THE FACT that in recent years much has been written upon the subject of Christian Unity is welcome evidence that many consciences have been exercised about the long divided state of the people of God. Such concern is as befitting as it is welcome, ft was not only that He might redeem His children, but also that He might “gather them together” (John 11:52), that our Lord laid down His life. How dishonouring it is to His name, then, that those children should be sundered from each other by schism and scattered like sheep upon the mountains.
We must bear in mind, however, that Scripture presents a twofold view of unity. Basically, the Church is one — a living organism. In origin and nature its unity is divine and not in any wise dependent upon man. It is inward, invisible, inalienable, and indestructible. There is nothing artificial or mechanical about it. It is a spiritual entity. This unity recognises no human distinctions. In it differences of sex, race, colour, social status, ecclesiastical associations, financial rating, educational attainments, and accomplishments of intellect, culture and taste have no place. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Even “the middle wall of partition. .. the law of commandments contained in ordinances” has been “broken down,” so that believing Jews and believing Gentiles now form “one new man” (Eph. 2:14. 15). Such an organic unity was undreamt of by saints prior to the time of Paul. It was no fresh revelation that Gentiles would be brought within the pale of redemption. That was promised in the Old Testament; but that such “should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body” with believing Jews was a great mystery, “which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5, 6). The formation of this mystical body, which, as we have seen, is something altogether unique, and of which Christ is the risen Head, is the workmanship of the Holy Spirit. “For in one Spirit were we all baptised into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13. R.V.). It is also by the Spirit’s power that this unity is maintained. Christians share a common spiritual life. They have “all drunk of one Spirit.” They possess, therefore, a divine affinity which draws them to each other — a hidden power which, like the invisible middle bar of the tabernacle structure, binds their hearts in one; and as the oneness of our risen Head and His members is absolutely indissoluble, so is the union of the members one with another. Unbelievers are often at a loss to understand this. They express surprise that Christians who are total strangers to each other should experience such joy and manifest such animation of spirit and warmth of fellowship once they meet and divine things become the subject of their conversation. In the days when saints were thrown to the lions, their enemies were wont to say, “How they love one another !” In times more recent worldlings have exclaimed, “It beats Freemasonry.” A missionary in Egypt invited some converted Moslems to his home to meet Christians from India. “They had no language in common,” he writes, “except the language of love — the vigorous handshake and gestures of all kinds — but they knew that they were one.” The simple explanation is that God's people share a common life by the Spirit’s power.
“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”
The day is destined when this unity of the redeemed will be publicly displayed. Then our Lord will be “glorified in his saints and admired in all them that believe” (2 Thess. 1:10), and His prayer, “that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou has sent me, and hast loved them as thou hast loved me" (John 17:23), will be fully and gloriously answered.
Scripture also presents an outward, practical aspect of unity. This has been entrusted to human responsibility. Hence the exhortation, “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). In the halcyon days of the Church’s first love nothing was more beautiful than the grace which displayed itself in this oneness. Then “all that believed were together,” and “were of one heart and of one soul” (Acts 2:44; 4:32). Six times it is said of them in the Acts that they were “with one accord” (ch. 1:14; 2:1, 46; 4:24; 5:12; 15:25). Never before indeed had saints experienced such oneness as in that Jerusalem assembly. It was unity in the fulness and power of the Holy Spirit sent down from the ascended Christ, so that in a deeper and richer sense than David ever contemplated, those early disciples proved “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). What blessing must have accrued from such oneness! Every heart in that pilgrim band must have overflowed with love and joy, while peace and harmony must have marked every occasion of the coming together of the Church. With unselfish consideration of their poorer brethren, the well-to-do “sold their possessions. .. and parted them to all, as every man had need” (Acts 2:45). How tenderly they must have cared for the aged! How studiously they must have endeavoured to understand each other and to respect each other’s feelings! and with what loving solicitude they must have instructed the young! Thus they “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
“Happy people. Happy people ;
Happy though despised and poor.”
As for their Gospel testimony, it was borne with “great power" (Acts 4:33). The Church like an invincible army swept forward with unbroken front against the hostile world that had so recently crucified her Lord, and victory after victory attended her. The very dead walls shook under her power (Acts 4:31), as did the walls of Jericho before Israel’s advance. Satan’s ranks were broken, his strongholds fell, and “multitudes were added to the Lord” (Acts 5:14). Truly “Unity is Strength.” Had those early saints known the words, they ‘could have sung :
“Like a mighty army moves the Church of God ;
Brothers we are treading where the saints have trod ;
We are not divided, all one body we —
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.”
