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The Lord's coming in relation to the two classes in Israel and to the Christian's walk
The two classes in Israel are distinctly marked here in contrast with one another, with the addition of the walk which the Christian ought to pursue when chastised by the Lord.
The apostle gives the coming of the Lord as the term of their condition, both to the unbelieving rich oppressors in Israel, and to the poor believing remnant. The rich have heaped up treasures for the last days; the oppressed poor are to be patient until the Lord Himself shall come to deliver them. Moreover, he says, deliverance would not be delayed. The husbandman waits for the rain and the time of harvest; the Christian for his Master's coming. This patience characterises, as we have seen, the walk of faith. It had been witnessed in the prophets; and in the case of others we count them happy which endure afflictions for the Lord's sake. Job shows us the ways of the Lord: he needed to have patience, but the end of the Lord was blessing and tender mercy towards him.
This expectation of the coming of the Lord was a solemn warning, and at the same time the strongest encouragement, but one which maintained the true character of the Christian's practical life. It showed also what the selfishness of man's will would end in, and it restrained all action of that will in believers. The feelings of brethren towards each other were placed under the safeguard of this same truth. They were not to have a spirit of discontent, or to murmur against others who were perhaps more favoured in their outward circumstances: "the judge stood before the door."
What oaths display
Oaths displayed still more the forgetfulness of God, and the actings consequently of the self-will of nature. "Yea," ought to be yea, and "Nay," nay. The actings of the divine nature in the consciousness of the presence of God, and the repression of all human will and of sinful nature, is what the writer of this epistle desires.
The Christian's resources for joy and sorrow
Now there were resources in Christianity both for joy and sorrow. If any were afflicted, let them pray (God was ready to hear); if happy, let them sing; if sick, send for the elders of the assembly, who would pray for the sufferer and anoint him, and the chastisement would be removed, and the sins for which, according to God's government, he was thus chastised, would be forgiven as regards that government; for it is that only which is here spoken of.
The prayer of faith: the chastisement of the Lord: healing and sins governmentally forgiven
The imputation of sin for condemnation has no place here. The efficacy of the prayer of faith is set before us; but it is in connection with the maintenance of sincerity of heart. The government of God is exercised with regard to His people. He chastises them by sickness; and it is important that truth in the inner man should be maintained. Men hide their faults; they desire to walk as if all were going on well; but God judges His people. He tries the heart and the reins. They are held in bonds of affliction. God shows them their faults, or their unbroken self-will. Man "is chastened also with pain upon his bed, and the multitude of his bones with strong pain," Job 33:19. And now the church of God intervenes in charity, and according to its own order, by means of the elders; the sick man commits himself to God, confessing his state of need; the charity of the church acts and brings him who is chastised, according to this relationship, before God — for that is where the church is. Faith pleads this relationship of grace; the sick man is healed. If sins — and not merely the need of discipline — were the cause of his chastisement, those sins will not hinder his being healed, they shall be forgiven him.
Confession and prayer for one another: love reigning in the Church
The apostle then presents the principle in general as the course for all, namely, to open their hearts to each other, in order to maintain truth in the inner man as to oneself; and to pray for each other in order that charity should be in full exercise with regard to the faults of others; grace and truth being thus spiritually formed in the church, and a perfect union of heart among Christians, so that even their faults are an occasion for the exercise of charity (as in God towards us), and entire confidence in each other, according to that charity, such as is felt towards a restoring and pardoning God. What a beautiful picture is presented of divine principles animating men and causing them to act according to the nature of God Himself, and the influence of His love upon the heart. We may remark, that it is not confession to the elders that is spoken of. That would have been confidence in men — official confidence. God desires the operation of divine charity in all. Confession to one another shows the condition of the church, and God would have the church to be in such a state, that love should so reign in it, that they should be so near to God, as to be able to treat the transgressor according to the grace they know in Him: and that this love should be so realised, that perfect inward sincerity should be produced by the confidence and operation of grace. Official confession destroys all this — is contrary to it. How divine the wisdom which omitted confession when speaking of the elders, but which commands it as the living and voluntary impression of the heart!
