The God of Bethel

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - The God of Bethel

There are two great things which must impress thoughtful readers of the Word of God.  These two things run from start to finish of the Scriptures. One is the breaking in of God in relation to this world, and His persistent and unwearying intervention in its course and history. The other is the unbroken chain of attempts to cast Him out of the world and to rid it of God. It would appear that something like this latter had taken place before the creation, one was recorded in Genesis. After that attempt had been made which is recorded there, in which Adam was involved, and through him the entire race, the breakings in of God are for a time connected with individuals. These stand to represent Him and His rights, and to maintain His testimony, and the most conspicuous thing in that representation and testimony is an altar. Thus it was with Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac. These men, standing by their altar, formed a break in the well-nigh universal usurpation of God's rights in the possession of the world and its government. Upon them fell the weight of holding it in token for God, and the test of faith was terrific. When we reach Jacob, while there is an inheriting of what has befeatured the testimony until then, there is a new development. This new and extra factor is the House of God. The greatest experiences and crises of his life are in some way connected with Bethel. The introduction of this feature is a landmark in the course of the ages. It is not merely a man's dream, it is a Divine intervention. Not many times do we read of the heavens opening and God speaking through the rifted clouds, but it is significant that whenever it is so in some way it relates to the great spiritual truth which is central to what happened on that night at Luz, and which cause it to be known forever after by a new name - Bethel - the House of God.

All the continuously growing revelation of the truth of the House of God through both the Testaments can be traced back to and gathered up in the breaking in of God that night with the result that that designation sprang spontaneously into everlasting being. One wonders if it was an inspiration which came to Jacob on the spur of the moment, leading him so to define and express his experience, or whether the spontaneity of it did not imply a familiarity with the idea of God having a house here. However that may be, we know now that it was not new at that moment to God Himself, but that the thought and intention sprang out of the Counsels of the Godhead in the past eternity. That being so, we might expect to find in the first definite reference to it a good deal, at least of what would subsequently be made more clear. Not only is that true here, but, as a matter of fact, there is a most comprehensive microcosm of all subsequent revelation in "Bethel" as Jacob first had to do with it.

We shall proceed almost immediately to note these elements, but it may be as well to warn readers that we are approaching, not just a study of Bible teaching, or an interpretation of Scripture, but a tremendous challenge to our whole mentality and acceptance. So many of us from our infancy upward for many years thought of the house of God as some one or other special kind of building where the public religious service took place. Either a church, a chapel, or a mission hall. It was linked in our minds with the idea that the Church is either a building for the formal worship of God or it is a denomination, such as the Anglican, Roman, or Nonconformist.

Probably there are tens of thousands whose mentality in these matters does not go much beyond that. Their horizon and definition is limited either to a specific material place, or a specific historic "connection." Thus we hear of such things as "church connections," "the church," and "church membership," &c. Now it need hardly be said that the mentality which is indicated by such speech is foreign to the Scriptures, and the "church" or "house of God" which is meant by this manner of speech is not that which is revealed in the Word of God.

We are not embarking upon mere Bible study as such, but we are very seriously and solemnly burdened with a sense of the need for a fuller recovery of the real spiritual truth of things, and that the Lord should have that in the earth which is according to His own mind. We may be assured that all that is otherwise is going the way of the "wood, hay and stubble," in the fires of His testings, no matter how expensive and elaborate and long-standing it may have been. We are entering more and more deeply into a time when historic structures are failing to meet the need and justify their existence. There is a growing sense of weakness and ineffectiveness and failure in the hearts of religious leaders and God's servants. On the other hand there is a deepening spiritual hunger in the true children of God; a longing for the Lord; a disappointment with things as they are; and a growing realisation that the "churches" have not got the real thing to offer for their spiritual sustenance. There is a tremendous amount of bolstering up having to be done, and weakness is advertised in glaring ways by the introduction of all kinds of institutional and social means of maintaining the "church."

Many of the true servants of God are breaking their hearts over the state of things spiritually. Conscious in themselves of the need for a new vision and a new power, they feel the acute pain of a sense of something akin to

Putting Money Into Bags with Holes,

pouring water into a sieve, or seeing the fruit fall to the earth long before it is ripe.

We beg to offer the suggestion that God cannot support what is not according to His mind, and in a day when it is becoming more than ever necessary for Him to have something as such, He is less and less able to bless even a good thing when it is the enemy of the best: to use what He has used when it fails to lead on to what is His ultimate object and thought.

