The dangers and problems that beset all saints often seem to be accentuated when one undertakes definite work for the Lord Jesus.
The problem of discerning divine guidance is an example, Jeremiah recognized that frail, mortal man cannot find the right way through life by himself, and that even a strong man needs someone to direct his steps, Jer. 10. 23. But the proverb encourages us, “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths”. If we would have the direction of God in our service for Him, we should seek it first in everyday matters. To this end were the Scriptures written, that the man of God may be perfect, fully equipped. So we must first search for, and submit to, the guidance we have therein. Then we can expect to say, “I being in the way, the Lord led me”. David indicates the importance of a submissive spirit, saying, “The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way …. What man is he that feareth the Lord? him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose”, Psa. 25. 9-12. We find in Acts 16 the way in which a man was guided who was sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Paul planned one path, and then another, but God directed him to a third, which meant that the Gospel was brought for the first time to Europe. The margin tells us that it was “the Spirit of Jesus” who prevented Paul from taking the wrong course. That is the Spirit who actuated Jesus in His pathway here, the meek and lowly Man who said at every turn of the road, “not as I will, but as thou wilt”.
“Thy testimonies … are my counsellors”, Psa. 119. 24. Twice we read in the Proverbs that “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety”. The more we know of the Scriptures, and the more spiritually minded friends we have, the better. King Rehoboam’s disastrous mistake was in listening to the advice of the younger men rather than to the elders who had learned from Solomon. King Ahab’s mistake was in surrounding himself with counsellors who were false friends and flatterers. The result was fatal. These things were written for our learning. Blessed is the man who seeks the face and will of God with the whole heart. Sometimes much waiting upon God is necessary as to the right place and then the right time to move. It requires “praying in the Holy Spirit”. That is, seeking the face of God with a readiness to pray if His will is for something exactly the opposite to what we think desirable. The impressions one receives in private communion with the Lord must be confirmed by the Scriptures, and then one may look for God’s providential overruling of circumstances.
We have a spiritual warfare to wage against Satanic forces, yet often the fundamental problem is self; self-seeking, self-indulgence, self-pity, and self-satisfaction. It is that to which Satan appealed when he said, “ye shall be as gods”. Our great concern must always be, not what we shall be, but what Christ shall be. The description that Isaiah gives of the false shepherds of Israel is one of men who surely were not true servants of God at all, but it warns us of dangers besetting us all, Isa. 56. 10-12.
First, they are “blind”, living for the things that are seen rather than for the things that are unseen, living for the present approval of men rather than for the eternal approval of God. The true servant must continually say, “That which I see not teach thou me: if I have done iniquity, I will do no more”, Job. 34. 32. But these are “shepherds that cannot understand”, instead of opening the ear morning by morning to listen to God.
Secondly, “they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark”. Paul writes not only of teaching, but of “warning every man”. The true servant warns the ungodly of coming judgment, and he warns the believer of careless or selfish living, and the consequent loss for eternity. Ezekiel tells us that if a watchman does not warn men of their danger their blood will be upon his head, that is, he will be responsible for their fate. To prophesy smooth things, rather than to declare the whole counsel of God, is fatal folly. He who has God’s Word must speak it faithfully. We need the skill of the Lord Jesus, giving here a little and there a little, but we dare not be dumb dogs; we dare not say to saint or sinner, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace, Col. 1. 28; Jer. 6. 14.
Thirdly, “they are greedy dogs which can never have enough”. They are concerned more with their own interests than with the condition of the people of God. The faithful servant, on the other hand, says, like Paul to the Corinthians, “I seek not yours, but you … and I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved”; even such a servant as he said, “I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest … after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected”, 2 Cor. 12. 14-15; 1 Cor. 9. 27 R.V.
