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THE SERVANT OF THE LORD

 

     There is a tremendous emphasis on youth in our day. But surely there is no particular virtue in being either young or old. We are told in Genesis 1v21, ‘The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’, and on the other hand Ecclesiastes 4v13 says, ‘Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished’. The fact is, that like a family, the Church of God is made up both of young and old, and each is necessary to the other. The preacher writes, ‘The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head’; but when we are young we have to learn that we have no strength of our own which can avail in Christian living and service, while when we grow older we have to understand that we cannot rely on our experience and accumulated wisdom, but only on Him. Can we then find any Scriptural pattern for growing up into Christian service?

 

     The first suggestion I have to make is that we should never encourage anyone to attempt to take up spiritual leadership or prominence too young, or too early in the Christian life. Paul legislates concerning eldership in the Church, ‘Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.’ (1 Timothy 3. 6). The Greek word is only used in this one place in the New Testament, and means one newly or recently planted, a new convert. It is from the same root as the word which is translated either new, fresh, or youthful. It can be applied to older folk, but in the main deals with the convert youthful in years, as well as newly come to Christ. The breach of this rule has been the ruin of many, who might have become valuable workers. Spiritual leadership is a God-appointed task, and not one chosen either at our own will, or through the prompting of others; and there is required for it a God-planned training.

 

God’s Training School

     It is interesting to note in Scripture how often the age of thirty is spoken of as the end of preliminary training, and the starting place of actual ministry. We find, for instance, in Genesis, how Joseph as a lad was given a hint of his future usefulness in the fulfilment of God’s purposes. In his immaturity he blurts out the purport of his dreams, and is in consequence rebuked by his father, and hated by his brothers. Now follow the years of training, the dark and lonely journey into Egypt, the fiery temptation in Potiphar’s house culminating in unjust imprisonment, and the experience of dashed hopes through the ingratitude of Pharaoh’s butler. All this time his life was bearing unmistakable witness to the gracious keeping power of God. Then came the sudden promotion to a position of authority, and we read in Genesis 41v46, ‘And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh King of Egypt’. The comment of Psalm 105v19 is, ‘Until the time that his word came, the word of the Lord tried him’. He had been educated in God’s own school and could now be trusted with the responsibilities of leadership. To-day such emphasis is put on the purely academic side of training, of which could often be justly used the comment made to me recently by the headmaster of a boy’s school, ‘To-day we supply information, not education’. All too often we offer the knowledge that ‘puffs up’, rather than the love that ‘builds up’, and this mistake has had disastrous results in the work of God.

     As we examine some other Bible characters we shall find the same story again and again. We are told of Moses in Acts 7v22-23, ‘And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. And when he was fully forty years old (Exodus 2v11, says, ‘When Moses was grown’, and Hebrews 11v24, ‘When he was come to years’) it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel’. His immaturity was instantly revealed by his failure to recognize that God has His own ways of working, and that we just dare not take the initiative out of His hands. This lesson took him forty years buried in the desert to master, and God left him there until he was stripped of his self-confidence, and asked ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?’ (Exodus 3v10), and later said, ‘O my Lord, I am not eloquent neither hithertofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant, but I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue’. (Exodus 4v10). What a contrast to his earlier attitude, ‘For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not’ (Acts 7v25). True spiritual life is always unselfconscious. This Moses had to learn, and God having a very special work for him took no risks with his training.

     The story of Samuel gives us much the same picture. He was dedicated to the Lord by his parents; carefully trained in the worship of Jehovah by the High Priest himself; called directly by God to the prophetic office while very young, and recognized by the whole nation as God’s mouthpiece. Then in 1 Samuel 4 we have recorded the decisive defeat of Israel, and apparently the call to arms had been given by Samuel. Bishop Ellicott writes concerning this, ‘Samuel and the nobler spirits in Israel, who thirsted to restore their nation to freedom and to purity needed a sharp and bitter experience before they could successfully attempt the deliverance of the people; so the first call to arms resulted in utter disaster, and the defeat at Aphek, the result, we believe, of the summons of Samuel, was the prelude to the crushing blow to the pride of Israel which soon after deprived them of their leaders, their choicest warriors, and, above all, of their loved and cherished ‘Ark of the Covenant’, the earthly throne of their unseen King, the symbol of His ever-presence in their midst’. It was not until twenty long years after that Samuel led his people to victory, and became their fully accredited leader and judge. As a young Christian I so well remember an older worker telling me that it was possible to see a correct vision of what God’s intentions were, but to spoil everything, by trying to bring it to pass before His time. I was puzzled at the time, but begin to see now what was meant, and to understand that God calls, trains, and equips in His own way and time.

