Numbers 8: 23-26;
1 Samuel 17: 17-20, 29;
1 Thessalonians 5: 12-14;
Luke 2: 41-52
It is my desire, beloved, to speak a little about what the Scriptures in the Old Testament describe as “the charge”: formally described in the book of Numbers and, I suggest, illustrated in the history of two men, Jesse and David. Another phrase we could use to explain what we mean and what the Scripture means as to keeping the charge is ‘taking up responsibility’. Now, the background to our responsibility is the immensity of the privilege we have been brought into. It is a true saying, in whatever aspect it is used, that privilege and responsibility go together; that is never more so than in Christianity. Beloved, as believers on the Lord Jesus and subjects of the grace of God, we have been brought into the greatest privilege. Have we all really considered the fact that, as believing on the Lord Jesus, we may “become companions of the Christ if indeed we hold the boast of hope firm to the end”, Heb 3: 14.
I will speak about Jesse first before I speak of the scripture in Numbers, for I love the way the scripture presents this man. Generally when we turn to Samuel it is to read about David, Jesse’s son, but I would like to speak to you today about Jesse. Just before where we read in chapter 17 we read, “Now David was the Son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem-Judah whose name was Jesse”, v 12. I think Jesse represents a man who, in our own language, was a fine local brother; he probably did not travel around very much and perhaps not many people knew him. There are many such today, beloved, and they are like pillars on whom we rely. There are others of whom I will speak in a moment, but there is something so beautiful about this man. I think he was fairly obscure, a plain local brother, and I suggest that he illustrates what is described in Numbers as someone who kept the charge. If I was local with him and something about me was a cause for concern, he would notice, and would make it his burden to carry that before the Lord. Perhaps he would say something to me: I hope to enlarge on that when we look at the scripture in Thessalonians. I believe that the local assembly is a place where persons are taken care of, where the Lord’s interests are jealously guarded, and where there is resource to preserve persons and even to correct persons.
Now, can you imagine the conditions in this era in which Jesse lived? Here is Saul, king over Israel, and here are the Philistines and there is no battle. There is a stalemate, there is no power, beloved. Satan really, in the figure of Goliath, is dominating the situation. The armies of the living God are defied. (You might say that today Christianity is in disrepute and there seems no power publicly to deal with anything.) And here in Bethlehem is this man Jesse, and see how he has the testimony in his heart! You say, ‘Well, where was the testimony?’ There are whole ranks of Philistines, whole ranks of Israel, and nothing is happening. Nothing can happen, there is no man. What a stalemate, what a sorrow, beloved! That is the public position of Christianity. Publicly it is in disrepute. There are false religions gaining the ascendancy, false Christians publicly gaining ground, as well as true Christians acting beneath their calling. Beloved, there is a need for persons who understand that there is a charge to be kept, that in Christ and in the Holy Spirit we have every resource that we need. God has established a testimony on this earth which He has not withdrawn. He will withdraw it soon: one day, when the Father gives the word and Jesus rises from the Father’s throne, the testimony as we know it now will close. Until that time God preserves His testimony here and maintains it in localities. Meanwhile we read in 1 Samuel 17: 16, “And the Philistine drew near morning and evening, and presented himself forty days”. Forty days! How could anyone ever have the courage to lift up their head in the ranks of Israel? Here is this defiance forty days, twice a day, and here in this little place of Bethlehem there is a man called Jesse, and what does he have? He has the interests of God at heart. He does not see stalemate and hopelessness and defeat. He is a man of wealth and he says, ‘I am going to provide for these people’. “And Jesse said to David his son” — David had been anointed king just a few chapters before, and what had he done? He had gone back to the sheep. Delightful, is it not, the spirit of the man, type of the Lord Jesus as the great Shepherd. But here I think he is the type of one of us, with feelings just like Jesse his father. So Jesse says to David his son, “Take, I pray, for thy brethren” - “thy brethren”, not the helpless, hamstrung soldiers but “thy brethren”. He gives corn and ten loaves, and he says, “carry them quickly to the camp to thy brethren; and carry these ten cheeses to the captain of the thousand, and visit thy brethren …”, “visit thy brethren”. I think that is the sort of thing that Jesse would, as a younger man, have done himself. There are those who do that, beloved; you do not see them on platforms maybe, but they visit their brethren and they care how the brethren are getting on. I am speaking mainly of older persons, persons who understand what it is to keep the charge and have the interests of God’s testimony at heart, and in their local places they are faithful. Here is Jesse, a man of wealth, a man of substance, and what a fine thing that is. That would be normal. But in the most difficult of days, here is someone who is wealthy, who knows what it is to have the word of the Christ dwelling in him richly (Col 3: 16), and he has a son, his son is David, and he has the same spirit as Jesse. That is a very fine thing. I suppose you could say, here is Paul and Timothy; Jesse and David.
