By T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: Hebrews 12:22; Isaiah 34:8.
"Ye are come to Zion."
"For it is the day of the Lord's vengeance, the year of recompence in the controversy of Zion."
What is the controversy of Zion? It is nothing other than the controversy for the life of Zion. Zion is often represented in the Old Testament as Jehovah's bride, as the one betrothed to Him, to whom He was married. We are familiar with such a phrase as "the virgin daughter of Jerusalem". The history of Zion was a chequered history. Zion was constantly in the realm of dispute, the object of the envy, covetousness, antagonism of the nations, and all the nations were found at one time or another in some kind of relationship with Zion. The history of Zion is a very significant and suggestive history from a spiritual standpoint. The controversy, then, was God's controversy with the nations for Zion's life. The prophecy of Isaiah makes that very clear. God was taking up the cause of Zion, of Zion's very life, and entering into a terrible controversy with the nations on this matter.
Let us bear that in mind as we take up the New Testament and consider the spiritual interpretation. In the Book of the Revelation we find the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, adorned as a bride, and the angel taking the Apostle and saying to him: "Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb" (Revelation 21:9). The Apostle goes on to say: "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God". The closing chapter of the Revelation brings us into the city and the central thing therein is the tree of life, while down its centre flows the river of the water of life; and then, as this fullness is viewed, the Spirit and the bride say: "Come." Do you see the spiritual follow-through? Here the controversy for the life of the spiritual Zion is at an end, and life - full, triumphant, effulgent - is the characteristic. Throughout the book of Revelation, God is dealing with the nations, and at its close all nations are seen as having been brought under the judgment of His Son, the controversy of Zion has been settled once for all, and Zion is found at last triumphing in fullness of life.
We have said enough to establish the fact that the controversy is in relation to life, and it is that with which we are concerned at this time. There is a spiritual sense in which we are in God's controversy for Zion today. If we take the sixth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians as representing what is going on in the spiritual realm, namely, a conflict with world rulers, then the rest of that letter makes it perfectly clear that the controversy with the world rulers is concerning the Church: concerning the very life of the Church, the life of the elect. We are, then, in the controversy and the issue is no other, and no less, than the issue of life.
In our earlier meditation, in considering the messages of the Lord to the seven churches in Asia, we were seeing that the thing which occupies the place of pre-eminent importance and value to the Lord Himself is the testimony of life - not tradition, for they had that; not so much Christian work and activity, for they were there; not so many good and commendable things praiseworthy even in the sight of God, for they were there - but that which is central and basic to the Divine election, choice and apprehension is the testimony of life. In the first chapter of the book the Lord is presented as the One who is living, who became dead, but is alive unto the ages of the ages, and has the keys of death and Hades. Alive now from the dead, He is seen standing in the midst of the lampstands, the vessels of testimony, and judging them according to what He is as the Living One, as the One who has conquered death. What He discovers and reveals in those churches is the measure in which that testimony to Him has been lost. This is more to Him than what is found amongst them of interest, concern, activity, for Him and for His things. He shows the things which have struck a blow at that testimony and names them; the things, that is to say, which have interfered with the full expression of Himself as the Living One. So it is disclosed that what to Him is more precious than anything else, than all other things put together, is the spiritual life, in fullness, in power, in expression, in impact, in testimony.
THE LORD'S JEALOUSY OVER LIFE
The priority and primacy of life is referred to in a fragment of Scripture in a much-overlooked little New Testament letter - Titus 1:2: "The hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before times eternal". ("Before the world or the ages began" - Amplified New Testament.)
I want to carry that thought 'from before times eternal' into the Old Testament, to see how jealous the Lord is over life, and what is His relationship thereto.
1. THE TREE OF LIFE
It is necessary to go right back to the beginning of the Book, where you will find that immediately there has been that initial disobedience by which sin and death have entered and man has fallen out of his position in relationship to God, and out of his state as created by God, the question of the tree of life arises. Following the judgment upon the serpent, and upon the man and the earth, God takes His step of precaution in relation to the tree of life. He proceeds to safeguard it, lest this man should put forth his hand and take of the tree of life and live for ever. God set His cherubim to keep the way to it with the flaming sword which turned in every direction, so that the tree of life should not be approached.
