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Much has been written, and is still being written, about the difference in the progress of the Gospel in the first three decades of Christianity and the much longer time since. That the progress then was nothing less than phenomenal is impossible to deny. We have more than once quoted the words of Dr. A. M. Fairbairn:
In the year 33 A.D. a few Galilean fishermen were seeking liberty of speech in Jerusalem and were hardly handled as men poor and ignorant. In the year Paul died (about 30 years later), how did the matter stand? There were churches in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Caesarea, in all Syria, Antioch, Ephesus, Galatia, Sardis, Laodicea, in all the towns on the west coast throughout lesser Asia, in Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Rome, Alexandria, in the chief cities of the islands and the mainland of Greece, and the western Roman colonies.
With all the tremendous organization, expenditure and propaganda since and particularly in the last century, there is nothing to compare with that, especially when it is observed that in those first years we do not read of any machinery, appeals, drives, deputations, exhibitions, demonstrations and all the organization of missions and missionary efforts with which we are so familiar in our times. It is not that there is a lack of concern for evangelization or a lack of sacrifice and suffering on the part of many devoted servants of God. Whatever we may say, we must guard against belittling or undervaluing the very great outpouring of life and strength which has characterized the outreach for the salvation of souls in these past centuries. Contact with many such devoted servants of God in these spheres of service means a sound rebuke to any spirit of criticism.
But, recognizing every bit of that sacrificial devotion, there are very few who are not aware of the difference above mentioned, and masses of literature are being published on the matter. Our object, under deep exercise, is not to criticise or cast aspersions but to ask whether if the comparison and contrast is right and true there are any factors and features which constitute the change? Were there characteristics in the beginning which do not GENERALLY obtain now? Where there has been a really living and effective work to which all may point as approximating to the first days, is it because of the presence of those first factors? Let us look at one or two notable examples and see if they point backward to something in the original.
In the first place let us call to mind the amazing and heart-stirring story of the Moravian Brethren.
In their first twenty years (twenty years only, mark you) they actually sent out more missionaries than THE WHOLE PROTESTANT CHURCH had done in TWO HUNDRED YEARS. Of the closed lands entered, the sufferings gladly endured, the range covered, the lives lived and laid down, the grace of God manifested, it stirs wonder and shame to read. Someone has said that if members of the Protestant churches had gone out in corresponding numbers there would have been a force vastly in excess of the number estimated as necessary to evangelize the whole world.
What was the secret and what were the factors?
In the first place the cross had been deeply wrought into the very being of every one of those people. This had been through deep suffering. Their country was made a field of blood by massacre. They were driven from their homes. From three million they were reduced by persecution to one million population. Indeed, it sometimes appeared as if they would be entirely exterminated and their testimony extinguished.
Out of this fire of affliction there arose a company purified, with another fire burning in their bones. It was the fire of a passionate love for the Lord Jesus. The meetings of these brethren, when later possible, breathed the atmosphere of the upper room in Jerusalem when the tension was similar. Covenants were made that self in all its forms should be entirely banished: self-will, self-love, self-interest, self-seeking.
To be poor in spirit would be their quest and everyone would give himself or herself to be taught by the Holy Spirit. A prayer-watch was set up which should burn day and night, and in relays an entire twenty-four hours was occupied in seeking the Lord. Their motto was: To seek for the Lamb the reward of His sufferings.
All this is its own argument. A deep inwrought work of the cross issued in a mighty personal love for the Lord Jesus. Personal considerations were lost and no persuasion was necessary. Is it necessary to argue or even indicate, that this was a real correspondence to those early days of Christianity?
So much for our first example. We turn to another, in which much of what we have said was taken over with other features. How often has the early story of the China Inland Mission been pointed to and how much appealed to as a great example of a work truly of God in its spiritual life and effectiveness! Books are still being published in retrospect with the object of inspiring and recovering by the example of that work. But it would be a mistake to make everything of the work, the Mission, and overlook the spiritual background and explanations. With all his vision and passion for the evangelization of inland China, it is well known that as he went from place to place with his heart-burden, addressing gatherings of Christians, Mr. Hudson Taylor said comparatively little about China, often nothing at all. He poured out his spiritual message to bring the Lords people to the fuller knowledge of what their union with Christ meant. The central and supreme thing in his message and with the Lord was his emphasis upon THE UNIVERSAL EFFICACY OF PRAYER!
