“When Ye Come Together”
G. G. Johnston
The Church at Corinth
J. C. Russell
“How Long, O Lord, How Long?”
A. G. Westacott
late Frank Hunter
By A. McSHANE
MEMBERSHIP (1 Cor. 12—14)
A common feature of all three passages which deal extensively with spiritual gift (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12, and Eph. 4) is that they make I use of the figure of the human body. A more fitting simile of variety and harmony could hardly be imagined. Previous to their conversion, the Corinthian believers had been separated by religious (“Jew and Gentile”) and social (“bond and free”) barriers, but now they are united into “one body” by being baptised “in one Spirit.” Not only so, but each had also drunk of that same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). There are some who hold that the baptism of the Spirit was a once-for-all act, which took place at Pentecost when undoubtedly the one body was formed; but this verse seems to imply that drinking of the Spirit and being baptised in the Spirit are simultaneous experiences, in which case both take place at conversion. The term “body” here must of course refer to the Church in its universal aspect, and the word “baptised” cannot refer to water baptism, which ordinance is never said to unite believers. From vv. 14-16 of our chapter the apostle gives a lengthy description of the human body with the object in view, no doubt, of teaching several lessons helpful to the proper use of spiritual gift. These lessons may be summarised as follows :—In the body there is NO ENVY. The most obscure and humble members have their part to play, and are content to do the work for which God has fitted them. Secondly, in it there is NO INDEPENDENCE. The greatest members would be useless without the aid of the unseen and less honourable ones. And, thirdly, in it there is NO SCHISM. Every member is united and shares in the pain or joy of the whole. This simile of the body is applied in v. 27 to the local Church at Corinth—“Ye are the body of Christ and members in particular”—which Church, of course, was meant to profit by the lessons here taught. Would not a realisation of these principles help to remedy many ills in some assemblies in the present day? Often members are heard complaining about the little place they are allowed to fill and speaking enviously of those whom God has fitted to serve in a more public position. Others, it is to be feared, want to do everything, and seem to have no room for, nor appreciation of, those who do not possess outstanding gift. They apparently think that nothing is done right unless they do it. Others, again, do even worse, for they use their gift to divide the saints by gathering a party around themselves. Is it not clear from this chapter that no one is likely to use his gift for the glory of God and the good of His people unless that one realises that he is functioning in the assembly as a member of a body?
If in chapter 12 we have the various gifts given with their relationship one to the other, in chapters 13 and 14 we have the principles which ought to govern their exercise. Unless attention is paid to these important rules, gift in the assembly, which is given for the profit and blessing of God’s people, can, through its misuse, become a means of their ruin. It is undoubtedly the purpose of God to bless and enrich His people every time they come together, and if this is not the result of our meetings, it is clear that these guiding rules are being neglected.
Both in order and importance the first of these governing principles is “love.” So vital is it that all of ch. 13 is taken up with this grand subject, and, as others have often pointed out, had this one principle been operating in the assembly at Corinth it would have proved the panacea for most of their ills. Without dealing with the chapter in detail, we might briefly note that it divides into three parts. In vv. 1-3 the greatest gifts are shown to be useless apart from love. In vv. 4-7 love is shown to produce proper behaviour in all circumstances, and in vv. 8-13 it is shown to outlive all gift and remain when these temporary provisions will have become unnecessary. Love makes up for many a deficiency. Have we not often witnessed brethren with comparatively little gift, but with hearts burning with love for those to whom they spoke, being much used in the salvation of the lost and in the upbuilding of the saved? The question addressed to Peter by the Lord, “lovest thou Me?” might well be asked of all who attempt to exercise their gift in the assembly.
This epistle to the Corinthians is a striking example of the effects of loving ministry. The tear-stained parchment on which it was written bore eloquent testimony that the apostle was as deeply moved at having to correct their errors as he was faithful to point them out. This warm-hearted ministry contrasts boldly with the dry, wordy addresses given in many assemblies to-day—addresses which exalt the speaker and display his learning, but leave the souls of the saints hungry and sad.
True love cannot be produced by human efforts, but must be obtained from the fount of love—God Himself. It is only as we drink of His fulness that we are enabled to exercise our gift acceptably.
