By S.D. Gordon
God needs men. That is the tremendous fact that stands out in every generation. There never has been a corner since Adam walked out of Eden where that need was not thrust into some man's face, and thrust into God's face. It is being thrust into our faces to-day as ever before, and as never before. For the ends of the earth are come upon us, for the helping touch of our hands, or for the drag-back to be overcome by some one's else helping touch.
God is a needy God. That fact is spelled out by every page of this old Book of His. And it is spelling itself out anew by the book of the life of the race whose current chapter is being written by our generation. God's wonderful plan for man lies at the root of His need. In His great graciousness He made us in His own image. That is, He gave to us the right of full free choice. He has never infringed upon that image, that right of choice, by so much as a whispered breath or the moving of a hair. He gave man the sovereignty of the earth and its life. And every move God has made among men on earth has been through a man, and through his free consent.
The tragedy of sin has intensified God's need tremendously. It has intensified everything, man's misunderstanding and hatred of God, the love of God's heart for man, and the distance between the two. It is constantly intensifying pain, sorrow, man's need, and the blight upon nature. It increases God's difficulty in working out His will of love for man. For it makes it increasingly hard to get even Christian men to see things through God's eyes, and gladly give themselves up to His purposes.
Poor God! Such a needy God! Rich in power, in character, in the loving worship of the upper world, in His love for all, rich beyond power of human calculation; so poor in the response of men to the wooing of His heart. So poor in the glad, intelligent co-operation of those who trust Him for salvation in the next world, but are content with very little of it in this. So needy in the lack of those who bring love and life, intellect and wealth, and lay all at His feet.
This has been God's problem, to respect the rights He has given man, and yet work through him in carrying out His great plan of love. This is the warp into which the whole of the Bible fabric is woven--the tragedy of sin, of sin-hurt, sin-stubborned men, the patience of God in wooing men back, and His exquisite tact and unlimited patience is always working through men's consent, and through human channels.
To-day He comes to you and me, pleadingly asking us to help Him in His passionate plan for His race. Some few have the gift of leadership. Most of us are moulded to follow. He needs both leader and follower. He needs the life. He needs the love. Through these, whether in prominent place or shadowed, in leadership or in following along some well-beaten path, through these--the life, the love, He works in His great simple plan for overcoming the tragedy of sin. That plan includes the whole race. God has no favourites among the nations. When the hour is ripe for an advance step, a man is found ripened for leadership. This is the real final explanation of certain great leaders. It was not the man himself alone, but the coming together of the time, the man, and the plan; the time for an advance step, the man who had yielded to God up to the ripening point, the plan of God. And the decisive thing was the plan of God.
President Finney used to insist very earnestly that revivals followed a fixed law of action. When men would with all their hearts fit into the great laws of grace, there would follow the gracious revival results even as effect follows cause in nature; and without question he was wholly right. In addition to this, however, there is a further fact to note, of which Finney himself was a striking illustration. In God's broader plans for the race when the time is ripe for an advance step, He has some man in training for leadership in that hour, and so ripeness of time and of man and of plan come together. But the chief factor at work is God Himself.
This, and only this, explains fully certain great religious movements and leaders. Such men in later centuries as Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, Calvin in France and Switzerland, Wesley and Whitefield in England, and Finney in both America and England. Only this can satisfactorily explain Moody's unusual career. He was a man of strong native parts, of marked individuality, and of utter surrender to God. And this combination would have brought great results under any circumstances, but it does not explain the great movement in which he was the leader. It was God's hour for an advance movement, the man so untrained in men's schools, was slowly made ready in God's school, and man and hour and plan fitted together. But the chief emphasis remains on the fact that it was the time in God's gracious plan for an advance. And the nations of the earth have been feeling the blessed impulse of that advance ever since.
But the leaders are few; and what could they do without the great mass of followers? God needs the faithful ones, unknown by name, hidden away in quiet corners, each the centre of a group which is touching a larger group, and so on, ever widening. Everything turns on this,--letting God have the full use of us; living as though God were the realest thing in this matter-of-fact, every-day world; going on the supposition that the Bible is indeed His Word, and is a workable book for daily problems and needs, the one workable book; making everything bend toward getting His will done. When we get up into His presence, this will be found to have been the one thing worth while. When the race story has been all told, the biography of earth brought to its last page, this will be the one thing that will stand out, and remain, that we let Him use us just as He would, and that we have brought everything at our disposal to bear on doing His will of love.
He comes to you and me afresh to-day with His old-time winsome patience, asking the use of us. He always thinks of us in two ways, for our own sakes and for our help in reaching the others. Followers are messengers. Some are special messengers in speech. But all are messengers in their lives; that is, they are meant to be. This is our Lord's plan. He wants us to live the message.
