Chapter 00 - Introduction
Synopsis of the Books of the Bible
John Nelson Darby
INTRODUCTION AND CHAPTER 1
As regards Peter and Paul, we have scriptural authority for regarding them as the apostles respectively of the circumcision and of the uncircumcision. Peter and the twelve remained at Jerusalem when the disciples were scattered, and, continuing (though God was careful to maintain unity) the work of Christ in the remnant of Israel, gathered into an assembly on earth the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Paul, having received the ministry of the assembly, as of the gospel to every creature under heaven (Col. 1), as a wise master-builder, lays the foundation. Peter sets us off as pilgrims on our journey to follow Christ risen towards the inheritance above. Paul, in the full development of his doctrine (though owning this, as in Philippians 3), shews us the saints sitting in heavenly places in Christ, heirs of all which He is heir of. All this was dispensational, and it is full of instruction. But John holds a different place. He does not enter on dispensation; nor, though once or twice stating the fact (as 13:1; 14:1; 17:24;20:17), does He take the saint, nor even the Lord Himself, up to heaven. Jesus, for him, is a divine Person, the Word made flesh manifesting God and His Father, eternal life come down to earth. The Epistle of John treats the question of our partaking of this life, and its characters.
But at the close of the Gospel, after stating the sending of the Comforter on His going away, Christ opens to the disciples (though in a mysterious way) the continuation of God’s dealings with the earth, of which John ministerially is the representative, linking the manifestation of Christ on earth at His first coming with His manifestation at His second; Christ’s Person, and eternal life in Him, being the abiding security and living seed of God, when dispensationally all was corrupted, and in confusion and decay. If all were in disorder outwardly, eternal life was the same.
The destruction of Jerusalem formed a momentous epoch as to these things, because the Jewish assembly, formed as such at Pentecost, had ceased (nay, it had even before); only the judicial act was then accomplished. Christians had been warned to leave the camp. The breach of Christianity with Judaism was consummated. Christ could no longer take up the assembly, established in the remnant of the Jews, as His own seat of earthly authority. (1)
But alas! the assembly, as Paul had established it too, had already fallen from its first estate-could in no sense take up the fallen inheritance of Israel. All seek their own, says Paul, not the things of Jesus Christ. All they of Asia-Ephesus, the beloved scene where all Asia had heard the word of God-had forsaken him. They who had been specially brought with full intelligence into the assembly’s place could not hold it in the power of faith. Indeed, the mystery of iniquity was at work before this, and was to go on and grow until the hindrance to the final apostacy were removed.
Here, in this state of universal declension and ruin John’s ministry comes in. Stability was in the Person of Christ, for eternal life first, but for the ways of God upon earth too. If the assembly was spued out of His mouth, He was the faithful witness, the beginning of the creation of God. Let us trace the lines of this in his gospel. In John 20, as else where noticed in detail, we have a picture of God’s ways from the resurrection of Christ till we come to the remnant of Israel in the latter days, represented by Thomas’s look on the pierced One and believing by seeing. In chapter 21 we have, besides the remnant, the full millennial gathering. Then at the close of the chapter, the special ministry of Peter and John is pointed out, though mysteriously. The sheep of Jesus of the circumcision are confided to Peter; but this ministry was to close like Christ’s. The assembly would not be established on this ground, any more than Israel. There was no tarrying here till Christ came, (2)
Peter’s ministry in fact was closed, and the circumcision assembly left shepherdless, before the destruction of Jerusalem put an end to all such connection for ever. Peter then asks as to John. The Lord answers, confessedly mysteriously, but putting off, as that which did not concern Peter who was to follow Him, the closing of John’s ministry, prolonging it in possibility till Christ came. Now, in fact, the Bridegroom tarried; but the service and ministry of John by the word (which was all that was to remain, and no apostle in personal care) did go on to the return of Christ.
John was no master-builder like Paul-had no dispensation committed to him. He was connected with the assembly in its earthly structure like Peter, not in the Ephesus or heavenly one; He was not the minister of the circumcision, but carried on the earthly system among the Gentiles, only holding fast the Person of Christ. His special place was testimony to the Person of Christ come to earth with divine title over it-power over all flesh. This did not break the links with Israel, as Paul’s ministry did, but raised the power which held all together in the Person of Christ to a height which carried it through any hidden time, or hidden power, on to its establishment over the world at the end; it did not exclude Israel as such, but enlarged the scene of the exercise of Christ’s power so as to set it over the world, and did not establish it in Israel as its source, though it might establish Israel itself in its own place from a heavenly source of power.
