THESE words, the second of the three-fold division of The Revelation (1:19) are an apt title for the letters to the seven churches in Asia, as set forth in ch. 2 and 3. The understanding of these letters is enhanced by considering some of the lessons of ch. 1.
Let us look first at the title of the Book itself, lit., A Revelation. This revelation is not concerning the person of Jesus Christ, as v. 1 seems to suggest. The preposition ‘of’ refers to the fact that Jesus is the author of the Book, as the rest of the verse indicates. God gave A Revelation to Jesus to show unto His servants; it consisted of things which must shortly occur—mainly judgments, first of the churches (ch. 2 and 3), and then of man generally (ch. 4-22); it was sent by an angel to John, whose role seems to have been that of an editor. John’s qualifications for the office are given in v. 2—the writer of the fourth gospel. A blessing is promised to those who read, who hear and who pay attention to its message (v. 3). Then follows (vv. 4-7) the editor’s preface—his salutation from the triune God, finishing with a doxology. Verse 8 is the Author’s preface—the Lord presenting Himself to us in all His divine, eternal omnipotence.
Thus far the introduction to the Book. At v. 9 John begins the recital. He tells of his experience on Patmos, when he heard behind him a trumpet-like voice telling him to write what he saw in a book, and send it to seven specially selected churches in the Roman province of Asia. Why these seven churches were chosen is at first not clear, for other better known churches also existed in that locality, e.g., Colosse and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13). But Revelations 2 and 3 teach that they represented seven different types of church to which the Lord would make known His distinctive judgments.
John’s writing of The Revelation would consist of three distinct sections (1:19), (A) ‘The things which thou hast seen’—the vision John beheld when he turned toward the voice he had heard. This vision, described in ch. 1:12-16, portrayed many varied attributes of the Lord Jesus Christ, (B) ‘The things which are’—the section of Revelation dealing with contemporary matters (ch. 2 and 3), (C) ‘The things which shall come to pass hereafter.’ The word ‘hereafter,’ lit., after these things, points to occurrences after the things of ch. 2 and 3. Note 4:1, where the same expression is twice used in the verse. Thus this reference is to the matters dealt with in chs. 4-22, and refers to events after the Rapture of the Church.
But our main concern in these papers lies with the seven churches mentioned in v. 11. John turned toward the voice he heard, and got a vision of the glorious splendour and majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ as He walked amidst the churches. John was so awe-stricken by the sight that he fell in a swoon at the Lord’s feet. This vision is of particular interest in the consideration of the letters to the churches, for each letter is prefaced by a different facet of the Lord’s glory, and has a direct bearing on the message.
These seven churches are metaphorically set forth as ‘golden candlesticks,’ or more exactly ‘golden lightbearers,’ ‘lampstands.’ This indicates that the prime function of the church is lightbearing. ‘Lampstand’ is to be preferred to ‘candlestick.’ A candle suggests something that is consumed in giving its light, whilst a lamp is constantly being replenished with oil, a fitting emblem of the Holy Spirit, as One who maintains the Church in its illumination of the world. The lampstands are of gold, a precious metal, indicating how very dear the Church is to God. Gold is also the emblem of deity, reminding us that the believer has been made a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
The Lord walks in the midst of the lampstands (2:1). They are all separate from one another, unlike the seven-branched lampstand of the Tabernacle. Each church is independent of the others, and responsible only to the Head.
The figure ‘seven,’ the symbol of completeness, and often found in The Revelation, has here a great variety of lessons to teach us. Primarily it sets before us the complete picture of the nature of the churches that existed in John’s day, ‘the things which are.’ These seven were representative of the testimony borne by other churches, all having a different degree of resemblance to the seven.
Secondly, seven points to the prophetic presentation of the successive stages in the history of the Church from Pentecost to the Rapture, each church in the order of mention showing the main characteristics of the Church generally in the succeeding periods of its history. But there are many difficulties which make this line of interpretation unacceptable to some expositors. It needs for its explanation information outside of Scripture. We are not told anywhere else in the New Testament of seven such church periods; it lends itself to an imaginative reading of things into the Scripture in view of the warning of Revelations 22:18; it lays too much emphasis on times, leads to date-fixing, and cannot accord with ch. 22:20-21; it wastes time on questions of little profit (2 Timothy 2:14), causing us to miss the practical lessons for to-day; it delegates the truth of the other six epistles to times other than the one under consideration; it panders to human vanity.
Thirdly, the number seven would indicate that we have a complete picture of the church at any given time since Pentecost, some churches having departed from God more than others, but in the midst of them all the Lord still walks (2:1). It includes our own time. It is the responsibility of every church to-day to examine itself to see into which of the seven church descriptions it more closely fits, to accept the Lord’s judgment that applies to it, and to seek in repentance to follow His exhortations. Thus ‘The things which are’ have a practical application for us to-day. Their lesson is for those who read or hear them, whether in the first or twentieth century.
