Beginning, Continuing, Finishing.

There are four cases of beginning recorded in the Gospel of Luke that I would dwell on for a little. The first is in chapter 15:14: "He began to be in want" - the experience sooner or later of every sinner. Whether it ever ceases or continues eternally depends on whether he yields to the goodness of God that leads him to repentance. His resources are exhausted, his sinful pleasures have been only for a season, he has come to his wits' end - friends, goods, character, all gone, and as far as he is concerned there is no hope; he is on the downgrade, and with accelerating velocity he will be landed in eternal doom, where he will want and want for ever. How blessed to be arrested in time by the voice of mercy, to hear the call, even to the vilest prodigal, "Return," "Come unto Me," and to find the arm of love and almighty power stretched out to deliver. Let him only arise, and with a contrite heart return to his Father, he will receive more than he dare ask or think, and find God for him, and a place for him in the Father's heart and in the Father's house. This blessed parable does not tell us how all this is accomplished in righteousness; we turn elsewhere to learn that - how Christ suffered, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God, and how the forgiveness of sins and eternal blessing are for His sake and in Him. "He began to be in want," a blessed beginning when it casts us on the boundless love and infinite resources of the God of all grace. Sometimes it is the result of the operation of His own moral laws that produce the result - what we sow we reap; and sometimes it is the more direct intervention in love of His own hand, stripping, bringing low, as illustrated by these striking lines: -

"Dear Lord, I thankfully kiss the hand
That gently stripped me bare,
And laid me on Thy tender breast,
To lose my sorrow there:
'T was anguish when earth's cup was spilled,
But now with Thee 't is overfilled; For, Jesus,
Thou art more to me
Than all earth's brimming cups could be.

"What grace! to show a soul so vile
Thy more than mother's care,
And lead through wreck of earth's poor joys
Thy joys with Thee to share.
What grace! that Thou to such hast given
The foretaste now of feast in heaven:
The foretaste even now to me,
More than a thousand worlds could be."

The second case of beginning is in verse 24: "They began to be merry." Oh, what words! "They." Who? The Father and the prodigal; and the joy of the latter, real as it is, is but a small thing compared with that of the Father. "It is the father's joy to bless." "The Lord thy God … is mighty; He will save, He will rejoice over thee with joy." (Zeph. 3:17.) The whole parable is spoken to show this: first the joy of the finder of the lost sheep, next that of the finder of the money, then that of the Father expressed by His running, embracing, kissing. Heaven looks on, "joy in heaven" in the presence of the angels. But oh, the fellowship! Rejoice with me! Let us make merry and be glad! Endless, eternal joy!

The third case is in chapter 7:15: "He that was dead sat up, and began to speak." Not the cry that betokens life or distress or need, but to speak words articulate, and to be understood. Thank God, when this begins in the history of the soul, when words are first spoken to Jesus, words that He loves to hear ("Let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice." Cant. 2:14); not merely the cry of distress, but words of praise, thanksgiving, and worship from an overwhelming sense of His love and goodness. And then words for Jesus in His honour and in His praise, like those of the dying malefactor, "This Man hath done nothing amiss"; and, lastly, words of Jesus, as the aged saint who spoke "of Him" to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

Dear reader, have you made this beginning? Has your mouth been opened to show forth His praise? Have you "begun to speak"?

The fourth beginning is in chapter 14:30: "This man began to build." Here is surely a step in advance. But how does this apply to the saints of God now? I think the First Epistle to the Corinthians will show us. In chapter 3 we read of "God's building" - of the one foundation, Jesus Christ; no other can be laid; and in verse 12, "If any man build on this foundation." Chapter 14 helps us again; there the saints are exhorted to desire spiritual gifts, especially to prophesy. (v. 1.) The explanation of that is given in verse 3 as speaking to edification, exhortation, and comfort - edification or building up; and while this may be applied to individuals, as exhortation and comfort clearly are, yet the prominent desire of the Spirit, through the apostle, is that the Church - the Assembly - may be built up. (vv. 4, 5, 12.) It is in the Assembly and for the Assembly, these gifts are to be exercised. It is solemn work - "Let every man take heed how he buildeth" (1 Cor. 3:12) - but work dear to the heart of Christ.

I might also refer to the building, in Ezra and Nehemiah, of the house of God and the wall of the city. Sad work! for it is repairing ruins - weeping and shouting for joy mingling; the circumstances around most difficult; powerful enemies outside, and traitors and faint-hearted ones within. Yet on they toiled, those noble bands, sustained by the word and Spirit of God. I cannot enlarge on it, but would briefly refer to Nehemiah 3. The keynote of the chapter is "repair." The workmen are priests, goldsmiths, apothecaries, rulers, and even women, the daughters of some. Each did what he could, everyone over against his house. Love and devotedness made them willing, and the work had been preceded by weeping, mourning, fasting, and prayer. It was for the Lord's house and the city of God. Again I appeal to the reader. Do you know anything of all this? Have you begun to build? have you begun to repair?

Now a verse as to continuing. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." (Acts 2:42.) It is very sure we cannot continue till we have first begun, and here we have four more things in which we have to begin and then to continue. I need hardly say the Church (so-called) has departed from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1), has not continued in the goodness of God. All the confusion of Christendom, with all its pretentious boasting, is an awful substitute for that which the Spirit produced as recorded in Acts 2 and 4. The fine gold soon became dim. Man cannot hold a blessing, and being in honour never abides. But, thank God, in the darkest day He abides faithful, and ever invites those who tremble at His word to return to Him. And has He not of late been, in restoring grace, leading some back "to the place where the tent had been at the beginning, and to the place of the altar made there at the first"? (Gen. 13:3-4.) He has set before us an "open door," and we can return unto Him and keep His word. We have to continue in all things we have learned and been assured of, knowing of whom we have learned them. (2 Tim. 3:14.) Divine certainty is still possible to the humble soul. That we might know the certainty of the words of truth, excellent things in counsels and knowledge have been written to us. (Prov. 22:21.) But we must not continue in sin or in that which is contrary to the Word of God. Cease to do evil. Cease to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge. (Prov. 19:27.) It is as imperative, and as much an act of obedience, to purge ourselves and to separate from vessels to dishonour, as to follow and gather with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

Much exercise and prayerful waiting upon God are needed; but to the upright ariseth light in the darkness. There is a way of truth, though it may be evil spoken of, and abandoned by many. Let us hold fast what we have received. Continue steadfastly in the faith - in the Son - in the things we have been assured of, in love, and then, and not otherwise, shall we finish our course with joy.

Whether the last will be our happy lot, and the Master's "Well done" by-and-by, depends upon how we begin and how we continue. J. G. D.