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Occasional Letters: Passing the Baton

D Newell, Glasgow

Age heightens one's appetite for nostalgia. A while back I purchased some reprints of the old Fleetway Air Ace Library, a late 1950s monthly publication I had eagerly devoured in my youth. For a mere shilling one could have a gratifyingly thick paperback of illustrated wartime adventures. One of these topping yarns concerned a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm who was obnoxiously cocky, confident in his own abilities, and scornful of the advice offered by more experienced flyers. Of course, he learned the hard way and, by the end of the story, had survived to become a veteran, addressing trainees with exactly the same words of wisdom he had earlier derided. It was a neat if predictable irony.

One of the great lessons of both the Old and New Testaments is that spiritual experience should be passed on. Towards the end of his life, knowing he would shortly die, and burdened for Israel, Moses prayed that the Lord would "set a man over the congregation, Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd" (Num 27.16-17). It was a good prayer, but Moses had not left things to the last minute; for a long time he had been training up Joshua to take his place.

He is not the only example. Under God's direction Elijah appointed as his successor Elisha, a man who proved his worth by determining, whatever the cost, never to be separated from his master. Godly kings of Judah often coached their heirs in the practical responsibilities of government by making them co-regents (2 Kings 8.16). And Paul found in his spiritual child Timothy one uniquely likeminded (Phil 2.20), largely, I assume, because he had learned at the feet of the great apostle (2 Tim 3.10-11,14). All this teaches that, although we may be removed at any moment, we should be building for the next generation. Wise assembly elders will be constantly on the alert for young men with the Biblical qualifications whom they can invite to join them in the work of shepherding the saints.

Is it surprising that the best teachers are often those who found it hardest to learn? In his youthful zeal Moses had attempted to fast-forward God's purpose for him, but when the precise moment came for Israel's deliverance he dragged his heels with excuse after excuse. We do not find it easy to submit to the divine timetable. Nevertheless, years later, on the edge of the Promised Land, the same man sought to encourage God's people to stick steadfastly to His word. The book of Deuteronomy constitutes his farewell address to the nation.

Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did because of Baalpeor: for all the men that followed Baalpeor, the Lord thy God hath destroyed them from among you. But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day. Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons; Specially the day that thou stoodest before the Lord thy God in Horeb, when the Lord said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children (Deut 4.1-10).

His message is packed with lessons. The essential practicality of the divine Word is that it is life-affirming ("that ye may live"). God's requirements of His people, whether in the Old Testament or the New, are not for their misery but for their good. We can only live happily in God's world if we do it God's way. But lest any ever decide the Word needs editing or updating, Moses asserted its unchanging sufficiency: "Ye shall not add…neither shall ye diminish". Tampering with Scripture has always been a temptation. In the Gospel era the Pharisees added their own traditions, and in so doing robbed God's truth of its power, "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Mt 15.9), while the Sadducees, who "say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit" (Acts 23.8), quietly erased any ideas that offended their rationalism. Their children are with us to this day. How often the answer to a genuine query about assembly practice is not, "Thus saith the Scripture", but, "We've always done it this way"? And how many are intimidated by secular opinion or academic respectability into evading the face-value meaning of Genesis chapter one? To underline the importance of scrupulous obedience, Moses reminded Israel of the severity of judgment on law-breakers. It must still have been fresh in their minds that 24,000 of their brethren had perished because of idolatry and immorality (Num 25.1-9), for Israel could not play fast and loose with God's statutes and judgments. The terrible incident of Baalpeor was proof that death followed departure as inevitably as life succeeded loyalty.

But Moses also wanted the people to be in no doubt as to the authority of his instructions: "I have taught you…as the Lord my God commanded me". We may legitimately refer to "the law of Moses", but it was not his invention; rather, it came from Jehovah Himself, stamped with His seal of infallibility. Diligent submission to its teachings therefore constituted Israel's testimony to the Gentiles round about, bearing witness to the greatness of God and the righteousness of His code of conduct for His elect nation. Remember, to Israel alone was God's written law given (Ps 147.19-20; Rom 2.14), for they were His special test-tube sample of humanity, favoured yet failing in every way so as to demonstrate the sinfulness of the race as a whole. Yet each Israelite had a responsibility to the law: "take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget". The difference between singular and plural pronouns ("thyself" in v.9, and "yourselves" in v.15) indicated that responsibility was both individual and national, just as in the local assembly every believer is vital to the corporate service of the whole. And to that end the people were to pass God's Word to succeeding generations, ensuring continuity in the promulgation of truth. If it was "the Lord God of your fathers" (v.1) who gave them the land and the law, looking back to the great unconditional Abrahamic covenant which undergirds God's programme for Israel, they in turn were to "teach them [the requirements of the law] thy sons, and thy sons' sons" (v.9). Urges Paul, "the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Tim 2.2). For assembly testimony to continue, the truth must be passed on urgently, unabridged and unadulterated.

To be continued.


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