by T. Austin-Sparks
The words out of which our consideration is taken at this time are those in the twelfth chapter of the gospel by Luke, verses 49 and 50: "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!"
The cup and the scattered fire. We spent our time this afternoon upon this cup and the consequence of the scattering of the fire, mainly with a view to taking fresh account of the relationship between those two things: that there is no scattering of the fire, and all that that means in the progress of the gospel and the growth of the church, only in so far as the meaning of the cup is established as the basis, the foundation of everything, right in the very heart of the life of the people of God.
Having sought to read, indicate and emphasise that great law, this evening I am taking you to this twelfth chapter of the book of the Acts, for this, as you have heard read, this chapter is a microcosm of the history of the cup and the fire. That, of course, is true of the whole of this book: it is the cup, undoubtedly - the church in suffering relationship with the Lord - but it is the book of the scattered fire. This chapter, as I have said, is a miniature of that whole great truth; indeed, it is a miniature of the struggle of the ages between the powers of evil and the invincible spiritual forces which eventually triumph; the tremendous amount of history and truth packed into this chapter which never fails to move and stir us when we read it. I wonder if ever there is a chapter in the Bible so pregnant with phrases and clauses, piled one upon another, every one of which could, without exaggeration, occupy our whole time.
Take some of these clauses, only a few of the many: "Now about that time..." what a key that is, and what a lot that key opens if you stay with it! We shall in a few minutes peruse it a little. "Herod the king..." there is far more in that than perhaps you recognise. "To vex certain of the church..." the vexation of the church or the attempted vexation of the church. "Killed James..." we pointed out this afternoon it was this James and John who came to the Lord requesting places on the right hand and on the left in glory, and to whom the Lord immediately uttered the challenge: "Are you able to drink of the cup that I drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism wherewith I am baptized?" They said, "We are able" He said, "You shall...". "And he killed James with the sword...". "When he saw that it pleased the Jews..." it pleased the Jews! There is a lot in that. "He proceeded further..." and so we might go on. I say the whole chapter is full of phrases and clauses like that which are just packed with meaning.
Let us look at it, or perhaps one or two of them, but really at the message of this chapter. We begin then. "Now about that time..." About that time, what time? What time? It is full of significance if you put your finger on that and note that time. The answer is a very large one, but it has two main features. There is the Herod answer or the answer that is in Herod, and there's the answer which lies behind Herod, much more deeply - the answer of satan. Let us look at it.
The Answer in Herod
It says here: "Herod the king". I suppose you know that there were six Herods in the Bible. All of them were Idumaean in origin, that is, they were descendants of Esau, they are gathered under that symbolic name of 'Edom' - descendants of Esau, not of Israel. All that is very significant. And at last you come to this man who is the first and the last of them to hold, properly hold, this title 'king'. None of them up to him had officially held that title, and this one was the last one to properly hold it and the title of king was taken away after him.
You see, this thing is heading up a long history. You really want to read the prophecies of Obadiah to get the substance of this - this historic antagonism between the flesh and the Spirit, between heaven and hell, between Esau and Israel. There is a long history here, headed right up to this man who now takes the title of 'king'. I think there is a certain irony in the fact that the Jews should come to be ruled by a descendant of Esau and not of Israel, and that that ruler should be appointed by pagan Rome! You think about that, you are in the presence of a tremendous drama here, perfectly fascinating - but oh, how deeply instructive! I hope we will be able to get out the essence of it as we go on this evening.
"About that time Herod the king, put forth his hands to afflict certain of the church... And when he saw that it pleased the Jews...". Now, why should Herod do this Jew-pleasing thing at that time? It might look just like a human story, it might be, seem to be, a very simple thing, but we are in the unfolding of this much deeper thing. You know, satan is very deep, but God is deeper still, and that is what we've got here. Well, if you look back to the chapter before this, you will find that there was a great famine. Verse 27: "Now in those days" now note, in those days, it's now about that time, "in those days there came down prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great famine over all the world... which came to pass in the days of Claudius... Now about that time...".