Fourthly, these letters may present to us Seven different stages in the history of any given church to-day, its experiences changing as the relationships to the Lord vary in these seven churches.
Of all these different interpretations of the letters those which have a direct application to the Church to-day are more profitable for our consideration in view of the blessing pronounced. We should be more concerned with what the Lord described as ‘The things which are,’ rather than with what is past, or even with what will yet be in the future.
Another point of interest in ch. 1 relative to the seven letters is the mention of seven stars in the Lord’s right hand (v. 16). These seven stars represent the angels of the seven churches (v. 20). The identity of these angels is variously interpreted by different expositors. Some see the angel as a celestial being, with a special care for each church; some the minister of the church; some the body of overseers in the church; some a delegate first sent to John from each church. Concerning this last suggestion there is no mention anywhere in these chapters of delegates having been sent first to John from the churches.
‘Angelos,’ the Greek word translated ‘angel’ is lit., a messenger, and is used both of celestial (Matthew 1:20), and human (Matthew 11:10) messengers. It would seem from Revelation 2:1 that the angel there is not a celestial being, as it would not be possible for John to deliver a letter to such a messenger. Nor is it likely that the Lord would give by a heavenly angel (1:1) a message to John for him to transmit to another celestial being (2:1). Besides, the angels of the churches seem to have been men, themselves members of the churches, as they are praised and blamed equally with the churches. The angel is in some way associated with, and responsible for the activities of the churches. He is one with the church.
Other than in Revelations 1, 2 and 3, the word ‘angelos’ is used six times in the New Testament of man. In these places it is uniformly translated ‘messenger.’ He is a man sent with a message (Luke 7:24), with a task to perform (Luke 9:52), with an enquiry to make (James 2:25, Josh. 2:1). These three functions are all characteristic of the work of overseers in a church. It is their duty to pass on to the assembly messages from God (Titus 1:9); to take care of the flock of God (1 Timothy 3:5); to enquire into its welfare (Acts 20:28). The word ‘ star ’ in the New Testament is also used metaphorically of teachers (Jude 13), and of guides (Matthew 2:9), both essential functions of overseers—teachers (1Timothy 3:2), rulers, or guides, lit., those who lead (Hebrews 13:7). Thus the overseers carry out the duties of the angel, the human messenger from the Lord to the church. That there are several overseers in a given church is no objection to their description by the singular noun angel, for they act as a body even as here the singular word ‘lampstand,’ described as representing the singular concept ‘church,’ is used of a company made up of many persons. Thus the star, explained as an angel, stands for the representative body of those who constitute God’s messenger to the church. It is not necessary to insist that as the star and angel are singular nouns so must the human messenger to the church be a single person, that is, the minister of the church. The idea of one person to lead the church is foreign to the New Testament, where the work of overseeing any given local assembly is always in the hands of a plurality of persons.
In these seven letters to first century churches in Asia there is also a message for the churches of the twentieth century. These letters are still ‘The things which are’ in the churches to-day. Let us take them as such from Him who still walks in our midst observing, judging, commending, condemning, as He sees fit. Let us examine our church life in the light of these revelations, knowing that they ‘were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come’ (1Corinthians 10:11).
A parallel drawn from the Book of Nehemiah and the First Epistle to the Corinthians.
AS we open the Book of Nehemiah we discover that Nehemiah is interested and concerned about those left of the captivity in Judaea and Jerusalem. Concerned about the people whom God had called (Nehemiah 1:10) and concerned about the one place, Divinely chosen, as the centre of worship for Israel. When he heard that the people were in great affliction and reproach and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and the gates consumed with fire, he “sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).
“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears” (2 Corinthians 2:4). Thus we have an insight into the feelings of the apostle Paul as he wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians. I wonder, brethren, what our reaction is to the sorrowful conditions amongst some of the churches of the saints today? Are we grieved and brought low before God because of it?
As a protest against the party spirit prevalent at Corinth, the apostle addresses them as “the church of God”—not of man. But how do we understand the rest of the verse? Paul also sends the letter to “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” “This links together all believers everywhere, and it shows the universal appeal of the epistle” (Heading). We cannot concur. The letter has a particular local application. They are saints in virtue of the Divine call and in fellowship with all who have similarly called upon the name of the Lord in every place. “The apostle is reminding the Corinthians that they form only a part, and that but a small one, of the whole church of Christ, a consideration which their self satisfaction was leading them to forget” (Olshausen). No doubt the epistle is instructive for every church of God whenever and wherever they may be found. The apostle expresses his gratitude to God for work already accomplished, and the desires he cherishes for fresh progress to be made (v. 4-9). Both Nehemiah and Paul have before them the faithfulness of God (Nehemiah 1:9:1 Corinthians 1:9). “Yet will I gather them from thence and bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set My name there.” And when the apostle Paul appeals to the Corinthians to terminate the divisions among themselves he does so “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There was to be agreement in the understanding of Divine truth, “of the same mind” and harmony in the resolving of particular questions, “of the same judgment.” Alas, brethren, the present scene does not allow any to raise -their head very high. The fact that we recognise Christ crucified for us and that we were baptised unto His name ought to unite believers not separate them (v. 13). But in this very section some see license to baptise infants “the household of Stephanas” (v. 16). They are to be baptised and brought up as disciples of the Kingdom although not of the church. “Baptism is into the Kingdom, not the Church” (Grant)—The Kingdom was proclaimed before the Church was formed and will be again after the translation of the Church to the Father’s house, and is being proclaimed at present, for all who are in the Church are in the Kingdom of God. Besides, the household of Stephanas were old enough to serve the saints (ch. 16:15).
