Mr. Chairman, Faculty Colleagues, Students, Members of the Theological School Committee, Friends gathered with us:
I wish to call your attention this evening to an instructive example from yesteryear. There are many such examples in Scripture, and they are written for our instruction and warning. The basis of such examples lies in the principle stated in the little Dutch verse,
“In’t verleden ligt het heden,
In het nu wat worden zal.”
Roughly translated, that is:
In the past lies the present,
In the now the what-shall-be.
The example to which I refer is recorded partly in Joshua 24:29-33. There you read: “And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance in Timnath-serah, which is in mount Ephraim, on the north side of the hill of Gaash. And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord, that he had done for Israel.” Then follows the account of the burying of the bones of Joseph, verse 32. And verse 33 reads: “And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him in a hill that pertained to Phinehas his son, which was given him in mount Ephraim.” Partly, too, this example is recorded in the somewhat parallel passage of Judges 2:7-10: “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord, that he did for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance in Timnethheres, in the mount of Ephraim, on the north side of the hill Gaash. And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” Immediately following this passage is the notice that the children of Israel apostatized, forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashteroth.
It is to the positive word of warning and exhortation which is implied in this example that I wish to call your attention under the theme, “Pass the Word!”
The Passing of a God-fearing Generation
It is a general phenomenon of the history of the world and also of the history of God’s people in the world that this history is characterized by the fact that one generation succeeds another. Also among God’s people and in God’s church there is such a succession of generations, one generation replacing the preceding one. This stands connected, of course, with the fact that God causes His covenant to run in the line of generations. Hence, every twenty-five or thirty years a new generation arises and, so to speak, occupies front and center of the stage of the history of God’s church in the world.
In the second place, it is also a general phenomenon of church history that this history is characterized by alternating periods of strength and weakness, of faithfulness and apostasy. This does not necessarily mean that with unfailing regularity a strong and faithful generation is followed by a weak and apostate generation. Nevertheless, generally speaking, the history of God’s church is characterized by such alternating periods of strength and weakness. Certain generations of God’s people are God-fearing. In them there is the knowledge of the Lord. By them the truth of God’s Word is maintained. Along with this, they are characterized by the fact that they walk in the ways of Jehovah. Other generations, on the contrary, are characterized by ignorance, by indifference toward the truth, by apostasy, by weakness, and by worldlimindedness. Thus it was in the history of Israel. Just compare, if you will, the generation of Joshua’s time and the generation immediately following in the period of the Judges. In the latter you can hardly recognize God’s people. Or compare the period of David-Solomon with the immediately following period of Rehoboam-Jeroboam. Or compare it with the generation of Elijah’s time, during the reign of Ahab, when Elijah complained, “They have broken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword.” That was a period when one would be inclined to ask the question, “Hath God cast away His people whom He foreknew?” The same is true of the new dispensation. Compare, if you will, the church of apostolic times with the church during the Dark Ages. Or compare the church of the Reformation with the church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when there was dead orthodoxy and rationalism. Or even compare one generation with another within the same church denomination. The point is clear.
Now, what does it mean that there are such alternating generations? This phenomenon certainly does not imply that in a given period or a given generation all are spiritual seed. It does not even imply that the majority are spiritual seed. This is never the case. It was not true during the time of Joshua either. For Scripture informs us that even at that time there were strange gods among them. Always it is true that there is only a remnant according to the election of grace. And even when reformation is wrought in the church, the fact remains that no reformation is ever wholly pure. But this phenomenon does indeed imply that during a given period of history the spiritual element in the church is dominant. There are various factors which may contribute to this dominance. Partly, the spiritual element may be dominant because they are relatively strong in number. This was true of Israel at Joshua’s time: after the forty years of God’s judgments in the wilderness, the carnal element was decimated, and the spiritual element was relatively strong in number. Partly, too, the dominance of the spiritual element may be due to historical circumstances, due to the fact, for example, that they are eye witnesses of God’s works for His people. And partly, this dominance of the spiritual element may be attributed to the fact that God gives to a certain generation men of influence. He gives them a Joshua, an Eleazar, and a Caleb. He gives them a Martin Luther and a John Calvin. Or, in the case of our own churches, He gives them a Herman Hoeksema and a George M. Ophoff.
Now in the example under consideration this evening Scripture tells us about the passing of a God-fearing generation. First of all, we are informed that Joshua died. He was one hundred ten years old, certainly one of the two oldest men in Israel at that day. Joshua was the God-appointed leader and ruler of Israel in that generation. Permit me just two remarks in connection with this notice concerning Joshua’s death. The first is that Scripture is customarily sober here. It simply informs us that Joshua died and was buried. You find none of the “hullabaloo” which you find so frequently in worldly accounts concerning the death and burial of great men. The second point is this, that Scripture gives to Joshua the best possible epitaph that a man can have: “Joshua, the servant of Jehovah, died and was buried.” Not only does this statement point us to the fact that he died when his work was finished, and not before. But this is the best testimony that a man can have, and that, too, from God Himself: “the servant of the Lord.” I would certainly like to have such a testimony when I die: Homer Hoeksema, the servant of the Lord, died and was buried.
