THE IRON DID SWIM
THE LOST AXE HEAD
“Many of the Lord’s workmen today have lost the axe head of power. They have lost the joy of salvation, they have not the upholding of God’s Spirit. The lost axe head of the Spirit’s unction has fallen into the waters of worldliness, ponds of indifference, swamps of sluggishness. They have ability, training, sincerity, earnestness, but they are chopping with the handle. They stand before a demonized world powerless, and it must be said of them, as it was said of the disciples before the demon-possessed boy, ‘And they could not …’ (Mark 9:18). The pitiful tragedy of the lost axe heads in the church today!”
VANCE HAVNER in The Secret of Christian Joy
THE IRON DID SWIM
In 2 Kings, chapter 6, we encounter the Strange Case of the Lost Axe Head. The story covers only a few brief verses, and I suppose I have wondered why the story was there at all. Believing that the whole Bible was inspired, I began to query that strange experience for what it might have to say to me in my age. Several conclusions seemed quite within the realm of reason.
First: they were involved in a noble work.
Second: the axe was an indispensable tool in getting the work done.
Third: the axe head was lost.
Fourth: there wasn’t any future in going on until they had found the lost axe head.
Fifth: when they returned to where they lost it, God found it for them.
Now, I must admit that I am forever prone to the stretching of biblical typology a little too far, but in this case the lesson just seems too transparent to ignore. Who can look at the church, the fellowship of believers, in the book of Acts, and not be forced to admit that the church today has lost something? It is all too evident to argue. To a large extent, we are going around beating on trees with bare axe handles. At intervals, under the suspicion that this is not getting the job done, we call for strategy conferences on how to make our axe handles more effective or how to improve our swing. We take a census of the trees, motivate the woodchoppers, declare that this is the day for felling forests and, with polished axe handles and persuasive personnel, we embark toward the woods.
But, alas, though the noise of the workmen is great, the sound of falling trees is missing. There is movement without might, energy expended without effectiveness, much doing but little dynamic! There is little to show after all is done but bruised hands, tired bodies, and wounded trees. What is missing? Why, the axe head, of course—the cutting edge of it all. But what is the “axe head” of the church? IT IS THE LIFE OF GOD IN CHRIST RELEASED IN OUR WORLD THROUGH THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT! OUR BODIES, THE LARGER BODY, THE CHURCH, WITH ALL OUR ABILITIES AND PROGRAMS ARE BUT THE HANDLES UPON WHICH SWINGS THE AXE HEAD OF HIS LIFE. THIS IS THE MUCH MORE-THE AXE HEAD WHICH WE MUST RECOVER.
I was startled by the following word. After you read the statement I will reveal to you why I was so startled!
“Do we mourn that ours is a materialistic age? Would that it were only so on the scientific and rationalistic side. But what we have most reason to fear is that subtle materialism which is creeping into our church life and methods. HOW LITTLE DEPENDENCE IS THERE ON SUPERNATURAL POWER AS ALL-SUFFICIENT IN OUR WORK! How much we are coming to lean on mere human agencies … upon art and architecture, upon music, and rhetoric and social attraction! If we would draw the people to church that we may win them to Christ, the first question with scores of Christians nowadays is, what new turn can be given to the kaleidoscope of entertainment? What new stop can we insert in our organ, and what richer and more exquisite strain can we reach by our quartet? What fresh novelty in the way of social attraction can we introduce; or what new coruscation can be let off from the pulpit to dazzle and captivate people? OH FOR A FAITH TO ABANDON UTTERLY THESE DEVICES OF NATURALISM, AND TO THROW THE CHURCH WITHOUT RESERVE UPON THE POWER OF THE SUPERNATURAL! Is there not some higher degree in the Holy Spirit’s tuition into which we can graduate our young ministers, instead of sending them to a German university for their last touches of theological culture? Is there not some reserved power yet treasured up in the church which is the Body of Christ, some unknown or neglected spiritual force which we can lay hold of and so get courage to fling away forever these frivolous expedients on which we have so much relied for carrying on the Lord’s work? THE ENDUEMENT OF THE SPIRIT FOR POWER, FOR SERVICE, FOR TESTIMONY, FOR SUCCESS …”
THIS IN BRIEF IS THE SUBJECT OF THIS BOOK. The statement which you have just read was not written in the sixties or the seventies, whose qualities it so aptly described, but in the 1800s! It is high time to find the lost axe head! The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual and the institution alike is the great need of our day. The life of Jesus Christ is a SAYING life! But the only means of making that life real among us is through the work of the Holy Spirit. He cannot work, will not work in power without our regard for His ministry. He stands by while our machinery whirs and waits until we shut our factories down to the power of men. His power stands fresh, ready, and available. I heard someone say recently that the Holy Spirit was ready to do His office WORK if we will give Him office SPACE.
