The Altar and the Name

This issue contains an edited transcription of a series of talks by T. Austin-Sparks on the subject of the Altar and the Name, held in August 1953, probably at the Honor Oak Fellowship Centre in London.

God’s purpose in His creation is, in one word, or rather in one Name, ‘Immanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. It is the Name of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind and Redeemer of the universe, God’s Son (see Isa. 7:14, Matt. 1:23). It implies that God wants to dwell in the midst of His people, so that He can enjoy their company and they can enjoy His holy and glorious presence. We can say that the central theme of the Bible is God’s presence. T. Austin-Sparks reflects on this theme in his conference series ‘The Altar and the Name’. He shows how the cross of Jesus Christ is the way into God’s presence and clears the way for God to be present among His people.

Readers of this series who are not familiar with the speaker/author, T. Austin-Sparks, may encounter terminology that his audience understood well, and which is typical for this kind of conferences. One is ‘the recovery of God’s testimony’. The group of Christians that was involved in the organisation of these conferences felt called by God to help the Church of Jesus Christ to recover the spiritual life and strength that it had in the days of the apostles. They felt that generally speaking the Church in their generation was in a state of spiritual decline, but not in the way J.N. Darby taught that the Church was in a state of ruin. T. Austin-Sparks believed that there was a way back to the right track towards the fulfilment of God’s original purpose of the Church. In that way his sermons counter the pessimism that the dispensationalism that originated from Darby’s teachings entails.

