“And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation” (Exod 1.6)
It was the end of an era. “That generation” finally passed away. That generation of brothers who knew a father called Jacob. A father who had seen a ladder to heaven at Bethel. A father who had seen the face of God at Peniel. A father who ended his days worshipping, leaning on the top of his staff.
That generation which had known the miracle of Joseph’s life story. How God took a boy whom they sold for 20 pieces of silver and made him Lord of all Egypt, in order to preserve them, save them, and eventually bring them into the Promised Land.
That unique generation contained a number of illustrious characters. Benjamin, from whom came a tribe of mighty warriors; Levi, from whom came all the priests and Levites Israel ever had; Judah, from whom came the lawgivers, the sceptre-holding royal line of David.
All.That.Generation.Died. The original 12 “children of Israel”. Dead. Buried. All gone. All just a memory. It was indeed the end of an era.
We also stand at the end of an era. A generation among us is passing too. They are the pre-war generation, born before 1939. A few weeks ago I buried my 98 year old mother, born in 1921. She was part of that generation. That generation who knew days of economic depression. That generation who generally left School in their teens, worked hard all their lives and whose favourite expression was “waste not want not”. That generation who grew up without TV, without social media and without lot of spare cash. That generation who were saved under solemn, searching gospel preaching. That generation who read and prayed daily, who always gave thanks for their meals and who took the things of God seriously. That generation who treated their elders with respect, who treated the Lord’s Day with respect, and who never touched a drop of drink. That generation who often paid a high price for being in assembly fellowship, who never missed a meeting and who always came on time.
There were some illustrious names in that generation too. Here in the UK I remember the likes of Robert McPheat, Jack Hunter and A.M.S. Gooding. Across the water in North America – Oliver Smith, Albert Ramsay, Norman Crawford and many more. On the mission field Eddie Fairfield, Sidney Saword, Crawford Allison. And not just preachers. And not just men. Thousands of brothers and sisters in Christ who faithfully carried the light of truth and testimony, who bore the toil and heat of the day, and who, after decades of faithful service, have gone to their reward.
The passing of the pre-war generation is a cause for sober reflection and assessment. Why? Because spiritual convictions do not run in the blood. A continuation of the high standards of the past is not a right. It is not guaranteed. It’s not automatic. Which is why great men of the past have often expressed apprehension about what might come after them. Said Moses: “I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves” (Deut 31.29). Said Paul, “I know this that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you” (Acts 20:29). Said Peter, “I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance” (2 Pet 1:15). Three great men, all concerned about what would happen after they were gone.
What was their concern? What troubled them? Generational drift. Generational downgrade. Generational departure. And well it might. Students of Biblical history know just how soon, how rapidly, a deep seated reverence for God and a heartfelt appreciation of His truth can be lost.
Take Moses. Clearly Moses knew God. Moses proved God. Moses loved God. Moses paid the price for his convictions. Refusing the luxury and ease of Egypt he chose “to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” But what about the generation that followed him? Since he wasn’t able to go into the Promised Land Moses made sure that Joshua was trained up to carry on the great task of faithfully leading the people of God. Joshua acquitted himself with valour too. But it wasn’t to last. The inspired record relates that “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…died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him…And also ‘all that generation’ were gathered unto their fathers…”
Wait for it.
“…and there arose ‘another generation’ after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD…and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt…and served Baal and Ashtaroth” (Judg 2:6-14).
What’s the take away from that sad narrative? “They knew not the Lord nor His works.” Of course, they knew of the Lord. They had heard about His works. But their knowledge of God was second hand. Their knowledge of their incredible history was second hand. And when everything you know is second hand, when everything you have just lands in your lap with no cost, here’s the problem: what has been gained cheaply can be lost cheaply. Why defend a well when you didn’t dig it? Why hold a fort when you didn’t build it? Why fight for land that cost you no blood, or sweat or tears?
