God's Standard for Our Christian Life
If there is one thing, which, more than all else, should give every true child of God honest and earnest concern it is surely this—to discover what kind of a life God has designed for His children to live, and then to find out whether He has provided the means for them to live that life. To do this we must, of course, turn to the Scriptures, since it is there that God has revealed His will and made known the kind of life that is well-pleasing to Him. And you would naturally expect me to turn for a text upon such a topic to the New Testament, and most likely to one of the doctrinal epistles. Yet I propose to turn with you this morning to the Old Testament, to what you may think a very unlikely part of the Word, for such truth as we are to consider. I will read the first seven verses of the fourth chapter of 2 Kings.
“Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant, my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the Lord; and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.
“And Elisha said unto her, What shall I do for thee? Tell me, what hast thou in the house? Answering she said, Thine handmaid hath not anything in the house, save a pot of oil.
“Then he said, Go, borrow the vessels abroad of all thy neighbors, even empty vessels; borrow not a few.
“And when thou art come in, thou shalt shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and shalt pour out into all those vessels, and thou shalt set aside that which is full.
“So she went from him, and shut the door upon her and upon her sons, who brought the vessels to her; and she poured out.
“And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed.
“Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children of the rest.”
I think I hear some one say, “What in the world can this passage, describing as it does a homely scene of domestic need long centuries ago, have to do with us who live in this up-to-date twentieth century?” Well, we are told that “every Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable.” That statement, in my judgment, indicates much more than that God has designed by such Old Testament passages as this to make us familiar with certain facts and events of ancient history. I feel sure that He has a higher design than this. He would have us see, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, that the Old Testament is the counterpart of the New, and that it contains in type and symbol and illustration the same deep and precious truths that are unfolded in fullness in the New Testament. Here, then, in this homely little incident of family life God has hidden away a lesson of great beauty and power for those who will search for it. We have here, I believe, a striking illustration of the topic which is before us; namely, What is God’s standard for our Christian life, and has He provided the means for us to measure up to that standard? There are three points which I wish to call to your attention in connection with this incident of the widow.
Her Dire Extremity
She was in a desperate emergency of need. You have heard the story read, and will recall that she was a widow. Her husband had been a man of God but was now dead, and she was left with two little boys, too small to be of help and, therefore, an added burden to her. Further than this, she was in debt, perhaps through misfortune and not through any fault of her own. And to make matters still worse, her creditor was no kind, considerate man, but an austere person who proposed to press the law to its utmost limit in dealing with her. He, therefore, informed her that if she did not pay up, and that promptly, he would seize her two little boys and hold them as bondmen. At least every mother-heart here will appreciate and sympathize with this woman’s dire extremity.
Now, her material indebtedness is a fitting illustration of our spiritual indebtedness. What do I mean by that? Is it the fact that “we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God?” No, thank God, for this debt has been cancelled by our faith in the Saviour. As the sweet old hymn puts it:
“Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.”
It is not our debt as sinners, but rather our debt as believers which I have in mind; for even after we have accepted Christ as our Saviour and been justified by Him, are we not confronted with something of the nature of spiritual debts which press and humiliate us? What I mean is that all we should be, but are not, as Christians, all that we should do for God, but are not doing, constitutes what may be termed a spiritual debt.
Perhaps a few texts will make my meaning clearer. Take, for instance, this text: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind.” This text gives us something of God’s standard or requirement for our Christian life. Now, are we really loving God thus? If not, then the measure of our failure to do so must be regarded as a spiritual debt. Take another text: “This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that ye love one another, even as I have loved you.” Are we doing this? Are we giving one another that same love that the Lord Jesus Christ has given us? If not, then our shortcoming in this respect constitutes another spiritual debt. Take still another Scripture. We are told that “We being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve Him in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our life.” And again in 1 Peter we read: “As he who hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all your manner of life.” Here is another one of God’s measuring rods to indicate His standard for Christian living. I know that some Christians are very much afraid of the term “holiness” and yet it is a scriptural term which we cannot evade. God calls His children to a life of “holiness and righteousness,” and wherein they fail of such a life they are debtors before Him. One more text only, although I might multiply them. Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount: “Be ye, therefore, perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” “Perfection” is another word which we are inclined to be afraid of, and rightly so if we regard it in the sense of sinless perfection. And yet it is a scriptural word, and there is a perfection of Christian experience and character in the will of God for His children, or, in other words, a correspondence with what God has designed them to be.