The interpretation of that is to be found in the last chapter of the Bible. The tree of life in the midst of the city of God is something from which all sin and sinfulness is excluded. Without are seen to be all those who represent fallen Adam, sinful nature. No one can eventually be found in the presence of God, in a living relationship with God, and no one can know eternal life unless the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus has been made effectual in them. The point is that, right at the beginning, God took a step to protect life from the touch and the appropriation of sinful man. God was not going to have a sinful state perpetuated indefinitely. The last chapter of the Bible sets its seal to the fact and shows that the sinful state is fully and finally dealt with. The state perpetuated is a state in fulness of life by reason of what the Lamb has wrought through the shedding of His blood, even as the book of the Revelation makes clear. If at the commencement of the book we can say: "Unto him that loved us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood...", then at the end of the book we can be found within the city, drinking of the water of life freely, and living in the full power of that life. Thus we see right at the beginning God's jealous attitude and action in relation to life. It is precious to note that He suspends the possession of it until the mighty work of the Cross has dealt with all that state which, if perpetuated, would be but the perpetuation of a lost world, of a world outside of the Divine intention.
2. CAIN AND ABEL
The next step to the unveiling of God's attitude toward life is seen in His dealings with Cain. When Cain has slain his brother Abel, God instantly appears on the scene. There is no delay; it is as though God hastens to the situation. Here is something which concerns Him preeminently. No sooner has Cain shed the blood of his brother, and that warm blood trickled into the sand, than God is on the scene. "Where is Abel thy brother? And he said I know not: am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground" (Genesis 4:9-10). Then see what God has to say to Cain. He is cursed. He is marked. Everybody who shall observe him shall see him as scarred by God and branded: and he, hardened as he may have been, and insolent to God, has to humble himself and say: "My punishment is greater than I can bear." That is God's attitude toward life - His jealousy over it.
We pass to Noah. The terms of the covenant with Noah are familiar to us, the equalizing of things in that covenant, and the terrible warning to man: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed..." (Genesis 9:6). God will keep things even. No man shall get an advantage in this matter. No man who touches that thing which is precious to God shall come by any gain. God will bring it to evenness. He will equalize in the realm of life. You rob man of that and you shall be robbed; you shall not be the gainer. That is a solemn warning and shows to man what is God's attitude toward life.
There is a great disclosure in the Old Testament of God's mind for man in this matter. God's thought is life, not death. God is against death and for life. We glance back a step and see Enoch, who breaks the long story of death: "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him" (Genesis 5:24). That is an offset to the course of fallen man, showing what God's thought is when a man comes into real fellowship with Himself. It is life, not death, and that was ever God's thought. It remains God's thought, and He is going to have it fully and gloriously expressed in a company of His own believing children, who will be translated to His presence even as Enoch was, and will not see death or the grave.
5. ABRAHAM AND ISAAC
In Abraham and Isaac it is further set forth that when God has a great purpose in mind, when He is moving out on that basis, He must have things brought on to the ground where death cannot touch His purpose. Isaac is the one in whom the purpose of God is bound up, and therefore for the sake of the purpose Isaac must be put typically beyond the power of death. He must come into death to have death destroyed, that God's purpose might be realized upon a ground where death is not future, but past. That is the great illustration of Divine purpose being upon the ground of deathless life. And in the greater Isaac the purposes of God are all going to be realized, without any fear whatever of death breaking in to interrupt, because in Christ death is past and not future.
All these are vivid, strong, and, in most cases, agonized expressions of God's attitude to the clatter of life. It is a very costly thing. It was infinitely costly to God. It cost those who were in fellowship with God much also. All this is the controversy of Zion in principle - God's jealousy in the matter of life.
We pass on, so far as the arrangement of the record is concerned, and come to Job; and here Satan is found in the heavenlies with access to God. God challenges him: "Hast thou considered my servant Job? for there is none like him in the earth..." (Job 2:3). Satan sneers back at God: "Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will renounce thee to thy face." Do you see how the question of life is bound up in that challenge, and what subtlety there is in the whole movement? God gives Satan permission to touch Job; to touch his body, to touch his family, his property, everything that he has, but says: "... Only spare his life." Here again is God's jealousy for life. Satan gets to work, and the subtlety is this: that Satan presses, and presses, and presses along every line, by every means, seeking to touch Job's life indirectly, because he cannot touch it directly. Satan's indirect method is to move Job to break with God by cursing Him, so that his life is forfeited and destroyed.* (*[footnote] The suggestion of Job's wife may have been that he should break with God, and then take his own life.) To understand the book of Job we have to recognise that it is a controversy for life. We have said it is a controversy over faith, but that is a relative factor. The real controversy is over life. We shall see the faith element at some subsequent time, but here God's jealousy for life is seen. Job is brought to great straits, but the life link is never broken, and the end is life triumphant. We see fullness, victory, everything that speaks of life at the end.
