The City of God Immovable
"There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early."
A Sermon by J. K. Popham preached at the Centenary services at Salem Strict Baptist Chapel, Portsmouth on Wednesday afternoon 27th August 1913.
Storms, swelling sea, moving mountains, shaking earth we have in the opening of this Psalm. Things terrible in themselves, alarming to all observers, who may by their own nearness to them be apparently in danger. There are many movable things about us; and being movable, they are to be removed; and when this is realised, if there be no hope of the kingdom which cannot be moved, we must be in deep distress.
Observing, and in some way affected by what he observed, the psalmist said, "Notwithstanding, he feared not." It was not because he was in himself sufficient to stem and keep back these incoming floods, or to stay the roaring of these surging waters, or to maintain and hold fast the moving earth and shaking mountains. But though these things should continue as they were, and might increase, as what follows suggests, he had something better than everything the whole world could afford, and something to secure him against all the disorders and destructions that were threatening. And he expressed that something thus "God is our reluge and strength, a very present help in trouble." We must have trouble. Perhaps some of us may humbly say we have God; and if we have, what can shake our sure repose?
There is a great contrast in this Psalm between the opening verses and those which I have read as a text. Nothing but trouble in nature, only threatened disorder and destruction in nature; but the psalmist saw a city which, because unmoved in the midst of all moving things, unshaken even when mountains were shaken and being removed into the midst of the sea, undisturbed even by the roaring of the waters, must be something quite different from, and outside of, these moving, shaking, roaring, terrifying courses. And in the midst of this city, so situated as not to be affected by what he saw about him, he also saw a river; a river which, as the one in Eden of old divided itself, so this divides itself into streams; and these streams make glad this city, as who, being in this city, and having tasted these streams, can doubt?
If the Lord will kindly help me, I shall:
I. Firstly speak of the city,
II. Then, secondly, notice this river, whose streams have such a good effect, are so refreshing, as to make all who partake of them glad,
III. And then thirdly notice, what crowns all, what we may say makes the river, is the river, what secures this city from being moved and disturbed; namely "God is in the midst of her;" and of him it is said, "God shall help her;" and that not tardily. Though it seems to be a tardy coming to those who wait for his coming, and wish he would come more quickly, it is not so really; for it is said, "God shall help her, and that right early." When his appointed time comes, when the morning appears, then the night ends with all her trouble; it is the morning of joy and hope and praise; and that is to go on and on through an eternal day.*
I. To speak of this city, "A building of God, not made with hands," (2 Cor. 5:1; 1 Cor. 3:9). Every building has its foundation; it is neither bigger nor stronger than its foundation. The foundation must always give its own character to the building. The building gives no strength to the foundation, but that gives all its strength to the building. It also gives shape to it; the form is always determined by the foundation. It is needful that we, as the Lord makes us honest in respect of our own souls, should be kept careful of this more than of other things. If the walls are not pleasing to men, if to those who are engaged in building, they seem weak, if they appear to be bulging, the first thing to see to is the foundation. If that is good, all will stand that is well built upon it. This foundation, I need not inform you as readers of the Bible is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God has laid in Zion: "Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation, a stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation," (Isa. 28:16). And sinner, if you are not built on this, then you are built on sand; and when the waves come and the winds blow and beat upon your building, it will fall about your ears; and great will be the fall of it. This blessed foundation being laid in Zion, every child of God has it laid under him; so that when shaking, when fearing, when thinking that he has abundant reason to fear, he shall find in God's way and time there is underneath him what is immovable. As a foundation Christ is laid for the purpose of having put on him a superstructure; the building must be well laid on him.
In the art of building there is, as you know, bonding. The bricks are not laid each one perpendicularly on the other, but each is bonded to and with the other; one overlaps another, and there is not an independent brick in the building, there is no unit standing alone. The whole is bonded and knit together so as to form one, and is united to the foundation. Well now, this may open to us a line of truth, an experience of vast importance to us; namely, that if we are not well built, bonded, and joined to this foundation, woe unto us. The Apostle Peter, speaking of it, says to the Lord's people, "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house," or a city (1 Pet.2: 4,5). "Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together," (Ps.l22:3). "Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit," (Eph.2: 19-22).
