The Lord's obvious, basic point in the parable of the sower was that very many who start the race will fall away- for various reasons. Israel after the flesh, the New Testament record, Christian history, our own ecclesial experience: they all shout the truth of this. And as we analyze our own private spirituality the more, we see that in principle, we too have an unpleasant capacity to fall away from the spiritual heights we occasionally reach. We witness a baptism, attend a powerful Bible School, break bread and catch, for once, a real picture of the height of the Lord's devotion for us; enter, all too briefly, into some surpassing excellence of God's word...but then, all too quickly, we come down from the mountain, as it were, back to the normality and humdrum of that much lower level of spiritual life to which we are sadly accustomed. Indeed, we can come to so recognize the regularity of this experience, that we no longer rise so enthusiastically to those heights of feeling, because at the back of our mind we know that it will only be a temporary 'high'. In extreme cases, a believer will cease to even try to (e.g.) attend Bible School, break bread etc.; they see no point in trying to lift themselves up, because they know they will fall down again. This problem, in one form or another, affects every one of us. We fain would know how to acquire the tenacity of the long distance runner, the patience of the farmer (James 5:7), the faithfulness of the soldier on a long, difficult campaign (2 Tim. 2:3-5). There is a something which is the essence of the ability to keep on keeping on, in the face of all discouragement. It's this issue which I want to analyze.
Firstly, remember that God knows our nature; He remembers that we are dust. He knows that we have this terrible capacity to lose spiritual intensity. His most faithful servants have been afflicted with this problem:
- The disciples in Gethsemane slumbered and slept when the Lord had specifically asked them to struggle on in prayer. A stone's throw from them, the Son of God was involved in a height of spiritual struggle utterly unequalled. And they dozed off in the midst of their half-serious prayers. This incident is alluded to by Paul in a powerful appeal to us: " Consider him that endured [as the kneeling disciples should have watched the distant Lord Jesus as an inspiration to themselves]...lest ye be wearied, and faint in your minds [as they did]. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood [cp. the Lord's sweat as drops of blood] , [in your] striving against sin" (Heb. 12:3,4). Time and again Paul alludes, sometimes perhaps even subconsciously, to the record of Gethsemane. He evidently saw in those garden prayers and the disciples' sleepiness a powerful cameo of our every battle and failure; and a strong, urgent plea for us to rise up and catch the fire of real spiritual struggle (2).
- Moses fled from Egypt, not fearing the wrath of Pharaoh; he went in faith (Heb. 11:27). But the Exodus record explains that actually he couldn't keep this level of faith, and fled in fear (Ex. 2:14,15).
- The house of Baal was broken down in 2 Kings 10:27. But soon afterwards, it was rebuilt and had to be destroyed yet again (2 Kings 11:18). There are examples galore of purges and re-purges in the record of the Kings.
- Hezekiah's faithful reign was followed by a slip: in his desperation, he cut off the gold (cp. faith) from the doors of Yahweh's temple, and gave them to the invading Assyrians to placate them (2 Kings 18:24). But soon he bounced back to his normal spirituality, with the demonstration of a faith and humility few have matched.
- Jonah, in the intensity of fresh repentance, was willing to die for the salvation of Gentile sailors from God’s judgment. But he lost this intensity as he sat under the gourd, angry that Gentile Nineveh might yet be saved judgment.
- The Jews in Jeremiah's time released the Jewish slaves they had been abusing, in response to the word of God to them. " But afterward they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection" (Jer. 34:11).
- Jeremiah himself taught that Israel should surrender to the Babylonians, in accordance with God’s word. He himself tried to do this, in obedience; but he was caught by the Jews. He promptly denied that he was doing this, overcome by the patriotism of the moment (Jer. 37:14; 38:2).
- Job seems to oscillate between solid belief in a resurrection and future reward, and a cynical attitude to these things, as if to say ‘If only this were true...’ (e.g. Job 14:14,15 modern versions).
