The year which has drawn to a close has been a very trying one. Our thoughts and prayers are especially with those who have suffered bereavement, and also the many others whose health, livelihoods and personal circumstances have been adversely impacted by the Coronavirus. Yet, throughout the year, the faithfulness of God has been seen in so many ways, including His maintenance of the work of ‘Assembly Testimony’. Thanks are due to the Committee members, each of whom carries out a vital role; to those who write articles; to the many saints who give support, practically and in prayer; and to our printers, Mooney Media Ltd., who, in the face of many challenges, worked tirelessly to ensure that production and distribution of the magazine continued without interruption throughout the year.
God’s desire is that every circumstance of our lives would be educative for us as His people, that we might be more devoted to Him and more faithful in service for Him in the year that lies ahead, in His will. I have been thinking of four aspects of the local assembly that the events of the past year should cause us to appreciate more than ever before:
The Gatherings of the Assembly
One lesson that we ought to have learned concerns the importance and preciousness of assembly gatherings. Most would admit that we did not fully appreciate these until they were taken away from us. Scriptural phrases like "gathered together" Matt.18.20; Acts 12.12; 20.8; 1Cor.5.4, should mean more to us now than they did before. It has been clearly demonstrated that there is no substitute for the physical gathering together of the assembly, in one place, to carry out spiritual activities given to us in God’s Word.
We do not know how things will develop in the days ahead, if the Lord does not come, as far as gatherings are concerned. However, when we can meet, let us make every effort to do so; be full of thankfulness to God for the opportunity; contribute to the meetings as best we can; and show greater sympathy and prayerful support for those who cannot be there.
The Government of the Assembly
The Divine wisdom behind the Scriptural principle that each company is responsible to the Lord alone, with no ‘denominational’ structure, ought to have been impressed upon us by the current circumstances. Assemblies have been faced with decisions as to how to respond to events that none of us could have anticipated a year ago. In doing so, they have looked for instruction, not to a central ‘headquarters’, but to the Word of God, and for support, not to any body of men, but in prayer to God Himself.
Looking ahead, the ongoing situation could confront assemblies with increasing pressure to come under undue external influence. While there are those who will offer ‘advice’, which may be well-intentioned, and even helpful, let us grasp that the line between advising and directing can be perilously thin, and needs to be watched carefully. We recall the words of Paul, in a different context, "Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices" 2Cor.2.11.
The Guides of the Assembly
Three times in Hebrews chapter 13 we read of "them that have the rule over you" vv.7,17,24, which the Newberry margin renders ‘your leaders or guides’. In 2020, assembly elders have borne the heavy responsibility of guiding the flock through pathways never before travelled. Only the Lord knows the amount of toil and time spent by godly overseers, so that the believers may be cared for as well as possible under the prevailing conditions. All such can take encouragement in these words: "For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward His name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister" Heb.6.10.
God appreciates this work, but do we? This pandemic should have taught us the worth of overseers and their work. May we resolve to pray more for them, and to behave ourselves in such a way that we will be a source of joy, and not grief, to them, now, and in a coming day, Heb.13.17.
The God of the Assembly
The assembly is the "church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" 1Tim.3.15. It is God’s, and what a God He is! There have been many changes to our diaries over the past year, but the Divine calendar has remained untouched. Things we had purposed to do have not been done, but nothing has caused Him to deviate from His purpose. We know not what 2021 will bring, but He knows it all. "For I am the Lord, I change not" Mal.3.6; "For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations" Ps.100.5.
Yes, above all, may we learn to appreciate the greatness of our unchanging God. All the other lessons are dependent on this. He is the One in Whose name we gather, to Whose government we bow, and by Whose Word we are guided. "For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen" Rom.11.36.
It is hard to believe that we have entered into another year and yet it is most blessed to know that, as one closes, another, full of potential for glorifying our Lord Jesus, has opened. It used to be said that ‘time flies’. That is hardly true since an hour in 2021 is the same length as an hour in 0001. I think it is not time that gets faster but as the years roll on, we get slower. As far as the magazine work is concerned we are thankful to the Lord that He gives the necessary strength, both spiritual and physical, to maintain testimony for Him. The challenges to Biblical Christianity are immense. We live in an age that wants everything changed. The old paths are being abandoned, while a new style of meetings, enlivened with religious ‘pop’ music words and tunes, are being introduced. In some areas it appears that it is not godly men with their Bible who are wanted, but educated men with their computer; while casual clothing, language and relationships, and sisters dispensing with head covering are all accepted without question.
We are glad to acknowledge the work of our editor and members of the Committee who work together harmoniously to ensure that the magazine continues to uphold the teaching of a former generation. We constantly need to remind ourselves of the words of Paul to Timothy, "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" 2Tim.2.2. The hours spent by our editor as he sifts many manuscripts; by those dear brethren who write articles; by our readers who uphold us in prayer; by our secretary/treasurer in his meticulous work in the midst of pressures from many commitments; and by those who distribute copies of the magazine across the world, are perhaps appreciated by few, but are highly valued by the Lord.
The year that has passed has been fraught with danger from the Coronavirus, and it seems that it was a little foretaste of what the nation of Israel will endure in the Tribulation. If that is so (and we believe it is), how near must His coming be? We are thankful that we can say truthfully, "Maranatha".
