Genesis 17:1, 8; Genesis 18:1, 6 – 8; Exodus 34:5 – 7; 1 Kings 3:5, 9; Isaiah 6:1 – 3; Acts 26:14 – 18; John 14:21
I desire to speak of the reality and necessity of real spiritual experiences. It is well that we should have knowledge; it is well, too, that we should have spiritual intelligence; but what I would like to put before you is the reality of what I should name real spiritual experiences in our souls.
In all the passages I have read we find examples of this, and I refer to them in order to bring out what is latent in them. First of all, if you take Abraham, he was marked by faith, that was one of his great characteristics; but he was also marked by the number of the appearings of the Lord to him. Now, I take it none of us here is without faith. We go on in faith, if I may use the expression, with a steady tread. Day in and day out, from week to week, month to month and year to year we tread our path, I trust, in faith. To walk by faith and not by sight, is normal, surely, to all believers; and that goes on, just in a steady way daily. But what I am speaking about is something more special. I need not emphasise how important it is that we should go on day by day in this steady tread of faith, but God gives us other things; He gives us what I may speak of as appearings or manifestations, not only to confirm our faith, which is true, but to enlarge our spiritual experience. He gives us not only communications, but manifestations of Himself, and that is what we find referred to in all the passages I have read.
Abraham was a very remarkable figure in the history of God’s saints and it is said (Genesis 12:7) that the Lord appeared to him and said that He would give him the land. That was a remarkable appearing; the Lord confirmed Abram in leaving his country, and opened out to him His promises and, though Abram had opportunity, he never returned to the land which he had left. He accepted the result of the communication that God made to him as final, and though he may have failed at various points, yet, as the epistle to the Hebrews tells us, though he might have had opportunity to return, he did not. Abram, therefore, was confirmed in his path by this first appearing.
I read of two further appearings, one in which the name of God is declared to him: “I am the Almighty God” (Genesis 17:1). In that appearing he received great accession in regard of the name and character of God, and it was a real spiritual experience. If he got an accession to his spiritual capital by this declaration of the name of God, his name also was changed; for that, I take it, would be a principle, that where there is a fuller revelation of the name of God, the name of the recipient of that revelation would also have a corresponding change. Thus he is now called Abraham, a change of name, corresponding to the name of God who was thus revealed to him, and vaster prospects were opened to him; he would not only have the land, but far greater blessing would accrue. What a moment for his soul to receive a revelation of that kind! God was revealed in this wonderful way, and Abram accepted it.
Then again in the other appearing of which I read (Genesis 18) there was even a higher privilege conferred upon Abraham, for he was placed in the position of ministering to the Holy One, of ministering refreshment to God. That is a most wonderful state of things, that Abraham should be so privileged that he should prepare a meal and minister to this blessed Visitor! Thus, in his case, there is a progression in the character, nature and extent of the intimacy of the appearings, and so it is with us. I believe that in these divine manifestations which are made to our hearts, there is a progression and increase in the character of the manifestations enjoyed. How wonderful to think that we, too, can have such manifestations of God and of the Lord Jesus to our hearts, so that we can minister to Them. How this bows our spirits in adoration and reverence before the One who so reveals Himself!
Now I come to Moses in Exodus 34. Moses, who was often in touch with the Lord, here desires to see His glory, and the Lord graciously responded, and declared His name before him, and, in the light of that appearing, Moses can go through the wilderness in the knowledge of God’s wonderful character: “Merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in goodness and truth”. God was declared in such a light as to enable Moses to carry out his heavy responsibilities, and to conduct the people of God through the wilderness under the impulse of that manifestation. I believe that every servant, in order to do any work which is entrusted to him, has to have a manifestation of the character of God or of the Lord, which will fit him for the conduct of that spiritual enterprise, however small or however great the service. If he is to serve the saints rightly, the servant must have an apprehension of the character of God which will fit him for the carrying out of what is laid upon him; and that held good with Moses. The manifestation of God in this manner just suited the character of the moment and exactly brought out what Moses required to know of God, and of the character in which he should represent God to the people. With this manifestation of God to Moses he gets also a great sense of his own insignificance, so that he could say, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin … And now, if thou wilt forgive their sin … but if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book” (Exodus 32:31, 32); as much as to say, I do not mind about myself, let the people of God be blessed, and if my extinction will help their blessing, let my extinction take place. That would be quite in keeping with the manifestation of God, and would be the right spirit surely of a servant. So God confirms His servant in his service.He recognises him, and Moses goes forth to that arduous service in the light of that particular manifestation of God to his soul.
