“We would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: but we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.” (2 Cor. 4:7).
“And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” (1 Cor. 2:3-4).
There are some passages of the Word which stand out because they are in such a very full and vital way a declaration of certain basic principles and ways of the Lord upon which everything else moves, and the third chapter of 2 Corinthians is just such a passage. You will remember that the Apostle puts his finger on a number of fundamental matters upon which everything else depends.
The Power of a New Life Within
He says first of all, “You are an epistle… written… with the Spirit of the living God”. God is no longer doing things outwardly. God is no longer occupied with tables of stone and mere ordinances, even commandments written, but God has moved on and is now concerned only with living, throbbing, vital sons of His own; that His people are themselves, by the very Life of God, that which He is concerned about. God’s desire and will is realized not any more by something imposed from the outside, but by the actual inward Life of God doing and working that which is pleasing to Him. The people of God are no longer, as it were, a mere people under orders. They are a people in whom everything that is of God is livingly realized by the Spirit of the living God. God is no longer saying, Thou shalt! Thou shalt not! He has left that: everything is Life. It is not telling us what to do, it is being in us what He wants. Just as God is the living eternal One, so that very nature of God becomes the Life of His people. Thus the Apostle makes that great contrast between the ministry or the ministration of death and the ministration of the Spirit; for “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives Life.”
Now, there is the first thing. That chapter shows us that God has come on to a new ground altogether where everything with Him is a matter of the Spirit livingly operating. Oh, so clearly did the Apostle see that to be the case that his heart sank when he found the people of God again occupied with “ought”; the law hanging over them, driving them to do things outwardly through fear either that God required it or that men expected it; in fear of God and fear of men, slavish bondage. You remember how the very next letter in our order, that to the Galatians, is directly concerned with that matter. “Do you desire again to be in bondage?” We are out of that whole realm where things are a legal outward system. God has finished with it. He really has finished with it.
In every single one of Paul’s letters, I believe, he is saying almost the same thing. You remember what he says in Romans — “Christ is the end of the law to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). God has moved away from that whole process of our trying to be righteous. He has settled righteousness in Someone else and Christ is the end. God has reached His end. Yes, and human nature is always trying to get itself to an end God has already reached. God has settled everything in His Son, and now the Spirit is the power of God by which all that is in Christ is being realized in the saints. God has reached His end, and then He is working that end, so to speak, into the saints by His Spirit, not by the saints again trying to reach the end already reached. It is a thing we do not easily put into words, but God has moved off the basis which our nature is always dropping on to. We are always trying to do something God has done, to be something we will never be, but which the Lord Jesus already is; and all that we cannot do and cannot be, the Lord has undertaken by His Spirit.
It is something like this that is the burden of 2 Cor. 3, that it is no longer a ministry of death but a ministration of Life. “The Spirit quickens.” We are living ones; everything for us is Life in the Spirit. We are not in a thing, we are not under a certain system, we are right out in a realm where we are in a river of Life. I am not saying we ought to be; I am saying we are. We have Life, we are in the Spirit. “Ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit…” (Rom. 8:9). If only we could see it, all our fetters would snap and we would be free: in Christ we have been raised out of the range of bondage and the domination of legality; we are free indeed. “If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:30). In this connection the word of the Lord was showing how there are hindrances to that river of the Spirit in which we should all be revelling. We should all be revelling in the streams that make glad the city of God and, beholding thus His glory, we should be knowing what it is to be changed into that same image, even as from the Lord the Spirit.
An Accompanying Condition of Weakness
But the word which I believe the Lord would bring us today is very briefly just this: What is the accompaniment of a life where the Spirit is absolutely Lord; or, to put it in another way, what comes to light in this Epistle as to accompanying conditions of a life where, according to the Apostle’s own testimony with regard to this new dispensation, everything is in Life and in the Spirit? What is the mark in his own experience of a life under the sovereignty of the Spirit? We are being exercised in prayer about that. We want to know the sovereignty of the Spirit, we want to know the Spirit as Lord in our individual lives and our life together. We want to know the Lordship of the Spirit, where He dictates as He will, where He breaks every barrier of man’s setting up, where the Spirit really does take things into His own hands and we are glad to watch Him do it. What are the accompanying conditions found in the servant of the Lord or in the vessel where His Spirit is sovereign? And here we find God’s way so different from ours. The word that sums it all up is “weakness”.