In the past months I have talked with hundreds of preachers across the country who are tired of flailing away with axe handles! Many of them are considering throwing away the handles and leaving the forest. This is no time for leaving! There’s no conquest in quitting! Let’s find the lost axe head! It can be done.
I remember the story of John Tauler, splendid preacher and theologian, who at fifty years of age was without peer as a preacher among his contemporaries. At such a standing what more does a man need? What added accomplishments or higher power could be desired? But in 1340 there came to the city of Strasbourg a mysterious stranger, Nicholas of Basel, a leader in the sect “Friends of God.” Nicholas got the attention of this famed preacher who had the ears of all the people and showed him that it was not by the might of learning, or splendor of eloquence, but by God’s Spirit that he was to fulfill his ministry. Following that, this admired preacher, John Tauler, left his pulpit for two years to seek in retirement that spiritual enduement to which he had been up to now a total stranger. So he left that city over which he towered in respect and left the congregation among whom he had won such a position of admiration. He would not return until he had found that lost axe head of spiritual power in the life of Jesus released. When he returned, he ascended the pulpit with a new kind of authority. The light of another world was upon his face. With searching intensity of speech, profound humility, and Christ-like compassion he ministered as he had never ministered before. With the axe head recovered he ministered with power and effectiveness in an age which has been named “an epoch of tears, of blood, and of unmeasured calamity.”
Meanwhile, back at the river, the drama goes on. As we examine that drama we shall find how a lost axe head may be recovered. Let us examine the story. The steps to recovery are obvious.
First, the man admitted that he had lost the axe head. This is always a step in the right direction! Upon admission awaits any analysis and understanding of the problem. It appears today that in the modern church we are ready to try anything, absolutely anything, regardless of how revolutionary it may seem, except one thing … that is, TO ADMIT A LACK! That admission caused a state of emergency to be declared; an emergency serious enough to shut down the business until the axe head was recovered. It may seem heretical, but a suggestion may not be out of place to shut down the work of the business until we find what makes the business work!
It may be well to remember that the axe head would never have come off if it had not been loose. We are apt to lose what we get loose and careless about.
Second, he acknowledged that it was borrowed. We never possess the power of God. His power possesses us. If it were a possession of ours, we would become proud and prostitute it to our purposes. God’s mighty men of the past have wrought with borrowed axes. We hold only the handle of the mighty cutting edge of the Spirit’s unction. When folks come to us in their need we cannot give them anything that is ours. Only what we get from God is worth having. It might be that the workman had become careless with what he had borrowed. How MUCH MORE careful we should be because the power of God rests upon us in a qualified manner! God is obliged often to withdraw that unction when we attempt to use it for ourselves. The recovery of it is MUCH MORE to be desired because it is borrowed.
Third, he was willing to return to where he lost it. The honesty which began with the admission of the loss continued to the last detail until they came to the place where it had been lost. The best place to start looking for that which is lost is the place where we lost it. We generally are ready to admit a lot of things, including the fact of failure, if we are not forced to admit the specific reason for it. We are ready to blame
the changing times …
the pressured people …
the long weekends …
the weather …
the spirit of our age …
and a myriad of other things.
We are prone to balk when it comes to being led back to where we lost what we need to recover. This man knew where he had lost the axe head. He knew why he had lost it. The memory was etched in painful lines in his mind. The Scripture says, “And he showed him the place.”
We know where we lost the axe head, too. We remember when we were first warned. It is all too clear when we began to find pleasure in the wrong things. We know when we became absent from the prayer altar. We know when that quiet time was forsaken or when that slight sin was passed over so lightly. We find the memory clear of that commitment followed by a satanic confrontation and an immediate retreat back to the shallows. “Where fell it?” GO BACK TO THE PLACE AND SHOW THE LORD THE PLACE! Make that matter right! Settle the problem of your undisciplined life.