We ended our first study in this beautiful Psalm by exploring some of the ways in which the Shepherd provides so adequately for His sheep. Everything is so personal: in Psalm 23 we read, "The Lord is my shepherd" v.1; but in John chapter 10, the Shepherd says, "My sheep hear My voice" v.27. If we can say, "the Lord is my Shepherd", we can also say, "I shall not want". As we saw last time, there will be:
No Want of Pasture – "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures" v.2;
No Want of Peace – "He leadeth me beside the still waters" v.2;
But there is a great deal more, and we are left with a deep sense of the Shepherd’s ability to tend and nurture His flock in all circumstances. So:
No Want of Restoration
"He restoreth my soul" v.3. We all, without exception, have good cause to thank God for these words. We do not restore our own souls: it is His work. The New Testament shows us the Great Shepherd at work in restoring one of His sheep, and in doing so, He turns that sheep into a shepherd! "So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these?’ He saith unto Him, ‘Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.’ He saith unto him, ‘Feed My lambs’ …" Jn.21.15-17. Notice the stages in Peter’s restoration. The Lord Jesus had warned Peter and prayed for him: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not … thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest Me" Lk.22.31-34. Now notice:
The Lord "looked upon Peter"
"And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said unto him, ‘Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny Me thrice.’ And Peter went out, and wept bitterly" Lk.22.61,62. He realised that the Lord knew what he had done.
The Lord sent a personal message to Peter
"But go your way, tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him, as He said unto you" Mk.16.7. The Lord signified His special interest in Peter. Here was an indication that the Lord had not disowned Peter, and was no longer interested in him.
The Lord appeared personally to Peter
"The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon" Lk.24.34; "And that He was seen of Cephas [‘He appeared to Cephas’], then of the twelve" 1Cor.15.5. This is all that we are told. The meeting was private and personal; but we do know that the man who had wept bitterly, plunged into the sea on learning that the unknown stranger on the shore was the Lord, Jn.21.7. Restoration is a matter between the individual and Christ, but the results will be very clear indeed.
The Lord gave Peter opportunity to attest his love
He had denied the Lord Jesus three times by a fire, and now, by another fire, he had opportunity to say three times, "Thou knowest that I love Thee". He gives us opportunities to make amends for past failures.
The Lord appointed him to honourable service
The man who denied the Lord was invested with the most elevated ministry in Scripture: a shepherd! "Jesus saith unto him, ‘Feed My sheep’" Jn.21.16,17.
"He restoreth my soul."
No Want of Guidance
"He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake" v.3. Not now by the "still waters", but in the "paths of righteousness". We should notice three simple things:
First, "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake". It would be folly to go in front. We do not know the way, and we certainly do not know better than the Shepherd. He does not ask us to go where He has not been first. It would be folly not to follow at all, and it would be folly to follow "afar off". We can only follow by watching the Shepherd and listening to His voice.
Second, "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake". Not only ‘into’ the "paths of righteousness", but "in" them. He will never take us along wrong paths. It is quite useless to say, ‘The Lord led me’, if we are transgressing His Word. Notice, not the ‘path’, but the "paths of righteousness", reminding us that while the Lord may lead us in a variety of paths in our lives, each one is in accordance with His perfect righteousness. We can be confident that "as for God, His way is perfect" Ps.18.30. He never deals with us unrighteously.
Third, "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake". This emphasises the integrity of the Shepherd. He cannot deny Himself, or act in any way at all that is at variance with His character. When it seemed possible to Israel that God would annul His promises, Joshua said, "… and what wilt Thou do unto Thy great name?" Josh.7.9. Now read Ezek.36.22-32.
No Want of Comfort
But what about His shepherd care when the path is dangerous? Does this Shepherd flee like the "hireling" Jn.10.12? Read on, and notice the emphatic "Yea": "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me" v.4.
The first thing to notice about this wonderful verse is the change in pronoun. Thus far, it has been "He maketh … He leadeth … He restoreth … He leadeth"; but in vv.4,5 it is different: "Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff … Thou preparest … Thou anointest …" David is not now speaking about the Lord; he is speaking to the Lord. "When things are going well with us, we may content ourselves with talking about the Lord; but when the sky darkens we hasten to deal with Him, and talk with Him directly."1 The darkness brings us closer to Christ. One of the "paths of righteousness" will take us through "the valley of the shadow of death". Notice:
1. Meyer, F.B. "The Shepherd Psalm".
First, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death". We do not approach the valley in panic, but with calm. It is "walk", not ‘run’. If we break into a run, and speed ahead of the Shepherd, we could easily trip and fall; or, as someone has said, ‘be seized by Bunyan’s hobgoblins’!
Second, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death". We do not take up residence in the valley. There is no question of even pitching a tent there. It is a passage leading to the sunlight on the further side. We approach the valley with certainty of hope.
Third, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death". The New Testament uses the expression, "shadow of death" in Lk.1.79 and Matt.4.16. Surely Paul referred to "the valley of the shadow of death" in writing, "… we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life" 2Cor.1.8. See also 2Cor.11.23: "in deaths oft". For David, "the valley of the shadow of death" was called Elah, and the shadow was about nine feet high, 1Sam.17.2-4!
The expression "shadow of death" describes the threat and imminence of death. "The valley of the shadow of death" is not necessarily limited to death itself. It describes the crises of life, and that must include the greatest crisis. However, for the child of God, it is the "shadow of death". "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" 1Cor.15.55. "Nobody is afraid of a shadow, for a shadow cannot stop a man’s pathway even for a moment. The shadow of a dog cannot bite; the shadow of a sword cannot kill; the shadow of death cannot destroy us".2 We have been delivered from the "fear of death" Heb.2.15. Paul makes the statement, "For all things are yours …" 1Cor.3.21-23; that is, all things are for your good, and death is included in the subsequent list. Why? The lawyers would call this ‘a nice question’! (Give it some thought!).
2. Spurgeon, C.H. "Treasury of David".
But the "valley of the shadow of death" carries its own joy and consolation. Shadows indicate the presence of light. It is not, ‘Yea, though I walk through the darkened valley’, or ‘walk through the valley in darkness’, but "the valley of the shadow of death". There is light in the valley!