We sometimes come very near to collapse under the strain, under the trial, under the tension. When the enemy is pressing to quench our spiritual life through body, through mind, through circumstance, we are often brought very low, as was Job. We have our questionings, we get despondent, we may well-nigh despair. Yes, every heart knows its own story of how far it goes into gloom even about God, His wisdom, His love, His faithfulness. But because God is jealous for the life, and is the Custodian of the life (we are not talking about the natural physical life), the issue is always more than we had before. We always emerge with increase. In a lesser way it is Revelation 22 after every conflict.
We must remember that in all that we are saying there is a factor extra to the natural, physical life. The real battle is in the realm of man's spiritual relationship with God.
7. THE EXODUS
We think of the story of Israel and the emancipation from Egypt, and once again everything is entered in the issue of life and death. God heads it right up to the main, the final, issue of life and death. God, moreover, takes His own way, makes this own provision, so that when death is to be broad in the land, smiting, smiting, smiting, devastating everywhere, His own people shall be immune from death, and shall be in life because of the blood. The life of His own is taken into His own Custody and if the life of His own necessitates the smiting of a nation, grim as that necessity may be, He will follow it out. God stands at nothing when the life of His people is at stake. His jealousy over life is made very clear in all these things.
8. LEVITICAL LAW OF LIFE
I hardly need bring to your remembrance those passages of Scripture, in Leviticus for example, concerning God's attitude towards life, and the emphasis laid upon the necessity for the people to avoid drinking the blood, because the blood is the life and the life is in the blood - "Whosoever it be that eateth any blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people" (Leviticus 7:27). Here is God preserving the life. Life is sacred to Him. Life is His. Man must not appropriate it for himself. Man must not take it and make it his. Life is God's and must ever be regarded as sacred unto God. It means a good deal more than that, of course, but we simply state what is apposite to our present consideration.
All these things, when summed up, bring us primarily to this: that life is sacred to God, and He is intensely jealous over it. Then, that life and not death is God's will. Again, sin and death always go together just as righteousness and life go together. The Old Testament is an earthly type of heavenly truth, and all this is throwing its light forward and saying that what is represented there in those Old Testament Scriptures as to God's attitude toward life - there primarily represented by man's earthly, soul-life - is but figurative, typical, a foreshadowing of that dispensation to come, in which eternal life, Divine life, would be the life given to man.
A LIFE THAT IS ETERNAL
Thus when we come over into the new dispensation, we find that it is not merely the soul-life of man, the bodily life, the life of man as here on the earth which is in view, but it is another life, called eternal life. "I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly" (John 10:10). It is over this life that God is represented as being so jealous. It is this life which is pre-eminent in God's thought. The Old Testament, as we have said, is the earthly type or representation of heavenly truth. If it were only a matter of physical death, that is, if the question at issue were but that of the termination of life physically, and that were the end and all that mattered, I do not know that such a great deal of ado might be made about it. But the emphasis in the Old Testament upon even that takes its force from the fact that it is pointing to something else, is typical of something else and is illustrative of another life.
We are not in the New Testament very long before it is apparent that the controversy has been taken into another realm, and is now seen to be over man's spiritual life, over eternal life. That controversy is waged on a two-fold issue: firstly, as to whether man shall become possessed of that life or not, and secondly as to whether that life, once possessed, shall be allowed its full opportunity of final expression in man, or shall not rather be smothered and thwarted, baffled and hindered. That is the controversy. It is still over life, but now we have come into the reality as out from the shadows and the types.
THE PERSISTENT ASSAULT UPON LIFE
So we pass for a few moments to see, in the realm of the reality, the assault of death upon that which is of God.
The Lord Jesus.
Let us pass right on at once to the New Testament, and come to our Lord Jesus, for He gathers all up in Himself. He is the last Adam. He is the greater Abel. All these Old Testament types are gathered up in Him. But remember that at His very birth there was launched an awful design of death. The intention of the devil was to destroy Him at His birth.
We have to pass over many years wherein we have no record of the things that touched His life, and then we find Him in the wilderness; and the explanation of those temptations in the wilderness is that they were an assault upon His life. Though from various points, by various subtleties, the issue was one: they were intended to break His union with the Father and get Him out into a realm where He could be smitten. You have only to see that even He, had He cast Himself from the pinnacle of the temple contrary to the will of His Father or, as the enemy would have it viewed, by way of testing God - putting God to the test instead of believing Him - would not have been safeguarded by the angels of whom the devil spoke when he quoted the Scriptures. Angels have no commission to bear in their arms any man or woman who presumptuously tries to test God when called to believe Him. The Lord Jesus in His own life has shown us this. It was a threefold assault upon His life, which was dependent upon unquestioning obedience to His Father.