Nehemiah is able, according to the good hand of his God upon him, to come to Jerusalem with a view to helping the children of Israel. But “when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah his servant the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10). It was no different in Paul’s time nor is it so in our day. He who seeks the welfare of the people of God will encounter those who will be grieved exceedingly at his aims and desires. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the gospel is not a presentation of human wisdom (ch. 1:18—2:5). God’s wisdom, yes: but not man’s ! Like them we are “in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom—an intelligent appreciation of the Divine plan of salvation—“righteousness”—a positive standing before God (see Romans 1:5)—“Sanctification”—the practical outworking of this in the life of the believer (see Romans 6:8)—“redemption”—our complete and final deliverance (see Romans 8:18-30). Paul deliberately set aside depth of thought and charm of language, for the gospel is a power, no an intellectual exercise, a salvation not a philosophy. His “speech,” the content of his message, and his “preaching,” the form in which it was presented, was “in demonstration of the Spirit— the genitive of cause—and of power”—the mode of the Spirit’s action assailing the mind and will of the individual. The result being a broken conscience and a believing heart. Thus the apostle sought to avoid ‘false professions.’ He sought their true welfare “that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).
Nehemiah arrives at Jerusalem to view the ruin. For three days his spirit assimilated the scene of desolation and distress (Nehemiah 2:11). Again we read of the walls being broken down and the gates consumed with fire (Nehemiah 2:13). The holy city will yet be seen descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God and having a wall great and high—insurmountable of all that is contrary to God; and having twelve gates—Divine administration in righteousness (Revelations 21:12). Nehemiah sees the ruin expressed in these two things, the wall and the gates.
Paul sees the same. If there is no true separation unto God there will be no true discernment of what is in keeping with the mind of God. The cross has separated us from the world —its wisdom, its ways, its religion. We are expected to exercise spiritual discernment in all things as having “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). The apostle returns to the question of the party feeling at Corinth, the proof of their unspirituality. How was it that some were ranging themselves in their estimate of prominent servants when these same servants were united in service? Besides they are servants not lords (1 Corinthians 3:1-9).
Nehemiah invites the people to come and build with him the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:17). They are scorned and despised by certain who heard of their preparation (v. 19). “Then answered I them and said unto them; the God of heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build; but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:20). Nehemiah is thus instrumental in arousing his brethren to arise and build with him the wall so as to secure Jerusalem, with its holy things, for God and so for the blessing of His people. There follows a detailed account of the differences of labour that went into the repairing of the gates and wall while all were working to the common end (Nehemiah 3, v. 1-32).
“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” (1 Corinthians 3:10). Do we build upon the foundation of local assemblies of God? Surely we ought to have nothing to do with the systems of men, set contrary to the Word and settled in systematic resistance to the truth of God but we can as surely expend all our energy in building upon the foundation of local assemblies. But what does it mean to build “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble?” (v. 12). All are materials for building but all do not stand the fire. That which is costly, durable and beautiful is set against that which will be burnt up, “and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (v. 13). We submit that gold would suggest truth ministered in relation to the Divine glory of the Son of God. The Ark of the Covenant was overlaid with pure gold within and without. Silver would suggest truth in relation to the redemptive work of Christ. The ransom money was silver, although occasionally gold. The precious stones may speak of truth in relation to the moral perfections of the character of our Lord Jesus Christ. All work will eventually be tested at the judgment seat of Christ. “He shall receive the reward” (v. 14). “He shall suffer loss” (of reward) (v. 15).
Nehemiah now discovers that opposition now becomes openly antagonistic. At first their work only excited anger and mockery but, as they pursued steadily in building, the result was a conspiracy to oppose and to terminate the work (Nehemiah 4:8). We now understand Nehemiah’s prayer as he anticipated the alliance and cries “Let not their sin be blotted out from before Thee: for they have provoked Thee to anger before the builders” (Nehemiah 4:5).
