"Looking carefully ... lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one mess of meat sold his own birthright [Lit. his firstborn rights]. For ye know how that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected: (for he found no place of repentance), though he sought it [the blessing] diligently with tears" (Heb. 12:16,17).
HIGH, indeed, is the standing conferred in New Testament salvation; deep, however, can be the downfall. Therefore in every sound Christian life to joy must be added seriousness, to thankfulness responsibility, to confidence carefulness. For this reason there are so many warnings in Hebrews. One of the most impressive is that with reference to Esau.
"Look carefully ... lest there be ... any profane person, as Esau, who for one mess of meat sold his own birthright. For ye know how that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected (for he found no place of repentance) [i.e. change of mind, altering of his father's decision, cancelling, annulment], though he sought it [the blessing, by means of a change of his father's decision] diligently with tears" (Heb. 12:16,17).
Esau was the firstborn of Isaac. The writer of this letter is drawing the attention of his readers to their privileges, their responsibilities, and their dangers by referring to Esau's behaviour and its outcome. The chief object of this reference is to warn them. But the full weight of this warning is felt only through consideration of Esau's original high position.
The first readers of Hebrews knew well, as Jews by birth, what were the privileges of the firstborn son. The term is used in the New Testament as a picture of the high position of honour of the members of the church of Christ, indeed of Christ Himself. In the context of Hebrews 12 the full possession and enjoyment of the heavenly privilege of the firstborn is the equivalent of the victor's prize in the race, when the runner in the arena of faith shall have reached the glorious goal.
Pre-eminently and in a quite unique manner it is CHRIST Who is the Firstborn. This glory of His radiates from the New Testament revelation in a threefold way.
He is "the Firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15). This is His position of honour as seen from the past, Christ, being the "Firstborn" from the beginning, as "son" before and above all creatures.
He is "the Firstborn from the dead" (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). This is His position of honour in the present, which He holds as the Risen One Who possesses the "pre-eminence" as "Head" of His body, the church.
He is "the Firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29). This will be His position of honour in the eternal future when He shall be revealed as the glorified Redeemer of His glorified redeemed (Heb. 1:6).
Thus the New Testament witness to Christ as the Firstborn refers to all the three periods of time during the whole course of the history of salvation. It shows Him at the same time as the highest dignitary in all spheres of Divine revelation: in the kingdom of creation, in the kingdom of redemption, in the kingdom of perfection. Wherever we look, Christ is the Firstborn. "Let us look unto Jesus! "
Furthermore, the word "firstborn" is used in order to express the special position of grace of the CHURCH. So the letter to the Hebrews, after having spoken of the "birthright" of Esau and having drawn certain conclusions from it for New Testament readers, adds only a few sentences later: "Ye have come . . . to the church of the firstborn [ones] who are enrolled in heaven" (Heb. 12:22,23). And James in his epistle declares: "Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures" (James 1:18).
Both these letters were in the first place addressed to Jewish Christian readers. Thus the word "birthright" must be explained and understood by reference to its Old Testament sense.
The chief emphasis lies not so much on the order of birth with respect to time but rather to rank and dignity. Otherwise it would not be possible (which however the Old Testament in fact does) to speak of a man being "made" the "firstborn" at a time long after his birth. "He shall cry unto Me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation) I also will make him my Firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth" (Psa. 89:26-28). And in the reverse sense it would not be possible for one who, from the view-point of time, was born as the first son, to lose this birthright at some later occasion under given circumstances (cf. Reuben: I Chron. 5:1,2, and Esau).
The fact that the essential idea of being "firstborn" is priority of rank, not accident of birth, is shown also in I Chron. 26:10. This passage mentions that of a certain family of Levites one of the sons, called Shimri, was the chief, for "though he was not the firstborn yet his father made him chief." Also here the underlying principle is that in regular cases the firstborn would have been the chief and thus possess the priority of rank. The same truth is the force of Col. 1:15. There Paul says that Christ is "the Firstborn of all creation", not meaning that He was the first in time to be born and so had a beginning, but that He has the pre-eminence as the Ruler of the whole universe.
The word for "birthright" is, in the text of Hebrews, in the plural (Gk. to prototokia, neuter plural). Also in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word for "birthright," used in Gen. 25:31,34, is a plural term. This indicates that the blessing of the birthright is a plurality. It should be rendered "the rights of the firstborn." According to the social order of the Old Testament, and also from the viewpoint of the general history of salvation, this blessing is threefold:
position of authority,
a double portion of the inheritance.
I. THE RIGHTS OF THE FIRSTBORN IN ISRAEL
1. The position of authority. After the father, the firstborn was the representative of authority in the family. He was "lord" over his younger brothers (cf. Gen. 27:37). Thus David's eldest brother "commanded" David his younger brother to go to a family sacrifice to Bethlehem, which fact even king Saul and his son Jonathan were expected to acknowledge as a sufficient reason for David not appearing at even the king's table, in spite of the fact that he had been invited and ought to attend (I Sam. 20:27,29). At table the sons of an Israelitic household sat according to age and rank, "the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth" (Gen. 43:33; cf. also Gen. 48:14,17-19).
2. Priestly service. At the same time the above-mentioned incident from the life of David shows that the eldest brother, the "firstborn" of the family, saw to the ordering of the family sacrifice, that is, he had to act as household priest. Above all, moreover, the great general lines and governing connexions in the Old Testament and in the universal history of salvation show that birthright and priesthood belong together.
According to the plan of God, Israel should have become God's "firstborn" among the nations (Ex. 4:22). At the same time Israel was appointed to be God's own possession from among all peoples, "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5,6). As God's reaction to the outrage of Pharaoh, who intended to wipe out Israel and thus destroy God's "firstborn son," it was determined by God that the firstborn of Egypt, man and beast, should be destroyed. "Thus saith Jehovah, Israel is My son, My firstborn ... and thou hast refused to let him go: behold, I will slay thy son, thy firstborn" (Ex. 4:22,23).
Because God then spared the Israelite firstborn at the passover He ordered that every Jewish firstborn male was to be regarded as dedicated to Him in a special sense. Thus dedication to Jehovah and the birthright of the firstborn, including duties and privileges, were fundamentally bound up with one another. And to possess the birthright meant that one was at the same time separated unto holy service, that is, for the priesthood. After the worship of the golden calf in the wilderness, and as reward for the uncompromising attitude of the tribe of Levi on the side of God (Ex. 32:26-29), God transferred to the tribe of Levi this portion of dedication and priesthood which up to that time had been the obligation and privilege of every Israelite firstborn son. "For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are Mine ... on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself. And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel . . . to do the service of the children of Israel in the tent of meeting [tabernacle] " (Num. 8:17-19; 3:12,44,45).
This is the general and special historical presupposition and connexion in revealed history of the calling of the tribe of Levi to the priesthood. In the background of this special election of Levi there stands the national position of Israel as God's firstborn son, as well as the fundamental relationship between birthright and ordination to the priesthood. But also after this special calling of Levi there remained a certain kind of house and family priesthood of every firstborn Israelite, even though the service in the temple was the exclusive duty of Levi.
The third blessing of the birthright was:
3. A double portion of the inheritance. According to the clear instructions laid down in the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelite father had to give to his firstborn, no matter what the family circumstances were in detail, "a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his" (Deut. 21:15-17). This means that if, for example, a father had four sons, his total possessions had to be divided into five parts and the firstborn received two parts and every other son one.
Very important developments in the total history of salvation are connected with and resulting from these three main ordinances of the Israelite birthright.
Among the twelve tribes of Jacob, Reuben owned the birthright. But in spite of this the Messiah is not "the lion of the tribe of Reuben." For Reuben was divested of the rights of the firstborn on account of his shameful sin recounted in Gen. 35:22, and lost therefore also the right of the Messiah coming in his family: the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright (I Chron. 5:1). He was deprived of all privileges and should "not have the excellency" (Gen. 49:3,4). The next following brothers, Simeon and Levi, were also excluded (Gen. 49:5-7) on account of their outrageous deed in Sichem (Gen. 34:25).
For all these reasons Reuben's privilege of birthright was divided up as follows:
(a) The double portion of the inheritance was given to Joseph and was divided and transferred to his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh, so that each of these received the area of a whole tribal territory (I Chron. 5:1). This is the reason why these two, who were actually only grandsons of Jacob, were thus treated as though they had been sons of the patriarch, and therefore in the same way as their father's brothers. As Jacob had ordained: "Ephraim and Manasseh are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine" (Gen. 48:5).
(b) The priesthood was given to Levi. At the same time by this means the judgment of dispersion which was inflicted on Levi (Gen. 49:5-7), according to which on account of his outrage in Sichem (Gen. 14:25), he should receive no defined area in the Promised Land, was transformed into a blessing, for although this judgment of dispersion was outwardly upheld, Levi's offspring received 48 cities which were scattered all over the country within reach of every Israelite (Num. 35:1-7; Josh. 21:1ff, esp. 41).
(c) The position of authority and rule fell to Judah, Jacob's fourth son. "Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the prince" (I Chron. 5:2). Thus the tribe of Judah became the royal tribe, which at once carried a Messianic significance. "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh [the hero, Christ] come; and unto Him shall the obedience of the peoples be" (Gen. 49:10).
In consequence of all these pre-developments, and the corresponding Divine decisions, the Messiah is not "the lion of the tribe of Reuben," as otherwise would have been expected, but "the lion of the tribe of Judah" (Rev. 5:5).
Also in the future kingdom of God the division and transference of Reuben's birthright will remain unchanged forever. Christ, the Messianic King, will be out of the house of Judah, the priesthood in Israel will be in the family of Zadok the Levite (Ezek. 48:11), and Ephraim and Manasseh, the descendants of Joseph, will hold their double portion.