What place does the assembly then hold in this ministry of John, found as it is in the Book of Revelation? None in its Pauline character, save in one phrase, coming in after the Revelation is closed where its true place in Christ’s absence is indicated. (Chap 22:17) We have the saints at the time, in their own conscious relationship to Christ, in reference, too, to the royal and priestly place to His God and Father, in which they are associated with Himself. But John’s ministerial testimony, as to the assembly, views it as the outward assembly on earth (3) in its state of decay-Christ judging this-and the true assembly, the capital city and seat of God’s government over the world, at the end, but in glory and grace. It is an abode, and where God dwells and the Lamb. All this facilitates our intelligence of the objects and bearing of the book.
The assembly has failed; the Gentiles, grafted in by faith, have not continued in God’s goodness. The Ephesian assembly, the intelligent vessel, and expression of what the assembly of God was, had left its first estate, and unless it repented, the candlestick was to be removed. The Ephesus of Paul becomes the witness on earth of decay and of removal out of God’s sight, even as Israel had been removed. God’s patience would be shewn towards the assembly as it had been towards Israel; but the assembly would not maintain God’s testimony in the world any more than Israel had. John does maintain this testimony, ministerially judging the assemblies by Christ’s word, (4) and then the world from the throne, till Christ comes and takes to Himself His great power and reigns. During this transition-dealing of the throne the heavenly saints are seen on high. When Christ comes, they come with Him.
The first part, then, of the Epistles of John is the continuation, so to speak, of the Gospel before the last two dispensational chapters; the Revelation, that of these last two chapters (20, 21), where, Christ being risen and no ascension given, the dispensational dealings of God are largely intimated in the circumstances which occur; while it is shewn at the same time that He could not personally set up the kingdom then. He must ascend first. The two short epistles shew us that truth (truth as to His Person) was the test of true love, and to be held fast when what was anti-christian came in; and the free liberty of the ministration of the truth to be held fast against assumed ecclesiastical or clerical authority, as contrasted with the assembly. The apostle had written to the assembly. Diotrephes rejected free ministry.
I now turn to the book itself.
(1) This was morally true from Acts 3, where the Jewish leaders refuse the testimony to a glorified Christ who would return, as they had rejected a humbled One. Acts 7, by the mouth of Stephen, closes God’s dealings with them in testimony, and the heavenly gathering begins, his spirit being received on high. The destruction of Jerusalem closed Jewish history judicially.
(2) Paul, of course, is no way noticed. For him the assembly belonged to heaven-was the body of Christ, the house of God. He was a builder.
(3) And hence in particular assemblies, which of course could be judged and removed. There is another point of divine wisdom here. Though we have I doubt not, the whole history of the assembly to its end in this world, it is given in facts then present, so that there should be no putting off the coming of the Lord. So, in the parables, the virgins who go to sleep are the same that wake up; the servants that receive the talents are the same found on the Lord’s return, though we know ages have passed and death come in.
(4) Note this immensely important principle: the church judged by the word, not the church a judge; and the individual Christian called to give heed to this judgment. The church (I use the word designedly here as used to claim this authority) cannot be an authority when the Lord calls me, if I have ears to hear, to hear and receive the judgment pronounced by Him on it. I judge its state by the words of the Spirit, am bound to do so: it cannot be an authority therefore on the Lord’s behalf over me in that state. Discipline is not in question here, but the church as wielding authority.
The revelation is one belonging to Jesus Christ, which God gave Him, and He signifies it to John. Though God over all blessed for ever, He is here seen as Son of man, the rejected Messiah or Lamb, and so Head over all things. This fact, that the revelation is one confided to Him, is important, because it at once makes it the testimony of Jesus and the word of God being communicated by Jesus, and given to Him by God. This testimony of Jesus and word of God comes as a vision to John, who bare record of all He saw. All of it is prophetic in character, not the Spirit of God the messenger of the Father and of the Son’s grace to the assembly in its own place-a direct inspired communication to the assembly itself for itself as in its own right place-but a prophetic revelation to John about it as in the world, and about the world itself.
The assembly being already in decay and to be removed, whatever the delay of grace, the time was at hand, and the rejection of the assembly on earth to be taken as a starting-point. Another system was to be set up. The apostle had not his face turned towards the assemblies at all, but his back. The mind of the Spirit is towards Christ’s taking the kingdom. Still Christ was yet amongst them, but as Son of man, the character in which He judges and inherits the world. The apostle turns and sees Him. Still it behoved, if He was recounting the coming dealing with the world in judgment, to notice by the bye ’the things that are.’ By giving them in seven contemporary churches, no time was necessary; it left the final results as at the door, for they were in the last days, yet it gave, if there was delay, opportunity for a full moral picture of the whole of the assembly’s history. I see in this only the wisdom of the Spirit, and exactly the character of John’s ministry. ’ If I will that He tarry till I come.’