Why this absence of fear and alarm? It is not that evil does not exist, but, "I will fear no evil". "I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me". The trusted Shepherd is not now leading ahead, but "with me". Do note the intimacy of His presence. When David says, "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want", he includes death itself. "I shall not want"; not even in death. His tender leading in the past has brought confidence in the face of death. We can trust Him to the very end, "for He hath said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’" Heb.13.5. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear" Ps.46.1,2.
Two things are said to accompany the presence of the Shepherd: "I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me".
Although there seems to be some confusion in connection with the respective uses of rod and staff, it appears that the rod was used for defending the sheep, and the staff was used in controlling or recovering the sheep. At least, that is the view of F.B. Meyer3 and D. Kidner.4 A.G. Clarke5 reverses the definitions, and quotes Lev.27.32 and 1Sam.17.40 in support. Even if we cannot be sure of the correct attachment of the words to the definitions, the facts remain. There are wolves, Matt.10.16. The Shepherd defends His sheep. "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any [man] pluck them out of My hand" Jn.10.28. "The Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil" 2Thess.3.3. "Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world" 1Jn.4.4. We can therefore understand David’s words, "Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me".
3. Meyer, F.B.,ibid.
4. Kidner, D. "Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72".
5. Clarke, A.G. "Analytical Studies in the Psalms".
This was used to round up the sheep, and to extricate them when trapped. It is an emblem of the shepherd’s care. The children of Israel were told concerning the Passover: "And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand" Ex.12.11. The staff was used to support and strengthen its owner and, in the shepherd’s hand, to help the sheep. The Word of God does exactly this!
It is particularly significant that the rod and staff are mentioned in connection with "the valley of the shadow of death". It is when the enemy is near that we take particular comfort from the protection and care of the Shepherd.
James wrote to first century Jewish Christians. However, his Epistle also applies to us, as the character traits of the tribes are present in believers today!
There is a unique dimension here as James himself is from the tribe of Judah. He is traditionally identified as the Lord’s half-brother, the eldest of Joseph and Mary’s family by natural generation, Matt.13.55; Mk.6.3. He saw the resurrected Christ, 1Cor.15.7, he is therefore called an apostle, Gal.1.19, he was prominent in the Jerusalem assembly, Acts 15.13-29; Gal.2.9, and is the eldest brother of Jude. As James writes by Divine inspiration, we are sure that the characteristics of the tribe of Judah will be faithfully addressed.
JAMES’ JUDAH SECTION
The character traits associated with Judah, and his tribe, are seen best in Jms.2.1-13. These verses deal with the right balance necessary in those who exercise authority. When rule is entrusted to men there can be the corrupting possibility of preference, prejudice and partiality. All are susceptible, being even unconsciously responsive to the temptation to differentiate based on personal predispositions. We usually like people who like us, those who share our views, etc. Others may detect a sense of exclusion. Teaching is therefore given to counter such natural tendencies.
This Judah section deals with faith tested by its reaction to partiality. It opens with the imperative, "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons" Jms.2.1. The fact of a Christian brotherhood should rebuke partiality. The gospel brings believers to a common understanding of ruin in sin and that our every blessing is dependent upon the exalted "Lord of glory". It is incongruous to have had a common need, benefit from a "common salvation" Jude v.3, and be partial in our dealings. Yet the verse warns against holding a biased assessment. It should, of course, be recognised that there are distinctions in civil society which we must respect, but that is not the issue in Jms.2.1-13.
To stress the point James uses a hypothetical but very relatable illustration. Into an assembly comes "a man with a gold ring [‘gold-fingered’], in goodly [‘splendid’] apparel" and coincidently "a poor man in vile raiment" Jms.2.2. Here partiality is shown and the ostentatious is shown preferment, with the person in ordinary clothing made to feel inferior, Jms.2.3. The challenge is, "Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?" Jms.2.4. They professed a common brotherhood, yet their actions betrayed an inner evil of partiality. Their assessment was based on externals, not essentials! Snobbery is always odious and is especially repugnant amongst believers, where righteousness, integrity, spirituality and Christ-likeness should be the desired qualities.
We recall that Judah, the tribal head, was involved with garments of deception, Gen.37.23,31-33. The hatred of Jacob’s sons toward the seventeen-year-old Joseph resulted from his integrity, his good behaviour, the revelations he received and his father’s love, evidenced by the coat of many colours. Darker undercurrents impacted on the attitudes of Joseph’s brethren, but the garment became the focus of their antagonism. In James’ particular illustration garments deceive again but, on this occasion, to secure acceptance! Our natural personalities are complex, but prejudice and partiality are equally destructive.
While James uses preferment of the evidently rich as his illustration, money is ‘morally neutral’. It is only when unhealthy desires toward money are engaged that danger ensues: "But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is [a] root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness" 1Tim.6.9-11.
The contrast to partiality is expressed: "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ ye do well: but if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors" Jms.2.8,9. The prime example of one fulfilling this royal law is Boaz, from Judah, the royal tribe. Ruth, the poor, bereaved stranger, found equal favour in the field of Boaz, Ruth chapter 2. Boaz did not discriminate against the Moabitess who aspired to share in the God-given bread of Bethlehem. If Boaz was impartial, Ruth evidenced similar disregard for externals: "inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich" Ruth 3.10.
Boaz exemplified the truth, "Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him?" Jms.2.5. God’s gracious disposition does not set the poor at any spiritual disadvantage: "… not many wise … mighty … noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish … weak … base … despised … to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in His presence" 1Cor.1.26-29. While there is no intrinsic merit in poverty, God’s unmerited activities in grace will result in multitudes of those considered poor throughout history filling a place in heaven. Others exclude themselves from blessing, by turning from the Saviour’s look of love, and go "away grieved: for [they] had great possessions" Mk.10.22. "Rich in faith" relates to the spiritual and eternal riches obtained in salvation and subsequently enjoyed by us as "heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him". The good of that spiritual wealth is to be obtained presently through implicit trust in God as exemplified by Ruth’s dependence upon Boaz.