The major part of chapter 14 is taken up with the contrast between “tongues” and “prophecy,” and while it is generally agreed that these two temporary gifts ceased at the completion of the New Testament, we must not fail to see in the passage certain important principles which are meant to govern the exercise of gift in present-day gatherings of the saints. One such principle, so strongly emphasised by the apostle that the simplest reader could not fail to notice it, is that all activity in the assembly should result in its edification. No less than six times in the early verses does he mention this matter. Each coming together of the Church should result in the developing of the saints in their knowledge of God and in their likeness to Christ. It has to be lamented at times that, while what is given for ministry may not have in it what could be branded as error, it is seriously lacking in spiritual vitamins. Comparatively few seem to give time and exercise over the Word of God to gather heavenly food that will nourish the souls of their hearers. Special stress is here laid upon the point that the Church understands what is said. Admitting that “tongues” have no place amongst us now, is it not a fact that at the close of many a meeting the question is asked, “What was brother so-and-so speaking about to-day?” The “trumpet had given an uncertain sound and no one was aroused to the battle.” Most of the Lord’s people are called from the humbler walks of life, and therefore value messages dressed in the home-spun language of every-day speech, rather than adorned with the silken robes of academic learning. Teaching need not be shallow although expressed in “words easily understood.”
A third governing principle which has to be borne in mind when gift is in exercise is, that all meetings should be marked by Godly order. “Let all things be done decently and in order,” is a summary of the latter part of our chapter. Visitors, both saved and unsaved, had the privilege of looking on while the Church at Corinth whs assembled. If God had His way and spiritual order was carried out, such would report “that God was there of a truth,” whereas if the scene were one of confusion they could only report that they were “mad.” In all Scriptural assemblies there is room for the onlooker—one not acquainted with church order but who is usually anxious to learn how things are done in such circles. How blessed it is when they are shown Divine order operating!—not monotonous repetitions, but a variety and harmony like the music that results from the master musician touching the various keys of an instrument. What greater wonder can be seen on earth than a company of simple believers being moved under the Lord’s control! Because of low spiritual condition in some places, two very different difficulties have arisen. There are assemblies where all is dead and formal with little or no exercise, and there are others where a moment’s silence seems to be unbearable, and the rush to take part indicates the restlessness of the flesh rather than the movings of God.
There is another governing principle mentioned in verse 34 of our chapter which has given no small amount of thought to the Lord’s people of latter times. It has to do with the part allotted to sisters. Every conceivable device, even to the extent of twisting and straining of the language, has been employed to get rid of Paul’s clear teaching that women are not meant, nor allowed, to speak in the church. In worldly matters women have been coming more and more to the front until almost every position can now be filled by them. We may well expect the same tendency in the assemblies, but no one has ever met a truly spiritual sister who desired a public place. God has a work for sisters—a choice work for which they are fitted, but it is not the sharing of platforms or addressing meetings. In this passage the apostle refers to the law, and in 1 Tim. 2 to creation, showing us that God’s principles in this matter have not changed during the course of the world’s history.
Although not directly bearing upon the subject of these articles, yet this paper would hardly be complete without making some brief reference to the subject of “tongues”—a subject which occupies a prominent place in this 14th chapter. One fact is abundantly clear, namely, that whatever explanation may be given of the modern “tongues movement,” it differs widely from that which operated in the church at Corinth. For example:it will be agreed that amongst almost all the present-day “tongues people,” women are allowed to preach in public, and not only so, but by far the greater number who claim to have this gift are women. Is this not strange since we have no hint in the New Testament that women ever spake in tongues? It is clear from v. 28 of our chapter that those who have the “tongues” gift at Corinth could either speak or keep silent as they thought fit, whereas in the modern experience the “tongue” comes upon the speakers even at times when they neither expect nor want it. One of their main contentions is that they cannot help it coming and that it is beyond their control. A prominent preacher amongst them admitted that often his gospel message was disturbed by his drifting into a “tongue” to the bewilderment of his audience. The main weakness of the present “tongues,” however, and indeed the most thorny problem for them to solve, has to do with interpretation. Scarcely ever do two interpreters at the same meeting, listening to the same babble, give the same meaning to what has been said. Indeed, in most cases the interpretation is much shorter than the “tongue” and out of all proportion to it. Another undeniable fact that cannot be explained by these people is that not a few who once claimed this modem “gift,” have long since proved to be unsaved. Where in the New Testament have we an example of anyone unsaved having the gift of “tongues”? It will be observed from the above remarks that the present-day movement violates almost every principle of this 14th chapter, and therefore we may safely conclude that whatever, or whoever, may be the cause of this modern strange phenomena, it is not the product of the Lord the Spirit.
