A Word on Galatians

Illustrated by the Orders Given to the Kohathites
Numbers 4:1-20, Numbers 7:1-9; Galatians 5:1-10, Galatians 6:12-14.
W. J. Lowe. 1890
Food for the Flock vol. 9 (London, Geo. Morrish, 1884.)

It is impossible to read the epistles carefully, beloved brethren, without seeing that the grace of God, as manifested in the cross of Christ, is presented in them in two very distinct ways. First, we find salvation through the redemption that was there wrought once for all. Secondly, we learn that this same grace characterizes the path of the Christian through this world. The apostle says: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ [not, ‘By which I have been saved or have been brought to God,’ but] by which the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” That is, not merely does his soul rest in the deliverance wrought for him from Satan’s power, from sin, from death and judgment, but he finds a separation effected between Him and the world, and so completely, that there is no desire on either side to come together again. And that which has made the separation is the cross of Christ. So that we may look at the cross of Christ and say: Well, if I am to go into the world, I must give up what God has vouchsafed to me in that cross; I must outrage Him who was nailed there for me, who showed the depth of His love to me in giving Himself, and in such circumstances of unutterable suffering for the manifestation of divine righteousness in itself and in its effects.

Now there are two sides to this proposition. You might withdraw from the world and say, I stand apart from it; and in so doing might have your heart lifted up with thoughts of your superiority to it in thus standing aside. But the other side of the question presents itself, Would you have the world draw aside from you? Are you crucified to it? Paul had learnt the value of the cross, and accepts the double position.

With the Galatians it was far otherwise. There was on their part an attempt to make a path down here, such as the natural man might walk in; but Paul says, I will not have it nor seek it.

It had not been always so with these saints. They had at first received the truth honestly, and their hearts had burned with affection to Christ and His people. He bears them witness that their love to him, as the minister of it to them, was such that they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him. There was every sign of the work being a true one in their souls; at the beginning he had nothing to say against their course at all. But when he looks at them after some years (there is no actual date given, but evidently some years had gone by) such a change had taken place in them, that, in considering their ways, he stands in doubt of them as to whether there was a real work of God in their souls. He says: I have confidence in the Lord about you, but when I look at you, I can scarcely recognise you as my children.

Now what made this difference? You do not find in the epistle that there was any moral evil among them. But the fact was they had given place to an evil principle which was undermining and ruining everything. They wanted to arrange spiritual things so as to suit human nature and thus walk by sight, not faith. They were seeking to get up a system of their own in which everything would go on wheels, as people say; like a machine in working order, you have only to turn the steam on and all is set going at once. That suits the natural man. The Galatians had not got in their souls the sense of the Holy Spirit as a present living power in their hearts, and so they turned to an external machinery, based, no doubt, on what in its origin was divine, but, when misapplied, became the means of resisting God’s present purpose in grace; and by it they brought themselves into bondage to their own ordinances. The apostle goes at once to the root of the matter and shows them that, in so doing, they had really given up the truth that God had sent down the Holy Ghost to dwell in the hearts of those that believe, to guide them into all truth, and to take of the things of Christ and show them unto them, and to be in them a present living power for walking worthy of Him who had called them to His own kingdom and glory, besides giving them the power to cry Abba, Father, and to know what it is to be “an heir of God through Christ.”

I may be forgiven a short digression here for the purpose of making this clearer; for it is of great importance. The admittance that deliverance has been wrought, is quite a different thing from the knowledge that oneself is individually free. Now in the first seven verses of chapter 4, there are two distinct statements as to the work of the Son and the Spirit. There is, first, the mission of God’s Son to redeem those that were under the law. That was Christ’s own work quite apart from us. Then we read: “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba Father.” This is quite another thing; it is the mission of the Holy Ghost, and is accomplished in us. The cry “Abba, Father,” is much more than the statement that God is Father. It means that the believer has the sense in his soul of the relationship the words imply, and that he rejoices, in it. When I state that such a person is my father, there is nothing in the mere statement which implies my attachment to him, or gives a guarantee that I shall not break away from him and never speak to him again. But when a child addresses his father as such, calling him affectionately “ my Father,” the relationship between the two is evidently being kept up. Now God sends His Spirit into our hearts for this very purpose. Surely it needed a divine Person in us to maintain such a relationship known so as to be enjoyed.