The triumphs of the infant Church, due in large measure to this practical unity, were more than Satan’s malice could bear. His rage must find vent against the saints. He must disrupt their harmony, and if possible disintegrate their corporate testimony, and the after history of the Church is the record of how well he has succeeded. Even in the days of the apostles there were contentions and fractions — the seeds which later germinated in open division, and which to-day are full-blown in a multiplicity of sects. Mr. R. C. Chapman once said, “God holds in His own hand the golden bowl of the Church’s Unity unbroken, but the earthly replica committed to us we have smashed to atoms.” While this is so, and while we may never again witness the measure of unity that there was at the beginning, we must not on that account yield to a spirit of defeatism. The command “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10), is as binding upon us to-day as it was upon saints in the first century. We should be alert, therefore, to every opportunity to promote fellowship and harmony amongst God’s people, and lovingly to teach those in the religious systems the true, Scriptural ground of unity. It was to be upon this basis that brethren of over a hundred years ago seceded from the various denominations of worldly religion and gathered unto the Lord’s Name alone. The testimony from then until now has been marked by much that should humble us. We thank God, however, that the ground upon which we meet is Scriptural, that in many parts of the world testimony is being maintained in godly simplicity, and that the Lord has set to it the seal of His approval. Yet let us not on this account cease to be vigilant. Satan is the same artful, resourceful foe that he has ever been. He causes little or no trouble in ecclesiastical systems which are spiritually dead. He can afford to let them alone (except when some faithful voice is raised for God), knowing “his goods are at peace but assemblies of saints zealous for God and His truth are ever his target, as we have already seen in these papers. Never was this lesson more necessary than to-day. Having signally failed in his endeavour to introduce Modernism into assemblies, Satan seems to be concentrating upon an attempt to stir up internal troubles which will divide God’s assemblies. Beloved brethren, are we ignorant of his devices? Are we going to allow him to gain a victory over us ?
A BOOKLET entitled “A Challenge to Witness” is being freely circulated among companies of believers which professedly accept guidance only from the Holy Scriptures. A note on its cover says it is “An address delivered by Montague Goodman at a Conference of Brethren at High Leigh, Hoddeston, September, 1954.”
A letter has also been circulated, stating that “An important Conference of Brethren was held at High Leigh, Hoddeston.” It goes on to say:“A climax was reached on Sunday afternoon by a moving and challenging address by Mr. Goodman on ‘The Witness of the Church’; the Spirit of God was so manifestly present during the delivery of this address that the chairman felt led to set aside the planned discussion and threw the meeting open for prayer.” This was signed by eight brethren calling themselves “The Conveners.”
A report in a periodical also describes the event as “High Leigh Conference of Brethren,” and adds. “Over 140 brethren from all parts of the British Isles and overseas met to discuss questions relating to the worship, ministry and order of the New Testament Church in the present day.” A list of speakers is given and then it is remarked that “At the conclusion of the Conference Montague Goodman gave a most solemn and challenging message on ‘The Witness of the Church' which deeply moved the hearts of all present, so much so, that the planned discussion on the subject was abandoned and under the gracious movement of the Spirit of God the gathering gave itself over to a period of prayer, confession, and humiliation.”
There is no indication given as to who supplied the report, but it may be taken for granted that the person who did so believed he was giving an accurate account of what transpired (as did also the signatories to the letter) and, doubtless, many who read it accepted it as such without question of any kind. Even so, it will not be disputed that it is the part of wisdom to examine what was said, and, when this is done, there surely are questions which arise in the minds of those who “Prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21).
IS THERE AUTHORITY FOR THE CONFERENCE ?
One of the first questions would be, “Who has authority to convene a ‘Conference of Brethren’ ”?— and, lest some should miss the point of this, it should be noted that both outside and inside the booklet, as well as in the periodical and the letter, the word “Brethren” is spelled with a capital “B.” Is there such a community, and, if so, what machinery exists for calling a Conference of Brethren? Who appointed the Conveners, and who authorised them to act on behalf of The Brethren? Without such appointment and authorisation the title is misleading, as it would be misleading to give the impression that the booklet represents the unanimous views of those referred to as “we Brethren.” The use of the title at all is not calculated to inspire confidence in the spiritual wisdom and judgment of those who came together to discuss “the order of the New Testament Church,” and, apparently, to give advice on the subject, seeing it is contrary to that order.