Oh, how we all used to think that if the Spirit is sovereign, we should be so strong, we should be so able to do things, we should be so full of life that nothing would give us more joy than to get up and hold open-air meetings! That sort of effervescence! We come to the word of the Lord, and the actual experience is weakness, emptiness, hopelessness, that we can do nothing. Why? That the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God and not of us. The great obstacle to the Spirit’s sovereign working is the strength of our own nature.
Some of us are only just on the edge of knowing that. We do not come as those who know a great deal about it, but we do know that when we are strong, we are weak; when we think we can, we cannot; when we want to help God, we hinder Him every time. We have got up in the thing and God is out of the thing. Oh, what a disillusionment there has to be in a life before the Spirit is really having His way — terrific breakdown in every vessel.
That is a good word — vessel. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” What is a vessel? A vessel is a receptacle, it is something which can hold something. You do not really bother much about what the thing is like: it is what you want to put into it that is the chief thing. The Lord needs something. He needs a vessel in which His glory can be. “He is a chosen vessel unto Me” (Acts 9:15), a vessel of the treasure, a vessel of His glory, something of which the Lord can be fully possessed and in which He can dwell, and which He would have in every dispensation. Yes, we have here the vessel of His glory in this dispensation. I am glad Paul uses the plural a great deal in this letter. He says, “Having this ministry we faint not.” “We have this treasure.” The vessel of the purpose of God and the vessel of the glory of God is a corporate vessel. Essentially it is a corporate vessel now. I believe Paul was the servant raised up as a peculiar instrument, and the Lord still has men who are vessels; but He also looks upon His saints together as a vessel…. We know that our mere praying may be powerless; it is the prayer of the Holy Ghost that is effective. It is a vessel in which the exceeding greatness of the power is able to operate.
Well now, what is the nature of that vessel? It is going to be one in which there is great weakness and great break-down of all that is natural capacity. I am not going to stay with that, for our time is short, but we will remember that in every outstanding servant of God through whom the purpose of Gcd was in any way realized, there was a tremendous breaking down. Moses was a man who could do things for God, a man who had a great devotion to the Lord, and in the longing of his heart and even in his faithfulness to the Lord, he set off to serve Him, and it took God forty years to prove to Moses beyond any doubt that he could not serve God in himself; forty years of terrible weakening, weakening, weakening, until it has to be God because it cannot be anyone else. Moses at the end of that forty years is saying, I cannot speak, I cannot go! — an utter inability in the things of God.
The Natural Life the Great Hindrance
I believe the point of this is so important. What is it that is hindering the Lord getting His own clear way? It is something of our own strength in the things of God and if there is to be a real ground cleared for the Spirit to be sovereign, your individual experience and mine will be that we are brought up short again and again. You have tried to serve the Lord and it has been, shall we say, a mess. Why? Because your own nature tried to help God. Oh, it is so wonderful to come across a life that has been dealt with very deeply and to see the difference between that and a life where that emptying and weakening has not taken place. The life in the earlier stage sees a spiritual need or sees something that is felt to be of the Lord and before a moment has past that life has gone into it like a flash and started to help. I must go! I will send them a book! I will do something! But meet a man who has been broken to pieces: he sees the need, the desperate situation, and he is steady as a rock and says, “Unless the Lord does that, it is no good touching it! Where is the fuss?” Yes, but that is not until you are broken.
Those who in some real measure have come to an end of themselves know this beyond doubt, because they have been through it. Every time they touched a thing, it went to pieces. We ought to be doing something! No, just be sure it is God doing things. Where does Christianity with all its doing, get? It is a terrible undoing, that is all it is. Yes, when the work of God comes up, you and I see it and begin to lay hold of it in case something goes wrong, put our hands upon it. Uzzah died before the Lord. We may not physically die, but we do die. It is a snare for a man to devour that which is holy. Our greedy little minds and thoughts get onto the things of God like that: whereas He wants us to be brought to silence. Then we shall hear what the Spirit says and we shall say, The Spirit is speaking; Lord bring it into realisation! The Word of God is quite clear on this: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God and not of us.”
Well, if our heart responds to that, let us ask Him to make us really a vessel of that kind, not being nervous and feeble and afraid of ourselves, but being very steady and saying, Lord, keep me out of it and move me when You want me! To that end it says, “We who live…” (2 Cor. 4:11). Do not let us go about thinking we are dead; we live! “We who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake.” It is not the death of that Life, it is the death of this life. Let us live abundantly on that Life. “We the living ones…” Do not let us be afraid of any human natural dying as we recognize we are living ones joined to Him whose life is indestructible, but rather rejoice that because of this we can safely be handed over to death that the Life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.