I speak now to young men and young women here; what about you in your localities? Do you have the same spirit as older persons? You know, the Lord will not lay on you more than you can carry. If you are twelve - we will see that later, perhaps - if you are twelve the Lord will only expect you to act as a twelve year old. He will not ask you to act as a thirteen year old if you are twelve, but there is such a thing as filling up the measure that we have. When Paul the apostle wrote to Timothy he did not say, ‘You be like me or be like Barnabas’, he said, “fill up the full measure of thy ministry” (2 Tim 4: 5); that is to say, what the Lord has given you, your capacity, you fill it up, make it full, do what you can. So David does just that. Here he is, carrying something, the wealth of the land, and he takes it into this desolate zone, and see how he comports himself! Firstly it says he “rose up early in the morning”. Well, when do you rise up early in the morning? You rise up early in the morning when you have something important to do. Often we read in the Scripture of persons rising early in the morning. (Once a brother said, ‘If you have something important to do, do it early in the day’.) That is one reason why we break bread on Lord’s day morning; we do not wait until the afternoon. It is of the greatest importance; so we do it early in the day. Then he “left the sheep with a keeper”. What was his customary occupation? His customary occupation was not a runner for the army. His customary occupation was to take care of the sheep. What does he do when Jesse gives him this charge? He personally ensures the safety of the sheep; he left the sheep with a keeper. That is his first concern. He was ready for another service, he was ready to be a messenger, a runner for his father, but he did not neglect his first concern. Then he “took his charge and went”. You see the dignity of this man, still a young man, who had been charged with something and he is carrying it out. Transferring this to Christianity, do you think that it is possible today in your locality, that the Lord might charge you with something, something simple, and you might carry it out? Yes, He would give you the grace and the power to do it. Older brethren will recall ministry as to fulfilled responsibility, see James Taylor’s letters vol 1 p122 esp paras 3 and 4. There is such a thing, beloved brethren, as fulfilled responsibility. It was remarked at our meetings in Malvern during August, that the assembly is the only vessel ever to have the capacity to fulfil responsibility. Did Israel, called out of Egypt, have the power to fulfil responsibility? In type, yes, but not in actuality. Beloved, the assembly has power in the Holy Spirit actually to fulfil responsibility, and you in your locality can fulfil your responsibility. You can do it! Then we read, he “went, as Jesse had commanded him”. You see, he is not volunteering. No, he is not. You will see that in a moment. “And he came to the wagon-defence”, and so on. Then he “left the things” - that is what he had been told to do, these valuable things, these fruits of the land, God’s blessing which he has brought for others. He left them “in the hand of the keeper of the baggage, and ran into the ranks” v 22, and what does he do now? Beloved, please let us grasp this, he “saluted his brethren”. Who, or what kind of person, do you salute? You salute people you respect. He “saluted his brethren”. Even a man as great as the apostle Paul saluted the brethren. I have never been in military service, but to me the brethren, the Lord’s people, wherever they are, in whatever state they are found, are persons to whom the greatest respect is due. Remember, these persons were in a state of helplessness: the power of God was not evident in the ranks of these people. And David, what does he do? He runs to them and he “saluted his brethren”. These are the same people in the midst of whom he had been anointed just one chapter previously. David had been anointed in the midst of his brethren (chap 16: 13), he was the supreme one among them. He had since been feeding the sheep, and now today he runs with groceries (messages, you would call them) and he salutes his brethren. What greatness according to God, and what serviceableness to the Lord! Someone, one of his brothers, says, “Why art thou come down? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness?” Oh, beloved, let us never think of our brethren like that, however small our localities are. Let us never think of our brethren as “those few sheep” or ‘those few brethren’. He says, “I know thy pride and the naughtiness of thy heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle”, v 28. There was hardly a battle to see, but what does David say? I love this (the older brethren know it well) but may all, especially younger brethren, take this home today, he says, “Was it not laid upon me?” - “laid upon me”. If the Lord gives you something to do, you have only to answer for it to Him, you answer to nobody else. But if He lays something on you, maybe to be exercised to carry some of the wealth of the land, (that is to say the inheritance which we have in Christ), and what we enjoy collectively in our meetings, to take that and carry it to someone else, you do it. The Lord will help you, the Spirit will help you. “Was it not laid upon me? And he turned from him to another, and spoke after the same manner”, v 30. How beautiful! We have no need to engage in any argument; Paul says to Timothy, “And a bondman of the Lord ought not to contend”, 2 Tim 2: 24. “And he turned from him to another …” - beautiful also!
Now we might turn to the book of Numbers. I thought of this scripture just a little while before we came from the house so I have not had time to research it, but the Levites, as I understand it, were a tribe which Jehovah said He would take for His service instead of the firstborn of every house. You remember that before the people came out of Egypt God smote the firstborn of Egypt, and He said at that time (Exod 13: 2), ‘I am going to have the firstborn of Israel for myself’, but in His wisdom He took a whole tribe, the tribe of Levi, in their place, Num 8: 16-18. When settled in Canaan they lived in their own cities, including the cities of refuge, Num 35: 1-6. They were special cities because they had walls, and there were special rights and so on when it came to buying and selling in a walled city. This speaks really of assembly truth. Also, within that tribe there were the families, the children of Kohath, Gershon and Merari. The Kohathites carried the most holy things. They carried the ark, “they bore what they carried upon the shoulder”, Num 7: 9. The Gershonites handled the curtains. Imagine the weight of the curtains of the tabernacle, all those skins and woven cloth and the size of them! Imagine the weight! Imagine the exercise of a Christian pathway maintaining the truth, the principles of fellowship, in a world that is entirely contrary to it. And then there were those who carried the boards. They had wagons to help them, because they were big boards, covered in gold, and were very heavy. Certain princes provided those wagons, a little bit like our collection on Lord’s day morning. Have you ever wondered why, as well as the loaf and the cup at the Supper, we have the collection basket on the table? Well, the scripture that helps me is Numbers 7: the princes bring the wagons to the tabernacle, not to some place outside; they bring them to the tabernacle. And Jehovah says to Moses, “Take it of them”, v 5. That scripture helps me.