This whole connexion reveals the immense importance of the Israelite privileges of the firstborn. They influenced and shaped the most decisive lines of history in the whole Old Testament development of revelation right on into the New Testament history of salvation and the coming kingdom of God. This is true
Levi, the priestly tribe, receiving no defined tribal area,
but 48 holy cities scattered all over the country;
Judah receiving the kingship and leadership in Israel;
the royal house of David coming out of Judah (Matt. 1:2-7; Luke 3:31-34);
prophetically and Messianically:
Christ the Messiah arising from Judah and not from Reuben or Simeon or Levi.
Thus the Israelite birthright is the God-appointed, historical basis and starting-point not only for temporal, personal, family, and national affairs but also for the realization of universal, indeed, eternal principles in the worship of God, inspiration, prophecy, and the Messianic Kingdom.
II. THE BIRTHRIGHT OF THE CHURCH
The Great Opportunity
Seen from the point of view of the New Testament, all this is symbolic and typical language pointing to the spiritual possessions of the church. By the church being called the "assembly of the firstborn which is written in heaven" (Heb. 12:23), in connexion with these Old Testament ordinances of the birthright, a threefold spiritual possession is indicated:
outstanding and glorious fullness of heavenly blessings,
spiritual and heavenly priesthood, and
God-given kingship and rule.
Every thoughtful Jewish Christian reader of the letter to the Hebrews and of the letter of James would clearly recognize this.
That in this Scripture under the term "the firstborn" men (not angels or other beings in the spiritual world) are meant, is proved by the additional "whose names are enrolled in heaven" and by reference to the Lord's word to His disciples: "Rejoice because your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20), as well as by Paul describing his fellow-labourers as those "whose names are in the book of life" (Phil. 4:3).
But as regards this threefold content of the birthright, the New Testament reality far exceeds the Old Testament type. Everything is much more inclusive, more spiritual, more heavenly.
I. The New Testament fullness of blessing. Unsearchable are the riches of Christ which are the privilege of the church (Eph. 3;8,10). Its standing is far higher than the standing of Israel as a nation. The heavenly blessings of the New Testament church exceed all the earthly blessings of the Old Testament covenant people. The "church of the firstborn" has here indeed a "double portion" in blessing, yea, far more than that. The New Covenant mightily surpasses the Old Covenant (Heb. 8; II Cor. 3). The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than the greatest under the dispensation of the Law (Matt. 11:11). Blessed therefore are our eyes for they see, and our ears for they hear what prophets and righteous men of Old Testament times did not see or hear (Matt. 13:16,17). "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies [lit.] in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).
Thus in Christ a salvation has arisen which outshines, as the Sun of Eternity, all previous revelations of God. In Him full salvation is come. All the riches of heaven are opened up. As Saviour, Christ is more than a mere Healer or Physician of soul and body (cf. Luke 4:23). He is more than a mere Overcomer of spiritual, moral and physical hindrances in individuals and nations. As Saviour and Redeemer He does not merely annul the debts, bringing the "minus" to the point "nought"; He does not merely remove the negative in taking away all damage and loss; but He gives at the same time an overwhelming positive value which a millionfold surpasses the "point nought" and raises us up to overflowing joy of life (Eph. 1:18; John 10:10,11), to inexhaustible rejoicing (Phil. 4:4), to power to live a victorious life (Rom. 8:37), to true dignity in our personality (I Pet. 2:9; Eph. 4:1), in fact, to everlasting fulfilment of the true nobility of man.
" Salvation," within the meaning of the New Testament, is therefore the same as "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8). It is the sphere of activity of the Risen One, the sum total of His mighty works here below. As Saviour, Christ is the One who brings salvation, the Victor over all powers of darkness, the Sun which radiates all energies for generating new life, the One who brings to us the triumphant, eternal Kingdom of God (John 4:42; 3:16; I John 4:14).
Thus in the explanation of the title "Saviour" it is not enough to consider only the etymological root of the Greek word soter from sozein (to heal, to make sound, cf. Matt. 9:21,22; Mark 5:23; 6:56). The etymology of a word is never sufficient to decide its usage and sense. Where healing of the sick is described in the New Testament usually quite another word is used (Gk. therapeuein, e.g., Matt. 4:24; Mark 3:10, which occurs in over 35 passages in the Gospels). But the Biblical word " Saviour" (soter), although including the idea of healing, yet surpasses that meaning.
2. The New Testament priesthood. But still more: every one of these "millionaires of heaven" is, according to God's call, a priest of the Highest. "He [Christ] has made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto His God and Father" (Rev. 1:6).
What does this involve?
There is a superficial and thoughtless manner of speaking of the general priesthood of the church as though it were already present in a local church when the latter has no appointed minister or ordained pastor to serve it. Whereas the New Testament nowhere declares that the general priesthood is fulfilled in any form of church organization or order of service. On the contrary, a local church may have an ordained minister and yet at the same time exercise in principle the general priesthood. A local church may have general freedom of speech and yet in practice miss the real priesthood of all believers. General priesthood and general freedom of speech are by no means identical. In God's church there exists no general freedom of speech but only freedom of the Spirit, who distributes the gifts and guides as to their administration according to His own will and control.
The expression "general priesthood," in the literal combination of these two words "general" and "priesthood," is not to be found in the Scriptures. It arose during the time of the Reformation in contrast to the distinction between "priests" and "laymen" in the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible speaks of a "royal" priesthood (I Pet. 2:9; Ex. 19:6) and of a "holy" priesthood (I Pet. 2:5).
In opposition to the Roman Catholic system of a special priestly hierarchical caste, the Reformers emphasized the spiritual and positional equality of all true believers in Christ before God and in the church. And quite rightly so. Thus the expression "general priesthood" is correct and certainly Biblical as to its meaning, although not found literally in Scriptures.
Only one must be careful not to interpret it purely negatively, that is, as merely denying clericalism, or regarding it chiefly from the view-point of church organization, order of ministry, and the practice of the preaching of the word-as if the "general priesthood" in its real nature were especially a negation of ordaining an appointed minister or local pastor, and an affirmation of an undifferentiated equality of all male believers in the church as regards ministry and preaching.
In reality, believing women are just as much included in the general priesthood as believing men, but, of course, each within the sphere given to him or to her by God. All should, however, have priestly hearts and minds. Of course, certain practical consequences have to be drawn from this also for the outward form of church meetings and of the ministry of the word. But the centre of gravity of the truth lies much deeper. The general priesthood, as also the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is not a mere privilege and obligation of the gatherings in the local churches. The teaching of all Scripture referring to this subject (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18; John 16:13), makes dear that it has to be applied to our whole life from morning till evening, and every day in the week, not only the Lord's Day. It is certainly not limited to the beginning and ending of church gatherings, such as meetings for worship, Bible reading, or prayer, but includes the whole man, not only in but also outside the meeting-rooms, halls, chapels and church buildings. In this full sense of the word the whole New Testament people of God is "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6; I Pet. 2:5-9).
On the basis of this general priesthood the "spiritual gifts" have to be developed in the church (I Cor. 12-14). This should be practised in each case under the guidance of the Holy Spirit according to the God-ordained commission and endowment of each individual. General priesthood and charismatic leading of the Spirit are therefore to be distinguished from one another (Gk. charisma = gift of grace). The former includes the larger circle; the latter is included, as a smaller circle, in the former, thus being only a part of the former. Every redeemed one is called to the general priesthood. But not every New Testament "priest" is a bearer of spiritual gifts for special ministry or Divine service. And even those who are bearers of such gifts of the Spirit are not commissioned in every case and as a matter of course with the exercise of the preaching of the word. Each should stand in every instance under the fresh ordering and leading of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:4f;14:26).
From all this it follows that the guidance of the Spirit does not set in only with the beginning of a church gathering. Guidance by the Holy Spirit is not magical, but natural and yet holy, not mechanical but organic, not restricted to special seasons, but all-inclusive of the totality of time and life.
The connexion between the word "Spirit" (Gk. pneuma) and "leading" (Gk. ago, hodegeo) occurs only three times in the New Testament, and each time it refers to the total life of the Christian (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18; John 16:13). It never refers exclusively, nor even chiefly, to the principles of church order or Divine service. It is of course obvious, and included in the claim for the whole of life to be guided by the Spirit, that the gatherings of the church should be led on every occasion by the Spirit of God. Nor does the Scripture in any passage suggest a graduated difference in church gatherings as if in one kind of meeting there should be more evidence of general priesthood and more leading of the Holy Spirit than in another kind of gathering. No, the Spirit of God claims the total man and thus the total life of the church. All the time of a Christian, within and without the church life, should be under direct leading from above through the Holy Spirit. Therefore it is also in full accord with the Biblical idea of guidance by the Holy Spirit for a preacher of the Word to prepare himself for his ministry, praying to the Lord to give him the right word and message, in a quiet time of meditation and prayer at home before his ministry. In every case, of course, he must remain open for further guidance.
The duties of a priest were fivefold: sacrificial service, prayer, Witness, pastoral work (spiritual shepherding), blessing.
In all this we must clearly acknowledge that the general -priesthood of the church is not something impersonal, merely objective, especially corporate, as if "the church," only as a "body," an organization or a spiritual organism, is blessed with a priestly position and has to perform holy obligations. No, it is not only "the church" in general, but the individual members who are meant at the same time most emphatically.