The best days of Judah’s greatest kings were when, in dependence upon God, they fulfilled "the royal law … ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’" Jms.2.8. An outstanding example is Solomon judging in the case of the two harlots, 1Kgs.3.16-28. They had no status in respectable society, yet they received the respect of the king’s attention. The case was tragic and sordid, yet Solomon knew that the heart of a mother was as real in a harlot as it had been in his own mother when she was protecting him from Adonijah’s scheming, 1Kgs.1.15-21. In common humanity, the harlot and Bathsheba, the child and the king, were "neighbours" and love’s royal law was applied to deliver justice for the defenceless in uncongenial circumstances, to universal praise, 1Kgs.3.28.
The world’s judgment may be partial, displaying favouritism or discrimination. However, such is even more unworthy when evidenced within the community of believers. "Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?" Jms.2.4. An obvious feature of partiality is often oppression of the poor, who are least able to defend themselves. "But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?" Jms.2.6. Not every rich person is guilty of social oppression, economic exploitation or partiality, but the balance of power which rests with the rich as a class is often so deployed. This is so different to God’s royal law.
In addition, "Do not they [the rich] blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?" Jms.2.7. Blasphemy may have featured in abuse against believers in Jewish and Gentile courts. However, this verse gives absolute clarity as to James’ assessment of the One he grew up with in Nazareth and Whom he had later come to trust. By using the expression "that worthy name" James is clearly asserting the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Partiality is a violation of the royal law of love. It could not be clearer: "but if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" Jms.2.9,10. Failure in one aspect proves that failure could as easily occur in other areas if opportunity arose and temptation was not resisted. That is what is meant by "guilty of all". It is not that all other parts of the law were presently being transgressed. Nor is it suggesting that every transgression is equal in moral seriousness or effect. However, in developing his argument James employs as examples the greatest sins against a person and personal possessions: "For He that said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ said also, ‘Do not kill.’ Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law" Jms.2.11. The fact that David, Judah’s greatest king, failed in adultery and homicide in relation to Bathsheba and Uriah respectively, is surely a salutary lesson, 2Sam.11.2-17; 12.14. The Lord Jesus Christ amplified teaching in relation to these two sins, Matt.5.21-32.
James then enjoins his readers, "So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty" Jms.2.12. So in speech and action we must avoid partiality: our practice must conform to "the law of liberty". Our relationship to God and His Word is not one of slavish fear; rather it sets us free to do His will in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Using words attributed to John Wesley, it empowers us to: "do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can"!
James’ Judah section concludes with "For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment" Jms.2.13. This is the inevitable consequence of partiality. A hard and merciless attitude toward others not only sours and corrupts one’s own character, but it invites retribution. The fifth beatitude provides the perfect disposition: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" Matt.5.7. Mercy is the outward expression of compassion and pity toward another, particularly where misery and vulnerability are involved. "Mercy rejoiceth against judgment" when that which a person deserves is tempered by a recognition of what they need. However, it is not that mercy is being shown in disregard of justice. Achieving a right balance in this realm is extremely difficult to achieve. It requires the spiritual wisdom found exclusively in One Who is "greater than Solomon" Matt.12.42; Lk.11.31. It was at Calvary that "mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" Ps.85.10. Royal law according to Scripture applied in Calvary love will maintain appropriate balance in interpersonal relations, help prevent partiality and maintain our sensitivities.
These notes were written to accompany a series taught in the assembly Bible Class at Uxbridge, England. The series was shared by three brethren, which is reflected in the individual styles of writing of the notes.
PAPER 11 — Luke 22.39-46
PRAYING IN THE GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE
This section of Scripture is particularly sacred, as we see the Saviour’s anticipation of the cross. This section reveals to us truth about the Saviour as well as lessons for us. Peter, James and John were privileged to view the scene, Mk.14.32,33. These three saw the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Lk.8.41-56, where the Saviour was victorious over death; the mount of Transfiguration, Lk.9.28-36, where it was demonstrated that the Saviour would be glorified through death; and Gethsemane, where the Saviour surrendered Himself to death.
THE CONTEXT OF HIS PRAYING – vv.39,40
1. Drawing Near to the Conflict – v.39
The Saviour leaves the relative safety of the Upper Room and deliberately goes to the place where He knows that the authorities will find Him. Elsewhere we discover this is Gethsemane, Matt.26.36; Mk.14.32, the place of the olive press, but Luke says it is at the Mount of Olives. This was a place of triumph, Lk.19.29; Acts 1.12: what a perspective on Calvary! Furthermore, so many of the Lord’s prayers came from a mountain, Lk.6.12; 9.28: truly indicative of drawing near to God.
2. The Concern for His Disciples – v.40
They could not alter the fact that temptation would come, but they were responsible not to succumb to it ("enter not into temptation"). Their evident failure to pray, v.46, led to their failures when temptation came.
THE ATTITUDE OF HIS PRAYING – v.41
1. Praying in the Place of Rejection – "He was withdrawn from them ..."
The disciples could not enter into this. He was alone, but in His loneliness He prayed. This is the attitude of the Old Testament, Ps.50.15, and the New Testament, Jms.5.13. We have a place to go in the depth of trial.
2. Praying in the Place of Suffering – "about a stone’s cast ..."
The reference to "a stone’s cast" reminds us of the punishment meted out on the disobedient son, Deut.21.18-21. This is suggestive of how, in Him, the price of transgression would be fully met.