That old word "witness" has grown to mean three things, that you know something, that you tell it, and that you tell it with your life. Every time the word witness is used in the New Testament it stands for some form of the word underneath from which our English word "martyr" comes. We have come to associate that word "martyr" with the idea of giving one's life in a violent way for the truth believed. This is the meaning that has grown into the word. But the practical meaning of this martyr-witness word goes a bit deeper yet than this. It is not merely giving the life out in the crisis of dying, but that the whole life is being given out in a continual martyrdom, that is, a continual witnessing. These words, follower, messenger, witness, run together. In following we are witnesses. We know something about this Man who goes before, a blessed something that has entered into the marrow and joints of one's being. We tell it. We tell it chiefly by living it. We are messengers. The whole life is a message of what Christ Jesus has done for us, and is to us.
A Confession of Faith in Wood and Nails.
Now, this is the thing--this living it--that God has always counted on most. There are in the Bible most striking illustrations of lived or acted messages. One man actually preached a sermon nearly fifteen months long merely by the position of his body. You would call that a long sermon, but it had the desired result, at least partly. The man got the ears of the people. They were hardened sermon listeners. The talked sermons had no effect. So they were given an acted sermon.
I think it may help to look at a few of the old-time followers. The one chief thing that marked these men was that they lived the messages. They experienced the truth they stood for, sometimes to the extent of much suffering. This experience became part of the man's life. And this it was that God used as His message. You cannot be a follower fully without the thing taking your very life, and taking it to the feeling, deep-feeling, point.
One of the earliest of these followers was Enoch. His brief story is like the first crocus of spring coming up through the cold snow, like a pretty flower growing up out of the thin crack of earth between great stones. There was such a contrast with the surroundings. It is in the Fifth of Genesis, one of the most tiresome chapters in the whole Bible. Its tiresome monotony is an evidence of its inspiration; for it is a picture of life with God left out. There are five chapters in Enoch's biography. He was born; with that he had nothing to do. Like his lineal descendants and his neighbours he just "lived" for a while, went through the usual physical and mental and social motions of life, no more. Then a babe came into his household, a fresh act of God, a fresh call of God, one of God's loudest calls. This was the turning point. He must have heard and answered that call, for a new life began. He "walked with God." This became his chief trait. It stands in contrast with his former life. Before he merely lived; now he was on a higher plane, he walked with God. The final chapter,--"God took him." They two had a long walk one day along the hilltops--or was it only a short walk?--and Enoch never came back. God kept him.
Now, in all this Enoch was God's messenger to the whole race. Jude speaks of his prophesying or preaching. But the emphasis of this simple Genesis biography is not on his preaching but on himself. That man walking about in his simple daily touch of heart with God,--that was the message. It wasn't an easy thing to do. The whole set of his time was against it. It was an evil time; impurity and violence were its outstanding traits. Enoch's life cut straight across the grain of his time. He was the leader of the first racial family, the chief one in the direct line from Adam. And he insisted on living habitually a simple, holy, pure life, walking with God, never out of touch. Following meant keeping in step with God, never missing step.
And this was talked about. Every one knew it. He was doubtless felt to be out of touch with his time. And he was, blessedly out of touch. It was probably never harder to walk with God. But he did it. This is how he helped God. This is what he was asked to do. God was speaking to the whole race through this great man's simple habit of life. And He spoke still louder when, one day, He took him away. Enoch's absence was the talk of the race. "He was not found." Clearly they looked for him, looked everywhere and discussed him and his peculiar manner of life, his strange disappearance, and his freedom from death.
So he met God's need. He became God's medium of communication to the entire race, simply in what he was, and so it is that most of us may help God. And if we will, He will be less needy, for He will speak through our lives to all whom we touch. Following means walking with God. So we help God in His need.
And Enoch helped God to get Noah. The touch of Enoch is on his great-grandson. Grace is hereditary, when there's enough of it. Enoch had the boldness to set a new standard. It was easier for Noah to reach up toward it, when it was already set. Now, Noah was asked to do something more. Enoch walked with God, the personal life was the one thing. Noah walked with God, and did something more.