The idea that "the church" as such has to do this or that, is to a certain extent related to the basis of the erroneous Roman Catholic conception of a body corporate: "the church" gives men the Bible, "the church" interprets the Scripture, "the church" exercises authority, "the church" spreads the Christian truth in the world.
But the Bible teaches the personal responsibility of each individual believer. Each single believer has to act himself as a priest of God. We are not allowed to hide our "I" behind the general "We." Otherwise everybody's business will soon become nobody's business, and the practical realization of the general priesthood of the church will be evaporated and become after all an actual failure.
In this sense, that all Christian service is individual, not only corporate, we speak of the general priesthood of the church and its members.
The New Testament priesthood is a holy service of sacrifice. The sacrifice on Golgotha of the Lamb of God was, of course, once and for all and can never be repeated (Heb. 10:10-14). But those who have been purchased for God by means of this sacrifice should be a holy sacrifice themselves in their whole life. "And for their sakes I sanctify [devote] Myself that they also might be sanctified [devoted] through the truth" (John 17:19).
In the consecration of their whole being and manner of life their priestly rendering of spiritual sacrifices should be made manifest and actually proved, even
in the devotion of their life: Rom. 12:11;
in the holiness of their deeds: I Pet. 2:5,9;
in readiness to help and to be charitable: Heb.13:6;
in liberality of contributing gifts for the Lord's work: Phil. 4:18;
in total dedication of their own persons to the spread of the gospel: Phil. 2:17; II Tim. 4:6;
in Spirit-wrought prayer: Rev. 8:3,4; Psa. 141:1,2; in triumphant adoration and worship: Heb. 13:15.
In all these things the Scriptures are very practical. Even the spiritual sacrifices which should be offered by the holy priesthood of the New Testament, according to I Pet. 2:5, are not sacrifices exclusively in the sphere of the merely inward life, the invisible, intellectual, mental, soulish realm, that is, are not only prayers or thanksgivings or mere feelings and abstract thoughts, but rather "spiritual" in the sense that the word has in the Pauline expression "spiritual gifts" (I Cor. 12:1). There "spiritual gifts" mean, without a shadow of doubt, "Spirit wrought, Spirit-led, Spirit-saturated" gifts of grace (I Cor. 12:4-1). Thus also here the "spiritual" sacrifices are Spirit wrought and Spirit-filled deeds of holy service, both the outward and visible as well as the inward and invisible (prayers, supplication, thanksgivings, worship). In the kingdom of God, even money is a spiritual matter.
To this spiritual sacrificial service of the church and all its individual members, and thus to the practical exercise of the New Testament general priesthood, belongs also the offering of regular and special contributions to the Lord's work at home and abroad. Regarding this there is often evident among believers a widespread, very low, sometimes indeed, almost primitive standard of thinking and acting which is altogether unworthy of the kingdom of the Most High.
Offerings for church and mission work are not a mere matter of Christian charity. Missionaries, ministering brethren, preachers and pastors are not receivers of tips. If they had remained in their earthly callings, as scholars or scientists, factory owners or business men, engineers or officials, medical doctors or artists, office employees or artisans, many of them would have become most successful in their careers, and in many cases have earned a high income. It was the call from above which they willingly followed and thus devoted their whole life to the work of the Lord. How should the work of the gospel make progress in the world, if there were not, in every fresh generation, men and women who offer all their time and strength to the Lord who has called them? Plainly almost all foreign missionary work would be impossible, and many branches of gospel and church work at home also, such as colportage, tent missions, gospel campaigns. Of course, only such should become full-time workers who are also fully capable of fulfilling an earthly profession. Such as fail in an earthly calling are not likely to work fruitfully in the harvest-field of the Lord.
Offerings for church and mission work are, according to general New Testament conception, simply the duty of the church and all its members. It is not open to our choice whether or not we shall support the Lord's work at home and abroad. It is the command of the Risen Lord ("ordained": I Cor. 9:14) and thus simply a question of practical obedience for every redeemed one. Offerings for the kingdom of God belong therefore to practical sanctification. By the manner of our actual submission to this Divine precept we can easily test ourselves as to how far we really and seriously recognize the Lordship of our Redeemer. Further:
Offerings for church and mission work are an outward response for the spiritual blessing we have received, a "communication with respect to giving and receiving" (Phil. 4:15). Acknowledging a gift for missionary service from the Philippians, Paul wrote: "You have entered into a fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving" (see R.V.). This means that they gave the apostle bodily help and received through him spiritual blessings. To the Corinthians he writes: "If we sowed unto you spiritual things, is it a great matter if we shall reap your carnal [earthly] things?" (I Cor. 9:7-11). Missionary gifts are an expression of our gratitude for the redemption we have received and for the service which Christ and His people have done and are doing in our souls. Christ claims this right, and all disobedience in this respect is contempt of His authority, it is even robbing God, according to the principle stated in Mal. 3:7-10. It is, of course, true that offerings should not be given unwillingly but readily and with joy, "as each purposes in his heart" (II Cor. 9:7). But if our hearts are full of thankfulness and love to Christ, all this will be done joyfully and in a way worthy of God. And more than this: In giving the giver is himself the receiver.
Offerings for church and mission work are deposits in the bank of Heaven, paid in by the giver himself and thus an everlasting advantage for his own blessing. As Paul puts it, it is "the profit which is entered to your credit," which increases in your account (Phil. 4:17), which is credited as your "deposit" in the heavenly "savings bank." Each such paying out is in reality a paying in. "My God will give you according to His riches all that ye need in glorious fullness in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:19; cf. Gal. 6:6). And even still higher must this obligation of the saints be valued: it has a priestly character.
Offerings for the poor and for church and mission work are New Testament sacrifices and therefore a very important part of the practical realization of the general priesthood. If they are presented in the right attitude of heart, and correspondingly also in the right outward measure, they are "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God" (Phil. 4:18). Thus Paul characterized the missionary gifts from the Philippians. You can test yourself as to how far you have really understood with your heart your standing and share in the general priesthood of the New Testament Church, by examining your own willingness to bring such practical, priestly sacrifices for the Lord's work and kingdom. By their attitude to money the true and false prophets of the Old Testament time could be distinguished (Micah 3:11; Num. 22:16). This was always regarded as an infallible criterion. Similarly, by the attitude to money also in the New Testament the genuineness and sincerity of all general priesthood can be tested. Finally:
Offerings for church and mission work are a privilege and an honour for the helper. "Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they [the friends thus made] may receive you into the eternal tabernacles" (Luke 16:9). How wonderful it will be when in eternity many connexions, hitherto often unknown, between victories on the mission-field and in the Lord's work in general will be made manifest! What a joy and what an honour it will be when we shall then perceive, and understand in the eternal light, how even our personal sacrifice had a share in the work of the Lord by helping to spread the Scriptures or by making possible some service through which souls were led to Christ. What happiness then to be privileged to see in all humility that while others fought and won the victory, yet I, by God's grace, was their fellow combatant, although perhaps I was separated from the battlefield by thousands of miles. Such joy and honour can be the blessed result of the practical service and sacrifice of the New Testament general priesthood.
The real innermost centre of the New Testament general priesthood of the church and all its members, however, is the life of prayer. For the true New Testament priest, to pray is not a mere duty but a God-given privilege. Then the sins of others will be no more an object for unkind criticism but occasion and task for loving, intercessory prayer. The unholiness of others will be treated in a holy manner. It will not be carried into the "camp" but into the "sanctuary." From the quiet prayer chamber will go forth streams of blessing into church and home, into pastoral and evangelistic work (Eph. 6:18,19; Rom. 15:30-32), yes, even into worldly governments and authorities and into the life of the nations (I Tim. 2:1,2).
Prayer is the "transformer," the "switching station," which passes on the "current" from God, the heavenly "power station," into the individual households, "workshops" and "plants" of everyday life, transforming it into life and power and passing it on to its various destinations. Without a life of prayer, no life of victory! Without taking, no having! Without living in Christ, no possibility of fruitfully working for Him! Even in the rush of our daily duties our communion with the Lord in prayer must never be interrupted.
But by itself praying is not all that is needed. Not all that is called prayer is really prayer. Even believers can "pray" unbelievingly. Their prayer can be a matter of form, it can be thoughtless, or even weakened by doubts, and "let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord" (James 1:7). Only prayer instinct with faith can help us, a real trustful waiting on the Lord to hear us in His good time and according to His counsel.
Such prayer is true priestly work for the Lord. It is not an activity of the soul which is merely additional to the other work of the priest, but it is the main part of the work itself, in fact, the most important work of all. In God's kingdom only he is a labourer who is a man of prayer. For--praying is working (Col. 4:12,13). Only that local church is spiritually strong in which the prayer-meetings are not the weak but the strong point of the church life, and in which this regular prayer fellowship is a real co-operation with the work of God at home and abroad. The decisive battles in life are fought out in the prayer chamber. As our prayer, so will be our work, and also our influence upon our fellow men. Prayer decides our whole attitude to all problems of life. The quality of our work is dependent upon the quality of our prayers. The priest of God must live in the sanctuary.
In addition to prayers and supplications it is the special privilege of the priest to present before the Lord the offerings of thanksgiving and worshipping.
Worship must be clearly distinguished from thanksgiving. The latter is concerned with the gifts and the individual blessings which God bestows upon His creatures, while the former is concentrated upon the Person and Nature of the Giver Himself.
Thanksgiving glorifies God for His deeds and demonstrations of His glory. Worship, however, meditates upon and praises the innermost secret and centre of this glory, that is the Godhead Itself.
