by T. Austin-Sparks
For the present we have finished with the particular theme of this conference, and we are being led this evening to something which is a message in itself. And it takes its rise from a very familiar part of Scripture in the prophecies of Jeremiah, in the 18th chapter: "The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Arise, and go to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear My words. Then I went down to the potter's house, and behold, he was making a work on the wheels. And when the vessel that he made of the clay was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it".
And I want to put alongside of that these words from the New Testament, in the letter to the Ephesians chapter 2 and verse 10: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10).
Returning to this so well-known illustration of God's workmanship in the house of the potter, to which the prophet was told to go, as we read it, or perhaps as we have read it in times past, there are three effects that it can have upon us. It depends entirely upon which word we underline, where we stop, where we put the emphasis. There are three words which sum up this whole paragraph, and which of those words we choose and resolve into the message, will decide a very, very great thing where we are concerned. It may affect our whole life.
There is the word 'marred'. "The vessel which he made... was marred in the hand of the potter". If we make that the word, then something of a spirit of hopelessness will come over us and we shall begin to find an inward sinking. We just begin to say, "Yes, I made a mess of things, I've spoiled it all. There's not much hope for me - marred, spoiled." That will have one effect upon your whole life if you take that word and make it the message. Thank God, that is not the message. But it may be, even in a small gathering like this, there is someone who has got there. Looking back on your life, you do so with very little gratification or pleasure; rather with regret, perhaps remorse. Perhaps you fall into this mood, if you think of yourself as the clay. You have perhaps made a mess of things. Perhaps you have not fulfilled all the promise, all the possibilities. You feel there has been a breakdown. And that sense of failure, of lost opportunity, and much more in that direction, creates this shadow over life and makes you feel, "Well, that's that. Now I've got to try and get through in some way and finish up as decently as we can." That is a despairing outlook on life, and that will most surely be the result of putting your circle round this word, variously translated, the word in the version which I have read, 'marred' in another version 'spoiled' and so on.
There is another word here: "he made it again another, another vessel". And if we put our line under that word and make it the message, that will open the door to some gloomy thoughts and considerations. We shall at once begin to say, "Well, God has not been able to fulfill His original intentions where I am concerned. I have to be content with being His second-best; something other, something different, something that He really did not mean me to be but is making the most and the best of a bad job. He is just working with me on an alternative line. And ah - well, that reduces me to being something of a misfit, not what I was intended to be." You see the possibilities of putting your circle round that word 'another' vessel.
But then there's another phrase here: "as seemed good to the potter to make it". As seemed good to the potter! That introduces an altogether new prospect and possibility about you. If, after all, it is possible for Him to say, "It's good, My work is good!" and to find His own pleasure and His own satisfaction, that will certainly be far better and higher and greater than my greatest satisfaction could possibly be if God is satisfied! His standard is so much higher than my best. If He can say, "It's good!", well, I say then that opens up a new prospect, doesn't it? That introduces the triumph of His grace, in spite of everything. In spite of what we are and of all our failure and of all His difficulty with us, His grace triumphs. His wisdom triumphs over all the problems in us - His love overcomes all the difficulties that He has with us. Yes, over all the setback that He may have encountered in us, if the end is good in His sight - "as seemed good" - I say, that brings an altogether new situation into view.
These are the three possibilities that arise out of these words. We choose the third. That is the message. That is the message that I want to bring to you.
Now, our method this evening will be to take the principle that lies right at the heart of this, lift it out of its immediate context and setting just for the moment, and see it in its larger relationship and application.
The Bible opens with a 'potter's house'. It's a very big Potter's house, very much bigger than Jeremiah's. When we open our Bible we find a shapeless, distorted, chaotic mass. To view it, it might present the aspect of utter hopelessness and impossibility: what can you do with that? It is simply said: "The earth was without form and void; and darkness was over the face of the sea". It's chaos. But the next thing, the very next thing is the great Potter getting to work upon that shapeless, distorted mass of clay. "He made it again", He made it again and when He stood back from the wheel of creation, the making again, it says He looked on all things and "it was very good". It was God's verdict: "It's very good". The principle is of very large application, isn't it?
