The Saviour saw the multitude coming to Him by the Sea of Galilee. He asked His disciple Philip, “Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” Philips reply was, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little” (John 6:8). This was possibly the limit of their resources, and it would only enable them to purchase what would take the edge off the peoples hunger. It was, Philip confessed, totally inadequate to satisfy the need of the situation.
Then Andrew told his Master about the lad who had “five barley loaves and two small fishes”. “But”, he added, “what are they among so many?” (John 6:9). Useful they no doubt were, but they could feed only a very few of the vast multitude who were gathered around the Saviour.
So we may look around us today. There are vast multitudes of spiritually destitute sinners everywhere. And the situation seems to be getting worse all the time. A survey earlier this year showed that just around a fifth of people in Britain believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, only half of the corresponding figure 43 years ago. Three-quarters of the population agree with the statement that “there can never be absolutely clear guidelines about what is right and what is wrong”. Just over half believe that “there is something after death”. A similar proportion also believe that there is a God, but only a quarter believe in a personal God. Only a quarter accept that the Bible is the unique Word of God. Less than half claim to belong to a particular religion.
These figures indicate something of the desperate spiritual situation in this country. We can see how effectively “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor 4:4). Almost all the influences that affect the minds of people everywhere are distracting them from the truth, and we should take to heart how powerfully Satan is working with his temptations to this end. His great aim is to prevent sinners believing in Christ, to keep them in his kingdom so that they will be with him for ever and share with him the pains of a lost eternity. The multitudes are indeed as sheep without a shepherd.
The situation is serious, but the necessary provision has been made. Christ declares, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). To the human eye, however, it seems altogether unlikely that more than a very few from among these vast multitudes will ever partake of the Bread of Life. In Christ there is no lack of provision, and His promise is as sure today as when it was first given: “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37b). There is, however, a desperate lack of men to go out to tell the multitudes about the provision who would make known to them their desperate need of it on the one hand and, on the other, how perfectly suited it is to their need. As, then, we turn our eyes from the teeming multitudes of mankind to the few, the very few, who proclaim a pure gospel to their fellow-sinners, we might well exclaim, “What are they among so many?”
Yet, as we think back to the Disciples dilemma by the Sea of Galilee, we should notice the fact that “He Himself knew what He would do” (John 6:6). None of Gods purposes will ever fail for lack of resources. So, in spite of present trends, the Christian Church will never be swept out of existence; we can be absolutely confident that the Lord will turn the tide, in His own time. Indeed, sooner or later, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9).
Meanwhile, how is the Church of God to react to the present situation? Her resources are small, the labourers few. What is more, the enemy is strong, and sinners are altogether content to continue in their present dangerous condition. The fact is that, in the Saviours words, “when a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace” (Lk 11:21). If we do not look beyond human power, we can have no hope that any sinners still in the devils kingdom will ever be effectively awakened to see the awfulness of their position. No matter how strongly their danger or their sinfulness is emphasised, they will never flee from the wrath to come. Consequently, no matter how clearly the gospel is presented, they will never look to the crucified Redeemer. Left to herself, the Church of God is totally powerless in the face of the enemy. We may rest assured that Satan is not short of resources. Ever since his fall into a sinful state, he has been using his vast, and malicious, intelligence to work out new ways, and to make old ways even more effective, to lead sinners on towards a lost eternity. If we were to focus solely on the might of the kingdom of darkness, we would be forced to conclude that the situation is altogether hopeless.
But the situation is not at all hopeless. No matter how strong Satan is, there is a stronger than he. And “when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, He taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils” (Luke 11:22). We should have no doubt about the fact that Satan is a defeated foe. Christ triumphed at Calvary and therefore His words must be fulfilled: “All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me” (John 6:37a). This all will form at last no small body of people; we are to view them as “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev 7:9). Christs power to save sinners should be unquestioned, for “Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance . . . and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). When it is Gods will to draw a sinner into His kingdom, no one can resist. The sinner cannot hold out against the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit; the devil cannot then retain his grasp of that sinner. However long the sinner and the devil may have gone on hand in hand against the authority of God, that resistance must collapse in the face of the saving work of the Holy Spirit.
