I trust, dear brethren, that our souls may be directed to the importance of speaking as before the Lord. What we are speaking of is not merely like man’s thoughts and circumstances, but the things of the Lord. May we all keep this in mind.
I would take up in connection with Romans n the wild olive-tree. It is the expression of the character of the Gentiles, who are told, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, to remember that they were “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” It is of great importance to understand the exceeding wideness of that expression, “Gentiles in the flesh” — “the wild olive tree.” What we want is “to have no confidence in the flesh.” We see what the flesh is in Philippians 3. “We are the circumcision,” says the apostle, “who worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” All the character which he gives to the flesh is the “concision,” strictness of ordinances, legitimacy of descent, works of our own: these three things are marked as repudiated flesh, though of a religious claim. They are also of great importance as marking the character of the flesh under all circumstances. The resurrection cuts off all boasting in natural descent. My descent is that I am born of God; John 1:13. We are “sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty.” When we come to look at the fairest character of the flesh in the world, what is it when compared with being sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty? If there were any title to anything in the flesh, the Jew had it; for the Gentile to talk of ordinances, descent, etc., is indeed folly.
When God has settled anything, it is settled. In the flesh we are Gentiles; in the new man we are born of God. If I get out of this, I get out of the Spirit into the flesh. In the third of Philippians we have very severe names—dogs, evil workers, the concision. It is too bad for the Gentiles to come in and attempt to bring in that which has been set aside in the Jew by our Lord. Judaism had proper glory in the flesh; as concerning the flesh, Christ was a Jew. Here would have been the crowning of the flesh, if there had been anything good in flesh. But He was rejected. There was no good thing in man, and therefore death intervenes.
We have the two principles of descent and works brought before us in this chapter. Works never satisfy the conscience, for it appeals to something that is not in itself. This is all set aside, and therefore the apostle says, “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” The character of the flesh is that it is “without God in the world.” This leads us to see the character of the “wild olive tree” —the Gentiles. When the commonwealth of Israel is spoken of, it is not that they are strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope, but the contrary. (See Rom. 9:4-6.)
The point of distinction between the wild olive tree, and the good one, is this: the last was an election of grace and promise; the first, the nation itself which failed. From the days of the fall there has been a remnant according to the election of grace. Abel, in this sense, was a remnant and a suffering one; but there was no interfering in judgment till the flood; then the world refused the Lord, and the remnant was preserved.
Here was interference in judgment, God’s acting in the world; thereon Satan came in, and pretended to be the agent in the good and evil that was going on in the world. Then came in idolatry. Satan, having reduced man to misery, set himself up as God over him. Next Abram was specially called out as the remnant, as one connected with God. The church comes in on the accomplishment of redemption, though its glory is still held in hope, a remnant according to the election of grace, made the deposit of promise. All this is the olive-tree. It is true that it becomes afterwards Israel nationally, and “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” God never repents of His calling, either of Abraham, or of Israel. All our hopes would be shaken if that purpose were not infallible, but (before this) faith is spoken of as accounted for righteousness.
Faith is never spoken of in the scriptures as brought out before the time of Abraham. Abraham believed in Him who was to raise up Jesus from the dead. The character of his faith was, that it was faith in the resurrection. Resurrection alone takes man ruined in sin and brings in something beyond the reach of evil in a new scene—the risen man. We get the promises made to Abram (that are alluded to in the Galatians) in Genesis 12, when he is first called out. There was the first breaking of the whole link of flesh as regarded Abram, and then the promise was confirmed to his seed after being risen from the dead; Gen. 22. The promise was given to Abram, as the remnant called out, then confirmed to Isaac consequently on the resurrection (in figure). The reasoning out of this we have in the Epistle to the Romans. The apostle there shews that the ground on which the promise comes is justification by faith.
The Jews chose to take the promises, not on the ground of the faith of Abraham, but on that of their own obedience conditionally; and the moment they got on this ground they failed. They tried to do some good thing, like the young man in the Gospels, who, wrong in principle, knew not that “none is good, save one, that is, God.” Israel took the law, not on the ground of promise, but of law. The law rests on the stability of another party; the promise rests on the stability of the Promiser. The prophets always take Israel off the ground of law on that of promise. In taking the law they must rest on descent and ordinances; and this is what the apostle combats in Romans 3 and 4. Up to chapter 3 he proves the universality of the guilt of the world, and the necessity of the blood of Christ to cleanse from sin. In chapter 4 we have the principle of the resurrection. He leads us out of natural life, out of the law, into the Spirit of life that is in Christ Jesus. Chapter 8 plants the Christian in his own proper place in the grace of God.