- Baruch, the faithful scribe of Jeremiah 36, had to be reminded later to stop seeking great things for himself (Jer. 45:5).
- The exiles who returned from Babylon obeyed the prophetic call to flee from Babylon and rebuild the land. But once they arrived, they lost their enthusiasm. And then Haggai came, seeking to stir them up again. It's easy to date Haggai's prophecies. According to Hag. 1:12-15, the people responded enthusiastically to his initial message, given [in European dating] on September 21st. But by October 17th, according to the prophecies of Hag. 1:15-2:9, the people again needed to be exhorted to keep on keeping on in their response to the prophetic word. The fickleness and lack of staying power of the exiles must serve as a warning to us- for throughout the New Testament, the believer who has come out of the world of figurative Babylon is portrayed in terms of those Jews who returned to Judah. They were types of us.
- Dear, heroic Peter started out on the water, eyes set on the Lord. But his gaze wandered, he saw something blowing in the wind- and he lost that intensity.
- Paul withstood the pressures of the ‘circumcision party’ within the early church, and rebuked Peter for caving in to them (Gal. 2:12,13). But then he himself caved in under pressure from the same group, and obeyed their suggestion that he show himself to be not opposed to the keeping of the Mosaic Law by paying the expenses for the sacrifices of four brethren.
- If Timothy was the elder of the church at Ephesus, it would appear that the Lord's rebuke of the 'angel' or elder of that church in Rev. 2:1 may well have been directed at Timothy (assuming an AD66 date for the book of Revelation). This would imply that Timothy failed to follow Paul's charge to him of 2 Tim. 4, and that his initial devotion waned in some ways.
- David graciously overlooked Shimei's cursing, promising him that he would not die because of it (2 Sam. 16:10,11; 19:23). But he didn't keep up that level of grace to the end: he later asked Solomon to ensure that Shimei was killed for that incident (1 Kings 2:8,9). And one wonders whether it was Shimei’s words which so broke David’s heart that he later wrote: “Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man…as he loved cursing, so let it come unto him; as he delighted not in blessing, so may it be far from him. He clothed himself also with cursing as with a garment…” (Ps. 109:16-18). In Zedekiah's time, the people stopped abusing their Hebrew servants and "let them go"- "But afterward they [re]turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants" (Jer. 34:11). Note the play on the word "return". By making their servants 'return' to bondage, they were 'returning' to the bondage of sin and selfishness. And this example is so true to our lives- we can forgive a person at one point in time, or in some way 'release' them; but find it impossible to maintain that intensity, just as David failed with Shimei.
- Israel at Sinai eagerly accepted the challenge of being God's covenant people and therefore living in harmony with His laws. Their sincerity was unquestionable. And yet they simply failed to keep up that intensity.
- The disciples kept changing the subject whenever the Lord started speaking about His death. As He hung in ultimate triumph and suffering on the cross, men came and looked, and turned away again (Is. 53:3; Lk. 23:48). The spiritual intensity of it couldn't be sustained in their minds, as it cannot easily be in ours. The more we break bread, the more we try to reconstruct Golgotha's awful scene, the more we realize this.
