|Vol. 18, No. 3, May - June 1989
||EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster
THE incident in which a freed slave is described as renouncing his liberty
and choosing to have his ear nailed to his master's doorpost has always seemed
to me a beautiful as well as a significant sequel to the Ten Commandments.
In the Scriptures it immediately follows the law as given on Sinai. "If the
servant shall plainly say I love my master ... I will not go out free" (Exodus
Typically the Israelites were free, for the Lord had brought them out
of the house of bondage. If, through poverty, a person became enslaved to
another, then in the seventh year the bond-servant must be allowed to go
free, with all indebtedness forgiven and carrying a gift of bonus provisions.
It could occur, though, that a satisfied man or woman might refuse such a
liberation, making instead a renunciatory act of life-long consecration.
As I have said, it is a beautiful possibility. It says a lot for the
slave, but much more for the master. Clearly experience had proved that
his house was preferable to any other place; it was well with him there
(Deuteronomy 15:16). The nailing of the lobe of his ear to the doorpost
was a convenient way of expressing the consecration of his whole body to
life-long service, and all for love's sake.
I have two vivid memories associated with this scene. The first took
place on the eve of my departure back to South America for the second time.
It was nearly sixty years ago, and at that time a brother called Arthur
Ware was making a great stir with prophecies about the immediate Return
of Christ. My wife and I were pressed to be present at an afternoon meeting
of his in London. We had spent some hours of the day shopping and were not
really in the mood for energetic spiritual exercises, but were committed
and felt obliged to go.
The meeting turned out to be in a subdued atmosphere, for it was reported
that Mr. Ware was unwell and his place taken by an elderly friend who ignored
all allusions to prophecy and gave a simple devotional message on Exodus
21:5, taking care to express the fact that the one concerned should plainly
say, "I love my master, I will not go out free".
I had already completed five arduous years of pioneering in Amazonia.
I had more recently attended the Keswick Convention. Since then I have often
listened to anointed and eloquent Bible messages. Nothing, however, has ever
moved me and remained with me as this extremely simple but very gracious
message from God. I never knew the speaker's name; I have no idea where we
were, except that I rather think that it was in a West End hotel room; but
truly God spoke to my heart, and after well over fifty years the verse still
lives in my consciousness. Alas, I have not lived up to the standard which
it sets, but I thank God with all my heart that by His grace the reality of
the pierced ear is vividly with me. A simple faith and a godly walk can make
a person's ministry fruitful, even if the one concerned could never be called
"gifted", as this elderly man's helpful words proved.
So much for the spoken ministry. My second experience came from a confrontation
with the Bible truth expressed in a life. It happened some twelve years ago
when Horace Banner visited us here in Weston, and it has made an indelible
impression on me. Horace and I were colleagues together in the late twenties
as we witnessed for Christ in the jungles of Amazonia. Subsequently I went
to Colombia and have spent most of my life in London and in journeys to various
parts of the world. Horace, however, devoted his whole life to serving the
gospel among Brazil's forest Indians. When he called on me we were both in
our seventies and we had a happy time together looking back on our lives
of service which seemed to be near their end, as indeed his was. He was a
sick man, mortally so. [41/42]
In poor physical state he crouched over the fire, as we reminisced and
exchanged news. Horace had always been a perky fun-loving Lancashire lad,
and the last thing one would expect from him was language which was merely
pious. When his visit was nearly over, however, he looked up to me from
crouched position and remarked: "It's been a wonderful life, hasn't it,
Harry?" As he spoke he showed me one of the sweetest smiles I have ever
seen, a smile which left me greatly moved. I can only compare it with the
smile which Saul of Tarsus must have seen on the countenance of the Martyr
Stephen. It seemed to belong to another world. A wonderful life!
This humbled me almost to tears. Here was a dear man who had spent the
whole of his adult life at the back of beyond, in a region where previously
three of our missionaries had been murdered; a man who, with his good wife,
Eva, had endured the most primitive conditions in the rough jungle for the
gospel's sake. Through the forty odd years he had led some of these completely
uncivilized Indians to trust in Christ and pastored them, with just occasional
intervals of furlough when their two children went away to be educated.
Now, at the closing period that sacrificial life, he could smilingly look
back and say that it had been wonderful. If ever I saw a man who had had
his ear nailed to the Master's doorpost and made himself a happy love-slave,
it was Horace Banner.
He was a gifted man who could surely have made his mark in any realm,
but he had no regrets, for his attitude had always been: "I love my Master;
I will not go out free". And it had been a wonderful life.
The Hebrew ex-slave's service only terminated with his or his master's
death. Horace's earthly service was already at its end when we had fellowship
together. Happily, using the words of another love-slave, King David, Horace
could sing, "And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever". Consecration
to Christ is indeed a wonderful life; there is nothing like it.
JOB -- GOD'S HONOURED SERVANT
GOD always spoke of Job as "My servant Job", evidently wanting to emphasise
His approval of the man. He who never uses superfluous words could easily
have said "My servant Job" the first time and thereafter simply referred
to him by his name Job. The description "My servant" attracts us, for we would
all like to be so called. Job never started a work, he never led or convened
a meeting, but he served God. Let us look at what his work consisted of:
Job's Service Before His Sufferings
His service before his sufferings is clearly described in Chapter 1.
He was "perfect and upright, and that feared God and shunned evil". That
is always service for God. In the midst of his sufferings he described his
moral standing and it is one that is not often seen in our churches. His
final words to his friends pointed out that God had been watching all his
steps, and then listed his behaviour (31:7-34). He was no Pharisee, but he
had such a good conscience that in the midst of his trials he could say,
"My heart does not reproach me for any of my days" (27:6 Danish).
Fancy being able to say that! Not one of my past days burdens my conscience,
and when I think back, no day makes me blush. What a high standard! What
magnificent service to God! [42/43]
Of course he knew that he was not sinless. This is clear from his reference
to the sins of his youth. Nevertheless anyone who lives as he did in this
fallen world does service which cannot be overestimated. Such people are
rare. They make a deeper impression than the strongest sermon.
Job's Service After He had Lost Everything
When he had lost everything, what did his service consist of? Imagine
losing everything. In one day Job lost all his children as well as all his
property. His service then was to say, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken
away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:20-21). His worship was quite
short, for worship need not consist of a flow of words, but even if Job had
not contributed more for the good of believers than this worship, he would
never have been forgotten in human history. God's servant, Job, did not charge
Him with foolishness.
Job's Service On The Ash-heap
In what did his service consist as he sat upon the ash-heap? He had lost
his property and his sons; he had been stricken with a most dreadful illness;
he had constant pain; his own wife kept her distance so foul was his condition
(19:17). He speaks of his anguish of spirit and bitterness of soul (7:11),
and in addition he suffers what he calls terrors from God (6:4). His whole
life had collapsed, he has no comfort, and he feels that God is against him
so that he is weary of life (10:1).
Even if we have not suffered as much as he did, we can easily realise
that his one question was "Why?". When one's problem is not abstract but
an acute personal problem, then the danger is so great to be offended with
God that it is an infinite service to Him not to be offended,
not to turn away from Him. To Job there was just darkness; he had never
seen the enemies of God treated as he was being treated. As he sits there
his wife -- perhaps out of love for him and the pain of seeing the beloved
husband with whom she had shared life reduced to such a human wreck -- suggests
that he should end it all (2:9). He rejects her advise as foolish. Even in
that low state, he is still God's servant.
With the coming of his friends there is a week of silence, perhaps merciful
silence, but then Job began to pour out his complaint, and this prompted
his friends to speak their minds. No doubt their motive was to bring him to
the point where he could be helped. They felt that he needed to acknowledge
that the cause of all that had happened was in himself. We are often just
like them, thinking that sufferings must have its cause in the one who suffers.
Our knowledge is limited, but we often use it as though it were absolute,
talking as though we knew all about Him and pronouncing what we think, without
remembering that His thoughts and ways are far above ours. When Job does
not immediately respond to their advice, they insist on their opinions, being
determined that whether he likes it or not, Job must be shown what is right.
Meaning to try to help him they persist, increasing their pressure on him
and failing to realise that the poor man is suffering. Their strength of
will to help him increases but in fact they get farther and farther away from
the One who is the only true source of help. Many of us have erred in the
So it is that such a good man as Eliphaz uses a dangerous phrase when
the affirms "Lo this, we have searched it, so it is" (5:27). He is
so sure of himself. If only he had spoken less dogmatically! So it is! In
the New Testament we are told that those who think they know everything do
not in fact know anything as they ought to know it (l Corinthians 8:2).