Church of the Lord Jesus, go back to where you lost it! Remember the days when the power of the Holy One possessed you? Are you not nostalgic about those days when power precluded programs and there was liberty and continuing joy? Can you remember when your members were healthy and cooperative and vitality flowed through everyone? Where did the decline set in? Was it when you became so acceptable and successful? Might it have been when you found that you could operate with less trouble on human energy and appeal to the masses with less offense? Would you not like to go back to the days of the “felling of the trees?” Would you not welcome the gleam of the new blades of God’s mighty visitation? IT’S TIME WE RECOVERED THE AXE HEAD!
Are you there? Is this where you lost it? Do you not quite remember? Then ask the Lord! He knows for sure and has been waiting for you to get desperate enough to come back this way. Have you confessed it to the Lord—the fact of the loss and the reason for it? He is ready to listen. He desires to give you the MUCH MORE!
Fourth, he was willing to trust divine power for the recovery. They all may have plunged into the water in a frantic search for the axe head. How often we try to recover in human force what we lost in human fault. This often results in compounding the problem instead of completing the solution. There are those who insist on recovery by reasoning which leads to a measure of renewal. These I call the “water thrashers.” They would seek to recover the axe head by human means. I am not sure that the “water thrashers” are much better off than the “handle swingers!” Neither results in success. Why are we so reticent to believe that our God is a God of SUPERNATURAL POWER NOW? Why should we suppose that we can ever be wise and go into any endeavor without the power of God?
Elisha had seen miracles before! He knew God could do it again. The simple result was that “the iron did swim.” The best way to end a human mess is with a divine miracle. It took an act of faith on the part of Elisha as he cast in the stick. Can you imagine the sight of that axe head floating on top of the water? What a temptation to call a testimony meeting and report what was seen! What a time to write a story of revival for the local paper! BUT WE MUST LEARN THAT MIRACLES ARE NOT FOR REPORTING PURPOSES BUT FOR REDEEMING PURPOSES.
Fifth, he put forth his hand and took it. The story ends here, but there is not a doubt in my mind what happened after that. He firmly attached the head to the handle and went to work. There surely was no boasting, but a certain careful working lest the axe head be lost again.
There is a moving today in our world that has the marks of becoming the greatest revival in the history of Christendom. One of the most encouraging signs is the growing desperation with the status quo, the “business as usual.” I could fill this volume with the stories of men who have come face to face with the fact that theirs was the story of the lost axe head. In desperation they returned to where it had been lost and honestly met God, Who graciously met them with His holy unction. Seldom does a day go by but that by phone or by letter word comes to me of a preacher or a layman so desperate he could die. Praise God, there is an answer! God is ready for the “iron to swim!” I have seen many of these men (and women) come to that moment of thrusting their lives into the dimension of total dependence on God. The results have been astounding!
I have vowed that I must tell this story from the moment it happened. It began to take place in the Mid-America Renewal Conference in Camp Windemere, Missouri. It was my privilege to be one of the preachers on the program. Among the more than three hundred in attendance were a couple from Australia, Bob and Alison Payne. After one of the services. I noted that Alison was weeping. I inquired if I might be of help, and we engaged in a conversation that soon revealed a lack of assurance about her salvation. We sat down and the Holy Spirit began to minister to her. Within minutes she was claiming the Holy Spirit’s power in her life, not only to be assured but to be empowered. She went away delighted. Bob was standing by but did not enter into the conversation at all.
It was the next night that Bob came to me very disturbed. He related how that as a preacher he knew all the language that was being used regarding the fullness of the Holy Spirit and had, in fact, been preaching the message for fifteen years. He then confessed that it had never become a personal vitality in his life. He was disturbed, disgusted, defeated, and determined that somewhere, somehow, an answer would be found. He said one thing that night that struck me as the most profound statement I had heard a preacher make about his preaching. He said, in effect, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I have made this decision tonight: I will never enter the pulpit to preach again until I can enter it as a place of EXECUTION. Until now it has been a place of EXHIBITION.” And he meant it! The ironic truth about this was that he was on a three-month-long preaching tour around the world. That night, for some reason, I was not impressed to deal with Bob but rather felt that he needed to get alone with the Holy Spirit and find his axe head in private. The next day we closed the meeting and left for home, and I saw Bob and Alison only for a fleeting moment.