From the wilderness He went to Nazareth where, in the synagogue, He opened the Scriptures. The outcome was that they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city stood, to cast Him over. A little later the Jews took up stones to stone Him, and He asked them: "Why seek ye to kill me?" (John 7:19). What is connected with such a question? "Ye are of your father the devil...", "He was a murderer from the beginning..." (John 8:44). The Lord Jesus uncovers what lies behind. He sees something more than man's opposition and antagonism. He sees the devil as the murderer, and set against His life.
We follow Him on to the lake, where the storm is beaten up, until those who were most familiar with those storms feared for their very lives. Being awakened by them, He arose, and in words identical with those which He used in casting out demons He rebuked the wind, saying unto the sea: "Peace! be muzzled!" and the storm subsided, showing that behind it there were other forces trying to swallow Him up.
Then we follow Him on into the garden and to the Cross. Who shall know of the death conflict in the darkness? It is all the assault of death upon what is of God.
The same thing is carried on into the Church. It is not long before Stephen is stoned, and James is killed. Peter is taken with the same object, but marvellously delivered because God had yet something to do through him. Paul was in deaths oft, despairing sometimes of life. It is a battle with the power of death. There are the sweeping persecutions in which literally tens of thousands of Christians are called upon to lay down their lives for the testimony, and "count not their lives dear unto the death". It goes on still. We are in that succession, not all of us perhaps of outward persecution, but do we not know something of the pressing of that spirit of death? We do!
All this is very true. It is the controversy of Zion. It is the battle for the life of the Lord's people. May the Lord bring home to our hearts the nature of the conflict in which we are found! We have perhaps painted a dark picture, have brought the gloomy aspect into view, and have been rather strong and severe, but if you are not able at the moment through your own experience to enter into what we are saying, you may come to do so if you are going on with the Lord. In some real way you will enter into this controversy of Zion. I am anxious that we should see this more clearly, and recognise it in a more definite way. We can never adequately seek the Lord in relation to it and come into line with His intention to overcome it, be to Him the instrument against it which He requires and desires that we should be, until we are fully alive to what the issue is. I wonder if the Lord's people are at times really alive to the issue, and whether their prayers are always a true index of their apprehension of this thing! I believe that if you and I were adequately impressed, and fully alive to the tremendous issue, we could never pray mere prayers. We could never allow words to run out of our mouths, which is what we call praying. We should be down on our faces in a tremendous conflict on God's side against the evil menace that is seeking to devour the life of God's people; but we shall never pray like that unless we are really alive to what the issue is.
While we may know it in a doctrinal way, it is necessary for us to wake up to what is happening and to what this means. The explanation of many a heaviness and of many a difficult experience is not simply that we have had a meal that does not agree with us, or that we are none too well and therefore not able to pray as we would wish. No, it is not just some physical malady from which we are suffering. This is not something which can be explained along any ordinary line of nature. Behind these things there so often lies another power. We may feel ill in body for no justifiable reason, from the natural standpoint. Our very energies and vitalities, physical and mental, may be sapped, and we say that we are tired, but there is something extra to that. The enemy delights in our accounting for these things on human grounds, when we ought to be waking up to the fact that there is a much bigger issue at stake. Let us ask: what is its tendency, and what is its effect? Is it to destroy our prayer life? Does it work in the direction of bringing us into a state of weakness and uselessness to God? If so, are we going to accept that? That is the question. There is a good deal that seems to be perfectly natural which should not be accepted by the Lord's people, and we need to test everything, try it out, and see whether, after all, the whole thing is natural, or whether there is not something hidden. Do not look for a devil with horns and a tail and a pitchfork! He hides himself. He covers his tracks. He comes in such an intangible way that you are often inclined to explain the whole trouble as quite a natural thing, when it is all covering up something else, and its effect is simply to put you out of spiritual action. We have to wake up to what is the issue for the Lord's people today, and it is no less an issue than that of life and death.
Do you recognise what is actually happening? The enemy does not mind how many so-called churches there are, how much preaching there is, or how much religious worship. I do not know that he minds very much how much orthodoxy there is, or how much of what we would call sound doctrine. What he is against is life. In multitudes of places, so far as the preaching is concerned, and so far as the things said are concerned, no fault can be found, but there is no sense of any vitalizing. There is no energizing, no impact, and no moving of the people to register the testimony of the risen Lord against the forces of evil. The enemy is getting them all quietly, nicely, snugly into spiritual death.
Oh, may the Lord move us to a new position in relation to this tremendous issue, the issue of life and death. The Lord bring it home to our hearts!