TAKE the case of Israel, when Baalam was hired to curse them. This was at the close of their wilderness course, after all their murmurings and shortcomings; out comes Balak to hire Balaam to curse them. They were not now in the freshness of their early days, when they came victoriously out of Egypt, but at the close of their wilderness history. Out came Balaam—God says, I won’t allow you to curse them, “I have not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither have I seen perverseness in Israel.” Was it not there ? “I have not beheld it.” How was it ? You know the ground of all this, that every single thing was charged on that blessed One, who hung on Calvary's tree. “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree”; who bore the wrath on your behalf, and brought you into a place where God does not see a spot on you, because Jesus had borne all that was against you. A person may say, does it not matter how we live, then, if it be so ? What do we find in the javelin of Phinehas ? The judgment of their state. In God’s word to Balaam you find the judgment of their standing; in the javelin of Phineas you see the judgment of their state. You get the grace of God, viewing them from the top of the rocks. “From the hills I behold him.” That’s the way to look at saints—that’s God’s vision of them, and He says, not a spot. Looked at from your point of view, you see this crookedness and that disagreeable disposition, etc. You say, there’s a crooked, sour, temper: can that be a saint of God, with all that crookedness ? Yes. I am not defending crooked tempers, for I don’t know anything that brings such trouble as crooked tempers, or is such a stumbling-block. People say, there are your saints! God forbid that what I say should hinder self-judgment. I make no excuse for myself, I make every excuse for you. Look at that poor crooked cross-tempered person from the top of the rocks, she is as beautiful as possible. Look for Christ in people, not at their blots. Let us never be found opening our lips to speak against a saint of God. There are two classes of “biters”, back-biters and face-biters—those who go behind your back and speak evil of you, or those that flatter you before your face. I say unhesitatingly both are of the devil. Don’t be found doing the devil’s work—he is the prince of backbiters. Never utter a word of evil about others behind their backs, if you know anything against them, let the man or woman be the first and only one to hear it. I’ll tell you what I find a capital plan, a sure cure for backbiters, and I have used it several times lately with great success; when people come to me to talk about others, I say, now I shall go at once to the person you speak of, and tell them all you have said, and give you as my authority, then, if you can’t prove it, you must eat your own words. If you do this you will not be troubled with backbiters. Is it that I am not to be faithful to others ? No, I go to them and say, I see this or that thing about you, you must get rid of it. Take the basin and the towel and wash their feet. Some dear saint once said, “I am determined never to speak of a saint’s faults behind his back and never to speak of his virtues before his face.” I find this to perfection in the Lord. He could not say too much about John, when He had sent this message to him. That man who said he was only a voice— the Lord says, he is more than a prophet; and he who said he was not worthy to unloose His shoes, the Lord says, there is not a greater born of women. I am persuaded that the heart of the Lord was wounded by that question, but there is not a single word about that behind his back; He sets him forth—garnishes him; that’s just the way He deals with us. Lest some should raise the question, I don’t understand how he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, I say, that refers to John’s dispensational position. He further says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” The kingdom was put off for a time, and everyone who took the kingdom had to do violence to all his hopes as a Jew. He says the kingdom is not going to be set up in power now but in mystery, you must be willing to go down into the gutter with me.
I only say as to these cities, He has to say, “Woe unto thee.” Think of that voice of thunder, because they had not received His words.
Mark this 25th verse, He retires into His resources in the Father. “At that time,” when all seemed to be against Him, He says, “I thank Thee, O Father.” Thank God for all these rebuffs ? Can you thank God when things go against you ? “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, .... for so it seemed good in Thy sight”. He takes refuge in the counsels of God. Though in that chapter in Isaiah, He could say, “I have laboured in vain,” etc., what a response He gets from God, “Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord. I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation to the end of the earth.” Magnificent result! Though all may seem to fail, I’ll give you to be my salvation to the end of the earth, wave after wave of blessing. So I say to every servant of Christ here; perhaps you are a Sunday School teacher, are you cast down about your work? You say, I don’t see any results. It’s very blessed to see results; but be sure you are in your right place, and then go right on; don’t judge by results, the harvest time will come, the reaping time will come. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him”. How beautiful: go, work on, this is the sowing time, the reaping time will come. “What are you to do now ?” Go back into your resources in God: if not, what then ? I can tell you that I have during the last thirty-two years come in contact with many who once stood on the platform with us, but they have gone off. I have known those who wielded their pen in the propagation of these truths. I have seen them with the same pen contradict what they once held. Has Christ failed? Has God failed? Has the ground moved ? No; there is the ground in all its stability, God is the same, and Christ is the same. What is the secret of it all ? They have not found what they expected, and they have gone off with chagrin and disappointment. What did you look for when you came amongst them ? You say, they were not what I expected; I came looking for love and I was disappointed. Serve you right. If you had come to show love you would have had a different story to tell. They have retired—Where ? into God ? No; into themselves, and they have become like icicles hanging from the roof of a house. You never made a greater mistake than to come looking for love. I have been thirty-two years on the ground, and I have experienced a thousand times more love than I ever expected and ten thousand times more than I ever deserved. When people talk of want of love the fault is generally in their own hearts. Do you talk of deserving nothing but hell fire ? Then what business have you looking for love ? I have business to show love. There is not a single line from beginning to end of this Book to teach me to expect, love, but plenty to teach me to show love. You are never taught to expect anything from man. They came expecting love and were disappointed. If you come expecting love, you will get disappointed, and go out abusing those you leave. Have you never heard the story of the dry pump ? Throw a little water in and you will soon get some out. You come to saints and you find them dead, and dark, and cold; throw a little wafer in, and you will soon get a gushing stream.