It is based upon redemption: there we find the door of access into it; but we have to learn in our souls individually what it means for a slave to become a son. Let us take the figure of a Negro in slavery. Suppose you wanted to deliver such an one and set him free, how would you go about it? The first step would be, of course, to go to the master and settle with him, as to what price he would take. It would be of no use to ask the slave what he considered his price to be; he could not settle it. It is evident that the act of purchase is entirely apart from the slave. But now, having paid the price, you have to do with the poor man himself, and then the question is how to make him understand that you intend him to be free.

A first impulse might induce you to let him go. But if so, how is he to live? He has no means of providing for himself. He is without friends, without a position, without means in the wide world. You would surely furnish him with means, but what is he to do when the money is spent? The same difficulty recurs. You take him into your house, and let him work for you, and pay him as a hireling for his labour. After a while, let us go and ask him how he likes his new life. We remark to him: You are free now! Free? he answers; what does that mean? I have changed masters, it is true: my present master is very kind to me, so that my life is no longer burdensome to me as it was; but still he is my master, and I am his servant: what do you mean by being free? As long as the relative position remains the same, one born and bred in slavery cannot possibly understand what freedom is. But bring him into the family, make him as one of the children; will he not then learn, through newly awakened affections, what it is to be in another relationship altogether? They have set me at their own table, he says; they treat me as one of themselves; they talk to me as one interested in the family matters; this is different indeed! I feel I am a slave no longer; he who was my master is now my father; now I know that I am free!

And then, what place is ours at the table? Ask the Negro slave again; what place would his slave’s heart dare to crave for? Would he not shrink from being at the same table as the other members of the family? Would he not look on himself and say, I am black, they are white; I cannot sit with them; let them give me a little table by myself, or one in another room? Ah, it is not thus God deals with us. But we must change the simile. The slaves are many, but, there is one SON, and He sets us in the place of His own firstborn.

It is “the Spirit of his Son” that He has sent into our hearts. He would turn our eyes and thoughts away from our miserable selves, that, our gaze may be fixed on the SON, and our hearts, ravished with His glory; and He sends down the Holy Ghost to say to us in living power, “If a son, then an heir, an heir of God, joint heir with Christ.” Everything that belongs to the relationship is ours; for sonship and heirship go together; but the Lord’s heart finds contentment in making known the Father. (John 17:26.)

Now, while upon this subject, just let me ask you one thing. Which part of the blessing has the greatest attraction for your soul? Is it the inheritance and its glory, or is it the relationship with the Father? Surely not one of us will hesitate to say that the relationship is by far the more precious of the two. But that, dear friends, we have now. We are waiting for the inheritance; we have the hope of that; it is the “hope” attached to the revelation of God’s righteousness, as expressed in this epistle, and inseparable from the relationship into which we are brought. But the relationship, the more blessed of the two, is ours to enjoy now. The doctrine exposed in the Galatians is the fundamental principle of Christianity: God has sent down His Spirit into our hearts here, and that because we have been made sons through redemption. He sends the Spirit into our hearts, that we may know the relationship, and enter into it, and enjoy it. In Ephesians we see the blessed fruits of its exercise and what flows from it, as well as the activities of these divine affections in the power of the Spirit. In Galatians we find the introduction to it and the power for its exercise, the Holy Spirit.

Now the Galatians had practically given this truth up; the apostle has therefore to lay the foundation of first principles, insisting upon the relationship into which they had been already brought, and showing that as to the inheritance which attaches to it, the Holy Spirit is the present earnest. So when speaking of how we are to live down here until we get to the inheritance, he says, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” The Holy Spirit occupies us with the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ as we go on our way, forming us morally in His image. (2 Cor. 3.)

There is a remarkable point too, if we pay attention to it, in chapter 5, which shows the character of this power that works in us. We have in verses 19, 22, the contrast marked between “the works of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit.” Why are the words different? “Works” suppose effort; the natural man understands this; it expresses his life in the world; but there is no effort connected with the thought of “fruit.” No amount of trying would ever get fruit from a tree. If it is in a suitable climate and in a good state and watered, it must bring forth fruit.