The value of the energetic prayers of the righteous man: the work of the Spirit
This leads us also to the value of the energetic prayers of the
righteous man. It is his nearness to God, the sense that he has
consequently of that which God is, which (through grace and the
operation of the Spirit) gives him this power. God takes account of
men, and that according to the infinitude of His love. He takes
account of the trust in Himself, the faith in His word, shown by one
who thinks and acts according to a just appreciation of what He
is. That is always faith, which makes sensible to us that which we do
not see — God Himself, who acts in accordance with the revelation
that He has given of Himself. Now the man who in the practical sense
is righteous through grace, is near to God; as being righteous, he has
not to do with God for himself with regard to sin, which would keep
his heart at a distance; his heart is thus free to draw nigh to God,
according to His holy nature on behalf of others; and, moved by the
divine nature, which animates him and which enables him to appreciate
God, he seeks, according to the activity of that nature, that his
prayers may prevail with God, whether for the good of others or for
the glory of God Himself in his service. And God answers, according to
that same nature, by blessing this trust and responding to it, in
order to manifest what He is for faith, to encourage it by sanctioning
its activity, putting His seal on the man who walks by faith.*
The Spirit of God acts, we know, in all this; but the apostle does not here speak of Him, being occupied with the practical effect, and presenting the man as he is seen, acting under the influence of this nature in its positive energy with regard to God, and near to Him, so that it acts in all its intensity, moved by the power of that nearness. But if we consider the action of the Spirit, these thoughts are confirmed. The righteous man does not grieve the Holy Ghost, and the Spirit works in him according to His own power, not having to set his conscience right with God, but acting in the man according to the power of his communion.
The efficacy of the prayer of faith illustrated by Elijah
Finally, we have the assurance that the ardent and energetic prayer of the righteous man has great efficacy: it is the prayer of faith, which knows God and counts upon Him and draws near Him.
The case of Elijah is interesting, as showing us (and there are other examples of the same kind) how the Holy Ghost acts inwardly in a man where we see the outward manifestation of power. In the history we have Elijah's declaration: "Jehovah liveth, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." This is the authority, the power, exercised in the name of Jehovah. In our epistle the secret operation, that which passes between the soul and God, is set forth. He prayed, and God heard him. We have the same testimony on the part of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. Only that in the latter case we have the two together, except that the prayer itself is not given — unless in the unutterable groan of Christ's spirit.
The living, acting God revealed as interested in His people through Paul, Elijah, and the Lord at Lazarus' tomb
Comparing Galatians 2 with the history of Acts 15, we find a revelation from God which determined Paul's conduct, whatever outward motives there may have been which were known to all. By such cases as those which the apostle proposes to the church, and those of Elijah and the Lord Jesus, a God, living, acting, and interesting Himself in all that happens among His people, is revealed to us.
The activity of love towards those who err
There is also the activity of love towards those who err. If any one departs from the truth, and they bring him back by grace, let it be known that to bring back a sinner from the error of his ways is the exercise — simple as our action in it may be — of the power that delivers a soul from death; accordingly all those sins which spread themselves in their odious nature before the eyes of God, and offended His glory and His heart by their presence in His universe, are covered. The soul being brought to God by grace, all its sins are pardoned, appear no more, are blotted out from before the face of God. The apostle (as throughout) does not speak of the power that acts in this work of love, but of the fact. He applies it to cases that had happened among them; but he establishes a universal principle with regard to the activity of grace in the heart that is animated by it. The erring soul is saved; the sin is put away from before God.
Sin vanquished and swallowed up by the love which dealt with it
Charity in the assembly suppresses, so to speak, the sins which otherwise would destroy union and overcome that charity in the assembly, and appear in all their deformity and all their malignancy before God. Whereas, being met by love in the assembly, they go no farther, are, as it were (as regards the state of things before God in this world), dissolved and put away by the charity which they could not vanquish. The sin is vanquished by the love which dealt with it, disappears, is swallowed up by it. Thus love covers a multitude of sins. Here it is its action in the conversion of a sinner.