Up to Bethel
Edwin Fesche presently makes his home in Westminster, Maryland, and for many years has served the Lord primarily in the Baltimore area. To readers he is perhaps best known for his splendid column, The Current Scene, which appears in Loizeaux Bros.’ quarterly magazine publication, Help & Food.
The meaning of Bethel is simply “house of God.” In this country we are in the habit of designating any building set apart for Christian worship as such. The patriarch Jacob did not entertain any such generalism. He had other altars but there was only one that he named Bethel. Here it was that he had the vision of the ladder reaching up to heaven and the angels ascending and descending thereon. After twenty years of exile Jacob is commissioned back to Bethel. Somewhere in the lonely pasturelands of Padan-aram the angel of God spoke to Jacob in a dream, saying, “I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointest the pillar, and where thou vowest a vow unto me; now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred” (Genesis 31:13).
A Rough Road
Jacob’s journey from Laban’s country to Bethel was both frustrating and embarrassing. True, he was deservedly still under divine discipline. Still, we find God intervening on his behalf and saving him from Laban’s wrath. In spite of Esau’s show of belligerence, coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men, Jacob discovered that his alarms were unfounded. Time had healed Esau’s thirst for revenge and we see the brothers embracing each other. Actually if Jacob had been enjoying the limits of his faith he could have been possessed with peace instead of alarms. Was he not in God’s path by obeying the summons to Bethel? At Peniel we find Jacob left alone and seeing God face to face. The result of this encounter was that Jacob was both crippled and blest. His name is changed to Israel. Journeying on Jacob arrives at Succoth some twenty five miles short of Bethel. Here, for some unexplained reason, land is purchased and for all intents it appears that Jacob is prepared to make this place his residence. Along with all of this he erects an altar and calls it El-elhe-Israel (Genesis 34:20). It is quite evident that this sojourn at Succoth is settling for something less than Bethel. For this act of limited obedience Jacob pays heavily. The behavior of some members of his family had caused him, as he said, “to stink among the inhabitants of the land.” Certainly Jacob would have done much better to have proceeded right on to Bethel. The practice of settling for something less than what God has revealed in His will for us is all too common. It may account for some of the disastrous situations that some believers encounter. Jacob was no doubt not lacking in reasons for his decision to stay at Succoth. At the same time it was clear that he was not motivated by implicit obedience.
Complete Obedience Necessary
While still stung by what had happened, we read, “And God said unto Jacob, Arise go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make thee an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother” (Genesis 35:1). God has always maintained a way and place where He will meet with those who seek Him. The particular place in Genesis. was Bethel. Later on it was the tabernacle and then the temple. In this dispensation of grace it is “where two or three are met together in His name.” Today the church is analogous with Bethel for we learn that it is the “habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). At the same time divine worship is evaluated by the degree in which God’s goals or principles are approximated. Immediately we find that God’s standards are in conflict with our base reasoning and preferences. This is amply illustrated by Jacob’s attendance at the altar he erected at Succoth. He was obviously on low ground. Inconsistencies with a wholesome relationship with God were tolerated. When the situation became “Up to Bethel” instantly there was a proper searching of his heart. We find this expressed in Jacob’s command to his household, for we read, “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (Genesis 35:2). We search in vain for such an exercise as this until God is being met on His own terms. It is as the psalmist wrote, “Thy testimonies are very sure: holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, forever” (Psalm 93:5).
The New Testament gives us a whole epistle with the express purpose that we may know “how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and the ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). There are two basic requirements if this “house of God” is going to be visibly expressed on the earth. First, an atmosphere must be created where the behavior that is enjoined can be practiced. Next, that the household of faith consent to the rules or principles. In harmony with this line of thought Paul writes elsewhere, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). Essentially, then, the church is a family where even the elders that guide are but brothers among their brethren. Certainly not a caste with overbearing titles. Women are not to preach or teach in proper church meetings. The figure of the church as a “body” suggests completeness and the interdependence of each member upon the other. Ideally it should come behind in no gift making each congregation a sovereign unit.
The Blessings of Complete Obedience
However, the purpose of this article is not church order. Our present burden is that our local assembly connections will yield to us a little bit of heaven while on the earth. If it cannot be found here where else shall we go? To separate from much that is appealing in Christendom, and even Fundamentalism, can be costly, especially to some. With such a price tag are there comparable compensations? The answer to this question can only be yes to those who give a high enough priority to the church as revealed in the New Testament. It was not until Moses had reared up the tabernacle according to the pattern shown him in the mount that we read, “So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:33, 34). It is not only that we do God’s service, but that we do it in His way. It was allowable for the Philistines to move the ark about in an ox cart, but not for David. For this he was rebuked when the Lord smote Uzza (1 Chronicles 13:9). After this David must have done his homework, for we read, “Then David said, None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites; for them hath the Lord chosen to carry the ark of God, and to minister unto him forever” (1 Chronicles 15:2). It is God’s purpose in this age to reveal his manifold wisdom to heavenly onlookers through the operations of the church. A decided step in this direction on our part would be to encourage the saints to meet according to the New Testament pattern. Not that this would necessarily cause the fire to fall, but it would certainly be a movement toward inviting the divine pleasure. The Psalms of degrees (120-134) were probably sung by pilgrims as they approached the temple in Jerusalem. As we read these short Psalms it is easy to discern a buildup of holy excitement. Obviously it is occasioned as they near their goal. As the local church becomes “a habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:22), experientially will its joy and worship increase accordingly.
Our local churches today, which should certainly be “Bethels are not dependent upon buildings and organizations, but on born-again believers; “living stones” as Peter calls them. They could commence with two or three who meet most anywhere suitable. They must meet in His name. The name suggests quality. We search our grocery shelves for certain brands because of the reputation they have established. Since we are gathering unto Christ, not a man or a sect, we should reflect the name. Such a gathering will have a tremendously attractive power. It will appeal to those who are primarily concerned about God’s chief interest on earth today, His house, the “bride of Christ” (Ephesians 5:32). Attractive as a gathering of the saints can be, it is equally repulsive to those lacking spiritual discernment, or to those who are morally in a state of incompatibility. It was so in the early church, for we read, “and of the rest durst no man join himself to them; but the people magnified them” (Acts 5:13). Here is a good basis on which to build up a fellowship, namely attraction and rejection. An ideal assembly can be a vehicle for evangelism also. Paul contemplates this when he writes, “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all; and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (1 Corinthians 14:24, 25). The local assembly is Satan’s target and the saints’ goal. Every spiritual inch gained will be hotly contested, but the prize gained is worth every contest. “Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, they will be still praising thee” (Psalm 84:4).