“VERILY I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23. 43). The familiar phrase, “Verily I say unto thee . . .” often on the Lord's lips, is now uttered again on the Cross. These are not the words of one going down in defeat, or overwhelmed by personal suffering, but words which expresses the majesty of a mighty Monarch conscious that victory is near. The whole weight of authority of His conquering Kingdom is behind this promise made to a captive soul in the enemy's domain who calls for mercy. More than deliverance is given; a pledge of being in the King's own company, “with Me . . and that in the most blessed and delightful region of His Kingdom—“in Paradise”. Previous occasions of the use of this phrase “Verily I . . indicate that a most weighty matter carrying divine authority is about to be mentioned (John 3. 3; Matt. 5. 18), superceding in some cases what was divine in the Old Testament scriptures (Matt. 5. 22, etc.). The consciousness of His authority is in no way dimmed, even at death.
With what conviction then were these words carried to the dying thief’s heart. In his last agonising moments, peace filled his being. Just as the sun was setting on his life, its rays finally penetrated his long darkness and eternal might gave place to eternal day. Paradise the presence of God (2 Cor. 12. 2-4) for an erstwhile hardened criminal? Yes, and it was to be an immediate translation, TODAY; no period of purgatory, no soul sleep, but a conscious experience of Christ's presence, “with Me” of. Phil. 1. 23.
The contemplation of this saying should fill the believer's heart with the utmost confidence of being in the Saviour's presence forever. The thief knew nothing of the powerful peace-giving and purifying effect of this hope in daily living. He passed into heaven with those blessed words ringing in his ears. Who can doubt the joy of this ? But ours is a greater joy. Pause in the midst of life, ponder the prospect, and at last pass on to yonder Paradise in perfect peace.
The lasting lesson of the incident has often been pointed out. The infinite grace of the Saviour will pluck a truly repentant soul from the very brink of hell, but such brinkmanship is dangerous. One was saved that none need despair, but the other was lost, hence none should presume. It does of course shew too, the futility of human righteousness and religion. This man was promised heaven, yet he merited it not; he could not boast of works of righteousness, or religious ritualism, he possessed neither, and at that time could do neither. What brought him salvation then ? Though hands and feet were transfixed, his heart and tongue were free. With the heart he believed, with the tongue he confessed (Romans 10. 9). This was true faith which Christ immediately responded to in His grace, forever illustrating the principle of salvation, “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2.8-9).
“Woman, behold thy son . . . behold thy mother” (John 19. 26-27). The eyes of the Saviour surveyed the thronging mob about the Cross. All were united in their hatred and opposition. Then His eyes lighted upon a sympathetic, loving group. Not that He looked for sympathy, indeed it was their welfare that filled His heart, not His own. What an example of complete self-effacement! The Lord feels the sword of anguish, spoken by Simeon earlier (Luke 2. 35) now piercing Mary's heart as she gazed upon, what seemed to her, a tragic scene. For there hanging on the tree was the One to whom she had learned to look in times of need, cf. John 2. 3-5. Her husband, doubtless long since dead, the rest of the family at this time unsympathetic to her beliefs and hopes in Christ. He was her all. In her heart she pondered the divine manner of His birth, the angelic announcements, the Hand of providence upon her path. Over the years she had been treasuring up within His words and His ways, hoping against hope that this One was indeed the Messiah. As she gazed upon that loved form now, her dreams and hopes were failing. Hence the Lord “having loved His own that were in the world, loved them unto the end” (John 13. 1), He committed her into the care of John the beloved apostle. Yes, Christ who cared for the widow of Nain (Luke 7), the God of the fatherless, the judge of the widow, remembers Mary's need in her hour of distress. The fifth commandment He perfectly fulfils.
“Woman” . . . . again that form of address to Mary, endearing and courteous, yet somewhat distant. How this would have reminded her of many other times when the same word was used, especially the occasion at Cana recorded in John 2. Then His hour had not come, yet He did not fail her in providing for the needs that had suddenly arisen, but now His hour had arrived and still He failed her not. The Lord never addressed Mary as His mother. The Spirit of God in the scriptures jealously guards the truth of the Virgin Birth. It would remind Mary that, although her natural loss was great, she was only the chosen vessel, not the Mother in the normal sense. A tender relationship existed but not a natural one —an immeasurable distance separated the two of them really, as far as the divine is from the human, the spiritual from the natural, the eternal from the temporal. Spiritual relationships transcend natural ones, a fact we still need to remember constantly, cf. Mark 3. 31-35.