If it is replied that all that was meant was that it was a conference of brethren as distinct from sisters, the question still remains as to who has authority to convene and control such a gathering. Is there authority in Scripture for anything like it? Who decided who the conveners should be, and who decided who the speakers should be, and who decided which subjects should be allotted to the respective speakers, and who decided who should be invited to hear the speakers? Furthermore, who were these brethren from so far afield? Are they men responsible under God for instructing the saints of God in the ways of God? To all these questions, and to others besides, the thoughtful reader—the reader with a concern for the mind of God—will require an answer before he can be satisfied as to the competence of those gathered to give advice on the order of the New Testament Church or to form a sound judgment as to whether the Holy Spirit was really directing the proceedings, because if their own gathering has no basis in Scripture and the control of it not according to Scripture, then the proceedings and the results cannot be of God. Assemblies can hardly be given scriptural counsel by men who do not observe Scripture in their own activities. These and other extra-scriptural gatherings are becoming all too common, and are fraught with the greatest danger of supplanting the authority and sufficiency of the Lord in each assembly. Scripture knows no such idea as an earthly centre from which streams of doctrine or counsel can be disseminated to all assemblies. It looks suspiciously like a concerted attempt on the part of certain men to press their views on the unsuspecting.
The person who made the report, as well as those who took part in the conference, may well have supposed that they experienced “the gracious movement of the Spirit of God,” but a careful reader will need something more than this to assure him that this really was the case. There is so much to-day sincerely but mistakenly attributed to the Holy Spirit, that the utmost caution is needed in order not to be deceived. Emotional appeal and oratorical impressiveness are not necessarily of the Holy Spirit. Had this report been an inspired one it would have had to be received without question, but as it is not, even if it be the unanimous judgment of 140 brethren, it must still be tested by Scripture. No matter how many or accredited the persons supporting it may be (even an “angel from heaven !”) it can have no authority except that given by Scripture. If it has that, names and numbers count for nothing.
One result of the conference was the distribution of the booklet containing Mr. Goodman’s address, which seems to have had a great effect upon those who heard it. Perhaps it is an advantage to have the text of what was said in cold print so that it can be read dispassionately and free from the “atmosphere” of the conference, and so impartially tested as to whether it was really of the Spirit. It would be interesting to know if any of the 140 brethren who heard it have since read it and weighed it in the light of Holy Scripture. Can it really be that 140 brethren responsible for the instruction of the saints of God (if such they are) could regard this address as being the product of the Holy Spirit, and worthy to be received by them without discussion and to be broadcast throughout the land? The writer fully appreciates the solemnity and gravity of the question, knowing as he does that for raising it, and for the reasons for raising it, he will need “to give account of himself to God but the importance of the matter demands that it be done.
It can be said at once that it is fully agreed (who could do otherwise?) that there is need, urgent need, in most assemblies of saints for exercise and examination as to the ineffectiveness of their testimony both in the gospel and in other directions. The question is, “Has Mr. Goodman suggested a sound and certain remedy ?” Let it not be forgotten that in any matter the proposed remedy may be worse than the disease, therefore the utmost care is called for. Mere desire to remedy an evil is not enough, nor zeal in the application of it, however laudable the intentions. We must be sure the remedy is of God, and in order to be sure of this we must be sure that it is according to Scripture.