Now, what are we to do with these texts and the many others like them? Are they simply meant to be so many mottoes to hang upon our walls, nice ideals to admire but never to attain unto? Does God not mean us to take these statements seriously? Or is He mocking and tantalizing us by setting before us impossible standards? Surely none of us would dare so to conclude. If God has set such standards before us in His Word, He surely means us to take them seriously. So, then, if we this morning see a painful discrepancy between the high standards set before us by God and our actual everyday experience, we should realize ourselves as debtors before God and man, and should be filled with the same sense of humiliation and deep concern which this poor widow manifested.
We have an instance of just such spiritual concern in the seventh of Romans, which has been read this morning. As I take it, the Apostle Paul is here giving a bit of his own experience when he describes the struggle going on in his heart and life. Nor is this struggle to be regarded as preceding his acceptance of the Saviour. In the previous chapters he has clearly set forth the truth and experience of justification by faith. but after that experience he found himself sadly defeated in his Christian life. He sincerely longed and sought to live a life of victory and well-pleasing unto God, but was humiliated to find himself constantly failing in his efforts to do so. He discovers within him “a law that when I would do good, evil is present with me,” and in a state of great agony of soul he cries out, “O wretched man! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” At that point God graciously opens his eyes and reveals something more for him in Christ than he had hitherto seen. He had been rejoicing in Christ’s deliverance from the penalty of sin, but now the Spirit shows him that Christ can deliver him as well from the power of indwelling sin. And so he shouts with ecstasy: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and goes on to show how the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus had made him free from the law of sin.
This widow, who was one of the people of God, did not simply shrug her shoulders and say, “I can’t help it if I am in debt. I am no worse than other folks, for everybody is more or less in debt.” She took the matter seriously, was filled with a spirit of humiliation and concern, and in her helplessness and despair she cried mightily to God for help. In doing so she shows us as Christians the first step we must take toward realizing the ideals and reaching the standards which God has set for our Christian life. We shall never be what we ought to be, and may be, as Christians, until we frankly and humbly recognize and confess our failure and shortcoming, and bring our need to God in a spirit of honest concern.
God’s Source of Help
No sooner did this woman cry to God for help than He answered through His prophet and proceeded to meet her need. But let us notice carefully God’s way of dealing with her. God is not promiscuous but precise in His dealings. The prophet’s first question is, “What shall I do for thee?” and this was asked, I feel sure, not for his own information, but rather for the woman’s sake. It was to help her to diagnose and state more precisely what her need really was.
What a lesson is here for us concerning our prayers, which are so often vague and indefinite! Generality is the thing that kills prayer. God wants us to be definite. You remember how Jesus was followed one day by blind Bartimaeus, clamoring and crying after Him, “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me.” Now, this was a prayer, but it was far too indefinite. And Jesus turned sharply about and said to Bartimaeus, “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” Then his prayer became definite and requested: “Lord, that I might receive my sight.” And immediately Jesus answered and healed him. Far better that we should come here this morning with some conscious need and definite request, be it big or little, and do business with God about it, than with a vague hope of some undefined blessing from the Lord.
The prophet next asks, “What hast thou in the house?” This is also most suggestive of God’s principle of dealing. He is going to supply the woman’s need, but how? Not by some outside means, apart from herself, but by using something which she is already in possession of. The woman answers honestly, “Thine handmaid hath not anything in the house, save a pot of oil.” Somehow I have an idea that she paused after the first clause of that sentence. She meant to assure the prophet that she was destitute and had nothing. The pot of oil would seem to have been an afterthought, as much as to say, “Well, yes, there is, of course, this little pot of oil, but it amounts to nothing.” Yet, wonder of wonders, that very thing which she regarded as of no value was the thing God fixed upon and made the medium of the supply of her need, for He multiplied the oil, had her turn it into coin, and with the proceeds she paid all her debts and lived on the residue.
