The Recovery Unto Achievement of the Purpose of the Ages

In October 1958 T. Austin-Sparks felt that the Lord wanted to emphasize the great truth of God wanting to dwell among man, as the theme of a conference at Honor Oak, London. We do not know the background of the occasion, except the introduction to his fourth talk (“part 3” in the series of audio recordings), which the editors left out from the transcription. In this introduction Brother Sparks talks about “the spiritual history lying behind these times” and “very serious responsibilities”. Personally he believes that “… this is a word for this local company at Honor Oak at this time and also for those of you in other places; some are in assemblies, some are not in assemblies in other places …”. This is something we always have to take into account seriously when we read transcriptions of audio recordings. They have their own historical setting and context we often know nothing about. In the same talk he refers to what God has done over the many years at Honor Oak as an illustration of a rather spontaneous work led by the Holy Spirit. This may be the main message of the whole conference. The point is not whether we agree with everything that is said or not, but that we recognize the Spirit’s unique and various ways in which He glorifies the Son (John 16:14) and God’s Kingdom is ushered in, into a world that hates Him, but that is convicted of sin and overwhelmed by His love revealed at the Cross of Christ.

As the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Christ bodily (see Col. 2:9), the message of the conference amounts to God’s desire to have His presence in Christ among His people, the Church, in full measure. Sparks sees three main practical applications: separation from the world, the absolute authority of the Word of God and the absolute lordship of the Holy Spirit. He does not elaborate on either points and emphasizes negative points such as the influence in the Church of commerce, mere technical Bible teaching and preaching and alternatives for the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Especially on this last point we would wish Sparks to have been more specific, but we might say that his message boils down to an exhortation to live a life of utter dependence on the Holy Spirit, personally and as Christians together. We need His power in everything and we need His direction always. He knows how we can serve the Lord effectively. The image comes to mind of a professional soccer player who, wanting to give a perfect pass, hits the ball with the exact amount of power and in the exact direction that is needed for his team-mate to simply finish the work and score. The Holy Spirit knows what and where the goal is. It is God’s purpose to dwell among His people in Christ. Only the Holy Spirit knows how to get there.

Those who are familiar with the teaching and preaching of T. Austin-Sparks will not be surprised by his choice of the book of Nehemiah to convey his message. In this respect it is important to note that he interprets the return from the Babylonian exile as representing the salvation of people from all the nations. This is particularly important in regard to other explanations that interpret Babylon as “false or apostate Christianity” and the return from exile as a call to come out of the institutionalized Christian denominations. The brothers at Honor Oak have been accused of teaching this, but these conference messages clearly show that they did not want to make this implication. We want to underline the error of this typology of the return from the Babylonian exile. The mistake can be shown in various ways, of which we choose only two: firstly, the interpretation leaves no room for God’s sovereign act to use at least three pagan kings (some historians say five: Cyrus, Artaxerxes I, Artaxerxes II, Darius I and Darius II) to allow the resettlement to take place and secondly, the fact that “the Israelites” who returned from Babel remained under foreign occupation.

Brother Sparks suggested that his interpretation of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in these conference talks was God’s message for His people at that time. It would have been more fitting, perhaps, if he had said that his burden for God’s people could be illustrated by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah: a recovery of the awesome presence of the living God among saved sinners, the Christian faith, governed by the Holy Spirit, lived out in communities of believers. His audience could be tempted to think that among God’s people they alone have the tools now, to carry out God’s work in fulness and that other Christians, who do not know Sparks’ approach of Ezra-Nehemiah, will do things that do not mean much in God’s eyes. The result would be that the work of the Holy Spirit is monopolized (He will never let that happen) and thus limited, which is the exact opposite of the purpose of the conference. The result should be that we ask the Lord how to apply the main three points: how to be separated more from the world while living in it, how to give the Word of God its rightful place of absolute authority and how to let the Holy Spirit have absolute lordship. That will automatically keep us from elitism and help us to adopt a more Christlike attitude, of which Herald St. John was a champion, as a passage of his biography shows, where the author, his daughter Patricia, writes, “… the conversation drifted during a meal to another group [of Christians, ed.] who were causing controversy. Some spoke critically, until Mr. St. John suddenly spoke out, ‘I have heard that some of these men have been much used in evangelistic work and have helped some of God’s saints in days gone by. Shall we just bow our heads in prayer?’ And after he had thanked God for the way He had used them and had asked Him to bless them in further service, the conversation was shifted to a better subject.”

The sudden shift in his final talk of the conference from Nehemiah to Acts 15 and Amos is a bit surprising. Firstly, his suggestion that the book of Amos is about a warning that the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed is a mistake. Secondly, God’s promise of the restoration of the ruined tent of David does not refer to the temple or Jerusalem, but to the kingdom (see also Acts 1:6-8). Anyway, the context of the Acts 15 portion does fit in the message, but in a slightly different way from our brother’s own explanation. Austin-Sparks rightly sees the return from Babel as a picture of salvation in Christ of people out of all the nations. This is exactly the meaning of the restoration of the ruined tent of David. The point in Acts 15 is that God, by pouring out His Spirit into Gentile people, exactly in the same way as He poured out His Spirit into Jewish people, namely on the sole ground of faith in Jesus as the resurrected Saviour, has shown that He has always wanted a people for His name out of all the nations. That is the Kingdom of God, of which David’s kingdom is a foreshadowing. The central thought is not the extension of Christ by the Church – however wonderful this truth is – but God’s original plan to have His eternal Kingdom consist of both Jews and Gentiles, uniting them into one new creation in Christ by the Holy Spirit. That is why imposing circumcision on Gentile believers makes no sense. That is the conclusion of the Acts 15 meeting. It is a theme that runs through the book of Acts and reappears in Paul’s letters again and again. The Holy Spirt – God present among His people – is the evidence and guarantee that there is reconciliation, justification and sonship outside Torah observance. And here we join in with the message of the conference: God’s presence in Christ, exclusively and in full measure, in and among His saved people from whatever background, by the Holy Spirit. If we can secure that in a practical way, the Gospel is advanced in our communities and in the world and God’s heart will be satisfied.

January 2020
On behalf of The Golden Candlestick team,
Hugo de Jong, Twello, the Netherlands