Bildad is also a good man. They are all good men. After he has talked
himself hoarse, he says something similar: "So it goes ..." (18:21 Danish
). How easy it is to condemn people without realising that we just lay
more burdens upon them. Job could not accept this. He knew that it did not
go like that at all. Bildad's explanation was no explanation at all and he
could not accept it.
Zophar said much the same thing, but we need not bother too much with
him, for he seems to [43/44] have become so excited
with the conversation that he was too worked up to deserve a hearing. Then
there was young Elihu, the last speaker, who prides himself on being original
but really says much the same as the others. His statement is almost comical,
though he himself takes it very seriously, "He that is perfect in knowledge
is with thee" (36:4). Not that Job was in any mood to laugh at such a rash
assertion. Well, it is often the prerogative of youth to talk like that.
We can make ourselves laughable when we take ourselves too seriously. Job,
however, listened to it all.
He was essentially a humble man but he did not play humble by using pious
jargon. What would have happened if, suffering in every limb and in anguish
of soul, he had agreed to put on a humble act? In that case he would not
have been a servant of God but a servant of men. If you humble yourself only
to humble yourself it is only religious play-acting. With the Spirit of God
in his nostrils, Job affirmed that he would not let his tongue utter deceit
(i.e. false humility) (27:3-4). It is all too easy in certain atmospheres
to adopt a sham humility.
Job goes on to say that he knew what they did not know (27:11), having
already reminded them again and again that he knows the various truths they
have been enunciating (9:2; 12:3; 13:2; 16:4). In addition to the truths
presented to him, that sinners are always punished by God, he knows that
ungodly people thrive while godly people suffer. Furthermore he can say,
"I know that my Redeemer lives" and he knows that his witness is in heaven
(19:25 & 16:19).
In the darkness of his sufferings, some glimpses of light shine. His
friends did not have that light because they fancied that they already knew
it all. All who think that they know tend to circle around that and never
make progress. This is general in Christendom, but those who are not bound
in this way sometimes experience the unbelievable, namely, that when it
is darkest, some short moments of heavenly revelation are given to them.
These are the true servants of God.
We expect God to intervene to answer to all this. We are inclined to
assert that He will certainly give an answer in due course. In a sense,
though, God's answer was no answer. Instead of explaining on the basis of
"because", He just asks a series of counter questions. "Where were you ...?"
(38:4), "Do you know?" (39:1), "Can you number?" (39:2). God does not say
other than Job has already known and said: "Who doeth great things past finding
out; yea, and wonders without number" (9:10). Of what then does God's answer
It does not consist off an explanation, but simply of the fact that God
is there. God is there and God is speaking. That is all. It is a strange
answer. What about the crocodile and leviathan -- is that an answer? No, but
Job is made to understand the description of God which characterises the
whole book of Job: "The Almighty". So far as I know there is no other book
in the Bible which uses the title "The Almighty" so many times. Not that
people knew what it meant, but now it dawns upon Job without verbal explanations.
For him it was not theology: it was His presence.
Perhaps in some small way we have all experienced the great change which
comes with the awareness that God is there. There are many things in my life
for which I have never received an explanation, but God was there. When
He is there and speaks, when He communicates with a person, that itself is
the answer. It is not so much what He says, even about the leviathan, the
horse in its strength or the stars in the heavens -- it is the fact that
He is speaking that matters. It is a revelation of Himself. "I am here", He
says, and that is the answer.
God did not say to Job, "Now I will explain everything to you. First
I challenged Satan and he replied with charges against you, so I allowed
him to take your wealth and your family". That was the explanation, but
God did not give it to Job. He rather came and showed Job something of Himself,
of His greatness. His unsearchableness, something beyond human comprehension.
[44/45] That was the answer. When you have some
deep sorrow or perplexity, if you can only sense that God is there, then
you get a deep inward peace.
Job's Service After The Test
Job entered into the service of intercession. Even during his pain as
well as after, he prayed for his friends. This was quite a wonderful reaction.
I am afraid that I might well have given them a telling-off, asking them
how they could have been so hard-hearted as to aggravate my trial instead
of comforting me. But Job did not do that. He prayed for them. His heart had
remained pure and God witnessed of him "that he had spoken of Him the thing
that was right" because he had withstood the temptation to accept the answer
that others were asserting, namely, that there is a cause and effect syndrome
for every human situation. The real root of the matter was not in Job at
all. Some of my readers may be bearing heavy burdens; they may have had unhappiness
for a long time, with great disappointments which they cannot understand,
and perhaps their pious friends have not helped with their facile explanations.
But peace comes with the quiet assurance that God is near and is in control.
It would have been easy for Job to have asked his friends how they could
be so unfeeling and unhelpful, but he did not do so. Out of the purity and
humility of his heart he prayed for them, and his prayers were heard. Moreover
God blessed him and for the rest of his life he was a double blessing. I
am quite sure that thereafter he did not go round reminding people how right
he had been, but as he found blessing, in his turn he was able to be a blessing
to others. He who has been doubly blessed can himself become a double blessing
to others. To the end, it could be said of him, "My servant, Job!"
JOHN'S LAST CHAPTER
"Come and breakfast" John 21:12
JOHN 21 may well be the last apostolic message to the rest of us. What
is described in it does not, of course, offer us the last words of the risen
Lord, but it does give us the last words of the four Gospels, and possibly
even of the whole Bible, since it is generally judged to have been written
after the book of the Revelation. We know that John's Gospel was written
much later than the other three, and that it explains some points in them
and also records much else that is not contained in the Synoptics. It is generally
agreed that in its original form the Gospel closed with Chapter 20, so that
the following chapter comes as a kind of appendix, a final contribution of
what the aged apostle had to say in the Lord's name.
After the resurrection encounters with Christ in Judea, the disciples
went off up to Galilee, as they had been told to do. Matthew's Gospel closes
with the Great Commission which was given there. Although Galilee had been
mentioned in Mark and Luke, the actual accounts of Christ's appearances after
His resurrection specify Jerusalem and Judea. This chapter therefore confirms
Matthew's account by stating that He and His disciples did meet in Galilee.
At least, then, this extra chapter confirms that fact.
It does more than that. Some special importance must be attached to it
since the chapter closes with a brief footnote from other hands
[45/46] which guarantees the chapter's authenticity: "We know that
his testimony is true" (v.24). Was this further section written partly for
Peter's sake as well as Matthew's? Peter's first encounter with his risen
Lord was in secret, as all our most sacred spiritual experiences should usually
be. The rest knew that Peter had been forgiven, but how could they be sure
that he was fully re-instated as an apostle? How could they know that not
only was his original call to be a fisher of men still valid, but that beyond
it he had a special call to be a pastor of the Lord's flock? In this chapter
John answers that kind of question and, what is more, he gives us at least
a hint of Peter's martyrdom which had probably already taken place. This
story tells us that this final experience had been according to plan and
that in his death, as in his life, Peter brought glory to his God.
These are suppositions and relatively unimportant to us now. But since,
in accordance with what Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit now brought this
lakeside scene to John's memory, we do well to seek in it some further light
on the person of our blessed Lord. John was known as the apostle of love,
so I propose to divide the chapter into three parts with this great wonder
in view. Here we read of:
1. LOVE'S PROVIDENTIAL CARE
This must have been the last Gospel miracle. It assured the disciples
that He was still essentially the same as ever. It may rightly be said that
the Lord never did a miracle just to provide a showpiece but always to meet
a genuine need. At the beginning of His ministry He gave Peter an immense
haul of fish. It impressed him and brought him to his knees but, more than
that, it must have made things easier for him to leave his family who would
need finance when he left them to follow Jesus (Luke 5:6). If we are confronted
by some need to tide over a crisis, we can be sure that the Lord has already
thought of it and duly made provision.
This further miraculous catch of large fishes fits into that pattern.
The disciples were certainly hungry for, contrary to other versions, the
Revised Version correctly states that the first question put to them by Jesus
was, "Friends, have you anything ,to eat?" He already had some fish for
them and certainly was to suggest that they had picked up a few that they
had caught to supplement His provision, but why so many? And why all large?