     David, again, was anointed to be King, and ‘the Spirit of the Lord came upon him’ as a lad. He was then described as ‘ruddy and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to’ but was the youngest of a large family of sons, and had been sent to care for the sheep while his brothers had been assembled for the feast to be held in the Seer’s honour. Soon afterwards we see the evidence of God’s abiding presence with him in the defeat of Goliath, which brought him the heady tribute of praise: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’ (1 Samuel 18v7). After his arrival into sudden prominence in the national life there followed years of hard discipline, and David became a fugitive faced on every hand by suspicion and fear, and at times failure (see 1 Samuel 27). He was in the school of training for kingship. Then we read in 2 Samuel 5v34: ‘so all the elders of Israel came to the King to Hebron; and King David made a league with them in Hebron before the Lord: and they anointed David King over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign’. In this way he entered into that ‘path of good works’ prepared for him by God Himself, and graduated to fulfil his charge. He still had much to learn, as all we older workers have, but God had now trained and groomed him to reign. I like to think of David in his days of maturity first looking back, and then, as is always right, forward and saying, ‘O God, thou hast taught me from my youth, and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not, until I have showed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come. Thy righteousness also, O God, is very high, who hast done great things; O God, who is like unto thee!’ (Psalm 71v17-19). The most important thing in life is that we have a right view of God, and His greatness. Only so can we communicate any knowledge of Him to others.

 

The Need for Maturity

     At this point I feel that I can understand something of what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews meant, ‘And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of ’ Joshua, (Further light on God’s training of Joshua can be found in the book ‘Learning to Serve’ by the same author) Elisha, Daniel, and others who graduated in God’s own training school, and exercised valuable ministries each in his special place in the Divine programme. It is interesting however to note that Numbers 3 which deals with the ministry and work of the Levites, lays down on no less than seven occasions that the men set apart for this office must be ‘from thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old’, which years would seem perhaps to encompass the span of man’s greatest usefulness. However, that may be it is stated in Luke 3v23 about the Saviour Himself, ‘And Jesus Himself began to be about (or as the A.V. margin reads, ‘when he began to teach was about’) thirty years of age’. He matured into manhood in the discipline of ordinary village life, as a carpenter before being finally sent by His Father out into the public ministry that led Him to Calvary, and to the Throne. Whilst we must not carry this too far, and must humbly recognise God’s sovereignty in His calls to service, these are facts we need to take into account. We must realise that some human maturity is necessary in the Christian worker, and, above all, that the important thing is his or her training in God’s school. It is no more possible for academic education to equip a man for spiritual work, than it is for physical training to do so. Both physical development, and intellectual attainment must obviously be cared for, but spiritual equipment is only gained under the discipline of God. Candidates for any kind of ministry must gain their highest degree here, or must fail to accomplish any genuine spiritual work. It is not for the young worker just out of college to try to teach an older worker. Every older worker worth his salt, and who has been truly sent of God, will be the first to admit that he has not accomplished anything like he should, or could have done. But provided that the years of hard work and discipline have not settled him into a routine, which has almost become sacred and he is ready to adjust to God’s will when he is shown it; then his experience of God’s ways and dealings is something from which the younger worker can and must learn much if he is to be useful. Both youth and experience are essential in their place, and kept in a right perspective.