WITNESSING AND LIGHT-BEARING
Much of what Mr. Goodman says must be passed over without comment, although deserving of examination, as, for example, his use of the types of the Tabernacle. Even still more important points must be left with scant notice, as, for instance, his idea that the light-bearing function of each assembly and of each believer is only a matter of evangelising. Must not Mr. Goodman admit there is many a Christian enthusiastically engaged in spreading the gospel, of whom it cannot be said that their light so shines that men can see their good works and as a result glorify God? Are there not those who would serve the gospel better by keeping their mouths closed until “the light” could be seen in their lives? And the same applies to assemblies. Let Mr. Goodman read those letters to the seven churches in Rev. 2 and 3 over again, and more carefully, and he must see that evangelical effort and enthusiasm there may be, yet with scarcely a glimmer of light radiating from the assembly. Where His word is kept and His Name not denied, “there the light shines brightly.” This, at any rate, is what the Lord values, even though Mr. Goodman speaks almost contemptuously of “only a little company gathered together with few believers attending its Bible readings.” Light-bearing and witnessing are not synonymous ideas, although they, are related, and it would be a pity to give the impression that any assembly is bearing a worthy testimony just because it has a vigorous or even successful gospel witness. The assembly is something more than just an evangelical mission. How the believers are living and how far they are observing “the commandments of the Lord” in the assembly activities, determine the question as to whether the light is shining or not. Mr. Goodman might well say, “It is the bounden duty of the Church to shine. .. That is not satisfied by your having a Sunday evening Gospel Meeting.” Of course, it is not. Neither would it be if every assembly conducted a gospel testimony on the scale, or along the lines of, the Greater London campaign over which Mr. Goodman enthuses so much, and it cannot be attributed to the Holy Ghost that Mr. Goodman obscured this point.
GOSPEL TESTIMONY MUST BE REGULATED
In his zeal (if not impatience) Mr. Goodman urges, “We have got to bear this precious witness that has been entrusted to us, and we have got to get it across. Away with your barriers and your hindrances and your shibboleths and those things which stand right across the way. Feel shame that you can stand aside when God’s Holy Spirit comes in a great movement as we have recently seen. Oh. shame that it should be so.” But for all Mr. Goodman’s fervour and passion and the assertion that the Spirit of God was manifestly present, we must still take the precaution of quietly examining what he has to say in the light of Scripture.
Some will find it difficult to believe that it was the Holy Spirit who moved Mr. Goodman to cry shame on those who in faithfulness to what they judged to be the mind of God stood aloof from a movement which they could not believe could be endorsed by Scripture.
Be that as it may, Mr. Goodman is surely not unaware that even an apostle was subject to restraint and at times found “barriers. .. right across the way,” so that he was prevented, and that by the Holy Spirit, from preaching the gospel just when and where he wanted to preach it (Acts 16:6, 7). And is Mr. Goodman unacquainted with the warnings of Holy Scripture of the possibility of so preaching the gospel according to human wisdom as to “make the cross of Christ of none effect” (1 Cor. 1:17), or of engaging in what purports to be the work of the Lord in such a manner as to have everything “burned up” (1 Cor. 3:13-15) to the eternal loss of the one so labouring, notwithstanding all the zeal he may have put into it? How solemn, too, is the warning of 2 Tim. 2:5: “He that striveth for the mastery is not crowned except he strive lawfully (according to the rules)”! from which it is clear that a man may strive with all the energy and earnestness he possesses and yet not secure the Lord’s approval, and for the simple reason that he has ignored the rules governing the matter. So there must be rules regulating our service, and where are these to be found if not in the Scriptures? Nor can Mr. Goodman dispose of these by calling them "Shibboleths.” No, we are not at liberty to do the work of God just how we please or even as we think best, but it must be done according to Scripture. Let it also be said that the fact that souls are saved is no sufficient reason for supposing that the Lord approves what is done, and nothing the Apostle says elsewhere can be construed as meaning that in his own service he disregarded the instructions and warnings he gave to others.
That there must be some limit to the meaning of Paul’s words that he became “all things to all men,” surely even Mr. Goodman will have to allow. It would not mean, for example, that he drank with the drunkard in order to gain the drunkard, or that he participated in idolatry in order to gain the idolater. The writer did know of one brother who played cards with the lodger in order, as he said, to win the lodger for Christ; but one would hardly expect Mr. Goodman to approve of that.
PAUL GOING INTO THE SYNAGOGUE
Mr. Goodman says Paul went into the synagogues to preach. So he did, at any rate for a time, but there was a reason for that. The new message of the gospel was sent to “the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16). But when Mr. Goodman says he preached there until “he was turned out,” that is untrue. Acts 18:6, 7 says that when the Jews “opposed themselves and blasphemed” he "departed”—he was not turned out. Acts 19:9 tells us that when the Jews were “hardened and believed not.” Paul again “departed and separated the disciples,” and there is no hint that he ever went back. He acted similarly in Acts 13:46. Moreover, the time came when believers who were still connected with the synagogues were exhorted by the Spirit of God to sever their connection with them and “go forth unto Him (the Lord Jesus) without the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13: 13), and it was declared that a return to Judaism was a repudiation of Christ (Gal. 5:2-4).