But then it is not long before we come to another breakdown in the whole thing, and once more the vessel is marred. We know the story of Adam's sin, by which he drew the whole creation into judgment, again under a curse. He himself came there: marred, spoiled; the creation came there. To the man He said: "Because you have done this, the earth is cursed for your sake. Thorns and briars shall it bring forth, by the sweat of thy brow you shall eat thy bread". Well, we know a bit about that! To the woman He said other things like that, there was going to be suffering associated with her life and her function. The clay is marred in the hands of the Potter, spoiled.
But does He throw it aside? Does He give it up? Does He say, "It's hopeless, it's impossible - I can do nothing with this!", and so discard the whole thing? That is not the God of the Bible. He has got the poor stuff, it is true, the poor clay, it is proved to be very poor stuff; but He sets to work again with that stuff, He sets to work again and He makes it again, another. And out of that poor stuff we see a man named Abel emerging: a man who stands in the Bible with much honour, whose name has come right down through the ages as something which has found the approval of God. The New Testament puts the distinct approval of God upon Abel. No greater approval could be given than that God should call him 'righteous': " righteous Abel".
And Abraham. And Abraham! I am always so glad, you know, that in these great men God never, never hides what poor stuff they were in themselves. He lets us see their flaws - the flaws in the clay. He lets us see their weaknesses; He lets us see them break down; He lets us see that but for that mighty hand of His, they would make shipwrecks like all the rest. They in themselves are no better stuff than others. But they are in His hands - these are men in His hands. And there emerges out of that clay, that same clay, the same clay that we are, there emerges this man Abraham. And what a lot in the Bible there is of this character, "It's very good, it's very good"; "as seemed good unto the potter".
And what shall we say about Jacob? No one needs to be told that Jacob was poor clay. We know. We know Jacob. Really that word is the synonym for human frailty, weakness, and worse. Yes, he belongs to that clay. But he is in the hands of the Potter; and when the Potter has done His work, He forever afterward is proud to say: "I am the God of Jacob" - the God of Jacob!
And so we might go through the whole of the Old Testament, picking out this one and that. We lift out Elijah, and then hear what the apostle James says: "Elijah was a man of like passions with us". Yes, the same clay, the same stuff; and we know that even in his life there was breakdown. He showed his weakness under the strain, under the tension, but he stands in great honour with God. "He made it again".
Out of that breakdown in Adam, out of that poor stuff of a broken-down Adam that Adam's race represents, He has taken this and made it "as it seemed good to the potter to make it".
The principle, you see, is at work everywhere. We might go on to look at the men who failed and who were, to use one translation that I rather like, it's quite a fresh one: who were 're-worked'. In that version it says: "He re-worked it". He re-worked it. "We are His workmanship", was the passage we read, "we are His workmanship, He re-worked". It would be difficult to know where to start and where to finish with the men who broke down and He re-worked.
We might just take one, I think, from the Old Testament, who is quite an outstanding illustration and example, no other than David himself. We have read his psalm tonight [Psalm 51] I wonder if you noticed the psalm is a psalm of David - the cry of a heart overwhelmed with the consciousness of its failure, its breakdown, its sin. A great sob is rising out of that psalm; and if you look to see the history that lay behind it, you'll see that there was good cause, good cause for David to weep before God, confessing his sins, crying: "Create in me a clean heart, oh God and renew a right spirit within me". Anybody who has the very the slightest knowledge of the story of David, knows the tragedy of David's life, the breakdown. Oh, indeed, indeed this was marred in the hands of the Potter. He failed, he broke down, he became a tragedy, from one standpoint. But God didn't give him up.
I'm not stopping to give you the details, there are some of them too terrible. Too terrible! You are amazed that the man was capable of doing that, until you know your own heart. But there you are.