So, too, did the apostle Paul sense the provocation against the Lord of those who would seek to demolish God’s building. “If any man destroy the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are you”
(1Corinthians 3:17). The church of the dispensation is being built silently and surely (Ephesians 2:21, 22). The local church may not fare so well. The apostle concludes with more words bearing upon the prevalent party spirit. The men that you each say you belong to actually all belong to you. Paul, Apollos, Cephas. “And ye are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (v. 23). To Christ only you belong, nor can His name be taken in a party way for He belongs to God.
One of the strangest sayings recorded of our Lord is that in John 6:53, ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you’ and He added, ‘He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life’ (v. 54). To those who listened, it was a hard saying, and many were offended or stumbled (v. 60-61). Their difficulty arose from the fact that they put a literal interpretation on the words, whereas our Lord intended them to be taken metaphorically, with a spiritual application. It should not be forgotten that the words were spoken at the time of the celebration of the feast of the Passover when sacrificial blood was shed and when the flesh of the paschal lamb was eaten.
The lengthy discourse arose out of the miracle of feeding the five thousand, and the rebuke which the Lord administered to the multitudes who followed Him because of what they expected. He corrected their materialistic attitude, advising them not to work for the food that perishes. They were primarily concerned about the physical comforts of life, a natural and legitimate desire, but one which they were pursuing to the detriment of higher aspects of life. Their concern should have been for the “food that endureth unto everlasting life.” The Lord was re-asserting a fundamental principle of spiritual living that ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.’
Further, the Lord disabused their minds of the misinterpretation of the manna, that miraculous supply of food in the wilderness. The Jews attributed the manna to Moses, but the Lord informed them that the true source was God, it came down from heaven; and in its heavenly origin, it prefigured ‘the true bread from heaven’ (v. 32) whom the Father had sent. It was obvious that He was referring to Himself.
The discourse posed two problems for the Jews.
How is it, then, that he saith, ‘I came down from heaven V (42).
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat V (52).
It was the assertion of His claims which baffled and bewildered the Jews.
First, there was a general and undefined assertion in two parts.
‘ The bread of God is he who cometh down from heaven ’ (v. 33). That is the true bread, the ideal bread, spiritual bread, not a material substance like the manna. And yet it is a person whose identity so far has not been enclosed.
That bread gives life to the world. Manna was limited in supply to a nation. The true bread was a supply capable of meeting a universal need. He could give life to the world; he did not merely sustain physical life as the manna did; he would give spiritual life and sustain it too.
When God gave Moses instructions regarding His first dwelling place on earth—the Tabernacle—He said, “See that thou make all things according to the pattern shown to thee in the Mount” (Heb. 8:5). In 1 Chron. 28:11, 12-19, we see Solomon receiving from David that which David had received from the Lord—a “pattern” of all things in relation to “the house of God.” Now has God given His people no “pattern” of His spiritual “house” or “habitation” today? Is His local habitation in this church age of less importance in His sight than His first dwelling place in the wilderness, or His house in Jerusalem? Nay, verily ! In the building and ordering of His house today, He has not left us to our own discretion, nor to the methods of men to suit the times; He has given us very definitely in His Word both the pattern and the specification of His local church. From verse 41 of Acts, chapter 2, we have the first local church brought before us, and surely it is of the greatest importance for us to get back to the beginning of Church history. After the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter was the first herald of the Cross, and 3,000 souls were saved through receiving the message which Peter proclaimed—“And they that gladly received his word were baptized.” This was the first step in following the Lord after their conversion, and it should be the first step still. Then we see that these were added to the 120 who had been saved before them (Acts 1:15). And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and in fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. These first principles are clear and plain to every child of God who desires to do the will of God.
As the gospel spread, local churches were planted in many places. What were they called? Churches of God, churches of Christ, churches of the saints, or churches in any town or country where they were located, but no distinguishing names were adopted; they all met on the same principles, and they all preached the same doctrine. These were, and are still “the footsteps of the flock,” “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16). Neither in the Acts of the Apostles, nor in the Epistles, do we find anything mentioned but scripturally gathered churches or assemblies, except of course synagogues, into which our Lord often entered as did His apostles when they were in localities where no church had been planted. (The last time we read of Paul being in a synagogue is in Acts 19 where he separated the disciples to the school of one Tyrannus (v. 9).)
Now we may ask, how is a true child of God received into a scripturally gathered church, or assembly of God? First, we believe there should be real exercise of soul on the part of those desiring church fellowship. When we were first of all brought to Christ it was through Spirit-created exercise of soul; and in these days when the church is so divided and when there are so many different schools of interpretation of the Scriptures, it surely behoves every sincere child of God to pray like the apostle Paul on the Damascus road—“Lord what wilt thou have me to do?”—or like the devoted seeking soul in Song of Solomon—“Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon; for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?” What was His answer to this earnest request?—“If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherd’s tents.” This was a very definite answer to her sincere inquiry. Do we not still have “the footsteps of the flock” set before us in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles? “The old paths” are clear and plain to all who are prepared to “stand in the way” and “ask” for them (Jer. 6:16). Thus exercise of soul concerning church fellowship should lead us to the Word of God, our one and only guide book; simple obedience to the divine commandments will lead us into a scripturally gathered assembly of God.