Listen to him: In the study of the divine Word I learned that, to obtain successful workers, not elaborate appeals for help, but earnest prayer to God... and the deepening of the spiritual life of the church, so that men should be unable to stay at home, were what was needed.
Were we to put the inner history of that work the original spiritual background into a few words, we should say that it was not by organization, advocacy, propaganda, appeals or advertisement, but through a man with a deep knowledge of God born of the Cross being deeply inwrought, with a living spiritual message for the Lords people as to their fullest life in Him, and the practical outworking of such a life through prayer. Mr. Hudson Taylor did not rank with the outstanding Bible teachers in the sense of presenting truth in a systematized form. He was not one of the number of great Bible teachers in the generally accepted sense of that term in his generation. His was a message which immediately led to two issues. One, the relationship of the believer to the Lord and then the practical outworking of that relationship in prayer and other forms of service; to bring the gospel to those who had no chance of receiving it except by consecrated effort to reach them.
Mr. Hudson Taylors life turned at a given point upon a deeper realization of what oneness with the Lord really means.
In our last chapter we referred to the close connection between the convention movement, such as Keswick and the worldwide evangelization. In this connection we could point to the rich spiritual ministries of such servants of God as Dr. Andrew Murray and Mr. Charles Inwood, through both of whose ministries strong and fruitful evangelizing missions came into being.
In what way, then, does this link up with those first years of Christianity? The answer surely is found in a right understanding of the meaning of Pentecost.
What was Pentecost? We have lamentably failed to rightly and adequately answer that question. The cumulative and external effects have been made to obscure the deeper elements. We have interpreted Pentecost in terms of activity, signs, waves of emotion, excitability, tongues, healings, etc.
There was something that explained all the manifestations and was more than these. It was THE ENTHRONEMENT OF THE LORD JESUS AS ABSOLUTE SOVEREIGN, WITHOUT RESERVATION OR RIVAL OVER AND IN THE ENTIRE LIFE, IN ALL ITS INTERESTS AND ACTIVITIES OF COMMITTED MEN AND WOMEN! What had happened with the Lord Jesus Himself was made true by the Holy Spirit in the church at its birth. That exaltation to and in heaven meant that Jesus had been released. The book which we know as the Acts of the apostles could well be renamed The Lords Release.
Up till the time of His death, Jesus had been severely limited. He Himself said so. His statement regarding this was:
I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what will I, if it is already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! (Luke 12:49, 50). (Straitened there means under strain and stress.)
His spirit was longing for release; straining against the limitations of His present position. The incarnation in nature and purpose meant geographical and physical limitations. It meant national limitations. It meant the limitations in the men whom He had chosen; their present lack of spiritual intelligence and understanding; their inability to see the nature of the new dispensation which He had come to inaugurate; their earthboundness; their self-interest and ambition; their pride, assertiveness, and natural judgments. Then the terrible limitation of the unfulfilled Law in Israel, the reign of legalism, crushing and imprisoning the souls of those under its rest-destroying power. O, He cried, that the baptism (of the passion) were accomplished, so that I, and they, could be released.
That release came through death and resurrection - ascension. After the passion no more was He subject to physical, geographical, national, and natural straitness; He was emancipated and free. Universality was the new order, and the earth could know the scattered fire. No longer by outward persuasion and command did He have the limited and restrained response of His men. Now by an inward dynamic and illumination they too were escaping their chains and traditional prison walls. Not fear, but courage! Not shame, but glory! Not self-defence, but readiness to suffer, even unto death for His names sake! In one strategic stroke He touched men of every nation under heaven in Jerusalem on one day. What a story follows that release! How the fire spread!
The Lords release meant the release of the Holy Spirit and the release of the Holy Spirit effected the release of the church. Two things therefore arise for consideration and exercise. One, a new apprehension of the release through death; that is, what the Cross really means in the churchs freeing; and two, what the real nature of the present position of Christ is. It is here that Christendom has fallen down, where the church in the beginning rose up. These two things will be our focus in the next chapter. It is here that, undoubtedly, there has to be a spiritual return movement if effectiveness and power are to be recovered.