Why was it that 120 years or so ago numbers of godly believers left the denominations of Christendom? For the very same reason that Paul “departed” from the synagogues the Word of God was opposed and rejected. Does Mr. Goodman wish it to he believed that the sects of Christendom are any less opposed to the truth than they were 120 years ago? The servant of Christ, with a knowledge of the gospel and of the mind of God as to the assembly, who accepts an invitation into them to preach to-day either does so under false pretences or does not preach a clear gospel when he goes there. There is no analogy between Paul’s going into the synagogues with the gospel where it was heard for the first time and a servant of God to-day preaching under the auspices of the apostate sects of Christendom, which have become what they are because they have repudiated the gospel which was formerly known. To countenance these is as much a repudiation of the gospel of Christ as the maintenance of Judaism was.
But the subject for consideration at the conference was “A New Testament Church in the Present Day,” and Mr. Goodman spoke of the need for improving the gospel testimony of assemblies. Can Mr. Goodman explain how the gospel testimony of assemblies will be benefited by their members going into the denominations, even to preach, or how the gospel testimony of any assembly has been improved by their participation in Harringay? To put things at their best, the assembly testimony can hardly be strengthened by the dissipation of the spiritual energies of its members in other spheres; nor can Mr. Goodman show that once an assembly was established in a place Paul ever preached in association with any other community. Nor does the fact that there is no assembly in a place justify our going into the sects. An independent meeting place can be used as Paul did both at Corinth and Ephesus.
THE present subject is an important one. It underlines one of the main |(J points of cleavage in Christendom to-day. For although Christendom is outwardly divided into the "camps" of Romanism and Protestantism —into those who are called “evangelicals” and “modernists"—a more important division is that between those who gladly submit themselves to the “form (pattern) of doctrine" outlined within the covers of our Bible (Rom. 6:17), holding fast this "form of sound (healthful) words," “the faithful word” as taught therein (2 Tim. 1:13; Titus I:9), “the faith which was once (for all.) delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). .. and those who treat the Scriptures as HISTORICAL, but not the PATTERN and PLAN for present Christian activity. In few other respects is this point of cleavage so apparent as in this matter of the appointment of elders.
The apostles Paul and Barnabas visited Antioch in Pisidia, Jconium, Lystra (where Paul was stoned) and Derbe (Acts 13 and 14). In each place the Gospel was preached, disciples made, baptized and taught (exactly according to the parting command of the Lord Jesus in Matt. 28:19-20). Returning some time later their ministry seems to have been specially amongst the baptized disciples, who were gathering together according to the example given at Jerusalem (Acts 2:42). Thus churches, or assemblies, were formed according to the outline given by the Lord Jesus in Matt. 18: 15-20). We read in Acts 14 that the souls of these disciples were confirmed (or strengthened), and they were exhorted "to continue in the faith” (vs. 22). It was then that Paul and Barnabas "ordained them (in the R.V. ‘appointed for them’; Greek word CHEIROTONEO) elders in every church” (vs. 23).
We may, or we may not, take this one instance as an example of normal apostolic practice—there is no authority for doing so. We do not read of the ordaining or appointing of elders from amongst those who believed in Thessalonica (Acts 17). though very soon after his visit to that place Paul wrote to them, exhorting them “to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. 5:5-13). No mention is made of any ordaining in Ephesus where “mightly grew the word of God and prevailed” (Acts 19:20). Though it may be noted that soon after this Paul “sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). Addressing these elders he says, “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops (or, overseers— R.V. margin)” (Acts 20:28, R.V.).
Towards the end of Paul’s earthly ministry (30 years after his experience on the Damascus road and about 10 years after the experiences mentioned in the paragraph above), Titus is left in Crete with the special commission to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain (Greek word KATHISTEMI) elders in every city (Titus 1:5). The mention of the matter here, and the manner of its mention, shows it to be a special case, something out of the ordinary. Why was not Timothy told to ordain elders when left in Ephesus? Instead, he was to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3), and that “putting the brethren in remembrance of these things” he would prove himself to be “a good minister (servant or deacon) of Jesus Christ” (4: 6). Moreover, he was given directions (ch. 3:1-7) for passing on to the believers, which would enable them to recognise elders for themselves.