Sooner or later everyone must face the problem of discouragement. In an alien world we must expect this; therefore the Lord has bidden us count the cost at the outset. Like Paul, the faithful servant will be “troubled on every side … cast down, but not destroyed”. But this must not lead to self-pity. The Lord warned His own that in the world they would have tribulation. It is when a servant has carried out his work conscientiously, and yet finds that his brethren misunderstand him, or fail to give him the support that he expects, that a greater test comes. He must then be steadfast and unmoveable, knowing that in due season we shall reap if we faint not. He must commend himself asthe minister of God, “in all patience”, in all endurance. This is the first and outstanding mark of a faithful servant given in 2 Corinthians 6. Early in life we must learn to maintain close communion with the Lord whom we serve; thus we shall continue steadfastly when local conditions are irksome, and we shall be better able to face discouragement later. “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears”, we shall be able to go on, “by evil report and good report”, till the end.
While apparent failure tends to self-pity, apparent success often tends to self-satisfaction. Therefore God sets before us repeatedly the example of our Lord Jesus. He humbled Himself. We are to let the same attitude of mind govern us, not being eager to grasp or to retain a place, but esteeming others better than ourselves. His was the spirit of self-abasement and self-sacrifice. This is the true spirit of service which brings pleasure to the heart of God, whether in Him or in us; see Phil. 2. 3-9.
The heart of man naturally exhibits a spirit diametrically opposed to this. It is self-centred, not God-centred. This explains the repeated dispute among the twelve apostles as to who would become the greatest in the kingdom of God. Therefore the Lord instructed them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them … but ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve … I am among you as he that serveth”, Luke 22. 24-27. Paul drinking of his Master’s spirit, warned the Corinthians against undue admiration of gifted men. He asks, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers (servants) by whom ye believed ?”. Then, pointing out that it is God who prospers their work, he adds, “So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase”. He reckons the servant, however gifted, to be nothing, 1 Cor. 3. 5-7.
God has ordered the functioning of the churches in the present time with all this in view. Christ alone must have the preeminence in the assembly of His saints. This will guide His servants as to the place they take among His people.
When Israel forfeited the privilege of becoming a kingdom of priests to God, He appointed the family of Aaron to a peculiarly honoured position in His service. But no such distinction between priest and people exists today. Every believer is part of the priestly company, with a ministry in the worship of God and in testimony to men. There later developed in Israel an equally marked distinction between the religious leaders and the rest of the nation. The scribes and Pharisees loved to be marked out by a distinctive dress and by distinctive titles. The Lord Jesus solemnly warned His disciples against these things. They were not to give, or to accept, religious titles. “Be ye not called Rabbi: for one is your Master (Teacher) … and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth … whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted”; see Matt. 23. 2-12. All is in keeping with the repeated injunction, “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord”.
Despite these clear instructions, there grew up in Christendom, after the passing of the apostles, a grievous distinction between the “clergy” and the “laity”. Even when the reformers exposed the unscriptural pretensions of the Romish priesthood, and threw off its shackles, they retained the “ordination” of “ministers”, or of “deacons”, or “priests”. And even among those who love the Lord today many cling to the idea of having one man as a “pastor” or “minister” of a church. Although such a brother may avoid a distinctive dress and a distinctive title, this means that “the commandments of the Lord” given in 1 Corinthians are largely set aside; see 1 Cor. 14. 26-37; 1 Tim. 2. 8. Scripture nowhere suggests a “pastor” to conduct proceedings in church gatherings or a “priest” to pronounce a blessing. The word translated “pastor” is normally and rightly translated “shepherd”; and there is a big difference between being one of the pastors (shepherds) in a church and being the pastor of a church. We must recognize the gift and devotion of some who have taken a clerical position and whom God has used. But we must remember that others for conscience towards God in the light of His Word have given up such a position with the financial support attached to it. Our own responsibility is not to criticize another man’s servant, but to heed the Word of God for ourselves, to be fully assured that we are running in the way of His commandments. “Thus saith the Lord … to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word”, Isa. 66. 1-2.
The problem of material support for the Lord’s servants we hope to consider in our next study, if God permit.