He was asked to believe something unusual. It was something that could be believed only by accepting God's word against every other circumstance and probability; that is, that a flood was coming to cover the whole earth, and destroy the race. And he was asked further to put his belief into the shape of an immense house-boat probably built where it wouldn't float except such a flood did come. That huge boat was his confession of faith. He acted his faith. It would be a costly thing, perhaps taking all Noah's wealth, and taking some years to build. That belief was about the unlikeliest thing imaginable from every natural standpoint, with God left out. And God is practically left out, except as a very last questionable consideration, then, and ever since, and to-day. Probably Noah was the butt of gossip and ridicule, quite possibly of scandal and reproach, year after year, by the whole race; and he would feel it, and feel it for his family's sake. That boat and its dreaming builder were the standing joke of the time. He was regarded as a fool, a fanatic, a poor, unbalanced enthusiast, building his gigantic boat on dry land! Perhaps some regretted that he brought the cause of religion into reproach by being such an extremist.
Yet the only thing he did was to believe God's word, and to shape his conduct accordingly. He simply did as God asked. He heard God correctly. His ears were trained to hear. He did what God wanted, regardless of what people thought. That was how he helped God in His need. The race was saved through this fresh start, else it had burned out long ago. Following meant a true life lived, and faith in God expressed in wood and nails, and in good money paid out, while men met him coldly on the road, or jeered.
Long years afterward there was another man who helped God so decidedly that he became known as "the friend of God." And the word "friend" is used this time in the emergency sense. He did the thing God asked him to do, and this helped God in a plan He was working out for the whole race. God had to have a man. Abraham was willing to be the man. And in that he became God's helpful friend. The thing God asked him to do seems very simple, and yet it was a radical thing for this man to do. He was to leave his father's family, and all his kinsfolk, and live a separated life, both from them and from all others. It is almost impossible for the West to realize how close and strong family ties are in the Orient. Separation meant an unusual, sad break in holiest ties. God was trying a new step in His fight against sin. He had separated the leader of sin from all others. He had removed all the race except a seed of good. Both of these plans had failed, through man's failure. Now a new, farther-reaching plan is begun. A man is separated from all others, to become the seed of a new nation, a faith nation, which should be a different people from others, embodying in themselves God's ideals for all.
Abraham is asked to become a separated man in a peculiar sense, separate outwardly, separate in his worship of the true God, and separate in living a faith life. It was to be a life dependent wholly on God regardless of outer circumstance or difficulty. There was a training time of twenty-five years before Abraham was ready for the next step,--the bringing of the next in line of this new faith stock. Separation, then still further separation, an open stand for God in the land of strangers, then a series of close personal tests, each entering into the marrow of his life,--this was the training to get the man ready to be a faith father to his son, the next in line of a faith people. And the hardest test of all came after the child of faith had grown to manhood. Then he became a child of faith in his own experience, as well as in his father's. Following meant separation. It meant believing God against the unlikeliest circumstances, against nature itself, hoping in the midst of hopelessness. Everything spelled out "hopelessness." God alone spelled out "hope." He took God against everything else. It meant going to school to God, until he could be used as God planned. And Abraham consented. He followed. He helped God in His need. He befriended God; he became His friend in His need.
But every generation needs men. Each new step in the plan needs a new man. In a sore crisis of that plan, long after, another man's name, Moses, is known to us, only because he singled himself out as being willing to let God use him. In his unconscious training, the training of circumstances into which it was natural to fit, he was peculiarly prepared for the future task. Bred in Egypt as the son of the ruler's household, he received the best school training of his day, with all the peculiar advantages of his position in the royal family.
Following meant more to Moses, in what he gave up of worldly advantage, than to any other named in the Bible record. Egypt was the world empire of that day. Moses was in the innermost imperial circles, and could easily have become the dominant spirit of the court, if not the successor to the Pharaoh's throne. But he heard the call. His mother helped train his ears. He answered "Yes" to God, without knowing how much was involved. Following meant giving up, then a long course of training in the university of the desert, with the sheep and the stars and--God. It meant a repeated risking of his life not only in his bold dealings with Pharaoh, but afterward with the nation-mob, mob-nation, whose leader, and father and school-teacher, and everything else, he had to be for forty years. And it meant much on the other side, too.
"Had Moses failed to go, had God
Granted his prayer, there would have been
For him no leadership to win;
No pillared fire; no magic rod,
No smiting of the sea; no tears
Ecstatic, shed on Sinai's steep;
No Nebo, with a God to keep
His burial; only forty years
Of desert, watching with his sheep."
A Yet Deeper Meaning.
When we turn to the leaders of the latter years of the Kingdom time of God's teacher-nation, the prophetic time, there is one thing that stands out sharply in the men God used. It was this, a man's inner personal life and experience were made use of to an unusual degree. It is as though the sacred inner life were sacrificed. The holy privacies were laid bare to the public gaze. The sweets of the inner holy of holies of the personal life were given up. The people were so far God-hardened that only acted preaching, lived messages, that took it out of one's very life, with pain in the taking, had any effect.
