently used to cover all those ten tribes which broke away from the rule
of Judah's royal house and formed the northern kingdom of Israel. This is
probably true, for example, of the passage I have already quoted in Isaiah
11, and is certainly true of such other references as Isaiah 7:8 and 17.
Most of all, however, it is true of the prophecies of Hosea.
Now it is evident that this use of the name Ephraim to cover the whole
kingdom of the ten tribes is a habit of particular prophets. But I want
to suggest that it is also largely confined to passages, or prophetic messages,
of a particular kind. If you read the words of Isaiah or Hosea, I think
you will find that where the name Ephraim is used in this way, it is nearly
always in relation to the love of God for Israel. It is a message to Israel
of God's love and grace and their failure to appreciate them; a message
of endearment for the undeserving. [112/113]
Families and friends commonly have what we call pet names for each other.
They are used in private messages of love or friendship, but almost never
when, say, a husband and wife are angry with one another, or when a parent
is rebuking a child. A friend of mine told me that he always knew when his
father was angry with him; ordinarily, he was known as "Glennie", but if
his father called out "Glenn", he knew he was in for trouble!
I hope that it is neither improper nor irreverent to suggest that "Ephraim"
was, in a way, God's pet name for His people. Simply by using it, He was
identifying Himself as a God of love and grace, no matter how serious were
the charges against Israel. And so we turn to the prophecies of Hosea, and
read those remarkable phrases in which the pet name appears:
O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee?
I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms.
How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? ...
Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together.
I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not man.
The "Ephraim theme" of Hosea is a message of love betrayed. There is
a note of incredulity in God's words to His people, as when we say to someone
who we thought was our friend, "I don't understand: how could you do this
to me?" If it were just a matter of sin, law and punishment, there would
be no feeling, no emotion involved. It would be like a traffic warden writing
out parking tickets for offenders, dispassionately, without emotion. But
this time it is Ephraim that is the culprit: God's special Ephraim. Of
course He feels involved: He faces the dilemma of love betrayed:
"Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against
him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled
for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 31:20).
What lesson is there for us in this brief Bible study? This, perhaps:
firstly, that it is perilously easy to presume upon grace; to start out feeling
grateful for a gift and, in no time at all, to convince ourselves that what
at first looked like grace was, in reality, no more than our entitlement.
Secondly, that there is a difference in quality between sin as a legal concept
and sin as lack of appreciation: that is, between a relationship covered by
law and a relationship created by grace. Ephraim was intended in God's purpose
to demonstrate how a relationship with Himself can be created by grace alone.
Let their failure alert us to the perils of presuming upon that grace.
"For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was
rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might
be rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).
BOTH SIDES NOW
(Some thoughts on the Lord's Supper)
THE words 'Both Sides Now' form the title of a song which has been popular
for some years past. It is a song about clouds, and how differently they
can appear at different times and places, and the difficulty of discovering
what is real and what is only appearance, and that is a theme familiar to
New Testament readers. As Paul reminds us: "Now we see in a mirror darkly
..." (1 Corinthians 13:12). And of course in the Epistle to the Hebrews much
is made of the contrast between the world of imperfection and shadows and
the total, perfect reality of heaven; between an old, provisional covenant
and a new.
A few years ago my wife and I were in America. With nine flights in five
weeks we saw a great [113/114] deal of the clouds
from above as well as below. I have one particular memory of waiting to take
off from St. Louis. Thunder-storms were in the offing, and we each knew that
we were a little apprehensive. Rain lashed the cabin windows and, a couple
of miles away, a bolt of lightning stabbed at the city. To relatively inexperienced
travellers by air it all looked menacing. But the airline pilot took a more
relaxed view. "We've a couple of showers around at the moment, but we'll
soon be above them". He was right! Before long we were above the cloud, and
drawing away from that cumulus-nimbus that was giving St. Louis such a drenching.
Air travellers are in the happy position of being able to observe both
sides of the clouds. And it struck me that the Lord's Supper is that singular
kind of event when God allows us to see both above and below the clouds
in the same moment of time.
The Lord's first disciples did not see the meal in the upper room in
that double sense, however. For them, the customary joy of Passover was
clouded by the sombre, almost depressive mood of Jesus. John gives us a
picture of a group of very bewildered men sitting under gathering storm
clouds and listening to a weather forecast they would rather not have heard.