I cannot doubt then for a moment that (while professedly of universal application for every one that had an ear, not an address to the general conscience of the assembly) the seven assemblies represent the history of Christendom, the assembly as under man’s responsibility, the fact of the judgment of the world coming afterwards on its close (the assemblies being ’the things that are ’) and the character of events, beginning with the assembly leaving its first love, and ending with holding fast till He comes, and with being spued out of Christ’s mouth. The adoption of the number seven, which cannot mean completeness at the same time because the states are different; the reference to Christ’s coming; the reference to the great tribulation to come on all the earth in the letter to Philadelphia; the clear object of warning the assembly till Christ came, the world being then in scene for judgment: all leave no cloud upon the conclusion that the seven churches are successive phases of the professing assembly’s history, though not exactly consecutive (the fourth going on to the end; new phases then commencing, and going on to the end collaterally also).(5)
But though the assembly be thus spoken of, God Himself appears here as the administrator of the world, even when addressing the assembly; and Christ as man coming, under Him to this purpose, the Holy Ghost being noticed as the direct agent of power in the sevenfold perfection in which it is exercised. It is not the Father and the Son, but God who is, yet who embraces past and future in His being, and is never inconsistent with Himself, making good in time all in which He has announced Himself in the past. The form of this however is peculiar here. It is not merely the abstract idea of Jehovah, who was, and is, and is to come. He is first announced by His present absolute existence, ’from him who is,’ the ’I am,’ God Himself; and then to connect Himself with previous dealings (not present relationships) declares that He is the One who was (had revealed Himself in previous ages to the earth or to men, to the Abrahams and Moseses of old time), and at the same time was the coming One (6) who would make good everything revealed of and by Himself. Jesus Christ
(who comes last as the Man in immediate connection with God’s witness to, and government of, the earth) is presented as the faithful witness-as He was personally on earth -of God; as risen from the dead (but no ascension or headship of the assembly), taking all in this character, not after the flesh; and lastly, in government not yet made good, the Prince of the kings of the earth.
The saints then express their own consciousness of what He has done for them, yet still in reference to the kingdom, not as the body or bride, or their own heavenly joys, but the highest possible as regards the given glory and place. This is the necessary consequence of the consciousness of a near and blessed relationship. Whatever the glory of the One we are in relationship with, it is what He is for oneself, one’s own nearness to Him, that comes to the mind when the glory is declared. Were a general to march in triumph into a town, the feeling of a child or wife would be, ’ That is my father,’ ’ that is my husband.’ Here the feeling, though of this character, is more unselfish. ’To him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.’ It is His love to us which is celebrated, still with the personal feeling ’us.’ The saints know what He has done for them, and further what He has made them. His love as perfect King and Priest are His highest characters here: nearest to God in power downwards, and in approaching Him upwards. He has made us kings and priests to God and His Father: to Him be glory! Such is the saint’s thought when He is spoken of. He loved us, has cleansed us, and given us a place with Himself. This flows out the instant He is named. It is the answer of heart when He is announced, before any communication takes place. His having done this is not announced; it is the saints’ own consciousness.(7)
As to others, all must be told. The next point, the first announced, is His appearing to the world. No direct communication to the assembly for its own sake -the book is not that. Here the assembly has that in its own consciousness only, as we have seen. Behold! He cometh with clouds; every eye shall see Him, the Jews too who pierced Him, and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. His appearing is in judgment.
We then find, what is so remarkable in John, the mixing up in expression God and Christ Verse 8 cannot be said to be one or the other. It is Christ; but it is Christ Jehovah, Almighty, the Lord; who is, and who was, and who is to come; the first and the last. (Compare chap. 22:12,13)
Thus, we have the saints of these days; Christ’s appearing to judgment; He is God, the first and the last, Alpha and Omega; the complete circle of position from John’s day to the end. The practical position which John takes with all the saints, is ’ the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ.’ He belongs to the kingdom, but must wait while Christ waits, expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. The generic name given to testimony applies to all his ministry as well as to the prophecy-the word of God and the testimony of Jesus: only one might have thought that prophecy was not this last, as it was not to the assembly about itself from its Head; but the Spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus.
(5) There are moral reasons from the contents. We shall see, farther on, that the structure of the book fully confirms this.
(6) ’erchomenos’ not ’o esomenos’
(7) We shall find the same thing at the close when the prophecy is ended. Here what He has been to the saints and has done: there what He is for the future. See chapter 22:17.
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