I suggest that He had in mind the very practical matter of how they were
to live until Pentecost. They needed something to live on between the time
when Judas stole away their communal purse and that period when the Pentecostal
converts pooled their resources to provide for them and others who had nothing.
One imagines that at the time this was an urgent consideration. Up there
in Galilee they could have been very needy men.
This could explain why Peter took responsibility by giving a lead in
the one area in which he had competence. "I am going fishing", he said,
no doubt relieved to hear that six others of them were prepared to lend
a hand, though perhaps some were not fishermen by upbringing. We may be
sure that they made this move not just to fill in time while they waited
for events, but from sheer necessity. It is true that their efforts were
fruitless, but even in that there was a divine purpose and it certainly
does not prove that they should not have gone.
Some preachers have blamed Peter for even trying instead of trusting;
they suggest that his impulsive action involved reneging on their faith-missionaries
position. At one time I might have agreed, as some of my fellow missionaries
certainly did, but through the years I have learned a different attitude
and found that faith dependence does not necessarily conflict with readiness
to do a job.
But even if Peter had been wrong, the Lord gave to him liberally and
did not upbraid him. It is true that they worked away all night with no
results, but it is also true that when the answer did come, it was by fishing
that their needs were met. How could the Lord have provided for them if
they had not been on the spot with their nets and their coats off when His
moment came? It occurs to me that it was just because they did not sit at
home arguing or even praying as they waited for a miracle, but just got
on with the one [46/47] thing that they could do,
that in the upshot the answer came. It came not as pennies from heaven (though
just as wonderful) but by Christ's prospering of their work in which all
their efforts seemed to be useless.
What can we say about the catch? John, himself an expert in the matter,
seemed to have been impressed by the fact that not some but all of them were
large fish. What is more, he records that there were 153 of them. It is
rather surprising that they even took the trouble to count them in detail
in this way. I have read and heard many explanations or interpretations of
this number 153, but none of them have appealed to me and some of them have
been very far fetched. May we perhaps suggest that the counting of the fishes
may have been a commercial matter, governed by the fact that they were to
be sold in the market after the abtraction of the few as ordered by the Lord?
The counting could have arisen from calculations as to their market value.
It seems unusual in that John pointed out that the net did not break under
We might comment that in the end it was a good thing that their net was
empty at the beginning, so that Christ could fill it with the many great
fishes. What these men needed was not just a day's food but funds for their
journey back to Judea and for their upkeep during the waiting period before
Pentecost. Their heavenly Father had anticipated their needs, as the Lord
Jesus had said He would, and was making a full provision for them. The lesson
which the Lord drew from this trust in the Father was that His children should
be free from anxiety about the future (Matthew 6:34).
If I were wanting an arresting publicity announcement about a sermon
to be preached on this story, I think it would be "153 Reasons Why Christians
Should Not Worry!" Every one of those fishes was an argument concerning love's
providential care, and it might be added that every reason was a large one!
Many of us can testify to the Lord's faithfulness in anticipating our needs
and providing for them, but alas, only occasionally can we claim that we
had been free from anxiety.
We remember that the apostles were about to lose that personal care and
concern which Jesus had showed for them while He was here on earth, and that
sometimes it might seem that in heaven He was rather a long way off from
their actual everyday problems. It must have been most reassuring to know
that they would never be forgotten. After every dark and testing night experience,
they would always find their Lord awaiting them with full knowledge of their
needs and ample supplies to meet them. And John was led to pass the message
on to us, the message of love's constant care.
It seems to me that the Infant Jesus Himself gives a clear instance of
the heavenly Father's foreknowledge and provision in a similar way. When
the Magi brought gold to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem they possibly discussed
and even planned how it should be spent. In fact, it proved to be a divine
provision for the immediate flight into Egypt and the arrival of the family
there in an unknown locality and probable delay in finding employment for
a carpenter. The two knew nothing of what was coming, but the heavenly Father
knew the needs which would arise and had made provision for them months before.
What is more, I doubt whether much gold came their way, so that this was
a better provision than could be imagined, just as John's 153 large fishes
were more than he or Peter could have dreamt of. This, then, is a divine
principle. God expresses His love in providential care of His own. It was
worth an additional chapter to John's Gospel just to stress that comforting
truth. But that is not all.
2. LOVE'S INSPIRING COMMISSION
The sequel to this lakeside breakfast is well known, so that it is not
necessary for me to enlarge on Peter's recommissioning. Three times over
Jesus challenged him about the sincerity of his love, and as many times responded
to the apostle's avowal with a solemn charge to prove the reality of his
love by his sacrificial devotion to the Lord's people. It was not that Jesus
doubted him, but only that in this way He stressed to Peter and to us all
that love demands practical expression. [47/48]
The basis of devoted love to Christ is His forgiving grace. It was when
Peter first fell at the Saviour's feet and confessed his inner sinfulness
that his future service as a fisher of men was prophesied. Now once again
a new aspect of his service was associated with forgiveness as a background.
It happened while the somewhat acrid smell of a charcoal fire must have reminded
the apostle of his dreadful denial of his Lord in the High Priest's courtyard
where he stood and warmed himself by a charcoal fire (John 18:18). It is
certainly a fact that scent is probably the swiftest and most certain stimulus
to memory. We who have had some critical experience in the atmosphere of
some odour, find that when we meet that odour again, without any conscious
or deliberate act of recollection, the smell has such a vivid effect that
we at once feel ourselves to be hack in those same surroundings.
Charcoal fumes said to Peter: "You are a hopeless offender against love".
Yet Peter knew, and knew that his Lord knew, that in spite of everything
he did love Jesus, and now that forgiveness had been given to him so freely,
that love must have been much greater. Jesus made no mention of Peter's failure.
He graciously chooses not to remember our sins once they are confessed and
forgiven. Unlike God we cannot choose to forget things. They have a way
of emerging from the past to trouble us, and perhaps that is salutary if
only to make forgiveness taste the sweeter. With all of us, personal love
to the Lord increases as we remember His grace; the Lord Jesus Himself laid
down the principle when He spoke of the relationship between love and forgiveness
The original question put to Peter, however, was not merely about the
reality of his love but about the measure of it: "Do you love me more than
these do?" How much did he love his Lord? The old Peter would surely have
averred that he loved more than the others. In fact in Mark's Gospel, which
was written under his influence, it is recorded that he had boasted, "Even
though they all fall away, I will not" (Mark 14:29). His bitter experience
had stripped him of this false self-confidence. All he could do now was to
insist that his love was sincere and genuine.
How much did he love Christ? He could not say. It is all the more interesting,
then, that Jesus Himself gave him the answer to that question. It was as
if He told Peter, "You will love me to the end and to the uttermost. You will
love Me enough to suffer and die for Me!" And of course His forecast proved
true. The Saviour who discerns our weaknesses also knows how strong grace
can make us. We doubt ourselves, but we must not doubt Him. We feel that
our love is weak and faint, and even sing a hymn about it; the Lord assures
us that by His grace we will go right on to the end and will enter glory
with a history of love fulfilled. We make no boastful claims. We only know
that He who knows all things -- including the bad things -- knows that we
truly love Him. We can depend confidently on His grace to enable us to put
that love into actions.
Peter was challenged to prove his love to Christ by a sympathetic care
for his fellow believers. He must have a shepherd heart. The Lord Jesus
did not renew His call to Peter to be a fisher of men. That still stood,
and the book of the Acts shows us how successfully he served God in this
way. All who have been greatly forgiven must accept it as their calling to
be fishers of men. And all will find that they must also, like Peter, heed
the call to exercise pastoral care of others. This further commissioning
was not to be easy. Peter might have argued that he was naturally a fisherman
but had no practice at shepherding. Had he done so, the Lord would have said
to him as He does to all of us and as John himself wrote: "He that loveth
not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.
And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother
also" (1 John 4:20-21). This commission was not an alternative to the former
but an addition to it, and one that promised to be even more demanding. The
fisherman makes his catch and then, having finished his job, goes home, only
needing to repair his nets and await the next time. The shepherd, however,
is different. He is always on duty, come wind come weather. His is a truly
We must not overlook the words of Jesus when He spoke to Peter about
his future by referring [48/49] to the length of
his service. "When thou shalt be old" (v.18). His future would clearly fit
into a divine plan. This is a comfort that all of us can have. As we seek
to be faithful to our calling to love and cherish our fellow saints, we
can know that the Lord will be faithful to protect and preserve us. I cannot
help associating these words with the crisis in Peter's history when he was
able to ignore the bonds that held him and the perils that awaited him and
sleep soundly in his cell, so soundly that only a sharp blow from the angel
could awaken him (Acts 12:7).