John 13:2 introduces a scene which, from a human angle, was to grow increasingly
gloomy. Satan had already persuaded Judas (who was under a cloud of sin)
to betray the Lord Jesus. Then Jesus began proceedings with a gesture and
lesson which Peter found hard to accept (he, if you like, was under a cloud
of ignorance). The thoughts of Judas's conduct seemed to weigh heavily on
Jesus -- the fact that someone who had been so close to Him should have failed
to understand the nature of His Messiahship.
Then, stepping sideways to Matthew's Gospel and the Garden of Gethsemane,
we hear again a cry from the depths: "My soul is very sorrowful, even to
death" (Matthew 26:38). Jesus, much more than His friends, saw just how dark
the approaching storm would be. He, more than anyone, could see the darkness
in human nature and recognize the grotesque face of satanic evil. He, more
than anyone, could also see, over the horizon, the approaching storm that
would strike at Judah, leaving city, temple and people devastated (Mark 13:1-2).
The disciples were at a loss to know how to respond to Jesus' apparent
gloom. Was it a thinly-veiled admission of defeat for Him, for God, for
them? It looked like that. From an earthbound vantage-point, that Passover
meal was certainly an under-the-clouds affair.
And yet, at the same time, and because of His unique nature, the Lord
Jesus could also be above the clouds. In John 13:31 there is that ecstatic
outburst: "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in him God is glorified."
The Johannine paradox, which we can trace from early in the Gospel, is apparent
here. The moment of His humiliation is also the moment of His glory; the
moment of His death and elevation on a cross is, at the same time, the moment
of triumph, full of saving significance for believers (John 12:27-33). Christ
was able to be both beneath and above the clouds and, if that seems a contradiction,
it is one that stems from His very nature as God and man.
But from the upper room through to the dawning of the Easter truth, Jesus'
disciples remained earthbound and cloud-covered. That may have been understandable
but what is less so, to my mind, is the way in which the Lord's Supper became
an 'under-the-clouds' occasion, and remained so for a huge period of the
Church's life. Latin theology turned a celebration into a wake, with more
emphasis on the dead and tortured body of the Lord Jesus than upon His resurrection
-- which, after all, had been the primary emphasis in New Testament preaching
(cf. Acts 4:8-12).
As a teenager I was initiated, after my baptism, into the high mysteries
of the Communion Service. It was a solemn business, I was told, and experience
seemed to confirm this. There was much stress on Christ's sacrifice, and
on my part in His death. Feelings of unworthiness were reinforced by hymn
lines, such as
Guilty, vile and helpless we,
Spotless Lamb of God was He.
It is true that the verse goes on to speak of 'full atonement', but my
earliest impressions of the Lord's Supper certainly left me with an under-the-clouds
Now I have, of course, no wish to rewrite the New Testament, or to deny
that the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus was anything other than an
awesome and, in many respects, terrible thing. Yet the Lord's Supper must
have this other face, too. As God's people we are supposed to be above the
clouds, as well as languishing below them in a world of bombs, famine, suffering
The Lord Jesus allows believers to experience, in some degree, what He
felt like when He first broke bread, and ordained that His Church should
continue to do so in remembrance of Him. We come to His Table acutely aware
of the pain and sadness in life but, instantly, in the breaking of bread
and drinking of wine we are lifted to thee heavens, and a vantage-point from
which we can look down on the clouds. We are already citizens of an eternal
kingdom: "Our commonwealth is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20).
The triumph songs of heaven which punctuate the prose passages in the
Book of Revelation can be sung by God's people in the here and now, even
although we still await those events which will make the victory absolute.
When we were in America we attended a communion service at a huge community
church near Chicago. It was an ultra-modern building by an artificial lake,
and the dimensions of everything impressed us. It was, however, something
else that stuck in my mind. This was an instruction printed on our order-of-service
sheet: "Please throw your communion cups in the trash bin at the end of the
service"! Apart from saying something about our "disposable" society, this
notice reminded me that the Lord's Supper is also a feast. It is
a true celebration when we can toss aside the cup of sorrow. A statement
is being made -- a proclamation of love and grace triumphant, and sin and
evil defeated. At the Table sorrow becomes joy, despair is turned to hope,
the loser is proclaimed the victor, the sacrificial Lamb of God is the mighty
Privileged as we are to gather with others who share these precious insights,
we look down on the battlefield, not merely as combatants but as celebrants
of a great and lasting victory.