This is most markedly so in the case of Hosea, whose experience it seems almost if not wholly impossible for us to take in. It is true that the Christianized West has conceptions of personal privacy to which the East is a stranger. Yet, even so, the way in which these men were asked to yield up their inner personal lives, must have been a most marked thing to these Orientals. For God used it as the one thing apparently, the extreme thing, to touch their hearts with His appeal.
Isaiah had just such peculiar experiences. The birth of a son is planned for, and told of for the purpose of making more emphatic the message to the dull ears and slow heart of the nation. His two sons bore names of strange meaning, as a means of teaching truths that were peculiarly distasteful to the people. Isaiah takes one of these strangely named sons as he goes to deliver a message to the king. And the son standing by his father's side is a reminder in his name of a disagreeable truth. A little later the man is actually required to go about barefooted, and without clothing sufficient for conventional respectability, and to continue this for three years. When we remember that he was not an erratic extremist, but a sober-minded, fine-grained gentleman of refinement and of a good family, it helps us to understand a little how hard-hearted and stubborn were a people that could be appealed to only in such a way.
And it tells us, too, how utterly surrendered was the man who was willing thus to give up his private personal life. How much easier to have been simply an earnest, eloquent preacher, with his inner personal life lived free from public gaze, a thing sacred to himself. Following meant the giving up of the sacred private life to a strangely marked degree, for God to use.
Even more marked are the experiences that Jeremiah was asked and consented to go through. It would seem as though the repeated conspiracies against his life, the repeated imprisonments in vile dungeons dangerous to health and life, and the shame of being put in the public stocks before the rabble, would have been much for God to ask, and for a man to give. But there is something that goes much farther and deeper into the very marrow of his life than these. He is bidden not to marry, not to have a family life of his own. And he obeyed. This was to be so only and solely as a message to the people. A message couched in such startling language they might listen to. Again we must remember the Oriental setting to appreciate the significance of this. In the East the unit of society is not the individual but the family. A man's marriage is planned for by the family, as a means of building up the family. To be childless and especially son-less was felt to be peculiarly unfortunate, almost bordering on disgrace.
This meant for Jeremiah not only the loss of personal joys and delights, but that his line would be broken off from his father's family. He would be without heir, or future, in the family history. So following meant going yet deeper into the inner personal life, for the sake of God's plan. This giant's strength is revealed in nothing more than in his tear-wet laments over his people. And he gave all this strength to following. He said "Yes" to God's need and request, though it must have taken his very life to say it.
But Ezekiel was asked to do something even beyond this. He was the messenger of God to the colony of Hebrew exiles in Assyria. His accounts of the visions of God reveal a remarkable power of detailed description, and a remarkably strong mentality. Strange to say, these people in captivity are yet harder to reach than were their fathers in their native land. Yet, not strange, for the human heart is the same when it won't open to the purifying of the upper currents of air. Here the man himself literally became the message. He actually lay upon his left side for thirteen months and then on his right side for six weeks longer.
During all that time he ate food that was particularly repugnant, and it was carefully weighed out, and the water as carefully measured out for his use. He had to rise, no doubt, for various reasons, but the bulk of the time for nearly fifteen months he lay out where all could see him. His fellow-exiles, I suppose, looked and wondered, laughed and gossiped perhaps, and then as time wore on, they thought and thought more, and were awed as they began slowly to take in the meaning of this strange message of God. Thereafter Ezekiel was the leader, to whose house the leaders of the colony came, and to whose words they intently listened.
But there was a yet deeper meaning to following than we have found yet. It is a meaning that awes one's heart into amazed silence. He was married. His wife is spoken of very tenderly as "the desire of thine eyes." He was told that she would be taken away out of his life. She would die. That was the great thing. Then he was not to mourn outwardly for her; this was the second thing. He was to be before the people as though the greatest sorrow of his life had not happened. Is it any wonder the people came astonished to know what this meant? The simple brevity with which he tells of the occurrence takes hold of one's heart. "So I spake unto the people in the morning; and at even my wife died; and I did in the morning as I was commanded." There was no questioning, no hesitancy of action, but a simple, prompt obedience, even though his heart was breaking. This was what God asked of him. God needed this in His dealings with these people of His in whom His world-plan centred. How desperate must have been the need that called for such an experience as this! Ezekiel said "Yes" even to this. Surely there was here some of that Calvary meaning, of the secondary sort, of which we have spoken together. Following meant not only giving his personality and life, but now it meant giving what must have been more than life itself.