Thus, at this very late date of his ministry, Paul is led by the Holy Spirit to record the details of character and behaviour which should distinguish elders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1) to which were added those of Peter in 1 Peter 5. There is more than a hint here of the parallel with Numbers 11:16-17; Deut. 1:13-15—Moses took those who were already elders; their wisdom had been proved; their understanding and knowledge were known to all—-it was what they were already doing that enabled their official recognition. In this way also does the Holy Spirit grant his gifts of rulers and guides amongst scripturally constituted churches today.
SIR WALTER SCOTT, when dying, said to his son-in-law, "Locksley, bring the Book.” Thinking of the thousands of volumes in the author’s wonderful library, Locksley asked, "Which book, Sir Walter ?” “There is only one book”, was the reply, and the Book of books, the Bible, was placed in the hands of the dying man. This well-known writer must have had a great reverence for the Scriptures, for he had written of them:
"Within this awful volume lies, the mystery of mysteries,
Happy that man and blest his case, to whom His God has given grace
To read, to meditate, to pray; to lift the latch and force his way;
But better he had ne’er been born, than live to doubt or live to scorn.”
In Nehemiah 8 we have a most remarkable example of what the Word of God can accomplish, when it is received reverently, read distinctly, understood clearly, allowed to search the heart and conscience, and lastly when it is obeyed implicitly. All departure from God can be traced to disobedience to the Word of God. All recovery and restoration of the people of God finds its source in a confession of that departure, and a return to the Word of God.
In our individual lives and in the collective assemblies of God’s people, spiritual drought and even disaster has accompanied disobedience to, and ignorance of, the Scriptures of truth. Ignorance that may be excusable in a child may be very serious in one of mature years. God complained of His people Israel, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). How can we account for the flagrant disobedience of so many of our sisters as they sit at the Lord’s Table professedly obeying His command, "This do for a remembrance of Me,” and disobeying His command by “shamefully” shearing their hair (1 Cor. 11:6), or by the wearing of “gold, or pearls, or costly array” (1 Tim. 2:9), so evidently for display and for the worship of the goddess of fashion? What shall we say of brethren sitting at the Lord’s Table and even going to the Table to break the bread for the assembly with the marks of their disobedience, gold rings, shining from their fingers? If this is the result of ignorance of the Word, what a reflection on the ministry of the elders and preachers, that such plain practical truths are neglected! But can even our younger sisters and brethren plead that they did not know such things were wrong? If the heart is right within, and the conscience tender before the Lord, will not the Spirit of God teach the young believer the evil of disobedience? Surely He will. The above quotation of Hos. 4:6 is followed by the words, “Because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee,” etc. How will we explain to the Lord at the judgment seat of Christ our wilful disobedience We will not go further in speaking of such extreme cases as painted nails and faces, as this raises the question, “Is the grace of God there at all ?” If not, revival is impossible where life is lacking.
Returning to Nehemiah 8, we have a dark picture. Only a remnant of God’s earthly people had separated from Babylon, and now even this remnant were backslidden and disobedient. But God began to exercise His people about their condition, and a great revival broke out. Where did the revival begin? "And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to BRING THE BOOK of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.”
THE REVIVAL BEGAN WITH THE CALL FOR THE BOOK OF GOD
REVERENCE FOR THE BOOK—Ezra opened the book. .. and all the people stood up (Neh. 8:5). In a day when by the world the Scriptures are totally disregarded, when in Christendom they are dishonoured, criticised and their authenticity questioned, surely it becomes the true Christian increasingly to reverence the Word of God. God takes note of our attitude toward His Word. “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My Word” (Isa. 66:2).