Turning to John, the Lord now says, “Behold thy mother . . .” He needed not to attract his attention by calling “Son . . John’s eyes were fixed upon Christ. John will fill the place of a son to her now in the stead of the Lord Jesus. This seems to be a strange statement. The inference is plain, however. John, as usual, is quick to receive and respond; from that hour he took her to his own home. Thence to care and provide for her as a son for a mother. How could John object to the Saviour’s last word to him ? What a trust! What a privilege ! How blessed he was for being at the Cross. Mary subsequently opened her heart to John and poured into his ears the thoughts, observations, the intimate details surrounding the. life of the Lord. No wonder John’s writings run deep and rich.
John was suited to this trust, apart from the natural relationship that may have existed. He was the more sensitive and appreciative of the disciples. When others had fled, his love clung to the Lord. He sought out Mary, knowing her anxieties and doubtless on her insistence, accompanied him to Calvary. He had ah exercise and concern before even the Lord granted him the service. This is always so. No service or trust will come our way unless Similar exercise in the presence of need characterises us, and then too as we are prepared to take our place ‘beneath the Cross of Jesus’.
Here is a practical lesson of love and care, yet what strain, inconsideration and lack of concern oftimes there is amongst believers. Can our hearts be heedless to this third saying from the Cross ? Every hard and bitter thought is melted as this saying is recalled. “Love one another as I have loved you” is His command. We are to put on bowels of mercies, show hospitality and sympathy. We are to enter into the blessed relationships of assembly life in the family of God, treating older men as fathers, younger as brethren, older women as mothers, the younger as sisters in all purity (1 Tim. 5. 1-2).
AS Rebekah neared the end of her long journey and saw her future husband Isaac walking in the field, she alighted from her camel and, in token of her subordination as Isaac’s betrothed, took a veil and covered herself. The same recognition of authority as vested in the man is practised to this day in Eastern lands; and there, too, in a similar fashion, divine authority is recognized. Indian Christian women, as they enter the place of worship, cover their heads with thaft part of the sari which has hung loose over theiry shoulders while they walked from their homes. Christian women in Malaysia carry with them veils of white material that resemble brides* veils and cover their heads as they reach the threshold of the house of prayer.
In 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16 the Holy Spirit directs the Apostle Paul to show from the divine viewpoint why the woman should be veiled. The R.S.V. rendering of 1 Corinthians 11. 5, 6 is: “But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil”: and in v. 13, “Judge for yourselves, is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered”. In the course of these fifteen verses the verb related to the noun—“kalumma”, a veil—occurs five times in various forms. The last word in v. 13, above quoted, is one of these and might be translated “unveiled”.
A brief statement of graded Headships, denoting divinely-appointed authority in certain relationships, is the apostle’s introduction to the practice with which he is about to deal. Various headships are indicated in the New Testament in differing contexts. Romans 5. 12-17 distinguishes two federal headships, to one or other of which each human being belongs. We are either “in Adam”, the first man, by whom sin entered into the world, or “in Christ”, the second Man, who delivers from sin’s power. The Church of God, composed of all the redeemed, recognizes the pre-eminence of Christ Jesus who is the Head of the Church (Col. 1. 18). The headships in 1 Corinthians 11 are of a different order, neither federal nor ecclesiastical, but universal. The head of the woman is the man: the head of the man is Christ: and the head of Christ is God. Here the principle of subordination to ordained authority is emphasized, the woman being subordinate to the man, the man to Christ, and Christ, as the One who in incarnation voluntarily took the place of dependence, to God. Though this is a general principle that applies to all mankind, only those who are Christ’s recognise and observe it. In the systems of this world men maintain and contend for the equality of the sexes in every sphere.
The conditions under which believers are contemplated as meeting together in this first paragraph of 1 Cor. 11 are not defined as church gatherings. Not till v. 18, in the paragraph that follows and deals with the Lord’s Supper, does the apostle refer to the occasion as “when you assemble as a church”. There are thus occasions other than assembly meetings when women may pray and testify audibly: but the rule of silence imposed on the women in 1 Cor. 14. 34 is to be observed in all church gatherings.