Now what is it to be built in this city, to become part of it? We must first be cut out of the old building, which is ruined by sin, whose foundation is taken away by sin, so that now of men it is said, "Whose foundation is in the dust" - nothing more, nothing better than that (Job 4:19). Whatever hopes men build, if they build them on this mortal life, they build them on the dust, and nothing more stable. But when God the Spirit convinces sinners of this their condition and ruin, their instability, and that their foundation is no more than dust, then it is as if the whole of nature were being shaken to them; as if the sea roared, and the mountains moved, and they themselves were being carried away with the awful destruction. If you have had any such experience as that, you know that no tongue can properly set out the fears, the sinkings, the terrors, the alarms a man feels when God the Spirit discovers to him his state by nature. But the blessed Spirit takes care that one who is in that case shall have in his heart at times mighty cries; and God hears those cries, and brings him to and lays him on this foundation. "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," (Matt. 16:18). And it is just as if God had said to him, "Ye are God's building," (1 Cor.3:9); as if God should take a sinner with his own hands, and pull him out of the ruin he is in and feeling to be in; and kindly and graciously carry him to, and fix him upon, the very Person of the Lord Jesus. What an act of love, of power, of grace that act of God is! 0, what matchless grace he shows to a sinner when he takes him and lays him on the Rock of Ages, the Lord Jesus, and fixes him there, so that whatever subsequent movings, tossings, and fears he may experience in this world, he is henceforth under God's eye and care. This person is a part of the city which shall never be broken, part of that city which is "builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit," (Eph.2:22). Ah, the sinner who is brought here is brought to build by faith his soul's hopes and expectations on God alone, upon him whom the Lord has laid beneath him. And as God puts the sinner here experimentally, he has this sense in him of being secure, though he is not made secure in the flesh. He is secure against destruction; secure against all storms.
Now, my dear friends, one of the chief points in vital religion is this - to every soul blessed with grace it is the chief point - whether he has been laid upon that blessed one, the Lord Jesus Christ. "In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit," (Eph.2:22). There is a city, and it is compact together, bonded, united. The chief corner-stone holds all the stones that are built upon it, and unites the walls together; and so the Lord Jesus unites the soul that is built upon him to himself and to God. On Christ every soul is brought to be built that is loved and redeemed.
First of all, his people are brought to depend upon his Person, as walls on the foundation. He is their Representative, and they are united to him; as a nation is united in its representative body or head. What the representative is, so is the nation; and what Jesus Christ is as the Representative of his people, so are they; and this is a great point -w hether we have this oneness with him. It is an infinite mercy to be blessed with union to him who is before God to represent his people (Heb.9:24). For a sinner can only represent, or stand for, himself. "Every man shall bear his own burden," (Gal.6:5). Before God he is a sinner, and is cut off by his sin; he must be swept away by destruction for his sins, if he has no Representative to appear before God for him, and that is Jesus Christ.
Is he thy great Forerunner there?
Is he thy Representative, the Person of Christ, who in the first and highest sense is acceptable to God? He is "the firstborn of every creature," and "he is the head of the body, the church," (Col. 1:15-18); and every child of Adam after him that is acceptable to God, is so only in him. Every one must build all his hopes for acceptance on him; he is led to do it by the Spirit, he is taught to do it, and he is glad to do it when faith is given him. The knowledge of the Person of Christ is a wonderful thing in any sinner. "This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent," (Jno. 17:3). Religiosity you may have, religion you may have gathered; but that will not do. You must, if you are to go to heaven, be on another and in another, and that is the Lord Jesus. You must be accepted in him, if ever you are acceptable to God at all; no other way than that. 0 that we knew the Person of Christ! 0 that God would take away from us our unacquaintedness with his Son Jesus Christ!
