SoCal Men’s Retreat - April 2, 2005

@ Verdugo Pines Bible Camp



Text:  Jeremiah 23:28-29

“The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth.  ‘What does straw have in common with grain?’ declares the LORD. ‘Is not My word like fire?’ declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer which shatters a rock?’”


Theme:  What does the LORD say?


The last time I stood here and addressed this annual gathering of men at Verdugo Pines was on April 6th, 2002.  That was three years ago.  Looking back on those three years, I can honestly echo the words of Dr. Frank Laubach, that great literacy instructor and missionary to the Philippines who died in 1970.  He once said concerning his time on the island of Mindanao, “I have done nothing but open windows – God has done all the rest.”


Truly, in the past three years I have watched our risen Head connect the dots between more fellow believers, more local assemblies, and more local ministries than I could ever have imagined.  And in the past three years I have also watched as various prophets have risen up with words to prophesy, visions to speak, and dreams to relate concerning the future of this movement we call the Plymouth Brethren.     


One group of these prophets tells us repeatedly that if we will only hold fast to the forms and traditions that have been handed down to us by our Brethren forefathers, we will have peace and safety in our day, though our numbers be few.  They warn us direly of the dangers of compromising the truths of our Brethren heritage, but then define those truths so narrowly that they exclude all who do not practice the principles of ecclesia according to the same outward forms they espouse.  To them, all change is compromise.


The other group of prophets tells us not to be so narrow-minded.  They admonish us that if only we will shed the shackles of form and tradition and embrace a new and more culturally relevant expression of ecclesia, then calamity will not befall us and we will survive as a movement.  They relate their dreams of vibrant growth in terms of how effectively we compete with the mega-churches and mainstream denominations that have so skillfully captured the hearts and minds of our young people.  They insist that if we are going to impact future generations with the New Testament principles we hold so dear, we will have to rethink our approach to outward forms without compromising our commitment to essential doctrines.  To them, change is all we need.


On the one hand, one group of prophets offers us peace and safety through protectionism.  They want us to “strengthen the things which remain,”[1] by holding on with a grip so tight it hurts.  On the other hand, the other group of prophets offers us escape from calamity by engagement.  They want us to join the fray of seeker-sensitive churches and claim our slice of the ecumenical pie.  On this one salient point, however, both groups seem to agree: the death of the Plymouth Brethren movement is not a viable option.   “So many years of Assembly tradition, of rich academic history, and of such epic missionary zeal [must not be allowed to] simply vanish into the history of failed movements.”[2] 


Such a sobering prospect must be avoided at all costs!


At least, that is what these prophets tell us.  But what does the LORD say?  Out of the midst of this cacophony of prophetic voices rises a lone crier sounding forth in the streets!  Here and there, few and far between, men and women who know their God and understand the times are sounding out that clarion call of old, “Thus says the LORD!”    


Reading from Jeremiah 23:16, 21, 28-29, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you.  They are leading you into futility.  They speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD….’  I did not send these prophets, but they ran.  I did not speak to them, but they prophesied….  The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth.  ‘What does straw have in common with grain?’ declares the LORD. ‘Is not My word like fire?’ declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer which shatters a rock?’”


Indeed His Word is like fire burning through the very impurity of man’s motives; and His Word is like a hammer shattering all the inane objections of man’s wisdom.  But what does the LORD say?  Speaking through the prophet Isaiah He says, “Behold My Servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one in whom My soul delights.” [3]    And again through Isaiah He says, “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” [4]  And again when the disciples were made eyewitnesses of His majesty on the holy mountain, such an utterance was made by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”[5]     


What does the LORD say?  He says, very simply, ‘Jesus!’  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will live.”[6]  “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.  And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.  When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”[7]


So what does the LORD say?  When all is said and done, God’s final word is ‘Jesus!’ for “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him [we] have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority.”[8]  God’s final word is ‘Jesus!’ for “He shall save His people.”[9]  “Then I will set over them one Shepherd, My Servant David, and He will feed them; He will feed them Himself, and be their Shepherd.  And I, the LORD will be their God, and My Servant David will be Prince among them; I the LORD have spoken.”[10]  


All the dreams and all the visions of all the prophets in the world will not change God’s final word.  “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should change His mind.”[11]  God’s final word is ‘Jesus!’ for “He shall save His people.”[12]  He shall save His people - not methods, not forms, not traditions, not even change.  He alone is the synthesis of interdependent fellowship; as we fellowship around His person, His preeminence becomes the distinguishing mark of all our gatherings, whether local or trans-local.   


Let’s not deceive ourselves, brethren.  No amount of protectionism, and no amount of engagement will save us.  The fact is that this so-called debate about change and compromise always boils down to underlying issues of power and control.   Whether the debate rages around who gets to put who out of fellowship; or who gets to seat themselves in the seat of visible leadership; or who gets to dip into the common purse to fund their own programs and agendas; the boorish political maneuverings that result are at the very root of our problems as Plymouth Brethren.  The cannibalistic urge to bite and devour one another in a fleshly bid to be the one in charge has resurfaced in various embodiments from the very outset of the movement in the 1800’s.  


