First Things First.
by Ephraim Venn
WHEN we see religious worldlings blindly reversing God's order—putting works before faith, and walk before life, and vainly attempting to reach Christ through the Church instead of reaching the Church through Christ—we rightly pity them and should seek by all means to show such the way of God. But there is the same natural tendency in us all to overlook the weightier parts of the will of God while pressing some minor points into prominence. And shall we indulge that in ourselves which we deplore in others, and not rather honestly examine all our ways to bring them into conformity with the will of God?
In our Lord's discourse upon the Mount, as given in Matthew 5-7, we find the word “first” three times used and in striking connections, which, but a slight reference to our own hearts and some little acquaintance with the ways of saints show us, are of great importance as bearing on our worship, life and service.
1. OUR WORSHIP.
"If thou bring thy gilt to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave therefore thy gift before the altar; go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" Matt. 5. 23, 24). Although these lessons on the Mount were not intended to set forth the distinctive truths of Christianity as afterwards unfolded by our precious Lord to the circle of His "own" in John 13-17, and further developed through His servant Paul, yet do they enforce truths and principles of priceless worth to us as the children of "Our Father which is in Heaven." Our double relationship comes out very clearly in Matt. 5-7, as no doubt that of Israel in coming kingdom days. The word "Father" in connection with us occurs sixteen times, and the word "brother" seven times in this discourse. God is our Father and every one of His children is our brother. The latter springs out from the former. For our relationship with each other as brethren, rests upon our common relation to God as our Father. It was a happy day when I could first take my place before God in the full consciousness of my eternal relationship with Him as His child, through faith in Christ Jesus, to know the unspeakable joy of "fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." And it is a blessed thing too, to learn that there is a "brotherhood" formed of all such as know the riches of His grace to them in Christ—a redeemed, regenerated company upon the earth now, a heavenly circle in which no "stranger or foreigner" participates, a family unlike all the families of earth, all begotten of the same Father, quickened into the same life in Christ, and born of the same Spirit, dear to the Father's heart, whose love has called them to have and enjoy fellowship with Himself and with one another. But how slow we are to realize, though in measure we recognize this spiritual relationship! This arises, no doubt, from the fact that it is a purely spiritual relationship, while every one who forms it, though made "spiritual" (as a new creation in Christ), is still indwelt by the flesh, which lusteth against the Spirit. All our difficulties with each other as children of God spring from this old root. There would be no jarring discords or divisions among saints but for the allowance of the flesh in us; never would brother trespass against his brother but for this; never should we see "a brother offended" amongst us if this "old man" were kept practically under. But just because we who live in the Spirit, are so liable to walk in the flesh, in some of its many forms, the very nearness of our relationship brings us into special danger. What a display of the corruption of the flesh does it make, that the life and love of God within us should so little control and characterize our dealings with one another!
It is comparatively easy to bring our gift to the altar, and maintain the proper form and semblance of worship, for the flesh is not disturbed, but rather satisfied with its own form of worship. Cain was forward to bring his gift to the altar, and then went forth to slay his brother, and we are warned against this spirit by John, for "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God, love his brother also" (1 John 4. 20, 21. This is the law of love in which we are commanded to walk, but if this has been violated, and my brother "hath ought against me," the first thing is to be reconciled to my brother. Not merely to feel willing, not merely to seek reconciliation, but so to act as to secure it, and that before drawing near to God publicly. To say, "Let him come and show me my fault" will not do; I must go my way, even from the altar, and leave the great question of approaching God in abeyance, until I have approached my brother and become reconciled. Until this is done, God will have no respect to my offering, He will bear no testimony to my gifts. It is only when brethren "dwell together in unity" that the Holy Spirit is ungrieved amongst saints, and where the "unity of the Spirit" is kept, God's blessing rests.