Then the apostle turns to the question of what becomes of the Jew. Has God cast them off? No; their bringing in again rests on the promise of God in resurrection, as we read in the Acts, “And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he saith on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David.” The apostle’s argument in chapter 9 is just this: he asserts God’s title (the election of the nation of the Jews still subsisting) to elect whom He pleases. How come believers to have all these privileges mentioned in chapter 8? Because they are God’s election; the principle is in God, not in the circumstance only of the election of Israel. Christ, while necessarily the root of blessing, is also the object of the promises.
Then there is another principle brought in, God’s enduring with great long-suffering the vessels of wrath. God’s dealings are suited to the bountifulness of His grace. The Lord brings out the remnant associated with Himself in an entirely new character; as we read, “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent taketh it by force.” “If by any means,” says the apostle, “I might attain unto the resurrection from the dead,” and it cost him a great deal of suffering. This is the character which the Lord attaches to His ministry. He came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel till John 9 and 10. Then He puts forth His own sheep, taking them out of the fold, to be one flock, one Shepherd.
What the church has to do now is to pitch its tabernacle outside the camp. We read in Exodus 33 that every one which sought Jehovah went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation that was without the camp. Israel had failed, and then there was this seeking Jehovah, and Moses talking to Jehovah face to face. Christ’s character is that He went without the camp, and in Hebrews 13 we are told to go forth also unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach. Israel’s camp was not properly the world. If you look at it in its moral character, it was the world; but still it was called the holy city. But the believer is now called to go without the camp.
The children of the flesh, or Israel (the apostle shews in Romans 11:7), reckon on what the flesh could reckon on, and are cut off; and if the Gentile branch continue (or have faith) in God’s goodness, well. If I am bringing in anything between me and God’s goodness, I am not continuing in God’s goodness, though this may be only failure for a moment. He who has the Spirit, seeing what the apostasy of the flesh in him may lead to, watches against that power of the flesh that would separate him from God; and this is the right use to make of the lists of the evils of the flesh that we have in the word of God. Continuance is not of the flesh; it does not depend on ordinances, but on living faith: “otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”
Thus the remnant is clearly brought out. Inasmuch as the first remnant was amongst the Jews, the flesh in them turned back to ordinances. Will the remnant make progress? Undoubtedly, though it will always be comparatively a little flock. The majority will turn back to the flesh, and we shall have to say in humbleness of soul, “my work is with my God.” The aspect of the work is towards all—the end towards God. Our strength in the way should be drawn from God only. Nothing may seem to be produced here sometimes in the way of results, but this should not cast us down. Our temptation is to look to the blessing that is produced, and not to the source that produces it, and that is the cause of much weakness. In the Qalatians and other parts of scripture we have this most important and clear testimony that it is mere fleshly unbelief to go back to descent and ordinances—to the weak and beggarly elements. The moment we rest in them, we go on the ground of Judaism. “Ye observe days, and months, and years, and times. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed labour on you in vain.” This was judaising clearly, and Peter himself was ensnared by it. (See Gal. 2.)
The flesh is not opposed to religion, but to Christ who brings the flesh to nothing. The Christian’s character is not to be respected in the devil’s kingdom. When God came into the world, where was He found? Go to the manger, and there you see Him; but there was no room for Him in the inn. If the Christian take the place of rank and honour in the world, it is not of the Father, but of the world.
All this being settled as not being of the Father, it is quite enough to settle what is of man, and the Lord’s answer to Peter on the point was, “Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou art an offence unto me; for thou savourest not the things which be of God, but those which be of men.” This turning back again to Judaism, to the weak and beggarly elements of the world, is in the judgment of the Spirit of God exactly identical with the worshipping of Juggernaut, and of stocks, and stones, and demons. It is contrary to the fundamental principle of justification by faith. This is the reason why the apostle says, “I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice, for I stand in doubt of you” —you have gone off the ground of Christian principles. There he changes his voice, and talks of the old law to those who wish to be under the law.
The remnant running all through from Abel downward was a poor remnant, not having its life below; it had no continuance here, for death must come in, and their hope must therefore be in the morning of the resurrection, for the sentence on the nation was, “they shall never see life.”
I would say that I believe the vine is more ecclesiastical in its character, the fig-tree national. We have the fig character in Luke, where the nations too (“the fig-tree, and all the trees”) are brought in; Luke 21:29. We read of the vine in Psalm 80: “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt, thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.” The vineyard was the circumcision, the nation generally. It was planted to produce fruit, but it failed. The distinctive character of the true vine is that it is judged by its fruits; it is not a question of ordinances.
Matthew 12 is clearly judicial judgment on the nation. The parable of the sower (chap. 13) clearly, to my mind, presents an external operation after the nation had been found to be without fruit. There was no tree in human nature that produced fruit, and then it is said, “Behold, a sower went out to sow.” The three first parables are addressed to the multitude; the four last are the Lord’s own mind about things addressed solely to His disciples.
