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When the Lord was about to leave the world and go unto the Father, He exemplified, by washing the disciples feet, the nature and the effect of the service He would render to His own during His absence. We have seen in No. 7 of this Series that He is now sanctifying, having cleansed us by the washing of water by the word. Christ is now the great minister of the word, He was the living transcript of it when on the earth. The principle of His life was, " Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord shall man live." And according to the principle of His own life, so would He keep us by the action of His word, separating us from this defiling scene, and in the power of his life associating us with Himself above and apart from the world. The Spirit communicates His word to us. But not only this. When Christ ascended, He gave gifts to men, and that for a distinct purpose; viz., for the perfecting of the saints through the work of the ministry. There are diversities of gifts, but the one Spirit. Christ having gone on high, the Holy Ghost has come here to carry out His mind, and to make known His words, and the power of them, in the souls of the saints. But not only this. Distinct gifts are conferred through the self-same Spirit, according to the gift of Christ for the perfecting of the saints. Ministry is one channel through which the mind of the Lord is made known: it is the great channel. The Lord is Himself the great minister of the word, and those gifted by Him are His deputies. They are nothing in themselves, and nothing in any sense but as they carry out His mind and purpose. To understand ministry I must see that the Lord is the one who charges Himself with the perfecting of His body, the Church; and therefore, though there be distinctions of service, there is the same Lord. The Holy Spirit confers gifts according to His mind, so that the ministry, when true, is nothing less than the Spirit using individuals, one after one way, and another after another way, to communicate the mind and interest of one common Lord to any part of the body which He may appoint.
It makes the idea of ministry very simple, solemn, and responsible, when I see its true nature, and origin, and purpose. The Lord is absent. He sanctifies, He washes, and He will present the Church to Himself. In His absence the Spirit communicates His mind and interest, through the ministry of the word, either to oneself directly, or through members of the body whom He has specially gifted for the service in concert with the mind of the Lord, so that the saints are as responsible to hear and attend to the one as to the other. There is much blessing lost to souls in not seeing that true ministry is of the Lord, and that it is as incumbent on them to attend and hear it, as if the Lord called out of heaven. It is the Lord's voice by the Spirit sounding through His vessels and servants, or it is nothing. Of course there may be assumption and pretension. But counterfeits are only dangerous as they represent something precious; and then assumption does not excuse saints from seeking and preserving a sense of the great blessing and the great responsibility of hearing the Lord's ministry, either directly to themselves through the word, or through servants appointed by Him, and gifted by the Spirit, according to His will.
Ministry is a new and wondrous commission conferred on man; and not till the ascension of Christ was it conferred. Man was unable to take the place of His brother's keeper in any sort until Christ rose from the dead, and became the head of the body, the Church. Now He, the head in heaven, uses His members down here according to His will by the Spirit, to carry out and express His mind, and effect the service He desires for each, so that he who receiveth the servant receiveth Him. I ought to look for service from the servants of Christ.
