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FEET OF CLAY, VESSEL OF CLAY,
HAND-WRITTEN HEART AND INFRA-VISIBLE SIGHT OF THE EYE
AND THE THREE-FOLD VICTORY
FEET OF CLAY
Often is heard - ah! the feet of clay...
But the imagery appears to come quite mistakenly from a prophetic image which has ZERO to do with the concept of poor morals, weak ideals or a capacity to be stuck in sin which mars the Christian - or other - life to the point of sad head-nodding.
The image of Daniel which had a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze and legs of iron, had feet partly of iron and partly of clay. It was in that last part mixed. Partly it was harsh, and metallic, inhuman, and partly it was soft, human but perhaps miry. IT, yes it had feet PARTLY of clay. But then, it was not human! It was a teaching device, an affair of symbols, each part representing a nation or better, empire which would rule the world, until the last one would stumble on, partly strong and partly broken, as Daniel predicted. In its place (SMR pp. 886ff., 902ff.), this has been identified as the Roman Empire, and it was indeed partly strong and partly broken, and its ramifications continue to the present.
Now the stone from heaven which is to grow and fill the earth is interpreted relates to the unbreakable, indestructible kingdom of the Lord which He is to institute. In Daniel 7, we find that the "Son of Man" figure is to receive dominion for ever, His kingdom to endure for ever; while in Daniel 9, His death before rule is expressed, and of course, its specific feature is given maximal treatment in Isaiah 52-53, Psalm 22 and so on.
Our present point however is this:
the "feet of clay" is NOT a Biblical expression to cover the weakness of
man, and the failure of flesh in the life of the Christian or, really,
anyone else. It is a NATIONAL, or more exactly, an INTERNATIONAL characteristic
of a rather harsh empire. Thus there is no reference by this means to what
some who profess the Christian religion, at times perhaps in a rather superior
way, refer to as the sin sink, or the ship of life sunk in the sea of sin,
or something of this kind.
VESSEL OF CLAY
There is however a 'clay' reference
in the epistles of Paul; but it is to fragility and vulnerability, rather
than to some constant constraint of sin, to which it refers.
BUT, says Paul, "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" - II Cor. 4:7. What treasure ? The gospel of Christ, centred indeed on Himself personally: "For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" - II Cor. 4:5-6. In Colossians 1:27-28, Paul refers to "the riches of the glory of the mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach..." Again, in Ephesians 3:8, we read of "the unsearchable riches of Christ" which Paul is preaching.
Now in II Cor. 4:7 it is in contrast to this mystery, marvel, wonder, these unsearchable riches of the divine person and His divine grace, and His gracious salvation, and His irrevocable redemption which is eternal and freely conferred on each one of His people, to faith (Romans 3:25ff., 4:24ff.), that the EARTHEN VESSELS of our part, come into light. By comparison, it is a slight thing, a base thing, a small thing, a weak and unskilled, untutored, a merely created thing that is the receptacle for the inward presence and divine power and kindness, that is His.
Thus the TREASURES of CHRIST are in EARTHEN VESSELS: this is the sense. Again, we find in the extensive litany of trouble and suffering that follows, the meaning further. It is a question of being "hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed", "persecuted but not forsaken", so that "we do not lose heart", because "though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen , but at the things which are not seen..." (from II Cor. 4:8-18).
Indeed, there is another reason for this buoyancy found in the heart of this spiritual athlete, the apostle Paul: "For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God." He reaches, preaches, teaches and many gain. What is the weakness and vulnerability to that: is not the power of God able to overcome the weakness, and in fact there is more, much more.
Thus WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN I AM STRONG! exclaims the apostle, in II Cor. 12:10. In fact, the Lord, he reveals, did NOT accept his petition for the removal of a particular physical weakness, BECAUSE there was the danger of his gaining a swollen head, conceit, a too lofty sense of grandeur in the midst of the revelations, the power and the presence of the Lord, which was so astounding in practice in his life. Hence this demeaning was in this respect, deliberate and measured. "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" - II Cor. 12:9, was the divine reply to the human prayer of Paul in this unusual instance!
