Or Not Imitation, But Obedience In The Sense Of Present Ruin
I feel a little difficulty, my dear friends, in taking up a subject in which my mind is exercised with you all. There is exceeding grace of expression in that word in Nehemiah, “The joy of Jehovah is your strength.” The mere principle of imitation, as regards power, is very mischievous. When the church has become awakened to the discovery of what she has lost, the very probable tendency will be to seek to imitate that power. Such is never the condition of faith. What the church has to do is to know its actual condition, and to turn to God in the condition that it is in. Many have gone astray in trying to be like the state of the early church. The place of faith is to be cast on God, and not to assume what we have not. This dispensation is one in which the kingdom of God is not in word only but in power, and this must be had from God. All imitation of it is worthless. This leads us to a point of great comfort. While we are guilty as to what is lost, yet God is in no sense hindered by the resources which He had given; He has yet all fulness to bestow on us. The church is cast on God’s own resources. I believe, as our brother has said, the church may find a blessed excellency of grace which they had not at first. This was the case in the days of Nehemiah with regard to Israel; the joy of Jehovah was to be their strength, and therefore he stopped the weeping. Though they were in great distress, and in subjection to evil, yet we read, “Since the days of Joshua, the son of Nun, unto that day had not the children of Israel kept such a feast, and there was very great gladness.”
We find that this was one of their gladdest feasts; they had never had it till the day of their sorrow. Being cast, then, on the resources of God, “the joy of Jehovah was their strength,” not the joy of Moses in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. I feel very strongly that this principle is of great practical importance. Though there is the discovery of sin, in comparing the state of the church with what it once was, yet we have the fulness of God in giving blessing suited to our own present condition brought out. The children of Israel did anything but pretend that they were not in sorrow. The next chapter shews this; they were in great distress, they had no glory, but they had the joy of Jehovah, and they kept the feast. The secret of this confidence is direct reference to the Lord. I am as much entitled to have confidence in God as anybody since the foundation of the world. I can never qualify the resources of God, being limited by nothing but His own holy grace, which does all that we want now. Imitation of the early church is not faith, but reference to the word of God, as applying itself to my condition, is. You cannot imitate power, it is folly—you must have power.
As regards the first part of the question—the source of power is the same in the church now as it was in the days of the apostles, but its exercise manifestly is not the same. “Our word,” says the apostle, “was in demonstration of the Spirit, and with power.” I believe that the demonstration was the external witness of the power, the exhibition of the deposit that was in the church to the world. As it regards the question of the power in the church being the same as in the days of the apostles, it does not exist; there can be no question as to that. If we come to discipline in the church, there is no limit to its power but the extent of its existence. We have not, in fact, the same power in exercise as the apostles had. I see two distinct divisions in the apostolic office: the one antecedent altogether to the church as gathered by testimony; the other did not exist till the Holy Ghost was poured out on the day of Pentecost.
Then we have apostolic power for the church in the inspiration of the Scriptures. This is evidently closed, for Peter says, “Moreover I will endeavour that ye may be able, after my decease, to have these things always in remembrance,” 2 Pet. 1:15. This would have been most monstrous presumption in Peter if any other apostles were to have followed him. Paul, in like manner, commends the believers at Ephesus to God, and to the word of His grace, which was able to build them up, etc.; Acts 20:32. Why did he do this? Knowing that after his departure grievous wolves would enter in among them, not sparing the flock, therefore he commended them to the word of God’s grace, and not to the apostles who should follow him. In 2 Timothy 3 we read that in the last days perilous times shall come (not wonderfully blessed times, but perilous ones); but, says the apostle, continue thou in the things which thou hast learned. The Holy Scriptures were what the apostle referred Timothy to when the perilous times should come.
We read in 1 John 2, “Ye have an unction from the holy one, and ye know all things; I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it.” When the apostle was present even, he did not teach the saints without reference to their competency to prove all things. On that I see the church of God is cast. Then, as regards anything that is called for now, we have not apostolic power to meet it, but we have God’s resources, and there is no limit to them but the faithfulness of God, which cannot fail. I feel bound to exercise all the power with which God has entrusted me, not minding anything in the wide world: there is no limit to our responsibility of using what God has given us. God deals invariably on this principle. He gives to man a deposit, with the responsibility of using it aright. I believe the responsibility of the apostles was to give the deposit, and that of the church to keep it, but it has failed, as man always fails. Moses gave the people of Israel the law; they had the responsibility of keeping it, and failed. In the different characters of deposits man failed in each. God could never propose man’s sin, though He might give prophecies, and shew what He would do when they did fail; so that the apostle could say, “All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” Even before the apostle died, he saw the departure from their high privileges of those who were not their own, but bought with a price.