IT is most unlikely that anyone can tell us how many Christian hymnbooks
there are. It is quite impossible to calculate the vast number of hymns in
those books and to describe their variety. Some are new -- very new! Some
are old or even very old. The oldest one of them all, however, and the one
almost certain to be found in most hymnbooks is what we call the 23rd Psalm.
It is a sweet and simple song. It has no doctrines and it does not even
mention sin, but it contains the deepest realities of life, the lasting truths
of what happens when a person is truly right with God. It is always relevant,
sung at weddings and sung at funerals. I have often repeated it to children
-- little children -- and have shared it with dying old people. It is highly
personal; almost entirely concerned just with the Lord and me.
Questions arise as to whether David wrote this psalm in his youth, when
he himself was a shepherd boy or whether it was more a testimony composed
towards the end of his life. If written when he was still young, then his
faith was magnificent, for he could have no idea of what would happen to
him as his life unfolded. To me its very simplicity suggests old age. Goodness
and mercy had marked all the days of his life [115/116]
and he was anticipating his eternal home in the house of the Lord. It
does not matter. If you are young you can be sure that this is how your life
will work out under the care of the Good Shepherd, and so you can say your
'Amen' in faith. We who are old affirm its truths and spontaneously say
'Amen' to David's song since the words accurately describe how true to life
it has all been.
It implies a double responsibility. Because the Lord is my Shepherd,
He is totally responsible to care for me. And since it is THE LORD who is
my Shepherd, my responsibility is to trust Him implicitly.
We might perhaps expect that David's testimony would describe all the
great things he had done for the Lord and in His name. There is no mention
of these, though the story may be found in 1st and 2nd Samuel. No, what the
Holy Spirit testifies to, and what must be the theme of our testimony, is
the goodness and greatness of our Lord. The following are a few of the sweet
singer of Israel's themes:
1. Peace. Verse 2
This sheep is in green pastures and he is lying down in them. This denotes
inward satisfaction, harmony in the soul. How do you make a sheep lie down?
He is not like a sheep-dog who will listen to and obey commands. Incidentally
those noble animals seem to find the lesson of lying or sitting still as
the hardest one of all, as indeed it often is for us. It is useless, though,
to command a sheep to lie down and impossible to force it to do so. Even the
rod and the staff cannot enforce that attitude, though it can guide and control
in many other ways. How can it be done?
The answer is simple. It is a matter of feeding. Give it fresh and appetising
food and when it has eaten enough, it will contentedly fold up its legs and
proceed to ruminate. Hungry sheep stand around; they scatter, they wander
and they get lost. But when they are provided for in green pastures and have
had their fill they will relax and healthily chew over their food. Unlike
many of His under-shepherds, the Lord does not make us lie down by beating
us up with His rod, but by ministering His truth to us in order to give
us His own inner satisfaction.
And of course there is the matter of water. A less understanding shepherd
might overwhelm his sheep by some swiftly running stream which could perhaps
wash its head and might even take its breath away, but would never provide
conditions for a refreshing drink of water. So my Shepherd leads me beside
the still waters. They are not stale and dead but they are provided in such
a way that my soul is constantly refreshed.
God's peace is, of course, in our hearts rather than in our circumstances.
A reader of David's history might well ask whenever it was that David experienced
this tranquillity. It was certainly not in his circumstances. He seems always
to have been on the move. First he went backwards and forwards from his shepherd
home to the court; then he was chased and harassed by the jealous Saul till
he could only describe himself as a persecuted flea or a hunted partridge
(1 Samuel 26:20). Even after he became king he was forced to leave all and
run away from his rebellious son, Absalom. All this was true, yet in it
all he seems to have had an inward experience of what Paul calls, "The peace
of God which passes all understanding".
Other psalms reveal and confirm that this was the case. When Saul pursued
him, he was able to sing aloud of God's mercy, "For God is my high tower"
(Psalm 59:16-17). When he found himself in a trap and had to pretend to be
mad in order to escape, he emerged singing, "I will bless the Lord at all
times. O taste and see that the Lord is gracious" (Psalm 34:1 & 8).