This little paragraph that I have read tells us that these Levites were not to begin service until they were twenty-five years old, and at fifty years old they were to retire. Now, when you think about the carrying of the most holy things, it was not physically heavy, was it? Carrying the ark with the staves upon their shoulder, that was not heavy work: that was most dignified, most privileged work. Carrying the curtains, I suppose, would have been quite heavy work. Carrying the boards would definitely have been heavy work, taking them down, putting them onto the wagons and off again, and putting them up. But these people would be well nourished, because they were going to be feeding on the manna. (Moreover, Numbers 8:18-39 and other scriptures show how well provided for the members of this tribe were.) So I have been asking myself, why retire at fifty? I am not speaking of literal ages today, but why retire at fifty? They are going to have plenty of exercise and excellent food. They were drinking of the rock which followed them, which was the Christ, 1 Cor 10: 4. They were well nourished. They are not going to be exhausted at fifty. I suggest, beloved, the reason for them retiring at fifty (and I have not researched this either but commend it to the brethren) is so that younger persons might be made way for. In what? In the labour of the tabernacle, carrying for themselves mature exercises in relation to God’s testimony here, the maintenance of the precious truth of Christ in His Person, and the representation of God’s grace towards men. What, however, would not change upon their retirement? You know. What did not change at fifty when they retired from the service was the keeping of the charge. What does that mean to you? What that means to me is that there are younger persons in your locality or in mine, and you do everything you can to encourage them to take up their responsibility; but you never hand over yourresponsibility. You encourage them to do things, you encourage them to ask questions, you encourage them to promote the Lord’s interests in whatever way you can, but you never lay down the charge.
Now I will speak briefly from 1 Thessalonians. What we have here is an exhortation to a young Christian company, and the apostle begins by saying, “But we beg you, brethren, to know those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in the Lord, and admonish you”. What, in the language of Numbers 8, are these people doing? Well, I think they are keeping the charge. There are those we look up to; there are persons I look up to in my locality and round about, throughout the world, there are persons I look up to, and I think of them like this: they are persons who labour among us and who take the lead among us in the Lord. They take on a very serious task. They hold themselves accountable to the Lord. We read in Hebrews 13: 17 “Obey your leaders, and be submissive; for they watch over your souls as those that shall give account”. Then earlier in that chapter (v 7) “Remember your leaders who have spoken to you the word of God”. How gladly we do that! We remember leaders from this place who have spoken to us the word of God and their life had a meaning, that is that Jesus Christ was their life. We remember them, but now we are to obey our leaders, and that is at the present time. The principle of leadership is of God. Democracy is not of God. If something needs to be decided in your locality you do not have a vote, you do not sound out people, you look for leadership, persons who hold themselves accountable to the Lord. They do not lord it over your souls, Paul says, “Not that we rule over your faith”, 2 Cor. 1: 24, but they “take the lead among you in the Lord, and admonish you”, and we are to “regard them exceedingly in love on account of their work.” Then he says, “Be in peace among yourselves.”
I now want to touch very briefly on this matter of admonition. I would not give an address on it, but just touch on it. It is mentioned twice within three verses. One of the things about those who give a lead, one thing that we must expect, is that sometimes they will admonish us. Now, it is quite different from exhortation. There is exhortation and there is admonition. They are quite distinct. If a brother says to me, ‘John, I have seen something in such and such a book of ministry. I think you would enjoy it, I think you should read it’, what are they doing? They are exhorting me. He is not correcting me, he is exhorting me, but I well know that there is such a thing as admonition, and I will give you an example. There was a time when we had a fellowship meeting in Malvern and I did not go to the address, I went to work. It was not to meet a life and death situation, but still I went to work. You might be shocked at that, with good reason, but I did it. I had had some railway sleepers delivered and I wanted to move them, but life would have gone on had I left them where they were until Monday. A brother was giving an address in Malvern, and it was pretty poor that I was absent. A local brother came to me soon afterwards and he said, ‘What happened?’ What he then said to me was not exhortation: what he said to me was admonition, and I can tell you, never again have I missed an address at a Malvern fellowship meeting! I would not want to. I say this in passing that there is such a thing as admonition. We rightly receive a good deal of exhortation, but there is room for admonition, and we all may need it - none of us is too old to need it. In Ecclesiastes there is a scripture which says, “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king, who knoweth no more how to be admonished”, chap 4: 13. May we remember that, we are never above it, never beyond it, and it is one of the services in love which we can expect from our local brethren. Let us not take offence if we find we are being admonished because it is one of the resources the Lord has put in the place, and it is used by persons who keep the charge.