The simple answer is this: the Jews were a very difficult people to rule. That is perfectly clear, of course, we know that. They were a very difficult people to rule, but add to the normal, usual, common difficulty, a famine. And you know there is nothing, nothing that leads to revolution more quickly than famine, than hunger. You notice later in the story that the people were fed from his province. It is a question of food, you see, and it has become very acute. And there is a seething and a surging and a rising, and Herod must do something to get these people diverted from their troubles, to preoccupy them; there must be some diversion, there must be something done for them. He can't provide the food and avoid the famine; it has come, it is a fact. Then, if he is going to hold his position and hold these people and keep them in check, he must do something to please them. And there is your answer!
It sounds like a human story, a bit of trickery, and politics, or whatever you like to call it; but that is one part of the answer. "Now about that time..." you see? Why must he please the Jews? Well, that's the answer. How will he please the Jews? Well, he knows their hatred for the Christians - that's a long story too - the Jews hatred for the Christians. And that's why he will "put forth his hands to afflict certain of the church." The Christians were being used to buttress up this ramshackle, false kingdom of Herod, to keep his throne intact. He is using them for his own ends. Well, that is only part of the answer - it's a very simple one - but that's Herod's part of the answer.
But let us get behind Herod, because Herod is not acting alone. There is something more, something deeper, and the answer is really found in that realm.
The Satanic Behind the Man
The deeper and the more real answer to the question, well, let us look at chapter 11 again, verse 19: "They therefore that were scattered abroad upon the tribulation that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to none save only to Jews."
"They... that were scattered abroad upon the tribulation that arose about Stephen...". That's a tremendously inclusive word. There is something happening. Oh, what a lot has been happening! You see, that takes you back to chapter seven - chapter seven is the martyrdom of Stephen. That's the cup! That's the cup, Stephen is stoned. It looks like an immense triumph for the devil. Stephen was a mighty man; there was tremendous hope for the church bound up with the life of that young man. Some have said, after reading his discourse and studying it, that he was the equal of Saul of Tarsus at least. And there he is, murdered. It looks as though satan has really triumphed.
But what after that? From that very point a scattering of the believers far and wide, and everywhere they went: testifying. Saul of Tarsus is converted, and what a tremendous thing that is! Peter is led to the house of Cornelius, away up there in the north; and we know what happens there - the door is opened to the Gentiles. Tremendous things, all coming out of the cup, the cup of the Lord; the baptism and passion into which the church has been baptized. All this is happening, if you read the account, there was more added to the church - about five thousand, about three thousand - it's growing. That's the answer. The kingdom of satan is stirred to its depths, and something must be done about it. The fire is spreading; satan's kingdom is being shaken.
Someone tersely put it: "The men that have turned the world upside down have come hither" - that's what's happened. "Now about that time Herod the king..." you see? That's the explanation about "that time". Out of this baptism of the passion of the Lord into which the church has been brought, the fire is spreading; but the enemy is moved and deeply moved. Herod "put forth his hand" - and there is a hand behind that hand to "vex certain of the church. And he killed James... with the sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews..." he proceeded further. I would like to stay with all those fragments, you know, because there is a message in every one of them. He was carried on by his own momentum - have a little success, and see what it will do for you!
However, let's return to this, turn away from that for the moment to the other side - the aspect of this that we may call a drama indeed, of the sovereign Kingship of the Lord. Look, Paul summed up in three things: "Herod... put forth his hands to afflict... an angel of the Lord smote him... And the Word of God grew and multiplied". That's tremendous, isn't it? You begin the story with Herod putting forth his hands; you end the story with Herod eaten of worms and giving up the ghost. You begin the story with the church afflicted and martyred; you end the story with the Word of God growing and multiplying. That's the story of another King. It is the story of two kings pitting themselves against each other. As I said at the beginning, it's the microcosm of this long history of the conflict between the forces of evil and those invincible forces of the Spirit, which always in the long run triumph.
But here a pressing question arises. When you think of the beginning - that he killed James with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. The question that clamours for an answer is: why does God allow this kind of thing? Why did He not intervene before James was killed with the sword? Why did He not stop this thing before Peter was thrown into prison? Why? God allowed, why does God allow that kind of thing? Well, that's another key to another large history, isn't it? God's permissive will: God allowing His servants, His so useful servants, to be killed or cast into prison; allowing the church to suffer like this. Why does God allow it?