In the second place, Eleazar died. He was the third and God-fearing son of Aaron. When Aaron had died, Eleazar became the high priest. He was a man who feared the Lord and a man of high station and great influence in Israel, He had shared with Joshua the work of dividing the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel. He died.
Moreover, the Book of Joshua suggests and the Book of Judges confirms that all of that generation arid their elders died, and that a new generation arose after them. This does not merely mean that elders in the sense of older people died. But the chief men and the princes and the judges among Israel died. Some of them undoubtedly died before Joshua; and some of them outlived Joshua. But the point is that before long all of that generation and its influence were gone. A new generation occupied front and center on the stage of the history of Israel.
Now the same thing happens and is happening right along in our own churches. It is not so, of course, that you can draw a sharp line between one generation and the next, as though one generation is completely gone before the next generation arises. No, this is a process, a rather gradual process. But for that very reason the passing of one generation and the rise of the next generation tends to go almost unnoticed. It takes place gradually, until one generation is gone or almost gone and until a new generation has arisen and become influential; and you don’t notice it and don’t pay attention to it until suddenly for some reason you make an accounting of the situation, or until someone calls your attention to the fact. Then you realize that it has happened. That is true, I say, in our own churches. Do you realize that by this time one would have to be at least sixteen years old in order to have known and seen Herman Hoeksema at all? Do you realize that one would have to be some eighteen years old in order to have known and seen George Martin Ophoff? Let me present a few statistics concerning the clergy in our denomination. Perhaps these do not present the whole picture of the situation, but certainly our ministers represent an important aspect of the leadership of our churches. Are you aware of the fact that the oldest active minister in our churches (Rev. Heys) was ordained in 1941, seventeen years after our denominational origin? Do you know that among our active ministers only two (Rev. Heys and I) were ordained before the split of 1953? Are you aware of the fact that among our ministers (if you count the candidates with them) there are some thirteen or fourteen who are third generation Protestant Reformed? Do you know that there are six or seven of our ministers who are of that same age group? And do you know that there tire probably six men among our clergy who may be classified as of the second generation of our churches? I would hazard a guess that most of you are surprised by these statistics, perhaps even a bit frightened. Quickly and almost unnoticed, generations come and go, also among us.
A Very Real Danger
The Word of God informs us that the effect of the passing of that God-fearing generation was apostasy.
This is not directly stated, but it is suggested in the account in the Book of Joshua. We are informed that Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who overlived Joshua. This means, of course, not that every one, head for head, served the Lord, but that the nation as a whole kept the law of Moses, and that they walked in the way of the Lord, the way of His covenant, under the influence of Joshua and the elders. But the very fact that this is stated suggests to us already that this was the extent of Israel’s service of the Lord, and that thereafter a period of apostasy set in.
But the Book of Judges informs us of this directly. InJudges 2 you find the same information concerning the passing of that God-fearing generation. Joshua died and was buried. And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers. And then another generation arose after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which He had done for Israel. And the very next section informs us that they forsook the Lord and served Baa1 and Ashteroth.
How are we to conceive of this apostasy?
It certainly did not occur as an absolute disavowal of Jehovah. Israel did not openly say, “Jehovah is not God; Baa1 and Ashteroth are the only gods.” Such is not life. Moreover, the facts recorded in Scripture are against this: for a study will reveal that throughout the period of the judges it is plain that Jehovah was known and served also. But this apostasy involved a mixture. The Israelites became very broad. Surely, according to their conception, Jehovah was God; but the gods of the nations were also gods and were also to be served. The Israelites took the attitude that they must not be so narrow-minded, like the fathers. The fathers said, “Jehovah is God alone; other gods are idols.” Those fathers of the previous generation lived a rather isolated life. They were out of contact with the world. They were too conservative! And so the new generation assumed the position, “Jehovah is God, but the gods of the nations are gods, too.” This, according to them, was the truer point of view.
And one can find much of the same spirit manifest today. Doctrinally, they say, we must not be so narrow-minded as to insist upon a set of doctrines, a creed. And that position can be made to sound plausible enough, can it not? We must have just the Bible! But then men begin to go a little farther. Religion, they say, is not limited to the contents of any one book. Next they deny the miracles. Then they deny the virgin birth. Then they corrupt and deny the truth of the atonement, of the resurrection. They take the position that God loves His people, but that He loves the wicked, too. God does not hate anyone. Learned men will claim to believe the authority of Scripture, but reserve to themselves the right to “interpret it” differently. Yes, they say, our fathers warned about this; but they didn’t know what we know. They did not have the advantage of the vast increase of knowledge which characterizes our twentieth century! And you can find this same attitude with respect to life as well as with respect to doctrine. Our fathers, they say, frowned at many things. They frowned at the dance, and they frowned at cards, and they frowned at the movie, and at the theater, and at the opera, and they frowned at Sabbath desecration. But we must not be so narrow and so strict. We know better. We can make sanctified use of all those things which they classified as evil.
Such is the character of apostasy.
