God's Method and Means in Times of Special Peril

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 2 - Divine Reactions

We have taken up the letters from Paul to Timothy as containing and representing a very great crisis and turning point in the course of Christianity. And we are moving into those letters to see, firstly the nature of the crisis, the change which was coming about, and then how the Lord moved to cover, to provide for that tremendous turning of a corner. We began to take note of the indications of crisis in these letters, observing that all these fragments with which we are so familiar, the favourite passages, are really set in a very much larger setting than just things said to help the Christian in their own personal life at any given time of need. These things are written in relation to very far reaching issues. But let us continue for a few minutes with this line of indications of there being a real crisis on when Paul wrote these letters.

We have noted the first feature of that big crisis in the imminent departure and withdrawal of Paul himself from the scene. We might add a few words to that particular matter because undoubtedly the apostle was writing largely for that very reason. The things he was saying to Timothy were largely because he was going. These things needed to be said, because the whole thing was going to be left to others, and to Timothy in a particular way. That constituted a very big change, that Timothy and the faithful men mentioned by the apostle (you will remember the fragment) these are to take up the work and the responsibility, and stand in the place that Paul had occupied. And so the apostle was laying the burden very heavily upon Timothy and upon these others, because of his near-at-hand departure.

And then we took note also of that to which he refers in that secession from him; all those which were in Asia being turned from him, no longer prepared to follow Paul, no longer standing with him in the truth and purpose for which he had given his life, no longer faithful to the great revelation which God had given. Perhaps not having an adequate apprehension of how great a thing had come through Paul, for it is difficult to believe that anybody who had an adequate apprehension of the greatness of things, could in this way turn away. However, here it is, they were leaving Paul, which meant they were leaving what Paul had sought to realise.

And then we were beginning to note the change in the nature in things indicated by the content of these two letters: a real state of spiritual depreciation. I cannot take the time to turn you to every fragment and every passage in the letters indicative of these things, but it does not take you very long to read them, and I would suggest that, after having had it pointed out, you do take up these letters anew and read them carefully again and again. I would that I already had basis with you upon which I could build, but however... there are not a few indications in these letters of a state of moral decline. The apostle refers to some things which are worse than sad or grievous - they are quite evil as things creeping in and having a place amongst Christians: moral laxity. Moral laxity - carelessness in moral conduct and relationships; truly a sign of a lowering of spiritual temper, temperature, standard. The beginnings of it, so far as the church, so far as Christianity was concerned, are traceable in these letters. And the apostle is saying, in effect: "The two things cannot go together: a real true spiritual life, spirituality - and moral laxity".

Perhaps you'll think that that's a terrible subject even to mention in a conference of Christians. I don't know whether that is so, but dear friends, the world is a terrible place, a terrible place, morally, and we all have to live here. The atmosphere is full of it, the papers are full of it, and it is not always easy to keep that atmosphere, if not that kind of life, altogether at bay. It insinuates itself, but perhaps the least or the most that I should say here is this: that that is a very, very persistent means employed by the Devil to ruin the spiritual life. Moral laxity. The enemy is always trying to catch Christians on that ground, on that line, and if he can do it with the people of God, he has ruined their testimony.

Now, we began this afternoon, you'll remember, by referring to the Tabernacle as the shrine of the testimony of God, and God's recognition of the need to reinforce the corners, the turning points - to reinforce spirituality against the perils and dangers of a corner, a change-round from one line to another. It's the testimony that's involved. It is. And let me say this and pass on: that rather than being the least involved, or the most immune, Christian people are more in danger of this very thing than anyone else. If the enemy can get a Christian on that low level of life, at that point, he's struck a master blow. And if he can get a servant of God overcome there, he has surely consolidated his ground against the testimony of Jesus. Therein is a long and terrible history; it explains much. Hence - "Timothy, Timothy, flee, flee," says the apostle, "youthful lusts... flee!" Beware of the encroachment and inroads of this moral laxity that's in the world - we've got to reinforce things against anything like that for the testimony's sake. Is that an unnecessary word to you? Forgive me, if you think so. But here it is.

