“WRITTEN FOR OUR LEARNING”
Readings: Numbers chs. 20 and 21; Ephesians chs. 1 and 2
Our readings often remind us of the custom of New Testament writers to comment upon what was written aforetime. The apostles were caused to make an inspired comment upon the inspired record; and they speak of those instances recorded by way of example, by way of type, and by way of symbol. They used them not only to build us up in our knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures, not only to open out the Scriptures to us, but also to administer the word of exhortation. You remember Paul in writing to the Hebrews warned them “lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief”; and to whom was he referring as an example of unbelief? To Israel, and particularly to Israel in the wilderness. He may well have been referring to such incidents as are recorded for us in the 20th and 21st chapters of the book of Numbers—two occasions when Israel were sadly lacking in faith and belief. We have read the words together, “Wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink”. This was the occasion when the rock was struck and water poured forth to quench their thirst. Again, a little later in chap. 21, they said, “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread”. The manna, the bread from heaven, that which was called by the Psalmist “angels’ food”, they loathed. Upon this occasion, you will remember, the serpent was lifted up, that those who had been bitten by the serpents, looking upon the brazen serpent, might be healed.
And not only are these incidents of warning, lest any should slip; they were also types. The apostle Paul, speaking of the first incident when God answered their murmuring by causing water to flow from the rock, says, “That rock was Christ”; and Jesus himself refers to the second incident, saying: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life”. Now Dr. Thomas, writing in “Eureka”, referring to the phrase, “That rock was Christ”, says that this particular form of words is a Hebraism, and certainly the occasions are many in the Scriptures when you have that kind of phrase. Jesus says: “I am the vine and ye are the branches. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. lam that bread of life”. And as the bread represented Christ, so the vine and the rock typified him; and as the rock was a symbol of him, so was the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness a symbolic fact; and because they are types, we, who are a people of another nation, Gentiles by nature, who live in times afar off, may still consider them as we remember Christ, because they so vividly speak of him.
As we think of these incidents we cannot but marvel and wonder at the Word of God. These acts were prophetic acts. They were historical happenings, but they were prophetic also. Sixteen centuries were to pass until the fulness of time should come, when God should send forth His Son; and what was typified of the One that God sent? “Whom do men say that I am?” Christ asked of his disciples. “Some say, John the Baptist; others Elias; others, one of the prophets.” “But whom say ye that I am?” And what did Peter answer? “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”: and that declaration was the rock upon which Christ and God would establish the church. This One who was now manifested, the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, this One alone was the One upon which the Father’s house should be built; this One alone would satisfy the invitation, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, Come ye to the waters”, and this One alone, it has been decreed by God, should be the One from whom should come waters springing up into everlasting life. Yes, that rock typified Christ, and when the rock was smitten it was a prophetic act, alone to be fulfilled in Christ; by his stripes, and by his alone, we are healed, and he was wounded for our transgressions.
Nor was the second murmuring less prophetic. Israel loathed this light bread, this manna. Sixteen centuries later, Judah refused the words of Jesus, the words which were Spirit and life. They refused the testimony that he was the Son of God, and finally they said, “Away with him”—they loathed the bread. They were willing instruments in causing him to be lifted up, whereby he should become the Saviour of men, to save those who looked to him from the power of the serpent’s bite. They were also unwitting instruments in bringing Christ under the curse of the law. They said, “Crucify him”, and in so doing they brought him under that curse which said, “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree”; and yet in so doing they enabled him to redeem those who were under the law.
Christ’s work of salvation is two-fold, and we shall refer to that again later. It was of a two-fold nature; to save those who are in Adam, and to save those who are not only in Adam but in Moses. Israel were under a double condemnation. Not only, because of sin, did they come under the Adamic condemnation, but because of their failure to keep the law, even in one point, they came under the condemnation of the law. Now Christ could not be condemned by any condemnation, because he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth, but he could be cursed by the law, which said, “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree”, and then the law could do no more. Christ was freed from its operation, and he could therefore redeem those worthy ones who were under the law of Moses, so that they, together with those in Adam, could be saved.
