♣ The Presence that Gives Distinction
Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and Your people, from every other people on the face of the earth? – Exodus 33:17
A.W. Tozer was among the few leaders of the 20th century who rightly discerned the spiritual climate of the body of Christ, and one who spoke authoritatively of the church’s imperative and dire need in returning to her First Love. Despite the constant activity of many churches and the evidence of numerical growth, Tozer credited such ‘successes’ to the pure effort and ability of man, completely void of the Holy Spirit. This, no doubt, was an offence to many and to add insult to injury, he firmly believed that such churches would fail to detect the absence of the Holy Spirit if He were to depart; they had managed just ‘fine’ without Him all along!
Any activity within the body of Christ that fails to bear the stamp of the Holy Spirit – no matter how much ‘in the name of Jesus’ it is done, no matter how plausible the causes have been, and no matter how highly esteemed by man – if the anointing is lacking it will all be consumed to ashes on the Day of judgment. Some will smirk at this; shrug it off thinking it to be outdated, legalistic and a very bad representation of the God of love. No matter how out-dated and irrelevant all this may seem, the Scriptures are very clear in stating that each one of us – as Christians – are going to give an account before God for everything we have done – Matthew 12:36; Romans 14:12; Hebrews 4:13. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 is the most explicit reference of them all: “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
As many would prefer to rush over these truths, giving no further consideration to them, we must remember that all of Scripture has to be received in its entirety; we cannot pick and choose as we like and build our creed on the nice, comfortable and well-to-do portions.
There are a fair amount of believers who do not bother themselves with the loss of rewards. Their justification for this is a perpetual thankfulness for being saved – ‘saved by grace’ is their motto. While there is truth in those words, the mentality can be one of false humility – a skilful vogue of our time – and the attitude of ‘I have obtained my ticket to heaven’ so everything is alright. Such a mindset is a plague within modern evangelism – that to be a Christian is to be forgiven, escape hell and to trade in our oppression for prosperity, whereas biblical Christianity reveals that we are saved for the glory of God to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Being forgiven, delivered from sin, and saved from hell and to enjoy the blessings through our union with Christ are by-products of the primary will and purpose of God – a holy people for Himself, to behold His glory and to worship Him. The one aim and goal of the Christian is to please God, to hear these words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Should it not concern us that maybe – just maybe – all that we do is not bearing fruit unto God, no matter how praiseworthy the cause of our work – all the smiles and approvals from our brothers and sisters in the faith but not the slightest smile from God? So many believers dangerously substitute the approval of God for the approval of man.
I never forget hearing the story of a musician who performed magnificently in the presence of thousands. After the performance, the crowd erupted into an almost deafening round of applause and roars of cheering. The musician, with a look of disappointment and failure as he glanced up, reciprocated no bows to the audience and walked off stage. The programmes host was bewildered at the performers’ cold response and immediately followed after him saying “Are you out of your mind to walk off so abruptly; they admired you out there!” The musician, with tears in his eyes, replied “How could I stand there, acknowledge and receive the crowds admiration when my master and instructor, sitting in the top balcony, was not applauding?!”
To please our Master ought to be the motivating factor in all that we do, no matter whether others esteem or despise us. Living to please God is an overflow of our love and gratitude for Him. Of course this is not to earn or even secure our salvation, but rather a realisation and the evidence that we are truly saved.
The apostle Paul was a blazing example of this. That notorious passage in Philippians 3:7-14 reveals his intense and single-minded devotion to Christ. Here was a man who had reached the pinnacle of morality and self-satisfaction, blameless in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, but who counted it all as a loss for the sake of Christ – for Christ’s sake, not his own – all for the sake of Him. Even as an apostle, Paul never once thought he had ‘arrived’ but was always pressing on, striving for the one great prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. No wonder Paul could write from a sincere heart, as well as the authority of God upon him, when exhorting others, “…not by way of eye-service, as people pleasers, but as servants of Christ…doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service…as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 5:6-7). Colossians 3:22-24 echoes almost word for word the same exhortation, again with the certainty that God will reward. Paul’s heart was to please God whether others stood by him or forsook him; to know Christ standing by him was everything. Approved of God – that was his focus.
The same intense devotion was reflected in the life of Moses: “If Your presence will not go with us, do not bring us up from here.” Moses knew that the only factor that made Israel distinct was the presence of God (Exodus 33:16). No angel in all their glory and power would have sufficed, but what a different scenario that would have been in the church today – to have an angel in our midst, we would have been thrilled! What an awesome sight it would be to behold. Moses knew better; God’s ‘second best’, without sounding irreverent, did not give rest to Moses’ heart, no matter how great and supernatural the phenomena; it is God or nothing . Moses knew that such a mission ahead could never be fulfilled but only end in complete ruin, failure and disaster without God being in their midst. What a rebuke to the modern church arrayed in all her self-dependence!