When Absalom rebelled and attempted to capture and kill him, even as he
moved about as a fugitive, he was able to report, "I lay down and slept. I
awoke again, for the Lord sustained me" (Psalm 3:5). Surely at that time of
danger and sorrow for David to have slept soundly in this way was proof that
his Shepherd was still leading him by the waters of tranquillity!
In great crises of my life I have also proved this miracle-peace. This,
says David, is what it means to have the Lord as your Shepherd. And if we
cannot say our 'Amen' to this, if we have to confess that we do not experience
His peace, then we have to enquire if the Lord is fully in command of our
lives and finding us submissive to His control. [116/117]
2. Correction. Verse 3
When the Lord has restored our soul then, and only then, will our feet
be led in the right paths. The Shepherd corrects our steps by first correcting
our souls. David was not always right -- far from it. He ran to God's enemies
for help. He lied. He brought trouble for his people because of his pride.
All this is recorded in Scripture and we are also told how God brought him
back from his own wrong paths to God's right ones. The Shepherd did this
for two reasons. The first is that His heart is full of kind concern for His
own. The second, as here stated, is because His own honour is involved; it
was for His name's sake. As the Good Shepherd He recovered and cared for this
precious sheep, but as the Great Shepherd He corrected him and kept him on
the right way, even turning some of his sins and mistakes into spiritual profit.
David's wrong actions were always when he failed to keep to his own often
voiced prayer to be shown God's way. When he was restored we find that it
is again said of him that he "enquired of the Lord".
God sometimes led him to the right way by means of helpful friends. When
he lost patience and was ready to take revenge on his enemy Nabal, it was
the farmer's wife, Abigail, who met him and begged him not to take matters
into his own hands but to leave them with God. David listened to her. The
Lord soon dealt with Nabal, leaving David deeply grateful for the advice
which had kept him from evil: "Blessed be the Lord" said David, "and blessed
be thy wisdom, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from blood-guiltiness"
(1 Samuel 25:32 & 33).
At other times the Lord corrected David by means of painful experiences.
He meant well but he wandered from God's explicit ways when he ordered a
new cart to be made for the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant. As
a result Uzzah was struck dead. The Lord was angry with David and David got
angry with the Lord and decided to give it all up. As months passed, however,
he turned to God's Word and was shown God's right way. "None but the Levites
must carry the Ark" he announced (1 Chronicles 15:2). This time all was well.
He need not have made that mistake, for the Scriptures were clear enough,
but he tried to be clever. Sheep are not asked to be clever, but they are
expected to obey their Shepherd.
David followed his own ideas and strayed into a path which was not one
that was right in God's eyes, so the Lord had to deal drastically with him
to correct him. In His faithfulness He does the same to us. When things
go wrong we get angry with Him or perhaps we blame other people -- but it
is our soul that needs restoring so that we accept His way. Even when we
feel sure we are right, we may be wrong. It is always wrong for a sheep
to be self-assertive and self-willed. We are only right when our spirit shows
that we are humbly submissive to our Shepherd.
3. Comfort. Verse 4
We might naturally expect that with a restored soul and feet walking
obediently in the Lord's ways, the prospect before us would be bright and
easy. David's testimony is quite the opposite of this, for he passes from
being led in the right paths to the gloomy experience of passing through
the death-shadowed valley. At times even God's right paths can be very strange
to us. It must have seemed like the end. It was not, though, for he obviously
emerged from the deadly darkness into further experiences of joy and blessing.
At this point of trial there begins a new relationship of the conscious
nearness of the Shepherd. Now the song speaks not so much of the blessings
but of the Blesser. This can be true to experience, for it is when the blessings
seem to be taken away that we come closer to their Giver. Until now the Shepherd
has been spoken of in the third person -- He makes, He leads
-- but now He is addressed personally -- You are with me, You
comfort me. This darkest experience, then, is the one which stresses how
real and precious is the experience of being led by the Good Shepherd.
