The figure will not give us all the steps by which God gets His way in the intricacies of a human soul: we shall see no hint in it of the cleansing and filling that is needed in sinful man before he can follow the path of the plant. It shows us some of the Divine principles of the new life rather than a set sequence of experience; above all, the parable gives a lesson that most of us only begin to learn after Pentecost has become a reality to us -- the lesson of walking, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
The flesh -- the life of nature -- is all, good and bad alike, that we had and were before Christ came to us. We see its shadow in the life of root and stem, leaf and tendril and petal, that made up the plant before its new birth took place; "for all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field." It is not only that which is sinful as opposed to that which is holy: it is that which is human as opposed to that which is Divine.
In the earlier stage of the seed-vessel's growth we see the two lives, the old and the new, practically going on alongside. And can we not remember, many of us, in our own history, how the self life went almost untouched and unrecognised, for years, while all the time Christ was growing within us, and our ministry was being given?
Let us look at the seed-vessels, well set and forming fast, with their natural life all unbroken as yet, and learn to be very tender and patient with the early stages of God's work in those around.
But though the two may exist for a time side by side, they cannot flourish together. The crisis must come to us as to the annual, when the old creation begins to go down into the grave, and the new begins to triumph at its cost.
In the plant life the two are absolutely and for ever separate -- there is no possibility of confounding the perishable existence of leaf and stalk with the newborn seed-vessel and its hidden riches. In the heavenly light the distinction stands out as ineffaceably. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." But our eyes are too dim at first to distinguish them in detail: with most of us it is only when the cleansing Blood has dealt with the question of known sin, and the Spirit's incoming has cleared our vision, that the two lives, natural and spiritual, begin to stand out before us, no longer shading into each other, but in vivid contrast. The word of God in the hand of the Holy Ghost pierces to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and we see bit by bit as we can bear it, how we have made provision for the flesh, given occasion to the flesh, had confidence in the flesh, warred after the flesh, judged after the flesh, purposed after the flesh, known each other after the flesh. The carnal nature with its workings stands out as the hindrance in the way of the Divine, and the time comes when we see that no more growth is possible to the Christ in us unless a deliverance comes here.
We are helpless in the matter. There is no system of self-repression or self-mortification that will do anything but drive the evil below the surface, there to do a still more subtle work, winding down out of reach. The roots will only strike deeper and the sap flow stronger for the few leaves trimmed off here and there. If self sets to work to slay self it will only end in rising hydra-headed from the contest. How is the deliverance to come?
The annuals give us the secret. Look back at the vetch seed-vessels. Why is it that the leaves which used to stand firm and fresh like those of the flowering clover, have begun to shrivel and turn yellow? It is because they have acquiesced wholly now in the death sentence of their new birth, and they are letting the new life live at the expense of the old. Death is being wrought out by life.
And the same triumphant power of the new life is set free as we come to accept to its utmost limits the sentence of Calvary, that "our old man was crucified with Him," in its sum-total, seen and unseen, root and branch. Christ is our Life now -- our only Life -- and we begin to find that He is dealing with the old creation, we hardly know how. We only know that as we bring the judgment, the motive, the aim that were ours, not His, into contact with Him, they shrivel and wither like the dying leaves. The impulses and the shrinkings of the flesh perish in His Presence alike. The new life wrecks the old. "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live" -- that is what the withering leaves say. We are "saved by His life."
The great North African aloe plant shows this very strikingly. It is like our annuals on a large scale, for it flowers and seeds but once in its career, though that numbers more years than these can count weeks.
Up till then its thick hard leaves look as if nothing could exhaust their vigour. The flower stalk pushes up from a fresh sheaf of them -- up and up twelve or fourteen feet -- and expands into a candelabra of golden blossom, and not a droop comes in the plant below. But as the seed forms, we see that life is working death, slowly and surely; the swords lose their stiffness and colour and begin to hang helplessly, and by the time it is ripe, every vestige of vitality is drained away from them, and they have gone to limp, greyish-brown streamers. The seed has possessed itself of everything.
And the meadow plants that we have been watching follow, on their small pattern, the same law.