ATTENTION TO THE BOOK—Ezra read “from the morning till midday. .. and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law (Neh. 8:3). The word was not read to a sleepy, inattentive audience. The ears of all the people were open. Interest assures attention; therefore when the Word is ministered to an inattentive audience it is because the hearers are not sufficiently interested in what is being read or spoken. Though it is evident that the people stood for hours listening to the reading of the Book of the Law, there was no flagging of the attention.- Only mention is made of the “book of the law of Moses,” or Genesis to Deuteronomy. We have the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, with all their variety of history and prophecy, type and shadow, the full-orbed unveiling of the Person and work of the Son of God, the Gospel, the Church, etc., yet with all this would a conference of God’s people to-day listen with strict attention to the reading of the Word for hours? But what about the responsibility of the preachers of the Word to-day? We shall notice now in verses 7-8 of Nehemiah 8 —
DISTINCT READING OF THE BOOK—Ezra and his co-workers “read in the book of the law of God distinctly. The great emphasis was placed on the Word of God itself. It was not an eloquent address from some portion, spiced with witty sayings, savoured with humour, garnished with rhetoric, mellowed with pathetic anecdote. Whatever place such things may have, they have no place here, for the revival which is of God can dispense with all of them, and prosper. All else without the Word of God is like gift without love, “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”
EXPOUNDING OF THE BOOK—“They gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” What we have here is the plain unfolding of the Word of God. What wonderful effects were produced among all the people by this sober exposition of the mind of God! The effects were heart-moving, paradoxical, restoring, cleansing and lasting.
The people mourned and wept, “when they heard the words of the law,” (verse 9). Their consciences were so deeply affected by the shining of the light of the Word upon their departure from God, their disobedience and sins, that it became a time of mourning and weeping. Alas, how few tears we shed over our departure and that of the people of God from God’s Word and God’s ways. In Ezekiel 9, God sent the man with the inkhorn to “set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations” of Jerusalem. There were no such mourners in Laodicea, yet how far they were from God. Professed restoration, unaccompanied by repentance, is unreal, and God hates unreality.
“All the people went their way to. .. make great mirth. .. and there was very great gladness.” What a contradiction of all the preceding paragraph this seems! It is one of God’s paradoxes. The very same Word which first brings us down into the dust in repentance and confession, also lifts us into the presence of God, and gives us a taste of heaven on earth. God never sends His people away mourning. "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). The ministry of the Lord on earth was to “bind up the brokenhearted.” and how often He turned tears of sorrow into thanksgiving and praise. His ministry now from the Throne is just the same. When Nehemiah and Ezra perceived that the work of God had been done in the souls of the hearers they said. “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared;. .. neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The very same Word that brought them down, now lifted them up.
EFFECTS OF THE BOOK:
There was the recovery of lost spiritual strength.
There was the recovery of lost Truth. They brought branches from the mount and observed the feast of tabernacles as it had not been done for one thousand years, i.e., since the days of Joshua (verse 17). The people recovered their pilgrim character.
There was recovery of lost separation in chapter 9. "They separated themselves from all strangers.”
There was recovery of lost worship. The Levites were able now to call upon the people to “Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and let them bless (R.V.) Thy glorious Name, which is exalted above all praise.”
There was recovery of lost interest in the need of others. “They sent portions unto them for whom nothing was prepared.” A real restoration to God will be accompanied by a real unselfish effort to be a blessing to others. We will send portions to the pioneer and the labourer at home and abroad to enable them in turn to reach out into the great harvest field to rescue the perishing by the proclamation of His Gospel.
All this, and more, will result in our lives if in the spirit of those in Nehemiah 8 we cry increasingly. BRING THE BOOK.
HOW SELDOM is this important subject dwelt upon by writers! An assembly without “helps” is spiritually weak, and in danger of fading out altogether. In our chapter the church is viewed as the body of Christ, of which He is the risen Head in heaven. Through it His moral character is to be displayed on earth, until He comes again for His own. It is His vessel of testimony in the meanwhile in the world. The analogy of the human body is seen throughout the greater part of the chapter. The saints are regarded as organs, each with a distinctive place to function, with the other members, for the edification of the whole body. The spirit of the love and lowliness of Christ is to pervade all (ch. 13). We read, “but now hath God set the members every one in the body, as it hath pleased Him” (v. 18). He gives each member its place, and work to do. How gracious of Him to link up with His apostles, prophets, and teachers those to be known as “helps”! These are therefore as essential for the spiritual well-being and growth of the whole body into Christ, as the more publicly gifted members in the service of God. When the Tabernacle was built the modest brass “pins” had a valued place, just as had the golden vessels. All were needed in His service. We may well ask, What is an assembly “help”? The word literally means, “that which gives support, or help.” This can apply to both brothers and sisters. Thus, with an exercised heart we may ask ourselves. Am I a “help” in the assembly? or a hindrance ?—a true worker? or a shirker? It is “the effectual working in the measure of every part, which maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). There is no room for “slackers” here. God has, in grace, given us all a place to fill in the body of Christ. In the apostle's day there were those who were “forsaking the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Heb. 10:25). Alas! this is also true of many in our day. How can the members “help” and edify one another if not present to do so? A neglected prayer-meeting, or ministry-of-the-Word meeting during the week means a spiritually weak assembly. True fellowship of saints is not confined to the Lord’s Day morning gathering. It embraces all the meetings, otherwise it is but a partial fellowship.