If I were to refuse it by saying I could get it from the Scriptures myself, I should only circumscribe the mode and means by which my Lord tells me He will carry out His service to me; and by which He is now sanctifying me in order to present me to Himself; not but what He may, and does, as I have before stated, minister the word directly to ourselves, as He sees fit. But to make this a plea for refusing His appointed channel is no way to obtain either. Any instruction, which a servant of Christ imparts to me through the Spirit, is as true, as binding, and as salutary to me as if the Lord spoke it audibly from heaven; and the man who assumes to learn nothing from ministry will be found little able to impart anything. The apostle was helped by the ministry of others. There was mutual comfort from their mutual faith. And how dependent was he on their prayers
The first and most important point with respect to understanding what ministry is, is to have clear ideas of its origin and scope. No body of men were ever set in the peculiar and distinct place in which the Church is now placed. It is quite new and unique. However great might have been man's responsibility to be his brother's keeper, not till the ascension of Christ was any man gifted to wash his brother's feet. There were priests and prophets, but they were manifestly unequal to perform a task which, if they could have done it, would not have left those whom they served " clean every whit." Ministry, as it is now, came in on the ground, that the saints were " clean every whit" through the work of Christ. The atonement must necessarily have preceded an institution that was founded on it. It will be seen that, prior to the introduction of priesthood, God's servant on the earth did not feel himself charged with the failures of his brethren, or responsible for their conduct. Joseph served his brethren, but he was not charged with their failings or appointed to correct them. Moses is sent to serve his people; but when God dwells among the redeemed, Aaron and the priests are chargeable and responsible for the sins of the people, to put them away from any who sought to them. The priests and the Levites maintained the ritual, and afforded the benefit of it to any sincere applicant. They took cognizance of any breach of the law, not to strengthen the delinquent or to exonerate him, but to condemn him, and to exact the claim of the law from him in sacrifices, where there was no transgression. But now, through Christ our Savior, not only are our sins and transgressions washed away through His blood; that is to say, those of every believer, but our blessed Lord undertakes to wash our feet; in other words, to detach us in mind and conscience from the defilement of the scene through which we are passing. On this ground is it that He appoints His servants to wash one another's feet; and to every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ for the perfecting of the saints. Here, then, we have both the principle and the power. The principle is the perfecting of the saints, and could be only on the ground of the fact of their being perfected forever by one offering; and the power is the measure of the grace of Christ imparted by the Holy Ghost distinctly and peculiarly.
Now, we must have imperfect and inadequate ideas of ministry, unless we understand the principle on which we serve, and the power by which we serve. Who could understand ministry, and who could serve, if he did not know the nature of his commission, or why he is entrusted with grace from the ascended Christ, and that by the Holy Spirit this gift is maintained for exercise in him?
The first great point, then, in apprehending what ministry is, is to comprehend that " to every one is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ," by the Holy Ghost, for the simple and distinct work of perfecting the saints. The ascended Christ-Head of the body-the Lord, from His place in the highest heaven, stands forth without let or hindrance now, to dispense gifts to men; in order that His saints' perfection, through the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the body, may be consummated. If there be any misapprehension of the source and object of ministry, there must be a corresponding failure and deficiency in attempting to carry it out; while if the soul be kept in the Spirit, it is ever made conscious that from the ascended Lord it derives the gift for serving Him; and then there is strength and wisdom in the use of it. Nay, if there be not most rigid simplicity as to this, if the soul do not confine the source of the gift, and the power to use it, to the Lord, the minister or servant will be colored and perverted by anything which intervenes. And here, doubtless, lies the root of all the misdirection and darkness respecting ministry.
From inattention to the source, power, and object of ministry, arises all the confusion, and human efforts to reach the needed thing, from the highest ecclesiastic, or Romish priest, to the most scripturally taught. I need not pursue this part of the subject, but it is easy to see that if either the source, power, and object be unknown, there cannot be efficient or pleasing maintenance of the gift.
Christ our Lord is the source, whatever be the measure or nature of it; and the Holy Ghost is the power by which it is maintained and exercised. The gift from my Lord is distinct and defined; but is known and maintainable by the Holy Ghost. Consequently two things are necessary for the due ministry of the word,: first, that I recognize that the gift comes from Him, and therefore that I can distinctly refer to Him as His gift any measure I may have; and if I do so, I cannot easily mistake its nature and extent. Secondly, that it is only by the Holy Ghost that I can maintain the gift in any measure of power or effectiveness. The Spirit is the power by which it is energized; and from a neglect or ignorance of this fact, many who are gifted (I do not mean by gifted those merely who are pre-eminently so, but all who are so in any degree) are feeble or ineffective in the exercise of the gift. The gift is always a positive thing, though it requires a certain intelligence to understand the nature of it. To us the gift of Christ is always most assured when we are most near Him; and while it is positive as a thing conferred, it is, I may say, only known to faith, and faith is assured in proportion as one is near the Giver of it. The more I am walking in the faith of the Giver of it, the more am I able by the Spirit to declare it. It is evident that the gift is a specialty; and that though it may never be taken from me, it may become unprofitable because I do not use it as I ought. Timothy is desired by the apostle to " stir up the gift" that is in him. The specialty of the gift should be ascertained; and this knowledge in a great measure may be arrived at by the greater ease one feels in one particular line of service rather than another. I am sure that one gifted as an evangelist will naturally and easily turn to the work of addressing the unconverted. He will (I say it reverently) find himself in his element when so employed, however he may need instruction as to the exercise of his gift. In the same way a teacher has in himself the sense and value of communicating truth. His turn and inclination, so to speak, is in that way. By nature he might have been silent and reserved, and delighting in his own acquisitions; but now he longs to communicate what he knows; not, indeed, to parade his knowledge, but to impart it. And the effect which he aims to produce, determines the nature of the gift more than anything besides. There is no act without a motive; and we know how often there are acts of service of one kind or another which spring from questionable motives. A public charity for instance, or a funeral sermon: the motives in both those cases might be merely human and carnal, and therefore all connection between the gift and its source would be lost; and in such a case the gift could not be determined. For unless I am walking near Christ and in the faith of Him, I cannot determine the gift to be of Him. If I am, I get assured, and the ease with which I act in any certain line corroborates to me the nature and specialty of my gift. Nor is it a very difficult matter to determine it. It may be for one to do so for another. Though even here the spiritual would soon determine it. But if a soul be walking near the Lord, he will soon know his gift; and the saints will, sooner, or later be sure to acknowledge it. On the other hand, though the gift be a specialty it is conveyed by the Holy Ghost; hence the one walking in the Spirit must always best exercise it.
It is quite possible for a gifted person to turn his gift to no account, or to an unwise account; for if the gift be not held from the Lord and directly under His control, its possessor will always act unwisely and perversely. The right thing will never be done at the right time. The right truth, or the right service, or the right place of service, will not be seen, and thus the value of the gift will be compromised. A pretended gift is "a cloud without water;" a real gift, not under the Lord or kept under His eye, is rather a cloud with water, but in the wrong place and the wrong time. The gift is a certain aptitude to do some distinct thing, and therefore it must be cultivated and exercised according to its particular property. Whether " prophecy, let it be according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministry; or he that teacheth on teaching." The gifted one is to wait on his gift, to engage himself attentively with it. It will be found that one who has been occupying himself with things foreign and uncongenial to his gift will when he essays to use it, be feeble and profitless. A gift ought to command the man, because it is Christ's, and if he be occupied or engaged with something else, (I mean, of course, unnecessarily so,) his gift is compromised and straitened. It should be nourished, as the apostle says to Timothy, " Stir up the gift that is in thee." I am sure that gift is continually impeded by the engrossment of a man's occupations. I do not mean by the mere labor of the occupation which is right, but when the mind is involved in the cares and interests which get clogged to it. How can a person oppressed and swamped in heart by the cares and business of this life be ready and free to be the platform or vessel for the activity of an entirely different interest? Many feeling this embarrassment seek to escape it by using their gift; but the result is that they help themselves very slightly, if at all, and not any one else. To use your gift you ought to be under the control of it. For if you are pre-occupied, you cannot " stir up the gift that is in thee," or wait on it. Hence, " Meditate on these things, give thyself wholly to them, that thy profiting may appear to all." The one who meditates on the things of Christ and gives himself wholly to them; that is, who is controlled by Ms mind, must necessarily become an efficient vessel for expressing it according to the nature of the gift vouchsafed to him.
Thus we see that the object and intention of ministry is edification, and therefore the gift for it is conferred by the Lord Himself according to His own will; and as the gifted one is walking near Him in faith, he is empowered by the Holy Ghost to exercise it usefully, and in keeping with the Lord's intention. Gift, by no means places one in any degree of independence. On the contrary, the gifted one who would use his gift truly and solely for the Lord must wait on Him unreservedly for counsel, as to place, time, and subject. I think here again, many gifted ones fail. They allow circumstances and human impressions to sway them as to each of these points, and not the mind of the Lord, which in faith they could have ascertained. There are different ministrations but the one Lord. Therefore I should know that in the exercise of my gift in every act of service I am in the place He would have me to be in; that the right time for me to exercise it is come; and that I have the right subject. How different any one thus sensibly ordered by the Lord would be in spirit and power! Nay more, there must be a great and marked lack in the ministry, when this responsibility to Him is not vividly and rigidly maintained. From the neglect of it has arisen all the misrule and unprofitable utterances which are the reproach of christian assemblies. Not that it always follows that there is no sincerity when there is an overlooking of this responsibility, by no means; but if it be overlooked, nay, if it be not strictly observed, oneself becomes the measure of one's thoughts and desires, and neither time, place, nor subject is chosen with reference to the mind of the Lord; but with reference to one's own mind. In this case it may all seem suitable enough to the mind of the individual thus carried away; while it is entirely out of place and unprofitable to the assembly. I think it is plain that the neglect of this responsibility is the cause, not only of all the misplacement of gift in Christendom, but the palpable inadequacy of many true earnest men to set forth truth needed for the edification of the saints.
Now if it be the cause of this evident and sorrowful confusion, how careful should all be, who have had their eyes opened to this sad state of things, to seek grace continually, to rise above what in their hearts they must so much deplore I Distinct, constant reference to the Lord on these points can alone preserve one from dropping into independence; and if in independence in the smallest degree, oneself is one's center; for even the things of the Lord and the gift will be exercised as for individual benefit and with reference thereto, and not to the assembly as such. The service may be very true and genuine, but it is so individual that it is unsuited to the assembly, and does not edify. Often when one is ministering with great fervency, the assembly is not moved; because the minister, though very true and earnest, is not in the mind of the Spirit of God; and therefore, I may say, the key-note is not struck. This is more distinctly felt and known in public praying than in other services. If I have the Lord before my mind, and my responsibility to Him to use His gift for Him, I wait on Him as to time, place, and subject; and when I do, I am sure, according to His will, to edify, though, apparently, the effect may be small. I am sure it is a great mistake for anyone to conclude that because a certain line of truth, or a certain hymn, is at any moment delighting and edifying to himself, on the ground of it, he should consider himself authorized or entitled to communicate it publicly. If he has the Lord's mind in communicating it, it is right and happy to do so. But that the mere fact of any truth being presented freshly to my own soul, should afford me title to communicate it, is subversive of the obligation which I owe the Lord, as my Lord. I believe that very often those sudden flashes of light to the soul are more for the individual than for the assembly. I do not say that they are never for the assembly; for we read, " If anything is revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace." Did not the disorder at Corinth arise from this, that every man was occupied with his own psalm, or his own doctrine, and not the edification of the assembly? I cannot edify the Church except under Him who has the ministrations in His own hand. " There are differences of ministrations but the one Lord." And if this be lost sight of, the exercise of His gift, whatever it may be, will never be in time, place, or subject as He would have it; and so the edification, if there be any, must be very partial.
In conclusion, I merely reiterate the importance and necessity of continued and continual reference to the Lord, as Giver of the gift, as the only safeguard for the efficient use of it; and that the gifted one proves his value of the gift by the measure in which he fosters and cultivates it; always using it in the sense that the Lord gave it to His servant for His own work. And for this reason it is that the servant should so prize it as to seek in every way to cultivate and afford it full expression; and thus both Giver and gift will ever be distinctly and prominently before his soul; each contributing to the other, and according as it is so is he happily a minister of the word.
High and blessed office! May the Lord keep us so near Himself that our hearts may rejoice in being dependent on Him and in doing His will!