Secondly, the seeking soul will make known his or her concern to some faithful brother in the assembly, who should inform the gathered company; reception into the assembly is a responsibility for the whole gathering (Acts 15:4) as is the putting away (1 Cor. 5:4, 5). The seeking soul will then be received into happy fellowship to share all the privileges and responsibilities of the assembly. This order may not always be adopted by assemblies professing to gather on scriptural lines. David no doubt thought it would not matter how the ark of God was brought back so long as it arrived safely, and he decided on a most convenient method, but it did not meet with divine approval—man’s ways are not God’s ways. Through the apostle, the Lord says, “Let everything be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Is it not better to seek to follow the Divine pattern and example in all we seek to do in His church today, ils it not departure from divine principles that has wrought such havoc in the church all down the church age?
Why do many assemblies of God insist on strangers bringing a letter of commendation from the assembly from which they have come? Simply because it is scriptural; we have an example in Romans 16:1-2; the commendation was not just to let the saints at Rome know that this sister Pheobe was a saved woman. There was far more to it than that—it was to let them know that she was in happy fellowship with the church at Cenchrea.
A letter of commendation should be carefully read in the presence and hearing of the assembly to which it is addressed; it should foster fellowship between the two assemblies as well as commend the person in question. It is a divine principle which should not be lightly esteemed.
Now what should be our attitude towards Christians who do not meet with us in assembly fellowship? We should ever remember that we are all one in Christ Jesus, and that “One is our Master even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” We should therefore “love one another with a pure heart fervently,” but because of unscriptural systems with which the great majority of our fellow Christians are linked up, many of us cannot, in the light of what we have understood from scripture, feel free to have fellowship with them.
Christian unity and fellowship is one of the sweetest things on earth—it is what our Lord prayed for so fervently in John ch. 17—but this unity must be on scriptural ground. If certain truths of the Word of God concerning local assembly testimony have to be set aside for the sake of unity or toleration, then such compromise cannot be according to the mind of God. There is a universal cry all over Christendom today for church unity, but is this the unity for which Our Lord prayed in John 17? Nay, verily ! This is a man-made unity, contrary to the Word of God, and similar to that attempted in the land of Shinar, on which the judgment of God came down —“therefore is the name of it called Babel” i.e. confusion (see Genesis 11). In like manner the unity for which Christendom is clamouring today will end in “Babylon the Great,” on which the judgment of God again will fall (see Rev. 17 and 18). God’s call now, as it will be then is “Come out of her my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins.. (Rev. 18:4). After fifty-nine years of assembly experience, the writer has yet to see one instance where amalgamation with unscriptural religious systems resulted in lasting blessing.
May our loving Heavenly Father give us all grace and wisdom to turn from man and man’s ideas, to the unchangeable Word of God, depending entirely on the Holy Spirit of God to “guide us into all truth,” to “hold fast that which we have,” and “to strengthen the things that remain,” for “the night is far spent and the day is at hand.”
In spite of the finality of such promises we now come to the next lapse of Abram and his wife. The poor flesh cannot wait in patience for God’s time but must act in independence to try to help on that purpose, which was in reality a frustration of it.
Abram had brought this slave girl out of Egypt when he went down there in the first place and while this act may have been the custom of the land and its nations, or of Egypt, it ill behoved a saint of God with such promises to God to so act. Abram is not the first to hearken to the voice of his wife with disastrous consequences. Here also was discovered Abram’s weakness and Sarai’s cruelty leading to this poor woman’s flight. “Hagar” may mean “runaway” or “wanderer.” But God was not going to desert such a needy soul. The two questions the angel puts to her are very cogent and could be asked of any of Adam’s poor race. “Whence comest thou and whither wilt thou go?” This linked with the further question in 21:17 make an interesting trilogy as applied to the fleeing sinner, and are most pertinent. “Submit thyself” but this is the most difficult thing to do, as Hagar was to discover.
It has been said that this practice of the taking of a fresh “wife” because of barrenness was the custom of the nations, and this may be so but it ill behoves a man of faith to imitate “the nations” from which he has been called to adopt their heathen practices. When we look upon the moslem world which for centuries has been hostile to and a persecutor of God’s people, presenting them with “Islam or the sword” we may well recoil with horror from this especially when we can trace the origin of it to this apparently simple act of the patriarch.
There follows, however, a very gracious promise as to the coming son of Abram, his pre-natal name and description, which he later lived up to, and also the well is named, and the birth and naming of Ishmael and age of Abram. It is noteworthy that though here Hagar had found the well of water, yet later when she was cast out she could not again find it, but the lad was likely to die of thirst.