3. Praying in the Place of Subjection – "... and kneeled down"
His posture was bowed, but so too was His will, v.42. For us, the first is all too easy and the second all too hard.
THE RECORD OF HIS PRAYING – vv.42-44
1. The Person He Addressed – "Father ..."
He is cast upon His God, Ps.22.10,11, but here it is the tender care of a Father that He seeks. We approach a loving Father in our time of need and suffering.
2. The Request He Made – "if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me"
We see the horror of Calvary: how dreadful sin must be. The Saviour had full knowledge of what it would mean to Him, Jn.18.11.
3. The Attitude He Displayed – "nevertheless, not My will ..."
What absolute submission!
4. The Strengthening He Received – "... an angel ... strengthening Him"
He had made Himself a little lower than angels, Heb.2.9, and He receives here their ministry. It has been said, "Every life has its Gethsemane, and every Gethsemane has its angel." I judge that this is the proof that His prayers were heard; compare Heb.5.7.
5. The Suffering That Was His – "And being in an agony ..."
His suffering was manifested by two things. Firstly, by more earnest prayer. We speak carefully, but as the true Man, His suffering drove Him to greater prayer. Secondly, His sweat was as it were great drops of blood: the mental, emotional, spiritual pressures were very real. There is an echo of the judgment on Adam ("In the sweat of thy face ..." Gen.3.19).
THE CONCLUSION OF HIS PRAYING – vv.45,46
1. The Weakness That He Saw – v.45
Even the very best (the eleven) failed Him. The circumstances overwhelmed them, but the root problem seems to have been their own failure to pray. They had observed His example ("watch with Me") and heard His exhortation ("Pray ... ye") but had failed to look, listen and learn. We should be warned.
2. The Question That He Asked – v.46
"Why sleep ye?" This seems a question designed not only to express His own concern ("Why") but also that He marvelled at them ("ye"): if He saw the need to labour in prayer, then surely for them it should have been the more so.
1. Unless otherwise stated, all references are from The Acts of the Apostles.
In chapters 1 to 7, God had reached out time and again to Israel (the sons of Shem). Sadly, Jewish history repeated itself. Just as their fathers resisted God in the wilderness, this current generation had hardened their heart against the Son of God in the Gospels, and now steadfastly resisted the Holy Spirit post-Pentecost, 7.51. Having utterly rejected the Triune God, "blindness in part … happened to Israel" Rom.11.25. The stoning of Stephen signalled a change in His dealings with the Semitic race. The salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch (a son of Ham, chapter 8) showed that the gospel was going global.
When the Lord Jesus personally commissioned Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road to preach to the Gentiles, He indicated that the sons of Japheth were also to be reached, 26.17. This "Hebrew of the Hebrews" Phil.3.5, this Pharisee, with outstanding Jewish credentials, would serve among ‘Gentile dogs’. God’s ways are infinitely higher than ours. He uses whom He chooses. As sovereign Lord, He changed this persecutor into a mighty preacher of the gospel. Having been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, Eph.1.4, to salvation, 2Thess.2.13, and to testify of God’s saving grace, Saul was an elect vessel, 9.15, and separated from his mother’s womb for the purpose of God, Gal.1.15. Our experience is the same: elect, saved and serving. Praise His name.
The Shem, Ham and Japheth development of Acts illustrates God "will have all men to be saved" 1Tim.2.4.
A PATTERN FOR CONVERSION
Just as the God of glory, 7.2, appeared to Abraham in the midst of heathen darkness, "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" 2Cor.4.6, burst upon the horizon of Saul’s religious darkness. Although his conversion only occupies a few verses in chapter 9, he recounted it with increasing intensity and adoration. We first read that "there shined around about him a light from heaven" 9.3. Saul later described it as "a great light" 22.6, and, finally, as "a light … above the brightness of the sun" 26.13. This chief of sinners never forgot the sublime joy of being saved. Neither should we. As with Saul, we should constantly wonder at and be thankful for our own salvation.
Saul left Jerusalem with the intention of bringing back Christians as captives; instead, after the Lord appeared to him, he was led by the hand as Christ’s captive. On the Damascus Road, Saul learned what was to him a revolutionary idea: that Jesus Christ is Lord. He immediately understood that the voice and glory from heaven was God’s: "Who art Thou, Lord?" 9.5. It was earth-shattering to hear God say, "I am Jesus" 9.5. Jesus of Nazareth was not the pseudo-Messiah, self-styled redeemer, that Saul had thought, but the Divine Lord. Heretofore, Saul had, in ignorance and unbelief, persecuted the name of Jesus, convinced that His followers were idolatrous, heretical apostates. He now learned what every new convert understands on salvation’s day: Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
The Lord’s response to the apostle, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest" 9.5, teaches vital doctrines. Persecuting the church in ignorance and unbelief, 1Tim.1.13, he likely swallowed the conspiracy theory that the disciples had stolen the body, Matt.28.12-15. For the first time he understood the indisputable fact of the bodily resurrection of Christ, and His subsequent ascension. By revelation, here in embryonic form, he began to appreciate the mystery of the Church being the body of Christ, Eph.1.22,23; 3.3,6. It was fitting, at the outset of a new dispensation, that the mysteries of God, hidden for so long, were revealed to the apostle of the Gentiles. He had ignorantly persecuted the body that was in vital and living union with the risen Christ; with the same zeal, now redirected, he would tirelessly make known the wonder of the Church being the body and the bride of Christ. May we never cease to worship at the truth, "in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ" Eph.2.13.