     Shall we now spend a little time with the New Testament, and see if the same principle is in operation? It has always fascinated me to note God’s dealings with the apostle Paul. Here is a man of learning and ability suddenly arrested by the hand of God, and called to an almost incredible ministry of suffering and world-wide witness (Acts 9v15-16). Where does he go for his training and equipment? ‘I conferred not with flesh and blood’, he tells us in Galatians 1v16. A time was spent alone in the solitude of Arabia, and afterwards he went to his own city of Tarsus. We are told nothing of what transpired there. We only know that it was there that Barnabas found him, and took him back with him to Antioch, from which city, after a period of ministry to the Church there, he was sent out at God’s appointed time into the magnificent missionary venture which had all along been God’s plan for him(Acts 11v25-26 & 13v1-3). How different all this is to the hectic bustle of our day.

 

The Case of Timothy

     What we know of Timothy also makes an illuminating study. We first find Paul seeing possibilities in this young life in Acts 16v1-3, and taking him with him to share in his strenuous travels and dangers. In Acts 17v14, we see him left to be company for Silas in Thessalonica, while Paul went on to Athens. In Acts 18v5, Silas and Timothy rejoined Paul at Corinth, where ‘much people’ were won for Christ. When we reach Acts 19v22 we read of a minor role entrusted to him in company with Erastus; and in Acts 20v4, his name appears in a list of men accompanying the apostle from Macedonia to Asia on his way to Jerusalem. The next we hear of him is in the letter to the Philippians, when we get a glimpse of the training he has been going through in these years of continual wandering. He is now ready to be entrusted with some work on his own, and we cannot do better than to read of this in Paul’s own words: ‘But I hope in Jesus Christ that it will not be long before I can send Timothy to you, and then I shall be cheered by a firsthand account of you and your doings. I have nobody else with a genuine interest in your wellbeing. All the others seem to be wrapped up in their own affairs and do not really care for the business of Jesus Christ. But you know how Timothy has proved his worth, working with me for the Gospel like a son with his father’ (Philippians 2v19-23, J. B. Phillips’ version). Here education, not just information, has been imparted, and a relationship established between teacher and pupil about which we know little to-day. The story is finally completed in Paul’s letter to Timothy, who is now in a position of independent leadership: ‘As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do’ (1 Timothy 1v3-4). This was indeed a delicate task, and one far beyond the ability of anyone who did not know the leading of the Spirit. Then in 1 Timothy 4v12, we meet with another exhortation: ‘Let no man despise thy youth; be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.’ This is a high standard, but one who had set so high a standard himself had every right to demand the same from his younger worker. Finally, in his last loving message to his ‘own son in the faith’, the apostle sets before him the full scope of his ministry, and gives him a final solemn charge which sounds down the ages like a trumpet-call: ‘I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom, preach the word, be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine.’ This is no task to entrust to a novice. It can only be carried through by a man mature in Christ.

 

God’s Work done in His Way

     J. Hudson Taylor once used an expression that is deeply significant. He spoke of ‘God’s work, done in God’s way’. Is there not a thought here which merits the closest consideration? Christian life and ministry can never be judged from the angle of our fallen mental powers; and to seek to work for God without knowing His ways and His will is folly. In the same way, to seek to train men for His service without grasping these great principles just does not make sense. Shall we examine again in thought the method used to prepare these men for their task? We shall follow Joseph into prison, Moses into the desert, Samuel into defeat, David into outlawry, Timothy into constant labour and peril. God was fashioning character, just as to-day He has to break our dependence on our natural powers, in order that we may learn to work as He works, and in His way. God accomplishes His purposes in redemption by the Cross, and not by massing the forces of human learning and ability on His side. The law of life out of death stands for all time (John 12v24-26). We who are older should know this, and are responsible that our young people are not given a completely erroneous idea of Christian life and service. We can only lead them along a path in which we ourselves walk; and must, whatever it costs, turn away from mere human methods, however good they may seem to be, and throw ourselves utterly upon the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the Word. The story of the five young missionaries who gave their lives to reach the Auca Indians has been told and re-told. Was this waste? It would seem rather to have been the means of opening the door into these dark lives. Is the secret to be found in a passage written by Roger Youderian, one of the five? ‘I will die to self. I will begin to ask God to put me in a service of constant circumstances where to live Christ I must die to self. I will be alive unto God, that I may learn to love Him with my heart, mind, soul and body.’ Does not the same spirit breathe through Betty Stam’s ‘covenant’ with God, a copy of which I have long carried in my Bible: ‘Lord, I give up all my own plans and purposes, all my own desires and hopes, and accept Thy will for my life. I give myself, my life, my all, utterly to Thee to be Thine for ever. Fill me with Thy Holy Spirit. Use me as Thou wilt; send me where Thou wilt; work out Thy whole will in my life at any cost, now and for ever’? This was made at the beginning of the path that led to a martyr’s crown. Or again, a brief paragraph taken from The Millions for September 1964, from a note from a girl in modern China: ‘I am gladly and willingly walking the Calvary Road and bearing my Cross for Him. It is only this kind of life which is fully satisfying and is not in vain.’ Here are seen the heart purposes of young people who did not live in the long distant past.