Does Paul allude to Judges 7 in 2 Corinthians 4?
In his last session of the conference sermons in August 1953, titled ‘The Altar and the Name’, T. Austin-Sparks suggests that Paul had the Gideon-story in mind when he used the metaphor of earthen vessels in his second letter to the Corinthians. The editors will give some exegetical reasons that speak against this suggestion, without having any intention to refute the message that brother Sparks wants to convey. On the contrary, the editors fully agree with the speaker’s call for faithful dedicated ministry of the gospel and fully endorse the need for unselfish service for Jesus’ sake, like Paul’s, for whom serving the Lord meant that his very life was continuously at stake. But the speaker/author’s support for allegorical interpretation of Old Testament narratives does entail that his statements need to be checked with exegetical and hermeneutical principles, so that the reader will not take his sermons as Bible expositions. It was not T. Austin-Sparks’ intention to give Bible expositions, but to seek to share what he and the organizers of the conference felt the Lord wanted to say to the participants at that particular occasion. Bible expositors like H. Moule and P.E. Hughes also referred to Judges 7 in their commentaries on the passage in 2 Corinthians 4, but did not go as far as to say it is Paul’s interpretation of the Gideon narrative. They apparently found it helpful for the reader to be referred to the jars in Judges 7 in comparison with the earthen vessels in the letter. The editors hope that the reader will benefit from this exegetical check and that it will help him to apply the messages the text itself conveys. And, of course, they also hope he will enjoy reading T. Austin-Sparks at the same time.
The first reason why an allusion to Gideon is doubtful on an exegetical basis is that Paul, in the context of his argument in 2 Corinthians, did not have any reason to refer to the narrative. The story of the amazing victory over the Midianites does not add anything to his argument. What is immediately clear to the reader of the passage in Paul’s letter is that the metaphor of an earthen vessel represents his own body in particular and the bodies of believers in general by implication. It is also immediately clear to the reader that by ‘this treasure’ Paul means the gospel (see vs. 4). The metaphor of the treasure in earthen vessels does not need any further explanation, illustration or reference.
Paul’s argument is that God has chosen to use a worthless, temporal vessel to proclaim something of immeasurable value, something of eternal glory, so that it is inevitable that the ministry of this ‘treasure’ can only be God’s doing. At the same time the life of the proclaimer becomes, by all the hardship he encounters, an object lesson of the truth and the effective power of this gospel, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus. If it was not God’s doing, Paul would have been dead for sure. But by God’s miraculous interventions he was still alive and able to preach the gospel (see 1:8-10).
Another aspect of the reason why Paul’s ministry can only be God’s power and not his own is its result, which is transformed lives (see chapter 3). It is difficult to see why Paul would need the Gideon-story to further illustrate his argument. The reader knows that an earthen vessel is worthless and fragile. It does not need any explanation or illustration. The information that Gideon ordered the jars to be smashed is irrelevant for his argument.
The Gideon-story does convey the message of victory, with God’s indispensable help and gracious intervention, over an enemy who is, according to human standards, exceedingly more powerful. God’s statement, ‘… lest Israel boast over Me, saying, “My own hand has saved me”’, does echo Paul’s explanation as to why God chooses weak vessels to spread the gospel, ‘… to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us’. It also echoes the dominating theme of boasting in the letter. However, the context of 2 Corinthians 3 to 5 shows that God’s reason for choosing perishable human bodies is not because Paul is in danger of boasting in himself, but to awake the hope of eternal glory, so that he would never loose heart. Although the Gideon narrative teaches death and resurrection and thereby faith in God to the uttermost (see Heb. 11:32) and although the smashing of the jars and the sudden appearance of the torches are illustrative of that lesson, the emphasis does not lie on the weakness of the jars, but on the small number of men (who were, by the way, not the weakest). In fact the jars were made in such a way that they were light enough to carry, but still would not break easily. It needed a good smashing to break them (Judg. 7:19). The sound of the smashing must have added to the shocking effect. Otherwise Gideon could have asked his men to suddenly and simultaneously light the torches.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul does use the element of weakness over against human greatness in the way he uses that contrast in his first letter (as T. Austin-Sparks states), but in this particular passage the contrast is a different one. The worthlessness of the earthen vessel is contrasted with the pricelessness of the treasure, as well as the mortality of the vessel – the human body – over against the immortality it awaits. The contrast shows that the earthen vessel can only be instrumental of such glory; it can never be its origin. The earthen vessel makes it very clear that the origin of eternal, immortal glory and the life-changing power of this glory can only be of God. And because the vessel that is called to proclaim this priceless eternal glory is cheap and fragile itself, it is perfectly fit for the purpose. It will secure the desired result of life-changing ministry, because all attention will be drawn to the treasure that it contains, while the fact that the vessel is kept unbroken in the midst of affliction adds to the glory of God and affirms that the vessel is God’s instrument indeed. The Gideon story does not have these motives.
The second reason is that it is likely that Paul would have used wordings that are close to the Greek translation of Judges 7 (the Septuagint), if he wanted the reader to make a connection with the Gideon narrative. But he did not do so. Different words are used in the Greek texts for jars and earthen vessels (and for ‘smashed’ and ‘not crushed’).
The third reason is that the reference Paul wants the reader to make is to the creation narrative (vs. 6). It is unlikely that he had Gideon in mind at the same time. The reference to the creation story implies that the reader is asked to reflect on how light is connected with God’s glory, especially with giving ‘knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ in darkened human hearts. With this reference to creation Paul picks up his theme of God’s ministry of life by the Spirit in chapter 3. Paul Barnett (NICNT, 1997) suggests that Paul may have had Isaiah in mind as well (Isa. 9:2, 49:6). What is clear is that the creation theme stays with Paul as he continues writing (see chapter 5).
The fourth reason is that the reader of Judges 7 is not directed automatically by the text itself to interpret the jars symbolically. A water jar is not a well known typology for human weakness and cannot be interpreted consistently in that way throughout the Bible. Instead, the reader’s imagination is appealed to. He can imagine the shock the sound of the smashing of the jars must have given, in combination with the sudden flashing of torches, the sound of trumpets and the bold proclamation of JHWH’s and Gideon’s victory.
The fifth reason is that Paul does not focus on the fragility of the earthen vessel but on God preserving it in the midst of affliction. ‘We are not crushed’ (vs. 8). Its existence can only be explained by divine will and protection. God will even glorify it (see the context). Paul admits that without this hope he would have given up preaching the gospel long ago. And by this argument he hopes that his genuine intentions are clear when he serves the Corinthians with God’s Word, unlike other preachers, people who criticize him (see, for example, 2:17). None of these elements are represented by the Gideon narrative. In Paul’s argument the vessel is miraculously preserved, not broken.
The sixth reason is that the nature and the occasion of the conflict in Judges 7 are very different from the afflictions Paul experiences. The suppression of Israel by the enemy is caused by its unfaithfulness to God; in His mercy He intervenes. Paul is suffering ‘for Jesus’ sake’ (vs. 11), and thus for his faithfulness to God. Moreover, the breaking of the jars were to frighten the enemies; the afflictions of the earthen vessel, though, are to substantiate God’s protective and keeping power. In other words, the backgrounds of the crises differ fundamentally. It is unlikely that Paul would compare his afflictions with the punitive measure of suppression by the enemy in the time of the judges. This observation shows that the only similarity between the vessels is the fact that they are vessels. Therefore it is more likely that Paul drew the metaphor from daily life rather than from Scripture.