Moreover, the example before us—as well as other Scriptural examples—teaches us that such apostasy constitutes a very real danger. This is the lesson of history. It has happened in the past. One generation was faithful. The next was apostate. One generation knew the Lord and His works; the next generation knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which He had done for Israel. They forsook the Lord, and served Baa1 and Ashteroth.
But, there is an associated danger, the danger of apostasy, the danger of saying, “It can’t happen to us.” We must never, never assume that attitude! For it is precisely when we assume the attitude that we are safe and that we cannot become apostate, that we are actually in the greatest danger.
Moreover, history is replete with warning examples. Notice what happened in Israel’s history; and remember, Israel was the church—in fact, Israel was the only church there was in that era! The same is true of church history in general, ever since the time of the apostles: there are numerous instances of such apostasy. Or consider Reformed church history. Look at what has happened in the Netherlands, in the churches of Kuyper and Bavinck. Or consider what is happening in our mother church, the Christian Reformed denomination. Well may we ask: to what extent is it already true of us? To what extent is it true that another generation is arising, which knows not the Reformed truth. In fact, fail to ask this and fail to confront this possibility and fail to guard against complacency, and you become by that very fact, a prime candidate for precisely the kind of development of which I have been speaking.
An Urgent Lesson
There is more than one factor which may be mentioned in explanation of this apostasy.
In the first place, at any given period in the history of God’s church in the world there is only a remnant according to the election of grace. Thus it was among Israel, even at the time of Joshua. And thus it always is in the church: there is only a remnant. This implies, of course, that there is a large element which is carnal. True, at the time of Joshua the situation was such that Israel had been purged of that carnal element, to a large extent, in the wilderness. But it did not take long before that carnal element began to increase again and to gain dominion. When the new generation arose, that carnal element held the upper hand. And that is one of the facts of life in the history of the church. Not only is the carnal element always present, and not only does the church always bring forth that carnal element among its children, but the carnal element always seems to increase and to gain in power more rapidly than the spiritual seed.
In the second place, there was the factor of Israel’s failure to exterminate the nations of the Canaanites in the land. The Canaanites, we must remember, represented the kingdom of darkness which was ripe for judgment. Israel represented the kingdom of God, which was to be established on the ruins of the various kingdoms in, the promised land. Those two, Canaan and Israel, the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of God, could not dwell together. And the express command of God to Israel was to exterminate the Canaanites totally. .But they failed. They commenced well, but they never finished the task. And the Canaanites which were allowed to dwell in the land became a snare to Israel. The Israelites made common cause with them; they served their idols; they intermarried with them. And there is a lesson here. The lesson is this: fail to overcome the world, and it will surely overcome you!
The third factor that served to explain the apostasy of that generation is laxity on the part of the remnant.
Negatively, they were lax in that they failed to root out the idolater from among them. In Israel, the false prophet had to be killed! The idolater had to be rooted out! And it was the failure to kill the false prophet and to root out the idolater that ultimately led the whole nation into captivity.
Positively, there was a laxity in transmitting the knowledge of the Lord to future generations. Notice what happened. The passing generation knew the Lord and His work for Israel. They had seen all His great works for Israel. But the next generation, knew not the Lord, neither the works He had done for Israel. There can be only one explanation of this sharp contrast: failure to transmit! Israel had the express and emphatic command to teach the generations to come the fear of the Lord and to tell of His wondrous works. It is plain that the generation of Joshua’s time had failed to do this: otherwise the next generation would have known! The conclusion from all this is plain: grow lax in instruction—in home or school or church—and the next generation will not know Jehovah and will not know all His great works for His people.
That, therefore, is the urgent lesson which I would leave with you this evening.
For the church in general that lesson is, first of all, that she must be faithful in the preaching of the Word. That Word, the Word of the infallible Scriptures, reveals to us the Lord and His works for His people in Christ Jesus our Savior. That Word must be maintained in all its purity by the church in the generation that fears the Lord. And it must be transmitted to the generation to come. Secondly, this implies that the church must watch in. the exercise of discipline. Positively, we must watch in exhorting one another, lest we fall asleep! Negatively, the church must watch in the expulsion of evil and of the evil doer from her midst!
Let me apply that for a moment to our own churches in particular.
The Lord has given us a heritage. He has showed us the truth in its clearest glory, the truth that God is GOD! And He has done great work for us!
Pass the Word!
Let us watch and pray, and not grow weary and become lax. Let us understand our calling and accomplish it. Let us pass the Word, the Word of God, in the churches and their pulpits.
That implies that we must pass the Word primarily in our seminary. We must pass the Word of the Lord to the generation to come, so that it may be passed on from our pulpits. My faculty colleagues, that is our calling. My young brethren of the student body, it is your calling to imbibe that Word with all your might and main.
Let us do that! Let us do it not in our own strength, but by faith in Him Who is the better Joshua, Who not only died and was buried, but Who rose again and Who is become the quickening Spirit!
Let us do it, lest it be said of another generation: they know not the Reformed (Protestant Reformed) truth, neither the work which the Lord did for them!