It is not that the sheep is straying, but yet he is in the dark as he
has never been before. He is not being chastened for his faults but, as he
seeks the honour of the Lord's name, he finds that God's chosen path for
him is one of overwhelming blackness. This happens to all of us. It has
to happen, not only for us to learn new lessons but also to prove that we
will trust the Lord when His ways are strange. [117/118]
It is when David is no longer in the green pastures nor beside the still
waters but in dark shadowy ways, that he asserts: "I will fear no evil for
You are with me". This does not mean that the troubles have disappeared and
the light is shining. Not yet! He still cannot see his shepherd, but he
can feel the touch of His rod and staff and so is comforted, not by the rod
but by the realisation of the hand which holds it. It would have been nice
to have had His personal touch, but if He has the rod in one hand and the
staff in the other that is not possible. But they are proof enough that He
is near and is still in charge.
In human experience the Lord's comfort to us may come through the help
of friends. When David had to run away from Saul by being let down from
his window by his wife, he went straight to the godly old Samuel and told
him all that had happened (1 Samuel 19:18). What comfort God can give us
through the sympathetic ear of a listening friend! Let no-one undervalue
the ministry of listening. It does not record that at that time Samuel said
anything, but we are told that he listened, and we know that he prayed. Then
again, when David had to move on from Samuel's home he found sympathy and
support from his brother-in-law Jonathan, his dearest friend. Jonathan could
not bring any light into David's dark valley but he could and he did strengthen
his hands in God (1 Samuel 23:16). Samuel and Jonathan were the Lord's rod
and staff to comfort David. It is a great blessing to be ministered to by
friends in this way.
However there are at times the valleys of deep darkness where we have
no friends. When David returned to Ziklag and found his home destroyed, his
family snatched away from him and even all his best friends turned against
him, this was the blackest valley of all -- and it was his own fault. This
time it must really have seemed like the end of the world, and I know how
he felt for I have had that feeling. But it was not the end, for the Shepherd
never deserts His own, and the Scriptures turn from the tragedy of it all
to report that the weeping David, "Strengthened himself in the Lord his God"
(1 Samuel 30:6). Moreover it goes on to tell how "David recovered all" (vv.18-19).
He had resumed his old good habit of enquiring of the Lord (v.8). Not so long
after that he was crowned king.
4. Joy. Verse 5
"You prepare a table before me ...". It seems logical that when the Lord
has brought us safely through the dark valley we should have a victory celebration.
This is just what David describes as he speaks of the Shepherd Himself preparing
a banquet for him. Has he arrived? No, not yet. This is not that great heavenly
marriage supper which yet lies in the future. It cannot be, for there is
yet more to come and there are enemies whose presence is very real. It seems
to me that this is a foretaste of heavenly joys, a feast of grateful celebration
even although the battle of life is still on. The enemies are there. But
they are clearly powerless enemies. One day -- perhaps soon -- the Lord will
summon us all to the final and eternal victory feast where there will be no
more enemies, for the last one will have been defeated and the joy of the
Lord will reign.
But even now we have the foretaste. Right in the midst of the journey
the Lord spread a table for David and did it in such a way that David had
a special sense of fellowship with Him: "You prepare a table before
me ". This is not to exclude others but to stress the note of personal
communion with the Lord which is His gift to us all. Occasionally -- though
only occasionally -- I have found my heart so drawn out with love to the
Lord that it has been a foretaste of glory and I have felt that I shall never
be nearer to heaven than this while I am still in the body. Several of these
occasions have been while I was gathered with others at the Table of the
Lord. It is at that Table that we celebrate the victory of the cross. Our
spiritual foes are never far from us at such times, but as we focus on Christ
our joy is full. What is more, we can rejoice in the hope of the Day when
all will be glory and there will be no more enemies.
5. Anointing. Verse 5
The joy is also described in terms of the anointing oil poured on to
our heads which I presume refers to the Eastern custom by which honoured
guests were anointed with oil as they sat at the table. It happened to Jesus
and on one occasion He rebuked a Pharisee for withholding it. The dark valley
somehow seems a long way away now as the sheep is not only a guest at the
Shepherd's table, but an honoured guest with anointed head.