If some of the Hebrew prophets were here today there would have to be a very little revision of many of their utterances to make them apply to things as they are now. Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, would easily recognise the symptoms, and have the explanation. They would say, "Yes, I see how it is. I have seen it that way before. You are tremendously busy in your religion. You seek with great energy to keep your religious system going. The strength and energy, and wit, and ingenuity, and effort put into it is considerable. You are concerned for the traditions, and are ready to try any new and novel idea if you could thereby obtain success. But, withal, you know in your heart of hearts that it is like flogging a dead horse. You know that you are, for the most part, having to prop up a leaning wall. You know that the expenditure of time, strength and means produces nothing like a commensurate result. You try to be philosophical and talk about it not being for us to "count heads" or trouble about results, and that statistics are not a true means of judging. But, however true that this may be in some realms, you know that this philosophy is often only something to cover what would more honestly be called failure. You are busy but not effective. Many years ago I put it this way - 'when one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten (that is, they were disappointed to the amount of half their expectation), when one came to the wine vat to draw out fifty vessels, there were but twenty' (less than half). 'Mildew, blasting and hail, smote your field and your barn. You looked for much, and lo, it came to little, and when you brought it how it vanished as by a breath.' Yes, yes, and you are getting weary of it all, and asking questions, and wondering if God is really in it all, and why He does not more manifestly co-operate and prosper. The fact that you have to resort to so many means and measures to try and maintain things is only your unconscious acknowledgment that the thing would dry right up if you did not, and therefore its life is not in itself.

"Well, well, we could explain it all for you, as we did in similar conditions long ago. On one occasion it proved to be as we said because there were those who hearkened and obeyed; but on another occasion almost entire extinction came - but for a few secret souls - 'because our words were unheeded.'"

If we were to ask these prophets for an explanation of the situation, and what the vision is that we so consciously need in order to bring things up into the sphere of Divine interest and power, while there might be several things mentioned by them, they would undoubtedly say with instant precision and emphasis -

"My house, saith the Lord."

They would then take us to the Scriptures and we should rub our eyes and open our mouths in astonishment as they led us from Genesis onward and showed us God's all but supreme concern for His house. We say "all but supreme" because there is one thing above it and that is the purpose for which it was conceived. Bearing this distinction in mind, we should be most startled to see how God has linked everything with His house; all blessing or judgment, prosperity or curse, glory or shame, life or death, service, discipline, fellowship, revelation, administration, authority, &c. We should be solemnly impressed when we saw that He has linked Himself with His house so that the fullest knowledge of Himself is only to be had in relation to His house. Thus He would say to an enquiry as to why so much miscarriage and labour in vain in His name -

"Because of My house which lieth waste."

Let us hasten, however, to say that this has but a very remote connection with the empty pews of "churches" or "chapels." This is no attempt to deal directly with the present problems of "church attendance," or non-attendance, or the decline in the general religious life of the nation. The two things may be and probably are related, but we do not begin at that end.

It is of the greatest importance that we very early in our consideration get clear of some false mentality as to what the house of the Lord is in the mind of God, and as to the dispensation in which we live.

We would again point out the tremendous difference between an appraisement of any great truth of Scripture by an intellectual process and that truth coming as a revelation from God by the Holy Spirit to the heart. Some of us have had our lives entirely revolutionised by the latter even after we had known and preached all the same truth for years. It is not the difference in the substance of the truth, but it is the difference between the head and heart, between intellect and the Holy Spirit; which is all the difference between death and life, labour and inspiration, man and God. The one is arrived at through study; the other through spiritual experience. The question naturally arises, how can one come to the latter position? The answer is that first of all there must be a deep and desperate exercise concerning the need for it. It must be a matter of life and death, that or nothing. Not just a quest for power, influence, usefulness, a blessing, but the honour and glory of God being so much involved that nothing less than His absolute and utter and best can possibly be accepted. This must be accompanied by a willingness to pay the price and go all the way whatever the cost. Then finally there must be a definite transaction with the Lord in an understanding that He takes in hand the bringing of one there by any necessary means or way.

The probability is that sooner or later a breaking up or drying up process will begin, and an experience of deep death will be entered into. This is necessary if things are all to be constituted on a basis which is all of God and none of man in the natural. There must be such a transition from one realm to the other through death and resurrection. It has ever been, and is a fixed law of the realm of the heavens. There are three things which, if brought to us in this way will mean a new world, a new vision, a new power, and a new ministry. Each of them can be had in the natural without the said result, even though the conviction may be very strong and the emphasis upon them be with passion and great earnestness. Still the great difference remains, and some of us know that difference experimentally. These three things are:

The Person of the Lord Jesus.

The meaning of the Cross.

The Nature and Purpose of the Church which is His Body - the House of God.

It is quite pertinent to ask those who speak of these things, has it come to you by revelation of the Holy Spirit?