In the first place the Jews rejected John the Baptist, next they rejected the Son of man. Then there was the testimony of the Holy Ghost that the atonement had been really made, and that, if they repented, Jesus would come back again: all this closed with Stephen’s rejection, whose spirit goes to be with Christ in heaven. Then Paul is called out to carry the testimony of grace to the Gentiles; but Israel, having rejected grace themselves, became the deliberate opposers of grace to others, as it is said, “forbidding us to preach to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sin alway, for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” They would not allow grace to go to the Gentiles any more than they would receive it themselves.
Still, dear friends, it is a blessed testimony to the patience of God that, after the church had been established from its Gentile centre—Antioch, Paul is found at Rome, a prisoner, testifying of Jesus still to Jews, the Lord standing with him and strengthening him in the very lion’s mouth—in Caesar’s household. When brought before the Emperor, there was no dimness of light in the apostle, no hiding that all which is not of the Father is of the world, but the expression of this plainly to the powers that be. God does not depart from His principles, nor dim His light that men may bear with it.
After David’s house had failed, the sentence of blinding passed on Israel. It hung over them through this long period, and was not fully executed until they had rejected the testimony of the Holy Ghost, and resisted the grace of God to the Gentile.
As to the word “mystery,” I believe, in principle, it may be thus explained. There is such a thing as loving righteousness and hating iniquity acting on the conscience: “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance; there is no mystery in this. God could not deal in righteousness with the world. We know how it failed in this. Then the secret came in. Anything that was above and beyond the principle of the law of righteousness were “the secret things,” Deut. 29:29. “The secret of Jehovah is with them that fear him,” and here comes in faith. The bringing in of the Gentiles, for instance, to be one body, the body of Christ, was known only by fresh revelation.
All that is consequent upon man’s sin can hardly be “the mystery of iniquity.” The mystery of iniquity is Satan’s taking the form of God’s goodness, and claiming the worship that belongs to Him; as what the apostle calls the worshipping of angels (referring to something that was not of God), will-worship, and the satisfying of the flesh. Paul was, when he came to be the object of worship, a more dangerous demon than Theseus or Apollo. (See Acts 14.) The way to judge of a thing is by the way in which it acts on the conscience, and the tendency of it is to draw away the soul from God and His worship. The Athenians worshipping the “unknown God “shew the very extremity of evil—the confession that in utter iniquity they did not know God.
Then as to “apostasy,” it is simply the departure from the principle of faith, on which the dispensation is based, to the law for instance, the very taking of which at Sinai was an evidence of Jewish unbelief. God had borne them on eagles’ wings on their way, given them manna for their food, held them up in blessed dependence on the constant exercises of His grace; but they chose conditions of their own, and then departed from the first principle of obedience. “Thou shalt have none other gods but me.” Man’s doing was making the calf. When it was made, Providence, they said, did it (as Aaron told Moses, “I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf”); then they worshipped it. When Moses saw it, he had it ground to powder, and made them drink it with water. This was faith.
The church is set on the ground of faith, on the discovery that the flesh has utterly failed, and that the risen Saviour has to be looked to; but it has departed in principle from being in the favour of God in grace as united to Jesus, and the apostasy is coming in. The record of the apostasy is in Jude and John especially. The spirit of Antichrist is not merely natural enmity to God, but “they went out from us because they were not of us.” There is no hope at all then of restoration. There is unbelief; and is this continuing in God’s goodness? “That day shall not come except there come a falling away first.” The flesh always fails in the deposit entrusted to it. This is apostasy, darkening God’s light. The flesh may have the form and keep up the form, but it will end in apostasy. What does Stephen say as to the rejection of the Holy Ghost by the Jews in that dispensation? He does not refer so much to the rejection of Christ or of the intermediate prophets, but he goes back to their original departure from God in the wilderness.
Church history is just the progressive history of what the church has done when, having ceased to lean on God, it began to lean on itself. This is a most solemn thing. We have indeed “seen the end of all perfection”; but God has given us one thing on which the soul can rest, the Lord Jesus Himself. “He is precious,” not only because He has redeemed us, but if “we have tasted that the Lord is gracious” in the consciousness of failure, how blessed to have something that the eye can rest on and be satisfied with! And God the Father is satisfied there. There our hearts are sure to get rest, and we can get it nowhere else. When the eye of Jesus passed over the wide field of His labour, and He could see no answer to it and could do nothing but pray to the Father, He was able to say, I rest in the Father, and the Father rests in Me, and here you may find rest. We find rest in the One in whom God the Father finds rest—in Jesus. What rest there is to our souls, in the sense of their feebleness in glorifying the Father, to know that in Jesus He has been perfectly glorified, and that now there has been fresh glory brought to Him by what Jesus has done for the church, and here the church is united with the glory of the Father.