IMMEDIATE LESSON NOT ONLY ON
OF THE PHRASE, BUT ON THE NATURE OF LIFE
At once we see that it is all nonsense to blame people, when there is no healing in a particular case. That is only one reason why it is so very foolish to judge one another in this and that way, in lofty grandeur and overweening conceit. HOW does one know if it was a lack of faith, or a case like that of Paul, when the very EMINENCE of the persons GUARANTEED the FAILURE in some particular matter, to get physical healing!
Some Pentecostal excesses figure largely here, and many are wounded by false attributions - as though it were not already evident in such things as the prolonged sickness of Epaphroditus, who was actually ministering to the oppressed, labouring apostle (Philippians 2:25-29), that healing is no sitting duck ready to be picked off with the guns of 'faith'. It MAY BE! It often is. Miracles can and do happen; but there is nothing AT ALL AUTOMATIC about it, and there is NO reflection necessarily on faith; indeed any claim that it certainly is, is almost certainly itself due for rebuke as presumption!
We see too that there is no cause for discouragement if some illness which does not prevent one's duly accorded work, received by faith in the Lord, from occurring. In the case of Paul, when he was so stoned by vicious men that they thought him dead, and left him on the ground as such, after an encircling group prayed for him, he got up and continued his astounding apostolic missionary work, as a master builder of churches in Christ (I Cor. 3, Acts 14:19-20). There is no teaching the wit of God, nor counselling of His knowledgeability. He may be entreated; but in His wisdom, He is not the one to twist this way or that in great principles, deduced like straw from some packed haystack, and about as weighty.
Thus the VESSELS OF CLAY have their
features; but being a sink for sin and a sea of its seductive currents:
this is not the essential meaning of the phrase at all. It is a place for
test, an avenue for instruction, a vulnerability for assistance, a vehicle
for faith, a place of expression and its testings can be severe. It is
man see-through test-tube for the Almighty, and for his fellows it is sometimes
very little less, so that all may see much from many, and learn of the
ways of the Lord.
THE HAND-WRITTEN HEART
That of course is by no means to exempt the Christian from sin! Far from it: for is it not clearly written in Hebrews 12, that sin does so readily beset us! In view of this, we are exhorted there to LOOK TO JESUS THE AUTHOR AND FINISHER OF FAITH, to act in our own cases. We must be willing to suffer SHAME outside the camp (then of large Jewish gatherings, scorning the Christians, now of large Gentile gatherings, often wrongly called churches, but having "itching ears" and seduced to "fables" (II Tim. 3 predicts and eyes show the fulfilment NOW!), scorning the Christians AND their faith. THAT is what Hebrews 13 tells us (for example in verses 11-14). Again, we must avoid a "root of bitterness" (Hebrews 12:15), which could defile the unwatchful, and take off the nominal Christians in their flesh, striving for a mastery in spirit which is not theirs, because the power of the resident Christ is not in them.
Now let us be clear. This is no warrant for saying that this or that sin, even a measure of bitterness, might not like some anomaly, like some failure of a chef, occur and tend to spread. It IS to say that this is so far from being a norm, let alone a necessity, that expectations should be to the contrary, and the stewardship of the pastor and elders should act in a delightful unison to dispel such things. Faith is a cutting edge, and according to your faith, so be it done to you. Often compromise here, leads to compromise there, so that discipline ANYWHERE seems out of place and there is no edge. That is the reward of unfaithfulness; but faith, this has its own reward. Good trees bear good fruit, and these are they planted by the heavenly Father, as we saw earlier.
ONE reason why there is a comparative cleanness, a relative stability in the Christian heart is its genesis. God who commanded light to shine in darkness, says Paul in II Cor. 4, "has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ". Again, in II Cor. 3:18, we find: "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord." Indeed, the EYE of faith seeing Him who is invisible (Hebrews 11:27), which is that self-same eye which sees this, that "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen..."