I would dearly love to know what were his last waking thoughts. Most
probably they were the trustful assurance that if this was really the moment
spoken of by Jesus at the lakeside, then God was being glorified and that
was comfort enough. I rather favour the idea, though, that Peter was sure
that this was not the end. By no stretch of imagination could he yet be
called old, and yet the Lord had specified old age. If he thought in this
way he would know that the time for his exodus had not yet come, so that
he could sleep soundly in the certainty of coming deliverance. In any case
that is how it turned out, and equally we who seek humbly to serve the Lord
can be free from anxiety even in the fiercest trial. What is more, we can
still find food and comfort from Peter's two Letters.
3. LOVE'S WELCOME HOME
The most striking feature of this final gospel episode is surely not
the huge haul of fishes, but the bread and fishes that the Lord had already
prepared and was keeping warm for them, and most of all His action in waiting
on them. He might so easily have pointed to the provision and invited them
to help themselves but instead of that, He Himself served them. There is
no more homely meal than breakfast, and it was in this context that the weary,
cold and hungry seven, found themselves enjoying some home comforts there
in Galilee where they no longer had a home.
I recently heard a highly-placed educational authority pay tribute to
the delights of homecoming, seemingly new to her. She and her husband were
evidently happily married but had each pursued their individual careers separately
for years, both in the same sphere of education. The time came when the husband
was forced to retire, while the wife kept on working. He then became quite
domesticated, so she reported, and kept the home going to such effect that
at last she was able to appreciate the true meaning of the word home. After
a day's work, she returned to a tidy house with light and warmth and a prepared
meal, and above all someone to welcome her and listen to her story of the
day. Until then she had had a residence; now she had a home.
The Lord Jesus is the great Home-maker. He promised to prepare a place
for us and then personally to welcome us into the Father's house. In some
faint way this experience of Peter and the others foreshadowed the dawn
of that bright morning when He will meet us and call us to breakfast with
Him. So far as these seven were concerned, at the end of the long vigil
and fruitless labour, and then the sudden crisis of netting the great shoal
of fish, they did not have to trudge off to some suitable accommodation,
but found a miniature home awaiting them, food and warmth and the most welcome
Voice in all the world saying, "Breakfast is ready".
This was a sample for them and for all of us of the kindly acts of the
risen Lord who meets us after our dark and disappointing trials and comforts
us with a spiritual taste of that homecoming which is yet to be: "Weeping
may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm 30:5). When
they went off on their expeditions He knew about it. While they terminated
their dispiriting journey back to land, He was busy preparing a fire and
food in readiness for their arrival. Even if there had been no miraculous
catch, it was joy enough to have His loving welcome. The 153 large fishes
were, in a sense, a bonus and, as Alec Motyer reminds me, an opportunity
for the Lord to give them a second helping. Even now this is a truth which
applies to us in our crises and even if they are right who blame Peter for
wrongly putting to sea, the loving welcome was a taste of glory here below.
We must major, though, on the ultimate fulfilment of this invitation
to breakfast. The moment [49/50] is coming when this
world's night will give place to a bright and glorious dawn, when the Lord
will be waiting to receive those who are His Own. As Peter took up his coat
to clothe himself as he met the Lord, we will all put on our transformed bodies
and be "clothed upon" (2 Corinthians 5:4), so that we may be ushered in to
the eternal Home which Peter himself describes as "An inheritance incorruptible,
and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you ..."
(1 Peter 1:4).
Heaven is not just a locality: it is a locality made into a Home by His
welcoming love. One day we will finish our stint on earth, and then we will
go into something which is much more than a residence, for we will enjoy
a veritable homecoming -- "Absent from the body, at home with the Lord" (2
Corinthians 5:8). Those who often have to let themselves into an empty dwelling
set to work to tidy up and warm it, prepare a lonely meal and have no friendly
ear to listen to them will best appreciate this prospect. It is something
to look forward to. We will find the Lord coming out to meet us, and we will
be welcomed into what will now be our eternal Home. It will be Home because
He is there. It would be no Home without Him. What a breakfast that will
be! The marriage feast of the Lamb.
This may seem fanciful, but I must draw your attention to the return
of Christ being the final allusion made to Peter on this occasion: "...
till I return ..." (v.23). Obviously that was never far from the Saviour's
mind. Beyond the glory of His approaching Ascension and beyond the Spirit's
descent and the great dispensational task of the worldwide spread of the
gospel, He was considering the climactic event of the heavenly Homecoming
of His blood-bought family. Then, like John, we will exclaim, "It is the
Lord". Then, like Peter, we will have our earthly workday form clothed with
garments which fit us for His presence. Then He will say to His beloved Church
"Come to My home-warming feast!"
To those seven it was an unexpected surprise. In spite of the varied
prognostications of how the events will unroll according to the Scriptures,
the one certain thing is that we will all be surprised. Jesus said as much
on several occasions. But it will not be an unexpected surprise, for we
are told to live in the light of it: "Blessed are those servants whom the
lord when he cometh shall find watching; verily I say unto you, that he
shall gird himself, and make them sit down at his table and shall come and
serve them" (Luke 12:37). It sounds unbelievable, but the words were spoken
by those same lips that called, "Come and breakfast".
The two apostles John and Peter offer to us what seem like contrasting
possibilities concerning the Second Coming: to be alive at the time or to
have had to yield to death. In spite of all the challenges to watch and
wait for that event which, with the rest of the apostles, Peter had received
from the Lord Jesus, he was now being told by the Lord that at the end of
his service for God he would be overtaken by death, and so not live until
that Coming. Whether at that time Peter fully realised the implications of
the words of Jesus we do not know, but as he concluded his Gospel, John wrote
quite definitely about Peter's God-glorifying death.
Towards the end, Peter put it on record that the Lord Jesus had made
it clear to him that the moment for this exodus from this life was imminent
(2 Peter 1:14). Whether he was simply recalling that lakeside prediction or
whether -- as is likely -- he had received a more up-to-date intimation, we
do not know, but in any case he did not refer to it as an inevitable calamity
but rather as part of a perfect divine plan. Some closing words of his last
letter state: "But in keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to
a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13).
He therefore died, as we all should, looking for the coming of the Day of
On the other hand, John was spoken of in such terms that many concluded
(though wrongly) that the apostle would still be alive when Christ returned.
In his case, however, death may already have come to him before the fourth
Gospel was released, for the saintly men who added their personal guarantee
as to the authenticity of John's Gospel pointed out that this should cause
[50/51] no puzzlement. They knew that there had been
a rumour among the brothers that John would not die (John 21:23). Did John
himself expect to survive until that Coming? If so, we need not wonder, for
we are all told to do just that. But the Lord makes no promise to any of
us. What He had actually said about John was: "If I want him to remain alive
until I return, what is that to you?"
Two conclusions may be drawn. The first is that our future course on
this earth is known to the Lord, as in Peter's case, and is also governed
entirely by His will, as was true of John. The second is that it is really
quite immaterial whether we are alive at the Coming of Christ or have already
gone to be with Him. The great Home coming is not just the individual blessing
of falling asleep in Jesus, for He and the loved ones in the sphere outside
of time are all waiting, as we are, for that glorious climax, the meeting
of the whole redeemed Church with her Lord, to be consummated at the Marriage
Feast of the Lamb. Young and old, we are to live, and if necessary to die,
in the light of that eternal dawn. "The night is nearly over, the day is almost
here" (Romans 13:12).
TREASURE IN EARTHEN VESSELS
4. THE HEART OF THE MATTER
J. Alec Motyer
(2 Corinthians 5:11-21)
IN one sense as we contemplate the judgment seat of Christ we rest secure
and in comfort since at no point will salvation be questioned: "if his work
shall be burnt up, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved" (1
Corinthians 3:15). The A.V. word "terror" cannot enter into the situation.
I am happy to tell you that what Paul wrote was, "Knowing therefore the fear
of the Lord", with the word being the ordinary one used for fear. We will
all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and then there will be an enquiry
into what we have done in the body. That is not an exception or unusual
Scriptural truth. But salvation will never be in question.