And so we could multiply Biblical examples, as we could from our own lives. But the Father knows we are like this. His word urges us not to weary in well-doing, to continue instant in prayer, to pray and faint not, to pray always. And the Lord who bought us knew we were like this. His parable of the ten virgins shows how He recognized that all His people, wise and foolish, would all start off with oil in their lamps at baptism, but would inevitably lose it over time. This reflects the pattern of Israel after the flesh, who began their wilderness journey with none of them weak or ill- which in a group of three million was a miracle (Ps. 105:37). The parable teaches that the Lord's true people would realize their capacity for losing oil, and make some effort to refill themselves. The nature of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit in the first century reflected the principle that flesh cannot retain the Spirit of God for long. It seems that the apostles were filled with the Spirit in order to do certain acts, and after doing them they were as it were 'drained' of the Spirit, and had to be filled up again (1). Thus the Lord Jesus felt that something had gone out of Him after performing miracles (Lk. 6:19; 8:46). The non-miraculous work of God through His Spirit would seem to follow a similar pattern. We are " strengthened with might by his spirit in the inner man" , " strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering" (Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11). God strengthens us deep inside to have that hupomonè, that patient endurance, that energy to keep on keeping on. But this strengthening is according to our effort in the appropriate spiritual exercises, and the strength given is not ultimately permanent unless we continue responding to it. and it isn't only a N.T. phenomena; even in earlier times, they that waited on the Lord had their strength renewed, they mounted up on eagle wings, they were made to walk and not faint in God's ways (Is. 40:31). As God doesn’t faint or weary, so somehow those who identify their lives with His will also keep on keeping on- even now (Is. 40:31 cp. 29). David felt that his youth was renewed like the eagle's in his repeated experience of God's grace (Ps. 103:5), that his soul was restored (Ps. 23:5), and that a right spirit could be renewed by God within him (Ps. 51:10).
At our baptism, we died and rose with the Lord, so that in our subsequent lives we should " live in new-ness of life" (Rom. 6:4),. serving Him in " newness of spirit (mind)" (Rom. 7:6). The spiritual life, the mind-life that we now share with Him is a life that is ever being made new. This new-ness of mind and living is the very antithesis of the life of spiritual boredom which some complain of. The Lord Jesus is seeking to merge our lives with His eternal, ever-new life; this was the process which began at baptism. There is therefore a sense in which baptism is an ongoing experience. As we die to various aspects of the flesh, so we come alive to spiritual life in those areas; we thereby live in a new-ness of life. As we received Christ Jesus as Lord at baptism, so we live daily in Him; our baptism experience is lived out throughout daily life (Col. 2:6). Thus Paul spoke of how he died daily so that he might share in the Lord's resurrection life (1 Cor. 15:31). We always bear about in our body the spirit of the Lord Jesus in His time of dying, so that His life might be made manifest in our mortal flesh even now (the use of " mortal flesh" indicates that this is not a reference to the future resurrection). In this way the process of dying to the flesh works life in us (2 Cor. 4:10-12). Peter clearly held this conception of baptism as an ongoing process; he speaks of how we have already been born again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Christ (a clear reference to baptism), and yet goes on to say that having obeyed the truth, we must go on in being (continuous tense) born again by the work of God's word (1 Pet. 1:3,23).
Baptism is a putting on of the Lord Jesus, a union with Him; which is something essentially ongoing (Gal. 3:27). The Lord Himself spoke of sharing His baptism as being the same as drinking His cup, sharing His cross (Mk. 10:39); which, again, is a process. Likewise Peter saw baptism as not only the one off act, but more importantly a pledge to live a life in good conscience with God (1 Pet. 3:21). 'Obeying the truth' is not only at baptism, but a lifelong pursuit (Gal. 5:7). The whole body of believers in Christ are being baptized into the body of the Lord Jesus in an ongoing sense (1 Cor. 12:13 Gk.), in that collectively and individually we are growing up into Him who is the Head (Eph. 4:15).
The ongoing nature of the act of baptism was outlined in baptism's greatest prototype: the passage of Israel through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). They were baptized into that pillar of cloud (cp. the water of baptism), but in fact the cloud and fire which overshadowed them at their Red Sea baptism continued throughout their wilderness journey to the Kingdom. They went " through fire and through water" (Ps. 66:12) throughout their wilderness years, until they entered the promised rest (cp. the Kingdom). Likewise, the great works of Yahweh which He showed at the time of their exodus from Egypt (cp. the world) and baptism at the Red Sea were in essence repeated throughout their wilderness journey (Dt. 7:19). Therefore whenever they faced discouragement and an apparent blockage to their way, they were to remember how God had redeemed them at their baptism, and to realize that in fact His work was still ongoing with them (Dt. 20:1). He told them in the desert that He was " Yahweh that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 11:45). Therefore the overcoming of Edom, Moab and the Canaanite tribes is described in language lifted from the Red Sea record (e.g. Ex. 15:15-17). Throughout their history, Israel were reminded that what God had done for them in their Red Sea deliverance He was continuing to do, and therefore all their enemies would likewise perish if they remained God's people (e.g. Is. 43:16).