The age of Abram given in the last verse of this chapter and then the first verse of the next (17) shows that there had been an interval of thirteen years in which no advance nor any appearance of the Lord occurs. Thirteen years of silence. Who has not known of this experience when God has withdrawn because of sin? “Be not silent unto me” cries the Psalmist as well he might, for who knows if and when God will speak again, when we have attempted to take ourselves out of His divine purpose?
THE absolute essentiality of the Holy Spirit to an Assembly’s character is followed by a fourth proposition:—
iv. The Local Assembly is Spirit-indwelt as to its sanctity
(1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). This fact is demonstrated from both the collective and the personal points of view. The gathering of saints in the Lord’s Name is declared to be “temple of God” while the same description is applied to the believer’s body. Could a stronger argument be found for purity of life and propriety of conduct than the actual Presence of Him who is called “The Spirit of Holiness.” Is there anything more calculated to impose the needful restraint upon all self-will and fleshly propensities? “The Spirit of God dwelleth in you” is certainly more than the knowledge of a doctrine, it is the fact of a Person inhabiting a shrine which must conform in every way to His sacred and holy nature. How could there be room in “the temple of God” for the assertion of human pride, for the vaunted wisdom of man, or for the defilement of lust and sensuality? The warning to each defaulting member of any assembly is solemnly clear: “If any man destroy (or mar) the temple of God, Him will God destroy Cor mar), for the temple of God is holy, and such ye are” (1 Corinthians 3:17 (R.V.) margin).
The words of Ch. 11:30 (R.V.) are a pertinent and penetrating exposition of what is intended. “For this cause,” that is: their base and unholy conduct at the Lord’s Supper, “many are weak and sickly among you and not a few sleep.” How clear it becomes that the gathered company is a responsible unit, the public misconduct of one or more of its members making the whole Sanctuary of God defiled and implicated until the known and clearly attested sin has been investigated and the guilty one judged before the Lord and the assembly. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump... therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:6-13). It should be grasped by every one of us that this drastic step has in it the BASIC PREPARATION for the delinquent’s RESTORATION AND REINSTATEMENT.
It is this same unifying and sanctifying Presence that constitutes the local assembly a truly authoritative court of justice in matters relating to the mutual well-being of its members. Here, indeed, is a gracious provision by the Lord of the church to eliminate the need for recourse to the Civil Courts when injustices or wrongs arise between believer and believer. How sadly, how adversely Christ’s testimony to the world through His church has been affected by the display of bitterness and enmity that has at times been seen when Christians have sought the decision of an earthly judiciary ! All such, virtually deny their heavenly status, they by-pass the higher court and disobey the clear teaching of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6). Too often a gulf is created between the parties that is not spanned in time and the legacy of the evil thing is handed down to succeeding generations. When placed in “the scales of the Sanctuary” the causes of such action are often so light! so mean ! so sordid ! The family feud ! The duel of the tongue-thrashers ! Perishing possessions ! Many of these being issues distorted by hurt feelings and exaggerated by suspicions, gossip and the inevitable troublemaker. And yet they claim to be a living part of a sacred Sanctuary indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God and vested with healing and restorative powers. Among other remedial measures the Apostle proposes, he issues the challenge, “why not RATHER take wrong? why not RATHER be defrauded? Those who are Christ-like enough to do this put a tremendous responsibility upon the offenders and will in due course be vindicated by the righteous Judge. (See Isaiah 54:17.)
It is to be expected that attention will now be directed to the individual as in the background there are sins against the physical body of the believer. The human body was being prostituted to the basest of uses and the sin of fornication is specifically mentioned (6:13). Union with Christ (v. 15), the inliving of the Holy Spirit and the essential rights of their great Redeemer are urged as the counter-measures to immorality. Members of Christ: Temples of the Holy Spirit; purchased by the blood of Christ, it is imperative that they glorify God in their bodies. The holy horror of their crime is conveyed in the Apostle’s reprehensive challenge: What! Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom ye have of God, and ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price: therefore Glorify God in your body ! (1 Corinthians 6:19-20.) Personal purity and corporate sanctity are inseparable. The Assembly is what the member makes it. In this sense too, “None of us liveth to himself.” (Romans 14:7.)
PETER’S frequent allusions to acts and sayings of Jesus, to which attention has already been drawn in these “Notes,” are nowhere more in evidence than in the closing chapter of his first epistle; and recognition of them will add much to its interest for the careful reader. Indeed the apostle turns our thoughts in that direction in its very first verse, when he speaks of himself as having been a witness of the sufferings of Christ; a reminder which gives weight to what he has previously written on the subject of suffering; and which helps to account for the “therefore” that the R.V., following the oldest MSS., inserts in the verse.