I hardly need remind a congregation so well taught as this one what this oil is an illustration of. Everywhere in Scripture we find oil used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The prophet and priest and king of old were anointed with the holy oil as a symbol of the enduement of the Holy Spirit for their sacred service. So this oil, which God made the means of relieving the widow’s debt, is a beautiful type of the Holy Spirit as God’s blessed provision for His children, to enable them to discharge their spiritual debts and live the life that God designs them to live. With this thought in mind, see how beautifully the illustration and the reality correspond. Just as the woman already had the oil in her house, so every true child of God has the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of life and regeneration: for if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His. And yet, alas, of how many Christians is it true that, although they have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, they appreciate His value and operations as little as did this woman the pot of oil in her possession.
They are practically in much the same position (though not dispensationally so) as those disciples whom Paul found at Ephesus, who in response to his question, “Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?” replied, “We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” Deeply conscious of humiliating failure in their Christian life, they are crying to God for help; but all the time unconscious of the fact that God has already put in their possession in the person of the blessed Holy Spirit the provision for all they need.
There is deep significance in the different wording of one of the promises of Jesus as quoted in both Mathew and Luke. In Matthew it runs: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in Heaven give good things to them that ask him.” In Luke it reads precisely the same, except that the words “the Holy Spirit” are substituted for “good things” in Matthew. The promise is identically the same, and the inference is unmistakably clear that the “Holy Spirit” in the one verse is the precise equivalent of “good things” in the other. Of course, we understand that spiritual “good things” are in mind—all those things which pertain to life and godliness, so that the meaning is that God in the gift to us of His Holy Spirit has provided all the spiritual good things we stand in need of.
A simple illustration may make this point more clear. Suppose we have here some destitute object of charity. There are two ways in which we may help such a person. We may go with him and purchase severally the things he needs—bread, meat, vegetables, flour, clothing, etc. But another way, just as satisfactory, would be to place in his hand a sum of money and let him turn it into each and all of these things, according to his need. The money is the equivalent of all these “good things,” as being convertible into them. Precisely in the same way God in giving to us the Holy Spirit provides for us all the spiritual gifts and graces we need for our Christian lives.
Let us just test this out by noting some of our most deeply felt spiritual needs and seeing how these may be met. Surely one of the greatest of these is love. We find our own human love so poor and partial and fitful and insufficient. We need nothing less than God’s own love. How shall we get this? The Word tells us clearly: “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” Here we have love, one of the spiritual “good things” we need and seek, provided in the Holy Spirit.
Then again, we realize our lack of holiness and long for it. How are we to get this? Does not the Spirit’s very name “Holy Spirit” answer this question? Not only is He himself holy, but He is called also the “Spirit of holiness,” to indicated that He imparts His own holy character to the heart that receives Him.
Another of our deeply felt needs is discernment of spiritual truth. We feel so utterly unable to sound the spiritual depths of God’s Word. But are we not assured that “when He the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide us into all truth?” And again, “Even so the things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God.” “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit; for the Spirit searcheth all things, yeah, the deep things of God.”
Prayer is another such need. We are conscious of weakness in prayer. Our prayers at times seem to rise no higher than our heads. How shall we pray effectively? The answer comes: “The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities (in prayer); for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us.”
Once again, we think of spiritual power as a great need and lack in our testimony and service—power to witness, to preach, to move men’s hearts toward God. How shall we get this power? “Ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you.”
And so we might go on through a long list of spiritual “good things” which we lack and long for, and find that they are all supplied to us by God in His all-inclusive gift of the blessed Holy Spirit. And this is true not only of gifts, but of graces also. For we read that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” What a wonderful fullness and sufficiency there is in Him!
Beloved, do we know this Spirit—not merely as a name, or a doctrine, or a mere formula used in the rite of Christian baptism or in the benediction, but as a living reality, a blessed and precious person? Are we experiencing His joy and peace and comfort and power in our lives?