This fear is that which Peter speaks of when he says: "If you call on
him as Father, then pass the time of your sojourning in fear" (l Peter 1:17).
It is not a fear that He will not accept you, for Peter goes on to say that
you were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, but it is the fear that
goes along with love, fear lest we should be less than pleasing to Him.
It is as if Paul said, "When I contemplate standing before the judgment seat
of Christ I find in my heart a fear that on that day I shall be found to
have built in straw and wood and in the perishable. I therefore have a reverential
longing to be one who builds in terms of gold.
Sharing the Gospel
The keynote of the opening verses of this passage is the heart off the
evangelist. There is a fear that issues in evangelism, "Knowing, the fear
of the Lord, we persuade men." There is that about the judgment seat of
Christ which moves us to bring the gospel persuasively into the ears of
men. We go out to persuade; we go out to win. There is a fear which issues
in proclamation. Paul is not speaking of the speciality of the apostolic
function, [51/52] but calling us all to follow
the apostolic model. There are things which were special and unique to the
apostles, unrepeatable and irreplaceable. But there are many things about
apostolic ministry concerning which Paul calls us to be imitators of him.
So we must not be put off by such words as "proclamation" and "evangelism"
by thinking that it is not our calling to be an evangelist. "I am no Billy
Graham!" So let us not allow these words to exclude us from the thrust of
this Godly fear. Let us bring the matter down to our level by calling it
"gospel sharing". A proper reverential expectation of the judgment seat of
Christ calls us to building in gold by sharing the gospel.
Open to God's Scrutiny
"What we are is known to God". In this work of gospel proclamation, Paul's
great desire is to appear in his true colours before God, to be as manifest
to God's scrutiny now in the work of gospel-sharing, as he will inevitably
be open to that scrutiny when he stands before the judgment seat of Christ.
"We must all appear" before that judgment seat. It is important to
be seen in our true colours now, not letting the task of gospel-sharing be
an outward veneer only but something which the searching eye of God sees
as belonging to my very heart. He sees us all the time.
Paul goes on to say, "And I hope that we are made manifest also in your
consciences. We are not again commending ourselves unto you, but speak as
giving you occasion of glorying on our behalf, that you may have an answer
to give to those who glory in appearance and not in heart." Paul was experiencing
some coolness in his relationship with the church in Corinth. We need not
bother ourselves with all the ins and outs of their accusations against him,
but note one thing, that he was described as a fickle and unreliable person
because he had said that he would go to Corinth and he did not go. In this
and other ways he found himself under scrutiny and criticism from those
in Corinth who were opposed to his ministry. He wanted to win back his friends
in Corinth, so he said, "Look, I am telling you this not in order to justify
myself to you, but because I want you to be sympathetically understanding
and, if necessary, to have ammunition to use in reply to my critics."
Exposure to Criticism
We must note that Paul's sharing of the gospel exposed him to criticism.
The Scriptures are a permanent testimony to the Church, so we cannot imagine
that this only applies to the apostle's situation in regard to the church
of Corinth as if it were a bygone of the past. On the contrary, the holy
Spirit speaks to all of us in this matter, pointing out that committal to
the gospel lays one open to criticism and misunderstanding. Paul's total committal
to God begat in him a carefreeness in relation to what people thought of
him. This is challenging. When has anybody last criticized me because of
my commitment to the gospel?
"For whether we are beside ourselves, it is for God; whether we are of
sober, controlled mind, it is for you" (v.13). Seemingly at Corinth they
were saying that Paul was mad. He confesses that he was possessed by an urgency
of commitment to the gospel which they might construe as madness. "If we
are beside ourselves", he argues, "that is for God". That is what really
living for God means. That is what His service requires. The world will stand
back and declare him mad -- "your much learning has made you mad" (Acts 26:24).
Professing Christians criticised him, saying that he was beside himself.
Paul did not mind; he was as zealous as that! Yet he points out that when
he was in Corinth he was a man of controlled mind. The word here used has
the force of having every faculty in perfect control, being healthily self-possessed.
Unlike the poor man who had to confess to Jesus that his name was Legion,
a man totally disorientated, no one person, fragmented, Paul claimed to
be what that man became, "seated and clothed and in his right mind". Christ
made him so that he was in possession of all his faculties, and the word
used is closely related to Paul's claim that the gospel had done that for
him also. They might call him mad, but in fact his great concern was to make
gospel truth so clear that it cannot be mistaken.
May I repeat that Paul's words disclose what is in the heart of an evangelist
and in doing so he uses the collective term "we". It is not just peculiar
to the apostle, but it is modelled by him. We have to consider our own reactions
to the [52/53] judgment seat of Christ. Let us learn
it together. When we stand before that judgment seat and appear in our true
colours, may it be seen that we had a heart for the gospel and for sharing
The Constraint of Christ's Love
"For the love of Christ constrains me" (v.14). It is as though the apostle
were saying that if he is asked why he has the heart of an evangelist, and
why it is that he seeks to persuade men with such zeal that people think
he is mad, it is because he is driven to it by the love of Christ. We note
the perfect balance of Scripture. In Paul's mind there is no conflict between
the fear he has in anticipating standing before the judgment seat and the
glorious saving love of Christ which fills his heart. There is no conflict
and no contrast. His argument is that he naturally has a fear of displeasing
the One who has loved him in such a wonderful way.
The love of which the apostle speaks is the love which was displayed
upon the cross. Not his love for Christ, but Christ's love for him. That
overwhelming love constrains him. There are many ways in which we can translate
that word. When Timothy and Silas came to Corinth, they found him "wholly
absorbed" in the word of the gospel (Acts 18:5). The word is used of the
Lord Jesus hemmed in by a crowd, and also of a city under siege. It has the
idea of being held in one place or gripped in one way. That is what Paul
means. He says that the love of Christ so grips him that he can only go one
way and is forced along that way.
This constraint is based on a two-fold conviction. "The love of Christ
constrains us because we thus judge". This should really read in the past
tense -- "we have thus judged". He had reached this conclusion and
stood very firm and emphatic about it. This conviction is two-fold, firstly
that "one died for all, therefore all died" (v.14) and also that
He died for all that "they which live should no longer live unto
themselves, but unto Him ..." (v.15). He has reached this two-fold conclusion,
first as to the nature of Christ's death and then to the nature of our life.
The Nature of Christ's Death
The fact that the Lord Jesus died for all meant that all were under sentence
of death. This fact motivated Him to act for and instead of us. In God's
view, that great act of identification with us produces our identification
with Him. "Therefore all died." The only word to cover Christ's action is
the word "substitution". Jesus taking our place. We need to realise that the
Bible gives another side to this fact and that is that when Christ died we
died. He was identified with us in our need and we were identified with Him
in His payment for our need.
When the great God looked on Adam's sin, he died and all in Adam died
with him. The implication in the mind of God as He contemplated the total
nature of that first sin was that all mankind was involved in Adam's death.
The death of the Lord Jesus is not only a loving, substitutionary death
but it is a death which has a consequence for our life, since for man's sake
He died and rose again (v.15). It is not only the death of Christ which is
substitutionary but His resurrection is also substitutionary. The great God
identities us with the dying of Jesus, so that there on the cross we
paid our penalty, we died our death, we discharged our sin,
and now the newness of life which properly belongs to Him, belongs to us
also by identification. When He rose from the dead, we rose too. The
experiences of death and resurrection are inseparable. In the Lord Jesus
we have everything discharged for us that stood between us and God, and we
have everything settled for us so that we may lead a new life in Christ.
The Effect of Christ's Resurrection
There are two conclusions drawn from this identification with Christ
in resurrection. The first is: "Wherefore we henceforth know no man after
the flesh, even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we
know Him so no longer" (v.16). On the other side of the cross, Paul finds
himself a new man, seeing everything with new eyes. As children we sang,
"I would like to have been with Him then". Of course we [53/54]
would. But that is not the point. We live on the other side of the cross,
and we have this much more wonderful knowledge of the Lord Jesus. He is no
longer "here among men" in the context of that children's hymn, but we have
the perpetual presence of the One who so Moved us that He died on the cross.