Some have taken this anointing as associated with healing but there is
no record of David ever being bodily sick, though often sick in soul. In
any case, from what I know of sheep it would be their feet which needed anointing
rather than their heads. I have friends who hold a doctrine concerning anointing
with the Holy Spirit which makes it a once-for-all experience which later
follows a Christian's experience of conversion. For them this signifies the
unique blessing of one single experience. If you feel like that you may
care to note that David was anointed at least three times (1 Samuel 16:13;
2 Samuel 2:4 and 5:3). This accords with my own experience, namely that
the Lord gives occasional special touches of His Spirit's grace.
It also accords with this psalm which speaks not so much of any past
crisis but of present experiences of anointing in the course of daily life.
It is notable that in his Gospel, John quotes the Baptist as saying that
Jesus is the One who baptizes in the Spirit (John 1:33), using the present
tense. The anointing is not a matter of the dead past but of present living
reality. We can perhaps say that as we know Jesus as the Lamb of God, we
also know Him as the Baptizer in the Spirit. Just as we can daily enter more
and more into the reality of the historic fact that we were crucified with
Christ, that we were buried and raised with Him, so may we not humbly appropriate
our personal share in the Church's "baptism" of Pentecost and seek more and
more to live in the good of it?
In this sense we may rejoice in the fact that He anoints my head with
oil. I personally have found that, from time to time and in His own way,
the Lord graciously gives me fresh anointing in His service. It is not my
experience that He has any routine or stereotyped way of doing this, or even
that I may necessarily myself be conscious of it, but I trust that there have
been times when others have been blessed by reason of the anointing operating
in my case.
When David pleaded, "Take not your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11)
could it have been that what he feared was the loss of the Spirit's power
and enabling? In this sense any of us may sadly lose our experience of the
anointing. The indwelling Spirit will never leave a true child of God, but
it is all too possible that He may be grieved and limited in His desire to
glorify God in our lives. In this sense it may be permissible, in moments
of necessary repentance, for us to make use of David's earnest appeal, and
God will answer us as He answered His penitent psalmist.
6. Overflowing Cup. Verse 5
We do not find that any of the servants of God in the New Testament themselves
claimed to be "full of the Spirit". They left other people to notice and
record the fact. Surely the outcome of a fresh anointing is a ministry which
overflows in blessing to others. God fills our cup not only that we may enjoy
the fullness but that it may overflow to those around us. Apart from the clause,
"My cup runneth over", Psalm 23 could tend to be introspective and selfish,
solely occupied with the singer's personal benefits. This is the redeeming
statement; it declares that from such a life of happy fellowship with the
Lord, there is an overflow of helpfulness to others. There is a sense in
which this discloses the secret of vital ministry. The one involved must
himself enjoy divine blessings before he can be an instrument of blessing
Christian ministry is not the result of people just being pipes or channels
through which God's blessing can flow. I trust that we would be willing only
to be that if it were necessary. But it is not. That is not the way in which
the Lord works. Each of us has his own cup and can expect to have it constantly
filled and replenished with the benefits we have already discovered in this
psalm. Perhaps the greatest blessing that we can have is to be a source
of blessing to others -- it is more blessed to give than to receive. But
in this case receiving is a necessary prelude to giving. If we are not filled,
how can there be any overflow of blessing through us? But provided our cup
is full, there ,is no limitation as to what may come to others, for a small
cup can overflow as much as a large one, the measure not being that of the
dimension of the cup but the supply of the heavenly outpouring.
A word often rendered as "abounding" in the New Testament is in the N.I.V.
translated by this very word, "overflowing": "So then, just as you have received
Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him ... strengthened in the faith,
as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness" (Colossians 2:7).
There can be no doubt but that David excelled in this way. Whatever else
it may mean that his cup overflowed, all the people of God throughout the
ages have been inspired to praise through his songs. Grumbling is contagious;
it spreads like a plague. Human nature, as Israel in the wilderness demonstrated,
is readily infected by a spirit of murmuring. Happily the opposite can also
be true. David not only praised God himself but inspired praise in his own
day and has continued to do so right up until now. If ever a man's cup overflowed,
He went to the cave of Adullam a poor fugitive. Nevertheless his psalm
written at this time is full of praise and thanksgiving: "My heart is fixed,
O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises ..." (57:7)
Humanly speaking he had much to complain about, for Saul's personal animosity
and harsh circumstances made his life hard to bear, yet as we listen to
his words in this psalm we are amazed at his deeply sincere praise to God
whose "mercy is great unto the heavens".