I think of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” They had the Holy Spirit, it is true, and were even exercising certain gifts which He bestowed. And yet they were far from realizing and appreciating the character of the Divine Guest within their hearts, nor were they appropriating or utilizing Him as they might and should have done.
The Mode of Receiving
We have already considered two things. The first was the woman’s dire extremity as setting forth our spiritual need. That is of great importance, and yet it is not sufficient. There are many Christians who frankly recognize and confess their spiritual shortcoming. They are constantly testifying that they do not live the life they ought to live, and it would almost seem that they regard such a confession as in itself a means of grace. We often hear the expression, “An honest confession is good for the soul.” If you ask me if that is true I will answer “Yes” and “No.” If such honest confession is promptly followed by necessary restitution and reform it is indeed good for the soul. But such confession, however honest, when repeated constantly without any evidence of a change for the better, is in my opinion very bad for the soul. For if God has provided a means to overcome our faults and failings, and we are ignoring and refusing it, we are not pleasing Him by our apparent humility, but rather grieving Him by our unbelief and disobedience.
It is alike important, and yet also alike insufficient, for us to grasp intellectually the second point already dealt with, namely, God’s plan and provision to meet our spiritual need. It is sadly possible for a Christian to discern clearly, and even to be able to expound convincingly, the truth of a victorious life, and still be very far from experiencing it. I am quite aware that I this morning can be even breaking unto others this Bread of Life and yet not be feeding upon it myself. There was a vital preparation needed by this woman to receive the help God held out to her, and this perhaps is the most important lesson of all for us here.
Now, the mode of receiving God’s help was very simple and consisted of two steps. First, she must bring empty vessels. And please note the emphasis here placed upon the word “empty.” No specification was given regarding the material of the vessels, nor as to their size or shape. It mattered not whether they were of gold or clay, large or small, square or round. But it was absolutely essential that they be empty. The important things about any vessel is its capacity to hold something, and only an empty vessel can fulfill this function.
The spiritual application is obvious—to be filled with the Holy Spirit we must make room for Him. Our hearts must be emptied of everything that obstructs and takes His place. The fact is that our hearts are really always full of something, for the truth that “nature abhors a vacuum” applies in the spiritual realm no less than in the physical. We have but to discard and renounce whatever is taking the place God should have in our hearts and lives and then the problem of His filling us will be an easy one. What is filling our hearts this morning? It may be sin and let me say emphatically that God’s Spirit will not tenant a heart that indulges sin. Or it may be self, that hydra-headed, obtrusive thing that assumes so many forms—self-importance, self-confidence, self-seeking, self-glory, and many other subtle phases of self.
The Holy Spirit will not share the throne of our hearts with self. If self is on the throne, then He is crucified. But if we will put self in the place of crucifixion, the Holy spirit will be enthroned and will fill and sway our hearts. It may be the world which holds us captive and keeps the Spirit out, or it may be the love of money or of pleasure. All or any of these things occupying our hearts to any extent will effectually deprive us of the filling of the Holy Spirit.
I know that we speak truthfully when we say that the Holy Spirit is a free gift of God, and yet it can be said just as truthfully that there is a price to pay for the Sprit’s infilling, in the sense of a condition to be met. Suppose I go into a store and see there a beautiful object which I greatly admire and desire to possess. I ask the clerk how much it costs, and he tells me ten dollars. Now, if I stand there with ten dollars in my pocket, and keep on protesting that I would give anything to possess that coveted object, I am acting both foolishly and insincerely. As soon as I love the object more than I love the ten dollars I will simply give up the ten dollars and immediately possess the object. And beloved brethren, as soon as we really want the Holy Spirit in His fullness more than we want all else, and especially more than we want the particular thing that is keeping us from full surrender, then let me tell you that we shall be filled with the Holy Spirit without further delay.