So how do you overcome this generational problem? You can’t repeat the crossing of Red Sea every time a new generation comes along. You can’t keep re-fighting the battle of Jericho just to let your children know how precious their inheritance is. True. So here’s what God did. He set up a number of annual events, and some memorials, and some ongoing obligations, to serve as reminders of the “Lord and His works”, lest the rising generation forget their heritage. The annual Passover was a once-a-year reminder of their deliverance from Egypt. The redemption of the ‘animal firstborn’ served as another constant reminder of the extraordinary birth of the nation. The pile of 12 stones left on the bank of the river Jordan was a memorial of the miraculous crossing into the land of the 12 tribes. The lives of God’s ancient people were saturated with constant reminders of the Lord and His works.
We do this in our societies in connection with the war. Nations have ‘Remembrance Day’ parades. Poppies are worn with pride. Lawrence Binyon’s words are repeated: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…we will remember them.” It’s not the same as actually fighting in the war. It’s not the same as seeing with your own eyes the sands of Normandy’s beaches stained with the blood of 10,000 men. But it’s the best we can do.
Here’s where Israel failed. As time passed the Passover was neglected. The pile of stones at the Jordan was scattered. All the various memory-jogging-triggers fell into disuse and disrepair. God’s house of prayer became a house of merchandise. With the passing of the generations everything was lost. Israel became indistinguishable from the surrounding nations. They lost their land, their temple and their collective memory of the past. The Lord departed from the temple and ‘Ichabod’ was written over the whole thing.
Are we are too proud or even too ignorant to understand that the same kind of thing could happen to us? When I look at the pre-war generation, and then at my generation and my children’s generation I have to wonder if we have as clear and as heartfelt an appreciation of the Lord and His works as they did. And are we proactively seeking to ensure that the hard won convictions of our forefathers are being passed on to the next generation? We are good at making sure our children are well educated. We’ve taught them how to make money and how to succeed in business. They want for nothing. They have all the gadgets, the designer labels and the holidays they could ever wish for. But do they know their Bibles? Can they explain why they know it to be the Word of God? Do they know what the gospel is, what worship is, what godliness is? Can they defend the deity and humanity of Christ? Do they know the difference between “asking Jesus into your heart” and “resting on the finished work of Christ”?
Do they appreciate the holiness of God? Are they Bible-reading, God-fearing, praying men and women of faith? Do they know what separation from the world is? Are they making wise choices about dating, entertainment and media? Do they know why we don’t dance and drink alcohol, even at weddings?
Oh, and do they know their history? Do they know what the Reformation was? Have they ever heard of Wycliffe, Tyndale or Luther? Or of J.N.D., George Muller and Anthony Norris Groves? Have they ever cracked open and read all, or at least part, of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Do they appreciate assembly distinctives? Do they know what headship is? Or why we have a plurality of elders rather than a paid pastor? Why we don’t hold gender specific meetings for believers? Why women do not speak in assembly meetings? Why we break bread every week and why we have a closed table at the Lord’s Supper? Why every assembly should have a regular gospel meeting? Why we don’t have a band?
The pre-war generation knew all of these things. But they are all passing away. They are leaving us. Which highlights the supreme challenge of the hour. The secret to truth’s preservation is truth’s repetition. Which means we can no longer fiddle while Rome burns. We urgently need to keep reminding ourselves and start reminding our children of the Lord and His works. After all, that’s what the writers of the New Testament did:
“If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things” (1 Tim 4.6)
“Of these things put them in remembrance” (2 Tim 2.14)
“I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance” (2 Pet 3.1)
“I will put you in remembrance” (Jude 1.5)
Parents, elders, preachers – learn this vital principle: to repeat truth is to preserve truth. The truth is “For you, for your son, and for your son’s son” (Deut 6.2), or in the words of the apostle Paul: “The things that thou hast heard of (1) me among many witnesses, the same commit (2) thou to (3) faithful men, who shall be able to teach (4) others also” (2 Tim 2.2). Four generations all holding to the same truth.
So may it be with us. That we will purchase the truth, preach the truth and pass on the truth – so that when all that generation has finally left the stage, the light of truth will continue to shine as brightly and as fervently as ever in all our hearts.
Michael J. Penfold
5 Nov 2019