But that's not the whole of it. I... I'm compelled to say some things that I would rather not say and if, dear friends, they don't apply to you, any of you individually, for your enlightenment and being made aware, it may be helpful to some others in danger. For another feature of the change and the lowering level of spirituality marked in this letter, is unbecoming behaviour in the House of God.

Unbecoming Behaviour in the House of God

The House of God is mentioned, as you notice here, and one of Paul's emphatic words here is "how men ought to behave in the house of God"; that's why he wrote, he said; behaviour in the House of God, and there is unbecoming behaviour. He touches upon the women - the women with unbecoming dress, or lack of it. Now that's an unpleasant thing to talk about, but isn't it something to be talked about? It's a mark of poor spiritual life when that happens, a lowered spiritual level. You see, spirituality is pre-eminently practical. When we speak of that and use the word "spiritual" and "spirituality", sometimes people make a joke of it and say, "Oh, they're so spiritual!" Well, if you, if you can think or talk like that, you haven't got any idea of what spirituality is! Spirituality is tremendously practical: it touches your dress, it touches your behaviour, your conduct as a Christian! Spirituality says, "Look here, you will not overdo it and you will not underdo it; you will have a proper, dignified means". That's what's here.

Isn't it a pity that these things which Paul wrote, you see, concerning women, sisters, for instance, have been taken out and made subjects in themselves? Thrown up like that, and so it comes back on Paul, that he ever said such things. See? It's a complete mishandling. Why not recognise that this is set in a decline of Christianity, and these things are marks of spiritual decline? That's why they ought to be spoken about; they're not things in themselves! Naturally, naturally you might have your own feelings about these things. You might be old-fashioned, for instance, and be called not up-to-date; you haven't moved with the times. Or naturally you may have an argument for this kind of thing, but if you're spiritual, you'll have another kind of argument. You'll not be behind the times, and you'll not be moving with the times; you'll be moving with Heaven, and that's a different standard altogether. You see what I mean? This laxity and this behaviour which is not becoming, not becoming to a Christian, and it touches all sorts of practical things. Take note. Take note. It does matter, it does matter. It is a barometer of spiritual life: how we behave. Is that enough? But you see, it's in a second: things are changing. You'll see before we get much further, what happened; what happened.

Then note other indications in these letters: the beginning of an altogether new situation with Christianity itself, on the outside. You here have quite clearly indicated the beginning of ecclesiasticism, the beginning of clericalism, the beginning of formalism, the beginning of officialdom in Christian orders. It's all here! It's started in. Paul died, Paul was executed. There was a period of some twenty-five years without any historical record of how things went on or what happened. Then you come to John, to the writings of John, and then silence; silence again. And then men began to write, and we have the writings of the men called the "fathers". And what do we have? Immediately they began to write, at the end of the first Christian century, clericalism is in full force and so is ecclesiasticism. The whole system of spiritual men as overseers has been resolved into prelates, bishops, and what-not; a non-New Testament system. Officialdom: men in high position ecclesiastically, governing in an official way. Well, it's come; it's come. Here are the beginnings. So that what was spiritual - spiritual men as overseers of the Church and the churches, functioning because they were spiritual men, men of God - has now given place to men who are officials, ecclesiastics, clerics, and so on. A tremendous change has taken place, and that has come right down with all the history.

The Christian ordinances were changed and the Christian doctrines were changed. The ordinance of baptism was changed at the end of the first century. I'm not going to enlarge upon it; I'm taking them as indications of change - the turning of a corner - the coming in of something now organised in the place of that which was organic, something institutional which was once spiritual - a change from what was spontaneous. And how spontaneous it was; the Church just springing up and pressing on and expanding and growing by the sheer life that was in it; now it's organised, now it is a self-conscious entity, making its own appointments, and so on, and so on. Well, what's the point? The Holy Spirit saw this encroachment, saw this thing beginning, and sought to react to it and through Paul wrote these letters, and pointed out, "Look here, elders and overseers in the Church must be essentially spiritual men: they must be known for their moral character, for their spiritual character and life and for their spiritual measure!" And everything, everything in the House of God must be spiritual in its nature and value, and not official. The change led to infinite loss of power and all the unhappy conditions that we have today. And so the Lord's word, the Lord's word then, ever, and now is: "Oh, recover spirituality if you want to recover the power of testimony in this world!" If you want to have that impact and registration which existed at the beginning you must recover the spiritual state which existed at the beginning. Everything must be like that, not like this. How much there is in that; some will see more than others. These are very practical applications. A man's position in the House of God depends, where God is concerned, on his spiritual value and nothing more. You may dress him up and decorate him and laud him, and call him by this name or that, and you may do anything you like, but with God it is no more than that man's spiritual value that counts.

