By J.B. Stoney
THE evil first occurring in the church was not only the most vicious, but because the chief, it is one that is ever recurring, Satan ever seeking an opportunity to do the worst. When we know the manner and intent of this chief evil, we are watchful and prepared in faith to resist it. The evil, in whatever form it may show itself, has the one uniform design, namely to slight or tempt the Spirit of the Lord, to call in question and ignore His presence in the church. To contravene the authority and claims of God has been the great aim of Satan from the beginning. Whatever was the chief or most important thing with God at any time, this it is that man has been urged to disown or to spoil. In the garden of Eden the word of God is daringly perverted, and Eve is induced to do the very thing which was strictly forbidden of God. Note that it was not openly to Adam that the serpent addressed himself, but to Eve — the easier way to succeed.
In like manner, when fire came down from God to consume the sacrifice, Aaron’s sons offered strange fire. They procured fire for themselves, as if their fire was as good as God’s fire — the most effectual way to undermine, like the magicians, the glory due to Him, and to tempt the Spirit of the Lord. One can hardly believe that the sons of Aaron could have been so duped and foolish; but these things are written for our admonition.
Again, was there not “the day of temptation”, when because of fear, because of the giants, and the cities — “walled up to heaven”, they turned back and tempted God?
Again, in the very moment of success and the overthrow of Jericho, one man, unknown to everyone else, secreted a Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold, in his tent. It was done quite secretly, no one was implicated in it, there was no poisoning of the minds of many by a conspiracy, but Achan was led on by Satan to tempt the Spirit of the Lord. Evil has no idea of anything but evil. The attempt was made to call in question the presence of the Lord with His people, and through one individual, in the most secret way, unknown to anyone else in the whole nation, to involve all in a violation of the most stringent injunction, and one primarily affecting the strength and glory of their position at the time. Nothing could seem more unlikely than that the secret act of an individual in a great army should be taken notice of, or that there should be any possibility of discovering the offender. Though the covetousness of man was the means Satan used, the real way to account for this act is that the malice of Satan would tempt the Spirit of the Lord; and the more securely, because secretly, he would contravene the counsels of God.
It is of the deepest moment that we should understand that the aim of Satan is to lead souls to act in defiance of God’s eye and word. They say, “The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard it”, Psalm 94:7.
If in every preceding dispensation this has been the aim of Satan, if in Eden, if when priesthood was established, and if even in the promised land, there was an immediate effort to disturb the favour of God at its brightest moment, how much more must it be the aim of Satan to interrupt and ignore the greatest manifestation of God to His people by the presence of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven? We read in Acts 5 that immediately on the setting up of the church on the earth, when the devotedness of the saints was marked by their surrender of their earthly property, two, a man and his wife, were led by Satan to agree together to deceive the church by laying only part of the money realised by the sale of their lands at the apostles’ feet, retaining the remainder for themselves. They sought to obtain thus an undeserved and untrue reputation, and at the same time to enjoy for themselves the property they had represented as surrendered. There was an evil gain in a double way, namely, reputation among the saints for a surrender, which at the same time they meant to use for themselves. Such a scheme as it was! The wickedness and disregard of God in such an act, by professing Christians, was amazing.
What was their object in Coming into the church at all? They had joined the church, no very popular Company in Jerusalem at the time. They desired and determined to be considered eminent and devoted by this Company, and yet they were not satisfied with the meed of Credit which their false representation secured for them, but they must also have a personal benefit in that which they have dishonestly retained. The deceit and evil motive which underlay all this act proves the extent to which one will go for the attainment of his own ends when he does not believe in the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit; for if He had been believed in, how Could they imagine that such fraudulent pretension would be undiscovered? Thus in the very beginning of the church’s history on the earth this fearful slight is offered to the Holy Spirit. They did not believe that a divine Person was in this Company which they had deceived for their own exaltation and gratification. Now from this grievous outbreak we are taught the characteristics of the first and foremost form of evil in the church. Anything which obtains for me a reputation which I do not deserve, and ministers to my own selfishness, is a direct slight to the Spirit of God, a tempting of the Spirit of the Lord, gaining Credit falsely from others; and thus gratification to myself would be an utter and entire denial of the presence of the Holy Spirit. And yet in how many and various ways might this occur now! A man might get Credit for a knowledge of Scripture which he did not deserve, while in private, instead of refusing it, he might be gratified at his success. It is not so much the kind of act as the motive and object of it.