It is true that worship also speaks of the great facts of salvation and redemption; but in worship, in distinction to thanksgiving, we do not think so much of the advantages and blessings for ourselves which arise out of these great facts and for which we praise God, but rather we regard them as revelations and ever new manifestations of the inward nature of the Divine Being. Thanksgiving, thus, emphasizes the glorious result of the Divine redemptive acts for the redeemed creature; worship praises their Divine foundation and source in the heart of the Creator Himself.
In thanksgiving our hearts rejoice over that which the Saviour and Lord has accomplished for us personally; in worship our souls rejoice in Him and praise Him, the holy God of all power and love, for what He is in Himself.
Worship is, therefore, higher than thanksgiving, for worship is freer from all things created and lives more in the eternal. Worship looks away from all time, from the persons, things, and events in its course, and to a certain degree even from the temporal revelations of the Godhead, and lifts itself up directly to the heart of the Most High and there occupies itself with His own eternal, all-holy, all-loving Nature.
Therefore in the love-fellowship between Creator and creature worship is the summit of the responsive love of the creature. And inasmuch as man precisely in this his vocation as a creature had been called from the beginning to such a fellowship of love, he had therefore been called to worship and adoration of the great God. Worship is the first and most important object of man's eternal calling. From eternity to eternity the redeemed and glorified will be privileged to praise the Lord of Lords, saying exultantly: "Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb ... Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever, Amen" (Rev. 7:10,12). "But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be His worshippers. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth" (John 4:23,24).
The service of a priest, however, should not be performed merely in the temple, but also effectively outside. He who is a "man of prayer" must also be a "man with a message."
Witnessing is therefore another essential part of the service of the New Testament general priesthood of the church and all its members, "For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they [the people] should seek the law at his mouth" (Mal. 2:7). Let us take heed: Something is expected from us because we are priests of God! Often the world is quite unconscious of this their own expectation. Indeed, they would deny it most emphatically if they were told that they have such expectations. And yet it is true. And we are those who are responsible to give them the answer to their deepest and unsolved problems. For we are the only ones who have the answer. "This day is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry ... punishment will overtake us" (II Kings 7:9). "I am debtor" (Rom. 1:14). "Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel" (I Cor. 9:16). New Testament general priesthood and the proclamation of the gospel belong together. For this reason it is Paul's desire to "be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 15:16).
The original word used here for "ministering" (Gk. hierourgounta) means literally "ministering in sacrifice" (R.V. mgn.), "ministering as about holy things," executing the office of a Christian priest, more spiritual, and therefore more excellent than the Levitical priesthood. Also the Greek word for "offering" (prosphora) which the apostle uses here, is an expression taken from priestly and temple service, meaning, the oblation of the Gentiles. "Long had the Jews been the holy nation, the kingdom of priests, but now the Gentiles are made priests unto God. Indeed, the Gentiles are themselves the sacrifice offered up to God by Paul, in the name of Christ, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God" (Matthew Henry).
This whole passage in Romans shows how much Paul views as one the New Testament priesthood and the New Testament gospel and missionary activity. Indeed, mission work is, in the judgment of the great Apostle to the nations, an integral part of the practical realization of the New Testament general priesthood. To be a priest means to be a man with a mission, to be a witness for Christ, to be a co-worker in the spreading of the gospel at home and abroad.
Thus the church, being the New Testament priesthood, is at the same time Christ's prophet. It is the proclaimer and interpreter of His word of life to the world. It is witness and confessor, messenger and mouth of God, that is, a missionary church in its deepest inward nature. And let us bear in mind that the calling and obligation of the church is to be experienced and practised by all its individual members, not only in their collective co-operation, but also, indeed quite definitely, in each single personal life and service. Practical neglect of the missionary command of the Lord makes evident that the nature of the New Testament general priesthood has not been really understood, in fact, that the very character of the church itself has not been clearly conceived. For it belongs to the essence of the ecclesia that it is the church of the Word: It lives through the Word, it nourishes itself from the Word, it is strengthened by the Word, it orders its way according to the Word. Thus, in a certain sense, it should be also "word" itself, that is, message and mediator of the gospel by walk and witness, either by going oneself to the home or foreign mission-field or by supporting by prayer and practical fellowship those who have gone. The church of the Lord lives through mission work-for only by the carrying out of the missionary commission have other countries and homes been reached by the gospel. Therefore the church of the Lord and its individual members must also in practice live for mission work-the word "mission" being taken in its wide and original sense as witnessing, gospel preaching, winning souls at home and abroad. Thus we are ambassadors for Christ. Christ "speaks" through us "as though God did beseech ... by us; we pray ... in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God" (II Cor. 5:20).
Again and again since the days of the Reformation the question has arisen as to the justification and possibility of missionary work. Many have answered in the negative, but the heroic pioneers of the gospel among many heathen nations have given an affirmative answer, with proof in word and deed, so impressive and irrefutable, that it cannot be overlooked. Men like Zinzendorf, Ziegenbalg, William Carey, Robert Morrison, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, those great banner-bearers of the good tidings of God's salvation in the wide world, have proved that missionary work is not only possible but, indeed, most urgently necessary.
In fact the missionary command of the Lord has never been withdrawn. On the contrary, it is inseparably bound up with the missionary promise: "And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the age." The missionary command and the missionary promise belong together. One cannot claim the one and practically deny the other. For if the promise: "I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the age" is still valid, then also the missionary command: "Go ye into all the world." In the parable of the pounds the Lord said to His servants: "Trade ye till I come" (Luke 19:13). This means, do not cease beforehand l Be as men who, when the Lord comes, are found at work.
On the 4th of December, 1857, Livingstone, the great Africa explorer and missionary pioneer, visited the University of Cambridge. On this occasion he made an appeal to the students to devote themselves to the work of the Lord in Africa. Among other things he said: "I personally have never ceased to rejoice that God has entrusted me with this service. People talk a lot about the sacrifice involved in devoting my life to Africa. But can this be called a sacrifice at all if we give back to God a little of what we owe Him? And we owe Him so very much that we shall never be able to pay off our debt. Can that be called a sacrifice which gives to ourselves the deepest satisfaction, which develops our best powers, and justifies us in having the greatest hopes and expectations? Away with this word! Away with such thoughts! It is anything else than a sacrifice! Rather call it a privilege! For a moment fear, illness, sufferings, dangers, and the giving up of so many conveniences which seem to be indispensable for our life, may hold us back, but only for a moment. It is nothing to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. I never offered a sacrifice!"
The Lord needs such servants, men and women in whose souls a holy fire is burning, who have only one main purpose for their life, that is, witnessing to and glorifying the Person of their Redeemer, making known His work of salvation by word and deed, spreading His kingly rule near and far. Such people are in truth priests unto God.
A hundred and sixty years ago, at the commencement of the new missionary era, during a discussion on India, a servant of the Lord said: "We see that there is a gold mine in India, and it is as deep as the centre of the earth, and who will there dare to explore it?" Then William Carey, who became later on the great missionary, linguist, Bible-translator, and pioneer of gospel work abroad, gave that classical answer: "I will go, I will descend this mine; but you must not forget firmly to hold the ropes!"
"Hold the ropes firmly! "Backup the witnesses of the gospel! Support them and pray for them.! Be witnesses yourselves! "That ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel!" (Phil. 1:27). Fellowship in God's kingdom means fellowship in God's work. Only so will fellowship in God's victory also be ultimately attained. This is the prophetic side of the calling of the New Testament general priesthood.
Let us therefore be on fire for this holy commission. Away with all indolence! Away with all powerless, self-centred, "pious," merely emotional looking on! We are not allowed to be simply passive onlookers of the actions and deeds of God. There is a dynamic power in the gospel to be spread over land and sea. We must not only make use of but even seek opportunities to bear witness for Christ and so bring others under the sound of the gospel. "Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave." The Son of God Himself came down to seek that which was lost. Do you seek? Do you rescue? Or do you think that an attitude of mere defence is sufficient to win the victory, so that no holy aggressiveness and initiative are required? In that case your Christian life and the practical realization of your share in the New Testament general priesthood have failed very much indeed!
Only the wicked servant can stand still
Looking on while his master storms the hill.
All want of missionary spirit is sickness of the soul. It belongs indispensably to a strong spiritual life to have the keen desire to win souls for Christ.
As the prophetic priesthood of God, the church of the Lord is the bearer of the most glorious message on earth. It is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15), the instrument for radiating the light of salvation, the representative of Christ as the true and faithful witness, and each individual is called to be a fellow-labourer in this priestly and prophetic commission of the whole church.
Every priest of God  - a witness!
Every redeemed one  - a missionary!
Every local church  - a church of workers!
To the building up of the church, however, the proclamation of the gospel and the experience of individual conversion are only the foundation, however indispensable and fundamental they are. The saved must be sanctified, their spiritual life must be deepened. The New Testament priests, as the bearers of the word of God, have therefore received another vital commission from the Lord. If the priest is the "messenger" of Jehovah and if the people seek the "law," i.e., the Word of God, "at his mouth" (Mal. 2:7), then he will have to administer not only the evangelistic, but also the pastoral word of God, and will thus have to perform also the personal work of the shepherd of souls. Therefore pastoral work is another most important responsibility of the New Testament general priesthood.
Priestly souls are shepherds in the church. They have an eye for the distresses and needs of others. Their eyes have been opened. They do not view their surroundings with the sharp look of unloving criticism but with hearts full of love, graciousness, ness, and compassion. They endeavour to see the good side in the character of others, their upright intentions and sincere strivings and efforts, and to have these in mind as points of contact in their spiritual approach. In the sanctuary of God they receive the word of wisdom to help others and lead them on, practically and spiritually. They see, of course, the imperfections of these others; but at the same time, like their heavenly High Priest, they have sympathy with their weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). In all this they are perfectly aware of their own imperfections, for the Spirit of God causes them to know their own heart, thus making them humble and gracious.