And what is true in the realm of those in place of responsibility is true, is true of everyone; true of everyone. Paul calls Timothy, "man of God" and makes it personal, and says, "Oh man of God..." That's because of Timothy's particular position of responsibility; but, mark you, Paul uses that phrase of all others too, in the same writing! Why are the Scriptures given, and to whom are they given? Are they only given to Timothy, and to overseers, and men in particular responsibility? No. "All scripture given by inspiration of God is good for this and that, and that; that the man of God...". Who is that? Every one to whom the Scripture is given is called a "man of God". See that? So, if you have the Scriptures, you come into that designation; you are supposed to be a man of God, a woman of God. As God's man, God's man... we're all supposed to be that: 'God's men'.

What Are God's Men?

What is the man of God? Again, that title only belongs to those who are in a spiritual position, not in any formal, official position, but a spiritual position. They are where they are because of their spiritual life, measure, and value. We cannot underline that too strongly.

Well, you see, the move, the crisis, the change was from what was inward, to everything being outward. Everything being outward - offices, and functions, and positions, and titles - outward, formal, the introduction of formalism. Paul is bringing it back to where it ought to be: the person himself, the person herself. That's where he fastens it, to safeguard, to recover, to protect, it must be spiritual men and women.

Well, these are indications of the course of things; the change that was coming over Christianity. But as I said a few minutes ago, there is so much proof of this. Paul went somewhere, John was going on, and you know that Paul went in the terrific holocaust of persecution which led to John's exile. Somewhere, John is - and then he writes; he writes his gospel, the gospel of pre-eminent spirituality, isn't it? You don't need that I should stay to show that the gospel written by John was written with the object of bringing things back to spiritual principles. And then he wrote his letters. And what are his letters? Well, John's letters are just full, from beginning to end, of spiritual essentials, aren't they? Life, light, love, and so forth. Spiritual essentials for revelation. Read the beginning then again of the book of the Revelation, the chapters of the Lord's challenge to the churches in Asia - Paul's churches - and what have you? Full development of those things of which we have been speaking! Moral laxity: "thou hast there that woman Jezebel"; "thou hast a name to live and art dead"; formalism... formalism, empty shell... and so on. It's come about. But, again, what is the Lord's reaction? It is a reaction to a spiritual position, isn't it?

What Are Overcomers?

What are overcomers? Well, overcomers are simply those who have recovered or maintained spiritual ground; that's all. It's not easy in a world like this, in the course of things, in Christianity as it has become, it's not easy to recover or to maintain purely spiritual ground. You will suffer for it, so the Lord said. You will suffer for it. I venture to say, dear friends, that it is far, far more difficult to keep a clear, straight spiritual course in the Christian life, than it is to live just as a Christian in this world. It may be difficult to live as a Christian in this world, but you will find there are difficulties that you'll never encounter from the world which you'll find in Christianity. Am I right? Am I right? Yes, "a man's foes shall be those of his own household" has a very much larger meaning. A spiritual course in Christianity is exceedingly difficult - because of Christianity. Christianity has very largely become the enemy of spirituality.

These are strong things, but, you see, it is a matter of the effectiveness of testimony, the purity of testimony. I am not at the moment touching upon the doctrinal side of things in these letters. There's a large, large measure of these letters given up to departure from former doctrine, I come to that in some measure later on. But what I am concerned with is to prove two things: to prove that this kind of crisis happens, it's the kind of thing that happens again and again, and this is the kind of besetting peril all along the line: to drop away from the full, high, spiritual level to which the Lord has called onto something lower and something less; to lose spirituality and then to see that God has ever and always and still does react by trying to get His people onto a more spiritual level of things, that is, to increase their spiritual measure, their spiritual life. It's the only way to overcome. It's the only way to get through and at last (to come to the letters again) to hand back the deposit to the Lord unspoilt: "Oh Timothy, guard that which hath been committed..." - Divine trust. Hand it back at the end, unsullied, unspoilt, undiminished, here it is intact [?]. Paul, on that very matter, says: "I have finished the course, I have kept the faith - Timothy, take it up and do the same." That's the effect of it: "Guard that which has been committed to thee" - the deposit of God.