The only two sacraments which we have- baptism and the breaking of bread- are related, in that both show in physical symbolism our association with and blessing from the Lord's sacrifice. The breaking of bread is in a sense an ongoing reminder of the same principles which we showed at our baptism. Likewise the Jewish Passover (cp. our breaking of bread) was in order to bring to mind the deliverance achieved at their national baptism. They were even to wear a sign on their hand and between their eyes that reminded them of the exodus (Ex. 13:9); all their thinking and doing was to be overshadowed by the awareness of the fact that they had been redeemed that day. If we do feel that we have fallen so deeply into the rut of semi-spirituality that we can't crawl out, then think back to your baptism, or to the days when you first read Christian literature, bought a Bible, started praying... Try to grasp the enormous importance of that act of baptism: that you were redeemed from the world of sin and death, and that power that worked in your life to bring about that exodus can continue to work. This is why the weak ones among the New Testament believers were bidden look back to their baptisms and spiritual beginnings (2 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 3:3; Heb. 10:32; 2 Jn. 8; Rev. 2:5; 3:3).
We have shown that the Lord Jesus is working in our lives, to bring His ever-new, eternal life into ours. We live after baptism in union with Him, we have drunk of the water of His life, and we should therefore be experiencing deep within us that life which is described as an ever-bubbling spring (Jn. 4:10; 7:38 Gk.). And yet, like those faithful men we considered to begin with, this is all too often not how spiritual life feels at all. The Scriptures fully recognize this, and abound with ways in which to realize that life. The following is an incomplete list:
- Recognition of the seriousness of our sins. Sin has a kind of anesthesia accompanying it; the very act of sinning makes us less sensitive to sin. If we can really pray, on our knees, for forgiveness of what may appear to others (and sometimes ourselves) to be surface sins, just the inevitable outworkings of being human... then we will have a 'new life' experience. We will die to that sin, and in that death find life. We must wash ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit even after baptism (2 Cor. 7:1); by doing so, we as it were go through the death-and-resurrection process of baptism again; we live it all once again. We must even after baptism " put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:14; Eph. 4:14; Col. 3:12,14; 1 Thess. 5:8), even though at baptism we put on the Lord Jesus (Gal. 3:27; Col. 3:10) and in prospect the flesh was co-crucified with Christ's flesh (Rom. 6:6,18). By putting off the things of the flesh and putting on the things of the Lord in our lives, we live out the baptism principle again; and thereby we are " renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Eph. 4:22-24). This newness of thinking, therefore, is a result of serious self-analysis and confession. No matter what your disillusion with Christians and even yourself, whatever your sense of boredom in spiritual life: to rise up from your knees having confessed even your 'smallest' failure, really believing you are forgiven, all revved up with determination to do better... this will impart a verve and newness to life which little else can. But we can only have this if we truly realize our desperation. That we are prisoners condemned to death waiting in the last cell, beggars starving to death, craving a piece of bread, neglected captives left to die of thirst (Ps. 69:33; 102:20; 146:7; Is. 42:7; 51:14; Zech. 9:11). These are all oft-repeated pictures of our desperation in spiritual terms. If we can truly grasp it, and realize that we have been freed, we have been lifted up from our desperate poverty- we won't be passive.
- Serious prayer is of itself an experience which can really wake us up, whether or not we receive a concrete answer immediately. The peace of God fills the mind simply as a result of making our requests known (Phil. 4:6,7). Praying alone in the room, kneeling, maybe at the bedside, pressing your little nose into that mattress as you concentrate your thoughts and requests; the very experience of this close communion will of itself enable you to unbend your legs and rise up a new man.