They do not generalize everything but understand each separate situation in its own special character. Their relationships to others are not cold and stiff, not merely objective, but warmhearted and kind to everyone. The spiritual welfare of each individual lies upon their hearts. They have intuition and can understand even those characters which may be very different from their own disposition of soul. In conversation they practise the high and noble art of listening to others.
They free themselves from their own aspects of things, their own circle of interests, their own self-centred forms of expression, their own prejudiced view points, their own ideas and criteria. They endeavour to take a stand outside at a certain distance from themselves in order to overcome the distance which separates them from others. They step out of their own Ego and place themselves in the position of those they desire to help.
Thus the true priestly, personal worker leaves behind his own "Self," meets the personality of the one he is dealing with, and thus can attain real fellowship with him. He recognizes the standard and viewpoint of the other man. Here they start, walking on together, and at last reach the higher ideals and aims, now common to them both.
Of vital importance in priestly personal work is the right way to give spiritual admonishment and encouragement. There are four kinds of admonition:
The hard-hearted admonition. This is the merciless lecture which, without feeling, points out rudely the mistakes and failings of the other, humbles and belabours him, condemns and judges him in a high-handed manner. The only result of such kind of admonition is the creating in the heart of the other a new frontline of resistance which perhaps had not before existed. Such "workers" are always standing before closed doors. They have themselves shut the doors of other hearts. They make them hardhearted and stubborn, bitter and burdened. They are not priests at all, but Pharisees. They do not bear the burdens of souls, but are themselves a burden to such souls.
Against this very type of degenerated "shepherding" Jesus fought in the Sermon on the Mount, saying: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; And, lo a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye" (Matt. 7:3-5).
The second kind is:
The legal admonition. This commands and gives orders. It makes use of the categorical "Thou shalt." It appeals to "the goodwill," the sense of honour and self-respect of the other person. It approaches the moral character of man. The result is at best that good resolutions are taken, a new attempt at moral reform, a new stirring up of all inner energy. The final result is, however, always and only-defeat. For by the law cometh only "knowledge" of, but no victory over, sin (Rom. 3:20; 8:3). This latter is accomplished only by grace. Yet this legal admonition stands on a much higher level than the hard-hearted type, which in reality is no admonition at all.
The third kind is:
The reasonable admonition. This rises still higher than the legal type. Therefore it is also more fruitful. Of course, the legal type of admonition should not be completely rejected. Although it is not able to attain the full, spiritual aim, it has, in the general history of salvation (cf. Mosaic Law), as well as in all individual education, a God-given place. The father commands his little son even when it is not possible to explain to him the reason for so doing. The son has to obey simply because his father has given the order, and he is right if he does so, even if he is not able to understand his father's reasons.
Reasonable admonition, however, reaches deeper into the inner life of the one being admonished. It makes clear why something is ordered. It not only commands but convinces. It makes the command understandable. The one addressed is treated with more respect in that he is not required to render mere outward obedience, but at the same time is enabled to understand inwardly. This raises his own personality and makes him happier and more willing. His obedience comes more from his heart and is therefore nobler.
But the fourth kind of admonition alone can attain the God intended end:
The creative, spiritual admonition. This includes indeed both commanding and explaining, but goes further than these in that the working power of the Holy Spirit is present and is, indeed, the real, essential, decisive factor. This leads to a clear view of the situation and to conviction, to a loosening of bondage and a real inner deliverance, to Spirit-wrought "purpose of heart" and genuine decision of the will (Acts 11:23). It leads to purification and, if necessary, compensation, to increased devotion and full surrender to the Lord. After repenting and humbling oneself, new courage will be found. Not only forgiveness but practical sanctification will be the result. Not only a new thinking but a new acting will be the fruit. And with strong courage and confidence we shall go on our way rejoicing.
Thus creative admonition always includes encouragement. In the language of the New Testament, "admonition" and "encouragement" are indeed the same Greek word (paraklesis, verb parakaleo). He who does not know how to encourage has no spiritual right to admonish. Admonition without encouragement is in most cases nothing but depressing criticism. To a fruitful admonition belongs a confident attitude of mind, directing the other to the ever-renewing powers of the Holy Spirit. Only thus, in the love and with the heart of Jesus Christ (Phil. I: 8), will the New Testament priest of God be able to carry out the fruitful work of shepherding. For Spirit-filled love is the heart and soul of all true personal work. He who does not love, cannot serve. He is simply unable to "find" the other one. He gets no inner contact with him. Only the love of the Holy Spirit, and happy confidence in His power and His working in the soul of the other, render us capable of carrying out fruitfully the commission for pastoral work as an integral part of the New Testament general priesthood.
All this makes the New Testament general priesthood a channel of blessing. To be a blessing means to bring others into contact with God, to lay the name of Jehovah upon them. "On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel; ye shall say unto them, The Lord [Jehovah] bless thee and keep thee: the Lord [Jehovah] make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the Lord [Jehovah] lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. So shall they [the priests] put (lay) My name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them" (Num. 6:23-27).
But he who is not willing to partake in the service of practical sacrifice has no right to talk about the general priesthood of the church. He who is not prepared to fulfil the expectations of the world and be a co-worker in the spread of the word and testimony of God by offering missionary gifts, missionary prayer, by devotion of his spare time, and by personal witness for Christ, has no right to talk of the priesthood of all believers, for his talk is empty. It is without life and reality. Let not that man say that he really believes in the general priesthood of the church who does not lead a life of prayer and does not take regular part in the spiritual warfare of prayer in the church gatherings. If we speak unkindly about others, instead of praying for them or helping them by personal work and shepherding, we must realize that we thereby deny in practice our part in the general priesthood of the church.
Being a "priest" does not only mean having a privileged spiritual position, but being entrusted with a God-given commission, not only having received an honour, but a holy order. It is not only that we possess a name of dignity but that we lead at the same time a life of practical service. Whether a person has really understood the meaning and importance of the general true priesthood of all believers can in many ways be more discerned outside than inside the church building, chapel, or meeting-hall. Thus here also the word is true: "These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23:23). In all this the special emphasis lies on standing the test in the practice of our everyday life. Furthermore:
General priesthood and the local church. Just as the individual believer, so also the Christian local church should practically take part in the New Testament general priesthood. Also here we must learn to think and act again on more Biblical and New Testament lines. A local church which is not missionary minded must either repent or it will one day have to retreat. Either we "appear" as Christ's witnesses or we shall have to "disappear." The Lord places before everyone this alternative: Either we do "mission" work or the ultimate result will be our "demission." Either we keep "on the move" or be "removed!" Either we shine, or the lampstand of the local church will be taken away from its place (Rev. 2:5). The branch which does not bear fruit will be cut off (John 15:6). According to the clear order revealed in the Scriptures the priest is a "messenger of God" (Mal. 2:7). He who will not be God's witness and messenger denies practically his share in the general priesthood. This is true both with regard to the individual as well as to the local church.
A local church which is not actually connected with the work of the proclamation of the gospel, either by prayer or by sending out home workers or foreign missionaries or by contributing regular gifts to the mission-field is either sick or spiritually undeveloped. Laziness in witnessing and lameness in missionary zeal is a practical ignoring of the world-embracing significance of Christ's priestly sacrifice on Golgotha.
Mission work is a divine "must." "Remission of sins should (must) be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47). It is not left to our own choice whether or not we will testify to the world the message of the cross. The command of the glorified Christ is in the background. The true Christian confesses with Jeremiah: "Jehovah, Thou hast persuaded me and I was persuaded; Thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed" (Jer. 20:7). The Authorized Version reads: "0 Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived." To this we remark: The word "deceived" (A.V.), "enticed" (R.V. footnote) maybe very well translated "persuaded". Matthew Henry in his Commentary points to the fact that in this sense the word is used in Gen. 9:27 margin: "God shall persuade Japhet." And Prov. 25:15: "By much forbearance is a prince persuaded." And Hos. 2:14: "I will allure (persuade) her."
He declares with Peter: "For we cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard (Acts 4:20). He confesses with Paul: "For necessity is laid upon me" (I Cor. 9: 16).
As a "priesthood" the church and its individual members have the commission to "proclaim." "But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . . that ye may show forth the praises [virtues, excellencies] of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light" (Gk. exangeilete, proclaim aloud by word and action, I Pet. 2:9).
Local churches, according to the New Testament, are not places for preserving and conserving Christian teaching and truth. They are not to be pious, self-centred circles for emotional "self-edification," but rather places where a real, spiritual "building up" takes place. And let everyone take care how he builds (I Cor. 3:10). It is not enough simply to hold fast the truth but to hold it up, like a standard, a flag of victory carried ahead of the warriors of Christ's army. One cannot separate in practice the New Testament calling to be a "priest" from the calling to be a "proclaimer," a mouth of God, a "prophet." Priestly souls are soul-winners. God's temple is a bright life-centre, radiating eternal light (cf. Rev. 21:24).
In this respect the prayer gatherings of believers have a special significance. Church prayer and worldwide mission work belong inseparably together. If ever the inward oneness of the prophetic-missionary commission and the general priesthood of the church are evident, it is manifest here. In a sound local church the priestly prayer for the prophetic proclamation of God's gospel must occupy a large space. Every prayer meeting in the local church should be a time of united practical striving for and cooperation with God's servants on the mission-field at home and abroad (Rom. 15:30-32; Col. 4:3-4; Eph. 6:18-20).