I come then to the Divine reaction more particularly and specifically. And I want you to take note of this. Timothy himself is at this point being marked out as the instrument of the Divine reaction to this trend of things. And Timothy, therefore, assumes the role of a sign. Now, that is not a new idea in the Bible, is it? Ezekiel was told by the Lord that He had made him a sign for the house of Israel - a sign. And Timothy comes into that position and into that vocation, or function, as a sign so that he must himself become indicative of what spiritual features are, what spirituality is. Well, first of all look at Timothy, shall we say, negatively. He is a symbol of things essential to recovery. He himself is a symbol of things essential to recovery. We're going to find a lot of comfort and help here, all of us. What are they?

Weakness. You can despise Timothy, if you like; they did that when he was alive. Paul said to him: "Let no man despise thy youth", literally despised; weakness.

Dependence. It looked as though Paul was providing him with a set of crutches to help him to keep on his feet! Dependence. Discount. Discount, why, so much of this that Paul said to Timothy indicated these things about him.

Speaking of Timothy naturally, you would say that he was evidently a very timid, nervous sort of young man who needed all the time to be bucked up. Surely, Timothy must have been very weak, seeing all these things were necessary! Look at it that way, if you like; but there are other ways of looking at it. This, this is the most suitable and promising ground for spirituality - indeed, it is absolutely essential to the thing that God is after and Paul was after! And yet, what about Timothy? What about Timothy? Paul thought a lot of him; Paul made a lot of him, and Paul, who did not, did not usually err in the matter of wisdom and discretion, put Timothy into a very, very important place.

Timothy was an apostle, although he was never called that. Timothy was an elder, although he was never called that. But Timothy was more. There was in Timothy a combination of all the functions from an evangelist to a church-builder. "Do the work of an evangelist". From an evangelist to a church builder he was, he was the elder amongst the elders at the church at Ephesus - no small responsibility! Think of Ephesus. What was Paul up to, sending someone like Timothy to put things right in Ephesus, to take charge in Ephesus, to correct and to build in Ephesus? Preposterous to send a young fellow like that, of this kind!

Well, spiritual and natural abilities are altogether in different worlds! And when God reacts to recover, or acts to provide against a threat, a peril, a danger which has these characteristics, He brings His instrument down to nothingness - He empties it out and makes it more conscious of its weakness and of its dependence than of anything else. He is a symbol of God's reacting methods. I say that there is some comfort for us here. You know, you know in this greatest of all works of God - maintaining His testimony in absolute purity and truth - there is no place amongst those who are concerned, no place whatever, for assumption; assuming that you're something, or assuming that you can do something, assuming that you are called to this or that. There's no place for assumption; getting in, getting in by assuming - no place for that. There is no place for presumption - that is, running ahead of God, running ahead of the Spirit. There is no place for self-importance, for self-sufficiency, for self-assertiveness - no place at all. And if you and I are going to be used for spiritual purposes, God will take us in hand to drain us of the last drop of anything like that so that we know that of all men we are the most unfit and unsuited to the thing to which God has called us, that from all natural standpoints we have no right to be in that position. That's God's way of making spiritual men and women. He just does let everything out that is not of Himself. Yes, no place for anything like this if Timothy was to be all that Paul said he must be.

Now note, note because you may, if you're acute in your mental activity, you may have been thinking you're catching me up on this, because in these letters Paul is telling Timothy he must be strong, and I have just said he must be weak! Paul is as good as telling him he must be full, and I have said he must be empty! Ah, yes, but if Timothy was to be all that Paul said he must be, then it would be all spiritual and not natural. Is that borne out by the context? Of course it is! "Be strong" - but he doesn't stop there, "in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2:1). That is not self-strength, that's not natural strength of any kind. "The grace that is in Christ Jesus" - be strong in that. And so you note the strength, the strength in the case of Timothy as the symbol of God's reactionary method and means in a day of declension, the strength is to be spiritual strength.