Again. All that Christ did as the Redeemer has its value from his Person - who he is. His works are infinitely glorious! The character of every work done by a man, more or less distinctly is derived from the man; and the character of all Christ's work is derived from the infinite merit of himself, that is, of his Person. As a Person he is God, the Second Person in the Trinity, the only begotten Son of God. As a Person he is also Man, the Son of man. And these two constitute one Person who is infinitely pleasing to his Father. And from the value of his Person proceeds the value of his work. I mention this particularly, because if you are built on his atonement for pardon, you are well built, because his atonement is infinitely valuable. Faith gives no virtue to the blood of Christ; it receives virtue from it. If you are built upon the blood of Christ, you are on what is of unspeakable value; it is infinitely so in itself before God.
Again. If you are built upon him as an Intercessor, so as to have access to God in your approaches to him, you will find the value of his Person and work will give value to his intercession; so that it matters not, in one sense, if you have no word to speak, being quite dumb through guilt. If he opens his mouth for you, you will have quite enough said for you. "Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy," (Prov.3 1:8, 9).
And so the church thus built on Christ is compact together, and constituted as a city in which God has a delight. You will remember that the prophecy of Ezekiel closes with a remarkable word. The prophet had given to him a vision of a city representing no doubt the church of the living God; and after describing what was shown to him, he closes the whole with that wonderful word: "And the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there - Jehovah Shammah," (Ezek.48:35). And you have the same truth in another way set forth when it is said, "This is his name whereby he" - Jesus Christ - "shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS," (Jer. 23:6). And so complete is the transfer, the imputation, of his righteousness to his people, to the church, that it is said, "And this is the name wherewith she shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness," (33:16). If we get a glimpse of it in our hearts from the Lord, it will have a great effect upon us. What, have we such a union with Christ that his very name is given to us? Are we so builded on him, as that the name, "The Lord is there," belongs to us? 0 professor, 0 child of God, look at this. It is a trembling consideration for some whose profession is godliness, but whose experience and practice, it is to be feared, are far removed from it.
This city grows; it "groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord," (Eph.2:21). It grows by additions. Additions are made to it whenever souls are born again and brought to cry to God - dug out of the quarry, hewn out of the rock (Isa. 51:1), and brought as lively stones to this living stone, Jesus Christ.
Well, there is the city, there is the church. When this old building crumbles, when each person who belongs only to the first creation here shall lie in the dust, when time shall be no more, when all mountains and all the earth and the elements shall melt with fervent heat and be rolled together as a scroll,
When rolling worlds depart on fire,
And thousands sink to hell,
with devils now held in chains unto the day of judgment, when all these shall have departed to their own place; then this city with all her privileges, with all her beauty and completeness and freshness, shall be for ever with the Lord. 0, if we but belong to it, if we be but parts of it, if it should please God, out of his infinite goodness, to grant that we might belong to that blessed city! And need we wonder that this city is so stable? Can we wonder, if we see her foundations? Can we wonder when we see the eternal, electing love of God, when we know the decree that certain men shall be adopted as children unto God by Jesus Christ, when we see the infinite purposes of kindness are all in that very Person Jesus Christ, to whom the Lord gave grace for the church before the world began "Jesus Christ," who is "the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever," (Heb.13:8)? "What shall one then answer the messengers of the nation? That the Lord hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it," (Isa.14:32). 0, how stable is the church!