It has been argued from Ephesians 4:10 to 16 that inasmuch as the gifts of the risen Head of the Church have been given for the edifying of the whole body of Christ, therefore assemblies of believers, who seek to meet on scriptural grounds, should feel quite free to invite to their platform any gifted teacher or preacher who is fundamentally sound, even though this teacher or preacher is an ordained clergyman, and still affiliated with some denomination. At first glance this argument seems quite reasonable; but the more it is examined in the light of all scripture, and with that “sound mind” <2 Timothy 1:7) which God has given to us, the less convincing does this argument appear. Let us examine it a little.
This scripture (i.e. Ephesians 4:10-16), together with the rest of the New Testament, contemplates the existence of but one Church, which finds its expression on earth in many local companies of Christians who seek to gather together, in assembly fellowship, for the purpose of prayer, praise, worship and the ministry of the Word of God.
As one reads and rereads the book of the Acts and the epistles, a certain definite pattern of assembly truth emerges. It is seen that these assemblies of believers were characterised by certain salient features.
First, these assemblies met only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, they owned no name, but what was common to and inclusive of all the people of God. Third, they acknowledged no Headship of their assemblies, save Christ alone. Fourth, they had no authority for their guidance save the divinely inspired Word of God. Fifth, these assemblies were composed only of professed believers in Christ. Sixth, each of these believers is viewed as being a priest unto God. Seventh, these assemblies were dependent for their edification on the recognition of the fact and the free exercise of the gifts given by the risen Head to His church, namely, “evangelists, pastors and teachers.”
It would be good to record that this describes the professing Church as a whole, to-day; but alas, it does not. We are faced, in Christendom, with the spectacle of scores of different denominations, which have divided the people of God into various sects, each denomination calling itself by some man-given title, regulated by its own by-laws and books of discipline, and usually with a humanly ordained clergyman in charge, who has been selected and appointed to do all the teaching and preaching and the leading of its public worship, and who is usually given the title of “reverend.”
The New Testament does not contemplate this present-day condition of affairs, though it does anticipate the final apostasy of Christendom. While the New Testament makes every provision for the guidance of every true child of God, and of scripturally constituted assemblies of believers, no provision has been made therein for the guidance of a denomination, as such. Even the denominations have recognised this fact, and consequently have prepared, for their guidance in government, books of discipline which contain the rules and regulations that must govern their church policy.
While we freely acknowledge that many of these denominational clergymen are true children of God, and have undoubtedly been gifted by the Lord with the ability to teach and preach; yet their very affiliation with denominationalism, which virtually denies the unity of the people of God, and their acceptance of a special caste of clergy, which virtually denies the priesthood of every believer, should preclude them from occupying the platform of assemblies who profess, by their very existence, to have repudiated both denominationalism and clerisy.
We do not, for one moment, doubt the godliness, gift and sincerity of many of these clergymen, for they have not yet been brought to see the unscripturalness of denominationalism and clerisy; but to invite such, while still associated with a denomination, and maintaining their status as clergymen, to take the place of authority as teachers and preachers in assemblies, which are seeking to carry out scriptural principles, is a different matter entirely.
Let these denominational ministers do what other clergymen did a hundred or more years ago when they were exercised by the confusion of denominationalism and of Christendom generally. Let them search the scriptures for themselves, and let us, in turn, give them every encouragement in so doing. Let them see for themselves, from the Word of God, whether denominationalism is approved, or the special class of “clergy” is countenanced. When they have seen the error of both, and have separated themselves from denominationalism, as such, and repudiated their false position as clerics, then they will automatically find themselves on scriptural ground, and in association with thousands of assemblies all over the world who have both seen and acted on these scriptural principles of gathering. Their ministry, under such circumstances, will be gladly recognised and warmly welcomed.
To sum up: The policy of inviting a denominational clergyman to conduct a series of meetings in an assembly building is to our mind, a mistaken one, for the following reasons :
- Inasmuch as a denominational clergyman is unknown in the New Testament, he has no place as a teacher or preacher on the platform of those who profess to own the alone authority of the Word of God in all matters of faith and discipline.