Israel’s distinctiveness was not in dress, culture, nationality, lineage, prestige or affluence; Israel was weak, insignificant and well outnumbered compared to other nations. What put fear into their enemies was the Shekinah Glory in Israel’s midst. Despite Israel being the apple of God’s eye, they had not always known Him present among them, and you will notice as you read through the periods where Israel drifted away from God and turned to idols, they lost wars, had their lands and possessions stripped from them and even taken into captivity. They became a spectacle of the most degraded shame and horror in the eyes of surrounding nations outside the providence of God’s care and protection. Israel was quick to attribute all the victories, riches, lands and titles they had gained to their own strength. What a height to fall from in the presence of one’s enemies!
As Israel had not always encountered God present among them, so we find many instances where God cannot be found in many evangelical churches today. Christ is the Head of the church and the Holy Spirit enables her to grow and prepare as His Bride, but we can still miss out on the known presence of Christ; we can miss out on the joy of His known presence. There are some who will sharply disagree to knowing the presence of Christ here on earth and such theological ‘Einstein’s’ will argue that it is a misunderstanding of the role of the Trinity, that Christ can only – at present – be seated at the right hand of the Father. The Scriptures are unmistakeably clear in stating that Christ indeed is at the right hand of God the Father, but I also take into consideration what Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:17 “…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…” and the very words of Jesus Himself, “Whoever has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love Him and manifest Myself to Him…If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love Him, and We will come to Him and make Our home with him” (John 14:21,23). Again in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I [Christ] stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into Him and eat with him, and he with Me.” Not anyone of us in all of the history of the church can fathom, in its entirety, the doctrine of the Trinity – of course we cannot! No matter how great our intellect maybe there are mysteries in Scripture that defy human logic, and as Lloyd-Jones was accustomed to repeating on many occasions, our pygmy minds reach their limits where we enter the realm of faith and can only worship. Some of our theologians in the last hundred or so years have been more on par with scientists who dissect everything, and can ‘explain’ everything and have everything all packaged neat and tidy, but just as the realm of God’s creation can even baffle our greatest scientists, so the majesty and wonder of God reduces our so-called ‘theological geniuses’ to mere babes!
Is it not this peculiarity we have lost in our churches today – the wonder and majesty of God being in our midst, the felt presence of God? Much of our church history is lived off of to inspire the discouraged to keep onward; the Great Protestant Reformer fathers are idolised in such a way as if no more history can be written. We are thrilled to have ‘tablets of stone’ but it takes the reality of God’s presence to know His ways written on our hearts. The majority of us are a contented bunch of Christians to travel along without God’s known presence. Infinitely, it will take a whole lot more than reviving an interest in the writings of a Luther, Calvin, Owen, or Edwards, as much as God used these men in profound ways – no one can dispute that, but we can barely warm our hands from these fires that once burned, let alone know a heart that is ablaze for God! We may have a pure, unmixed and unadulterated reformed-doctrine-diet and still suffer spiritual malnutrition. I have been in churches where the teaching cannot be faulted, but the fruit of lives were known to be rotten – a possession of the truth but a great lack of being possessed by the truth!
The presence of God is what constitutes and keeps the church alive, real, and dynamic, otherwise we are no different from the cults with their code of ethics, and no better off than all of Israel’s learned scribes, lawyers and Pharisees who possessed the very oracles of God, and expounded on these privileges, but who will never be known by God. We have our great theological definitions, and all our ‘ism’s’ have never been so pristine as they are today; we have wrongly placed the emphasis on academics while growing all the more apathetic to the ways of God; we hardly know His acts in our generation let alone His ways!
Prayer meetings are one of the best ways to discern the spiritual pulse of a church – no matter how biblically reformed its doctrine. If God is moving in that church you can be assured the prayers will throb with life and intensity. The presence of God is what fuels great and effective praying.
This is not mysticism as some label it, but a living faith. God is alive, but many live as if He’s dead! The presence of God is what makes a church distinct within its community, not its denomination. Do we not find it surprising that so many unbelievers can reel off what denomination is what and where it is located? And yet they have nothing to say about its significance, but that it is just another building – because there is nothing significant about it! It is neither hated nor loved; neither cold or hot, and we wonder why churches left, right and centre are closing down only to be bought by Muslims and converted into mosques?! I am sure many of these churches preached sound truth right up until the very last meeting, but I can assure you, had there been the fire of God in the preaching, those places would still remain open and alive today. Before a church closes, God departs, and many churches already have ‘Ichabod’ written all over them. 1 Samuel 4:12-22 is one of the most devastating periods in the history of Israel – “The Glory has departed from Israel!” You notice first that the Glory of God departed and then the ark; the same pattern still takes place today – the Presence and then the building.