Now, as to the next incident that I read (1 Kings 3), that of Solomon, and the Lord appearing to him in a dream, I would point out that it was a very great thing for Solomon to recognise that the source of wisdom was in God, and that God was prepared to give it to him. I think that has a very practical bearing on our souls; for there are occasions in which the greatest spiritual wisdom is needed. There are difficulties arising constantly amongst and regarding the Lord’s people, and where are we to go? Whom are we to address for the solution of those difficulties? Solomon at the outset of his career addressed the right Person and found the right source; he found in a manifest way that the wisdom he needed for ruling so great and numerous a people was to be found in God alone, and so must we. We may take all sorts of measures and investigate all avenues, so to speak, in order to find the wisdom to meet a certain difficulty, but we are brought to the fact that wisdom comes only from God. In regard of the assembly it comes from her exalted Head, and all of us should have the strong impression from the Lord Himself, and from God Himself, that that is where the source of wisdom lies. So we do not act restlessly, wandering about, so to say, for guidance, much as we value the advice of our brethren through whom wisdom is often ministered to our souls; for, through whomsoever the wisdom comes, the source of it is the assembly’s Head! What rest it gives to the spirit to know that there is no difficulty the solution of which does not lie in the mind of God, and that it is possible for us to get it! It was surely the humble spirit in Solomon that got that answer; it was the lowly spirit that did not seek his own greatness. If there is any spirit of desiring to be great the Lord will not give us wisdom; but in the absence of that and having a pure desire to serve the Lord’s people, God will give the answer.
Now there is another great effect of the manifestation of the Lord, and that would very rightly be found in a prophetic book. Isaiah said, “I saw the Lord … high and lifted up”. What he discovered there was the holiness of God. The impression of that appearing was the extreme holiness of God; and I do verily believe that is what every one of us has to learn in a deeper way, the holiness of God and His presence which, while it attracts us, is profoundly real in its searching character. The invariable effect of the presence of God on us is to induce an acknowledgment of the holiness that is His, and thus it banishes from us all that lightness that naturally characterises us. Lightness and the want of depth in us are banished in such measure as we are in the presence of God and have the sense of His holiness. That holiness came out in the cross is obvious; that it came out in all its deep and wonderful character there is surely known to all of us; but its realisation is one of the great points in our spiritual history, and one which has not only to be attained, but maintained.
I pass on now to the instances in the New Testament. I shall first say a word about the first great appearing of the Lord to the apostle Paul. It is one of many appearings, as the Lord said, “For this purpose have I appeared to thee, to appoint thee … a witness both of what thou hast seen, and of what I shall appear to thee in”. So there were many appearings to the apostle during his life, but this was the first, the great initial appearing. I suppose it was the greatest and it had a profound effect upon him. I have no doubt that with any servant of the Lord who seeks to serve Him, an analogous experience takes place. That is, there is a real spiritual appearing of the Lord (not in vision like this, of course) which marks the character of the ministry. I think there is that with each of us who are servants of the Lord, and surely we all here are servants of the Lord, bondmen of Jesus Christ, and whether the work is small or great, the Lord will give us, as He gave Paul, a distinct impression of His commission. You cannot run without a commission; you cannot engage in service without a distinct impression of the Lord. It may be feeble – I do not think it was feeble with Paul – but it must be there, and that appearing will characterise the whole of the ministry of the servant.
It is very important to notice that the germ of the whole of the double ministry of Paul is contained in what the Lord said to him here. I refer to the ministry of the assembly, and the ministry of the gospel. The ministry of the assembly is obviously contained in germ in the wonderful and beautiful expression, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? … I am Jesus whom thou persecutest”. We know it well. It contains the germ of the whole ministry of the assembly which was developed in fuller measure in Paul as he went on his course, and was the secret of all his devoted labour. If he knew and acknowledged that the assembly which he had persecuted was really Christ, he was prepared to prove Christ’s love to the assembly in himself to the utmost, whether he were loved or not: “If even in abundantly loving you I should be less loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15). He loved and served the assembly which Christ loved. That is the real motive of service to the assembly; we are so impressed with Christ’s love to the assembly, and what it is to the heart of Christ, that we love to serve it. It will prepare us for acting in the meanest capacity, and though we may know but little about it, it will bring suffering to us.
Now there is another feature in this appearing which I would point out; that is, the close connection and intertwining of the two ministries. The Lord immediately goes on to give Paul his evangelical ministry, how he should go to the nations to open their eyes, “that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God”. That is the evangelical side, though without the slightest doubt it was in view of the assembly, so that those of the nations thus reached should become part of that wonderful vessel of which I have spoken. You see how the two ministries are intertwined there; they are not divorced; “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). That is, there is to be no divorce between the ministry of the gospel and the ministry of the assembly; they would be mutually conducive to each other’s progress, and they are both impressed upon the apostle at this wonderful appearing.