- True pastoral concern for others that they might reach the Kingdom. Paul could say that he lived, if his brethren held fast; his life was bound up with theirs (1 Thess. 3:8; 2 Cor. 7:3). He was willing to be offered as a drink offering upon the sacrifice of the Philippians (Phil. 2:17). Time and again he rejoices in the joy and hope of others (e.g. 2 Cor. 7:l3; Col. 1:4); they were his joy and hope and future crown of reward in the Kingdom (Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19,20). For them to be accepted at the day of judgment would be his crown, i.e. his reward and expectation which he looked forward to. It was for their salvation, not his own, that he would rejoice at the Lord's return (2 Cor. 1:14). His spiritual life was bound up in that of others; others who were many times his spiritual inferior. Paul " endured" , he held on himself, for the sake of the elect (2 Tim. 2:10). And likewise the Lord Himself died above all for us, His desire for our salvation lead Him to endure for Himself. And on a mundane level; the husband who does his readings a second time for the sake of his wife or children or because a brother has paid an unexpected visit... this kind of spiritual effort for others keeps us going ourselves.
- The concept of judgment, that every, every action has its ultimate result and response at the day of judgment; this, Paul reasons in Gal. 6:9, ought to mean that we don't faint, we don't fade away in our enthusiasm to do what is right. There will come a moment when we will be shaken, until only those things which cannot be shaken will remain. In view of this, " let us hold fast, that we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28 mg.). " Let us hold fast...(for) the Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:23, 31). If we appreciate the suddenness of the Lord's coming, that one day will be our last, one day we will put our clothes on, eat breakfast...for the last time, and then the judgment; this of itself, the Lord Himself reasons, ought to result in us holding on (Rev. 3:3,11). Likewise Paul argues that the opposite of falling away is living by faith in the fact that one day, He who is prophesied to return will really return (Heb. 10:37,38 cp. Hab. 2:3,4).
- Concentration on the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is something which the Hebrew writer so often encourages, in his efforts to encourage the Hebrew believers. After perhaps 25 years of believing (they were probably converted at Pentecost), they were starting to get bored with God's Truth; the will to keep on keeping on was no longer what it was. But because of the cross, because He paid dearly for you, because He is now thereby our matchless mediator, Paul argues: hold on, hold fast, therefore (a watchword of Hebrews) endure to the end (Heb. 3:1,6; 4:14; 10:21,23). For that great salvation will surely be realized one day. So, concentrate personally on the fact that He hung there for you, honour your solemn duty to at least try to reconstruct the agony of His body and soul.
- Seriously breaking bread is related to all this. We can so easily be like Israel, who (presumably, under Moses) kept the Passover throughout their forty years in the wilderness; but never in all that time remembered the day that the Lord brought them forth from Egypt (Ps. 78:42). Yet this was what the Passover was intended for, to remind them of that day of their redemption! They kept the Passover, but never really grasped what it was all about; they never really remembered that day of salvation, they forgot the wonder of their redemption and the future direction which it should have imparted to their lives. And so we can so easily break bread without due attention to the real import of the cross. It is, in my own disappointing experience (and you must know yourself what I mean), one of the easiest things in the world for us to do. The love of Christ will constrain us- if we let ourselves behold it (2 Cor. 5:14); we can be changed into His image, if we simply behold His glory, as in a mirror (2 Cor. 3:18). The breaking of bread brings us up against a wall; we see the two ways clearly before us. Taking the cup of wine is a double symbol: of blessing (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:25), and of condemnation (Ps. 60:3; 75:8; Is. 51:17; Jer. 25:15; Rev. 14:10; 16:19). Why this use of a double symbol? Surely the Lord designed this sacrament in order to highlight the two ways which are placed before us by taking that cup: it is either to our blessing, or to our condemnation. Each