It is significant that the outward sign of divine authority and human subordination, as outlined in those headships in verse 3, should be centred in the physical head. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, that is, Christ. Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled (or uncovered) dishonours her head, that is, her husband if she is a married woman, or the male sex in general if unmarried or a widow. What the apostle thus sets forth for the guidance and observance of all believers is that, when we meet to wait before God, the male should have his hair short and his head uncovered, and the female should have her hair long and her head covered. Two reasons are given for the wearing of a veil or covering, the symbol of authority, by the woman: first, as a godly recognition of submission to divinely-appointed authority, and secondly, as an intelligent recognition of the interest of angelic beings in the divine wisdom displayed in the Church. “Because of the angels”—is probably a reference to the significance of the inspired statement in Ephesians 3. 10, which in the Amplified New Testament is rendered: “that through the church the complicated, many-sided wisdom of God in its infinite variety and innumerable aspects might now be made known to the angelic rulers and authorities in the heavenly sphere”. Commenting on this verse (1 Cor 10. 11) W. E. Vine has written, “The veiled condition of the woman, therefore, sets forth the authority of Christ”.
The sexes therefore should be visibly distinguished by their hair and their head-dress when they come together to approach God in the presence of the angels.
While insisting thus on the recognition and observance of these divinely-ordered headships which imply authority and subordination, Paul adds, “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord”. Each of the sexes is necessary to the other in the Lord: they are mutually dependent, each recognizing His authority. Thus seen “in Christ”, they are equal in God’s sight but complementary in their spheres of service and activity. In summing up the position resulting from the doctrine he has stated, Paul adds that, even out of consideration for natural propriety, the man should appear before God with his hair short and his head uncovered, and the woman with her hair long and her head covered.
ONE thing that makes this chapter most interesting and instructive is the different ways in which we, as the people of God are viewed.
Firstly, as Children (v. 2), then as Priests, both holy and royal (vv. 5, 9), after that we are seen as Pilgrims (v. 11), and finally as Disciples (vv. 20-23).
Towards the end of chapter 1, our birth into God’s family is mentioned, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever”, and now in chapter 2 the apostle gives this fitting exhortation: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby”.
Parents expect to see their children increase in weight, strength and intelligence, as they get older, and would be greatly concerned if it were otherwise. So God looks for growth and development in His children, and has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness in His Word to this end.
In the natural realm it is most important for children to eat and assimilate good food, not only to sustain life, but also to develop bone and muscle, so as children of God we need to feed upon the Word of God that we may grow thereby.
It must not be overlooked that the exhortation of v. 2 is prefaced by the injunction of v. 1, to lay aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies and envies, and all evil speakings. These vices which are the product of the old nature, if not suppressed, will stunt our spiritual growth, and take away our appetite for the Scriptures.
On the other hand, feeding upon the word of God will preserve us from these things. Note the revised reading of v. 2, “that ye may grow thereby unto salvation”.
Let us challenge our hearts on this matter. Are we as much concerned about feeding our souls as we are about nourishing our bodies?
HOLY AND ROYAL PRIESTS
The priesthood of all believers is a truth that is clearly taught in verse 5. This passage sounds the death knell of all clerisy and priestcraft. Every child of God is constituted a priest of God, having the great privilege of coming into the presence of God and offering spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. When David in Psalm 65 pronounced the man blessed, whom God chose and caused to approach unto Him, he likely had Israel’s high priest in mind. Only he had the hallowed privilege of entering into the most holy place, within the veil, and that on one day of the year, and not without blood. The Hebrew epistle tells us that this signified that the way into the Holiest was not yet made manifest. Now through the death of Christ, the veil has been rent, the new and living way into God’s presence has been opened up, and the believer is invited to draw near in the full assurance of faith.
How blessed is our position and portion in Christ. Peter unfolds that we have been chosen, redeemed and made a holy priesthood to approach unto God in worship, offering up spiritual sacrifices which are well pleasing to Him through our great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
“To all our prayers and praises,
Christ adds His sweet perfume,
And love the censer raises
Their odours to consume.”
Not only are we constituted holy priests to worship in God’s presense, but verse 9 informs us that we are royal priests to show forth the virtues of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light. We are left in this world to be a testimony for God, to display in our conduct those graces which were seen in perfection in the Lord Jesus during the days when He was here upon earth. Are we Christ-like in all our ways ?
PILGRIMS AND STRANGERS
God ever and anon reminds us in His Word that this world is not our home. We are in the world but not of it.
We are exiles, away from home, but we are pilgrims, those going home. That being so we are implored to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul and to so conduct ourselves among those who oppose us, that as they witness our good deeds, they may be influenced to glorify God in the day of visitation.
If we understood rightly our status as pilgrims and strangers, we would be kept clear of all entanglements with the world in its politics or religion.
Are our affections set upon things above ?
Peter would doubtless remember the words of the Lord when He said: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16. 24). Thus the path of discipleship is a path of suffering.
The saints to whom Peter wrote were passing through fiery trials at this period, hence the message in this part of the letter was very timely. 'They were seeking to do good to all men, and yet they were the objects of fierce persecution. This was hard to bear and likely brought many a sigh from the hearts of these dear saints The great panacea is in Christ Himself. He is set forth as the great Exemplar, that we should follow His steps. He did good, and nothing but good, and yet He suffered. The Lord said: “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord”. “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Matt. 10. 24; John 15. 20).