The words "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" 9.5, emphasise the truth that God is longsuffering and not willing that any should perish. Saul became a textbook convert; a prototype of sorts, 1Tim.1.16. Every subsequent conversion would follow similar principles: the conviction of sin, the goading of the conscience, the recognition of guilt, and the sinner finally casting his or her all on Christ’s mercy. To varying degrees every conversion has followed this Pauline mould. In a day and age where Satan makes false professors and sows counterfeit Christians, we must remember what happened to Saul of Tarsus, the pattern convert. ‘Easy believe-ism’ and an absence of fruit after profession is a violation of Saul’s conversion pattern. James is very forthright, saying, "faith without works is dead" Jms.2.20.
Having seen the risen Lord, Saul fell to the earth, completely humbled; and for three days and three nights he did not eat or drink. The fear, the awe and the wonder of beholding the Lord’s glory stripped him of every worldly and material desire. May we also be blind to what is temporal and fleeting, fixing our eyes upon the risen Man in glory.
A PATTERN FOR LIVING
Paul was also a pattern for Christian living, 1Cor.11.1. While he experienced some extraordinary and supernatural events which Christians today will never experience, much of Paul’s life was marked by the ordinary, routinely beautiful disciplines of the Christian life. After conversion, he relied on revelation from God for direction. In this instance, Saul received an open vision; his later life was marked by reading the Word of God on ink and parchment. We are equally reliant on revelation from heaven, not through visions, but via the closed canon of Scripture. Saul also prayed; a discipline which no Christian outgrows. As soon as he was able, Saul was baptised, as should every Christian. We will never reach the stage where we are too spiritual to read God’s Word, to pray and to live in the good of our baptism: dying to self and sin. Let us seek to follow Paul as he followed Christ.
Although Saul’s conversion ranks among the most important events in Church history, we subsequently learn that even this great man needed other Christians as he brought the gospel to the Gentiles. The remainder of the chapter shows him dependent on Ananias, the disciples at Damascus, Barnabas, the assembly at Jerusalem and Peter to fulfil his commission. If he had not worked in harmony and unity with them, he would not have been able to function. Neither can we achieve much without the help of others. Ananias was the first to embrace Saul as a brother and encourage him in the faith. Babes in Christ can be stumbled and stifled without due care, but under the wise tutelage of a mature saint (no matter how brief) they can flourish.
Saul associated himself with people of like mind, for example, he was "with the disciples … at Damascus" 9.19. Growing in grace, he loved to preach Christ and exercise the spiritual gifts given to him. The period described as "many days" 9.23, probably refers to when he was in Arabia, Gal.1.17. Rather than being a ‘monastic’ time, he most likely spent it advancing the gospel. His burning desire to make Christ known should rebuke our apathy and indifference. The Damascus disciples, who were with him in the good times, helped him through the difficult days of persecution, enabling him to escape in a basket. In this way, through thick and thin, they exemplified Christian unity.
Everywhere Saul went "he assayed to join himself" 9.26, to the Lord’s people. The caution exercised by the believers at Jerusalem on the issue of reception is highly commendable. Ultimately, however, they received him on the commendation of Barnabas, who knew his manner of life. Whilst caution needs to be exercised in the matter of assembly reception, we must avoid adding extra-biblical requirements which simply reflect our own biases.
Saul made the assembly the centre of all he did. "Coming in and going out" 9.28, with a local company of believers, he was in fellowship with them in the full sense of the word, exercising the gifts given to him by the Triune God. May we throw our all into the house of God, because what we build into it will show for all eternity, 1Corinthians chapter 3. Jerusalem was not, however, to be Saul’s base of operations. Through the believers, the Lord sent him to Tarsus. May the Lord help us to labour in the locality where He has placed us, knowing we are there according to His sovereign prerogative.
Saul did not have a monopoly on gospel preaching. Having not read much about Peter since chapter 6, we now see this mighty apostle reflecting Christ’s miracles, with many on the west coast of Israel turning to the Lord, 9.35,42.
Dorcas had laid some of the groundwork in Joppa for gospel testimony. While she was not a public preacher, her loving labours and good works helped the local people to see Christ in her. Although a ‘social gospel’ has no place in Holy Writ, believers should endeavour to get to know people in their locality and to have a good testimony before them. The gospel is a verbal message, but it is supported by the witness of godly lives. This is what we see in Dorcas.
Peter stayed in Joppa for a significant period of time. We do not read of Saul in earnest until chapter 13. Again, we learn that gospel work involves many inter-connected Christians labouring together. Although Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, the Lord was going to first use Peter in Joppa to open the door of faith to the Gentiles through Cornelius. Paul would then use this foundation to preach to Japheth’s other sons, in Europe. God was sovereignly working out His gospel plan in a way that involved the unity and harmony of every believer. They were of one spirit and one mind "striving together for the faith of the gospel" Phil.1.27. May we follow their example for the glory of the Lord.
"For this God is our God for ever and ever …" Psalm 48.14
One of the most distressing features of life is the temporary nature of even the closest relationships; eventually we have to part with the dearest of friends and bid farewell to those whose love and friendship we enjoyed and valued for so long.
How precious and reassuring is the knowledge that the God Who is our Father, the everlasting God upon Whom we depend daily, will always be there for us. The time will never arrive when the relationship with Him will terminate; when we will no longer be able to obtain His help or when we will no longer be able to pray to Him. He is a personal God, a powerful God, a pitying God and, thankfully, He is a permanent God.
Circumstances will change; friendships will cease; much of our future is uncertain and unknown but He abideth and regardless of the changes that will surely come, "this God is our God for ever and for ever".
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
"The Lord your God is He that goeth with you" Deuteronomy 20.4
"Jesus Himself drew near, and went with them" Luke 24.15
The road home can often be lonely for the child of God; earthly relationships are terminated by the merciless stroke of death; the world is a cold and hostile place and adversaries abound. This world truly is not our home; how blessed it will be when at last we are at home with the Lord. David, in his Shepherd Psalm, was confident and comforted by the knowledge, "… Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me" Ps.23.4.