Consider too “the fruit” mentioned in verse 22. Would you confide your heart to a person who says, I am trying to love you as much as I can? Would you not feel instinctively there was something wrong? Real love is so engrossed with its object, that it is only tried with the feeling of its own insufficiency: there is no effort, no difficulty about it; it is the natural outflow of what exists within, and only seeks a vent in order to show itself, though never for its own sake. In the same way is it not clear that one who says, I am trying to get joy, or I am trying to get peace, is only painfully manifesting that he has not got it? All these fruits, different and varied as they may be, and admitting of growth and culture, are produced without effort the moment a soul is really subject to the Spirit of God, led of the Spirit and indwelt by Him. But, as with the healthy tree, there must be, for the development and abundance of fruit, the suited climate and nourishment. The vital power is the Holy Ghost; the meat and drink in Christ (John 6); the climate is the grace of God (Rom. 6:14); the ground we are rooted in, His love (Eph. 3:17; John 15). We are first “born of the Spirit,” as the Lord says to Nicodemus, that is, made children through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; then we are called to “walk in the Spirit.”

I now desire to look at the practical hindrances which came in to turn the Galatians aside from the path of faith in the power of the Spirit. Paul says to them: “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” This is why I read those passages in Numbers, because we find in them several points which bear upon the subject before us. It is a serious thing to find these young saints who had received the word in its fulness from an apostle, turned away in so short a time from the truth they had been taught. Is not this a solemn warning for us all?

In the book of Numbers which contains the Levitical ordinances, we find God’s thoughts as to what He considers His service* in this world. The Levites were first as an entire tribe separated to God, and then their three families made three principal classes (or four, if the priesthood be included), each having a different service to perform. Those who, after the priests, were brought into the nearest place were the Kohathites.

{*The word rendered “host” in Numbers 4:3 has various meanings. In verse 23 and elsewhere, it is translated “service” in the text, and in the margin “warfare.” It is a word which is constantly translated “war,” “battle,” “army,” “ host.” It means labour or hard duty of warlike character, implying personal suffering. Evidently the better rendering here would have been warfare or service. See Philippians 1:29, 80.}

Now, without entering much into the details that are given to us, we may notice that the special service of the Kohathites was in connection with the vessels of the tabernacle, with the dwelling-place of God in the midst of His people – those vessels which set forth individually different phases of Christ’s glory. When the camp removed (and the journeying was characteristic of the wilderness), their duty was to bear the holy vessels. They could not choose their burden; they were not even allowed to touch the holy vessels; but after the priests had covered them up in the ordered way and put them upon bars or staves, then the Kohathites came forward to receive each one his appointed service and learn what his duty was. They were not to look at the holy things uncovered, on pain of death. This was a particular ordinance as to their special service. (Chap. 4:17-20.) It was the priests, who went habitually into the tabernacle, whose duty it was to cover the vessels and prepare them for removal.

None of these vessels might, on any account, be put into wagons, as was all else that pertained to the tabernacle; they were to be carried alone on the shoulders of the Levites. Wagons were offered at the time of the dedication of the altar by the twelve princes of the tribes for the service of Jehovah, and God told Moses to give them to the Gershonites and the Merarites, as useful in transporting the curtains, boards, bars, sockets, and other different parts that fell to their share in the transport; but to the Kohathites He gave none, “because the service of the sanctuary belonging to them was that they should bear upon their shoulders.”

As we have seen, all these vessels thus carried were covered up. There was nothing to be seen, nothing to attract attention except the ark with its covering of blue; all else was under the badgers’ skins. Upon the ark was first put the veil of the tabernacle; then the badgers’ skins, and over that they were to “spread a cloth wholly of blue.” This gave to the ark a very marked place. When the Israelites were moving from place to place, the ark in its blue covering was always to be distinguished, standing out in contrast with the white robes of the priests and Levites. But this exception only brought more fully into view the fact, that all the other vessels of the sanctuary were concealed under the badgers’ skin coverings. No one could tell from the outward appearance what these vessels were, though each Kohathite might know what his appointed charge was. But there was nothing in the service itself, or what was visible of it, to bring glory to those occupied in it. An external looker-on could only have the impression that the Kohathites were set apart for the hardest labour. On no account were they to be allowed the relief of a wagon, for bearing their charge. They were always to carry on their shoulders. Is not this attitude full of meaning for us? The Kohathites were subject to what they carried, and their hearts were exercised as to the value of what they bore; each one must keep in his proper place, and bear his appointed, outwardly unattractive burden. But if any asked them what they did, their answer would be, that they carried the vessels of the sanctuary. And, better than all, they could have the sense in their souls that the eye of Israel’s God was upon them: they were set apart for the service of His house.