How should we react to suffering for righteousness, sake? The answer is as He reacted to it. “Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed His cause to Him that judgeth righteously”. Let us seek grace as His disciples to follow His steps. In His sufferings for righteousness sake during the days of His flesh, He is our great Example to follow, but in His vicarious sufferings upon the tree for our sins (v. 24), He is our great Saviour, to trust, love and adore. “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree (the fact of His sufferings), that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (v. 24) (the purpose of His vicarious sufferings).
May we who were once as sheep going astray, but are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, increasingly understand the import of these things, that we may be His disciples indeed.
THE word which stamps its character on the Gospel by Matthew is Kingdom. Round it every truth and incident circles, and everything revealed in the Gospel takes shape and character from it. Nor must the Church and the Kingdom be confounded. They are distinct in character and aim. Christ stands related to the Church as its Head; whereas the head of the Kingdom is Christ the King. As Christians we are both in the Church and in the Kingdom.
The “Kingdom of the heavens” is a phrase peculiar to our Gospel. It occurs thirty-two times, and is the New Testament form of the Old Testament expression “The heavens do rule” (Dan. 4. 26). It neither means “Heaven” nor the “Church”. The Kingdom of the heavens is the consummation of what prophets foretold, and seers beheld in vision. The coming Kingdom occupies about a third of the contents of the Sacred Volume. The Kingdom of the heavens is to be established on the earth. Its greatness, its glory, its extent, its stability, its endurance, its righteous and holy character, and, above all, the preeminent glory of its King, make up a study of surpassing interest. The centre of the earth of this great system is the Jews as a people, Palestine the land, and Jerusalem the city. That was the Kingdom preached by John the Baptist, and by our Lord—the King Himself.
But the mysteries of the Kingdom of the heavens would indicate a change in the character of what is now suitable in the absence of the King. How possibly could we have greatness and power in characteristic display on the earth in the absence of the King? The meaning of the phrase therefore must apply in a different connection from that contemplated in the Old Testament. There the King on earth, and reigning over it in public display, is the grand object for Israel and the Gentiles. But in our chapter the rejection of the King by Israel, His session at God’s right hand, and the Kingdom consequently in abeyance, give their own character to the new state of things. Christianity, or rather the history of Christendom, in its outward and inner features and its end are, in brief the mysteries of the Kingdom, and forms the subject of our chapter.
THE MYSTERIES OF THE KINGDOM
Before considering these parables in detail, several questions suggest themselves: Why seven parables ? How are they divided ? Why termed “mysteries of the Kingdom” ? Why is the first parable not said to be a similitude of the Kingdom ? And lastly, What is the length of time covered by these parables ? Satisfactory answers to these questions will enable the reader to grasp the subject with a measure of intelligence and fullness.
Why seven parables ? This numeral, which is the ruling number in the Apocalypse, occurring about fifty times, signifies what is perfect, complete. It is frequently broken up into three and four; the former signifying what is Divine, the other what is connected with man. Thus, these seven parables are intended to give us a complete sketch or history of the Kingdom of the heavens.
How are the parables divided? The first four were spoken to the “great multitudes” on the sea side (v. 1). The three last, as also the explanation of the tare-field parable, were addressed to the disciples in the house (v. 36). The first group presents the outward character of the Kingdom during the absence of the King in heaven—the forms which the public profession of Christianity would assume, and so were fittingly addressed to the multitudes, as more directly concerning them. The second group would more particularly engage the spiritual interest of the disciples, of whom others besides the twelve gathered in the house (Mark 4. 10), to these the vital character of the Kingdom was unfolded.
Why termed “mysteries” of the Kingdom ? There are no mysteries in the Old Testament; in fact, the word “mystery” does not occur in the Old Testament Scriptures. There are many New Testament mysteries. The word signifies what is secret or hidden. The Old Testament prophetic Scriptures never contemplated the Kingdom as it presently exists, and as alone developed in this chapter. In these mysteries are unfolded the rise, history, and doom of the Christian profession in relation to Christ as King and Lord.
Why is the first parable not termed a similitude of the Kingdom? Because the Kingdom of the heavens, in its present mysterious form, did not commence till the King went on high. The mysteries date from that epoch. The work and action of the first parable was preparatory to the establishing of the Kingdom amongst the Gentiles. It will be the Kingdom in power amongst the Jews. It is the Kingdom in mystery amongst the Gentiles. The presence of the King characterises the former; the absence of the King is the key to the understanding of the latter. The first parable sets forth the lowly action of the Lord when on earth—“A sower went forth to sow”—but it is His presence in heaven which introduces the mysteries of the Kingdom, hence the first parable is not termed a likeness of the Kingdom.