We may feel lonely and at times isolated and seem to be forgotten but there is One Whose eye never turns away from us; His sweet, unwearied care is assured and He will be with us each step of the way and each day of our life. He will never fail, forget nor forsake us until we enter the portals of glory, safe at home, at last.
This is the second article in a series considering the expression "in the beginning" as recorded in the Word of God. We now look at Jn.1.1: "In the beginning was the Word".
There are different views as to what is in mind in the expression "in the beginning" in this verse.
Some suggest the words take us back to Gen.1.1; the beginning of time, space and the material universe. The verse therefore means that when time began the Lord Jesus was already there. This latter statement is true but it is not the basis upon which we conclude the two verses refer to the same "beginning".
A second view is that in Jn.1.1 eternity is spoken about. It is suggested the words take us back beyond the first verse of the Bible, back into eternity, the ‘unbeginning beginning’; the endless unmeasured past. It is before time began and before matter was created; not the point at which time began and matter came into existence (as Gen.1.1). It is prior to creation, prior to time. The verse is showing us that Christ existed from all eternity. We can go back in mind before creation and the Lord was already there.
While in the view of the author the words "in the beginning" do not refer to the same point as in Genesis chapter 1, there is however some commonality of truth conveyed.
The words of Jn.1.1 refer to the eternal existence of a distinct Divine Person. The verse says "the Word was God"; and the whole verse proclaims that the Person spoken of is eternal as to His being, distinct as to His person, and Divine as to His nature. The beginning here is thus an expression which reaches back to a period before time was, and conveys the thought of eternity.
The opening words of the Gospel take us back into eternity, before time began, before matter was created. "In the beginning". It is literally ‘in beginning’; there is no definite article in the Greek. The words take us back to a timeless beginning, a past eternity before time began, before Gen.1.1; a beginning without a beginning. God has no beginning. He has always been there. So it is with the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus was already there. He is eternal. He was before all creation, before all things, above all creation and He had no beginning.
The Lord is described as the "Word". As such He is God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. He is God’s message. He is the revealer and interpreter of the mind and will of God. He is the expression and communication of God. The verse is saying "the Word" was eternally the expression of God, not simply in time. The chapter will later say that God has expressed Himself to mankind in the Person of the Lord Jesus. When Christ came into the world He perfectly revealed what God is like. He was and is the living expression of God’s thoughts and of God Himself. He was and is the full and true expression of Deity.
Notice the Word "was" in the beginning. His eternal being is proclaimed. The word "was" is in the imperfect tense; an action of the past that continues into the present. He ever was. He always has been. The Lord Jesus did not have a beginning. He existed from all eternity. He did not begin in the beginning; He was there already. He existed when matter was first created. He is before all things, Col.1.17. He was eternally pre-existent. He always was, Jn.8.58. That is why there is no genealogy in this Gospel. That would be out of place in the Gospel of the eternal Son of God.
Just as God is eternal (He is the beginning and the end), so the Son of God is eternal, Rev.1.8; 21.6; 22.13. He was co-existent and co-eternal with God (see Mic.5.2). And in eternity there was an intimate fellowship between the Father and the Son.
Jn.1.1 is the earliest beginning towards which our thoughts could search. The verb "was" (imperfect tense) also reminds us that, however far our thoughts go back to what we conceive as the beginning, then He had prior existence for then "the Word was". This verb affirms the eternal existence of One called "the Word" even before the creation of the world, for He Who was in the beginning created these things. In Him was hidden from all eternity all that God has to say to man.
The Word "was with God". The Lord has a separate and distinct personality. He was personally distinct from God but had an intimate knowledge of God. "With God" literally means ‘face to face’ or ‘toward God’. He was and is a distinct Person. He was a real Person Who lived with God. In the ‘days’ or ‘ages’ (our finite minds and limitations of language mean we have to express eternal things in such a way) before creation there existed a perfect fellowship between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. They were equal in glory and co-eternal in majesty.
He "was God". His essential and absolute Deity is presented. He was (and is still now) eternally God, equally God and essentially God. He was a Divine Person in His essential nature. He is not a creature, an angel or anything inferior to God. He had all the essence and attributes of Deity. He and God were essentially one. He was equal with God because He was God. It is error to say He is ‘a god’ or He is ‘godlike’. It is not even enough to say that He is Divine. He is God. The words denote proper and absolute Deity.
The Word is pre-existent – "In the beginning"; co-existent – "with God"; self-existent – "was God". He is co-eternal – "In the beginning was the Word"; co-essential – "the Word was with God"; co-equal – "the Word was God".
Bethany was a small village situated on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives approximately two miles from the city of Jerusalem. Our Lord often lodged there and enjoyed sweet fellowship in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Many comparisons have been made between their house in Bethany and the local assembly, the house of God.
According to some the name Bethany means, ‘the house of the poor’, or ‘the house of humility’. Every local assembly is composed of poor sinners saved by the sovereign grace of God and we should never forget what we were before being born into the family of God. Christians in assembly fellowship value the words of our blessed Lord, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" Matt.18.20. The context in which we find these words brings before us at least three characteristics that should mark every believer in an assembly:
First, before the Lord spoke these treasured words He set a little child in the midst of the disciples, who had been discussing who would be greatest in the coming kingdom, vv.1,2. The Lord was teaching them that lowliness is essential for all in God’s kingdom and in God’s assembly. Second, in vv.15-17 of the same chapter we read of an unrepentant sinner who must be dealt with and this incident reminds us of Ps.95.5: "Holiness becometh Thine house, O Lord, for ever." Third, in Matt.18.21-35 the Lord speaks about the importance of forgiving every brother who has sinned against us.