If the motive be self-consideration, and the object be self-exaltation, then the act, whatever it is, is a slight to the Spirit of God, and it is tempting the Spirit of the Lord. As the Holy Spirit is present on the earth to testify of Christ, every time I attempt to obtain distinction for myself — whether with the best plausible reasons, openly, like the priests, offering strange fire, that is, fire of their own, or secretly, like Achan, to acquire something for myself, I am tempting the Spirit of the Lord. I am always tempting Him when I am acting so as to question the fact of His presence, because it is evident that if I were simply sure that He was present, I neither could nor would seek myself. I should be at once rebuked and controlled. The fact that, at the very moment of the greatest demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s presence on earth, any two could be found to seek their own importance in God’s assembly, is unquestionable evidence that the great aim of Satan is to ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit, and to lead souls to act as if He were not here. Therefore Peter says, “Why has Satan filled thy heart that thou shouldest lie to the Holy Spirit”? As afterwards, to Sapphira, “Why is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?” Anything which is done by the flesh, or dictated by man’s mind, it may be unintentionally, denies the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The sons of Aaron might have alleged that their only object was to increase the amount of fire; but the attempt to add to God’s fire and supply any, implied that God’s was not enough. Surely that was tempting the Spirit of the Lord, because it assumed that He would not take notice of it, though they were detracting from God to honour themselves. Achan’s act was secret, and he was led to expect it would never be discovered, though he tempted the Lord in appropriating to his own advantage what was devoted to Him. Would the Lord suffer it? He put it to proof, at any rate. Now in the case of Ananias there is no excuse; of all the instances which had occurred previously, not one was in nature and motive so bad as his. It is recorded for us as characteristic of the way in which souls, received as most devoted, may be induced to act in order to gain reputation, by pretending to surrender what they were still enjoying, so that there was a gain on a supposed loss.
Now any act which is done in the flesh, especially ministry, presumes that the Holy Spirit is not here, and tempts the Spirit of the Lord in seeking prominence for the doer of it. If the question can be raised, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” there is, by the act which suggests the question, a tempting of the Spirit of the Lord. Could a believer, assured of the presence of the Spirit of God, have resort to any human means? And if he did, would he not either sin like the priests in attempting to supplement the fire, or like Achan, in appropriating what was exclusively the Lord’s to his own exaltation? And thus the first great evil that sprang up in the church would be touched, and there would be the tempting of the Spirit of the Lord.
There are three ways in which the Spirit can be tempted in this day, one in the assembly, another in service, the third in private life.
In the first, the assembly, any ministry not of the Spirit’s leading must be of the flesh, and thus the Spirit is hindered and tempted, because there is the self-confidence of acting in His presence as if He were not there. Who can apprehend how the Spirit must be grieved by this, even in well-intentioned souls, not to speak of those who openly seek to gain reputation for themselves in the church. Yet where the springs of this evil are exposed in the case of both Achan and Ananias, their object is simply their own exaltation.
Secondly, as to service; I tempt the Spirit whenever I seek by human means to supplement His power in any form, or by any means outside and apart from the human vessel. And even then, when I allow the natural mind or natural energy to take the lead, I am tempting Him, for He is here to testify for Christ, and is fully adequate to obtain and provide means as He deems fit Himself. Whether it be from plausible intention, like the sons of Aaron, or to exalt oneself, like Ananias, one or the other is the fruitful source of weakness in the church, because the Spirit is dishonoured, however ignorantly it be done. The Lord is careful to record for us the specious way by which, in another day, David, full of fervour and delight of heart in restoring the ark to its place, and zealous for the testimony of the Lord in that day, spoiled all, and defeated his own desires, by using a cart. Uzzah’s well intentioned offer to help was rebuked by terrible judgement. We may be sure, however we are deceived, that whenever we depart from the way of the Lord, and in any way regard the Spirit of God as insufficient, reputation for ourselves is the motive. Though one would shrink from the conduct and course of Ananias in its bold reality, yet in the secret of the heart, when the Spirit is not honoured, there is no alternative but that the motive betrayed by Ananias and Sapphira must be at work. It may be better concealed, and the conscience not so hardened as theirs was, but still, if the Spirit of the Lord be tempted by being overlooked and unrespected, in character the same evil, the first and the worst, is working.
Lastly, in daily life, the believer can, in the way he expresses himself, grieve the Spirit of God. “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying . . . And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption”, Ephesians 4:29-30. Again, in the way one acts as to others, “He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit”, 1 Thessalonians 4:8.