This is a much more glorious understanding of the Lord Jesus. And until
we know Him like that, we do not know Him at all. "Every other knowledge
of Christ" says Paul, "is negligible. Even if I had walked with Jesus and
talked with Jesus; even if I had been one of those infants who were gathered
into His arms and blessed, that would be nothing compared with vital fellowship
with the risen Christ".
This new attitude also applies to others. We should not look at others
any longer with the old eyes. I fear that we do. We look upon our neighbours
and we see them as nice, kind and caring people. If, however, we look at
them with redeemed eyes, we nave to see them as lost people, people without
Christ and without hope. So this passage has a direct application to the matter
of the sharing of the gospel. It tells us how to look upon the world. We
will not despise their niceness, as though it did not matter. We will not
despise the kindness which God's mercy in common grace still keeps people
human. With the eye of faith, however, instructed by the cross and the resurrection,
we have to look beyond superficial things and ask ourselves where people
stand in relation to eternity. Are they saved?
The second conclusion passes from the personal to the general: "If anyone
is in Christ ..." (v.17). Greek had few punctuation marks and no marks for
an exclamation, but as there is no verb here, we may rightly put in an exclamation
mark and rightly read: "If any man is in Christ -- a new creature!" A novel
working of God has taken place, making all things new for us. A new creation!
Summing up, then, we find the work of Christ on the cross described in
three ways. It is a work of substitution. It is a work of Lordship. And
it is a work of transformation. In verses 18 to 21 he returns to the theme
of the constraint of love.
The Work of Reconciliation
"... God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto
us the ministry of reconciliation" (v.18). "We are ambassadors therefore
on behalf of Christ" (v.20). Ministry is telling others about the reconciliation
that there is in Christ. Two things are put together in verses 18 to 20, and
we must not put asunder what God has bound together. Reconciliation and sharing
reconciliation; reconciliation and the word of reconciliation; reconciliation
and being ambassadors for Christ. It is important, then, to remind ourselves
again that the word "ministry" comes right down to our level. It is the ordinary
word "service". We are all called to serve the Lord Jesus. Those who know
reconciliation must tell others about it, and they must do so with immense
dignity, "as though God did beseech by us". Jesus took our place on the
cross and now we are in His place as we face the world, He was our substitute
there; we are His substitute here.
Reconciliation is the setting at rest of anything that might stand in
the way of a total relationship, and the Lord Jesus has died to achieve total
reconciliation for us. He has so wrought in our case that there is nothing
left to keep us back from God. "While we were enemies, we were reconciled"
(Romans 5:10). We might say that we were never enemies of God, at least not
consciously so, but that is not the point. We are not talking about what
we know of ourselves but of what the Great Physician diagnoses about us.
The doctor comes to a bedside and tells the patient what he has. It is no
use the sick man protesting that he does not feel like that. Here is our Doctor's
diagnosis, and it is that man's fallen nature is at enmity with God. And
by His cross He has the remedy. His reconciling work ensures that there is
now nothing left to prevent a full and restful relationship.
Speaking of the cross, Paul says, "... that he might reconcile them both"
(Ephesians 2:16). He is speaking in principle of the two halves of humanity,
the Jews and the Gentiles, the ins and the outs. He is speaking of the middle
wall of partition which divided Jews from Gentiles, but in a much deeper
way the truth is that all are divided from God by a partition which separates
a Holy God and excludes sinners. [54/55]
The Tabernacle and the Temple, though providing for us a lovely study,
represented a system of exclusion. The Holy God dwelt in isolation in the
Holy of Holies because His holiness is an active repellant to sinners. When
Jesus died upon the cross He laid to rest the animosity, the holy, righteous
wrath that there is in the nature of God. That is what the Bible means by
the word "propitiation". That sacrifice dealt with the wrath of God.
"God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" and here I am bound
to follow both the A.V. and the R.V. and not the N.I.V. The latter reads:
"In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" which is no more than
saying what is in verse 18, as though Christ were the appointed Agent, so
that the work was done through Him. Verse 19 gives us a distinct testimony,
for it tells that when Christ came in, He brought the Father with Him. "God
was in Christ". There is no sense in which the Father was angry with
us and the Son was merciful. There is no division in the Godhead.
It is the wonder of the God we worship that He Himself provided an answer
to His own problem. The love of God provided the answer to the wrath of God.
It is true that the reconciliation comes through Christ as the Agent in
the work of propitiation. But it is in Christ because the whole of the divine
nature is concentrated and absorbed in the task of sinners. And it is also
upon Christ because His death was the means used for the work of reconciliation.
We read "... not reckoning unto them their trespasses" (v.19). That, in
itself, cannot he enough. God cannot sweep our sins under the carpet and
just write off our deep indebtedness. We may think of a column of figures
that are added up and brought to a total -- all our iniquities and our shortcomings.
What is God going to do with that sum total? He cannot just write it off
as a bad debt.
If He did that, He would cease to be God; He would be false and faithless
to Himself and to His divine nature. We are told what He has done: "Him who
knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness
of God in him" (v.21). He loaded His spotless Son with all our sinfulness.
The Scriptures tell us that the Lord Jesus did no sin, and here they tell
us that He knew no sin. This is the spotlessness of Jesus. In Him there
was no sin at all. Matched by His refusal to have the least truck with sin
in the inmost recesses of His being is the absolute righteousness of His
nature. Never for one moment, or in one particular, did He give His personal
assent to sin. He is the spotless Lamb and that is why He can be our Substitute.
Perhaps the simplest way of understanding Calvary is found in verse 21
where we are told of the great exchange. This describes the saving transaction
with the Lord Jesus. He tells us to give Him what we have, and He will give
us what He has. We hand all our sins and guilt over to Him and in His great
grace, He conveys all His spotless righteousness to us. Surely this fills
us with wonder, love and praise. "It is all of God" says Paul (v.18). Reconciliation
is God's expression of His great love to undeserving sinners.
This is not only a blessing, it is a message. Necessarily it is a message
for since He does the work of reconciliation, it behoves us who are reconciled
to serve Him by telling others. We note that it says that "God was in Christ
reconciling the world to himself" (v.19). It is not just for you and me.
There is a world of people to be told of this wonderful salvation provided
for them. It is true that the marvellous exchange has been made. He has given
us His righteousness and made us His ambassadors. "As though God were beseeching
by us, we beseech you on behalf of Christ, Be ye reconciled to God". Reconciliation
is a ministry as well as a blessing. Reconciliation is a plea. May the Lord
help us to carry this treasure to the world in our earthen vessels.
(To be continued)
BRIDGING THE GAP
John H. Paterson
"We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold,
or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device" Acts 17:29
IN a previous article in this magazine I raised, but did not actually
answer, the following question: In relation to the knowledge or wisdom by
which we know God, is all human thought vain? It is one of the most clearly
expressed principles of the spiritual life that, by thought alone
man can never find God for, if he could, that would give a most unfair
advantage to the clever people. Cleverness is no more an entrance key into
the kingdom of God than great wealth, or great strength, or long life, or
any other purely human attribute.
That we understand, but it is precisely in the light of that understanding
that I repeat my original question. If thinking will not get us into heaven,
will it get us anywhere at all? I imagine that we are all aware that Bible-believing
Christians have a deeply ingrained mistrust of thought and intellect; they
suspect that it represents a departure from the "simple" gospel, which becomes
in this view an invitation to blind faith and no thought at all!
I want to suggest that this is a grave misunderstanding, and to emphasise
the point by reference to Acts 17. God has given us minds and He has, moreover,
given us the revelation of Himself in the form of the written Word. Not only,
therefore, do we need Christians with minds to translate it for us, and
to give us the very best understanding possible of what the Scriptures actually
say, but since we cannot go back to the Author and ask, "What did you mean
by this or that passage?" we must use our minds to consider the Book and
to ponder its message. The meaning of the few "simple" gospel verses may
seem to us clear enough, but they make up only a tiny fraction of the whole,
all of which demands our very best efforts of thought.
I want briefly to call your attention to Paul's sermon in Athens, about
which I have written in these pages before, but this time to use it to illustrate
the use Paul made of his audience's thinking processes. With its reputation
as the cultural and philosophical capital of the world, and a population
who "spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some
new thing" (Acts 17:21) Athens was certainly the place for thinking people!
And although some believers feel that Paul did wrong to "come down to their
level" by beginning his sermon with a long philosophical introduction, I prefer
to see this as a masterly move by an experienced evangelist to meet his audience
where they stood.