That leaves us with the question whether the story in Judges 7 conveys the message of what the author calls the ‘brokenness of our self-life’. It is the message indeed, if ‘brokenness of our self-life’ means the acknowledgement of victory being God’s work rather than our own doing and also if it means obedience of faith (see Rom. 1:5, 16:26). For Gideon and his men the situation and God’s answer to it was an exercise of faith. Every Christian knows that faith can be quite a struggle. It implies trusting the Lord completely and not relying on our own abilities. But we cannot be sure if the breaking of the jars was understood by these men to be related to their having to step out in faith. Maybe they should have understood it in that way, but the continuation of the story shows that they did not. The letter to the Hebrews (11:32) suggests that at least Gideon himself understood that this crisis had something to do with the Kingdom of God (see also Judg. 8:23). However, there is no evidence in the Scriptures that Gideon planned the breaking of the jars because he wanted to express his acceptance of God’s judgement of himself, of Israel and of the whole of humanity. Probably the only function of the jars was to hide the torches up to a certain point, so that his action would look like a surprise attack by a besieging army. Whether the jars symbolized something or not, the message of God was already clear by the small number of soldiers He required to let Israel conquer the enemy. That message was not a new one. It was laid down in God’s covenant. It is in line with Moses reminding the people of God of the danger to become self-righteous. ‘It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set His love on you, for you were the fewest of all peoples’ (Deut. 7:7). ‘Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth”’ (Deut. 8:17-9:6; see also Deut. 20:1-9). That is the lesson the people of Israel had to take home from this miraculous victory. Any inclination to self-righteousness needed to be turned away. The breaking of the jars may be taken as an illustration of this spiritual disposition, whether the Holy Spirit has intended it to have this symbolism or not. If the symbolism helps to let the message take root in our hearts and apply it in our daily lives, the use of it in that way can be justified, while always having the exegesis in the back of our minds.
But the editors want to end with an urge that we have to be careful when we use the term ‘brokenness’. It is sometimes used as specific Christian terminology that refers to a certain spiritual state of the believer, either in systems of mysticism or in terms of ‘second blessing’ teaching, also referred to as ‘complete surrender’ or ‘yieldedness’. It seems that the author is inclined to use the term in a mystical way, which can be helpful for some, but confusing for others. The term itself has no backing in the Scriptures. To say that God needs broken vessels can be confusing. How can something be used when it is broken? It is safer to avoid such language and use plain, unambiguous language. Every Christian has experienced and will continue to experience – even on a daily basis – that God deals with self-esteem and pride. Every Christian has experienced and will continue to experience that the Christian life is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. To speak in terms of brokenness assumes that there is a state the believer must achieve in which the Lord has dealt with self-esteem and pride once and for all. This is, unintentionally, a misleading assumption which has caused disillusionment among God’s children and can even lead to the opposite result of presumption. A child of God may grow in grace, unto spiritual maturity without going through certain formulated stages, such as so-called ‘brokenness’.

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October 2023
On behalf of The Golden Candlestick team,
Hugo de Jong