The above three things should characterise every believer in assembly fellowship: We must be lowly for the One in the midst is lowly. We must be holy for the One in the midst is holy. We must have the spirit of forgiveness, for "God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you" Eph.4.31.
Being about two miles from Jerusalem, which was the centre of the Jewish religious system, Bethany was located outside the religious ‘camp’. Our Lord is found outside the ‘camp’ of religion today and we are admonished to "go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach" Heb.13.13. What is reproach? The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Moses esteemed "the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt" Heb.11.26. Have we followed His example? The Lord bore the reproach of wicked men for you and for me and He is the great attraction that draws us outside the camp unto His dear name.
Now Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are tremendous examples for us. In Jn.12.1-3 Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and appreciated being taught by Him. The local assembly is God’s school and we value brethren who patiently and faithfully unfold the truths of Christ to us. Martha served the Lord in Bethany and all our service is motivated by love for the Master and is always associated with the local assembly. Not one word spoken by Lazarus is left on record. He sat quietly at the table and silently enjoyed the presence of His Lord and we are reminded that our testimony is what we are, and not just what we say! May we emulate Lazarus by enjoying quiet, precious times in the Lord’s presence! Power for service does not come from great activity but from spending time with our Lord.
We firmly believe in the priesthood of all believers and will now apply this great truth to the family in Bethany. In Exodus chapter 29 the ceremonies associated with the consecration of the Levitical priesthood are recorded and in v.19 the priests placed their hands on the head of the ram of consecration, signifying that the sacrifice was identified with them and they with the sacrifice. The ram was then slain and a portion of its blood was applied to the priests, v.20, first on the tip of their right ear and then on the thumb of their right hand and finally on the great toe of their right foot. These procedures remind us respectively of Mary, who sat at His feet and listened (answering to the blood on the ear), of Martha, who served (answering to the blood on the hand) and of Lazarus, who was commanded by the Lord to come forth (answering to the blood on the foot).
Considering the spiritual application of these things to ourselves, if we are conscious that the blood is on our ear we will willingly listen and obey the One Who shed His precious blood for us. If the blood is on our thumb it will motivate us to willingly serve the One Who came not to be ministered unto but to minister. The blood on our toe reminds us that we have died with Christ and have been raised to walk in newness of life! He has left us an example, that we should follow His steps, 1Pet.2.21.
The assembly is also a place of worship and again we link this with Bethany. Mary anointed the feet of the Lord. Earlier, in Lk.7.37-49, a woman washed the Lord’s feet and lovingly anointed them with ointment. Motivated by love she anointed the feet of the Saviour Who journeyed from heaven to grant her forgiveness of the debt that she could never pay! Mary anointed the feet that were journeying to Calvary and to the new tomb. In her worship Mary poured out her precious spikenard and the odour of the ointment filled the room and the tomb and, no doubt, ascended to the very throne of God in heaven. In like manner, when we gather together to remember our Lord in the Breaking of Bread the fragrance of our worship fills the room and also fills the heavenly sanctuary. Contrast this with Jn.11.39 and the tomb of Lazarus and with the stench of death that ascended from it. This corresponds with what God received from us in our unregenerate state when we were dead in trespasses and sins. What a tremendous change: from the stench of death to the fragrance of worship! What a mighty Saviour! If we always remember what we once were we will never forget the great change that God has wrought in our lives!
Hopefully these few humble meditations will give us a greater appreciation of the glories of our Lord, of the greatness of His work and of the place of His name and make us more thankful to the Man of Calvary Who loved us and gave Himself for us!
None of us likes to be deceived, yet we may be subject to some kind of deception almost every day. Perhaps you have been deceived in the purchase of some commodity; for example, if the car you bought was ‘clocked’. That means the milometer (the device recording the number of miles the vehicle has travelled) had been turned back to give the impression that the distance travelled was a lot smaller than the true mileage. Along with this, the price was increased because supposedly you were buying ‘a very nice low mileage car’. Sometimes a soccer player is tackled and the tackler hardly touches him but he rolls around the turf so that the referee is deceived into awarding a ‘free kick’. Many people have been deceived by politicians who promised lots but delivered little.
We remember, when we were at school, the excuses we made because we did not have our homework done. We deceived the teacher. One of the worst deceptions was when we deceived our parents by lying to them about places we had been and the company we were with. As we look back over the past our cheeks blush and we feel most uncomfortable.
A lot of times we were never found out. However, in the Bible we are introduced to the God Who is Truth, and He can expose every sin. Numbers 32.23 solemnly reminds us, "Behold, ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure your sin will find you out." The first deceiver on earth was the devil himself. We recall how, in the guise of a serpent, he deceived Eve into disobeying God, Genesis 3.1-7, then Adam chose to follow his wife, and the moment he did so, sin entered the human race: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" Romans 5.12. My dear reader, you and I and everybody else have been contaminated by sin, and with sins unforgiven we can never be in Heaven, and the only alternative is Hell. You may think that you are different and you will escape the judgment of God. Again we turn to the infallible Word of God: "... for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" Romans 3.22,23.
Is it certain that God knows all about us? In chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation the Lord Jesus speaks to seven churches and to each He says, "I know"; there is nothing overlooked and if we remain unforgiven we will be held to account for every sin we have committed. However, God offers us the forgiveness of sins, but only through His Son and His death upon the cross. Is this true? The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who cannot sin, and therefore cannot lie, said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me" John 14.6. We do not come to the Father through philosophy, religion and its ordinances, good works, or anything else that is manufactured by man. Eliza E. Hewitt grasped the truth in her beautiful hymn: