Christ: the Rock of the Church
The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation, 35-52, by Watchman Nee
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Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Who do men say that the Son of man is? And they said, Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But who say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 16.13-19)
“Who Say Ye That I Am?”
“Who do men say that the Son of man is?” This was the question that the Lord Jesus asked His disciples. There was no doubt that He was the Son of man. Everybody—both the Jews and the Gentiles—recognized and acknowledged Him as such. The question now raised was not whether the Lord Jesus was the Son of man but who this Son of man was. The Lord was not eager to know what men were speaking of Him—whether good or bad; He simply wanted to know who men were saying that He was. What, then, did men say about Him? Those who opposed Him said that He was demon-possessed or that He was a gluttonous man and a winebiber. We will not dwell at all on these blasphemous words. But among those who had good feelings towards Him, different views were held. Some said He was John the Baptist; some, that He was Elijah; and some, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Nicodemus said He was a teacher who came from God (John 3.2); the Samaritan woman at the well said He was a prophet (John 4.19). Who was this Son of man? Different people held different views.
But the question posed by the Lord Jesus did not stop at this point. What He really wished to know was this: How different was the view of the disciples from that of other men? He especially desired to know what difference the knowledge of Peter towards Him was from that of other men. What He attempted to focus upon was this: People say I am this type of man, but what do you say of Me? You who are called My disciples, who do you say that I am? This was the real question He had in mind.
Simon Peter answered Jesus’ question. He told the Lord: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” His answer was most clear. In it He confessed two things about the Lord: first, he confessed Jesus as Christ, and second, that He is the Son of God. As to the person of the Lord Jesus, He is the Son of God; as to His work, He is God’s Christ. The Son refers to who He is; the Christ refers to what He does. “Son” indicates His relationship with God himself; “Christ” speaks of His relationship to God’s plan. In speaking of the Lord himself, He is mentioned as being the Son of the living God; in speaking of the Lord’s work, He is said to be Christ—He is the Christ of the living God, the Anointed One who is especially appointed to fulfill God’s plan. This then, is Peter’s confession—which also is our confession of the Lord Jesus.
After Peter’s confession, the Lord Jesus spoke to him, saying, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” Such confession neither originated in Peter’s mind nor was learned by him from other people but was revealed by the Father who is in the heavens.
The Lord continued further by declaring: “And I also say unto thee . . .” He first showed Peter where this confession came from, and then caused His disciple to see the greatness of the effect of such confession. What did the Lord tell His disciple? “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” This declaration by our Lord tells us what the foundation of the church is. How exceedingly vital is this matter to Christianity. It is the very core of all questions. What, then, is the foundation of the church? The Lord suggests to us here that the church is built on what He terms “this rock.” Hence the foundation of the church is “this rock” of which the Lord speaks.
What This Rock Indicates
Now just what does the term “this rock” indicate? For unless we know what this phrase means, we will not be able to understand what the foundation of the church is nor see clearly how the church is built up.
The rock is none other than the confession which Peter makes concerning the Lord; and what he confesses the Lord to be is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And the church is built on this very confession. She is built on men’s confession and knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
This confession of Peter is not shown him by flesh and blood, rather it comes from the revelation of God. So that what Peter receives is not in the mode of traditional Christianity. It is not because people tell him that Jesus is the Christ that he says Jesus is the Christ. Neither is it because people tell him Jesus is the Son of the living God that he then says Jesus is the Son of the living God. Nor does Peter spend time in research and thought until he himself comes to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. This knowledge does not issue from Peter’s own thought nor is it suggested to him by other people, but it comes directly through the revelation of the Father who is in heaven. This confession is not based on personal opinion nor on people’s teaching but on God’s revelation of His Son to Peter’s own spirit. Only in this manner does he know that Jesus is God’s Christ and God’s Son.
Now the church is built on this confession—a confession grounded in God’s revelation that shows to men the person and work of Christ. When the Father who is in the heavens reveals His Son to Peter, He causes Peter to see how Jesus is indeed God’s Son and is also God’s Christ. So that when the Lord subsequently declares to His disciples that “upon this rock I will build my church,” this rock has direct reference to what Peter has just confessed—namely, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is God’s revelation as well as man’s confession. In short, “this rock” is none other than Christ himself.
The Rock is Christ, the Son of the living God. As regards the Lord’s person, He is the Son of God. This knowledge is absolutely necessary to men. In knowing the Lord it is not so much a matter of what we know about His deeds as recounted in the Gospel records as it is of knowing Him as the Son of God. That which men see and hear and touch is not enough, for He is far greater than that: He is none other than the Son of the living God. How much easier it is to recognize Him as the Son of man—both His friends and foes confessed Him and still confess Him as such. But those who have received revelation from God, they alone know Him as the Son of God.
Whether a person has life before God or not depends on whether or not he knows that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. Observe what other Scriptures say: “This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ” (John 17.3). “That ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name” (John 20.31). “He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life” (1 John 5.12). To know Jesus Christ as sent by God is eternal life. To recognize Him as the Son of God is also eternal life.
The Bible tells us that the Son of God is “the effulgence of [God’s] glory, and the very image of his substance” (Heb. 1.3); He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15). The Son of God is God himself manifested among men. For “no man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1.18). Therefore, if anyone wants to know God he must know the Son of God, because he can know God only through His Son. All the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily (Col. 2.9), for God manifests himself through His Son. The very essence of the Son of God is God himself, and the very expression of the image of God is His Son. “He that hath seen me,” declared Jesus, “hath seen the Father” (John 14.9). And on another occasion He said this: “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30). God who dwells in light unapproachable is the Father; God who is manifested to be seen and touched by men is the Son: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). The Lord Jesus is the Word become flesh, and this Word in the beginning was with God, and this Word was God (John 1.1-2). “Word” is a person’s expression, hence “word” represents the person. When an individual speaks, it causes people to know what kind of person he is. The Son of God is thus the uttered word of God: through Jesus as the Son men are able to understand and know God. The Lord Jesus is the Son of God, the very expression of God. He is God “manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3.16). In short, He is God.
To know the Lord Jesus as the Son of God is to know Him as having the life and nature of God, to know Him as the manifestation of God, and as God himself. For in reality a person who does not know the Lord Jesus as the Son of God does not know God: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that confesseth the Son hath the Father also” (1 John 2.23). God has raised the Lord Jesus from among the dead to declare Him as the Son of God with power (Rom. 1.4), because it is God’s will for men to know the Lord Jesus as His Son and then to know Him through His Son.
What causes us to confess that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God? It is the revelation of God in us that enables us to have such knowledge. It is the Father who is in the heavens who tells us that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God. Even though Jesus performed many miracles while on earth—all of which proved that He is the Son of God—yet men did not confess Him as the Son of God because they saw these miracles performed by Him (in fact, many people who personally saw the Lord performing these miracles would not confess Him as the Son of God). And today people believe that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God without even having seen any miracle. Peter did not acknowledge the Lord Jesus as the Son of God because he came to know Him so well through years of following Him. No, no. There is none who possesses such ability. Only one reason can explain how a person could know the Lord Jesus: the Father gives the person revelation from above: he can confess the Lord Jesus to be the Son of God whether he has seen any miracle or not because the Father in heaven has given him revelation.
What is the church? It is a group of people whose eyes have been opened by God to know that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. Such inward knowledge as this can withstand any trial. What those in the church have known inwardly cannot be shaken. They may forget what they have seen or heard outwardly, but they can never forget what they have inwardly received. Hallelujah, they truly know the Lord Jesus!
God not only causes us to know the person of the Lord Jesus, He also gives us to see the ministry of the Lord Jesus. As has been mentioned, the person of the Lord Jesus flows out of His being the Son of God whereas the ministry of the Lord Jesus flows out of His being the Christ of God. The Greek word “Christ” is “Messiah” in Hebrew, and means “the anointed”—which term is related to the work of God. We observe in the Old Testament period that when people were set up by God to be priests, prophets, or kings, they would be anointed with oil. And hence the term “the anointed” carries within it the idea of receiving God’s trust, accepting His commission, doing His work, and fulfilling His plan.
Now the Lord Jesus is the Anointed of God, which means that the eternal plan of God is to be accomplished through Him. In the eternity without beginning, the Lord Jesus is the Son of God. At the commencement of the execution of God’s eternal plan the Son of God becomes the Christ of God who is destined to accomplish this eternal plan of God. The Christ of God is also eternal in character, but Christ begins with the eternity with beginning while as the Son of God He exists in the eternity without beginning. The Son of God has no beginning just as God has no beginning, but the Christ of God begins with the carrying out of God’s eternal plan, since Christ is set up for the accomplishment of that plan. The Anointed One is set apart to work specifically for God. From that time onward the Son of God has become God’s worker, messenger, and Christ. All the works of God—together with all His expectations and aims—are now upon His Son. So that the Son of God is now not only God’s Son but also God’s Christ.
For a Christian to be useful to God he must see His eternal plan. It simply is not enough for him to know that he has sinned, that the Lord Jesus has accomplished redemption for him, and that in accepting Him he shall be saved. Such a Christian will not perish, but he is of little use in God’s hand. God does not establish the church merely to obtain this kind of person with which to populate it. No, He sets up the church in order to secure a people who know what is His will and plan in Christ. This knowledge requires revelation of the Father who is in the heavens. And thus shall we see that the Lord Jesus is God’s Christ—that He is the Anointed One—and the Head of the church which is His body that partakes of His anointing. How we who are His children need to confess the Lord Jesus as Christ, and to confess ourselves as Christians. We belong to Christ, and we also partake of the anointing.
One day when God opens our eyes to see, we shall begin to realize after having been Christians for so many years how small is our horizon and after so many years of work how restricted is our scope of activity. There must come such a day when God puts us in His anointing and we come to see how great a work He has done. The surprising thing is, however, that some people profess to have received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and yet they have not entered into the work of God nor have seen the purpose of His giving them this anointing. We must ask God to open our eyes that we may know for what purpose the Lord Jesus has been anointed and for what purpose the church has been anointed, because the oil which the church receives is the same oil with which the Head is anointed. The church receives her anointing under the Head.
We need to know the Lord Jesus as the Anointed of God as well as the Son of God. We must see Him as the Anointed who fulfills the eternal purpose of God as well as the One who has the life and nature of God. Through this Son of God we know God himself, while through God’s Christ we know God’s plan. If we know the Lord Jesus as the Son of God but do not know Him as the Christ of God, we will still be unable to understand what God creates us for, what He saves us for, and what He will obtain in the church. Hence we should have these two sides of knowledge concerning “this Rock”—our Lord Jesus.
This Rock is what the Father reveals to Peter. How we need God to show us what a great Man the Lord Jesus is. We must see this inwardly, since this is not anything the flesh and blood can show. Blood is related to the soul and flesh is related to the body. Neither the soul nor the body can help us know this Man whom God has set up. At first many people saw this Man on earth, but few knew Him. Many had also thronged Him, nonetheless only a few touched Him. Many were healed by Him but still only a few knew Him. How totally useless is man’s thought and man’s feeling in this regard.
Once the Lord Jesus said to His disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which ye see, and saw them not; and to hear the things which ye hear, and heard them not” (Matt. 13.16-17). The Lord’s disciples were indeed blessed, yet this was still not sufficient for them to be in the church as members of the body, because Peter had already received the blessing which the Lord Jesus spoke of here. Had not Peter already seen what the prophets and the righteous men wished to hear? Even so, this was not enough. Only after he had confessed the Lord as the Christ, the Son of the living God did he touch the center. His knowledge of the Lord now was very different from that in the past. Earlier he knew the Lord outwardly, but now he knew Him through the revelation of the Father who is in the heavens. It was the heavenly Father who caused him to know that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Such knowledge comes from spiritual revelation; it is inward and not outward.
No matter how many years a person may associate himself with Christians, unless he possesses this new knowledge of the Lord which Peter now had, he can not become a part of the church. For anyone to become a part of the church he must receive revelation of the Father as Peter did. And this heavenly revelation in him causes him to know the Lord Jesus as the Son of God as well as the Christ of God. This alone makes him a part of the church.
Let us therefore remember that the church is not only built on Christ but is also built on the Christ whom God has revealed. Without revelation none can know Christ. Without revelation none can know God’s Son. Such knowledge is not learned from doctrines or from books. It comes from the revelation of the Father.
Once our Lord said this to his disciples: “No one knoweth who the Son is, save the Father” (Luke 10.22). How marvelous is this statement. If we had been His disciples at that time, we probably would have asked Him, Do we not know you? Do we not know where you were born? Do we not know who your father was? Do we not know who your mother was? And your brothers and sisters, and also your cousin John? Did we not know your family affairs and even also the things about Elisabeth and Zacharias? Yet the Lord declared that no one knows who the Son is except the Father. When He said no one, He meant indeed no one. And here the Father did something special to Peter, which was to signify what He the Father knows of the Son so that Peter might know too.
There is a knowing of the Lord Jesus which comes from human instruction; such knowledge is accounted null and void by the Lord. Only the knowledge of the Father concerning the Lord Jesus is a true knowing of Him. And God alone can impart such knowledge to men. For this reason all who have not received such revelation from the Father have never known the Son. No man can come to the Father but by the Son, and no man can know the Son apart from the revelation by the Father. This revelation from heaven is absolutely necessary. And the church is built on this revelation.
The church knows this Man—Jesus—inwardly; she knows Him as the Christ, the Son of God. And this inward knowledge is the foundation of the church. For a person to talk about the church without a knowledge such as this is like cooking with a bottomless pot or drawing water with a bottomless bucket: it is totally vain and empty. Such knowledge of Christ is not learned from men, it comes from the revelation of the Father who is in heaven. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” said the Lord, “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The church is therefore built on This Rock, and it is built for the purpose of stopping the floodgates of Hades.
We must understand that the Christ whom we conceive in our mind cannot stand any test, for this conceptualized Christ has neither power nor usefulness. Under favorable circumstances it may not be readily exposed as superficial; but whenever the gates of Hades are opened, the unreliability of such knowledge becomes immediately evident. Since it does not come from God, it cannot help in time of trial.
Peter knew the Lord Jesus, and he was severely tried. Did he ever fall? He fell indeed. But though he denied the Lord Jesus in a few minutes’ time, Peter wept when the Lord looked at him and when he remembered the word which was spoken to him. Though he was defeated and was fallen, he nonetheless inwardly knew. This inward knowledge of Peter’s is most precious, if we can see it: although he fell, yet because of this knowing, he immediately wept in sincere and genuine repentance: the inward knowledge of the Lord Jesus carried him through the trial.
The reason why the church is at all strong is because her knowledge of Christ comes from the revelation of the heavenly Father and not out of the conception of men. Never can Christ be truly conceived out of the cleverness of any individual, nor can Christ be made known through the eloquence of other, more gifted people. The knowledge of Christ which is produced by man’s own cleverness and wisdom is not a rock that can stand firm. It easily falls down an incline when it is slightly pushed.
There is a big problem in the church today because of those whose knowledge of Christ comes only from instruction. Because others say such and such they also say such and such. This kind of knowledge is totally inadequate. This does not mean that the church does not need to preach or proclaim the gospel. It nevertheless underlines the fact that whatever is merely passed from mouth to mouth and from ear to ear is almost totally in vain. If we do not receive light from the Father who is in the heavens, if the light we have is all supplied by men, one day we will be shaken when others are shaken. That which is mere doctrine void of revelation is spiritually worthless. What is mere doctrine? That which is taught by flesh and blood—without any light from God or direct communication with Him—or that which must be memorized or comprehended with the mind is mere doctrine. Let us fully understand that it is not the doctrine of Christ which saves; rather, it is the Christ whom God has revealed that saves. Having this Christ we shall stand, for within us is a revelation which causes us to know the Lord in a true way, and nothing whatsoever is able to shake off this inward knowledge.
When Peter confessed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the Lord Jesus immediately declared: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah.” Why? Because such a confession came not through man’s instruction, but from the revelation of the heavenly Father. The Lord was not satisfied with what people said of Him; what He looked for was a confession based on revelation.
The value of such confession lies in revelation. It is quite easy today for a person to tell another that Jesus is the Son of God. And after a while the one who has heard may answer that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. Yet such profession is not based on revelation, and hence has no value. To speak with spiritual value the church must speak out of revelation. Without it there is no true knowledge. This axiom is recognized by all who know God. If the church lacks revelation and if all she has comes from tradition, she is bound to fail. Tradition is that which is passed on from one mouth to another mouth, and on to still a third mouth. With the result being that one learns somebody’s teaching from somebody else or learns about some particular doctrine at some particular place. What people then have are traditional teachings, nothing having been based on revelation. This is the failure of the church. We dare not despise preaching; quite the contrary, we emphasize it. Nonetheless, preaching or teaching cannot be a substitute for God’s revelation. God desires us to receive revelation; He also wants us to speak out of revelation.
Take as an example the case of Philip the evangelist. Once he was sent by the Lord by the way to the desert to preach Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch. When they came to a certain water spot, the eunuch asked to be baptized. “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8.37 mg.). So Philip baptized the eunuch.
Now some people today try to imitate what Philip did then. They tell someone that Jesus is the Son of God, and after half an hour of preaching they ask the listener if he believes that Jesus is the Son of God. If the answer is positive, they then baptize him. Were they to be questioned about their procedure, they would doubtless say something like this: “Philip did the same thing, so this that we have done is quite Scriptural.” This is certainly what the letter of God’s word says, yet we must ask on what basis is this said. Some speaking is based on the Holy Spirit’s revelation (as in the case of Philip), therefore it will reach to the innermost part of the listener’s being. Someone else’s speaking may not be based on revelation, and hence it will merely be the passing on of some words. If the speaking by the witness, preacher, or teacher is according to revelation, the Holy Spirit is likewise speaking as he is speaking. And thus what is being said will enter the listener’s heart. Otherwise, people may mouth the same words that Jesus is the Son of God, yet what is said will be mere letter. Not because Philip did it once necessarily means that we can do it too with equal effectiveness. To do so would simply be outward imitation. It would not be Christianity. The foundation of Christianity rests on inward revelation and inward knowledge. That which is merely traditional or imitative is not true Christianity.
The foundation of the church lies in revelation. With revelation comes life. When we were saved, we did not substitute life with doctrine. In like manner, after we are saved we still must not substitute life with doctrine. If a person hears only doctrine and receives no light, what he obtains is only doctrine, not Christ. We know this will not solve his problem of life. If we wish to help a saved person, how can we just ask how many doctrines he knows and not ask whether he has received any revelation from God? Our emphasis on doctrine and not on revelation accounts very much for the weakness, failure, and barrenness of the church. How can the church not be weak if she is being weighed down with too many doctrines—all of which are passed from one to another without any inward revelation?
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And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God. And all that heard him were amazed, and said, is not this he that in Jerusalem made havoc of them that called on this name? and he had come hither for this intent, that he might bring them bound before the chief priests. But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews that dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is the Christ. And when many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel together to kill him: but their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates also day and night that they might kill him: but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them going in and going out at Jerusalem. (Acts 9.20-28)
And walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brethren, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left the nets, and followed him. And going on from thence he saw two other brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they straightway left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matt. 4.18-22)
And he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. (Eph. 1.22-23)
In whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit. (Eph. 2.22)
If ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious: unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2.3-5)
I write unto you, my little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write unto you, fathers, because ye know him who is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the evil one. I have written unto you, little children, because ye know the Father. (1 John 2.12-13)
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.... Peter therefore seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? (John 21.18,21)
And when they had appointed him a day, they came to him into his lodging in great number; to whom he expounded the matter, testifying the kingdom of God, and persuading them concerning Jesus, both from the law of Moses and from the prophets, from morning till evening. (Acts 28.23)
This thou knowest, that all that are in Asia turned away from me; of whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Tim. 1.15)
But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2.1)
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world. (1 John 4.1)
For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even they that confess not that Jesus Christ cometh in the flesh. (2 John 7a)
The meaning of the word “minister” (diakonos) in the original New Testament Greek applies not only to the deacons in the church but also to all else who serve. All who serve God and the gospel are ministers. So that when, as we are shortly to do, we mention four ministers, we mean four servants (or workers) of the Lord. In the above Scripture readings we can distinguish four distinct lines of ministry. These four lines of ministry form an outline of the New Testament. And we call those who pioneer these four lines, the four ministers.
One special feature we cannot fail to notice in the Gospels is the fact that among the Lord’s twelve disciples, three are quite frequently with Him. I believe we all know that they are James, Peter, and John. Together these three saw the Lord transformed on the mount, went with Him into the house of Jairus, and finally were closest to the Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. Why from among the Twelve did the Lord especially choose these three disciples? Why did He give them a more prominent place? One very significant reason was that God called them in order to establish three distinctive lines of New Testament ministry. Yet these three lines, as it turned out, were incomplete; for as we look into the Book of Acts we immediately notice that the Lord brought in still another person besides these three men. Now was this other person Matthias? It must be said that although Matthias was indeed chosen to be an apostle by the casting of lots, nevertheless he was not the man. No, this distinction fell to another, even to the beloved brother Paul, who was likewise specially chosen by the Lord.
In the New Testament can be found many people who work for the Lord, but those who stand out conspicuously are only four in number. And these four ought to be listed in the following manner: first, James; second, Peter; third, Paul; and fourth, John. This, I believe, is the proper Scriptural order commonly accepted by most Bible students. And although we may not be able to exhaust the deepest meaning of these four lines of ministry, we can at least come to know something about them. A glimpse of them—however dim it may be—can help us in our Christian walk on earth.
James is the least conspicuous among the four. He has not written any book. The New Testament book called James was not written by him but by the James who was one of the Lord’s brothers according to the flesh. Both Peter and John are most zealous and active; and they have left to us monumental records of their endeavors. James, however, does not appear to have done anything special. On the contrary, he seems to have been a very hidden man. Why, then, would the Lord have chosen him to represent a distinctive line of New Testament ministry? How could he ever be ranked among the four?
Let us see that what James represents is not the gifts of preaching, healing, and wonders. These gifts are good, yet they are not James’ specialty. What, then, does he represent? We must recognize that he performed the greatest as well as the most exceptional work of all, which was, that he became the first martyr among the apostles (see Acts 12.1f.). The most special and significant of the four lines of ministry is that of suffering. Despite the distinctives peculiarly found in the works of Peter, Paul, and John, there is nonetheless one thing they all had in common, which was this element of suffering—for suffering constitutes one of the basics of a Christian.
Today many love to read the excellent letters of Paul, to hear of the great works of Peter, and to learn of the wonderful visions of John, but they altogether forget about this servant James. Yet how can we overlook the fact that all works of God are based on what James represents? Though a Peter may lead 3,000 people to Christ in one day and a Paul is able to establish churches everywhere, nevertheless, if there is not the suffering of James, the Lord will not be satisfied. For in His very coming into this world, our Lord Jesus stood in the place of the rejected. And if we therefore do not suffer with Him—and no matter what good works we may perform—we cannot satisfy His heart.
Why does the Lord so conceal—yes, even seem to bury—this man James? It is because He aims at projecting the specialty of James upon our senses by means of casting this specialty in stark relief. To illustrate what we mean, let us say that in a room we have many chairs along with some lamps and tables. We are so used to them that we do not think of them at all. Suppose, however, that one day all these objects are removed except for one tiny table. I believe that whoever comes into the room thereafter will without exception notice this tiny table. When many items are gathered, no single one of them is particularly noticeable; but if all be taken away except one, this remaining item will become very conspicuous. In like manner, the Lord hides all the gifts which James possesses except this special one of suffering in order to project this remaining gift into greater prominence. Peter himself once declared (and this is what the Bible says), “Forasmuch then as Christ suffered in the flesh, arm ye yourselves also with the same mind” (1 Peter 4.1). Only by suffering can we overcome all things and complete the eternal purpose of God.
Please allow me to speak with great frankness here that those who are not willing to suffer with Christ should not expect to be exalted with Him, for only those who have suffered are worthy to be lifted up (cf. Rom. 8.17). We must follow in the footsteps of James.
There are many other truths to be gleaned from the life of James which can help us, but we must move on to the other three ministries.
Before we deal with what Peter represents, we ought to look first at the individual characteristics belonging to the lines of ministry of Peter, Paul, and John respectively. Though these traits will not be treated systematically, our brief treatment may nonetheless help in understanding them better.
The works of Peter and Paul are very different. In reading the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel according to Luke, and the Book of Acts, we can easily discern the difference (Mark, it should be noted, received much from Peter, whereas Luke followed Paul in his presentation). The testimony which Peter gave on the Day of Pentecost differs in emphasis from the testimony given by Paul. They cannot be mixed up. Moreover, the work of John seems to stand all by itself: the gift or testimony he received from the Lord is quite different from those of Peter and Paul.
What is Peter’s testimony? In reading Matthew 16 and Acts 2 we can readily recognize that what Peter is particularly concerned with is the kingdom of God. His line of ministry is especially focused on that. What about Paul? I trust all who have read the entire writings of Paul have seen that what he puts forth is none other than the house of God. In other words, it is the church of God. All the testimonies and works of Paul’s entire life are centered on this point. And finally, John’s testimony is different from these two. For example, he never talks about church affairs. Although Peter himself does not speak specifically on the church, nor touch on its organization, he at least mentions something about the elders. John, however, is completely silent on such church affairs as appointments and organization. He talks almost exclusively about the fathers, the young men, and the children. What this signifies with respect to John is a testimony concerning the family of God.
Consequently, three very distinctive lines of ministry are presented to us: (1) Peter—the kingdom of God; (2) Paul—the house of God; and (3) John—the family of God. If we can clearly grasp these three lines, we will receive more light from God. This does not imply, of course, that Peter never mentions what John does, since obviously Peter does touch a little upon the family of God. But his principal subject is always the kingdom of God. In a simliar way, Paul is also found talking a little about the affairs of God’s family, with John likewise speaking sometimes on the things of God’s kingdom: yet the central theme of Paul is always the church of God and that of John is always the family of God. To sum up, then, we may say that although these three lines are not absolute, each of them forms a predominant strain within each of these three men’s ministries.
Of these three lines of ministry, the one identified with Peter marks the beginning. The first person to speak for Christianity is this apostle of Christ, while the last one to speak is John (the latter’s Book of Revelation is the last of the 66 books of the Bible to be written). What about Paul? He stands between Peter and John and thus succeeds the one who is before him (Peter) and passes on to the other who is after him (John). What God sets forth in the Bible (and in this order) are the kingdom of God, the house of God, and the family of God.
How very tragic it is today that so many people know nothing about the kingdom of God and the family of God, and are equally ignorant concerning the house of God. All they know about are human organizations and denominations. Whenever they are asked what the differentiations are among the kingdom, family, and house of God, they will more likely answer that these are almost the same. They deem entering the church to be the same as entering the family of God as well as entering His kingdom. They have no idea that there are vast differences among these three. Because of this, God needs a Peter, a Paul, and a John to substantiate His kingdom, His house, and His family.
That the Lord grants the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter confirms the fact that this apostle will do the work of opening doors—first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. Since the keys of the kingdom of heaven are in Peter’s hand, he must of necessity be one who has himself already entered the kingdom of heaven. For the keys are committed to Peter’s hand for him to keep. If, for example, the key to the gate opening upon Wen teh Li* has been given into my hand for keeping, people who come early to our meeting will have to wait outside the iron gate till I arrive and open it with the key. I will enter in first and afterwards other people can come in. It is simply impossible for anyone without the key to enter first. Hence it is crystal clear that Peter is the first one who enters the realm of the kingdom of heaven.
The word which our Lord spoke to Peter in Matthew 16 is most amazing. How did He phrase it? “Upon this rock I will build my church ... I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (vv.18-19). Can we detect the point of difference in this verse? Here is a great turning point: The Lord gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter so that the latter is now responsible for the kingdom to the extent that he may manipulate the timing of the opening of the kingdom of heaven. As regards the church, though, the Lord says this: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” The Lord himself will build, and He allows no one to touch the church.
Here marks the distinctive difference between the kingdom of heaven and the church. What is the kingdom of heaven? It is the spiritual realm of God on earth. The kingdom of heaven demonstrates the sovereignty and rule of God. The house of God, though, expresses God’s character, how glorious and loving and righteous it is. And the family of God manifests the love of God and the relationship between Him and us.
These three aspects—the kingdom, the house, and the family of God—are each complete in itself and the three of them should not be mixed up. How many of God’s people lump all within the one church aspect—saying that this belongs to the church and that also belongs to the church. They make the church a warehouse which stores up everything. Such thinking merely reveals how lacking is the understanding of the truths of the Bible.
*The name of the lane where is located the building in which the saints at Shanghai, China, met for a long time.-Translator
Peter bears witness to the kingdom. He opens the gate that all may go in. In this connection, what does the Lord say in John 3? “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v.5). If we were to utter this verse, we most likely would set it forth in this fashion: “Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the house of God”! But, no, it is the kingdom of God. All who would enter the kingdom must be born again, for it is the born-again ones alone who may enter. The keys which Peter used on the Day of Pentecost are these: repentance and baptism. And hence three thousand entered the kingdom of God on that day. And this marked the beginning of the kingdom of God. Many people maintain that the church commenced at Pentecost. This is indeed true, but let it not be forgotten that the kingdom of God also commenced at Pentecost. What Peter touched on later in his epistles concerning salvation, reward, and so forth are all related to the kingdom to come, and they are not in any way in conflict with the entry into the kingdom of God at Pentecost.
Was the work done at Pentecost enough? Certainly not, for God again sent Peter—this time to the house of Cornelius. On the Day of Pentecost Peter opened the gate and many Jews entered the kingdom of God. On this second occasion the Lord directed Peter to open the gate of the kingdom to the Gentiles, thus fulfilling the Lord’s words recorded in Matthew 8: “And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (v.11). Yet even before Peter had opened the gate so that the Gentiles might receive grace, God had already begun to prepare another man—Paul. Accordingly, the work of Peter, if judged from the view of dispensation, ended with the house of Cornelius. Although he still continued to bear much witness, his work—so far as the character of the time was concerned—was already finished. How marvelous was this divine arrangement: Peter went to the house of Cornelius during the time of Acts chapter 10, yet Paul had already repented by the time of Acts chapter 9.
You will recall that Paul was one who had formerly persecuted the Lord with great fervor. On the road to Damascus, though, he was enlightened by the Lord and was graciously saved. His eyes, however, were not opened until the Lord sent Ananias to him, who told him that he was a chosen vessel to God. This word from Ananias revealed the mind of the Lord: for although the kingdom of God is great and many have been brought in through Peter, it now needed someone to begin to set things in order. So the Lord raised up Paul and used him as a chosen vessel. The word of Ananias was well spoken. The very first thing he said was, “Brother Saul”—thus demonstrating that all enmities had been cleared away. Only then could Paul testify for the Lord and become effective in service.
Subsequently we find Paul extending his work from within the city of Damascus to outside the city. The sphere of his work began to expand. Yet how did he get down the city wall and escape from Damascus? Interestingly, Paul was let down the wall by some of the disciples who were there. Though he could have climbed down the wall himself, he refused to do that. He would rather be lowered by the disciples. This bespeaks fellowship, help, and approval of the brethren. So that Paul did not launch out singly; he had the sympathy and support of other people. How much more effective our works will be if there are people behind us praying and helping us. And when Paul arrived at Jerusalem, he was at first shunned by the disciples there, who doubted his conversion; later on, though, through the introduction of Barnabas he was able to go in and out among the disciples, his fellowship with them having become full and complete and void of any hindrance. In this way he was soon to commence the continuation of Peter’s work.
Now let us return to Peter. When the Lord called him to the house of Cornelius he was at first reluctant to go to this Gentile home. The Lord therefore gave him a vision. In that vision Peter observed descending towards him from heaven a certain large vessel, as it were a great sheet. And inside the sheet were all manner of four-footed beasts and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven—but no fish. Why—since beasts, creeping things, birds, and fishes are all commonly known and seen—are the common fishes not mentioned? This is because, in accordance with what the ark of Noah typifies, there is no instance mentioned in the account of the Flood of the saving of fish. Since fishes are not included among all other creatures saved through the ark, they are likewise not included in the vision given to Peter.
What is the meaning of the great sheet with the four-footed beasts and creeping things and birds? Let us realize that this vessel similar in appearance to a great sheet represents the work and ministry of Peter. It is not really a vessel commonly understood, nor is it something like a boat that has a definite dimension: it is a great sheet, and a sheet does not have a fixed form, for it is something which has not been made into a particular shape or figure but is still considered a raw piece of material. Now Peter’s work is just that: he is concerned primarily with getting raw materials—with drawing people in. Who, then, will come in to shape these raw materials? It is Paul who shall come, and he will specialize in making something of these materials. It would seem as though Peter purchases the cloth and Paul works as a tailor. Peter’s life work is therefore much like a sheet—limited and without too much form.
Let us next look at the three items found in this great sheet. Birds are active creatures. Sometimes they fly about very wildly. Sometimes they rest on treetops or housetops, sometimes they take a few hops here and there on the ground. They are most free in their movement and have absolutely no restraint. Hence they are the wildest. The beasts are ferocious and fearsome animals. And the creeping things, as we all know, point to uncleanness or filthiness. In the eyes of God, the Gentiles are nothing more than beasts, creeping things, or birds. But now He envelops all these wild and ferocious and unclean things within a great sheet. In a word, He puts us unbelievers in a new environment so that we are no longer wild and ferocious and unclean—and that is the gospel.
According to the Bible, there is only the gospel of the kingdom, there is no gospel of the church. By receiving the gospel people enter the kingdom of God as well as the church. We enter into a new realm, a new environment; we come under a new authority. Formerly we were in the hand of Satan, but now we are in God’s hand. And that is what is meant by being saved. To be saved means to be placed by God in a new position.
Today many magnify the church beyond measure, as though once entering the church one gets everything. They forget about the entering of the kingdom of God. For to be saved means not only entering the church but also the kingdom. To become children of God is to be given certain rights or authorities (John 1.12). Since to become God’s child does not depend on what one is but on the authority which God gives to him, everyone may enter.
Therefore the work of bringing people from the outside in is the work of Peter. In other words, Peter’s ministry is to lead people into the kingdom of God. And what is the kingdom of God? Quite simply, it is that realm which is under the authority and sovereignty of God. And to enter the kingdom therefore means to become subject to the sovereignty of God. So that Peter specializes in drawing in bundle upon bundle. Each drawing in of the sheet will add more citizens to the kingdom of God.
But as to what should be done to these bundles after having been drawn into the kingdom, that is not the main concern of Peter. It is left to Paul to take up such responsibility, because the work of Paul is to arrange and put into order those whom Peter has drawn into the kingdom. Can you at all find in Paul’s letters the term “born again”? No, he talks about justification but never uses the term regeneration in the sense of a personal born-again experience. With Peter, however, he speaks a great deal about being born again. (Peter also mentions a great deal about inheritance, which subject Paul himself touches upon but seldom John if ever—since the latter’s specialty is the family of God.)
In the Book of Acts much is said about the kingdom of God (even Paul mentions it), because at that time so many were being saved and drawn into the kingdom. Had we known on the day we were saved even a little of what they knew concerning the kingdom of God, we would be quite different today. Our current pitiable condition is in reality all of our own making, for we make self the center of everything and take the Lord merely as a helper to us. Indeed, God wants to bless us; but He desires even more greatly for us to enter His kingdom and to be under His government.
Oh let us all realize that salvation is not merely for enjoyment; it is preeminently to be placed under the sovereignty of God. Formerly we did what we liked and wasted away our days carelessly; now we are required to submit to God. Once we are saved we cannot afford to be careless. We must accept discipline. Salvation is none other than being put under the yoke of the Holy Spirit. If anyone wants to be saved, the Holy Spirit will place a yoke on that one. And whoever has this yoke upon him or her is saved. From the standpoint of the flesh, salvation is not at all pleasant because it brings the person under the sovereignty and government of God. And this, as we have seen, is clearly Peter’s work and ministry. Whether it be ferocious beasts or unclean creeping things or unruly birds, he bundles them together and brings them into the kingdom of God.
Paul is the one who succeeds the work of Peter. For this reason, he calls himself a master builder—one who builds the house. Many of us are aware that all the teachings of Paul are consummated in his Letter to the Ephesians. And the theme of Ephesians is the house of God. Whatever has been drawn in from outside must now begin to be arranged and adorned. The work of Paul is therefore the work of beautifying along various lines.
Romans, for instance, speaks on justification, the victorious life, and the life of obedience. These are not the ways of entering the kingdom of God but are the works of adornment—that is to say, the making of improvements on the existing model. In his First Letter to the Corinthians what Paul writes about is, that once having submitted ourselves to God in His kingdom, how are we to behave in various areas of the Christian life? What Paul discusses there is our conduct with respect to such matters as meetings, the breaking of bread, marriage, receiving one another, and having fellowship with the saints.
What this apostle is about can be likened to the taking up of a pair of shears to cut up a sheet in order to give it a definite shape and thus subject it to certain restrictions. The things which are now in God’s house must be set in assigned places. Why? Because the nature of God is to be expressed through the house. Whether a person is neat or sloppy can be judged by the state of that one’s house, since the house reflects the personality of the owner. Nowhere is one’s character more exposed and more revealed than in a person’s house. Suppose, for example, that the books on your shelves are piled in a disorderly fashion, garbage is scattered everywhere on the floor, the bedding has been pushed aside without any folding, and the dust on the tables and chairs has been accumulating heavily. Your friend, upon entering your house and witnessing such a scene, will know immediately what sort of person you are. If you visit people in their houses, your true character may not be exposed. But everything in your own house will certainly reveal your true self, because it is your place of rest, the place where you live; therefore it will betray most distinctly and most fully your character and personality.
Hence the testimony which Peter gives will cause you to be a citizen of God’s kingdom so that you may be subject to the mighty hand of God’s sovereignty. Yet this apostle will not deal with any of the details, since that activity is not within the scope of his work and ministry and therefore does not require his attention. With Paul it is a different matter, for he has been charged by God to continue this work begun by Peter. Just look at Paul for a moment and see how precise he is. He mentions how husband and wife should love each other, how the brethren ought to care for one another, and so forth. All these concerns are related to the affairs of the house of God; they tell us what behavior is pleasing to God. Moreover, besides dealing with these more mundane affairs Paul also treats of such spiritual matters as meetings, baptism, gifts, the breaking of bread, and various ministries, as well as the order and structure in the church. Hence he can be likened to an interior decorator.
“In whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2.22). This verse tells us explicitly that the church is the house of God. All believers are parts of the house, they being joined together to be one house. Each person is like a brick, a piece of wood, or a shingle. Only as all manifest the nature of God can they be fitly framed into the one house of God. And this is the line of ministry that the Lord had given to Paul.
Yet is the foundation work of Peter and the building ministry of Paul enough to satisfy the heart and mind of God? Can God’s will be fully realized through just these two lines of ministry? No, there is still another man with another important line of ministry. And this we wish to look into next.
John in almost all of his ministry treats of our relationship with God, with the result that he is concerned primarily with the affairs of God’s family. His testimony is full of life, and hence he never dwells on anything external. Do you see anywhere in his letters that he writes on elderhood, taxation, or head covering? As regards individual conduct, John merely states that we should love one another—and that is about all he says on the matter. To put it most succinctly, the testimony of John is confined to the Holiest of All—it is full of spiritual reality. He never touches on outward things but is always speaking on that which is inward, that is to say, the depths. Hence the word “life” is seen a great deal in both his Gospel, his letters, and the Book of Revelation. The characteristic of his ministry is that of recovery after there has been a general falling away or spiritual declension. For at the time he wrote his letters, his Gospel, and Revelation, apostasy had become quite prevailing. There had arisen a number of false prophets and false christs. People had even tried to overthrow the kingdom of God and had come to consider the house of God a matter of their personal domain. There had developed a form of godliness but without its reality.
In view of this state of affairs, John stepped forward and spoke on the inner reality of things: which is life. Men may overturn the kingdom of heaven and the house, but they can never overturn life. For life always exists. Possessing this reality, everything will turn out right. John’s testimony is therefore concerned with the last days. He leads people to the innermost recess to discover what a God they really have.
Let us now make a short analysis of these three lines of ministry. It may be said in brief that Peter speaks of a new realm—the kingdom of God; Paul, of a new position-in the house of God; and John, of a new relationship—that of a father to his son. How extensively John, in his letters, deals with the fathers, the young people, and the children. All of these are persons within God’s family, and they are all interrelated. What is John aiming at? His aim is to see and arrive at the best possible progress or development in God’s family. Paul speaks about the new position—how to obey God and to express His nature in the house of God. Accordingly, in the New Testament we can observe these three lines of ministry. If we want to find the line on the kingdom, read particularly the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to Mark, 1 and 2 Peter, and part of Hebrews. If we want to see the church as the house of God, nothing fuller and more complete can be found on this subject than the letters of Paul. The letters of John, however, deal almost exclusively with the family of God. Let me reiterate that these distinctions which have been drawn here are not absolute; they are only meant to show the respective emphases which are to be found in the ministries of these three servants of God.
The Beginning and the End
We will now see how these three lines of ministry had their beginning and how they ended. What was Peter doing when the Lord called him? He was at that time casting nets into the sea with his brother Andrew. How about John? He was in the boat mending the nets. Here we are witnessing a most amazing thing, in that when Peter and John were called, God had already arranged for them their respective work as exemplified in what occupied them when the Lord walked by and called them. For instance, when Peter was called, he was casting nets. So that later on, his ministry was the work of casting nets as a fisher of men. His was a front line work, much like that of a vanguard; for he was the first one who broke through to reach the Jews, and he was also the very first one who opened the gate of God’s kingdom to the Gentiles. He cast the nets and caught many Jews, and he again cast the nets and caught many Gentiles. Yet subsequently, the nets—so far as what appeared outwardly before men—were broken, the kingdom was rejected, and the fish leaked out. Whereupon God called John to mend the nets, that is to say, to restore to the original condition.
Let us next see what God had in mind when Paul was called. At that time Paul was full of plans to persecute the believers. On the road to Damascus, God’s light shone on him. And he asked, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22.10) So that his work is more a matter of “how to do it.” Unlike Peter who in one day led three thousand to Christ, Paul was used in his ministry to win one person here, two persons there, and even tens of people elsewhere to the Lord, but not thousands. For Paul’s primary task was not to draw people in but to build people up. The characteristic of his work was what should be done to the materials once they have been collected, how should the house be built, and how should the inside be arranged and set in order. And thus we find that his earthly occupation, which exemplified all this, was the making of tents for people to dwell in. So that in the spiritual realm, it could also be said that he made tents. Unlike Peter who only drew in a sheet, Paul was involved in making the sheet into a tent.
What was the general attitude of the people towards the works of these three men? Alas, it was very bad, for which we cannot help but sigh in sorrow. As we look into the situation of these three at the end of their ministries, we see that their testimonies are being rejected.
It is clearly shown, for example, in the Letter of Second Peter. By the time of its second chapter, false prophets have already come in, who specialize in counterfeiting work. There Peter labels them as dogs and swine, because they corrupt things so much as to confuse the kingdom of God. In the third chapter, mockers are mentioned. They are those who despise what Peter preaches and deem it shameful and detestable. In short, the testimony of the kingdom is totally rejected. In fact, Peter has been compelled to write this second letter because his first letter has been rejected and cast aside. And what is written in the second letter reveals the very last condition surrounding his testimony. He openly discloses how his testimony is being rejected by men.
Now if Peter’s time was marked by such a declining state of affairs, how much more will this be true in our twentieth century! Rarely do we find people to day who bear the testimony of the kingdom and who are not opposed or considered foolish for proclaiming it. No wonder there are so many who advocate a utopian ideal, as was the case in Peter’s day. Who then ought to be surprised at the rampage of falsified truth, for all these things have previously occurred in Peter’s time. Need we therefore be puzzled or bewildered by it in our time?
Yet this was not only the situation at the end of Peter’s ministry; for does not Paul suffer the same fate? The last extant letter of his included in the New Testament is the Second Letter to Timothy. And not long afterwards Paul died. Thus in this last letter of his we can detect the clear outlines of Paul’s final situation. At one point he wrote this: “All that are in Asia turned away from me” (2 Tim. 1.15). The current conditions then for anyone to manifest the Lord are too hard and too restrictive; many believers cannot endure them. Because they find them impossible, they turn back. Neither the apostle nor even the Lord himself could persuade them to stay and stick it out. Therefore the Lord and Paul must sadly let them go.
The Letter to the Philippians was also written by Paul in his advanced age. What there did he say? He said this: “All seek their own” (2.21). People once again are found casting aside the testimony of this apostle. So very important were their own affairs that they laid aside the Lord’s interests. Yet if we attend to our own interests, how can we attend to the Lord’s? We can only leave the Lord’s concerns alone. So that once more the testimony of Paul is rejected and hated of men. His last word, therefore, is to exhort believers to be watchful and to be vigilant in guarding against the intrusion of heresies. And thus ends the ministry of Paul.
As a result, at the time when Paul and Peter died, the church in outward appearance had fallen into great spiritual declension, into the situations not unlike those described in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The outward appearance of the testimony seems to indicate an almost total failure. Hence the Lord now begins to use John. What is he called to do? None other than to emphasize the inward work.
In this connection, have you noticed the kind of Gospel John wrote? Unlike Matthew who is strong on history, this apostle mainly records our relationship with God as that of a father-to-son relationship. His introduction or prologue does not, as is the case with Luke’s Gospel, begin with Adam; nor does it begin with Abraham, as is true with Matthew’s Gospel. Instead, John’s Gospel opens up with Jesus Christ; he commences from the very, very Beginning. This is because outwardly speaking everything has failed; neither Adam nor Abraham can be restored; so that now it requires a going back to the very Beginning. And who or what is able to shake the Beginning? None, for the Beginning is unshakable. All that is of God is eternally unshakable. The Gospel according to John is none other than the record of the Word who is from the beginning and who has been expressed in order to lead us back to the design of the beginning.