Now the apostle, ma manner, refers to these two incidents of which we have been speaking in the letter to the Ephesians, and he does so in a phrase characteristic of him. When he wrote to the Galatians he said, “In the fulness of time God sent forth His Son”. In the fulness of time one who should be the Rock was born, and from this One should flow out living waters. This One should be the stream of health, and thereby be the means of saving a multitude from eternal death, and giving them everlasting life; and in speaking of this multitude of all those who would be associated with him, he used the same phrase in the 1st chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians v.10: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him”. This gathering together of all things in Christ will clearly be the destruction of all things typified by the serpent: “For he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet; the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”.
“In the fulness of time”. Now what does that really mean? If you think of it, you will see it means in a day marked out, a time set aside, first of all, for the birth of Christ—in the fulness of time God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law. There was a day when the smiting of the rock should take place; there was a day when Christ should be lifted up and draw all men unto him; and so there is also a day when Christ will gather together all things. Between the first fulness of times when Christ was born, and now, more than 19 centuries have passed. Between the two events, there has been a long period of time; and yet there were a thousand years between the time when Moses struck the rock to the time when Micah prophesied, “They shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek”; and there were still 500 years to pass before the One was born to whom they should do this. So, therefore, there is the set time, though it be long, which will come when all things will be gathered together in Christ; and if the time is long, it is only what is indicated by the apostle. Paul says the time may not be short, because the man of sin must be revealed. This man of sin has done to the cross the same things that Israel did to the brazen serpent. Israel in time past worshipped the brazen serpent until, in the time of I-Iezekiah, he broke it to pieces, calling it a piece of brass; and the man of sin has done the same to the cross, and has distributed small pieces of wood through their communities causing men to bow down and reverence a chip of wood. Christ indicated that the time between the first coiningand his second coming would be long, because in the last message to His servants certain ones are spoken of as saying, “Lord, how long?”. And why do they say that? Because the man of sin must be developed, and it was the man of sin which oppressed and persecuted them and caused them to cry out. Those who cry out, “Lord, how long?” are those who have waited; it is the cry of those who have waited in patience.
Not only so, but a long time was necessary for the gathering together of those of whom Paul speaks. “In the dispensation of the fulness of time”. Yes, there is an idea in that word “dispensation”—in the dispensation of the fulness of time. The word “dispensation” really means “the law or the arrangement of a house”. Now the house of Christ must be two-fold; there must be those who were redeemed from the curse of the law, that is, Israel according to the flesh,those of the circumcision; and there must be those who are redeemed from among the Gentiles, the uncircumcision. Now since the time when Israel filled up the cup of their iniquity by crying, “Crucify him”, very few indeed of natural Israel have been redeemed in Christ. The blindness of their hearts has caused them to refuse him, and there have been few who have eaten of the bread of life. Nevertheless Christ did redeem that remnant found in all generations of Israel who remained faithful, the heroes of faith. Then there are, of course, those that are of the uncircumcision, the part of this household to be made up from amongst the Gentiles; and from the time when Christ was lifted up, a few of every generation have acknowledged him as Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. They have called upon His name, and they have been called out for His name from amongst the Gentiles. From the time when the rock was smitten some of all peoples, languages, nations and tongues have worshipped him. We see therefore how clearly the apostle Paul sets it forth in this epistle. I-fe shows how this house must be ordered and arranged of these two great classes. Chap. 2.11: “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world”. That was our position at one time; and then he goes on, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us”. Yes, Christ hath made of both, that is Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised—one. Then he says in v.15, “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby”. That is the law and the arrangement of God’s house, and that is why there must be the fulness of time. And that fulness of time, that span of time, has enabled us to be called and related to these great things covenanted to Israel. It has given an opportunity whereby our state might be changed, as we read from v.19: “Now therefore ye areno more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord”. An opportunity, therefore, has, in the fulness of time, been granted unto us, that we might become constituent parts of the house of God.