- It is inconsistent with the scriptural position that assemblies of believers have taken against denominationalism. and clerisy as a whole. Here we must be careful to distinguish between denominations and the believers in those denominations. Every true child of God should be recognised as such, whatever his denominational affiliation may be.
- such a policy does not appear to be an expression of loyalty to those many believers, teachers and preachers amongst the assemblies, who. in some cases at considerable cost to themselves, have taken their stand against denominationalism and clerisy.
- Such a policy is not a good example to our younger brethren. Such might naturally assume that if it is correct to listen to the ministry of this denominational clergyman in his own assembly building, it will be equally appropriate for him to to go and sit under his ministry in this clergyman’s own denominational edifice. The future existence of scriptural assemblies, humanly speaking, lies in the hands of these younger brethren. Therefore, anything that would tend to stumble them in respect to their assembly position should be sedulously avoided (2 Timothy 2:2).
- This policy also tends to generate a spirit of compromise. Certain truths, clearly indicated in the Word of God, are tacitly avoided, lest embarrassment should ensue. Sooner or later, however, these truths must be faced and a decision made in regard to them (Matthew 28:19, 20).
The ministry given by such denominational clergymen is not likely to be of much spiritual profit to an assembly of believers, where “all Scripture” is needed for the full furnishing of the man of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Such men, to be consistent with their position, must avoid the truth of the church of God, the priesthood of all believers, and those characteristics of assembly life described in the New Testament scriptures.
—Condensed from “Letters of Interest.”
By Mr. G. G. JOHNSTON, Canada
The Christian’s sources of comfort are many, in spite of the fact that he is a stranger and a pilgrim upon the earth. In reality, because of this position, he is in special need of comfort. If he understands his place as taken “out of the world,” and acts accordingly, he is made to feel that nothing here can render him the same measure of satisfaction that it does to the unconverted. They experience a degree of comfort and security in their riches, and in their fame among men, which things mean little to the Christian, even should he possess them.
An old man of the world sought to help an aged invalid lady by counselling her to learn to smoke, saying “A pipe is a great source of comfort in old age.” The lady, being a Christian, had a more certain source of comfort, and therefore scorned his advice.
The believer, in most cases, enjoys the fellowship of kindred spirits, and Christian communion is a precious thing which renders real comfort to the saint. It can be cultivated by godly interchange of thoughts and by kind acts. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “comfort one another” by assuring one another of their reunion with loved ones and with the Lord Himself in the air, at His coming again.
Again, in 2nd Corinthians 1:4, he speaks of our being able to comfort them which are in any trouble. This is an art seen in but a few of the saints, and one which we would do well to covet and to cultivate.
Another precious source of comfort to the believer in Christ is found in the Scriptures. Whereas before conversion the Word of God disturbed him with reminders of eternity, it now comforts him in view of the world to come, because he has been reconciled to God. The many sure promises of Scripture, some of which have time and again been put to the test in daily life, are a real fountain of comfort to the soul. He, or she, who rests all for time, as for eternity, upon the promises of God’s Word, has a comfort the world knows nothing about—a real pillow of repose to the soul. Is it any wonder that the aged saint is often seen seated comfortably, with a large copy of the Word of God in the lap, and perhaps with a finger placed upon some special portion, from which particular comfort has been drawn! If that treasure were to be cruelly removed from such a soul, it would cause more pain than the death of a dear friend.
But there is at least one other source of comfort which every saint enjoys. That source is God Himself. Not a few have, for longer or shorter periods, been deprived of the comfort of the presence and help of other Christians. Some have suffered the lack of the Scriptures, in certain cases through the fanaticism of relatives, or because of poor sight, or total blindness, but such believers need not be without comfort. Our God is the “God of all comfort.’’ He is the living source of this rich blessing. Like John, the disciple, we can rest upon His loving bosom, without fear, drawing comfort and consolation for our souls, though all other sources should be denied us. We can go to Him to learn how to comfort others, assured of His willingness to grant us this grace.
May our lives be daily sweetened by heavenly comfort from all these sources, as we pass through what, to us, should be a “waste, howling wilderness.”