This man, grievously, [inherently] broke down - the clay was marred, spoiled. But look again. Did God discard, did God cast away? He made it again, so that the David that comes down to us today is not that David, but another one: the David of honour, the sweet psalmist of Israel, the David of our beloved Psalms - oh, what should we do without the Psalms of David? The greatest of Israel's kings, and listen: "I have found David... a man after My own heart"! Is it possible to say anything more than that, greater than that? Something's happened! Something's happened, He reworked, He made it again.
Now, if we pass out of the Old Testament into the New, at once there leap onto the stage men who embody this great principle. What about Peter? Did Peter break down? Was Peter poor stuff? In one breath - "I will follow Thee even unto death" and in the next breath: "I tell you I know not the man" denying, as it says, with oaths. Denying his Lord. We don't like talking about men in this way and bringing up their faults, but you have to see that dark side in order to see the marvel of Divine grace. And there's Peter. Did that clay disclose flaws, a seeming unworkableness, resistance? Hear him to his Lord, to his Master: "This shall never come to thee! Never! Not so, Lord...", there is something there in the clay, you see.
But oh, what a Peter we have got today, haven't we? That is not the Peter we have - remember that - the old story of the clay which broke down. The Peter we have now is a very different Peter, we love to read his letters. Wonderful help and inspiration come from his two letters in the New Testament. And we love to see him on the day of Pentecost standing up; we love to see him later, dragged before the rulers and standing on both his feet and challenging them with all courage and boldness. What a changed picture from that fireside denial in the lower hall, when his Lord was standing His trial for His life! What a change! Ah, He re-worked it, "He made it again, as it seemed good to the Potter" and we all have to say, "And it was good, and it is good! It's good!"
Or to take one other example and illustration from the New Testament (and these are not the only ones) a young man by the name of John Mark. John Mark, a young man who lived in Jerusalem, who lived evidently in a godly home, who lived in the place where the Lord Himself and His disciples were wont to gather, to assemble, to have their fellowship. Wonderful times no doubt, in that room with John Mark, he lived there. The day came when Barnabas and Paul took that young man with them on their great missionary journey. From town to town and city to city John Mark saw the wonderful things that God was doing, beheld the wonderful works of the Lord. But it was strenuous going, it was costly; and when he reached a certain point on the journey, he said, "I am not going any further. I can stand no more of this, I am going home." The narrative tells us that he left them and went back to Jerusalem. The clay has given out, the stamina has been found wanting. He's broken down.
That is not all. As he reflected upon it, I wonder what his reflections were. I am quite sure that they were very gloomy reflections. "Oh, I have made a mess of things! Just think! And then to think that I have been the cause of the separation between these two great men - Barnabas and Saul. I have been the occasion of their parting asunder and the end of their united missionary activity". For that's what happened; it was over him that this thing happened.
Those are things, dear friends, which might well lead to some gloomy reflections and a hopeless outlook. The clay seems to have been marred and spoiled. But that's not the end of the story. Most of you know your Bibles and have leapt ahead and you know, you know how the story finishes, that even, even Paul says: "Bring John Mark; for he is profitable unto me". There are some lovely things said about this young man in the end: recovered, restored, recommissioned, in full-tide and it is he who has given us this beautiful book which goes by the name "the Gospel by Mark". And all scholars today are one in the conclusion that Matthew built his gospel upon Mark, and Luke very largely did the same, that Mark was the source of the others. So, there is a story! He made it again.
These are men who broke down in the process, but grace triumphed. The Potter did not discard the poor clay. For, so much depends, does it not, upon how we interpret this Potter! Let us look at Him: who is He? This Potter is not a man. How differently men would deal with these people! This is God. He has the clay - yes, the poor stuff, and as He is seeking to work it, He comes suddenly upon something in it that that does not yield and resists. And for a moment He pauses, and says, "Oh, what's this, what is this?" And what does He do? It's not for this Potter to say: "We can go no further, we must give it up; all our intentions are impossible of realisation; we will just throw it aside and look for something better". Not this Potter! That's not the God of the Bible! Watch Him. He may be sorry that He has met that something, whatever it might be; He might for a moment perhaps pause and think; but then you see light come into His face, you see the smile of the triumph of His grace and His wisdom, and He says: "We will not be defeated; we will have something for our pleasure and satisfaction, whatever we find!" That's the God of the Bible.