Oswald Chambers expressed through prayer the necessity of knowing God present among us, “Draw me, O Lord, into vital communion with Thyself. What a difference the sun makes in the natural world: and what a difference it makes when Thou dost dawn upon us! Press through until we are thrilled with Thy presence.”
What was the one significant aspect about A.W. Tozer and Leonard Ravenhill? They were men who literally met with God; they knew Him intimately through prayer. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a deeply spiritual man, a pastor and teacher who could pray in such a way that God’s presence was unmistakably felt by others in the meetings, and yet he did not know the freedom Ravenhill knew through prayer. That is hard to conceive and believe, but such was the humility of the Dr’s confession. Nevertheless, both men were equally and greatly used of God. How is it that Tozer spent more time with God than with anybody else? – not forgetting that he pastored at least two churches, wrote over 40 books, and chaired the Evangelical Alliance among other duties.
One very interesting observation I have noticed over the years, particularly in reformed circles, is that both these men are widely respected, even though some may disagree with their stand on free will and God’s sovereignty in salvation; they were not so easily placed into a ‘theological bracket’ as many had wished for. They walked paths unknown to the greatest names who speak in our conferences and who write many books today; they talked with God – we talk about Him; they tasted the spiritual riches in Christ – we only cleverly expound them; they lied prostrate in His presence – we sit comfortably wondering about His presence; they adored God – we are still trying to analyse Him; we know our theology – they knew God!
John Flavel – one of the better known Puritans – confessed he knew more in the presence of God in five minutes than in all his fifty years of theological academia. This is not to belittle theology at all, but what a vain pursuit if we seek knowledge of God without the experience of Him. I am all for theology so long as it prepares us to meet with God; it ought to condition the temperature of our hearts to rightly approach Him, not be an end in and of itself where so many are more than satisfied to remain.
‘Lord, it is not life to live
If Thy presence Thou deny.’
– Augustus Montage Toplady
There is nothing that sobers the mind, quickens the spirit, softens the heart as the presence of God, and there is nothing worse than being content to live without it. We are never more real than when we are conscious of God being very near; everything shallow, everything false and all that is hidden is brought to light and exposed; our perspectives are radically altered and our hearts are immediately softened by His touch – indeed His yoke becomes the lightest thing of all when we are rightly related to Him.
Thy presence can without delay,
Drive all my numerous cares away.
As chaff before the wind;
Compose my thoughts to adore and love
Thee, as an object far above,
To Thee alone inclined’
– William Williams
Was the Psalmist wrong to say, “…seek His presence continually”(Psalm 105:4) ? Notice that we are exhorted to seek it continually. Was David a lunatic to declare, In Your presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) ? Oh, that we had the spirit and heart like Moses, “If Your presence will not go with us, do not bring us up from here.” Moses would never have uttered such a thing had he not spent 40 years of his life in the desert and wilderness, where all his self-independence and self-importance was annihilated; Moses was sure of being more than capable to lead Israel out from captivity while a prince of Egypt, but alone in the desert – learning to become a nothing – made him fit for God’s vision to be turned into mission. Few of us are broken enough to realise we cannot, we dare not move forward without the knowledge of God’s presence.
This is the secret behind all Christian endeavours – the reality of God being known among His people. We ought never to be afraid of seeking Him in such a way daily, and never give up until we know it. Do not seek ‘experiences’ but seek God for Himself alone.
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.’
Posted on April 4, 2012, in ♣ Devotional and tagged 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, 1 Samuel 4:12-22, 23, A.W. Tozer, apostle Paul, approval of God, Augustus Montague Toplady, bearing fruit unto God, churches closing down, Colossians 3:22-24, day of judgment, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Ephesians 3:17, Exodus 33:16, Exodus 33:17, for Christ’s sake, Hebrews 4:13, history of the church, John 14:21, John Flavel, Leonard Ravenhill, Matthew 12:36, Moses, Muslims taking over churches, Oswald Chambers, Philippians 3:7-14, Psalm 105:4, Puritans, Revelation 3:20, Romans 14:12, Shekinah Glory, the presence of God, The Presence that Gives Distinction, what constitutes the church, William Williams. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.