“God is faithful” in whatever state we are to minister the supply that is needed. Our proper place is to present ourselves before God as we are, and this will always humble us. In reference to the passage which has been quoted in Mark 16:17, if the question be asked wherefore is the power in the church now not the same as in the days of the apostles? Clearly because of man’s unfaithfulness. The promise in Mark is not made to the apostles, but to those who believed in the apostles’ ministry. It did follow those who believed, and that promise was accomplished; it is left in a vague manner, because it was to be the proof of the faithfulness of the church in the deposit that was given to it, and it failed. Paul and Jude describe the very persons who crept in unawares as the object of Christ’s coming with ten thousand of His saints to judge… In the word of God I get the positive testimony that the church has apostatised, and thus, as to wherefore there is a difference between its state now and in the days of the apostles, there is no difficulty in deciding it (though the cause of the difference should deeply humble us). We have failed in our responsibility as to that which they deposited with us, and that is reason enough.
John’s falling down at the feet of the angel to worship him was the very thing which Paul speaks of as the sign of apostasy, though of course in him it was only a momentary error; but it shews the tendency of the flesh, even in the holiest man. The spiritual discovery of the condition in which we are, and the casting ourselves on the resources of God as those who have failed is perfectly humbling and sorrowful, but then “the joy of Jehovah will be our strength.” What was the lesson God was teaching His church when He suffered Paul to be cast into prison? Satan thus appeared to have gained a great advantage, but God’s meaning in depriving the church of the presence of the apostle was, that we might get His judgment as to the duty and state of the church without an apostle. The first great duty of the saints now is to humble themselves. (See Phil. 2.) The first Adam exalted himself, and soon got humbled; the second Adam humbled Himself, wherefore God hath highly exalted Him. We read too, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God,” etc. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you,” etc. In the distinct consciousness that it was God, and not Paul, who wrought in them, He shews them where they are cast in the absence of an apostle—on God.
I do see a distinct difference between what we find in Luke and the Acts, and that which is opened out to us in John 20. The first was testimony to the Jews respecting Christ, as the anointed Man led of the Spirit, having been rejected by the Jews in that character. He is presented by Peter as the exalted Man, and it is clear to me that He was presented as such to the nation, not to a remnant, as we read in Acts 3:26: “Unto you first God, having raised up his Son, Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” But the rejection of the message delivered to them by Stephen, and his death, close this ministry.
Saul was converted by a testimony to the union of the saints with Christ, who appears to him from the glory, saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? “There was in this the direct discovery that, in touching the saints, he was touching the Lord Himself. I do not find anywhere the union of the church with Christ, and of the Jew and Gentile being “fellow-heirs of the same body,” etc., except in Paul’s epistles. Saul was the willing, active, apostle of Israel’s rejection of the Holy Ghost’s testimony to Jesus; he is met on this very errand by the Lord in glory, and made the witness of Christ and His saints being one, and he was the instrument of communicating this mystery to the Gentiles.
John 14, 15, and 16, I believe, treat of the Spirit quite differently, though they have been all classed together. In chapter 14 the Lord was putting His disciples on the ground of privilege on what had been given them, and not on what they had apprehended, and the condition in the latter part of the chapter I would say has been fulfilled, although I deny not that it should have a practical effect over us; but in the Comforter the church has its own peculiar blessing. And then comes another thing, “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit.” The old vine had been proved to be degenerate, it was one dependent on ordinances. Christ, the true vine, was the power of fruit-bearing, and therefore this is the necessary character of the Christian vine; if it were not to bear fruit, it must be cut off. Remark that immediately consequent on this we have the promise,” I will send the Comforter,” and now it is as the Spirit of testimony to the world sent by Christ from the Father, and not merely the Spirit of communion sent by the Father in Christ’s name.
One part of this Paul was incapable of: “Ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning”; whereas Paul says, “Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.” He does not call himself a witness of the things which happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. I see the same thing in the Hebrews, “which was confirmed unto us by them that heard him.” As a Jew he was the object of testimony, not himself a witness.
I find in 1 Corinthians 12, where the various gifts are spoken of, the Lord is spoken of as sending the Spirit, to make us servants of the Lord, and that He is not given as the promise of the Father to children—this was for the perfecting of the saints. Ephesians 4 speaks of the same thing. The apostle, having developed the fulness that is in Christ, unfolds the operations of that fulness in those gifts which are for the maturing of the body. The gifts spoken of here are to continue, because the body can never cease to be the object of the care and love of Christ, let it fail ever so much in witness to the world. The question may be asked, had not the church at Corinth failed, and yet the gifts remained amongst them? No; not in the sense in which the church has now failed. Apostolic power could restore them, as it said, “Ye have perfectly cleared yourselves in this matter.” We there see the exercise of apostolic ministry, not in judging the church’ when it had failed, but in sustaining the church when it was failing. People sometimes speak of gifts as though they were the instruments of restoring the church. But this is a most mistaken idea. For the Corinthian church came behind in no gift, when it was in a most disorderly state, but still this church was not then put out of its place of testimony to the world through these gifts. The Lord had not then said, “I will remove thy candlestick out of its place.”