Most of the allusions occurring afterwards in the chapter are to deeds and words associated with what took place immediately before and after Christ’s death—with the upper room of Luke 22, and with the lake side of John 21. They are used by Peter here to put in shape what he wishes to say regarding service (vs. 1-4); humility (vs. 5-7); and watchfulness (vs. 8, 9).
In his exhortation of verse 2, “Feed (R.V., Tend) the flock of God,” he is passing on to other under-shepherds in turn the commission, “Feed (R.V. Tend) My sheep,” which the Lord had given to himself in John 21:16. This service they are to do, “not by constraint (LIKE A SLAVE) but willingly,” “not for filthy lucre (LIKE A HIRELING) but of a ready mind,” not as lording it (LIKE A MASTER)... but as en-samples to the flock.”
In the warning against “lording it,” as well as in the exhortation to humility which follows in verse 5, and the reference to the Devil’s activities in verse 8, Peter has evidently in mind what the Lord Jesus said and did on the occasion of the Supper. At that time there had been a strife amongst the disciples about which of them should be accounted greatest (Luke 22:24-27), as there had been at least twice previously (Mark 9:33-35 and 10:41-45); and Jesus rebuked them for it by words in which “lording it” over one another is contrasted with taking the lowly place. He had already even more pointedly rebuked them by His action, described in John 13:4-12, of girding Himself with a towel to wash the feet of these quarrelsome disciples of His. Then there followed the announcement that one of their number was about to betray Him; and this, while it caused self-questioning among them, also stirred up in Peter a vein of self-confidence (John 13:37), which brought on him the Lord’s solemn warning of Luke 22:31, 32 (R.V.), “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath asked to have you (plural), that he might sift you as wheat; but I made supplication for thee (singular) that thy faith fail not; and do thou when once thou hast turned again, stablish thy brethren.”
THE GIRDLE OF HUMILITY
If with these things in mind, we turn back to 1st Peter 5, we shall have little doubt whence the apostle derived his phrase, “not as lording it over” (v. 3, R.V.); and still less as to what occupied his thoughts when he said in verse 5, “All of you gird yourselves with humility to serve one another.” The very word that he uses, rendered in the A.V. “be-clothed-with,” but in the R.V. “gird-yourselves-with-to-serve,” would itself suggest a reference to the feet-washing of John 13. It is a word which occurs nowhere else in the Scriptures, and its basic meaning is “gird-yourselves-with-the-overall-which-marks-the-slave-at-work.” Even so did Christ gird Himself with the towel in John 13:4, 5, giving to His disciples an “example” (v. 15) of what He expressed shortly afterwards in the words of Luke 22:27, “I am among you as he that serveth.”
The apostle’s exhortation in verses 8 and 9 of our chapter, to watchfulness and resistance against the assaults of the Devil, falls into line with what has gone before, if we link it in our thoughts with the Lord’s warning to Peter himself on the same subject in Luke 22:31, 32; a warning given immediately after His words on that occasion concerning humility and its reward. Having experienced the attack of Satan against which he had then been forewarned, he is the better able to carry out the injunction which was at the same time given him to “strengthen” (R.V., “stablish”) his brethren; and that is what in these verses he is endeavouring to do. Indeed he makes use of this same word “stablish,” when in verse 10 he encourages the saints by telling them that “the God of all grace... shall Himself... stablish... you.” And it may also be noticed that Christ’s prayer for Peter, that his FAITH should not fail, corresponds with the latter’s desire for the saints, that in resisting the Devil they should be stedfast in their FAITH.
RESIST THE DEVIL
The emphasis thus laid in both cases on their faith, should remind us that one of Satan’s chief aims in his assaults on the people of God, is to shake their confidence in Him, whether by their sufferings, or by dread of having to suffer, or by some other means. This aim is perhaps most clearly seen in his dealings with Job; but that he failed to accomplish it is just as evident, from such sayings on Job’s part as “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). He will fail in our case too, if we^Jieed the exhortation of Peter, “Whom resist stedfast in your faith,” and that of Paul in a passage that in an earlier paper was mentioned as a parallel one with this, “Withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one” (Eph. 6:11 R.V.).
We come now to the framework of the tabernacle. This comprised 48 boards of shittim wood, overlaid with gold, each board having two tenons slotted into two sockets of silver on which it stood. Twenty boards along the South side and the North side respectively, and six at the rear of the West side with an extra board at each end to act as strengthening corner pieces.
The boards formed the structure of God’s dwelling place. Immediately we are led to think of our position as believers forming the house of God, the Church. The wood from which the boards were made had to be sought, cut down low, stripped of its proud branches and shaped to fit the tabernacle. Is not this the work of God’s Spirit in the World? Seeking souls, laying them low in repentance, stripping them of all they are in the flesh, and fashioning them for God’s presence. Through the Cross of Christ this work is being accomplished. Shittim (or Acacia) wood is of a twisted, hard, knotted variety and difficult to work with. Let us realise that naturally our hearts are like this, and may it cause us to yield more to the action of God’s Spirit.