This will become at the same time a source of reviving and blessing for the local church itself. In such practising of the New Testament general priesthood the local church experiences something of the universality, the super-national, spiritual unity of the whole church of God.
It will help to stir up and stimulate the prayer meetings if reports from the mission-field and personal letters from missionaries are publicly read to the gathering. Thus the prayers will become more concrete, the requests more manifold, and everything will be more direct, more personal, filled with more life and spirit.
Therefore: Only such a local church is fully realizing its share in the New Testament general priesthood which is
a local church with Spirit-filled, regularly well-attended prayer meetings;
a local church with members who are practical helpers and fellow-workers with the Lord's servants in the world-wide harvest-field;
a local church with persevering, energetic activity in the preaching of the gospel, by tract distribution, personal witness, and, wherever possible, open-air meetings;
a local church with a warm-hearted, spiritual atmosphere of love, where everyone tries to help the other by mutual care and charity in a prayerful spirit, considering one another to provoke unto love and good works.
In such a local church the gatherings and services also will be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as distributed by the Lord Himself, will be developed in their God-appointed variety, in brotherly fellowship, in dependence upon Christ, and thus in holy freedom of the Spirit(I Cor.12:4-11;14:26). And when the church is gathered together at the Lord's table praising the priestly sacrifice on Golgotha, priestly worship will rise up to the heavenly Sanctuary, thus crowning the privilege of the general priesthood of the church.
3. The kingdom of the church. The scripture links the priesthood with the kingdom, the heavenly throne with the heavenly temple(comp.Isa.6:1-4). Therefore also the church is not only a priestly people but at the same time a kingdom(Rev. 1:6); I Pet. 2:9), indeed, it is a "kingdom of priests"(cf. Ex. 19:6). This present and future royal dignity is the third great possession contained in the birthright of the church of the firstborn. As such the church will on day be the "Imperial Staff" of the heavenly King, "the ruling aristocracy" in the coming kingdom of God. "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom"(Luke 12:32). "know ye not that the saints shall judge the world?"(I Cor. 6:2). The redeemed will one day even rule over angels: "Know ye not that ye shall judge angels?(I Cor. 6:3). "He that overcometh I will give to him to sit down with Me in My throne"(Rev. 3:21). "The Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever"(Rev. 22:5).
III. The Serious Danger
But the writer to the Hebrews does not really speak about the birthright of Esau in order to show the glories of the church but in order to give a warning. Especially when considered against the background of such high dignities, failure in Christian life is all the more deplorable and reprehensible. We must see the dangers and behave ourselves accordingly. We must count the cost not only of faithful Christian discipleship, as the Lord says (Luke 14:28), but also what it means to be unfaithful! For the "reward" of such sin would be nothing less than the loss of the enjoyment of most important privileges contained in the full possession of the birthright.
Doubtless, birthright is not identical with sonship. Esau remained Isaac's son even after he had rejected his birthright. In fact, he received, in spite of his great failure, a kind of secondary blessing(Gen. 27:38,40b). "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come"(Heb. 11:20). But nevertheless he suffered an immense loss.
A similar experience, in a spiritual sense, can be the result of unfaithfulness for the New Testament "firstborn". Their life relationship with the heavenly Father remains and will never be dissolved; for they have passed out of death into life(I John 3:14). But very great heavenly values are at stake.
Possession of special heavenly riches, position as priests, and the royal dignity of ruling are the three God-appointed honours contained in the birthright. But:
In spite of all riches we may live in spiritual poverty. No overflowing of heavenly fullness may be evident. No inward richness may shine out. No joy of happy redemption may be manifest. Although children of eternal joy, we may walk about sorrowful and depressed, and instead of having our enjoyment and delight in our blessed Lord, we may look back full of longing to the empty joys and goods of this world.
In spite of our priestly position we may live no priestly prayer life! There may be no priestly heart and mind! No loving supplication! No witness as God's priestly messenger to the world! No happy gratefulness for so many rich blessings received! No genuine priestly worshipping of God in spirit and in truth! And finally:
In spite of our high kingly calling we may live practically like slaves. All earthly-mindedness is slavery. It is a denial of our heavenly nobility(Col. 3:1-3). All sinful striving for money or earthly goods makes the "king" to be a "beggar". All worrying is unkingly. All fear of man is unworthy of a child of great Heavenly Father and Sovereign. All over-sensitiveness and so easily feeling hurt and offended is small-mindedness. It is piteous and primitive. In fact, all service of sin makes him who is appointed to be a ruler to become practically a degraded servant, and sin which is in reality defeated behaves itself as if it were the victor and therefore acts as regent and tyrant, when in truth the Christian should be the overcomer.
Thus the believer, although belonging to the church of the firstborn, may practically deny his birthright. Instead of riches inward poverty, instead of priesthood practical separation from God, instead of kingship actual slavery!
How grave will be the consequences for eternity! Though indeed personally saved, yet how great the loss! Even Paul, the apostle of free grace, expressly emphasizes that the day of Christ will be revealed for the church "in fire." "The fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is" (I Cor. 3:13). Thus it may happen that the life-work of a believer-possibly even yours twill be burnt up, even though you yourself are saved, yet so as through fire, i.e., like a brand plucked out of the burning, "as one who in a fire could only save his bare life" (I Cor. 3: I5). The position of being a child of God is, indeed, not forfeitable, but not the total fullness of the heavenly birthright. In this sense there is urgent need to give diligence to make our calling and election sure. "For thus shall be richly supplied unto you the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (II Pet. 1:10,11).
IV. THE GRAVE ERROR
What was the fatal error into which Esau fell and which in this letter is held up to us as a warning? He sold his birthright for one mess of pottage. One can actually feel his uncontrolled greediness and gluttony in his words: "Let me eat of that red pottage, of that red pottage." In the original Hebrew text the words "of that red pottage" occur not only once but twice, so as to picture his greediness and want of self-control. Also his materialistic outlook and egoism sounds from his words: "I am at the point to die ... what profit shall the birthright do to me?" (Gen. 25:30-32).
From all this we see:
Esau lived for things visible and bartered for them things spiritual, i.e., the only true values, the things which are real.
Esau lived for human enjoyment and bartered away God-given blessings.
Esau lived without discipline and self-control and bartered away his position of authority and honour.
Esau "despised" God's promise and offer of dignity and brought himself thereby into shame (Gen. 27:37).
He lived for his own Ego and thus bartered away the high calling of his family.
He lived for the present and bartered away his noble commission for the future.
He lived for the fleeting moment and bartered for it eternal treasures.
Through all this he proved himself to be a godless and profane man. He was a secularized son of an elect patriarch, that is, he was a worldly-minded descendant of a God-devoted bearer of high Divine promises. He esteemed a passing enjoyment above most noble permanent privileges ordained of God. He "despised" his birthright (Gen. 25:34). The Hebrew text uses a vigorous word here. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the word phaulizo which means that Esau regarded the birthright as a mere paltry thing and so gave it away for a trifle. In all this the profanity of Esau's heart and mind is shown.
For this reason God, who on account of His super-temporality, can already see everything before it actually begins, declared even before the birth of the two brothers: " Jacob have I loved but
Esau have I hated" (Mal. 1:2,3;Rom. 9:13). This does not mean a hostile animosity and hatred but refusal and rejection. But for this sin and failure of Esau the birthright would have remained his privilege, and all successive developments in the whole history of salvation, right up to Christ the Messiah, would have used him and his descendants as channel and human instrument. Or, expressed more negatively, the whole further realization of the Divine redemptive plans would have taken its course via Esau and his family and not via Jacob ("Israel").
But now we see him weeping and lamenting and begging for the blessing (Gen. 27:34). But he could not alter Isaac's attitude. Isaac had spoken as a prophet of God under the inspiration of the Spirit, and his God-inspired prophetic utterance could not be recalled. Esau "found no place for a change of mind in his father" (American Standard Version). There was "no room" to cancel his father's decision. The backslider is always the great loser.
This appears to be the sense of the words: He found no room for the "altering of mind" although he tried with tears. The Greek word metanoia, which otherwise means in the Scripture "repentance," can in this place hardly have this sense. For if anyone seeks "repentance" with tears he is already repentant and cannot be spoken of as not being able to find room for repentance. His many tears would indeed prove that he was repentant, i.e., that he had altered his mind. For this reason most modern interpreters take the word metanoia, "altering," either as referring to Isaac in the sense that Isaac was begged by Esau to change his mind regarding his decision to take away the birthright from Esau and transfer it to Jacob (thus e.g., Zwingli), or, since in the Greek text there is no reference at all to the person of Isaac, they take the word "metanoia" (= altering) in the sense of changing a situation, cancelling an order. In this sense of "cancellation" the Greek word metanoia is in fact often used in other Greek texts, for instance, papyri. Esau found no room for cancelling the transference of the blessing from him to Jacob, although he tried with tears. This also agrees with the Old Testament account, which never refers to Esau as having sought an inward change of heart with many tears. On the contrary, the Old Testament history shows quite clearly that he sought the outward blessing (Gen. 27:34,38).
This is also proved by his word in Gen. 27:36 which he said of his brother: "Is he not rightly named Jacob [One that takes by the heel; Supplanter. [Gen. 25:26]? For he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing." Thus he was blaming Jacob, not reproaching himself. "He mourned his loss but not his sin. In this also he proved himself a true son of his first parents, for Eve and Adam each blamed another for their guilty conduct. In each of the three cases there was a measure of truth, for those others blamed were in part responsible; but godly sorrow for sin seeks no such shelter, but accepts its own responsibility and is humble. This change of mind Esau neither showed nor sought" (G. H. Lang).
And what did he receive in exchange for the birthright? A mess of pottage!