Yet God works by means in bringing sinners to Himself. “It pleased God”, we are told, “by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor 1:21). So, as we look around us today at the vast multitudes who, most of them, display almost total ignorance of Scripture, we cannot but feel disturbed that Gods ambassadors are few. The number of ministers in this country is decreasing, but of greater concern is the fact that many of those who profess to be Gods servants have so little understanding of Gods Word that they could not begin to direct an awakened sinner to the Saviour. We should remember the words of Christ: “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that He would send forth labourers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2). The fewness of ministers called into the harvest by God Himself is a matter which calls for earnest prayer in the name of Christ.
Even where faithful ministers are preaching a pure gospel year after year, there is often very little fruit. Such preaching, while it is Gods appointed instrument for the salvation of sinners, is altogether ineffective on its own. Even the preaching of such eminent men as Paul and Apollos would have achieved nothing if the Holy Spirit had not been at work. Pauls declaration was: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Cor 3:6). Fruit there clearly was in Corinth sinners were converted and then built up in their most holy faith but this was the result of the Holy Spirit accompanying the Word of God as it was preached.
What then is the small band of Gods ambassadors to do in the face of their own weakness and the powerful opposition of the world? They are to have the spirit of the Psalmist: “I will go in the strength of the Lord God” (Ps 71:16). They have been sent out by the Master; their duty is to go on whether conditions are favourable or otherwise. Their reward at last will depend on their faithfulness, not on their success. But they may go on in the sure knowledge that there will yet be success for the Church of God.
They are to continue their work of proclaiming both law and gospel with the encouragement also of past success in many parts of the world. The first efforts of the New Testament Church were remarkably blessed. The result of the preaching of Peter and his fellow-disciples on the Day of Pentecost was that 3000 individuals were rescued from the kingdom of Satan. It was a good day for Thessalonica also when some of the leading representatives of Satans kingdom complained, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also” (Acts 17:6). Many in that city had their world turned upside in an altogether beneficial way when the “gospel came not . . . in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance”, when they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thess 1:5,9f).
Repeatedly since then, the gospel has been preached with extraordinary effects. In 1756 a Somerset minister recorded, “It is now 15 years since I was settled in this place and, though I found religion at a low ebb, it pleased God by my poor ministration to revive it soon after my first coming, and to continue it more or less in a flourishing state to this day. Every year there have been additions, and in some years very large, of such as I hope will be saved. Upwards of 200 have been taken into communion upon a credible profession since my settlement, many of them the most profligate in the places around us, whose change has been so remarkable that the world . . . express their astonishment of many of them so very ignorant as not to know the plainest and most common principles of religion . . . who are now making the Word of God their daily study and delight, many who never prayed in all their lives and lived without God in the world, who have attained to such a gift in prayer as to be engaged on particular occasions in public to the pleasure and edification of all present, and whose houses, which were once dens of thieves, are now become Bethels in which family worship is constantly and seriously performed. You would be more astonished did you know by what a poor, weak, sinful instrument this has been done. I assure you it has often humbled me to the dust when I think of it, and yet I am not humbled enough.”
In the light of such wonders of grace, there is clearly still hope for this generation, in spite of their ignorance and wilful disregard of the claims of God. There is hope too in spite of the fewness and the weakness of the instruments which God might use. In the hand of a sovereign God, no instrument is too weak to bring the divine purposes to pass. We can rest assured that God will, in His own time, provide sufficient and suitable instruments so that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of His glory.
As a branch of Christs Church in this world, we may indeed feel our weakness. Yet a proper consciousness of weakness should make us all the more willing to cast ourselves on the omnipotence of the One who is exalted “a Prince and a Saviour”, the King over His Church. In our weakness we can be made strong in looking to Him. The Lord can yet use us to make His name known in the various parts of the world where we are represented, and beyond to proclaim, by His grace, both law and gospel and to preserve the witness which has been handed down to us by previous generations.
Let us then take up the prayer, “Let Thy hand be upon the Man of Thy right hand, upon the Son of man whom Thou madest strong for Thyself. . . . Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved” (Ps 80:17,19). If we truly enter into that prayer, we will not again need to ask, “What are they among so many?” It is well within Gods power to provide all the necessary resources and, especially, to give the Holy Spirit.