Once shaped to size the boards were overlaid with gold. How expressive this is of the believer being ‘ in Christ.’ All the perfection and moral glory of the Lord Jesus is reckoned to us. Before God we stand upright, accepted in the beloved. What rest this gives the soul! All I am in Adam is out of sight, Christ in His glittering glory alone is seen. There were 48 boards and it is remarkable that the phrase ‘ in Christ ’ appears 48 times in the New Testament. Such is our heavenly standing; may we be more conformed to Christ in our daily state.
The boards were inserted by means of the tenons into the silver sockets. This enabled them to stand upright. Exodus 30:11-16 tell us where this silver came from (cf. Exodus 38:27)). The sockets were constructed from the atonement money. A census of the people (all over 20 years) was ordered by God. As each one was counted, that is presented before God as one of His people, a half shekel of silver had to be offered to acknowledge the fact that a price had to be paid for them to be numbered amongst God’s people. It was for the atonement of their souls. The rich could not give more, the poor could not give less. The payment averted God’s judgment. Later when David numbered the people and did not obey this rite, many perished. Having discerned this, the silver sockets undoubtedly speak of the ground upon which we stand in the presence of God, redemption ground. Not a price we have paid of silver or gold, but a price another has paid, the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18). This is our perfect standing, but being bought with such a price, it should lead us to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Every Israelite was therefore represented before God in the sockets, for each had a share in the silver. He could continue to dwell among them on this basis. We have a share in the blood of Christ, not in the same sense of contributing to it, but certainly in the sense that the blood and the blood alone secures the eternal acceptance of every soul who has exercised saving faith. They are all henceforth represented in its abiding preciousness to the eye and heart of God.
The boards were all of the same size. Every believer is a saint, and a priest, not one is any bigger than the other so far as standing is concerned. There are distinctions of gift and responsibility but all are alike 6 in Christ.’ ‘All ye are brethren... standing together, side by side, they were linked by four bars passing through rings attached to some of the boards, and a fifth unseen bar passing through the midst of the boards.’
Does not this suggest to us the unifying effects of the Spirit of God? Here is a divine unity and security. The Spirit indwelling the believer effects a vital though invisible link between Christians. In a more outward and practical way the gifts of the Spirit are given to unite the saints (Ephesians 4:7-11). This is a matter for diligent application. Let each of us serve one another exercising the gifts God has given to promote unity in the local assembly that it might be a place where God is pleased to dwell.
“Who is sufficient for these things? for we are not as many, which corrupt the Word of God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.” 2 Cor. 2:16-17; 3:5.
The past year with its lawlessness and confusion around us here, opened our eyes to see something of the dreadfulness of the anarchy which will shortly spread over this poor wicked world, following our Lord’s return for His redeemed people. Significant changes invade the homes of the masses, where, it appears, arrogant children demand that the ‘ ignorant ’ parents obey the children ! Many other developments of wickedness grieve the souls of the people of God. That which should give us most concern is the real danger that the spirit of lawlessness and discontentment so active in the world may invade our assemblies. Let us ever remember that the assembly of saints is the only place in this sad world where the Lordship of Christ is acknowledged. In the assembly is to be found an order to which God can direct the attention of angels, and by the assembly is made known the manifold wisdom of God. (See 1 Cor. 11:10:1 Peter 1:12. Eph. 3:10.)
We know that which is profitable in the preservation of the saints, individually and collectively, is the Word of God, and we are thankful for evidence that this little magazine has been used by God to this end through another year. For the ministry given through its pages we praise our faithful God.
Our weakness and limitations are acknowledged. We have our testings. For a period the postal workers’ strike isolated us from our many friends. As to be expected, costs of material and labour and postal charges increased. However, we are glad to report the magazine is read in the five Continents of earth, and circulation reached its highest ever during this past year. We have again proved the faithfulness of a kind Father, through Whose grace all our needs were met. With joy we believe it is His will to continue this little service another year. He is worthy of our trust. “Who is sufficient for these things?” “Our sufficiency is of God.” We give Him the glory that is His due.
We feel indebted to all those who remember us in their prayers. Be assured we value this greatly. “Pray for us.” To those who, after much prayer and study, submitted papers we offer our hearty thanks. The Lord shall yet reward this labour of love. Renewed thanks is offered to our editor for his wisdom, faithfulness and labour revealed in his honorary services which have been continued so consistently in the midst of his many other commitments. The Lord shall duly reward him. It also affords us joy to have the valuable help of so many in the distribution of the magazine. To these dear saints, along with those who, through assembly gifts, or personally, have encouraged us by practical fellowship we tender our hearty thanks in the Lord’s worthy Name.