Again, we read “the members should have the same care one for another” (v. 25). Is this true of us in practice? How encouraging it is for a member, cast down in soul, because the way seems hard, and stony, to be visited by a dear brother or sister who lovingly seeks to help and cheer the fainting spirit of such an one! The apostle reminds the saints at Thessalonica, “Ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). Response to this royal precept make us real “helps” in our assemblies, be they large or small. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:10). When love departs from the assembly door, coldness and discord are sure to enter through the window.
How soul-uplifting and faith-inspiring it is to read the closing chapter of the apostle Paul’s masterly epistle to the Romans! There, with a full heart, he remembers and commends his many “helpers” in his service for God. Surely the shadow of the coming Bema of Christ is seen there! He begins with Phoebe our sister, and a servant of the assembly at Cenchrea, and ends with "Quartus a brother"! His beloved “Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus,” have an honoured place, with many others, in that shining company of devoted and faithful saints.
The world to-day has many a wonder and witching snare, as never before, to attract our hearts from the things of God to the neglect of His interests down here, particularly in His assembly. How we need to keep in remembrance our beloved Lord's words to His disciples, in view of His departure out of the world, “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13).
There is nothing in all this world more deeply blessed than to lead a life of habitual dependence upon God; to hang upon Him moment by moment, to wait upon Him, and cling to Him for everything, to have all our springs in Him; it is the true secret of peace and of holy independence of the creature. The soul that can really say, “All my springs are in Thee,” is lifted above all creature confidence, human hopes, and earthly expectations. It is not that God does not use the creature in a thousand ways to minister to us:we do not at all mean this. He does use the creature, but if we lean upon the creature, instead of leaning upon Him, we shall very speedily get leanness and barrenness into our souls. We imagine, ofttimes, that we are leaning upon and looking to God, when in reality, if we would look honestly at the root of things, and judge ourselves in the immediate presence of God, we should find an appalling amount of the leaven of creature confidence.
There is a false liberality and a spurious kind of love very much in demand at this time. True love—a love that has its spring in God—is always marked by its regard for God’s commandments. “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John v. 3). Spurious love, the mere sentiment of men’s own creation, cares very little for God’s commandments. It pushes them to one side without much thought, if they stand in its way. It is generally so much occupied with the creature, and with appearing sweet and pleasant in the eyes of men, that God is left out of its reckoning altogether. This is not love, as it is described in 1 Cor. 13:6. “Love rejoiceth with the truth” (R.V.), delights to own and obey it, and finds no greater joy than to hear of others walking in it. Do not be deceived by a fair talk about love. See that the true marks of love, as described in the Book of God. are there. “The disciple whom Jesus loved,” whose theme was pre-eminently “love,” never speaks of it, in his second epistle, but in connection with “truth” (see 2 John, verses 1, 3, 5, 6). Divinely and designedly linked together:“What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder.” God is Love,” yet He never lowers His standard in order to please men or gain them. He is full of grace, liberal and rich in mercy, yet He never exercises these at the expense of truth. His people are called to be “imitators” of Him, and never to allow their liberality to lead them to surrender the truth of God. or to lightly esteem the least of His commandments.
No joy, no pride, no exaltation of the human heart, the rejoicing of the bridegroom over the bride, the poet’s deepest inspiration, nothing that is or that will be, is more than the image, the shadow, the forerunner of what the worship of Christ is to the soul. Every other thing is either too little or too much; it either goes beyond or it fails to satisfy us. Jesus Christ alone has the measure of our being. He alone has made up out of greatness and infirmity, out of strength and sweetness, out of life and death, a cup such as our souls desired even without knowing it. a cup with which those who have once drunk can never be satiated.