All gives way to the ripening seed. In the grasses the very root perishes by the time the grain is yellow, and comes up whole if you try to break the stem. They "reign in life" above through the indwelling seed, while all that is "corruptible" goes down into dust below. They have let all go to life -- the enduring life: they are not taken up with the dying -- that is only a passing incident -- everything is wrapped up into the one aim, that the seed may triumph at any cost. Death is wrought out almost unconsciously: the seed has done it all.
Can we not trace the same dealing in our souls as, slowly, tenderly, all that nourished that which is carnal is withdrawn, giving way to the forming of the Christ life in its place? His thoughts and desires and ways begin to dethrone ours as the aloe seed dethrones its leaves and casts them to the ground. "He must increase, but I must decrease."
And the outward dealings co-operate with the inward. It is just in the very corner of everyday life where God has put us, that this can take place, and the surrounding influences can have their share in bringing down to death the old nature. It is no mystical, imaginary world that draws out the latent forms of self, but the commonplace, matter-of-fact world about us.
It is in contact with others, for the most part, that the humbling discoveries of the workings of the flesh come, on the one hand, and on the other we find ourselves breaking down in one after another of our strongest points. And all these things that seem against us are really doing a blessed work -- they are "the Wind of the Lord" coming "up from the wilderness" to "spoil the treasure" of all that is of former days. Everything that is "natural," good and bad alike, must go down into death before its blast, when God takes it in hand -- all that we can lean upon in outward things, all clinging to the visible and the transitory; and with this result, that our arms clasp closer and closer round the Eternal Seed, Christ in us the Hope of Glory -- known no longer after the flesh, but by the mighty revelation of the Holy Ghost.
All this is shadowed forth in the story of these southern plants; one day's sirocco in May will turn a field, bright with the last flowers, into a brown wilderness, where the passing look sees nothing but ruin -- yet in that one day the precious seed will have taken a stride in its ripening that it would have needed a month of ordinary weather to bring about; it will have drawn infinite life out of the fiery breath that made havoc with the outward and visible.
"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it." But "our light affliction" (and from the context we see that spiritual trial is included there) "which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory -- while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." In all the breaking down on the human side, the hidden treasure is left not only unhurt but enriched. Everything that wrecks our hopes of ourselves, and our earthly props, is helping forward infinitely God's work in us.
So "we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day." God's purpose for us is that we should be seed-vessels; all the rest may go down into nothingness, for it "profiteth nothing." The plant does not faint in its inner heart. Little does it matter what happens to the "corruptible": each fading of the outward only marks a corresponding development of the "incorruptible" within.
"What things were gain to me" (the words seem echoed from the fading leaves and the ripening seed), "those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ."
"This one thing I do." "They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit, the things of the Spirit." The plant has nothing to "mind" now but the treasure it bears. Its aim has grown absolutely simple. In old days there was the complexity of trying to carry on two lives at once, nourishing root and stem, leaf and flower and tendril, alongside the seed-vessel and the seed. All that is over. It withdraws itself quietly into the inner shrine where God is working out that which is eternal. It has chosen, in figure, that good part which shall not be taken away: it is pressing towards the mark for the prize of its calling.
Pressing, but in perfect rest. "They toil not, neither do they spin," these plants, in their seed-bearing any more than in their flowering. And when we have learnt something of their surrender, we are ready for their secret of waiting on God's inworking. How long we are in grasping that we are His workmanship, even as they -- in discovering the simple fact that it is exactly as impossible by our own striving to develop the Christ-life in our hearts as to form the seed in the pod! We have not to produce out of our higher nature a lowliness and a patience and a purity of our own, but simply to let the pure, patient, lowly life of Jesus have its way in us by yieldingness to it and by faith in its indwelling might. "All that God wants from man is opportunity." The whole of our relationship to His power, whether for sanctification or for service, is summed up in those words.
Surrender -- stillness -- a ready welcoming of all stripping, all loss, all that brings us low, low into the Lord's path of humility -- a cherishing of every whisper of the Spirit's voice, every touch of the prompting that comes to quicken the hidden life within: that is the way God's human seed-vessels ripen, and Christ becomes "magnified" even through the things that seem against us.