The answer, dear friends, is deep within the cup. If you get down deep enough into the cup, you will find the answer. May I put it another way - it is deep within the Cross. God, in the mystery of His will and His ways, uses the church, as He used Israel, to draw out the evil forces to their own destruction. God moves in a mysterious way... is it the church, or is it the forces against it, that are destroyed eventually? Well, you see the answer in history. It is here in this chapter, in representation, but God has done that. Here you have Israel in Egypt. What, what a tremendous extending of Pharaoh - drawing him out, drawing him out - drawing him to the limit of his own resources to give an answer through the magicians, and then going on and going on. Drawing him out until Pharaoh has exhausted all his resources, and then God smashes him. The sum total of his whole resource is broken and destroyed - and God has used a suffering people to draw it all out.
And that's the story here, in the church. I say, in the mystery of God's ways it happens, but its suffering comes from the enemy, and God is drawing it out by the church - and and drawing it out and extending him. And when his cup of iniquity is full, God will smash him beyond repair. That's the issue with Herod. It is the church that has brought this out. It is the sufferings of James and Peter and the church in these days that have accomplished that; accomplished that! But is that not found right in the Cross? Look at the Cross! Is the Cross the extending of all the powers of evil in earth and in hell? It is that! You would say, "Is there anything more that they can do?" when you see Him there on the cross, dead, and know how it is brought about, and all that went to bring it about - knowing the whole story of human and satanic malice and spite - you say: is there anything more that they can do? No! What's the answer? The scattered fire! That is the answer. You see, it's in the cup, it's in the Cross; it's an integral part of this whole matter. "The sufferings of Christ which abound unto us", unto the church, are working, working, working unto satan's undoing - and for us a "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory".
Why does God allow it? Wait, if you can, in patience and in faith. "Therein is the patience of the saints", remember that word? "Therein is the patience of the saints", if you can wait, you'll see that your suffering, your suffering or your sufferings, on the one side wrought havoc in the kingdom of satan, brought him to an end of his power: they drew him out, they were the marks of his coming out. On the other side, the sufferings have worked for you glory in the meantime: spiritual increase, spiritual progress.
The Scattered Fire
God uses the work of satan for satan's undoing, but it's the church and it's the saints who are the instruments. It's in their soul that this battle is fought out. "Now the manifold wisdom of God by the church" you see, there's something in the unseen.
The progress of the Word of God is a costly thing. It involves much suffering - it must involve the cup; but that's His way. Here, then, we have it: God using satan's work for his own undoing and for the progress of the Word; for satan's overthrow and for the church's advance and for the glory of God. All that is wrapped up in this anguish of fellowship with His sufferings.
You and I have had a good deal of difficulty in understanding why Paul should long to know the fellowship of His sufferings. It's one of the most difficult prayers for us to pray, isn't it? But Paul knew this secret, you see, he knew this secret: that's the way of the progress of the gospel, that's the way for the destruction of this that is set against: the fellowship of His sufferings - for that is the heart of the Cross of the Lord Jesus Himself.
And all this, you see, rests upon the cup. The cup ceases to be an object, it ceases to be just a thing: it becomes something living, something living, something potent. That cup is a mighty force in this universe. Dear friends, when you come to the Lord's Table next time, may God give you some larger conception of what a tremendous thing is there, this thing in His universe touching every realm: the representation of something living. Something living: this blood speaks, this blood tells, this blood counts. Blood is vital; His blood is a terrific force in this universe. When we take the cup, yes it's true, we accept the baptism, the passion, but let us recognise that in faith we take the tremendous victory that it sets forth. It is costly! Costly!
I can't help thinking of other things as I read and ponder, how this might have turned out so differently. You see, I come to this next thing. We must see where it was all wrought out. On the one side, Herod - wicked, wicked Herod, with all the cruelty of his long, long history, back to Esau; Herod. The Jews. The Jews, need we say anything about that in these days? The prison, the chains, the strong guard within and without - four quaternions of soldiers. These are things which symbolise and tell of great, great forces and difficulties - all the things which are against. They are not just words; they are tremendous things, all of them, viewed from the natural standpoint. That's on one side. On the other [the audio finishes at this point, the remainder here is from the AWAT magazine version] side, "an angel of the Lord": and Herod, and the Jews, and the prison, and the chains, and the guard, are as nothing.