All this that I'm saying to you has one thought toward which I want to lean and I want to come to that as quickly as I can. God is a God of purpose. And God does not undertake anything that He knows He could never achieve. And when He does start, He can perfect that thing: He has the resource, He has the wisdom, He has the patience, He has the grace, He has the love, He has the power. He can do it! That is the God of hope: I'm glad our brother in his prayer used that phrase tonight, a little confirmation for me over the message, the God of Hope. The God of hope, that means the God who never despairs. It's something for our comfort.
But you know, we must always be perfectly honest and perfectly faithful. While all this is true in the Bible along the line that we have pursued, there's another line in the Bible: those who were spoiled and never re-made. It's a dark side; one hardly likes to look at it; but we must, in order to get at what we're after. There were some spoiled and never re-worked. You can call them to mind at once. There's Abel's brother, Cain; there's Jacob's brother, Esau; there's Saul, the first king of Israel. In the New Testament there's Judas. Yes, these are people who have gone out into the dark; there's nothing about them that is to God's pleasure.
But one mentions that for a purpose, you see, to see the why. The why that was so, is to do two things. Firstly, it is to explain their opposite; that is, to tell us why these others did come out to the glory and praise of God - you can see why the others did not. And the other thing is this: to see the explanation will bring us to the door of hope and of promise.
Let us look at these men quite quickly. Cain. Why was he unretrieved? Why was he not worked, reworked, made again? In him, there was lacking, completely lacking, the sense of sin. The sense of sin! I cannot tell you the whole story of these men, I have to trust that you know enough, and if you don't, if you will believe what I say as a summary of their lives.
Cain was a self-righteous man, Cain was a self-sufficient man. Yet, withal, a man that had some religion. He built an altar, he brought an offering to God. He had some religion, if he lived today, he would have gone to church. That's what it means. But his religion was either just mere superstition, or patronage: the religion that acknowledges God, you know, for fear that if you don't, it will go bad with you, it will go ill with you - sort of a safeguard, his religion: superstition or patronage - recognising God. Of course, he recognised God, he acknowledged that God is: but minus a sense of sin. To be religious without having that essential consciousness of sin and needing a substitute as your Saviour.
That's Cain. Cain was the man who did not know his own heart. If you had said to Cain, earlier on: "Cain, it will not be very long before you commit the foulest murder: you will take the life of your own brother. By your act, your own brother will lie dead at your feet, and his blood will be trickling into the sand." What would Cain have said to that? Oh, he would never have believed that! But that was what was in him. He had no sense of sin. He did not know his own heart. And you know, God can't do anything with that.
You'll notice that all the men on the other side, of whom I have spoken, were men who had this deep consciousness of sin, men who believed in the lamb of sacrifice for sin. Men like David: "I acknowledge my sin... I acknowledge my sin. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight" they were men with a consciousness of sin and of the need of a Saviour, every one of them. But Cain was not like that, and that puts the man out of the hands of God. He can do nothing with that; He can't re-work that.
That brings us to this: the way, the way of the purpose, the way of the glory, the way of the Divine satisfaction, the way of the realisation, is the way of the consciousness of sin. And if you have that, it's a thing of promise, a thing of hope that brings us to the door of hope. The most hopeless person before God is the one who does not realise in their heart of hearts, that they need what He has provided in His Son: a Saviour.
We pass to Esau. Esau, Jacob's brother. You know about him. Here again, was a fatal lack. He lacked a sense of the supreme importance of things spiritual: the birthright. The birthright brought him, or would have brought him, into the place of standing for God. You see, the firstborn was supposed to stand for God, be God's representative. He was the priest in the family; he had to do with holy things. He it was that led the family into the presence of God. That was the birthright. And much more was bound up with the firstborn and his birthright. But Esau, the Bible says (and this was the final condemnation of that man) "he despised his birthright". That is, he lacked this essential consciousness of the supreme importance of things spiritual. And whatever you have to say about Jacob, that was not true of Jacob. He maybe stole the birthright, but he did at least recognise the superlative value of spiritual things.