Oh, what power and blessing might be ours still if, as brethren, we were together "with one accord!" But in looking back at our history, or on present circumstances in many assemblies, instead of spiritual concord, how often has brother been separated in heart and spirit from brother, while the outward form of fellowship has been well kept! And so wide has been the breach in some instances, that brethren have "preached at" and "prayed at" each other in the meeting, only to drive each other further apart. If this sorrowful state of things continues, everything spiritual must be paralyzed, and the whole assembly thrown into disorder, "For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work" (James 3. 16). How can the saints be edified and comforted of the Gospel, go forth with power until estranged hearts are "knit together in love"? For if the channels are not clear, the spiritual supply must be hindered.
We are instructed, therefore, how to set such a matter right, and nothing can be plainer or more binding than the rule here laid down by our Lord, "Go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." Go thy way; each one concerned in the estrangement must be ready to act in grace, not waiting for the other to "come round." It is just here the difficulty comes in; we are so sure to find the greatest obstacle in our own selves; we are so loath to come down from our position, so eager to prove our side of it right, and to secure our own honour, that we forget the Lord's honour, or mistake our own for the Lord's glory. Whereas, if our hearts were set for His glory, we should at any cost to ourselves seek it by keeping His commandment to love one another (John 13. 34).
"First be reconciled to thy brother." It may be a work that needs delicate handling and much prayerful diligence, for "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and their contentions are like the bars of a castle" (Prov. 18. 19. But the extreme difficulty cannot relieve us from the obligation. However repugnant to flesh and blood, or humbling to our natural pride, our own feelings must be laid aside, with "all malice and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings." We must, by the grace of God, conquer the greater difficulty—the flesh in ourselves, then it will be easier to overcome the lesser in the brother who has somewhat against us. May the Lord give us grace to obey His own Word.
In Matthew 18, we have the other side of the matter, "If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone." Putting the two sides together, we see that the first thing is for each to go to the other. The offender in chapter 5, and the offended in chapter 18 are both instructed, not to "go for one another," but to go to each other, and if this were more often done in the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation would follow, divisions would be healed, contentions cease, and untold evils be averted. The closing words, "Then come and offer thy gift," intimate that our offering of praise and service rendered would be acceptable to God, and thus the most blessed results would inevitably follow. Since our happiness is not secured by knowing, but by doing these things, may the Lord greatly help us to put them into constant practice.
2. OUR WALK.
In our life before men, is there not a solemn evidence of a very general reversal of the Master's injunction, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things (that ye have need of) shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6. 33)?
In the last ten verses of this chapter, the Lord gives us seven great reasons for not being anxious or "of doubtful mind" about the necessities of this life. First, He who gives us the greater—life and the body—will not withhold the lesser—food and raiment (v. 25). Second, He who feedeth the fowls of the air will much more care for His own children (v. 26). Third, besides, our anxiety will not really improve matters; it is of no avail, we cannot turn the wheels of providence (v. 27). Fourth, even God's lavish expenditure on things inanimate inspires confidence as to the certainty of our Father's care for us (v.28). Fifth, and again, to be so concerned about earthly things, is to act like the world, and is most unworthy of the children of God (vv. 31, 32). Sixth, is not the Father's knowledge of our needs, and well known readiness to supply them, ever enough for faith? (v. 32). Seventh, beyond a doubt, all these things shall certainly be added to all who seek first the kingdom of God (v. 33). Surely this ought to be enough to set our minds at rest and furnish us with some leisure and heart for the things of God. What can we want more?
"What meaneth then, this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and this lowing of the oxen which I hear” Are there any Sauls in our day accumulating luxurious hoards of Amalekite spoil, at the unspeakable loss of the Kingdom, which far outshines that forfeited by Saul? That strange noise in the camp is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry from being overcome. Spiritual warfare and victory are out of the question when the golden calf is set up and worshipped; for "He that warreth, entangleth not himself with the affairs of this life." A sorry soldier was Achan, who, by covetousness, brought death to himself, disaster to his house, and defeat to the whole army of Israel.