ITS OUTSTANDING FEATURES
By Mr. J. C. RUSSELL, Brisbane
The first epistle to the Corinthians has primarily to do with local testimony. The background of local conditions afforded opportunity for corrective ministry, not only for Corinth, but for all churches, for its address, though first to Corinth, is also connected “with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (chap. 1:2). The customs were to be the same in all churches of God (chap. 11:16), and so God’s order, not man’s confusion, was to characterise the churches of the saints (chap. 14:33). The assembly was in a bad condition both morally and doctrinally, and corrective ministry was given to adjust the conditions. This ministry was to the conscience, and it had the desired effect of working to repentance and godly sorrow. But with all the sin, one thing is clear:it still bore the features of a local assembly. With all its departure, the principles that govern an assembly of God were still there. Reading carefully through the epistle there are found certain identifying marks, that should mark out every New Testament assembly.
First—Its name was right. It was called “the assembly of God in Corinth” (chap. 1:2). This is the Spirit’s designation of a local collective testimony. Man has labelled the Christian individually with unnecessary appellatives. He has also labelled companies the same. There is no need to describe a company of Christians locally by any other name than “an assembly of God.” In apostolic days all the saved were together in the local assembly, with the possible exception of the ignorant not yet received in (chap. 14) and the excommunicated (chap. 5). In our day of sects and systems, contrary to the truth, in which are many of God’s people, it is difficult to find a locality where all the saved are together in testimony. Therefore a remnant assembly could never be called THE assembly of God in that place, but that it is AN assembly of God would surely be true if only composed of two or three saints (Matt. 18:20). There is no doubt that the name, “church of God,” is only applied to a local congregation. The plural use of the term proves this (chap. 11: 16; 1 Thess. 2: 14; 2 Thess. 1: 4), and the principles associated with it substantiate it.
Second—Its foundation was right. Paul said, “I have laid the foundation” (chap. 3:10). “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (chap. 3:11). The Person of Christ is the foundation of the local assembly. Christ crucified was the theme of the ministry that won souls (chap. 2:2). Every disciple should be able to give a clear testimony to his conversion before being added to the others. Then, the Name of Christ is the gathering centre. The Corinthians had become partial in regard to God’s gifts of ministering brethren, some preferring Paul, others Cephas or Apollos. This led to contentions, but it HAD NOT DEVELOPED INTO OPEN DIVISION. Such contentions were severely rebuked, as doubtless if persisted in they would lead to division. To-day, divisions, sects, etc., are taken for granted and there is little conscience about it, but how dishonouring and opposed to God’s Word it is! How can a body of disciples gathering on the ground of any distinctive doctrine, however true, or unto any name of man, however gifted, be on a right foundation?
Third—Its object of gathering was right. “When ye come together therefore into one place” (chap. 11:20). They came together on the first day of the week (chap. 16: 2) to eat the Lord’s Supper (chap. 11:20) and for spiritual gift to be exercised (chap. 14). The Lordly Day and the Lordly Supper i(cf. Rev. 1:10 and 1 Cor. 11:20) have been joined in Scripture (cf. Acts 20:7). Not once a month or once a quarter, but once a week they kept the feast. It was to be the united testimony of the assembly, not a matter of convenience, nor of two’s or three’s meeting away from “the place.” Such things were unknown then.
Fourth—Its manner of testimony was right. The absence of any thought of one presiding at the supper, and the silence as to one “dispensing the sacrament,” show that such a thing as a presiding elder or a “sacrificing priest” is a departure from the pattern. The “open” manner of gathering was practised, and clerisy was unheard of. There was opportunity for individual exercise in prayer, praise, reading, prophesying, or teaching. Though there were abuses of the principle, the principle itself was unchanged. Self-will had not then resorted to a clergyman, which is to-day openly accepted as traditionally right. The principle should not be changed—it is Divine—but it should be kept right by correction, and this is what the apostle desires. “Any-man” ministry is wrong; “one-man” ministry is much worse; but liberty for all who are led by the Lord is God’s ideal of ministry (ch. 14:26).