What is the length of time covered by these similitude-parables ? From the ascension of the Lord till His return in power—about 2000 years (?). Observe that two actions close up this age, which may be spoken of as the harvest and the vintage. The harvest refers to the separation of the wheat from the tares. The vintage is the expression of unsparing judgment upon the tares or wicked (vv. 30, 42, 49, 50). The duration of these mysteries extend beyond the translation of the heavenly saints. It is judgment— pure and simple—which is the closing act in this dispensation. The coming of the Lord for His saints is in no wise alluded to in these parables, and should on no account be introduced in any part of the chapter. In the first of the seven parables the King is witnessed in the lowly character of a sower, but in the coming harvest the King is beheld as a reaper.
IN the context covered by these two passages our Lord had very much in mind the human society which had bitterly hated Him and openly ostracized Him. He put upon that society a term which qualifies and describes it, “the world”. This is, as the term suggests (kosmos), an ordered society under a strong and powerful ruler called by the Master, “the Prince of this world” (John 12. 31;
14. 30; 16. 11). Here then is the kingdom of Satan, “the world”. A deep affinity for each other exists amongst the citizens of this realm and just as deep animosity against those whom Christ has “taken out of the world”. An abiding characteristic of the worldling is his antagonism to the Lord Jesus. His comment is most illuminating. “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated ME before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you”. And again, “They hated Me without a cause” (John 15. 18-19, 25).
This view of unregenerate human society needs to be accepted seriously by every believer. It explains the uncompromising insistence of the Word of God on separation from every phase of this great WORLD-SYSTEM in all its forms: religious, social and political. Remember dear child of God, that which ever face it shows it remains the same world that crucified the Lord of Glory and continues its enmity and opposition to those whom Christ has saved and “taken out of the world”. This distinctness is ever to be consistent with the love God had when He sent His Son into the world, not to condemn but to save. (John 3. 16-18).
In all the ages through which the world has passed there have been movements of the blessed Spirit of God which reveal the compassion and patience of God with man. Lawlessness, corruption and violence filled the world of Noah’s day yet there was a striving of the Spirit in those sinful and rebel hearts. “My Spirit shall not always strive” was God’s finding, nevertheless, His longsuffering sustained that resistance for one hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6. 3). That antediluvian world was subjected to Spirit, inspired and Spirit empowered messages by a “preacher of righteousness” (1 Peter 3. 18-21). Centuries later, Stephen addressing the Sanhedrin, the religious court of his day charged them with RESISTING THE HOLY SPIRIT, pointing out that they were following a well-beaten track. “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit, AS YOUR FATHERS DID SO DO YE” (Acts 7. 51). Here it is possible Stephen was thinking of “the day of provocation”, which period of forty years was on the human side one of all-out rebellion and on the divine side one of grief and sorrow. Whether in the days of Noah, of Moses or of Stephen or in this enlightened day in which we find our lot, enmity against God and consequent resistance to the gracious Spirit betray the true condition of every unregenerate heart. We see this taken to the utmost degree of hatred when in our Lord’s earthly sojourn the leaders of religion were guilty of the blasphemy of the Spirit. (Matt. 12. 31-32). To understand this enormous transgression it must be remembered that all Christ’s “signs” were done in the power of the Holy Spirit and were tokens of His Messiahship. The miracle which Christ had performed had been convincing to many that He was indeed “the Son of David”, their way of describing the promised King. This so deeply incensed the bystanding critics, the Jewish leaders, that they viciously sought to repudiate both the miracle and the master. “This doth not cast out demons but by Beelzebub the prince of the demons” (v. 24). The greater than Solomon immediately exposed the absurdity of their charge and the enormity of their sin.
Had this good deed been in complicity with “the prince of the demons” it would at the same time been wholly detrimental to Him and to His Kingdom. The heart of the matter is laid bare in the authoritative and conclusive sentence of the Lord Jesus, “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven Him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come”. The great guilt of these blind guides of the nation of Israel lay in attributing to the foul powers of Satan what was the work of the Holy Spirit of God. The exact circumstances in which this took place are not possible to-day and it is the writer’s conviction that “the blasphemy of the Spirit” required those circumstances—the presence personally of the Messiah, His operation in token signs for the proof of His Messiahship and the public insult to the Spirit of God by the dominating party, the Pharisees. To equate this sin with the sinner’s final rejection of our Lord Jesus Christ is to overlook the heinousness of the nation’s crime and to confuse two distinct issues which have the same solemn end—result, the eternal wrath of God— borne however, in differing degrees.
Let us pause, my reader, at this juncture and get things in clear perspective. The Holy Spirit had been operating in this world-scene prior to that revelation of Him given by the Lord in the upper-room discourse. But then, the specific promise of “The Spirit of Truth” surely indicates that in a way hot as yet known, He was to embark on a mission-extraordinary. Note the terms of this promise first in John 14. 16-17: “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter .... even the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him for He dwelleth with you and shall be in you”. Blind unregenerate man is incapable of knowing or receiving Him because of inherent unbelief, nevertheless, there is a special mission to ‘the world’ of the Spirit. The further expansion of the promise in John 16. 7-10 should be carefully considered. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient (profitable) for you that I go away: for if I go not away the Comforter (Paraclete) will not come unto you; but if I depart I will send Him unto you. And when HE IS COME He will convince THE WORLD of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. Of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness because I go to my Father and ye see me no more: of judgment because the Prince of this world is judged.”