Now have we anything in our hearts of the spirit of the Kohathites? God has called us near to Himself, that we may bear His truth in testimony to Him through this world. Are we bearing it as the Kohathites were called to do? It was no question of choice with them: their service was one of simple obedience, yet very near to God and, if their heart was in it, one of singular delight. And observe too, they must needs walk together. No vessel of the sanctuary could be carried without a bar, which supposes at the very least two bearers. Every personal consideration must with them be set aside. One might be stronger than another, or able to walk faster; but neither the strong nor the weak could decide the pace or the time; that depended alone on the cloud which directed every movement of the camp. And none were in more direct dependence on it than the Kohathites. But so walking in their divine order, might they not count on help from Him who manifested His glory on the ark they bore? So it was, on most memorable day of joy in Israel, which we will speak of presently. Their service obliged them to look up to God, both for guidance and help: it was characterised in every detail by obedience and dependence upon Him.

Does not all this transport us at once into the epistle to the Philippians, where we find the aged apostle suffering with joy in prison, despised and forgotten in the world, cheering and exhorting the saints to stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, to be heavenly minded, “walking by the same rule,” forgetting what was behind and reaching forth to what was before? Could he not present himself to them as an example, having laboured in the gospel in the very spirit of the Kohathites? “Necessity is laid upon me,” he says; so he would have his service without charge; its reward was in itself, in its being for Christ’s sake. So we can understand how deeply he felt the conduct of the Galatians.

Alas, God’s order is easily forgotten by us. As it was with the Galatian saints, so had it been before in Israel: human nature is the same. God has written His judgment of it for our learning and instruction. Let us go over briefly the facts of the history in 2 Samuel 6. It was a wonderful moment for the king after God’s own heart, when he thought of bringing the ark to Zion. Up to that time there had been a moral blot on God’s chosen people: a fortress in the land from which no power of Israel could dislodge the enemy. Joshua, the Judges, and even King Saul, who in his zeal for Israel sought to destroy the Gibeonites, had left it untouched. There the enemy was insolent, more so than anywhere else. The place was impregnable in their eyes: “the blind and the lame” could keep out the hosts of Jehovah. It was a standing reproach on them, and consequently on Jehovah’s name. But as soon as David receives the crown of the kingdom over Israel, and the whole land is at his feet, he feels his responsibility is now to put all at God’s feet; so the first thing he does is to go to the fortress of Zion and wrest it out of the hands of the Jebusites. God owned this act of faith, and chose the place from that time “to place his name there.” That which had been the stronghold of the enemy is to be henceforth the brightest spot of all. But the glory of the victory is not complete until Psalm 132 can be sung there, and David can say in the words of Moses: “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy strength.” This leads to fresh exercises of heart, and to fresh lessons of human weakness. Yet David is a Kohathite in heart, and shows, as is clear from the end of chapter 5, that dependence on God was his habit; and he finds in practice that God is for him.

But now comes a very different scene. David had been faithful in fighting the enemy: he has to be tested as to faithfulness in God’s house. Then is manifested of how real danger to the soul is the moment after a victory has been gained. The ark has to be carried up to Mount Zion; but David does not think of the Kohathites. His mind is full of the victories God has given him, and he gathers together 30,000 chosen men of Israel, and consults with every leader about bringing up the ark. (1 Chron. 14.) He only finds the world’s wisdom with them, but does not detect it: and they imitate the Philistines with their cart and oxen. But the oxen stumble, Uzzah puts forth his hand to steady the ark and is smitten, and David, displeased, carries it aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.

Why was it that God allowed the oxen to stumble? How is it that David has to give up his enterprise with shame, whereas when the Philistines did the very same thing all went right, and God was glorified? It was as David himself owned soon after, because “we sought him not after the due order.”

The Kohathites were not in their right place. God allowed this to be worked out to its full result, in order that David’s heart might be fully tested and brought into the light of His presence. David’s thought of bringing up the ark was very beautiful, but he forgot “the due order.” Like the Galatians in an after day, he replaced the service of the sanctuary by the Philistine cart and oxen, and did not do it even so well as they: and so it generally happens when God’s saints imitate the world. It seemed so simple and natural; but because it was so, it was manifestly of the world. It was not God’s way.

David however learned the lesson; and when afterwards he set the Kohathites in their proper place, God “helped them” as they bore the ark of the covenant, and the joy in Israel was legitimate and blessed. At every stage of the Levites’ onward progress, they offered a bullock and a ram.

