Weakness and littleness are not qualities that the natural man values, and Christians also shrink from being perceived as insignificant in the world around them. The Lord in His goodness taught the apostle Paul the value of considering himself weak, through the instrumentality of a “thorn in the flesh”, lest he should become prideful and exalted in his thoughts as to his privileges and achievements.
While meditating on that portion of scripture in II Corinthians 12 recently, it struck me that, although the scope of the passage is really individual, we may well be comforted and encouraged by applying these principles corporately (at least in part) to a little testimony of believers gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul took pleasure in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions, in straits, for Christ, “for when I am weak,” he said, “then am I strong.” How could this paradox be true? It was in finding the grace of God to be sufficient for him in his confessed weakness, so that the “power of Christ” could dwell upon him. Ought it not be so collectively also, where little gatherings of believers, exercised likewise as individuals, are satisfied to take a weak and insignificant place in the world for Christ’s sake? Then all credit for any blessing through us accrues to Him. I have no doubt this would be according to “the mind of Christ”.
This is not to say that weakness in Christian assemblies is never due to worldliness and departure from “first love”. Sadly, that is too often the case, we ought to confess. But it was the Lord Jesus Himself who encouraged a few of His own, and by extension the “two or three” or more who would later be gathered in His name, when He said to them: “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”¹ That natural tendency to fear might be in expectation of coming persecutions, but in the context of the Lord’s word to them here, He seems to be referencing the fear of not having a place in this world, of being poor and despised as a little group of His followers.
To the assembly at Philadelphia, the Lord Jesus offers this encouragement: “Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My word, and hast not denied My name” (Revelation 3:8). This assurance is remarkable in that Jesus invites them to take courage in the blessed fact that He will act for them and for His glory by opening the doors they were powerless to open, and because the littleness of their power is linked to their devotion to His word and name. In stark contrast, Paul uses irony to challenge the Corinthian church’s high thoughts of themselves, when he writes: “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong” (I Corinthians 4:10). The fact that he just a few verses later speaks of them as being “puffed up” also indicates that the assembly at Corinth had very soon dispensed with the spirit of dependence upon the Lord that comes from rightly considering oneself weak and unimportant in the world.
Throughout the church age, starting not long after the church was established in power at the beginning of this dispensation, it has been the poor, despised, and weak saints that have the approbation of the Lord because of their dependence upon Him. We are assured of this first of all in the person and testimony of Paul, for at the end of his path of service, he was generally forsaken or thought lightly of by most in the Christian profession.² The inspired record also tells us that the church at Smyrna was poor (yet rich spiritually), and Philadelphia’s weakness and devotion has been noted above (Revelation 2 & 3).
Church history bears witness to the same principles of riches in poverty and power through weakness. After all, the Head of the church “was crucified through (on the principle of) weakness”, yet He lives by the power of God (II Corintians 13:4). The Paulicians of the seventh and eighth centuries were severely persecuted and decimated for seeking to follow Paul’s spirit and doctrine. The Waldensians of the later middle ages had a bright testimony for Christ against a backdrop of great spiritual darkness in the mass of the Christian profession. The earliest Anabaptists of the 16th century, though severely persecuted (and in some ways misguided), challenged the status quo of the church-state marriage that had obtained for more than 1000 years, the bane of which the much larger Protestant movement has never really understood or renounced even up to the present day. The far-reaching but largely unpopular (so-called) Plymouth Brethren movement of the 19th century had the benefit of a relatively tolerant era, along with the scholarship and faith of many individuals going before, so that according to one evangelical scholar, it had a significant impact on evangelical Christianity quite disproportionate to its numbers. Dispensational truth, the expectancy of the Lord’s imminent return, and a return to first principles in the body of Christ and house of God are all results of doors opened to the brethren by the Lord Himself.
It is not a virtuous thing to be few, despised, and weak, but saints nonetheless can take courage in knowing that the Lord Jesus takes note of and rewards not only individuals, but also gatherings or companies of saints that seek in dependence on Him to bear a clear testimony to His name. Given this truth, where would you be inclined to cast your lot in the Christian profession? With a religious system numbering more than a billion souls that claims succession from the apostles and has used its political power and power over consciences to reign on the earth while the Lord Jesus is gone to receive for Himself a kingdom?³ With an evangelical denomination claiming an attendance of millions each Sunday that only thinly veils its political power in swaying American elections? Or with the largest or most vibrant church in your town, because you see power being manifested there in the music, the programs, the pastor?
“Who has despised the day of small things?” was the word of Jehovah regarding the small contingent of just a few tens of thousands of Jews whom He brought back from their captivity to build the second temple, a mere shadow of the one built by Solomon and indwelt with the glory of God.* So let us take care to not despise littleness or apparent weakness in the collective testimony of a few that the Spirit of God has brought back to scriptural principles, and that He has raised up to bear witness to that wonderful name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
¹ Matthew 18:20; Luke 12:32
² II Corinthians 10:10; 12:15; II Timothy 1:15; 4:10-17
³ Luke 19:12
* Zechariah 4:8-10; Ezra 3:8-13; II Chronicles 7:1-3