Well it works both ways. It is a word of encouragement to those who are conscious of no strength, who only feel their weakness, "Look here, that is not the criterion, how weak you feel, at all: the criterion is 'the grace that is in Christ Jesus'". And it works the other way. If any of us should feel that we can do it, and press into the situation and into the position, and take it on, assume or presume, then we are in for a bad time under the hand of God - that is, if we are going to be of any use to the Lord. That's going to be emptied out.

"Let no man despise thy youth". Well, then, well then what is to be the reaction of Timothy to an attitude and mentality amongst men of that kind? How would you young men react if you were there, and men were despising you, and I said: "Don't you let them despise you!" What would you do? "Don't you let them have that attitude towards you!" You know you could act very much in the flesh, couldn't you? You could begin, as they say in America, to be 'chesty' - peacockish, they mean - to spoil it all by a false dignity, by an artificial personality that's not yourself. Authority is spiritual in the House of God. There's an authority about the man or a woman who has real spiritual measure, that weighs, weighs, and counts, and has influence. They may naturally be despised, but find spiritual measure and you'll find that in the time of difficulty it's to those people that those in difficulty turn. The authority... I'd like to dwell much upon spiritual authority, but we'll touch it again, not tonight, later.

The knowledge and the understanding (and note, I'm keeping to the book) the knowledge and the understanding were to be spiritual. Spiritual! I go on.

The Office

If you still like to use that word, the "office", whether it be elder, overseer, teacher, evangelist - whatever it is, it's to be spiritual, not official. You do that because you are that. It simply comes out because that is how you are spiritually constituted - it's how the Holy Spirit has constituted you. And it is a poor thing to try and be an evangelist if the Holy Spirit hasn't constituted you one, or a teacher. Oh, what tragedies we know of and have seen by people trying to be teachers, or something like that, because they like it, it appeals to them, and the Holy Ghost has not qualified them for it and it's just like the peacock's tail when it has gone - still strutting about, but there's nothing behind it! There's nothing more pathetic, is there? Lost it! Yes, what's the good of it all, if it isn't of the Holy Ghost?

And so it is with Timothy, "Endure hardness, hardship, as a good soldier". Endure? Endure? Well, just think for a moment of what Timothy was called upon to endure at that time. My dear friends, you, you perhaps haven't any idea of the situation. I have re-read lately the account of those persecutions which came about through Nero and the Jews against the Christians - the perfectly unspeakable horrors of cruelty to women, to children, to men, to families. I wouldn't shock you by mentioning them, but they are inhuman atrocities, indescribable, that literally hundreds of thousands of Christians suffered at the hands of those Roman Emperors. Because when Nero commanded the burning of Rome, a scapegoat had to be found upon whom the blame could be laid, and it was laid upon the Jews, and the Jews said, "No, it was the Christians!" and so the Christians were taken. You're not surprised at the sufferings of the Jews, are you? Not only Christ, but hundreds of thousands of His precious children were simply tortured in unspeakable agony, for many decades.

Timothy was in the presence of that growing shadow. He knew that his father in Christ was in prison and shortly to suffer death. He knew that those who had been near Paul in Rome had left him. And Paul said: "At my first defence no man stood by me, they all forsook me". Timothy was in the presence of that! Endurance? Who could endure but by the mighty power of the Spirit? You want spiritual measure for that, you need the enduring power of Christ for that; that spiritual endurance, not just natural courage.

Well, have I said enough to prove one thing, that the Lord, the Lord at all times of peril to His Church, at all times of danger, when things are threatening, and a change seems to be coming about, He always tries to get His people on to a higher spiritual ground: He always seeks to increase spiritual measure, He seeks to bring things over from the merely professional and formal on to the ground of spiritual life and spiritual character and to remind us that we are God's men; we are God's men. We are not the men of a system, not men of the world, not men of our own natural ambitions - we are God's men. I don't make much of it, but it is significant, isn't it, that Timothy's name means "honouring God" or "Timo-theus" - honouring God. That's the key to everything, with him, with us - honouring God - that's spirituality. And so we leave it there for tonight.

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