What things are identified with the Beginning? They are life, light, and love. And these things are unshakable since they are inward realities. John in his Gospel has not addressed himself to external matters such as husband and wife, master and servant, or even Christian meetings. What he mentions are exclusively matters pertaining to God and that are absolutely internal in nature.
Due to the fact that today everything has failed and that the church in her outward appearance is already in ruin and is divided, we must ask God for grace that we may especially return to the ministry of John. Otherwise, all will be vain. This does not suggest that the works of Peter and Paul are unnecessary and no longer valid. It simply means that the urgent need of today lies not in outward things. Quite the contrary, there must first be inward reality and then we can again have these outward things. Let us acknowledge that the nets have already been broken, the fishes have been leaking out, and that God is calling for the ministry of John to mend the nets. And what he by mending adds on is not something new like some new discovery, but is simply that which has been there originally from the very beginning. Hence John writes elsewhere in this manner: “I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it” (1 John 2.21)—that is to say, the problem is not because we do not know but because we know and have forgotten!
What is meant by mending? Mending is not the changing to new nets but is the restoring of the broken nets to their original condition. In other words, it is the filling up of the gap that has occurred with that which was from the beginning. The urgent need of this hour is for God’s people to return to the Lord for life and spiritual power so as to overcome the world and the enemy. This is spiritual reality. And such must be grasped first before we can return to the testimonies of Paul and Peter. If we do not return to John first, we will not be able to return to Paul and then to Peter. Let me repeat that the nets have already been broken: and if that is true, then how can we ever catch the fish? Let the nets be mended first—let us first grasp that which is real—before we do anything else.
Finally, three Scripture verses deserve our special attention before concluding this discussion.
(1) “Another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not” (John 21.18). This is the way the Lord Jesus foretold of Peter’s end. Peter was such a strong and energetic person. For the sake of his Lord, he was crucified head downward, according to Christian tradition. How very brave he was. Yet what exactly did the Lord say about Peter? He said he would be brought by men to a place where he did not wish to go. From our vantage point some nineteen centuries later we see that he has been brought into the Roman Catholic system to be a “Father” of the “church.” He has been made to sit on a throne in Rome. High above the cathedral that is there is inscribed in large letters St. Peter’s Cathedral. Countless numbers of great men and lesser men praise him and carry him. But is Peter willing to be so treated? Unquestionably, he is most unwilling and unhappy about it. He never would have dreamed he would receive such glory today. He must find it extremely difficult to sit on such a high throne. But what can he possibly do? For is he not girded by other people and carried in a direction he would never himself have chosen? Is not his freedom now fully manipulated by people and nations over whom he has no power? His testimony is completely buried! Oh how few there are who know that Peter is already bound.
People usually think that being saved is the happiest and most liberating experience. And I would hasten to say that salvation has indeed a most happy and liberating effect upon the redeemed ones; but the experience of being saved is not just for personal enjoyment and is certainly not for the opportunity of doing whatever we wish to do; on the contrary, it is to bring the Lord’s people into subjection to the sovereignty of God. This alone is the right understanding of salvation as Peter presented it.
(2) Next, though, let us look at the ending of Paul. “He abode . . . in his own hired dwelling” (Acts 28.30). His ending was truly tragic. He had to live in a house he himself rented. Formerly Paul could live in Ephesus or even in Corinth, but now he had no permanent address: he did not even have his own house, but had to rent a place in which to live. In addition, Paul’s testimony was rejected. With the result that he stayed in the house he rented and traveled abroad no more. Formerly Paul in great liberty would have come to your place to find you and to preach to you, but now you must go to his place or else you will not find him. Whether you believe in the truth or not, Paul has no way “to interfere” with you now. You must make your own decision. Paul has already been overthrown by the great men in power. They have imprisoned him in Rome. And unless you go and seek him out, you will never see his face.
Today many people know only how to read the Lord’s prayer and the creeds of their denominations. They live in their own houses. They do not visit Paul’s dwelling. How totally inadequate it is to have only the mint and the anise (cf. Matt. 23.23). We must seek to find the real meaning of Paul’s letters. For the Letters to the Corinthians were not just for the Corinthian saints; they are also for the entire church of God. But now Paul is being hidden away by men. He is not able to come forth and meet us. Let us therefore find him with eagerness, discover the real meaning of his testimony, and allow nothing to slip away. In utter frankness I would speak this word: that those who are unwilling to apply themselves earnestly shall never see Paul nor understand his testimony; all who fail to pay the cost shall never find the truth.
And finally, (3), let us consider John’s end. “I John . . . was in the isle that is called Patmos” (Rev. 1.9). John was exiled to an island. What is an island? An island is different from the mainland as well as from the sea. It is in the sea and yet it is not of the sea: it stands by itself alone in the sea. It is land, and yet it is not of the continent but disconnected from it. Hence we may say that an island is separated not only from the sea but also from the land. It is a most solitary place. What does the sea typify? It typifies the world. And the land? It stands for the religious organization of men, for the highest achievement of men is still but a continent. Spiritually speaking, then, an island is not joined to either of these two entities: neither to the world nor to religion. God too is not in the world system, nor is He in the gigantic human religious organization. And God wisely put His apostle on an island: John is neither in the world system nor in the religious system, but is in the island. And how solitary he must be. He enjoys neither the wavelike pleasures of the world nor the secure peace of religious institutional life. He is indeed most lonesome.
Yet a marvelous thing happens there on that isolated island. John is in the Spirit on the Lord’s day; he sees a great vision; he hears the voice of the Lord Jesus; and he also is raptured to heaven. How beautiful all this is! Though there is not the pleasure of the sea nor the peace of the land, nevertheless, how sufficient it is to have the consolation of the Lord. Only those who are separated from both the sea and the land can enjoy union with the Lord. A Christian who is not willing to forsake position and fame in religion will never go to an island.
Do let us see that the Lord is calling us to the island. He wants us to forsake willingly all that is merely external and to draw nigh to Him. Although there is no boat in the sea nor bridge from the land, the Holy Spirit can carry us to the island. But as long as there are other conveniences, people will never go to the island.
To John we must therefore first return. Let us stand first on this reality, then return to the works of Paul and Peter. Let us learn how to live on the island, how to dwell in the rented house, and how to be faithful though bound. May the Lord bless us all.
The End of This Age and the Kingdom
The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation, CFP, 151-160, white covers only, by Watchman Nee