Glorious things do not dissipate; they are the fruit of the tree planted by the Lord. We must remind ourselves however that they do not PLANT the tree, but are the result of the planting! (cf. Romans 3:27ff., Galatians 3, 5:1ff.). But let us revert to the concept of SEED.
His seed, or generative creation in our refashioned and created spiritual lives as His children, when we become His (I John 3:9), is such that it is resistant to sin, that it is alien to sin's ministrations, and it does not conduct sin's electric discharges like metal, but more like cork! That is how John here assures us that the one who is born of God does not make a practice of sin (that is the translation in I John 3:9). He IS a sinner; he DOES sin; but he is not BOUND to it or by it, not its servant; and if he slips, he does not slide to his ruin; and if he falls seven times, yet the Lord raises him up, as Proverbs assures us.
In some reformed circles especially, there a certain justifiable realism, to the effect that we must not brassily and crassly imagine ourselves on the very verge of perfection (just look at Paul in II Cor. 1, for example); and that it is mere superficiality and not holiness at all, but rather something far from it, which imagines that there is a beautiful cleanness of heart, aspiration and condition, in the Christian.
There is also a certain looseness, for these concepts do not accord with Romans 8, to which the contrast in the preliminaries of Romans 7 introduce us in glorious contrast. SIN, says Paul, SHALL NOT have dominion over you, something the Christian can claim BY FAITH, when tempted. IF the SON shall make you free, said Christ, you will be FREE INDEED; and free from what ? SIN! (John 8:34-36). This sort of emphasis, as sometimes found in reformed approaches, thus, is not correct. Nor is it entirely valueless.
If on the one hand, there is the very real danger of being sunk in sin, per special privilege of the oh so enlightened 'theology' of sin, for those who profess Christ, so fed and so taught, then there is a danger perhaps no less, in the arrogant and shallow pride which does not really look at the depths of the heart and the ruinous ruminations which, unchecked, can so readily 'beset' it, as in the prosperity theology, which has Christ being successful on the cross, and Paul in journeyings often and many shipwrecks and so on, always bearing about in his body the dying of Christ, whilst THEY, ah smooth, ah cool! they are being prosperous so that the world could hardly tell, except that they are SO VERY prosperous, that they were Christians at all.
If you feel this is irony, try for size the very fine exhibition of irony in Paul's own writings on this precise topic, in I Cor. 4:10ff.). HOW prosperity theology could EVER have come from the womb of man's thought in ANY church, after that is a marvel! But then itching ears are so very trying, it seems!
We could add this list to our chapter one 6 ITEMS for moderation. Here is a seventh!
But the handwriting ? Ah yes! In Ezekiel 11:29-30, we find that the Lord is going in a blessed day to come, to
But now see the handwriting itself being done: and this is itself taken by the author of Hebrews, from Jeremiah whose Ch.31 is so magnificent in introducing the New Covenant which was made in Christ's blood (Matthew 26).
THERE is the handwriting on the heart, on a prepared parchment, in a new person.
LIVING IN THE HEAVENLY PLACES IN CHRIST
We have been blessed "with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself" , says Paul in Ephesians 1:3-5. Then in Ch. 2:6, we are shown that Christ has "raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."
It is then that we come to Ephesians 2:8, at which we looked earlier in this volume, and its "FOR" by grace we are in a saved condition by faith, and learn that this whole circuit, it is not of ourselves. We are told that it is, quite to the contrary, from and of God, who has made us.
