Out of the many thousands of Israel—circumcised members of the congregation, children of Abraham—there were comparatively few who distinguished themselves by personal devotedness and wholehearted consecration as David’s mighty men (see 2 Sam. 23: 8–39). Even among those few there were marked differences. There were “the thirty” (v24), “the three” (v18) and “the [first] three” (v19). Each gets his own specific place on the page of the divine record, according to what he was or what he had done. Moreover, we are told particularly what each one did and how he did it. Nothing is forgotten, but all is faithfully recorded, and no one can ever get another’s place. Each does his own work, fills his own niche, and gets his own reward.
So also with the Christian. Nothing can be more striking than the beautiful discrimination which characterises the way Paul describes the saints in Romans 16. First of all, mark the way in which Phoebe is commended to the assembly at Rome: “I commend to you Phoebe, our sister”. On what ground? Is it that she is ‘breaking bread’ or ‘in fellowship’ at Cenchrea? No, but “who is minister” (deacon or servant) “of the assembly which is in Cenchrea” and “has been a helper of many, and of myself” (vs 1, 2). The apostle presents, in touching and forcible language, the moral basis of her claim upon the hospitality and support of the assembly. To say that a person is ‘breaking bread’ or ‘in fellowship’ is, sadly, no guarantee of personal devotedness. It ought to be, but it is not. Hence to expect the confidence of the Lord’s people on that ground is unwarranted. Thus the writer of Hebrews, when he asks for the prayers of the brethren, presents the moral basis of his claim: “Pray for us” (Heb. 13: 18) On what ground? Is it because he was ‘breaking bread’ or ‘in fellowship’? Nothing of the sort, but because “we persuade ourselves that we have a good conscience, in all things desirous to walk rightly”.
Then mark the notice of Priscilla and Aquila. What had they done? They had been the apostle’s “fellow–workmen … who for my life staked their own neck; to whom not I only am thankful, but also all the assemblies of the nations” (Rom. 16: 3, 4). This is uncommonly fine. Priscilla and Aquila had worked their way into the confidence and esteem of the apostle and of all the assemblies. And so it must be. We cannot jump, all in a moment, into people’s trust and affection. We must commend ourselves by a life of practical righteousness and personal devotedness: “commending ourselves to every conscience of men before God” (2 Cor. 4: 2).
Again, look at the exquisite touch in Rom. 16: 12: “Salute Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who labour in [the] Lord. Salute Persis, the beloved, who has laboured much in [the] Lord”. See the lovely discrimination here! Why does he not class all three together? The reason is plain: because two had only laboured, while the third had laboured much. Each one gets his and her place, according to what they were, and according to what they had done. Would Tryphaena and Tryphosa have had any cause for envy and jealousy against Persis because she was characterised as “the beloved” while they were not, or because the word “much” was added to her labour and withheld from theirs? No, for envy and jealousy are the pernicious fruit of miserable self–occupation and find no place in hearts which are devoted to Christ and His precious interests. “If one member be glorified, all the members rejoice with [it]” (1 Cor. 12: 26).
I look upon 2 Samuel 23 and Romans 16 as specimen pages of the book of responsible, practical life, in which each one is written down according to what he is and according to what he has done. It is, of course, all by grace. Each one will delighted to say that “by God’s grace I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15: 10). Furthermore, all the children of God are equally “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1: 6, AV), and all stand in one common relationship. The very feeblest member of the body of Christ is loved by God as Christ is loved. The Head and the members cannot be separated. As He is so are they (see 1 John 4: 17). The feeblest child in the family has his own place in the Father’s heart, with which no one can ever interfere. However, when we turn to the question of practical life and personal devotedness, what endless variety! We see again, “the three”, “the [first] three” and “the thirty”. It is one thing to be “accepted” (Eph. 1: 6, AV) and another thing to be “acceptable” (Rom. 14: 18), and one thing to be a beloved child and another thing to be a devoted servant. O may it be so more and more in this day of cold indifference and self–seeking, in which so many seem to rest satisfied with the mere fact of being ‘in fellowship’, as it is called, and so few, comparatively, are pressing after that high standard of personal devotedness so precious to the heart of Christ!
Let me not be misunderstood. True fellowship in the Spirit—the communion of saints—is precious beyond all expression, and the breaking of bread, in truth and sincerity, in remembrance of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us, is one of the very highest and richest privileges for those whose hearts are true to Him. All this is clearly understood and fully admitted. But, on the other hand, we must never forget the strong tendency of our poor hearts to rest in mere forms and formularies when the power is gone. It is one thing to be in nominal fellowship and go through the outward form of breaking bread, and another thing altogether to be an earnest, devoted, pronounced servant of Christ. Let us seek then, to be among the true David’s mighty men!