Now having said so much by way of approach, we are ready to return and see something of what the House of God is as represented in germ in Genesis 28, where Jacob's vision is recorded.

We gather up the elements and leave the fuller consideration of them for the later chapters.

1. Where Jacob Was.

He was in a place of detachment.

The narrative would lead us to think that the dream took place on his first night out. But unless he went by fast camel this was not possible. The distance from Beer-sheba to Bethel was about sixty miles as the crow flies. It is more probable that it would be his third night, and he had yet over two hundred miles to go. It is interesting how time and distance or space do not enter into this story. The feature here, however, is that Jacob was well out away from everything, apart from all his connections in this world. Bethel came in there. The House of God has this feature spiritually. That will come up again.

2. What Jacob Saw.

1. "A ladder set upon the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven."

This represented a link and a communicating link between heaven and earth. The heavens and the earth were united and made one by this instrument. Heaven came into touch with earth, and earth with heaven by this means.

2. "The angels of God ascending and descending on it."

Angels in Scripture represent the agents of Divine administration in relation to men concerning the purpose of God.

They are "all ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who shall inherit salvation" (Hebrews 1:14). They are connected with the purpose of God in Christ and with the work of Christ in relation to men.

3. "And behold, Jehovah stood above it."

The supreme and all dominating thing is the place and revelation of the Lord Himself in this matter. He has broken in here in the place apart, as it were, out of the world, and is in evidence in sovereign activity. The pre-eminent feature is God's association with this. It constitutes, defines, and gives character to all else. It remains the factor which governs all that takes place from that time onward. It comes to be realised that He has associated Himself with something, and never again does He disassociate Himself from that which is spiritually introduced. He is for the rest of the ages the God of Bethel, the God of the House of God, and for all the fulness of His mind and purpose men will have to come into that which is meant by His house.

3. What Jacob Heard.

"I am Jehovah, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south; and in thee and in thy seed shall all families of the earth be blessed. And behold I am with thee and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee again unto this land; for I will not leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of."

Now without analysing the above we take its general implications and effect. It represents several things:-

1. Bethel is linked with a  continuous purpose of God which was related in a spiritual way with God's dealings with Abraham and Isaac. The spiritual elements in the relationship and experiences of those two are carried on to Jacob and come out at Bethel - the House of God.

2. In an outside place - a place apart - with one who is not personally according to God's mind, He sovereignly and in grace makes covenant announcements and commitments, and involves Himself to unconditionally secure an end, and exercise that sovereignty. The purpose is His and does not begin with or ultimately rest upon man's action.

3. Man is in view, however, and what is said relates to man in a very real way; not in a limited way either, but Bethel takes a relationship to all the families of the earth. What God had said concerning Abraham and Isaac is now said concerning Jacob, but it comes in in relation to Bethel. A glance forward will show that this is not straining the point, but Bethel has come to stay and be vitally connected with the future of this purpose.

4. What Jacob Said.

"And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely Jehovah is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

The inferences of this statement are very plain.

1. The House of God is where God is.

2. Where God is that which is not in accordance with His mind feels it to be a terrible place and is smitten with fear. Jacob here is the man in the flesh, and the flesh is not fitting to the presence of God and must realise that it is so. "Holiness becometh Thy House, O Lord, forever," and to bring an unholy condition into God's House is not meet and a sense of the unfitness must strike awe into the conscience.

3. "The gate of heaven" at once brings us into the place where directly above the heavens are open and the voice is heard. An open heaven, a voice, and a revelation of the mind of God were the features of the commencement of our Lord's life and ministry at the Jordan; also at that climax in relation to His Cross in the mount of transfiguration. They were also connected with Pentecost and the conversion of Paul. These instances are all one in their deepest connection with the eternal purpose of God. Bethel, the House of God is characterised by the open heaven, the voice of God, and a revelation of His mind.

5. What Jacob Did.

"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel."

A pillar in Scripture is always the symbol of a witness or a testimony. See Genesis 31:52; Joshua 4:7; Isaiah 19:19-20.

The oil is a type of the Holy Spirit. So that Bethel is symbolised by a testimony set up under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. This also is seen in the case of the Lord Jesus on the far side of Jordan and of the Church in the same position on the day of Pentecost.

Having surveyed the features of this first bringing in of the House of God, we shall, with all that we have to say, find ourselves moving almost entirely within these principles. If there is a spiritual apprehension of them there will be some very rich and true knowledge of what the House of God really is as to its nature and its purpose.

The vehicles of revelation change, the instrumentalities vary; the true develops; the forms pass; the aspects are different; but the purpose is the same, never changing, never abandoned, always surviving every failure in the means used. It is a spiritual thing, and when the material agencies of representation break down, the spiritual reality only becomes the more intense.

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