And it was a contemplation of this fulness of things in Christ that caused the apostle Paul to speak of the word “fulness” with another application. In Ephes. 1 he speaks of the fulness of times, and at v.23 he speaks of the fulness of his body. Speaking of Christ being the head over all things to the church, he says, “Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all”. Christ is the head, but there must be the body. Christ is the first born, but there must be many sons to be brought to glory. Christ is the beginning, but there must be the completion. So, therefore, we have the idea of the fulness of the body:
the jewels that must be gathered together, that great multitude whom no man can number. In chap. 3.19 he speaks again of a fulness; he says that we are “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God”.
But surely that has reference to the things that God has prepared, the things which the eye hath not seen nor the ear heard. And who has it been prepared for? Those who become part of that rock, those who have crucified themselves, those who have endeavoured to be no longer the servants of sin. Then once more we have the reference in chap. 4.13: We are being perfected “till we all come to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. We become like him, and eventually to partake of that glory which he now possesses, to be one with those sons called to glory; in other words, to be one of those who inhabit the high places in Christ Jesus, the heavenlies. Indeed, it is the fulness of those things which are promised, of which the apostle speaks, that caused him also in this same epistle frequently to refer to those high places in Christ Jesus to which we have been called. He does so in chap. 1.3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ”—a blessing which he associated with the fact that a choice has been made of us, a blessing which he has associated with the fact that we have been adopted as children, a blessing which is related to the riches of Christ’s mercy and grace; and above all, the prospective blessing of being, as he says in chap. 1.6: “accepted in the Beloved”, having obtained the inheritance. And because this is so much in his mind, these high places in Christ Jesus to which these Gentiles, these Ephesians, had now been related, partaking of the richness and the fatness of the olive tree—he speaks of this once more in chap. 2.6:
“And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. We should perhaps read from v.4, because it is so rich in meaning and raises us up by contemplation to the things to which we are related: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus; that in the ages to come (the fulness of times) he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus”.
We are related, then, by God, to high places. What does it mean? The apostle Paul says in writing to the Romans, “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance”, and that word “repentance” means, without carefulness, without stint, without measure. The gifts and calling of God are without measure, and we can see how that is so; because we who are Gentiles by nature have no claim to these things at all. It means also that unto the angels hath he not put into subjection the world to come. It means that we shall be placed in the position of judging angels; not, of course, those angels that are around the throne of God, His ministering Spirits, doing God’s will, hearkening to the voice of His words; but judging those who, in the ages to come, will be taken from amongst Israel re gathered, and will be sent out as messengers throughout the whole world, saying to them, “Give up, keep not back, send my daughters from far”; all those who will be chosen to do the service in the house of prayer for all nations; in other words, the saints will judge, and administer, and have precedence over, the selected ones from the premier nation of the earth. These arc the heavenlies in Christ, these are the unsearchable riches in Christ. Of the One whom we have met together to remember this morning, the One who was anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, it is said; “Let all the angels of God worship Him”. “At his name every knee shall bow”, and in Ephes. 1.19 we read, “What is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places; Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come”—that in the dispensation of the fulness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ.
Such is the glory to which we have been called, and it is right and fitting we should remember it. It is the joy set before us; it is the substance of much of which the apostle wrote, particularly in this epistle to the Ephesians. But it is still future, it is still for the ages to come, it is still for the fulness of time. So what of the present? Surely the words of the wise man are profitable to direct. In Proverbs 16 we have a sentence most apposite and most appropriate; “The highway of the upright is to depart from evil; he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul”. That is the present—the highway of the upright is to depart from evil. Like Israel of old we are making a wilderness journey. Shall we murmur as some did? Shall we look back as most of them did? Shall we desire soft living? Shall we weary and, particularly, weary in well doing? Shall we become rebellious? If so, we are not walking the highway of the upright, and we shall fall by the way. The lifting up of Christ will have been of no avail to us, for though called, we shall not be chosen. But we are not so persuaded of you, brethren and sisters. We do indeed trust and feel that each one to the best of his ability is walking in the highway of the upright; and the fulness of the times draws near. In the short time that remains before our Lord returns, let us keep our way that we may preserve our soul, and so enter into that Kingdom and glory to which we have been called; so be found in high places in Christ Jesus; and so be gathered together when he will gather, as the apostle says, all things together in Him. We shall then become one of that innumerable company who have been saved by the lifting up of Jesus, when, as he said, he should draw all men to him:—W. R. Mitchell