This remarkable statement was bound to raise questions in the hearts of the apostles in the upper-room. How could it be possible for the absence of their Lord and Master to be for their advantage ? They had companied with Him for more than three years: they had seen His signs and wonders: had witnessed His moral perfections and revelled in His loving presence and gracious ministry. How could His departure be profitable ? The answer, no doubt is a two-fold one. In His departure Christ’s atoning work would be accomplished and because of it He would be glorified with the Father. (John 17. 4-5). Then, and only then could the promised Vicar of Christ be sent forth.. (John 7. 47). The answer is complete when we recognise the extensive sphere of operations of ‘the Paraclete’. The necessarily confined labours of our blessed Lord would be universally extended by this Person who would make Christ available, on terms of faith, to all the sons of men, North, South, East and West.
THE foregoing comments have indicated that in John 17 unity is mentioned in three contexts, with regard ta the apostles’ testimony, present-day Christian witness, and finally, a future perfection in unity. This variety should be borne in mind in seeking to ascertain the teaching of the various parts of the chapter. Failure to do so leads to misunderstandings some of which it may he profitable to notice.
It is a mistake to put together portions of verses 11, 21, and 23, which are in the three different sections each with its own special significance, and, having done this, to issue an invitation to hear the Lord praying “that they may be one, even as we are, that they all may be one, that they may be perfected into one.” This kind of mistake is all too frequent. An apologist for a well-known body writes, “If the Christians now scattered throughout the various religious bodies are ever to fulfil the will of Jesus Christ to be united, as prayed for by Him, we must learn to understand each other better”. However well-meant, this is the language of confusion, which is only to be expected if verses 21 and 23 are regarded as identical in scope. To write of the Lord, as another does, “He was praying for the unity of His Church . . . that they may be perfected into one . . . that the world may believe . . is to make trustworthy exegesis impossible; it is a sorry jumble of terms to link a portion of v. 23 with the unity of v. 21, as this does.
Several organizations sponsor the notion that the unity of v. 21 is fulfilled by the union of congregations to form a larger body. But it is not realistic to imagine in the words, “as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee”, the thought of “union amongst all the children of God”, -despite great names that may be quoted for it. It is not implied in “as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they may be in Us” that “the Christians now scattered throughout the various religious bodies” are intended to be united into one society. To see here a prayer for the visible, corporate unity of all believers to-day in a “Church of God on earth” is an illusion. It is regrettable that this idea is prevalent. One hears such prayers as that “all God’s people all over the earth may be together as one”. But John 17 gives no warrant for this.
We are not to see in this chapter a prayer that “the disciples and all who were to believe through their word might be kept in oneness, in one unbroken association for testimony, during the time of His absence”, or in “a visible, unbroken fellowship”, “the great testifying unity”. There is in it no expectation of “folk uniting on the ground of the Divine-contemplated undivided Body of Christ”. There is nothing in it about uniting. In fact, there is nothing in it about bodies of people. It deals with individuals, not aggregates. If it be urged against this that verses 22 and 23 do speak of the Body of Christ and that this is composed of churches the objector could be reminded that this Church Catholic consists not of churches but individuals. Nothing in John 17 suggests outward form or organization either of groups or individuals.
It is a pleasure to recognise that certain teachers of former days gave the right lead in this matter of present-day Christian unity. For example H. C. G. Moule wrote, “The oneness prayed for by the Lord ... is a oneness primarily, vitally spiritual, and from within ... its immediate outlook, therefore, rises above all problems of order, or even of ordinance”. “It refers not to any ecclesiastical confederacy at all, but to something far more real and true’, said William Lincoln, taking his stand here, as he remarks, with J. G. Bellett, whose comments run, “this oneness is not such, I judge, as . . . manifested ecclesiastical oneness”. It “does not, I assuredly judge, respect any ecclesiastical condition of things. That thought has led to many a human effort among the saints”. These efforts have greatly increased since Bellett’s day. Denominations have combined to form one body instead of two or more, but this is no fulfilment of John 17. Scripture nowhere enjoins the fusion of denominations.
Let us proceed a little further. Granting that present-day Christian unity according to Scripture, is essentially one of inward spirituality rather than of outward form, will its operation lead, as a by-product, to any diminution of the scandal of denominationalism? For scandal it is; there were no so-called Christian denominations in the first century of our era. In this connection, it would be relevant to consider Romans 16. 17, where, in our R.V., Christian doctrine is described as “that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered.” That is, it is a mould all believers are meant to take. This might be deemed a suitable commencement for an investigation of the question before us in this paragraph. And as to sectarianism, Scripture teaching develops this subject from 1 Cor. 1. 9. Paul proceeds thence to unfold what that practical unity is among saints which is desirable, and also that assembly disunity which is undesirable. The believer who is anxious to know what sectarianism is should follow this line of inquiry. And it was in existence long before any so-called Christian denominations were known.