Local churches, such churches as existed in Asia and here and there all over the world, as we know from Scripture and from history, have risen and fallen, they have come and gone, but this church rises and falls not. How exceedingly solemn it is to see how God has sent his gospel to districts, and for a certain number of years kept it there, saying in effect as he said to Paul, "(Abide here), for I have much people in this city," (Acts 18:10); but the time has come when a living ministry has ceased to have effect, when people have grown loose, when the habits of the country have been adopted, when laxity with respect to God begins to prevail, when pernicious error gets hold of the mind and seizes the judgment; when people begin to think the old way too narrow, the old-fashioned doctrines not suitable to the present age. So decay has set in in local churches, the leprosy has got into the walls, the garments, and the people; and they have gone as churches - died away. Candlesticks have been removed; candlesticks are removable, local churches are removable; but this city is immovable. In the Hebrews the Apostle speaks of it as a kingdom, and each child of God is said to receive it: "Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear," (12:28).
I just make these observations, although not strictly connected with the subject; but inasmuch as the city of God is made up of saints, and saints are gathered together in local churches, it is not absolutely foreign to it. The Lord help us to lay it to heart, and pray that he would be with us, and that he would give us a powerful, separating, living ministry; that we might hear a certain sound with power and authority; that we might be truly separated, for no one can be truly separate until separated. We are all mixed naturally with other things, with wrong things; and in order to be separate, we must be separated from a seed of evildoers. There is a city that shall praise him, in which he will live and dwell; in which he will magnify the overflowings of his love and mercy in the overflowing streams which shall refresh the hearts of his people. There is a city in which Immanuel sits as King, dispensing favours to those who are called by his Spirit, and led by his Spirit to the throne of God's heavenly grace, to which they are invited in the Scriptures: "Let us therefore come boldly unto throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need," (Heb. 4:16).
Now, ere I close this part, let me make a few remarks by way of application. And first, let me say, if we have proper, Scriptural ground of hope in our consciences that God the Holy Ghost has separated us, cut us out of the rock, dug us out of the clay of nature and practice, and brought us as miserable creatures, and laid us on this one foundation which is in Zion, Jesus Christ; we shall find that this stone we are builded on will bear us; all the weight of our immortal souls and their undying interests he can and will bear. Remember, he is a tried stone, tried by the imputation of sin, tried by the curse of the law, tried by the hiding of his Father's face, tried by death, tried by the grave; and after the above, I might easily omit, tried by men and devils. It was small to him to be tried by men and hunted by devils, when his Father tried him with sin imputed, with the law, and with death. He bore it all, and arose a mighty Conqueror; came forth of all the trials pleasing to his Father, having magnified the law and made it honourable (Isa. 42:21). He fulfilled all the obligations laid on him when he was made under the law, and came forth of all; as was said of him at his baptism: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," (Matt.3:17). He had the blessed attestation of God himself "I am well pleased with all thou hast done, my beloved Son. Enter heaven, enter thy mediatorial kingdom, sit on this my throne." If then, we are built on him, we shall prove he is able to sustain us - to sustain our faith and hope and the soul in all its interests, and bring us to himself; able to raise us up at the last day for his praise and glory for ever.
And lastly, we shall find, as we are built on him by the blessed Spirit and have faith in exercise in our hearts, that when storms come - and they must come providentially; storms of temptation, when the enemy seems to be let loose upon us; storms of infidelity that some experience; when hope that some of us have known to rise and concentrate upon the Lord Jesus Christ, when love that was so pure and acted upon the Lord Jesus, die down; when faith that seemed so strong, cannot move itself; when storms of that sort come, and when the last storm shall come, called "the last enemy" (1 Cor.15:26) - then, being built on this Rock Jesus Christ, we shall find no storms shall beat us off it. We may, we shall, hear the waters roaring, and see perhaps with fear and some alarm the waves raging and framing, and feel them dashing over and over us; they may wash us as to our experience in many ways, and wash away many things which we can well spare; but they will never wash us off the Rock. "On this rock I will build my church, and" (using another figure) "the gates of hell" - where councils of war are held, where generals are assembled, where schemes and plans are formed, the weak points of the enemy considered - "the gates of hell shall not prevail against" a sinner on this Rock (Matt. 16:18). "The just shall live by his faith," (Hab. 2:4).
What can shake thy sure repose?