And with what result? Well as individuals and in small groups all sorts
of unhappy people joined him in that cave and were so blessed by David's
overflow that they became enriched and united in fellowship, mighty men, some
of whom were not even Israelites by birth. They got the benefit of David's
full cup of blessing.
And there is one beautiful case, not of a mighty man but of a pitifully
inadequate grandson of his great enemy. After he came to the throne, David
made enquiries as to any possible survivors of Saul's family and he found
an abandoned and lonely cripple called Mephibosheth. A whole chapter of the
divine record is devoted to telling of David's overflowing kindness to this
survivor, who was given a permanent place among the king's sons (2 Samuel
9:11). David's cup certainly ran over for him, even though he was Saul's
grandson and lame on both his feet.
7. Future Prospects. Verse 6
All this that the psalmist speaks of relates to this life. Is that the
end? Even if it were and nothing would follow, it still makes excellent
reading. If David had had no prospects for the future, this would still
have been a good life. But it is not all. As so often in God's dealings,
the best is left to the last: "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever". I myself have no hesitation in affirming that if the fantastically
impossible happened, and God made it plain to me today that this life would
be the total finish for me, I would still say that it has been wholly worthwhile
and I would have chosen no other.
Godliness is profitable for this life; there is no better way to spend
our days than to be the sheep of Christ's pasture. But this is not the end.
Far from it. The future life is to be far better than all that we have already
enjoyed. We are told that in the glory Christ will still be our Shepherd
and lead us to fountains of living water (Revelation 7:17). Then, as never
before, we will spontaneously exclaim "My cup runs over".
Heaven is not just a bonus tacked on at the end -- "all this, and heaven
too"! -- but the sure climax of the indescribably great lovingkindness of
our God. David was under no illusions about the future. A time was coming
when there would be no more enemies and no more deathly dark valleys. For
him and for us the future prospects are bright with the glory of God.
[Inside back cover]
ON THE WAY UP (6)
Psalm 125 CHEERING UP
THE pilgrim began by declaring himself to be a man of peace (120:7) and
later urged that prayer might be made for the peace of Jerusalem (122:6).
Here again this theme inspires a song about the city itself as a haven of
peace and the people of God who are journeying towards it.
THE Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God's city is called peace
(7:2). When the pilgrim reaches its holy security he knows that he will
be as we say -- safe and sound. In Bible terms the word means much more
than mere tranquillity, for it expresses harmony in full expression. The
end of our journey will find us in the lasting and secure harmonious life
SURROUNDED as it is by God's everlasting mountains, Jerusalem represents
to the pilgrim the ideal of stability and security. It will be wonderful
ultimately to arrive there. But that is a rather distant hope, reserved for
some future date.
BUT is it? No! For from now and henceforth God is surely round about
His people in just the same way. At any moment and at any stage of their
journey they are surrounded by the spiritual mountains of His personal presence.
Mount Zion cannot be moved but abides for ever. And those who trust in the
Lord will find that already that is true in their case.
IT is true that in this life they may be threatened by hostile powers.
The Lord recognises the grave reality of "the sceptre of wickedness". There
is a powerful kingdom of evil which seeks to exert its authority over God's
people and to drag them into its own evil ways. Pilgrims to Zion are passing
through territory which belongs to this kingdom. The Lord Jesus called Satan
"the prince of this world", Paul spoke of "the world-rulers of this darkness"
and the aged John reported that "we know that ... the whole world is under
the control of the evil one". We are not only pilgrims; we are also strangers
IT is here that a special promise is given to us by God. The sceptre
of wickedness has no sway in the mountain fastness of Zion. It will be great
to live there. But here and now God will so surround His own people by His
Zion-like presence that this sceptre will not rest on them either. They can
move along in their pilgrimage confident that the Lord will not allow that
sceptre to rest upon them.
THE key to everything is uprightness of heart. They can cheer up, for
God will always be good to them. For the moment we walk by faith and not
by sight. But we glimpse the hills of Zion ahead and we enjoy the spiritual
reality of God's surrounding presence not only as a future hope but "from
this time forth."
THE LAW OF THY MOUTH IS BETTER UNTO ME
THAN THOUSANDS OF GOLD AND SILVER.
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