The fact is that, in the account of Paul's sermon as we have it, seven
of the nine verses it occupies in the text are taken up with thoughts rather
than direct evangelism. I can go further: seven of the nine verses contain
no special reference to the Lord Jesus or the Gospel; indeed those who listened
to the seven verses would have had no idea, after hearing them, what religion
Paul was preaching! He had up to that point talked simply of the idea of
And up to that point, I am sure that his audience followed his argument
without difficulty, for he was arguing rationally on a subject -- God --
about which they could hardly pretend they knew nothing. Athens was crowded
with statues to the gods; they even had one TO THE UNKNOWN GOD, just in case
they had overlooked any of them (17:23). The idea of God was not something
about which Paul needed to convince them; his complaint was about the
logic of their idea, on which he caught them out with almost ridiculous
ease. "When you make a god of gold or silver" he argued, "you give it a form
which you create. But if there is one thing more certain than another it
is that the idea 'God' refers to [56/57] Someone who
is nothing like us, whom we cannot imagine. To make an image of 'God'
is a contradiction in terms/"
In much the same way he covers the other points of his argument by appealing
to rational thought: that nature does not prove the existence of God, but
merely suggests that the Gardener is not far off in the garden; that the
ordering of the earth's peoples suggests some guiding hand. These are the
terms in which Paul approaches the point of his sermon, and to me they are
summarised in the words at the head of this article, "We ought not to think
..." He did not accuse the Athenians of being heathen, irreligious -- quite
the contrary (17:22) -- but of not thinking straight!
After seven verses, however, Paul realised that he had carried them with
him as far as he could go; that at this point mere thought, even logical
thought, could sustain the argument no further. There had to be a break; another
element had to be introduced. But thought and argument had not been idle
chatter. They had brought Paul and his hearers to one highly important conclusion:
that their thought was wrong. It was negative, of course, but let us not
forget that these were people who prided themselves on the quality of their
thinking, and here was this stranger from out of town politely quoting their
own poets against them!
And so we come to the abrupt break in the sermon; to verse 30. Here Paul
abandoned his argument, and changed tone to declare God's commandment to
all men everywhere to repent. This verse does not follow logically from those
that precede it; it is a declaration of facts for which the only evidence
offered was that someone called Jesus had been raised from the dead. No wonder
(v.32) that the Athenians mocked! A speaker whom they had just begun to
respect for his powers of logic and argument had thrown away in two sentences
all his advantage!
But I cannot think that Paul was surprised by this; that he did not know
what he was doing. What he knew was that thought takes men and women so far
towards God but, beyond that point, there is a gap. Beyond that gap again,
thought is once more essential to ponder the mysteries of the Kingdom. But
the gap itself is bridged by faith alone.
Over and over again, the Scriptures assure us that we are saved by faith
alone -- by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as our only Saviour. Some
people take this as a clear indication that faith and thought are opposites
and, indeed, the enemies of one another. Try to find God by thought, runs
the argument, and you will fail. Abandon thought and act in faith and you
I have to say that I think that this is quite wrong. It is not a question
of "either-or", but of one and then the other. Thought about God and our
standing before Him will bring us to a point where we say, "Logic has brought
me to this position; I can see what I need in order to be reconciled to God
and have access to Him, but logic won't get me over the gap in the road ahead.
For that, I can only accept in faith what logic cannot prove for me until
I take this step, believing."
The number of people prepared to take that step will, I suppose, always
be limited. In Athens, some did (17:34), and others wanted time to think
over the implications of what Paul had said (v.32). But I am sure that Paul
knew, on the other hand, that without those introductory seven verses of his
sermon he would have lost them all, at once. On the other hand, if he had
not made the break, and declared the commandment of God to repent,
he knew that they could have gone on spinning cosy philosophical arguments
all day, but Dionysius and Damaris and the rest would never have found salvation.
What, then, I have tried to show is that thought and faith are not enemies;
they complement one another, with faith coming in at the critical moment
to do what thought alone cannot. Let me attempt a very simple illustration.
Buried in the heart of a motor car engine are some sparking plugs. They form
part of the electrical circuits on which the car's working depends. But if
you look closely at a plug you will find that one of its features is a gap
-- two metal points with a small space in between.
Now everyone who knows even a little about electricity knows that you
cannot have a gap in a circuit, otherwise the electricity cannot flow. So,
taking a hammer you close the gap again and you discover that you need
the gap . The gap, [57/58] in other words, is
exactly what the engine needs; the current jumps across the gap in the form
of a spark and that ignites the petrol vapour and drives the engine. What
looked like the most illogical feature of the engine has a very logical part
to play: try to get rid of it, and the whole system stops!
Paul knew -- for he was a scholar, or thinker -- that there had to be
a gap in his sermon. No man ever held more tenaciously than he to the principle
of justification by faith in Christ alone. But he did not see that as a reason
to stop thinking. Rather, what he thought was, "I see that this is the
only way forward -- to think oneself to the rim of the gap, and then
in faith to leap for the other side." And the Saviour he needed, and we
need, was waiting there for him!
PAUL'S LETTERS TO SEVEN CHURCHES
3. GALATIA Liberation
WHEN Paul received the sad news of the wholesale backsliding of the people
in Galatia who had been so gloriously saved during his first missionary journey,
he began at once to dictate to them an earnest reproof and appeal which
he confirmed with his own signature (6:11). I suggest that the paramount
word which recurred as a constant refrain in his mind at this time was that
In our day the ghastly social injustices in many lands have given rise
to what is called "Liberation Theology". It revolves around the question
of whether it is right for Christians to take violent action against the
powers that be in order to bring political and social freedom to the oppressed.
This is quite different from Paul's concern. His message was of spiritual
liberation. He was totally dedicated to the one task of bringing all men
out of their natural enslavement to self and sin into a personal experience
of "the glorious liberty of the children of God". Even the most oppressed
can know this liberty and nothing and no-one can ever take it from them. It
is sad, though, that free people can allow themselves to be persuaded into
a self-inflicted bondage. It is with such a situation that we are confronted
in the Epistle to the Galatians.
Paul himself had once been a slave. True, he was a freeborn Roman citizen
as well as a privileged Israelite, but nevertheless he had been a slave to
men's ideas and ways (1:10), to tradition (1:14) and to sin (2:17). For him
Christ, and Christ alone, was the great Liberator (3:13) who had made him
a permanently free man. What is more, he had conveyed the gospel of liberation
to the Galatian people in Pisidian Antioch: "By him everyone who believes
is freed from everything from which they could not be freed by the law of
Moses" (Acts 13:39). Many of his hearers, Jews and Gentiles, entered into
this spiritual emancipation, so that "the disciples were filled with joy
and with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 13:52). They came to know the truth, and
the truth made them free. It was the Son of God Himself who had made them
free, so that they were free indeed.
Those were great days! The crucified Liberator filled their vision (3:1);
God worked many wonders among them (3:5), and while it was true that inevitable
suffering followed, their joy was unbounded (4:15). When the apostle returned
to his base at Antioch, he had excellent accounts to give of them. Very soon,
however, the Galatians had been visited by self-appointed religious teachers
who troubled them by offering a perversion of the gospel which urged them
to add some righteousness of their own to God's gift of righteousness in
Christ which came from faith alone. Thinking, no doubt, that this was a "higher"
life which made them spiritually superior, they embraced this plausible
advice and passed from being Christ's freedmen to being slaves of rules
and regulations. The effect was devastating. It was not merely a matter
of doctrine, though that [58/59] is most important,
but a reversal to a whole way of life. All their joy disappeared. Their spiritual
progress was halted. Christ's chosen apostle was discredited. There was such
a practical nullification of their liberty that churches of loving brothers
were turning into groups of servile religionaries, "biting and devouring
one another" (5:15).
It is important to note that these Galatians were not lawless offenders,
"perverting the grace of God into licentiousness" (Jude 4), but were zealous
religious men who truly desired to improve their standing in the sight of
God. The apostle hints that it had been a sinister charm which had deceived
them (3:1), just as Peter and even Barnabas had almost been "carried away"
at Antioch (2:13). So serious is this matter of turning back to self-effort
that Paul had to use such startling phrases as being "severed from Christ"
and "falling away from grace' (5:4). There is no reason at all for imagining
that the true believer can forfeit his salvation, so that right to the last
verse of this Letter he addresses his readers as "brothers", but clearly
very serious issues are involved. To find confidence in anything other than
the free grace of God is to judge Christ's death on the cross as an unfortunate
and even unnecessary mistake (2:21). This, to the genuine believer, must
The antithesis of liberation is legalism. This whole book of the New
Testament is devoted to the task of warning not only the Galatians but all
Christians not to be ensnared by the many specious forms of this error.