Now, I am not going to let you go home thinking about that: let us look at Luke 2. The Lord Jesus is here in manhood. Remember what I said that if you are twelve years old the Lord does not expect you to act as a thirteen year old. If you are five years old, the Lord expects you to act like a five year old, exactly that. Here in this passage of scripture we have presented to us the Lord Jesus in manhood, described not as a man but as a boy. How touching that the Lord Jesus, blessed Man that He is, as expressing every feature of manhood according to God, when He was twelve years old, was described as “the boy Jesus”. I speak very reverently, but I suggest we see here Someone who took up the charge in perfection. I do not think I go too far to say that in this passage we see the Lord Jesus taking up responsibility. Soon we will find Him thirty years of age. Scripture says that, “And Jesus himself was beginning to be about thirty years old”, “beginning to be” (Luke 3: 23), not twenty-five but thirty years of age. How patient He was! One of the gospel writers tells us that He did not start to serve publicly until John the Baptist was delivered up, Mark 1: 14. Think of such a Man, the Lord Jesus Himself, the great Servant, He would not publicly serve until His forerunner was delivered up. He would not overshadow the ministry of John. Here in this Gospel we find Him as a Boy in Jerusalem, and there He is found “in the midst of the teachers and hearing them and asking them questions”. What an ear that was! That was an ear that was ever open to the Father’s voice. Here His ear is open to the elders and the teachers, and He is found here among them. We know what His mother said, “Child, why hast thou dealt thus with us?” Consider His reply, “Why is it that ye have sought me?” What that conveys to me is that as the Lord Jesus felt drawn to His Father’s business He would have expected everyone around Him to understand just that. But they did not: what a holy, heavenly Stranger. He says, “Why is it that ye have sought me? Did ye not know that I ought to be occupied in my Father’s business?” “My Father’s business” could translate, “the things of my Father”. That reminds me of what Paul says to the Philippians, “For all seek their own things, not the things of Jesus Christ”, chap 2: 21. Here was a blessed Man at twelve years of age, and He is finding His occupation in His Father’s business. I say to anyone here who is twelve years of age or older, persons who are high school age: the field is open to you, to occupy yourself in the Father’s business, the things of the Lord Jesus. You can express it in all sorts of simple ways and you have no idea how much it will cheer the older brethren. Sometimes, not often, we go to the mid-week reading in Worcester, and we often find present persons who are of that age, high school and in their teens. What a cheer it is! Last year we visited some of the meetings in Germany, and there at the prayer meetings we found young persons. It is a cheer to find persons interesting themselves in the Father’s business. Of course, there is one very great privilege open to you. If you have the knowledge that you belong to the Lord Jesus and you are finding pleasure and satisfaction in the things that the brethren are finding pleasure and satisfaction in, there is a way you can express that shared satisfaction. Do you know what that is? I put it that way round deliberately. What does scripture say? John says that there is such a thing as having fellowship with God, 1 John 1: 6. If you find your delight and your pleasure in the Lord Jesus and in what is pleasing to Him, that is what the Father finds His pleasure in, and if you have the desire and the resolve that your life should be governed by the Lord Jesus, what is standing in your way? The brethren will know if you are ready. That is how we come into the privilege of remembering the Lord in the breaking of bread. It is that way round. The remembrance of the Lord Jesus in the breaking of bread, the Lord’s Supper, is not the gateway into fellowship; it is for persons who are in fellowship, and is the expression of that fellowship. Paul gives us the principles of fellowship in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians; in chapter 11 he gives us the truth of the Lord’s supper, so here is sound teaching for us. The numbering of the chapters in the epistles is not inspired but the order of teaching is.
Well, I commend these thoughts to us, beloved. We are not going to retire. We desire to keep the charge until the Lord comes. May we be preserved in doing so! For His Name’s sake.
29th September 2007