breaking of bread is a further stage along one of those two roads. Paul realized this in pleading with the Corinthians to examine themselves before taking the emblems. He saw the ceremony and our self-examination there as a kind of foretaste of the judgment (1 Cor. 11:29-32). And there is no escape by simply not breaking bread. The peace offering was one of the many antecedents of the memorial meeting. Once the offerer had dedicated himself to making it, he was condemned if he didn't then do it, and yet also condemned if he ate it unclean (Lev. 7:18,20). So a man had to either cleanse himself, or be condemned. There was no get out, no third road. The man who ate the holy things in a state of uncleanness had to die; his eating would load him with the condemnation of his sins (Lev. 22:3,16 A.V.mg.). This is surely the source for our possibility of “eating...condemnation” to ourselves by partaking of the breaking of bread in an unworthy manner. And so it is with us as we face the emblems. We must do it, or we deny our covenant relationship. And yet if we do it in our uncleanness, we also deny that relationship. And thus the breaking of bread brings us up before the cross and throne of the Lord Jesus- even now. It brings us to a realistic self-examination. If we cannot examine ourselves and know that Christ is really in us, then we are reprobate; we " have failed" (2 Cor. 13:5 G.N.B.). Self-examination is therefore one of those barriers across our path in life which makes us turn to the Kingdom or to the flesh. If we can't examine ourselves and see that Christ is in us and that we have therefore that great salvation in Him; we've failed. I wouldn't be so bold as to throw down this challenge to any of us, not even myself, in exhortation. But Paul does. It's a powerful, even terrible, logic. Whilst this is listed by me as just one of several ways of getting to real grips with spiritual life, this alone ought to be enough.
- Appreciate the grace of God. " This is the true grace of God. Stand ye fast in it" (1 Pet. 5:12 RV mg.). Appreciating that we personally have experienced that grace, so great, so free, will of itself make us hold fast and not fall from it. Because we have received grace, Paul reminisces, therefore we don't faint in our faith (2 Cor. 4:1 Gk.).
- Personally meditate on the tragic brevity of the human experience. And this doesn't take a lot of time; just some effort. Think back to you as a child, the questions you asked your mum, your innocent eyes in the photos, think how your dad has aged, realize what a large proportion of his life, of your life, of your brother's life, has now irretrievably passed, in the fleeting tragedy of human experience. And, especially, don't quell the tears or the lump in the throat. I don't think Moses did, as he thought out and wrote Psalm 90. Be taught to number our days, that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom and to that which is ultimately meaningful, to those things which will bind us all together beyond the grave (Ps. 90:12).
- Personally reflect on Scripture. See the wonder of it all. Let me share with you something that dwells in my mind at the moment. Despite all the likely previous creations, and the fact that God has existed from eternity, the Lord Jesus was His Only and His begotten Son, made exactly like us so as to save us , humans who began with the first man Adam 6,000 years ago, sent at this time in the spectre of eternity, to save so few. You can only have a firstborn son once. The Lord didn't personally pre-exist, and God went through that climactic event for us. And I have been called to know the saving Truth that relates a man to His Son. This is a thought surpassing in its excellence. But next week, the wonder of it will have dimmed. But if I keep reading, some other facet of the wonder of it all will come to mind. And by these things we live.
And even if despite all these spiritual exercises, we still fail to find that newness of life; the Lord wishes and wills to share His new life with us. He has called us for this purpose. If we don't very deeply experience His newness of life, He may therefore block our road in life with a wall, where we have only two paths possible: to abandon Him completely, or dedicate ourselves to Him anew. He may do this in quite complex ways, but His will is that we should give Him our heart, soul and mind. And He will work in our lives to bring that about.
|1 Thess. 5:6,7||Mt. 26:40,41|
|2 Cor. 6:10||26:37|
|2 Cor. 12:8||26:44|
|Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6||Mk. 14:36|