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!
Then may God make it clear in our consciences that we are built upon him. Do not be your own witness. A man that bears witness to himself is probably deceived ; but a man who has God for his witness is not; for the witness of God is greater than all other witnesses.
II. Briefly, I would speak a little of the river: "There is a river." It is, as I apprehend, the eternal love of God, Jehovah, flowing forth in acts of election, according to his own Divine, loving, unalterable purpose towards some of Adam's seed whom he would have for his own children. This great, infinitely blessed, self-sufficient God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, decreed in love to have some with him who had deeply revolted from him - not fallen angels, but fallen men. 0 the love of God, how great it is! It is free, it is sovereign; nothing in man moved him to love. No goodness, - "There is none that doeth good; no, not one." No misery in man moved him. If you say that any goodness or badness in the creature influenced him in any decree, you infringe upon his sovereignty; you make liable to external influences the immanent acts of Jehovah. God must be free; he loved because he would love.
Then "streams" come from this river, "The streams whereof make glad the city of God." What are these streams? They are of the nature of the river, parts of it, not something different and distinct. They are the outflowings of God to sinners in certain acts, manifestations of God to them in particular ways. It pleases the Holy Ghost to quicken into life elected, dead sinners, to be in them as "a well of water springing up into everlasting life," (Jno. 4:14). When he comes, he convinces them of their sins, lays eternal realities on their consciences with weight, lays charges against them which are absolutely true, and gives them grace and honesty to confess them before him, and that as they were born and have lived, hell must be their portion. He shows them that no sinner can pardon his own sins; that he must be pardoned by an act of God passed upon him. This is a stream that flows into his wounded heart and guilty conscience in God's time: "I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins," (Isa. 44:22). "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin," (1 Jno.1:7). O sinner, that is the beginning of heaven on earth; the sweet stream of God's pardon flowing into the soul, pacifying, purifying the conscience, cleansing the sinner, causing him to know that God has no quarrel with him, that the law has no charge against him; therefore he stands before God spotless, without blame. What a refreshing stream, what a healing stream the sinner finds when he finds the blood of Christ upon his conscience! Though long waited for by some, it shall surely be the lot of all who are born again, whose cry is, "God be merciful to me a sinner," (Lk. 18:13). There are plenty of reasons in a sinner's conscience why he should not be forgiven; but the blood of Christ overcomes them, removes them all. The streams of pardoning love and mercy are sweet and broad; they are deep, and become wonderful to a sinner. They touch his ankles and strengthen him; come to his knees, that is more strengthening, come to his loins, and at length he finds it a river to swim in. Why God should love him, why he should forgive him, why he should have taken his sins and laid them on Christ by a glorious act, making his sins Christ's so truly that it was proper for God to punish his own Son, and is now proper for him to pardon the sinner; - you will never get over it or through it, but you will swim in it with delight. What a wonderful gladness this makes! "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth," (Hos. 6:3). But he who takes things for granted respecting eternity, without God's testimony, will find himself in a sorrowful, terrible case. These rains and streams are of God's making; the morning rays are of God's order; and thus shall his coming be. He who prays shall not pray in vain; he who waits for him shall not wait in vain; he who looks up to God shall have God discovered to him one day, and be made glad.
Other streams I might mention, as justification, the sealing of the Spirit, particular portions of the Word applied to particular cases. They all come from God; and like him, they have his love in them, his purity and sweetness; and they carry the heart back to God himself. I must leave it here. It is but little I have said, and little comparatively can be said, on a subject so vast, wherein all the perfections of Deity shine, all the love of God is made known, and the grace, the blood, the righteousness, the intercession, and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ appear in all their virtue and fulness. For Zion is the place where God unveils himself as he does nowhere else. May the Lord grant us these special things and refreshing streams through Jesus Christ.
*It is likely that Mr. Popham dealt with this third point in the evening service, but no record of the sermon he then preached appears to have been preserved.