Where is it wrought out? In a prayer meeting, as it were, right in between those two; between the forces of hell and of heaven was the church at prayer. The thing would not have happened otherwise. Those forces of evil would not have yielded to the heavenly authority of the ascended Christ through an angel, if it had not been for what was going on in that room. "But," it says, "prayer was made... of the church..." But... But... Away all the forces! Calculate them, take their full strength and meaning, and then put one word over it all - 'But... The church prayed...' And in response to that the angel - and all the other was as nothing.
The church at prayer. What do you think about that? It says that "prayer was made earnestly," but that English word does not really convey the force of it at all. The Greek word means literally 'extendedly', 'stretched out'. The church prayed in a stretched out way; the church was extended. Satan was extended, heaven was extended, and these two powers came into collision because the church was extended. It will never come about in any other way; it is just like that. What a tremendous thing is wrapped up with the church at prayer!
As I dwell upon this story, many, many thoughts that are not in the story crowd into my mind. How different it might have been if the church, instead of getting together and focusing upon the situation in oneness and in prayer like this, had said: 'Oh, if only Stephen had not said those things! If only So-and-so had been a little more discreet... If only...!' and a thousand other things of blame: blaming one and another and holding people responsible for this and putting it down to that, and that, turning in on themselves until they had got a whole situation of questions and reproaches and recriminations, and a 'case'. And the whole thing is sabotaged! Dear brothers and sisters, whenever this kind of thing happens we must look deeper. Behind all that is the strategy of Herod to frustrate the scattering of the fire. When the devil can get us turned in on ourselves and on our own problems, and upon one another's faults and weaknesses and failures, and so on, he has defeated the whole business of the Lord. You may pray and pray and pray, but if there is the contradiction of division in the background, you pray in vain. The Lord will not come in.
They prayed as the church in this 'stretched out' way. There is no other thing in mind; they are of one mind and heart. They are concentrated upon a satanic issue. There is a lesson in that. Oh, how our prayer is paralysed by a thousand and one things which, if we only knew the truth, are not really the trouble - they are things that satan has got hold of. There may be faults. Was any one of the apostles faultless? There may be weaknesses; but if only you are on the Lord's business, the Lord takes action.
It has been said concerning the disciples' disputing with Rhoda about Peter, that they had prayed and prayed and prayed all night, and then when their prayer was answered they did not believe it; and some people have said that they could not have prayed in faith. But there are other points of view. Some of us pray with all our might about a dear brother now in prison. I beg to suggest that, if someone came to us and said: 'Brother... is at the door!' we should say: 'He can't be!' We should want a good deal of verification - not because we did not believe that the Lord could do it or would do it; but, somehow or other, when the Lord does the very thing that we ask for, our breath is taken away and we cannot believe it. Have mercy upon these believers, and do not impute unbelief. The fact is, that though they may have prayed like that, and though there may have been faults and weaknesses, they were on the business, and they were one in it, and the Lord moved in.
How much came out of this! They saw through the whole situation and got to the real issue; they pushed aside all other considerations, and out of their travail something was born. You remember what follows after chapter twelve. In the previous chapter (11:19-30) Antioch had come into view: and now from Antioch Paul and Barnabas are sent forth, and on and on you go. The fire is scattered to the ends of the earth - out of this: the church prayed.
It is a wonderful story, but I find much difficulty in seeking to convey it. It is so true to life. There is always so much room for the mystery of God's ways. Why? Why? Why? If you stay with the 'why's' of God's wisdom, you will be paralysed. Let me recall what we were saying at the beginning of our first message. Here is a law enunciated, declared, established - that there is no scattered fire without the cup, and that cup is always a mystery. It always expresses itself in ways concerning which you can say: 'Why this...?' 'Why that...?' 'Why does He allow this...?' Those 'why's' will paralyse you if you have not reached the established, settled position, that the cup has come to stay; it will be with us to the end.
But, in the mystery of suffering permitted by God, and in all that that cup means in a crucified Son of God and a crucified church - in all that is the way of satan's undoing and the establishment of the heavenly Kingdom. May God settle it in us, and give us grace!