 

A Question of Priorities

     This is a question of priorities. Physical fitness is good and necessary except as God decrees otherwise. Learning, scholarship, and ability in the affairs of this life have great value in their own sphere. But the work of God demands spiritual qualities which are only gained by the training and gifts of God. Here we are on a new level altogether. ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3v6). Therefore ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth (discerneth) all things’ (1 Corinthians 2v14). A whole new approach to life cannot be learnt in five minutes; every life we have examined tells the same story. The Christian worker has, in fact, a lifelong education before him, which seems particularly to demand discipline in younger years. I have often been impressed by the way in which Elijah dealt with Elisha as his translation drew near. Three times he seems to suggest that his successor goes no further. Each time the test calls forth the lovely response: ‘As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee’ (2 Kings 2). The Lord Jesus Himself dealt with men in the same way. Do you remember the scribe who was so mightily stirred by what he had seen of the miracles, and heard of the teaching of Jesus that he said: ‘Master, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest’ ? What an unexpected answer he received! ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head’ (Matthew 8v19-20). Richard Glover says about this incident: ‘Christ does not welcome him at once. The expression of intention, instead of the utterance of a request, indicates too much consciousness of the greatness of the sacrifice he is making and service he is offering. From his tone, one gathers that he is impulsive; and that he had some difficulty in making up his mind, and had been helped to it at last by observing the popularity of Jesus. Full of yearning as the Saviour is for the love and service of men, He cannot accept a patronising service, which, because it is so, is sure to break down, when a word of instruction and warning may quiet the excitement, and secure afterwards a whole-hearted consecration. The Saviour, therefore, destroys the illusions, and leaves the offer of service neither refused nor accepted.’

     When thinking of training for any kind of ministry, I often turn to C.H.Spurgeon’s ‘Lectures to my Students’. In one of these he deals with ‘The Call to the Ministry’, and speaking particularly of the pastorate says: ‘Mere ability to edify, and aptness to teach is not enough there must be other talents to complete the pastoral character. Sound judgment and solid experience must instruct you; gentle manners and loving affections must sway you; firmness and courage must be manifest; and tenderness and sympathy must not be lacking. Gifts administrative in ruling well will be as requisite as gifts instructive in teaching well. You must be fitted to lead, prepared to endure, and able to persevere. In grace you should be head and shoulders above the rest of the people, able to be their father and counsellor.’ How can you and I reach such a level? This is the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind’ (2 Timothy 1v7). He takes us into His school, and first we have to unlearn. We have to see that our natural wisdom is foolishness in the things of God; that our righteousnesses are as ‘filthy rags’ before Him; that our natural strength will fail us; in other words, that we are and have nothing of value to God. We must draw all from Him. Then we begin to accept the Cross as the place where self has been dealt with, and to learn to say from the heart: ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh’ (Galatians 5v24). At this point we begin to qualify for our life service, during which we always have deeper lessons to master. We have at any rate begun to learn the one central lesson that we have nothing except in Him, and to find also that we are able to tune our praise in harmony with the final verses of Isaiah 40: ‘Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding, He giveth power to the faint, and to him that hath no might He increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew (change) their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’