In the Epistle to the Ephesians we see the blessed source of the church’s own fulness, and that it is the habitation of God, where He dwells; and what we want to comprehend is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and to know that love which ministers to the church, to make it grow up into the fulness of its Head. If God were to exhibit His power now in the church by giving it the gifts it once had, He would be acting inconsistently with His own righteousness in identifying Himself with that which has lost its moral character; for surely it is not now the exhibition of what Christ was in the world. But, on the other hand, if the Lord did not now minister the gifts mentioned in the Ephesians, He would fail in maintaining the blessedness of His character, and the stedfastness of His love to the church.
As to there being positive gifts for ministry in the church now, no doubt there are pastors, teachers, evangelists, as distinctly as possible. One great cause of the confusion and disorder, in which the church is now, is the want of wisdom in recognising these gifts; so that we often find evangelists teaching old saints, and pastors going out to preach to sinners. This shews the confusion which man has produced by his own arrangements.
I could not exactly say that gifts necessarily accompany the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. It is not merely that God has set in the body all these things. If I were asked in what state God made man, I should say, “upright”; but this would not be true of him now. Has every man necessarily a gift now? No; there are many services now that cannot be called gifts: the giving a cup of cold water in the name of Christ is a service to Christ and to a saint, but it is not the exercise of a gift, though of more importance than a gift, because it is the proof of love. Whilst the gift is God’s and supreme, yet He forms the vessel, and suits it for the distinct gift which He gives to it.
Paul was a highly educated man; Peter was a poor fisherman. God glorified Himself in them both. He chooses the vessel as well as gives the gift. God will be supreme—He uses what vessel He pleases. Paul never went to the feet of Gamaliel for wisdom after he was a saint; he was a prepared vessel in providence, filled in grace.
How may any gift be ascertained, etc.? There is not a more important principle than that every gift ascertains itself in its exercise, as says the apostle Paul, “the seal of my apostleship are ye in the Lord.” In the exercise of any gift, nothing can remove us from individual responsibility to the Lord. The Lord gave the gift, and the Lord requires the service. Do not mind the whole church (they are but “chaff”) when they interfere with our responsibility to the Lord. Exercise the gift in subjection to God’s word, and those who will judge, let them judge. I could not give up my personal responsibility to Christ (miserably as I may fail in it) for all the church ten times told over. The mark of the wicked and unfaithful servant was, that he was waiting for some other warrant than grace to use the talent which had been committed to him. People may say, but many false prophets may go forth thus. Yes, surely they may; and what control can you have over an evil spirit? In John’s epistle to the elect lady, we find him saying, even to a woman, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not,” etc. She even was made a judge of the truth. The remedy he had to secure the little ones against the snares of the devil was the truth.
The first thing we want is faithfulness, and real humbleness of mind; each one will then find his proper niche.
As regards the prayers of the saints for the Spirit, I could not pray for the Holy Ghost, though I could pray to be filled with it, that He might so take possession of my soul, that the power of outward things might be taken away, and that thus He might be able to work in me with imhindered power. While recognising the Holy Ghost as having been given to the church, and that therefore He cannot be given again, it is very important to remember that the Holy Ghost is God; and therefore the church has to look for fulness which is infinite, and I could most earnestly pray that the Holy Ghost would put forth His energy (I know not how) in the church of God; and this is not stirring up the gift that is in us individually.
On the other hand as to God’s dealing with His children in discipline, I do not believe that there is such a thing as God’s hiding His face from a Christian: his standing is in God’s faithfulness, and God looks on His people in Christ; but I do know that His people get out of communion themselves. I believe that, as to fact, communion may exist, and people think, because of it, that they have none. The feeling of finding out that you have been far from God is because you have found out His presence, which discovers to you the evil of the state you have been in, which was the lesson you wanted to learn. If a child had been slighting his father’s commands, when he was in his father’s presence, it would make him feel very uncomfortable, because it would bring to his mind his disobedience.
When chastening comes to the soul, it is out of communion with God as the Father, and consequently it is as from the Lord; but when I find out the meaning of the discipline, there is distinct apprehension that it is the Father’s doing—the Father purging the branch; when the soul is restored to communion, there is the discernment of the parental feeling. It is “the Lord” who judges the church. If as an individual child I look to the Father, when the church is concerned I look to the Lord.
The use of dispensations is to nurture our minds into the knowledge of what God is, from whence all dispensations flow, and to lead them to look on to that time when “God will be all in all.”