THE next thing we shall consider regarding the Red Heifer is The Use of the Ashes. “And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and lay them up without the camp in a clean place.” These ashes were the memorial of an accepted sacrifice, something which would last indefinitely. Typically, they speak of Christ now before God, who once endured the fire of wrath for sin, when He suffered “outside the camp,” rejected by man and forsaken by God. Our sin is gone. We see Him in the “clean place”, in the Father’s presence, in all the abiding value and efficacy of His precious death. “And for an unclean person, they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification by sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel” (v. 17). In reading over this chapter, one is impressed with how easily an Israelite could contract defilement. Touching a dead body, a bone of a man, or a grave (v. 16), he was defiled, so that he could not keep the feasts of the Lord with his brethren.
Death was the fruit of sin; and the touching of death speaks of sin allowed to act in the believer. For the unclean person there was the “ashes” and the “running water”; with these he was to be sprinkled by a clean person (v. 19). So we read in Galatians 6.1: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye which are spiritual restore such a one” (R.V.). And what are the means to be used? The “running water”, the Word of God; the “ashes”, the work of Christ. No more than these are needed. The Word of God exposes sin and also points to Christ’s death for it. In 1 John 1. 9 we read: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Here we see these two things. In the word “faithful” we are reminded of God’s Word, to forgive and cleanse the believer who confesses his sin, and in the word “just”, we see this on the ground of the death of Christ. Thus the believer is no more directed to his feelings for cleansing, than he was at the first for his salvation as a sinner.
The defiled Israelite was sprinkled on two separate days—the third and the seventh (v. 19). The third day brings the Cross and the Resurrection before us. All mercy to saint or sinner, is inseparably connected with this. And the seventh day speaks of the old creation. Every real case of restoration leads not only to the confession of some particular trespass, but like, as in the case of David, to judging what he was in the old creation, as he declared in Psalm 51. 5: “Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”. David thus goes to the root of all trespass; it was his “seventh day”. Then, upon the eighth day, which speaks of the new creation, the cleansed Israelite could take his place in the congregation and join with the others in keeping the feasts of the Lord. The soul restored to God and to fellowship with His people, knows in fresh power the value of the great Sacrifice of Calvary. How sweet to the believer so cleansed and restored to fellowship with God, is the truth of the lines we so often sing—
“Not a stain, a new creation,
Ours is such a full salvation,
Low we bow in adoration,
Inside the veil.”
It is blessed to know that any child of God who is conscious of departure from Him, need not wait a whole week to get right, as was the case with the Israelite, but may at once know the peace and rest of a restored saint.
But the provision so graciously made, might be rejected. Two reasons God gives, for cutting off a defiled person. First, in v. 13: “Because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him.” God knew the danger of contact with death, in the tent and in the open field. He was not angry with the man to cut him off because he touched it. But as He had made provision for his cleansing, He will brook no indifference. So it is now. Danger of defilement abounds in the “tent”—the family, or the assembly; and in the “open field”—the world, where we must live and do business. In these places we are constantly in danger, as well as from the “dead” body we carry around with us all the time—the old sinful nature. It is indeed most comforting, that God understands our dangers and difficulties, and that He also knows our weakness. But we must never forget, He cannot and will not go on with sin covered up, ignored and unconfessed. This will bring down, sooner or later, His chastening hand upon His child. Second, in v. 20: “Because He hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord.” One who became unclean might say to himself—“No one will know of it. I am not going to remain seven days outside, to wash my clothes, to bathe my flesh in water. It is not known, that I touched a bone or a grave.” God would make such to feel the reality of His presence in the midst, as a holy God, and that holiness becomes all those who are about Him. And so it is now. There can be no greater deception than for a child of God, with some hidden sin, and out of fellowship with God for any reason, to say, “Well, I do no one any harm but myself.” It is not so. A defiled Christian out of fellowship with God does harm to all with whom he associates.
Years ago, we looked at a sailor drawing up a pail of water out of the sea, as we were steaming across the Atlantic. As it was by no means an easy feat, we wondered why he did not go to one of the hydrants, open it, and get all he wanted. After a while we asked the reason, and were told it was done that the officer on duty might take the temperature of the sea water, to determine if they were in the vicinity of icebergs. A believer out of fellowship with God, will as surely influence the spiritual temperature of an assembly, as an iceberg does the waters of the ocean. May not this explain many a stiff and hard meeting, in which there is little worship? How very solemn, then, if I should be one with whom God must deal, for defiling what He loves so well, His dwelling place down here, the assembly of His people, by not seeking unto Him for personal cleansing and restoration.