Oh, that the "Achans" and the "Sauls" with all who to-day allow things of earth to govern the heart, could be persuaded, or at least reminded, that we are not called to live delicately on the earth, in self-indulgence, nourishing the heart in a day of slaughter (James 5. 5), but to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, nourishing our hearts, by looking for that blessed hope, so that we love His appearing.
It may be our blessed Lord threshed out this matter in such detail, in view of our special danger of allowing cares for to-day and anxieties for to-morrow, discontent with the necessaries and lust for the luxuries of life, to crowd out of our minds and hearts "the kingdom of God and His righteousness," well knowing that the seed of the Kingdom is ofttimes choked with "the cares and riches and pleasures of this life," and brings forth no fruit to perfection.
It is startling to see the tide of worldliness rising fast among Christians almost everywhere, with a corresponding ebb in the desire for spiritual prosperity; on all hands there are abounding symptoms of spiritual decay, which it is to be feared will be followed by increasing ambition for fleshly advantage. Our Master's question may well ring in our ears and consciences to-day: "What do ye more than others?" Not what know ye more than others? We may pride ourselves on knowing the things of God, which the poor worldling cannot possibly perceive, but if we spend all our energies, crowd our minds, engage our affections, and tax our wits for present worldly advantage, do not the men of this world the same? If we content ourselves with just the Lord's day observances and meetings, do not religious worldlings the same? If we do not bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in a godly walk, in faithful testimony, and devoted service, what do we more than others? The most convincing book to the worldling is our manner of living, but if, withal, we are as hard in our dealing, as keen for selfish gains, as inconsiderate for others' rights in our bargains, as shrewd and tricky in running our business as the most wide-awake worldling, he will not believe the book, for its author is a living contradiction.
But the sad result is that Christ is wounded again in the house of His friends, and His holy name is dishonoured. He is misjudged by His foes, because misrepresented by His friends. It is one thing to be saved by Christ, and quite another to be satisfied with Him; but very many claim Him as Saviour who never seem to make any further acquaintance with Him. As the one Centre in the midst of all, the one Lord above all, and the one Object before all, how little is He known; and while the conscience has been relieved by His work, the heart is not attracted to His Person, and therefore is not detached from the world and worldly aims. When Christ is engraved on the heart, we become His epistle, we speak for Him in our life before all men, but when the spirit of worldliness has seized the citadel, Christ is either veiled, or so distorted is the view of Him through us, that the unsaved are driven from Him rather than drawn to Him.
It is utterly impossible to run the heavenly and earthly business on the same level; one or the other must be on the top; the mind cannot be set on things above and on things on the earth with equal devotion. Both cannot be "first"; one or the other must be. One must increase, the other must decrease. The question is, Which shall I make my object?—"The kingdom of God and His righteousness," or "all these things" after which the world is seeking? Never was a greater mistake than to think I can compete with the worldling in the pursuits, the possessions, the pleasures, and the politics of earth, and finally come off as a spiritual overcomer. No, that which ministers to the flesh, wars against the soul, and it is impossible to secure the present without loss, both present and future, for "he that loveth his life shall lose it." Let us honestly examine our ways as to which of the two objects is occupying the supreme place in our hearts—Christ or self. Do we "mind earthy things" or is "our conversation in heaven" (Phil. 3)? Have we counted the cost of true discipleship, to suffer the loss of all fleshly gain, for the surpassing gain of Christ? Which is it to be? May the earnest cry of our souls be: "search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting."
3. OUR SERVICE.
We have looked at the matter of first importance in relation to our worship and walk. We come now to that which must be first in our service one to another (Matthew 7. 3-5). In each of the three great spheres of our life as Christians—toward God, before men, and among brethren—we are reminded of what must ever be the primary necessity. There are three things noticeable in this passage. First, the discovery of a mote in a brother's eye (v. 3); next, the offer of a voluntary service to remove it (v. 4); and then the only way in which this can be effectually done and what it involves (v. 5).