Fifth—It was God’s habitation: God’s church, God’s husbandry, God’s building, God’s temple (chap. 1:2; 3:9; 3:16), where the Lord had placed His Name (chap. 1:2), His authority (chap. 1:10; 5:4), and the Divine traditions (chap. 11:2), including the Lord’s Supper (chap. 11:23). Holiness becometh God’s house (chap. 5:13). We are not to tempt Christ by being idolaters, or lusters, or fornicators or murmurers (chap. 10), but to be holy (chap. 6:19) and sound in doctrine and practice.
Now, the putting into practice of such fundamental principles is the mark of a New Testament assembly testimony. In such a company there is need of Divine power. For this we still have the presence of the Holy Spirit. There is also need of correction where the principles are abused, and above all, there is need of faith, a humble spirit, and withal, individual exercise. But where Divine principles are changed, there is no hope of recovery.
By Mr. A. G. WESTACOTT
HOW LONG it will yet be before the climax of human sorrow, which , will coincide with the climax of human guilt, is reached, we do not ^ know; but of this we may be fully assured, that when that hour strikes, there will strike also the hour (“an hour that ye think not,” He called it), that will bring the Lord again, to establish the Kingdom of God in the world. Happy they who bow to Him now, and put all their trust in Him, for they shall not then be put to shame. Are the confusion and turmoil that mark the affairs of the contemporary world to-day growing pains or premonitions of dissolution? Turmoil and confusion are not new experiences; for generations men have been accustomed to hear that the climax cannot long be delayed; that God and man alike have reached the limit of endurance—one other straw and the camel’s back may break. We do know what men have borne and what they are bearing, but just how much men can bear is known only to God. And we know something of what God has suffered from His rebellious creation; we can, in dim fashion, perceive that its present state must fill His heart with sorrow, as indeed it has ever done; but who shall set a limit to the long-suffering of God?
God created the world of men that He might love it. “He made the stars also,” but we do not read that God loves stars. The objects of love must be capable of love. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him” (Gen. 1:27). But to be capable of love is to be capable of hate. God hates sin. as witness His words through Jeremiah: “I sent unto you all My servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, saying, Oh, do not this abominable thing which I hate” (Jeremiah 44:4). But instead of using this double capacity for love and hate according to God’s intention and desire, man perverted the noblest of His Creator’s gifts; he learned to love evil and to hate God. Yet love is greater than hate, and love persists. Against the black background of human sin God displayed His unconquerable love in the gift of His Son. At the cross, whereon Christ died for men, the love of God is focussed, that from that cross it may illuminate the universe. For herein is love, to go on loving in the face of hate or of indifference. And such is the love of God.
There is a cheap and easy optimism that takes nothing seriously, just as there is an inveterate and unreasoning pessimism that cannot imagine that the sun is greater than the clouds. The description of these last days given by the Lord Jesus corresponds with the fact presented by the history of the nineteen hundred years that have elapsed since He said that the character of men would not change; that wars, famine, earthquakes, and pestilences would multiply; that sorrow must continue to be the lot of men in rebellion against their Creator, Who is also the eternal and matchless Lover of souls.
In many quarters to-day there is a weakening of the sole source of authority in spiritual matters. It is not to be disputed that the sapping of the foundations has been the work of men in honour bound to defend the Bible. At first they told us that the “myths” of Genesis enshrined truth, that though the vessel is earthen, the spirit of truth had made them the temporary vehicle of moral and religious teachings. But evolution is the order, and there is not standing still. Now they tell us that these “myths” must be jettisoned, for after all it appears that there is no truth in them at all; they only obscure the mind and hinder moral progress. Of course, this conclusion is inevitable, granted the premises from which the conclusion is drawn. And yet how often have we been assured that the “higher criticism,” so far from robbing men of the Bible, would make it a greater power than ever before. But by their fruits they are to be known, and where the veracity of the Bible is impugned its authority cannot long be maintained. In view of such apostasy and of the rapidly approaching end of all things, how it behoves us to cleave fast to the Word of His grace, and to bow to its Divine authority in all matters of conduct—in private life, in home life, in assembly life, and in the world!
By the late Mr. FRANK HUNTER
IT IS REMARKABLE that of all the actions of Joseph this alone is thought worthy of record by the Holy Spirit in the Epistle to the Hebrews as an act of faith . “By faith Joseph, when his end was nigh (R.V.) made mention of the departure of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” (Heb. 11:22). “I die,” he said, “but God will surely visit you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which He swear to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen. 50:24, R.V.).