As to the remnant, I believe it is properly Jewish. They are those who, in the midst of apostasy, are leaning only on God.
What is the duty of the saint as to those relations in which the word does not recognise him? I would leave a great deal to the individual’s own conscience. Unless the principle were held, I do not see any good in enforcing effects. Many who are most faithful in pressing things on the consciences of others did act for a long time in those things they now condemn, when in principle they were just as faithful as they are now. We must have patience very often with those who do not understand. I like never to sanction the principle that is evil, but to stretch out my hand to help out the person who is in the evil. When Moses had been talking to God, and returned to the people, did he sanction their evil? No, not a bit, though he pleaded with God for them.
As to the fact of what the world is, when we say of a person, “He is getting on in the world,” is it not well understood? God does not own those relations which constitute the world. All natural and personal dependence can be owned by God. In these we have given directions how to act; in none else. The moment this is departed from, you must get another principle to act on than simple fidelity to the service of Christ.
The place of the Christian is that of implicit obedience to “the powers that be,” even supposing that Nero were king; for he could not touch my portion which is heavenly, and therefore whatever the question be, unless it interfered with my obedience to God, I would not mind, for he could only bring me into “the lion’s mouth,” and this might turn to a testimony; but he could not touch my resurrection life. Unless it were a question concerning God’s honour, I would not come down from this principle and judge of what is right or wrong as to the things of the world. We are told to submit “Whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well,” 1 Peter 2:14. Whoever is king, he is “supreme”; for there can be no power but of God, or we deny the omnipotence of God. I have nothing to do but to own what God owns. I get my example in Christ, who appealed to none but God; but still in the darkest hour of iniquity, when God’s priests were interceding with Gentile power for the crucifixion of His Son, the Lord says, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” The power from God was submitted to by our blessed Lord, who committed His cause “to him that judgeth righteously”; and this is our example.
I could not be a magistrate while Satan is the god of this world, for I cannot serve two masters; and if I cannot say on the bench that what Christ says is true, I must be dishonouring Him and serving the world. In the millennium it will not be so. Then we shall rule; but I cannot now, because the principle on which power is exercised is not the honour of God. The magistrate is the resister of evil; but God’s word is, “If when ye do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” I would rather have what is acceptable to God than all the civil rights in the world. The duty then of the saints is submission: I know no other, or I must act on the principles which the flesh recognises; I cannot seek a good object in a bad way. The object must be God’s, and the way God’s.
The Christian, having a new nature, is entitled to judge all things, and to ask, Does this come from the Spirit, or from the flesh? What is the standard of the new man? “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Christ’s example and the Father’s perfectness are the principles on which the Christian ought to act, as it is said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” How have I drunk into the understanding of God’s love? In His having brought salvation to my own soul? And I am therefore called to be the personal witness to the world that “none is good “but God, and that “He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” It is not now, “be perfect with the Lord, thy God.” This has been settled in Christ, but the Father sends me now to present His perfectness to the world. The world is withered in the activity of disappointed selfishness, and wants the beneficence of God. If a Christian gets his heart sunk in the listlessness and vanity of the world, a pretty witness will he be of God’s character to it.
I see the Lord going “about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with him”; seeking not “his own,” satisfied with the Father, and we ought to be satisfied with Him, and not to be seeking our own, but to be seeking grace from the fountain of grace. How can a Christian broil and travail his soul in the things of the world? If the Lord said that there was no rest to be found in the world, it is a foolish thing to seek. There is only rest in Him, who said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Fellowship with Christ in the expression of God’s goodness is the place of the Christian.
Strange to have to discuss whether the honour or power of the world belongs to the saint! As it is said, “that no flesh shall glory in his presence.” What is honour in the world? There is no good in it, but that it be given up for the Lord’s sake; this is the only good that I know of. Let me spend every shilling that I have in the service of the Lord, still it will be the mammon of unrighteousness; but the Christian has the privilege of even turning the mammon of unrighteousness into the expression of grace. There would be no money or rank at all if there were not sin in the world. The person of rank is the receiver of respect, and others are the givers: as a Christian I give willingly; but he is the beggar in the world. I do not say this in the spirit of disrespect; that would be quite wrong; for disrespect toward others is ruinous in Christianity. Still the secret of the Lord is that what passes current in the world is given by those who, having heavenly riches, can give freely, because they have nothing to hinder them. Am I in principle to take what Christ did not? Never. If heaven rejoiced over the Son of God and the King of Israel placed in a manger, what should our feelings as to the honour of this world be? And yet we know how we should feel under similar circumstances in this world, where everything is measured by the standard of selfishness.
Let us remember those words about our Lord, “though he were rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich.”