To Daniel following meant something essentially different. He was not a messenger to his own people, nor their leader. He was a messenger to the great world-rulers of his time, through the visions he interpreted, and through his unbending faithfulness and purity of life; The thing that stands out largest is the life he lived, a life of simplicity in habit, of purity and consistency, with an unwavering faith in God. God could use him to speak to the great emperors. So he helped God to get His message to men so hard to reach through a human channel.
Following meant a pure life. It was Daniel's insistence on being pure and true that shut him up with the wild beasts. And it was through his unflinching fidelity and persistence that God could send His message anew, in the most public manner, out to all the millions of that great world-empire. Following meant to a marked degree a pure life as the basis of the service rendered. It proved to mean a lions' den, and the power of God overcoming the instincts of ravenous beasts. But clear beyond these it meant that God could reach His world with His message to an unusual extent.
Daniel's three companions helped God by means of a most thrilling experience, a really terrible experience. God had been pleading with the great Nebuchadnezzar through Daniel's message. Now He wants to speak again in a way that will compel attention. He needs these three young men. They consent to be His messengers. It meant going through a terrible ordeal. They simply remained true in their personal devotion to God. This was the thing God needed, and used. Everything of use to God roots down in the life. The personal plea of the great king, and the prospect of a horrible death fail alike to move them. They probably had quite resigned themselves to the fate of being burned alive for the truth. But God had a different purpose. He was thinking about this ruler with whom He dealt so personally and unusually, time and again.
The three men, walking quietly up and down in the seven-times heated furnace in company with a glorious looking person "like a son of the gods"--this was the message God wanted spoken to the ruler He was pleading with. His strangely marvellous power, and His personal regard for His faithful followers--this was what God was trying to say to Nebuchadnezzar. He asked the use of these three young men. Their personal loyalty to Himself even unto death--this was what He wanted. Through this He reached the heart of the man He was after.
The experience of these men is an intensely interesting study. It was a fearful ordeal that they went through. Yet it was wholly mental, and of the spirit. They suffered no pain of body, nor inconvenience. The fire only made them free, burned up the bonds that held them. It took great strength of will, of decision, to stay steady through all the fearful test. Yet nothing happened to their bodies except to help them. God took care of that. They gave Him what He asked. He gave them more than they expected. They probably expected death and were willing. God had a deeper plan He was working out. How glad they must have been that they followed fully, that they didn't disappoint God.
Following meant simply being true, even though the road led through a furnace. God would attend to the furnace. Their part was simply to follow where He led. And our God is needing just such acted messages to-day. He is longing for just such opportunities to reveal His power and love, not merely to us, but through us to His world.
Let us take time for one more of these faithful followers. This time it is a young woman. It is at the most critical juncture of God's plan, thus far. He needed a woman whom He could use to bring His Son, and could use further to mother that Son's early years. All unconsciously Mary of Nazareth and of Bethlehem was fitting into His plan in her life, her simple, pure, godly, personal life. We can understand that God wooed her especially to such a life of heart devotion as a preparation for the after part. And she said "Yes" to all His wooings, never suspecting what was to come of it. You never know how much a simple "Yes" to God may mean, or a "No." You never know how much of service may grow out of the true life. Yet all true service is something coming out of the life.
Then the plan of God was made known to her,--the marvellous plan, yet so simple to Him. And again she said a simple, awed "Yes." She waits only long enough to ask the natural, woman's question as to method. There was no questioning of God's power, what He could do, and would do. It came to mean hurting suspicion, peculiarly hurting to as pure and gentle a soul as she. Apparently this was unavoidable. It speaks volumes for her openness of both mind and heart to God, that she instantly took in Gabriel's meaning, and could take it in that such an unprecedented thing was possible. It would have saved her the cruel suspicion if Joseph had been told beforehand, but the whole probability is that he could not have taken it in that such a thing was possible.
Following meant the glad "Yes" to the early wooing up to a pure devoted life. It meant saying a further "Yes" to the plan of God even though something so unusual, and with it the misunderstanding and cruel suspicion, on the one point most sensitive to a woman, and by the one nearest her. But she said "Yes" both times. She let God have the use of her life for His plan. That was all He asked. That is all He asks. But that is what He asks.
These are a few of the glorious company of followers, the goodly fellowship of those who have helped God in His passionate plan for His world, the noble army of willing ones. But the number is incomplete. The plan is not yet fully worked out. The need is not yet wholly met. It was never more urgent. To-day the insistent voice still comes as of old, asking you and me to follow.
And no one can tell how much his following may mean to God in reaching His world.