His thirteen years of sore trial and affliction, followed by eighty years of prosperity and glory in Egypt, had in no way impaired his faith in God. He remembered the promise made to Abraham (Gen. 13:14-16), and subsequently confirmed by an unconditional covenant (Gen. 15:18), which was afterwards renewed with Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 26: 3-4; 28: 10-15); and although more than two hundred years had elapsed, and the covenant was still in abeyance, he had confident assurance and settled conviction that at the appointed time God would fulfil His word; and for the strengthening and stimulating of his brethren’s faith he took an oath of them that they would carry his bones when they set forth for Canaan. His tomb might have been with the Pharoahs; but no, to the land of the promised inheritance he would have his bones carried, and there lie with his fathers, to await the better resurrection (Heb. 11:35). “So Joseph died . . . and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (Gen. 50:26).
Years rolled on. the chosen people multiplied and became slaves of Egyptian despots, hard and bitter was their bondage, but the promise to Abram was now about to be verified, “That nation whom thou shalt serve will I judge: and afterwards shall they come out with great substance” (Gen. 15:14). In the midst of their bondage and affliction, when their condition became intolerable, the children of Israel sighed and cried; and their cry came up unto God, and He remembered His covenant, and visited His people as Joseph predicted He surely would, and with an outstretched arm He brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: and there was not one feeble person among their tribes (Ps. 105:37). In their exodus they neglected not to perform their oath, for “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” (Ex, 13:19); and for forty years that coffin accompanied them in all their wanderings. It was a strange spectacle:the dead journeyed through the desert with the living, yet it was a perpetual witness of God’s faithfulness in the past and an encouragement for faith and hope that He who had brought them out would bring them in and plant them in the land of their promised inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.
On the other hand, what a rebuke to all their unbelief and murmuring that coffin should have been, as they remembered it contained the bones of one who had endured trials and afflictions as great as theirs. “The archers had sorely grieved him, shot at him, and hated him” (Gen. 49:23). “His feet had been hurt with fetters, iron had entered his soul” (Ps. 105:18, Newberry margin); who had seen no miracle to sustain his faith, yet had he trusted in God and His Word.
Eventually their hope was realised. The Lord gave them the land which He sware unto their fathers, and they possessed it and dwelt therein (Jos. 21:43), and there they buried the bones of Joseph in Shechem, in the parcel of ground which his father Jacob had purchased (Josh. 24:13) in the plain where Abram had first pitched his tent (Gen. 12), and probably not far from the pit in which his brethren once put him in the day of their cold and heartless cruelty. Truly all this is recorded for our instruction. It would remind us that we commence and continue our wilderness journey with the true Joseph who once died, but is now risen again, and that we are to be “bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10, R.V.).
In proportion as our affection is set upon the unseen things connected with our eternal inheritance shall we regard this world as a wilderness, and pass through it as those who have died with Christ; remembering that this bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus is also our power for warfare; for not until the land had rest from war, and Israel were in possession of their inheritance do we read of the burial of Joseph’s bones. So that whether journeying through the wilderness as pilgrims, or maintaining our position in the heavenlies as warriors (Eph. 6:11-12), the sentence of death should ever be on self, till Christ shall come and glory dawn, when we shall dwell in our eternal inheritance, where there is fulness of joy for evermore.
- “Meanwhile we glory in the Cross,
- As Thou wert, Lord, we fain would be;
- All earthly gain we count but loss.
- And joy to share reproach with Thee.”
“IT IS I; BE NOT AFRAID!”
- The night wore on, and. fiercer grew the conflict,
- Higher the waves, more boisterous the wind;
- And in the boat, a horror of great darkness
- Rested upon each weary heart and mind.
- Worse than the storm, more fearful than the tempest,
- Lay the dark doubt that He who let them go,
- Must have forsaken them, else why this silence?
- Did He not care?—for surely He must know.
- Comes the fourth watch, and, lo, upon the waters,
- In the grey dawn, there moves a distant form!
- ‘Who can this be?’ they cry in sore amazement—
- Is it a ghost, more awful than the storm?
- Listen! He speaks! A bove the tempest’s raging
- His voice rings out, so welcome to their ears—
- ‘Be not afraid, for it is I, your Master’—
- Oh, how it drives away all doubts and fears!”
- —(I. M. Fordham)