Sometimes as I have seen a person agonizing in prayer to be filled with the Holy Spirit I have felt like saying: My brother, you are putting the stress on the wrong thing. You have no need to agonize and plead for God to empty you of the thing that obstructs His filling. As soon as you give that thing up and make room for God, the Holy Spirit will flow into and fill your soul as simply as water fills a hollow.”
The second step which this woman had to take was to pour out the oil she had. As the empty vessel stands for full surrender, so the pouring out stands for the attitude and action of faith. Let us get that scene before our eyes for a moment. Here stands the widow with her boys by her side, and in front of her this great array of vessels of all shapes and sizes. I see her look first at the vessels and then at the little pot of oil, and as she looks back and forth from one to the other the situation grows more and more impossible, indeed absurd, to her mind. How can that little drop of oil possibly fill one of those vessels, not to say all of them? There is no evidence to satisfy her feelings or convince her intellect. It is a pure matter of faith and obedience. She is simply told to pour out, and pour out she must. And so she finally reaches the point of decision, seizes the little pot by the handle and turns its spout toward the first vessel. Then, though not till then, the manifestation comes. As soon as she believes and obeys God, God begins to manifest Himself and work for her. She goes from one vessel to another, and the oil keeps steadily pouring until each vessel is full to the brim.
Could we have a more simple or beautiful picture than this of receiving the filling of the Holy Spirit? God promises to give the Spirit to them that obey Him and ask Him. We believe God, appropriate His promise, accept the Holy Spirit and give thanks for Him. There need [not] be, and probably will not be, any inward feeling or outward manifestation up to this point; otherwise it would not be the act of faith, which it is. But when we have taken the step and appropriated the gift, the manifestation comes, not necessarily all at once, but just as the occasion for it arises. Just as this woman did not reach each one of those vessels at the same moment, even so we shall not need the same manifestation of the Spirit at all times. Perhaps the first manifestation I need after receiving Him by faith is one of peace, or joy, or comfort, and He gives me each of these as I need it. Or perhaps I am called to pray, or preach, or witness publicly for Him, and need His power. He gives this, too. And so I go on, trusting and appropriating Him, moment by moment and day by day, from the point of receiving Him by faith, and He meets every successive need and never fails me. Every one of my spiritual needs, whether of gift or of grace, is, as it were, a vessel which I present to Him, and He fills it with His fullness. And so for my unrest He gives me His peace, for my sorrow His joy, for my weakness His power.
One thing that I would emphasize just here is the need of our keeping on pouring out. It is a great and fatal mistake to think that we are ever to cease doing this. Paul said: “Not as though I had already attained either were already perfect, but I follow on…” We shall always need the renewing of the Holy Spirit. When any of us is no longer conscious of the need of more of God it will be a case of arrested spiritual development.
Did it ever occur to you who stopped first, God or the woman? It was she, not He. As she saw all the vessels filled, she said to her son, “Bring me yet a vessel,” and he replied, “There is not a vessel more.” Then the words follow, “and the oil stayed.” If there had been enough vessels that oil might still be flowing today. God’s grace is infinite and knows no limitation. I am deeply impressed with the lengths He has gone, and the extravagance of language He uses in the New Testament, to persuade us of the bounty of His provision for His children. He speaks not merely of life, but of life more abundantly; not merely of joy, but of joy unspeakable; not merely of grace, but of abundance of grace; not merely of riches, but of unsearchable riches; not merely of power, but of the exceeding greatness of His power, and so on indefinitely. What more can He say or do to overcome our lethargy and arouse our faith? “Open thine mouth wide,” He cries, “and I will fill it.”
My prayer this morning is that God will soundly convict everyone of us here of the sin of unbelief and disobedience in this matter of being satisfied any longer to live below the level of His will and provision for our Christian life. He says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” and let us realize that this is no less a command to be obeyed than the word, “Thou shalt not steal,” or “Thou shalt not kill.” The Holy Spirit is here to do the filling, and as in humble surrender we will present our hearts as empty vessels, and in trustful faith accept the proffered gift of the Spirit’s infilling, we shall go out to realize the fulfillment of His promise, and to know the joy and blessing and power of a Spirit-filled life.