"Mine but to be still:
And it is not only the siroccos that help forward His purpose for us! The "clear heat" and the midnight dews all minister together: "the sun to rule the day" when His light and sweetness flood our souls; -- the darkness -- the cloudless darkness -- of a walk by faith when "the moon and the stars" of the promises alone are visible: "His mercy endureth for ever" through all alike and He uses them to their utmost that Christ may be formed in us.
For the spirit of abandonment has to be carried into our spiritual life, as well as into the things that only touch the natural. The seed-vessel has to go down into death as well as the leaf. Look at it as it begins to pass into the valley of that shadow and its strength begins to ebb away. It is only getting ready by its weakening, for the service to which it has been called.
Long ago we imagined, it may be, an enduement of power from on high in which we should have a conscious supply of the heavenly energising -- a conscious equipment for every service -- a reservoir of Divine might that could be drawn on at will. But watch the seed-vessel as the hour comes near in which its ministry can be fulfilled; there is only weakness greater than ever before. "It is sown in weakness"; only in the raising does the power come into play.
"I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." "The weak things of the world hath God chosen." "We are weak with Him" (margin) -- oh! words of wonderful grace and sweetness. There is nothing but rest in being brought low "with Him."
And not only must our service feel this weakening touch: it must go deeper yet. Our experiences, the blessed hours of opened heavens, must be held with a loose hand. We saw the life withdrawn before from the leaves of the old creation into the seed-vessel of the new. Now it is withdrawn further still, as ripeness comes, from the seed-vessel into the seed. In the early stages of Christian path we are apt to be much taken up, and rightly, with the spiritual processes by which God is working in us. But in the "ripeness of maturity" (the real sense of "perfect" in Col. i.28, and elsewhere) He has something better for us. "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." He wants to bring us from clinging to the emotional on one hand, and on the other from morbid introspection: for perhaps one of the chief dangers besetting those who are following hard after Him, lies in getting taken up with these inner experiences (it is awfully possible for the devil to rivet the chains of self back on a soul even in the very act of watching the death process going on within it, getting it absorbed even with its own dying!). Let us come as fast as we can to letting the seed-vessel go as well as the leaves, God wants to bring us to a life of childlike simplicity, taken up with His Christ; always lower and lower at His feet in the consciousness of shortcoming and unworthiness as His Glory shines, but with our spiritual selves and all their intricacies fading out of sight before Him. As we go on, we learn to draw the supply of every need for spirit and soul and body from the simplest, barest, most direct contact with Him. All the intervening tissues in the seed-vessel melt away. "You have learnt the death of self when there is nothing between your bare heart and Jesus."
Yes; when the seed is ripe it fills up the whole of the husk -- there is no room left for anything else: the walls shrivel to a mere shell. This is the calling of the Bride -- to have no room for anything but Jesus. Blessed are they who hear it and respond.
Look at the parable. The life of leaf and tendril has shrunk away, but there is nothing sad about the dying of the seed-vessel. What lovely things they are, these little burnt offerings! Their bright golden browns look far happier than the greens of spring.
And they have come now to a point of beautiful heedless freedom about the future. When once the last shade of green that marks a clinging to the old days has vanished, all carefulness for the earthly side of things vanishes too. No matter how soon now the last strand of earthly support and supply gives way: its loss is not felt. The life is "hid" with such a hiding that nothing from around can touch it. The fiercest summer glow only causes the little germ to wrap itself close together in happy recklessness, the careless feet that tread it down can only hasten the burial that is its next stage onward, the autumn storms can bring it nothing but fresh draughts of quickening.
Yes, our life is hid with Christ in God, in actual truth as well in God's purpose, if it has come to this that it is "no longer" we that live but Christ that liveth in us. Oh! the simplicity of that "no longer" -- as the seed-vessel pictures it now, taken up with the seed it bears, and heedless of itself and whatever may come. And yet, in the absolute simplicity, there is a depth of mystery that the former days never knew. It is like a soul that has come into the Holiest, where it has God alone.