The only thing this wretched meaninglessness has ever managed to produce is a long litany of divisions and contentions and strife, leaving a poisonous trail of bitterness and hurt in its wake.  It is the reason we have Open and Exclusive meetings today who barely acknowledge each other’s existence.  It is the reason we have Progressive and Conservative chapels that each regard the other with a vague air of superiority and contempt.  This timeworn struggle that began all the way back in Plymouth is the reason we are splintered and weak as a movement instead of united and strong, aligning ourselves into polar groupings either for change or against it, nervously eyeing each other across the divide with suspicion and sometimes even hate, quietly releasing the pent-up venom of all our private prejudices and all our secret sins.  


We have collectively as a movement taken our eyes off of God’s solution to man’s problems, and focused instead on futile visions proposed by self-appointed prophets who have not spoken from the mouth of the LORD.  Like Peter[13] we have taken our eyes off of Christ, and we are being overwhelmed in a sea of party politics and personal fiefdoms, jockeying for position and prominence and influence as we feverishly rearrange the deck chairs on this fast-sinking Titanic. 


Our only hope is a simple look of faith to our Lord, for “He shall save His people.”[14]   Look to Him and be saved, for He is “dazzling and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.”[15]  See Him dazzling in His divinity, ruddy in His humanity, and altogether lovely in His preeminence and power.  He is our only hope, and He is enough.  There are many who emphatically protest that Christ is not enough.  They would never say it in so many words, but by their actions they insist upon walking by sight rather than faith.  They do not trust His all-sufficiency, so they reach for the straws of a popular theology, and grasp at the shadows of an elusive group identity.  And yet we know that Christ is enough, because He is God’s final word - and God cannot lie. 


Jesus stands as Prince in the middle of His churches, represented by the golden lampstands that John saw in Revelation.[16]  Our Melchizedek - King of Righteousness, King of Peace, and Priest of God Most High[17] - stands ready to correct and reward His assemblies according as we have need.  We have only to look to Him with a simple look of faith, and He will save us.  He will assume the responsibility of fixing our broken assemblies just as He assumed the responsibility of fixing our broken lives when we first came to Him in faith.  If we look to Him now just as we did then, we will not be disappointed.  He is the living Corner Stone, choice and precious in the sight of God, and no one who believes in Him will ever be disappointed.[18]    


So we must train our minds to think of Him always just as we do at the breaking of bread each Lord’s Day, fixing our mind’s eye on Him in faith, contemplating the all-sufficiency of His sacrifice and our utter loss apart from Him.   In like manner we must fix our mind’s eye on Christ in faith even now, contemplating the all-sufficiency of His headship over the Church[19] and our utter barrenness and utter impotence apart from Him.[20]  God has already provided for the growth and continuity of His Body by giving us various grace-gifts under the leadership of one Spirit, and various love-ministries under the direction of one Lord.[21]  “He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”[22] 


The reason we are not growing in spite of all that God has provided is that we let our egos get in the way.  If our egos are too big, our pride makes us try to micromanage any gift that God raises up in our midst.   If our egos are too small, our jealousy makes us try to squelch the gift before it threatens the status quo.   But when we look to the Head, our apostles will go out to start new works without fear of being rejected and abandoned; our prophets will prophesy the word of the LORD without fear of being stoned; our evangelists will bring new converts to our assemblies without fear of having them treated as second-class citizens; our teachers will teach without fear of being misunderstood and maligned; and our elders will be about the work of shepherding, providing spiritual oversight rather than doing deacon work.  When we fix our gaze on Him without wavering in unbelief we are privileged to watch Him at work as He steps in to fix our problems for us.  That is what it means to throw the windows open wide on what God is doing.  He will save us no matter how overwhelming the issues are or appear to be, because He is God’s great solution for all of man’s complicated problems and assorted shortcomings.


“Rise my soul! Behold 'tis Jesus, Jesus fills thy wond'ring eyes; see Him now in glory seated, where thy sins no more can rise."[23]  "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace."[24] “Be Thou my vision O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that Thou art.  Thou my best thought by day or by night, waking or sleeping Thy presence my light.”[25] 


“Jesus Christ - the same yesterday and today, and forever.”[26]  Indeed, the Lord’s power is by no means limited in our day,[27] nor has His hand been shortened from the days of old.[28]  Indeed, now as always, whoever will call on the name of the LORD will be saved.[29]  Jesus is God’s final word; may we prove that He is enough!  “You need not fight in this battle [today]; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the LORD!”[30]


[1] Revelation 3:2

[2] Michael Leary

[3] Isaiah 42:1

[4] Isaiah 45:22

[5] 2 Peter 1:16-18

[6] John 3:14-15

[7] Hebrews 1:1-3

[8] Colossians 2:9-10

[9] Matthew 1:21

[10] Ezekiel 34:23-24

[11] Numbers 23:19

[12] Matthew 1:21

[13] Matthew 14:30

[14] Matthew 1:21

[15] Song 5:10

[16] Revelation 1:12-20

[17] Hebrews 7:1-3

[18] 1 Peter 2:4-6

[19] Colossians 2:19

[20] John 15:5

[21] 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

[22] Ephesians 4:11-13

[23] J. Denham Smith

[24] Helen H. Lemmel

[25] 8th Century Irish Hymn

[26] Hebrews 13:8

[27] Numbers 11:23

[28] Isaiah 59:1

[29] Joel 2:32

[30] 2 Chronicles 20:17