And what a lot there is hidden in the veins of Esau! A long, long history as we pointed out in this conference, the history of Edom. How that breaks out in the Bible story again and again! Think of Doeg, the Edomite, whose vile treachery resulted in the slaying of all the priests of God. Yes, Edom are, the Edomites are the descendants of Esau, and wherever you find them in the Bible you'll find this same thing: an utter lack of the sense of the supreme importance of spiritual things, holding spiritual things lightly and cheaply, thinking that a mess of pottage to gratify some passing whim and appetite, and like and pleasure, is more important than the things of God. God can do nothing with that. He never works that again.
We pass to Saul. Here again is another fatal lack, he lacked that spirit of meekness which trusts and obeys the Lord. That's how it came out at the end. The final downfall of Saul came about because, first of all, he didn't trust the Lord. He was put to the test; he was given a magnificent opportunity of showing that he implicitly trusted the Lord; and he showed that he did not. His trust in the Lord would have led him to do a certain thing that Samuel the prophet told him to do, in the name of the Lord, and he disobeyed, because he did not trust. And that's fatal. God can't do anything with that. The kingdom was rent from Saul; he went out a marred and never re-made vessel.
If God is going to do this thing, He must have in us that simple faith which trusts Him and obeys Him. It is the very least that He asks of us.
And Judas, finally, Judas. Lots of things can be said about Judas, but to sum it up: what does Judas prove? Well, Judas fatally lacked an adequate sense of the greatness of his opportunity. I think that sums it up, doesn't it? He lacked a sense of the greatness of his opportunity, he just did. What would you give to have been called by Jesus Christ into the circle of immediate discipleship, to be with Him wherever He went, and to share His ministry; to be His companion, to be His helper? Jesus Christ, the Son of God, here in the flesh, and a man called into fellowship with Him in His life and in the great purpose of God for which He came into the world: and to throw it away for thirty pieces of silver! Yes, utterly lacking in the sense of the greatness of his opportunity. Here we are.
We here, every one of us, are called into the fellowship of God's son, we are all called into the most honourable company and circle that this universe has: living fellowship with God's Son, in life, in service, in companionship, in suffering for Him. That, all that, that's the call for every one of us. Oh, what an opportunity! What an honour, what a privilege, what an unspeakable blessing! "Called into the fellowship of His Son" as Paul puts it, called into the fellowship of His Son. If God is going to realise all His great designs, fulfill all His purpose, make out of this poor clay something that is pleasing to Him, as is good in His sight, dear friends, you and I have got to have this: a sense of the great, great honour that is conferred upon us, in being "called into the fellowship of His Son".
To sum it all up, there must be - as differing from all these men: Cain and Esau and Saul and Judas - there must be in us an overmastering sense of the transcendent importance of eternal things, that eternal things outweigh all other considerations in this life. To use a phrase of the Lord Jesus: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God", that the things of the Kingdom of God shall be to us of such paramount importance that nothing, nothing is to be compared with them, or to come in their way. All else is worthless, however great. "The kingdoms of this world... what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" - which means: lose the purpose for which Christ redeemed you.
No, an overmastering sense of the transcendent importance of things eternal, if that is in us and with us, we may be poor stuff, we may be very poor stuff, but He will make it again, a vessel that is good to the Potter - good. Oh, to think that it's possible, that at long last or at short last, at last He might look upon His work in you and in me, and say, "Through grace, it is very good"! That is the possibility, that is the prospect. May the Lord find in us the things that will make it not only a possibility, but an actuality.
Shall we sing from the Keswick Hymnal, from the Keswick Hymnal number 225:
"Through the noise of earth's ten thousand voices,
Songs of joy and [?]
Comes a sound to which thine ear must hearken,
'Tis the Saviour, knocking at thy heart."