1. Beholding the mote in our brother's eye is intended to illustrate a very common tendency amongst us of turning our eyes toward our brethren for the discovery of their fault, instead of using them to search out our own; it also intimates that this is done, not occasionally through the attraction of some glaring mishap, but habitually. "Beholdest" means that it is a continuous thing. It further points out a most lamentable weakness in us, that proneness to overlook all the general features of a brother's character, however praiseworthy, and fasten the gaze upon the smallest spot and the least speck that is wrong with him, though it can hardly be discerned. But it does more, it proves that this is hypocrisy, for those who are quick-sighted and fore-sighted to spy out the mote in their brother's eye, do not, for lack of ability or lack of inclination or perhaps honesty, consider the beam that is in their own eye.
It is easy and natural to point out a small sin in my brother, while allowing a very great one in myself, whereas my own faults should appear greater and graver to me than the same faults in a brother. If I cultivated the habit of self-judgment instead of being severe with the sin of others and indulgent with my own, I should then "consider the beam" in my own eye, that is, I should first deal with my own faults with unsparing judgment, and then with my brother's, if necessary, in the spirit of meekness.
How unconscious are we naturally of our personal failings! As with a mote or a beam in the eye, we are powerless to discover that which is lodged in our own flesh, and the greater the evil, the less able are we to perceive it in ourselves. Those who are the most faulty, are too often the least conscious of it, and usually the first to find out the faults of others, and the most unsparing to condemn them. It was not the brother with a mote in his eye that discovered the beam in his brother's, but he with the beam, although, undoubtedly, the former could see more clearly of the two. May we have grace to examine ourselves, and to mortify our own members, for if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
2. Then, "How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye, and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?" There is nothing wrong in offering to remove the mote, surely, for it is offensive to us, how much more is it painful to the brother himself! In itself, it is a brotherly action. We are not to be blind or indifferent to each other's welfare, but it must be by love that we serve one another and wash one another's feet.
If a brother be overtaken in a fault, to neglect him, or leave him alone to drift, would be most blameworthy; much less should we lend our tongues to retail the wrong; by all means, seek to restore such, but the spiritual only are able, for this must be done in the spirit of meekness, by those who have learned to consider themselves, lest they also be tempted. It is not every one who is skillful enough to perform this difficult operation, for it requires a delicate touch. At the same time, let no one excuse himself from the responsibility. "Thou shalt not hate thy brother; thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him" was God's express command to the Israelite; so may we never forget that it is not the will of our Father that one of these little ones should perish. But from the extreme difficulty of doing this in a manner not to be a further cause of stumbling to an erring brother or sister, no service calls for more prayer, delicacy of feeling and meekness of wisdom. It must not be done just to "relieve my own mind" and to have "a clear conscience." The motive must be nothing less than love, the manner nothing else than showing "the kindness of God."
Even a well-meaning word may be entirely out of place and produce contempt rather than conviction. It must be a word in season, and "a word fitly spoken" from lips that know what is acceptable, if it is to be a blessing, for "as an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear" (Prov. 25. 12).
3. "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.” He who would point to a brother's wrong and seek to set him right, must first consider his own weakness, so as to be free in himself of that which he seeks to remove from another, or endless sorrow may result from an ungracious attempt to deal with another's faults by one who has worse forms of evil in himself, neither "considered" nor "cast out." Zeal for judging evil without honesty and impartiality enough to detect and judge personal errors, is indeed grievous hypocrisy, for to deal with another's fault supposes that I am free from (that) wrong myself and an enemy to the evil in question.
Let us therefore have grace to diligently "consider" and "cast out" first our own beam, that we may "see clearly" to cast out the mote from our brother's eye, or our best attempts will be nothing better than an ungracious judgment of the sin in another, which has grown to more terrible proportions in ourselves.
“Threshed Wheat” 1930