But to return to Numbers 4. There was a special injunction as to the Kohathites that we do not find in the case of the other Levites. The Lord said: “Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites: but thus do unto them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in, and appoint them every one to his service and to his burden: but they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die.” There was danger for them that did not exist in the same way for others; for they were in the place of greatest nearness to God. God will not suffer in His presence that which is not worthy of Himself. He does not interfere with the world in its sin. He lets that go on its way until the judgment. But He will be sanctified in those that draw near to Him, and for them especially exists the danger of being cut off if unsubject to the order of the sanctuary. This was what did happen on the day of the consecration of Aaron. The nearer we are to God, the more careful we must be to do everything according to God’s order. Only after the holy things were covered were they to come and take them. They were separated by God to this special service, but they were not allowed to exceed it or look upon the holy things.

What instruction is there for us in this? Is it not, not allowing the natural man, the curiosity of an unsanctified heart, to satisfy itself with that which God has put in His house to set forth the glory of Christ? The natural man must not be allowed to trespass here, even to admire. God has given us His truth in order that the truth may command us, may rule our hearts and form our ways; it is not for the natural man to admire or to criticise it. And those who were in the greatest danger of doing this were those who were brought the nearest. God will have the conscience exercised as to His presence, as to what it is to have to do with Him. The sense of this in the soul is like the ballast in a vessel. The un-laden ship must have ballast. All may go well if the wind happens to be gentle and favourable, but without ballast, if a storm rises, the ship must be lost. God, having brought us in Christ into a position of the greatest nearness and privilege, and having given us a nature capable of enjoying Him, will not have our natural minds working about His truth, or enjoying it as a natural man might enjoy it. Want of care as to this gets us out of the current of God’s thoughts, and leads into the state of the Galatians, who having begun in the Spirit, went on to make a fair show in the flesh. We may enjoy God’s truth in a fleshly way; but then God comes in in judgment.

May our hearts be so exercised before Him that we may become apt to learn more of His thoughts about service and testimony in communion with His own dear Son.

That which is nearest to the Lord’s heart is the church for which He gave Himself. “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.” Have I got anything in my heart that answers to the Lord’s as to this? God has brought us into communion with His own firstborn Son, and will have our hearts set upon Christ’s interests, our thoughts occupied with Him, that we may be able to understand with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fulness of God.“ United by the Holy Ghost to all saints in Christ,” – you cannot isolate yourself from them without practically giving up the testimony and service He has appointed, and ignoring holiness as God has set it forth in Christianity. The Kohathites must work together.

Of course we do not find the church as the body of Christ in the Old Testament, but we do find there the “order” of the house of God, and in those who are brought so near to God as the Kohathites were, we have a distinct indication of what He seeks in those whom He has now made nigh in His Son.

First, they are under the power of the truth; they bear it on their shoulders, valuing it, and caring for it as that which is most precious. Secondly, they walk together; and what keeps them together too is the position of service in which they are set in dependence upon God. Thirdly, they do not seek to satisfy the craving of the natural heart with God’s holy things; they walk as to them in God’s presence in the Spirit, so as not to satisfy the lust of the flesh. These are the three characteristics of the Kohathites.

What a comfort and joy it is to the heart to know that God has brought His people so near to Himself that He may bless them there according to His own thoughts! Surely He desires for us that we may be practically under the power of the place in which He has set us “IN CHRIST.” The tendency of human nature is always to measure things by the amount of outward blessing or success. It characterises very much so called christian work in the day we live in. But if I am really on God’s ground, I shall be content with knowing that His eye is ever on His saints, and that He thinks of the appointed place and measure and sphere of service that He has allotted to each of His own. In this He is sovereign; but if living in the sanctuary and furnished with His thoughts, we shall get intelligent in discerning His ways, and find ever fresh occasions of joy in tracing them out. Personally we have to ask ourselves, Am I in the place where He wishes me to be? Am I occupied with the service of His Son in the path of obedience, and in constant dependence upon Him, allowing no principle of the flesh or of the world to come in between me and Him so as to hinder my adopting His divine “order”? All the rest must be left in His hand.

The Lord has put His name upon us, and calls us to do whatever, we have to do for His sake. “I know thy works.” Weakness is no real hindrance, for if felt as it ought to be, it only draws us nearer to Him, and becomes the opportunity for His grace to shine forth, and His strength to be made perfect in it. To such He says, “I have set before thee an open door which no man can shut.” God will have us hold the truth in communion with Himself (otherwise it has no power over the soul), in order that we may be found going quietly forward as His witnesses, “led of the Spirit,” and with the constant sense of being in His presence under the power of the truth He has revealed to us.

We shall find that it is the cross of Christ which furnishes the secret of power for testimony: “always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body.” May it be more and more so with us, through the infinite grace of God. [W. J. L.]