Our present interest is in that
"FOR" after verse 7. We are seated in heavenly places BECAUSE of this categorical,
grace only salvation at His divine initiative and good pleasure. The status
of verse 8 is the ground of the dynamics of verse 7. Verse 7 occurrences
is BECAUSE of verse 8's provisions. In what way then do we SIT TOGETHER
WITH HIM ? The apostle Paul shows us in so very many ways, admonishing
us to be followers of him as he of Christ (I Cor. 11:1). He is LED NOT
to go to Bithynia in the adventures in the mission field in Acts 16:7;
He is rebuffed WITH UNDERSTANDING by the Lord in seeking the specific healing
noted above, in the II Cor. case. He is given reassurance that "My
sufficient for you", and the principle that "My strength is made perfect in weakness". He is raised from the near to dead stoned condition, in the practice of his mission, evidently in minutes, but allowed to have great difficulties as we see in II Cor. 1, when there was evidently a danger of becoming too self-sufficient... and so on.
Now it is of course true that Paul wrote the epistles under the express guidance of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:9-13), having revealed both the SUBSTANCE of the realities in view, and the words with which to express them. This is not for you or for me. The canon is closed. The gospel is immutable (Galatians 1, Revelation 22, Proverbs 30 and see SMR Appendix D).
However, this fact does not alter the fact that the apostle is a man whose example we are to follow, and indeed, that his very conflicts and whirlings about in many penalties of man, and many sufferings for his great zeal to serve God in his authorised ministry, are made an example for us to comprehend. They are a TEACHING for us so that we can the better live our own lives! (II Cor. 4:12-16). Moreover, the apostle was so reduced that the way in which the Lord comforted and delivered him is to be a witness to the Lord for the people, whose prayers among many will be a source of encouragement in their answer in Paul, their brother.
He is a MAN, and his gifts do not alter the personal equation, but merely the magnitude of the terms, and the presence of some unusual ones; the heart however is as with the heart of other Christians. He can share his weakness, his difficulties, and encourage others with the encouragement, insight and sensitivity gained from his own personal sufferings as a Christian in the service of Christ, as is the same in kind for ALL the members of the body of Christ (I Cor. 12).
Hence we may indeed look in his example for encouragement and instruction in righteousness, as in the other scriptures (II Timothy 3:16).
Sitting in heavenly places TOGETHER with Christ - the term 'together' is used twice in the tiny compass of Ephesians 2:6, we are then activated by the power of the Spirit in the inner man (Ephesians 3:16), and find that the power which raised Christ from the dead is indeed the power bestowed for His service (Ephesians 1:19), we having (already) "obtained an inheritance" - where ? IN HIM (cf. John 14:1-3)! "Predestined that we should be to the praise of His glory" (Ephesians 1:12ff.), we act in His presence.
THIS is the victory, says I John 5:4 - "even your faith". What faith ? The faith in those who are "born of God". And WHO are those ? We are told in John right here: "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments." So much for being an occupant of a sin tank where there is no redress!
This is the place, then, where FAITH really does make the incisive, decisive and deliberate difference. You overcome the world, escape the corruption of the world through lust (II Peter 1), by great and precious promises which do not work in mere in vacuo slightness, but in the presence of the resident Christ (Col. 1:27), who is there to administer them, just as Paul was there with the other apostolic writers, to present them from the Lord; and in fact, some came from His own mouth and others were there from the Old Testament (as Isaiah 54:17). It might here be noted that in the last named case, those to whom the promise is given are "the servants of the Lord" of whom this is stated: "their righteousness is from ME, says the LORD."
Let therefore no man defile your victory in the name of false humility; and let none inflate your performance with misconceptions on being sinless, or nearly perfect and the like. NOT that we have already attained, but we press forward to the mark of the high calling in Christ (Philippians 1:12-14), proceeding to that blessedly appointed end with a confidence based on His assurance: "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body, that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" - Phil. 3:20-21.
But let us return in conclusion
to the Old Testament, always assumed in the New, to Micah 7:18-19 in this
same victory triumph which is available in humility, in realism, and indeed
for the sake of the work and witness to Christ, not vainly, not with debasement,
but with overcoming in the power of the Lord, who knows all hearts:
So you see the threefold victory: over the world, over the sovereignty of sin and over the dynamics of crucified guilt before the threefold wonder of pardoning grace, overcoming of every thraldom in the light that gives sight, and the companionship of Christ, in labours and in heart.