On the following Sunday, as I sat in my usual place in the worship service in our church, I was shocked as I looked out over the congregation to see none other than Bob and Alison Payne! I greeted them in the service and addressed to Bob a question, “Brother, do you have the victory?” He quickly replied in crisp, Australian fashion, “HALLELUJAH!” I knew something had happened. I quickly announced that they both would be giving their testimonies in the service that evening.
Little did I know that I had precipitated a crisis in Bob’s life on that Sunday morning. For, you see, this was to be the first time that he would stand in the pulpit after that declaration he made regarding it becoming a place of execution. That afternoon, in the guest room of our home, Bob settled the matter with the Lord. He must die! Christ must live and preach and minister through him! He had gone to the place where he had lost the axe head, and there God recovered it for him. I wonder if it is not true that most folks could find the lost the axe head somewhere close around the throne where the self-life, reigns supreme?
That night both Bob and Alison stood to give their testimonies in the power of the Holy Spirit. The anointing of the Lord was upon both of them. How different they were from the week before!
We bade them good-bye the next week and they continued their trip around the world. One Monday morning near the end of summer I was called to the phone and was surprised to hear Bob’s voice from Frankston, Victoria, Australia, He was excited (he had to be to make a phone call from that distance)! It was just after midnight in Australia following his first Sunday back in his own pulpit. He had shared with his people the story of his experience, and a spirit of revival had broken out. Word has come more recently that God’s moving is continuing and intensifying in his church. Bob and Alison had found the lost axe head!
One Saturday night my phone rang and a preacher whom I casually knew called me to inform me that the Lord had told him (while in prayer) to come to hear me preach the next morning. He asked that I spend some time with him after the service on Sunday morning. He and a layman from his church made the more than two-hundred-mile trip early the next morning. After the service, we went to my study and began our visit. He told of pastoring a growing church where, within the past year, the Sunday School attendance and budget offerings had doubled. He related how a great many had been baptized. But his tone changed as he confessed to an inner defeat and discouragement. He could not, would not, go on as he had before. He was sick and tired. I related how a man could be filled with the Spirit and begin the adventure of allowing God’s power to be released through him. I shared with him how that a man must die to all his preconceived plans, images, and pride before God would fill him. We went to prayer. He prayed, he wept, he bellowed, he sobbed, he confessed! I never heard a man pray just like that! But God met him and at last report the power of God was flowing through his life. He had found the cutting edge, the lost axe head.
The MUCH MORE of the Spirit’s power is the only thing that will restore the church to its rightful place in our world. There is a lot of difference between chopping wood with a sharp axe and flailing away with a plain axe handle! There is, by the same token, a lot of difference between something done for the Lord and something done by the Lord. There is a vast difference between a man doing his best for the Lord and the Lord doing His normal in a man!
The difference in the church as it is and the church as it should be is aptly illustrated by a memory in my childhood. I lived on the farm, and for the first years of my life we burned kerosene lamps for light. Then the day came when we installed an ingenious device called the “wind charger.” It was a strange little motor that sat atop a tower with an airplane-like propeller. When the wind blew, that propeller turned to generate a measure of electrical power, which would furnish, as best I can remember, a light just a little brighter than that of the kerosene lamps. The power was unsteady and depended on the velocity of the wind. It was better than nothing, but it wasn’t much!
Then one day, down the county line road, they came with poles and wire for a new kind of power. When the poles were up and the lines were strung, there was a buzzing string of wires which carried through them 66,000 volts of electricity. My dad, though grateful for the wind charger’s contributions in years past, took it down and put it away. It wasn’t even a difficult decision! We hooked into the 66,000 volt line and the power came through! How bright were the lights! And the light was steady whether or not the wind blew. We purchased some appliances and found that there was power enough and to spare to run them. What a difference!
The wind charger reminds me of so many of our attempts to get things done in the flesh. The power comes and goes according to the habits, moods, and temperaments of people. Their enthusiasm rises and wanes. Business goes on, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Let the church discover the high voltage power of the Holy Spirit and things come alive. People begin to plug in to the power that is unlimited and unceasing. The church begins to move. Things begin to happen that can be explained only by the working of the Spirit. And the church goes on!
This chapter has to do with the MUCH MORE … the lost axe head, the high-voltage power of the Spirit. The chapters to come are committed to the clarification of what the MUCH MORE is, how everyone can have it, and how everyone can live in the unceasing adventure of Christ’s saving life!