Thus miserably does sin pay her servants!
My reader, read the above sentences again and ask yourself if they may not be a reflection of your own spiritual and practical attitude, even if perhaps not always, yet possibly often enough. Therefore take heed to the warning of this passage in Hebrews! So much hangs in the balance: glorious eternal gain or irretrievable loss.
In that disastrous moment Esau, at the cost of the future, had chosen satisfaction for the present. The mess of pottage pleased him for the moment. But finally the great disappointment came.
Thus he experienced in his own life the principle of the word of the Lord: "He that loveth his life shall lose it" (John 12:25). "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose (damage) his own life?" (Matt. 16:26).
The warrior of faith must act in just the opposite way. This is testified also by Paul. The Pauline epistles and the letter to the Hebrews show many similarities in thought and sometimes also of expression. Just as Paul, in various places in his epistles, uses the picture of the racecourse in the arena of faith so also the Writer of Hebrews does here at the very beginning of this our chapter. It is in the light of these opening words on the race and the joy which is set before the runner, that the reference of this our same chapter to the "birthright" ought to be read. Both are great possibilities; but both are forfeitable as regards the fullness of their eternal possession and enjoyment. Therefore the unreserved devotion of all our life and spiritual energy is needed in order to attain the full prize, the "crown," the "joy that is set before us" (cf. Heb. 12:2), the "birthright" in its God-appointed, all-embracing, threefold totality as special abundance of riches, heavenly priesthood, glorified kingship.
Thus also Paul says: "And if also a man contend in the games, yet he is not crowned, except he have contended lawfully" (II Tim. 2,5).
What does it mean "to contend lawfully," i.e., according to the rules of the athletic games? He transgresses the rules of the games who tries by some trick or other to win an easy victory. For instance, he may attempt to shorten the length of his racecourse by cutting corners. Thus he may seek to make his task easier than it really is. By this means in the earthly athletic games he may indeed reach the goal earlier than the others, but the umpire will not recognize such a "victory. " In the same way, many today who desire to be real Christians, seek to avoid the heat of the battle by making certain compromises here and there. Of course, they too want to reach the goal, but they think it can be reached by paying a lower price. Let us not be deceived in this matter! Christ the Lord expects our whole devotion. Away with all compromises! Away with all attempts to make the narrow way somewhat broader and more passable! The Lord seeks our whole heart. Otherwise He cannot use our service and will not crown our efforts. In order to win the eternal crown we must offer our whole life.
In Rome, in the centre of the Piazza del Popolo, one of the busiest places of the city, I saw an ancient, very impressive Egyptian obelisk, 30 yards high. It was formerly in the Circus Maximus, that huge and magnificent sports stadium of the Roman Empire, the beginnings of which can be traced back to before the foundation of the Roman Republic (King Tarquinius Priscus, 500 B.C.). From the midst of the ruins of that ancient circus Pope Sixtus V 400 years ago caused this obelisk to be brought and erected on its present site. It is one of the oldest monuments which Rome possesses. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription upon it, which can still be read today, indicates that it was originally set up in the time of the great Pharaoh Rameses II in the ancient town of Heliopolis,1 a special centre of Egyptian sun-worship, between the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C., and thus from two hundred to three hundred years before David and Solomon. The Emperor Augustus had it brought from Egypt to Rome in the year 10 B.C., and set it up in the huge Circus Maximus in order to honour the sun-god Apollo. Placed in the "Spina," that is, the "barrier" in the middle of the arena which was ornamented with many statues, it formed, so to speak, the central point of this huge sports stadium. 1 Heliopolis, not far from modern Cairo (Egyptian On, Hebrew Beth-Schemesh, Jer. 43: 13), was at the time of the patriarchs the home city of Joseph's father-inlaw, Potiphera. The latter was priest of the sun-god Ra (Gen. 41:45; 46:20).
From the Palatine, the place of the Imperial palaces, near the Forum Romanum, the Market Place of ancient Rome, standing not far from the ruins of the palace of the Emperor Augustus, I saw over the widespread ruins of this largest sports stadium of the ancient world. No less than 200,000 spectators could be seated there.
This ancient Egyptian sun-obelisk was the point which all partakers in the chariot and other races had to pass round. It made it impossible to cut any curve in the course. Each and every competitor in the races, be he chariot driver or runner, had to cover the full length of the course. No one could shorten the race for himself. No one could make the victory easier by any measure of his own. Each had to devote all his strength and to take upon himself the whole task without any abatement. Only thus was there any prospect of winning the prize.
For all those who know its history, this ancient Egyptian obelisk is even today an eloquent witness to all this.
Let us not be deceived! There is no victory without zeal and devotion, no complete triumph without giving up our own indolence, no real "Yes" to God without a practical "No" to self, sin, and the world! If any bad habit or sin should have a hold upon you, or if there should be any guilt of the past which has not yet been put right, put these things in order, clear them away in the power of the Lord, even if it should be hard to do so. If there exists any tension between yourself and another, if there is any possibility, seek to have a personal talk with the one concerned, even if it mean that you must humble yourself. And do it today. Do not postpone it to some later date. It might happen that then it will be postponed again, and in the end nothing will be done at all. Whenever the Lord entrusts you with a service of love and charity, do it with all your might, even if it should involve a sacrifice of time or money. If there is opportunity of witnessing to Christ, open your mouth joyfully, even if you are mocked at or have to suffer loss or disadvantage in your earthly career.
All this certainly costs self-denial. But self-denial is indispensable (Matt. 16:24,25). Every attempt to make the fight easier, makes the real victory more difficult and doubtful. Unless we submit ourselves to all Divine orders, and take up our full responsibility, we shall never attain the radiant and glorious prize on the coronation day.
V. THE HOUR OF DECISION
In Esau's bitter experience we can see something of the tactics used by sin. Sin uses the "weak moments" in the life of a man to cause his fall. Esau was "tired" when he made his fatal wrong decision (Gen. 25:29). "Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint (tired)" (v. 30).
This is the regular method of sin. Sin knows the weak points and critical moments of our life and is ever ready like a wild beast to jump upon its prey.
Thus Cain had his weak moment when jealousy took hold of him and he murdered his brother (Gen. 4:5-8).
David had his weak moment and fell deep into sin, which then brought him and the house of Uriah into so much misery (II Sam. 11:2-5; 17:26ff.).
Peter had his weak moment when he denied his Master at the camp fire before a servant girl (Mark 14:66-72).
Ananias and Sapphira had their weak moment when they behaved as hypocrites with regard to their offering for the Lord's work, and for this sin they were blotted out of the church and of life (Acts 5:1-10).
But just these weak moments are the hours of decision. At such occasions it becomes clear what sort of persons we really are. The strength of a chain lies in the weakest link. A battlefront is broken through when the thinnest part of the line is pierced.
For this reason defeats in weak moments can never be excused by pointing to the unfavourable or unexpected circumstances. Not the march past in the review, but the battle shows the real quality of a soldier. We are only that which we prove to be in difficult conditions. The weak moments are the "examinations" and "tests" in our life of faith. The circumstances are only the battlefield, they are never the actual decisive factors in the battle itself.
The first men sinned in Paradise. They fell into sin in surroundings which offered the most favourable conditions for a life according to God's will. On the other hand we read of the church in Pergamum: "I know ... where thou dwellest, even where Satan's throne is: and thou boldest fast My name, and didst not deny My faith ... where Satan dwelleth" (Rev. 2:13). Let us note that in this word of the Lord the expression "where Satan dwelleth" occurs twice. In Pergamum all the circumstances were against the Christians and yet they remained faithful witnesses. Thus one can lose Paradise in Paradise, but one can confess the name of Christ even where Satan has his throne. The condition of the spiritual life in us is never dependent upon the circumstances around us, but only on our relationship to the heavenly world above us, and to the throne of God as its centre and to Him who sits upon the throne. This is of the highest importance as regards all superficial attempts at self-excuse, because it takes away from us every possibility of thinking and asserting that, when we fall into sin, it is our difficult circumstances and not we ourselves that are responsible for the defeat. And yet it is most encouraging, because now we know that no conditions around us are able to pluck us by force out of our fellowship with our Lord and Saviour, the great God above us. "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38,39).
The same is true with regard to our service as witnesses. How many a believer excuses his failure in witnessing by pointing to the unfavourable surroundings. He is silent where he should speak, and some may have even given up entirely to testify to Christ, excusing themselves by referring to the "hard soil" which would in any case render their testimony unfruitful. Thus not seldom God-given opportunities are missed, and possibilities for powerful victory become "weak moments" full of defeat.
And yet, testifying is possible everywhere. There never was a time during which the world was without God's witnesses (Heb. 11) and there never will be.
In fact, very often just such times, when many adversaries are fighting against God's work, are special seasons of "open doors." Paul, the great pioneer missionary among the apostles, says: "a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries" (I Cor. 16:9). Open doors and adversaries very often belong one to another. Special hatred against the message of the gospel and special opportunities for victorious witnessing to Christ have often appeared together in the history of the church. Only we must learn again to be better witnesses. God has no need of defenders and advocates, nor of experts and masters of rhetoric, but what He desires are wholly devoted men and women who know only one theme and who have only one passion, that is, Himself, the great God, Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:5). Personal witness from man to man was the evangelizing method practised by the early church. In this respect, too, we must become again "early Christians," and then we shall experience that the work of the Lord always shares and repeats the history of its Divine Master: opposed by the world, yet not defeated; rejected by unbelief, yet not refuted; given over to death by men, yet always full of resurrection life; dead, buried and yet always rising again. "The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous" (Psa. 118:15).