I have already referred to the many appearings that were made to Paul, and of some we have a record. For instance, when he came to Jerusalem and wanted to stay there and preach, the Lord appeared to him in an ecstasy and said, “Make haste and go quickly out of Jerusalem” (Acts 22:18). He pleaded with the Lord, and said he would like to stay: “Lord, they themselves know that I was imprisoning and beating in every synagogue those that believe on thee; and when the blood of thy witness Stephen was shed, I also myself was standing by and consenting, and kept the clothes of those who killed him” (verses 19, 20). But the Lord became insistent and said, ‘You are to go’. The Lord is able to appear to His servants to give them directions for service, and while we may have to gather much as to His will, there is such a thing as the Lord giving peremptory instruction, and I suppose every servant knows what that is; you cannot argue; you must do it.
That was the result of one appearing of the Lord to Paul; and, again, when the apostle was in some distress because he had made an error before the council, that very night the gracious Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good courage; for as thou hast testified the things concerning me at Jerusalem, so thou must bear witness at Rome also” (Acts 23:11). He would fulfil his service, and he would go to Rome and testify for the Lord there. The Lord is so gracious; He knew that the heart and the motive were right, and He would comfort His servant. Then again, we read that after he had been caught up to the third heaven, which was indeed more than an appearing, when he came down he was given the thorn for the flesh, and found it very trying for himself, a man of so impetuous and active a character. He besought the Lord thrice to take it from him, but the Lord said, “My grace suffices thee; for my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So he was called to suffer this, that he might find the power of Christ resting upon him. That was a gracious, comforting word of the Lord to him, and showed what a deep interest the Lord took in His servant, and how His grace was sufficient for this and everything of that kind.
When again at the end of his arduous life of service he stands before that inhuman monster whom he calls “the lion”, and all the saints at Rome, who seem to have been very timid, deserted him, and no man stood by him, the Lord again manifested Himself to him, as he says, “The Lord stood with me” (2 Timothy 4:17). Do you think the Lord would desert His servant though all deserted him? Never; He made Himself known in full support to His servant. Oh! do we not feel it, that it is only as He supports us that we have courage? It is only as He supports us that service is at all effectual, so that, as he says, “through me the proclamation might be fully made”. But He does support us, as He supported His aged servant at that moment. We see thus how Paul was well acquainted with these wonderful manifestations and communications from the Lord.
Now in the last passage I read (John 14) we have a different note. We should expect the apostle John to present things to us in a character corresponding to his ministry, and thus we find here the character of the manifestations of the Lord from John’s aspect. “He that has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me; but he that loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him”. This then is a manifestation of affection. I do not mean that the others were not given in affection, but the stress here is laid upon affection, so that the manifestation is really one of pure affection. It is not a manifestation here for service, but a manifestation for affection: “He that loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him”. Now that is a real spiritual experience. Would to God we knew more about it! And I may say that it is not a bit of use reading this beautiful passage of Scripture and never experiencing the truth of it. I believe there are many believers who constantly admire and find comfort in this chapter, but who have not really experienced what this verse speaks about. But it is open to us. You say, ‘How is it open to us?’ Love obeys, and that is how it is opened to us: “He that has my commandments and keeps them”. So it is by the simple way of obedience. I do not know what you find, but I find in myself there is a great danger of not being simply obedient to the Lord. We may not be distinctly, directly and completely obedient to what the Lord tells us, and that is why we do not get these manifestations, for do you mean to tell me for one moment that love does not desire to bestow this favour? Of course it does. Do you mean to say that the Lord does not wish to manifest Himself to each of us? Of course He does, and the only thing that prevents Him, I believe, is our lack of obedience; but if obedience is there, and we love Him, He will certainly manifest Himself to us.
Now we may know a little about it or may know a great deal about it, but one feels we should all be exercised as to our experience of these things. Opposers say there is nothing in it but mere imagination; but manifestations of the Lord are real; and what is the effect in the soul? It is that the love of Christ is very near to us, very warm in our hearts, and we greatly appreciate it and enjoy it. I cannot explain its effects better than that. There is a realisation of His love in a deeper sense than ever. If I may refer to the collective thought, I believe the same holds good. We should never be content with a mere description of things, but we should realise when He comes to us. Not that we can claim it in a public way, but nevertheless the reality remains, and it should be our happy privilege, not only that we should read about it, but that we should experience it. I do believe it is of the utmost importance that such spiritual experiences as I have referred to should be known by every one of us, and, if what I have said tends to send us to the Lord in prayer to see what it is that prevents them being ours, I shall be glad indeed. As this chapter (John 14) shows us, faith, however great, is not enough. It says, “Ye believe on God, believe also on me”, and that, I understand, we all do. We all do believe on Him, there is faith, and that gets us over our difficulties and makes us go on so that we do not lose heart. As I said before, it keeps us going on steadily; but the Lord would have us enjoy more than that, namely the manifestations of Himself to our hearts, whether in love, or in any other of the aspects presented in these scriptures, for I have touched but the fringe of the subject. Let us then earnestly seek them in the power of the Spirit given to us, with the knowledge that all these experiences are possible for us, if we are exercised. May they become the real experience of our souls for His name’s sake.
Dr. Charles C. Elliott
Bristol, July 1931