In the time of Paul the particular stress of legalism was on circumcision;
this is no longer an issue but there are many other aspects of this false
position, the inevitable effect of which is to bring back into bondage those
who should be enjoying the liberty of the Spirit. It also induces tendencies
to division and perhaps the ugliest expression of conceit, namely, spiritual
pride. Never to have known Christ's liberating power is indeed a tragedy,
but what can we say of those who once enjoyed that emancipation and now follow
and propagate a way of life which re-introduces bondage? Hence this Epistle.
Legalism always introduces some "thing", in contrast to the one Person
of the Lord Jesus. Then it was circumcision: "Except you are circumcised
... you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1), but the abiding principle of legalism
is that no-one can know the fullness of God's blessing without some extra
action, effort or experience to complement the gift of God's grace. However
convincing this may sound, it is in fact a grave heresy.
Nevertheless, liberation is not an end in itself, but rather a means
to an end. That end is God's eternal purpose to translate believers into
a full likeness to His Son. In turn, this is to provide the Church as the
body of Christ, the corporate expression of Christ. This is paramount in
all the divine activities, so we are not surprised that His servant Paul was
so emphatic in his arguments against legalism, for it threatens that purpose.
In a sense he had to travail that these people should come by faith into
Christ; now he is travailing all over again that Christ may be formed in
The agent for this transforming work is the Holy Spirit: "Where the Spirit
is Lord, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face contemplating as
in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image, from
glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
The Holy Sprit and the flesh (even the religious flesh) are in direct conflict
(5:17). The Galatians began -- as we all begin -- by receiving the Spirit.
It follows that it must be utter folly to contemplate moving back from that
beginning and seeking perfection on any other basis (3:2-3). Herein lies
the subtle snare of legalism: it is not just a question of doctrine, important
though that is, but a matter of combative opposition to the Spirit's desire
to make us like Christ. To move freely under His government is to run well;
to turn away to rules and regulations is to be tripped up in the race (5:7).
There can be no denying that the Holy Spirit only works on the basis
of the cross. It is by crucifixion with Christ that we are liberated. It
is notable that in this Letter the Holy Spirit is not so much as mentioned
until the writer has thoroughly stressed the fullness and finality of Christ's
work upon the cross and His resurrection. After this has been done in the
first two chapters, the Letter abounds in references to the Spirit's work
in and through the believer. Our life, our [59/60]
walk, our fruitfulness depend on the free gift of the Holy Spirit in response
to simple faith. If anyone goes beyond that and affirms, "Except you ... you
cannot", their teaching and influence must be condemned.
Opponents of the gospel have always argued that such a message will produce
libertines, antinomial free-lances. They could not be more wrong as both
New Testament doctrine and practical experiences clearly show. In the Editorial
of this issue I have dealt with the beautiful relationship of a freed slave
who has become a love-servant by his own act of consecration. This is what
Paul's gospel did for all believers in Galatia and still does for all believers
everywhere. It is a beautiful aspect of the gospel. The arguments of this
Letter, however, present a different conception of love service, equally
true and more significant.
Believers have more than a continuation of a Master/Servant relationship
than that of freed slaves, for they have been made true-born sons of the
house. Redemption brings more than a change of status by which the ex-slave
becomes freed and voluntary servant in the house, for it makes the believer
into a free-born son who serves not only from gratitude but because the Spirit
of the eternal Son motivates his life.
The Son was never a slave; He was divinely free; yet as a Son He willingly
consecrated Himself in His human body to serving the Father's pleasure. The
term "bond-servant" in His case speaks of the glad surrender of all personal
claims to freedom in total consecration to the Father's will. He it was
who with a pierced ear (symbolic of a surrendered body), entered this world
saying "A body hast thou prepared for me ... Lo, I come to do thy will"
According to the argument of this Letter, all believers are so truly
"in Christ" that they share this relationship to God: "So you are no longer
a slave, but a son". The whole passage in Galatians 4:5-7 informs us that
something quite new has happened. It is now true that there is not just a
new regime but a new creation (6:15). We must not be led astray by the English
word "adoption" as if our new relationship were only a legal one. It is that,
but it is much more. I find the N.I.V. phrase more helpful -- "the full right
of Sons (4:5). The change is one of nature; the miracle of grace makes us
also free-born sons. By faith we have become born-children of the Father
(John 1:12-13). We share God's eternal life; we have an altogether new nature
since we have received the gift of the Spirit of God's Son.
This, then, is the liberation of the gospel. Far from encouraging us
to be careless or wayward, it enables us to enjoy God and to bring joy to
Him. When the prodigal returned to his true home, he was ready to offer
to serve in it in order to earn his keep: "Make me like one of your hired
servants". The father, however, stifled that suggestion before it could
be voiced, saying, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him" (Luke
15:22). In fact it is an insult to the Father's grace for His children to
substitute rules and regulations for love service. Grace welcomes us as sons,
and grace can prove to be the strongest incentive to holy living.
The Galatians were being troubled by listening to those who demanded
that they bear the marks of legal obligations. Paul had no-one to trouble
him, for he bore better marks branded on his body -- the marks of Jesus
(6:17). This is divine liberation and it is the high privilege given to
all of us who are in Christ. [60/ibc]
[Inside back cover]
ON THE WAY UP (15)
Psalm 134 LIFTING UP
WE have reached the last of the Songs of Ascents. It seems that the pilgrim
has arrived at the summit and there he has discovered two important truths.
THE first is that pilgrims are sustained and prospered on their upward
journey by faithful intercessors. The Creator God sends them blessing out
of Zion in answer to the intercessory prayers in His house there.
WHILE others are asleep these saints labour on in their ministry of praise
and prayer, lifting up their hands in the sanctuary. The pilgrim himself
has to break his journey for necessary rest, and in any case he cannot normally
journey through the night. But while he sleeps there are those who stand
by night in the house of the Lord, ministering to our eternal God who neither
slumbers nor sleeps, the very same God whom the pilgrim sang of when he first
set out on his journey (Psalm 121).
I do not know how the ministry of praise brings aid and succour to the
pilgrims; I only know that it does. I sometimes think that if wild riotous
music is so offensive to many of us that we seek to escape from it, then
the praises of our God must be correspondingly offensive to evil spirits
and cause them to sheer away. Worship and praise somehow become potent weapons
in the spiritual conflict.
IN Jehoshaphat's day, the advance guard of singers brought victory to
the whole host of God's people (2 Chronicles 20:22). In the New Testament
we read that when at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns
unto God, a liberating earthquake was precipitated in Philippi. It may well
be, then, that in our fiercely contested movement upwards, help comes to us
by reason of the worshipping ministry of saints hidden from us but near to
AND what shall we say of hands lifted up in prayer? There can be no doubt
that our progress is prospered by the faithful intercessory ministry of praying
friends. We know very little of this work behind the scenes while we are
still on our journey but when we complete our course we will doubtless discover
how very much we owe to the prayers of others.
DURING our nights as well as our days, they have held up holy hands of
loving intercession. While we have stumbled or perhaps given way to spiritual
slumber, they have held us up before God in prayer and kept us from falling
out by the way.
THE other truth which the pilgrim now sees so clearly is that a supreme
feature of our destiny is worship. The end of our long pilgrimage is to be
among heavenly worshippers. The Father is seeking redeemed worshippers. Our
calling is to swell the numbers of those who maintain holy and happy worship
before His throne.
WE may rightly conclude that it will be easy in heaven. Indeed there
is no night there. The test is applied to us now. In the dark nights it
is easy to let our hands hang down and our lips keep silence. The true pilgrim,
however, is the one who worships God even in his darkest moments. We are
reaching the heights of spiritual attainment when by God's grace we are able
to do that. So let us stand. And let us maintain the high praises of God.
The night will soon pass and we will find ourselves in the glory of the eternal
THE LAW OF THY MOUTH IS BETTER UNTO ME
THAN THOUSANDS OF GOLD AND SILVER.
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