If this is our attitude, God-given opportunities for witness will not become "weak moments" in our life but occasions to save souls and thus times of triumphant joy in heaven and earth (Luke 15:7).
VI. THE BIRTHRIGHT AND THE HEAVENLY PRIZE
The warning reference to Esau and to the loss of his birthright is given in Hebrews 12 in connexion with a message which begins by demanding of us that we should run in the arena of faith. "Let us run with patience the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1). It is a message which demands of us a purposeful perseverance in the running of the course (v. 1), an overcoming of all signs of fatigue and all symptoms of weakness (vs. 3-12), a pressing on in Spirit-wrought energy. "Therefore lift up the hands which hang down and the feeble knees" (v. 12). "Make straight paths for your feet" (v. 13). "Follow after! Pursue ...!" (v. 14).
In this connexion God's Word expressly emphasizes great dangers that are imminent in case the fighter is failing in the battle. Instead of running in the race you may "be turned out of the way by lameness" (v. I3). Instead of living in spirituafulness, you may "fall short of the grace of God" (v. I5). Instead of being a channel of blessing for others you may be a poisonous plant defiling many (v. 15). And the Spirit of God would arouse us with the alarming exhortation: "Follow after [pursue] peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord!" (v. 14). For the prize will not be given for nothing, but demands the energy of faith and practical faithfulness. In view of the context of our chapter the prize of the race is regarded as the full enjoyment of the heavenly birthright.
Five main facts show us the nature of the prize.
The heavenly prize is not to be expected as a matter of course but must be earnestly contended for. Justification is a gift of free grace, but the measure of glorification depends upon personal devotion and steadfastness in the race. Thus it may happen that a believer does not stand the test, and the Umpire of the races, "the Lord, the righteous judge" (II Tim. 4:8), will declare him "disqualified" at the prize-giving (I Cor. 9:27). He receives no crown of victory. "That I myself might not be rejected after having preached to others." The word "rejected" used in the original text (Gk. adokimos) is the technical term for a runner not standing the test before the master of the games and therefore being excluded at the prize-giving. This is a possibility to be taken very seriously by every believer. And yet:
The heavenly prize is not identical with eternal salvation but is associated with various degrees of glorification. In spite of the grave possibility of being "disqualified" at the end, the runner who did not hold out in the race will not be eternally lost. Even in the case of Esau, in spite of his loss of the birthright, there remained the relationship of son. Although, indeed, Holy Scripture speaks in very strong terms of suffering "loss" (I Cor. 3:15), of "being ashamed" at Christ's coming (I John 2:28), of one's whole life-work being "burned up" (I Cor. 3:13,15b) so that one is saved "yet so as through fire"; yet it clearly testifies the fact that also such an one will be "saved."
Thus grace and reward are presented as combined with one another and yet shown as harmonious opposites, just like the poles of a magnetic needle are opposites and yet belong together inseparably. And thus being saved and being glorified, being born again and being perfected, receiving grace and becoming a receiver of the crown, that is, the entering into the arena at the beginning and the prize giving at the end, stand before our eyes in their mutual relationship.
Through all this the twofold result in our daily life should be joy and earnestness, thankfulness and sense of responsibility, certainty of salvation and fear of God. Only in the realization of these two opposite and harmonious poles in Christian experience, is true Biblical sanctification possible.
The heavenly prize is not equal for each, but will be graduated according to faithfulness. The three main blessings of the New Testament birthright are heavenly riches, priestly service, and royal dignity, and full possession of this birthright is the prize.
The more a member of the "church of the firstborn" has made a fruitful use of the spiritual riches entrusted to him by the Lord during his life-time, the more he will enjoy the fullness of blessing in eternity (cf. Matt. 25: 21, 23).
The more a member of the "church of the firstborn" has actually realized the rights and obligations of the general priesthood, the greater and more glorious will be his service as priest in the heavenly temple (Rev. 3:15; I Pet. 1:5,4)
The more a member of the "church of the firstborn" has lived worthily of his high royal calling here on earth, the higher will be his position in the kingdom of glory. He will reign with Christ forever and ever (II Tim. 2:12; Rom. 8:17; Rev. 22:5).
Thus the more faithfully a member of the "church of the firstborn" has responded to his spiritual birthright here on earth, the richer and more embracing will be his enjoyment of his heavenly birthright in eternity.
The heavenly prize will not be granted to the self-confident and self satisfied but only to those who are striving and pressing on. Not every believer will attain to the full prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Least of all those who regard themselves as sure of it! Not in vain has the Lord said: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they [they alone!] shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). In the original Greek the word "they" is emphasized strongly in order to show the exclusive nature of the promise. And Paul declares: "Know ye not that they which run in a race all run, but [only] one receiveth the prize? Even so run, that ye may attain" (I Cor. 9:24). "And if a man also contend in the games, yet is he not crowned, except he have contended lawfully" (II Tim. 2:5). Woe to the self-assured, self-approving ones! A great disappointment awaits them (I John 2:28). But blessed are those that hunger and thirst! Blessed are the "imperfect" ones, i.e., those who are conscious of their imperfections and therefore press on in the Lord's power: for they will attain the goal.
In all this there rules this encouraging fact:
The heavenly prize is not to be won by human and earthly endeavours but only by the power which grace gives to faith. All our own efforts are impotent and worthless. Even our very best ideals and strivings will not carry us through to the goal. Christ alone is able to do this. Therefore the runner in the race looks unto Him from whom all power comes. Every victory over sin, all growth in holiness, all progress in the race is entirely a gift of His free grace. There is no human merit at all. Only he who lives by the gifts of God's grace will be able to reach the goal in full triumph.
And what will happen when the great day of the prize giving shall have come? Before God only His own work counts. We ourselves have accomplished nothing. All has been given by Himself, and now, in addition to all this, upon us, the receivers of His free gifts, who of ourselves have deserved nothing, He bestows the everlasting crown of honour. That means: He pours out upon us His gifts at the goal for the simple reason that we have accepted in faith His gifts on the way. He showers His blessings upon us at the winning-post simply because we have allowed Him to give us His free blessings during the race. Therefore although conditioned by the devotion of the one to be crowned, the prize of the race, the full enjoyment of the heavenly Birthright, is an entirely unmerited gift of a freely giving and generous God of mercy. It is "reward" out of "grace." Rightly did Tauler, the great German medieval mystic (about 1400), say that when at last God gives the crowns, He is not going to crown us but to crown Christ in us, for only Christ is worthy of a crown.
In the Tower of London there is a wonderful treasure. Nowhere in the world is there a place where so many precious stones, jewels, and gold are stored together in such a small place as in that subterranean vault of the Wakefield Tower. We refer to the crown jewels of the British Empire. Swords, crowns, pearls, golden vessels of fabulous worth are exhibited here, illuminated most beautifully. Diamonds and precious stones sparkle in glittering light. There, for example, one sees the golden spoon, more than 700 years old, always used for the anointing of the British Kings and Queens. The sceptre of the British Empire with its golden cross, studded with jewels, with its chief ornament, the "Star of Africa," the largest diamond yet known in the whole world. I saw crowns of Queens, covered with hundreds and hundreds of precious stones and pearls. Further, there was the crown which King George wore in Delhi (India), and which, according to the official description, is ornamented with no less that 6,170 diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. The most precious object of all is the Imperial State Crown, covered with radiant jewels of indescribable value, especially the world-renowned Cullinan Diamond. Almost 3,000 diamonds and hundreds of pearls and sapphires and rosary diamonds adorn it.
But what are all these crowns and the crowns of other nations in comparison to those crowns which Christ has to bestow? The "crown of righteousness" (II Tim. 4:8), "the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10), "the crown of rejoicing" (I Thess. 2:19), "the incorruptible crown" (I Cor. 9:25,26), "the crown of glory" (I Pet. 5:3,4)? How much does all that is earthly pale before the glory of the heavenly! Even the highest earthly riches and beauties sink into absolute insignificance when compared with the Eternal and Divine! In fact, not only the sufferings but also the glories of this world are not worthy even to be compared to the glories which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).
Wreaths of olive branches and laurels, palms and festive garbs, were presented to the victorious runners in the Greek races. Christ, however, gives those who have served Him in faithfulness, the heavenly crown of honour.
Laurels, olive branches and palms wither away. Crowns sink down. But the crown of honour which Christ gives the victor will remain in everlasting life, with the freshness and flower of youth. Here is an incorruptible possession (I Pet. 1:4), a priesthood eternally worshipping, a royal dignity and rule for all time and eternity (Rev. 22: 5). Thus the threefold privilege of the Birthright of the firstborn as richness, priesthood, and kingship, the prize for the overcomer, will remain for ever and ever.
All this will be ours if we look unto Jesus, and run.
As the "Firstborn from the dead" Christ is the great Victor over that greatest, combined, and most powerful enemy, sin, death, Satan. Thus He is altogether the Pioneer and decisive Conqueror in all situations. He Who was the Winner in the mightiest battle is certainly also able to gain the victory in all smaller ones. He can master every difficulty and can throw back every attack of the adversary. In any and every battle He can give practical victory and so bring us through to the final triumph.
As the "Firstborn among many brethren" He enables His own to share His glory in heaven (Rev. 3:21; John 17:22) and to attain the full blessing of the birthright, appointed to the firstborn ones, the "first fruits of His creatures" (James I: I8). He Who after His own victorious battle has reached the goal triumphantly and is crowned with glory and honour (Heb. 2:9), gives to every overcomer in the race the crown of rejoicing and honour.
Therefore ever anew, while running in the racecourse in the arena of faith,
"Let us look unto Jesus!"
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