Last Joint Presbytery Meeting (Presbytery of the Midwest)

Lawrence R. Eyres
Sermon preached September 17, 1999, before the Presbytery of the Midwest by its senior member at its final worship service before dividing into the Presbytery of the Midwest (continuing) and the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario.
Scripture text: Genesis 32.


I’m here by request, rather than by choice. Perhaps I was chosen because I’ve lived longer than most here present—from “day one,” and before, of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I was asked especially to project a vision for our presbytery, which shortly will be two presbyteries.

My subject is “Mahanaim.” Mahanaim was a city in Israel, so named by the father of the twelve tribes. It was east of the Jordan, north of one of its tributaries—the Jabbok—in the land of Gilead, some 30 miles east of the Jordan in Gilead. I’ll try to explain the significance of my subject as I progress.

I. From Jacob to Israel
Jacob had just parted from his uncle (and father-in-law) Laban, whom he had served fourteen years for his two daughters and six more for his wealth as a shepherd. By the end of those years, Laban was becoming jealous of Jacob’s increasing wealth, so Jacob, his two wives, two maidservants, eleven sons, his flocks and herds, at God’s command stole away to return to his father’s house. Laban, with a large retinue, pursued and overtook them in the mountains of Gilead. Violence was avoided by God’s restraining Laban, but the parting had not been a happy one.

And now, a new problem confronted Jacob. Would his brother Esau not learn of his return to Canaan and fulfill his twenty-year-old threat to kill him for stealing from their father the blessing intended for Esau? Jacob sent a message to Esau, informing him that he was returning to Canaan with his entire entourage. A servant was sent to Esau with this message and hastened back to tell Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men! He was filled with fear. May he not have had nightmares dreaming of the vengeance of Esau those twenty years? What was he to do? The least he could do was to prepare for the worst: divide his vast possessions and personnel into two bands so that, should Esau attack one band, the other could escape.

Then he prayed: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, ’Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth you have shown your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children.” This prayer was a good one. He acknowledged his unworthiness. He also gave God the praise for his prosperity—flocks and herds, servants, the mothers of the children God had given him. (Notice that he never once complained about the tricks his father-in-law had played on him!) But he still feared Esau! Jacob was the supplanter, the schemer. Yes, he trusted the God of his fathers, but he was like the general who said to his troops, “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.” So he took a large number of all his livestock, separated them from the rest, divided them into three equal parts, put each under the charge of a herdsman and sent them out to meet Esau as a triple gift to appease Esau’s anger. He sent them all across the Jabbok, including the mothers with the children hindermost—each mother with her own children.

Then, at nightfall, he tarried in the valley of the Jabbok—alone. We’re not told what or who led him there. But there he met a man. And he wrestled with that man, probably not yet knowing who he was. The wrestling continued till the first rays of dawn. By then he must have known that the man was the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ!). Perhaps, because no man was permitted to see the face of God, the Lord requested Jacob to let him go because day was breaking. Was Jacob then thinking of the blessing he had stolen twenty years ago from both Esau and his father? Jacob, sinner that he was, desired that patriarchal blessing from the angel who was the Lord. He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So the angel proceeded to bless him. He asked, “What is your name?” The son of Isaac answered, “Jacob.” The Lord responded, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” There is a deep significance to this reason given for the blessing, but that must await the close of my message. It’s enough to say that Jacob the schemer became Jacob the saint on that day. Not that it marked the hour of his conversion, but we don’t read of his scheming to outsmart people (like his scheming against his uncle Laban) ever again. He became more and more a man of faith to the end of his life. He was from that day onward a prince with God (of course, not literally, but he had encountered his God and Savior). So he called this place Peniel because he said, “I have seen the face of God.”

Jacob named this place north of the Jabbok “Mahanaim” (which means two bands or two companies). He first came by the idea the day before, when, as he traveled away from Laban, he was met by a company of angels. So with God’s ministering servants, and Jacob’s own vast entourage of wives, children, servants, flocks and herds, they were two bands—Mahanaim!

II. From 1936 to 1999 (A Vision Come True!)
I hope I do no violence to the picture of Jacob, before and after Peniel, to draw a parallel. Jacob left his father’s home and confessed in his prayer, “I crossed this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.” It was a statement of wonder and amazement. It reminds me of the first coded word conveyed over wires, sent by Samuel F. B. Morse over 150 years ago: “What God hath wrought!” And now, Jacob, in his own name, at the head of a company almost beyond counting, marvels: what the God of Abraham and Isaac hath wrought! Dr. Machen, with the few brave souls who on June 11, 1936, dissolved the Constitutional Covenant Union, and, out of that handful of valiant servants of God, with the consciousness of history in the making, declared themselves the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America (later to become The Orthodox Presbyterian Church).

Our beginnings were pitifully small. That first General Assembly concluded with 37 ministers (including several men who were ordained by that assembly) and 14 ruling elders. The first minutes I have (of the fourth General Assembly, May 1938—the year I was ordained) reveal that the OPC had by then 60 congregations, 4522 members, averaging 65 members per congregation. (I don’t know whether that was total or only communicant membership, but for the whole United States, that was less that a drop in a bucket!) Our presbytery, then called the Presbytery of Wisconsin, had three churches: Calvary, Cedar Grove, with 374 members (the largest congregation in the OPC), Old Stockbridge, Gresham, with 17; and Grace, Milwaukee (which didn’t survive very long), with 15. Total: all of 406. Ohio Presbytery was even smaller: 4 churches with 122 members. What the OPC had most of, proportionately speaking, was ministers—90 in all. I remember hearing the OPC being called in those early years, not a denomination, but a splinter. (We weren’t even considered a split, just a splinter! When you take a splinter off a log, what you have left is still a log!)

I would enjoy giving you some history of our church through the 50s, but time doesn’t allow. Sure, we grew, but nothing like the Southern Baptists (percentage-wise, I mean). I remember the 50th anniversary of the OPC. We set aside a special day to celebrate our half-century mark on June 11, 1986. Mark Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College (who at that time was a member of the OPC), addressed us, informing us that, statistically, our total membership of 17,049 was trailing behind the Free Methodists (or was it the Wesleyans?). Nothing to glory in. But the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is more than statistics. In those years we fought our battles—not always with the best grace. It hurt to have some, who were “gung ho” at the beginning, leave us for greener pastures. But I believe what made our church hang in during the years that our growth did not keep up with the statistical growth of the United States were these two things: (1) our commitment to our confessional standards, and (2) whenever conflict over doctrine and the Christian life came before our General Assemblies, we didn’t watch the clock or the calendar, but we took the time to bring them to the word of God. It wasn’t easy; we sometimes talked an issue to death (I remember going a whole day on a single issue). At one such time, an old elder got up and told the story of a little tugboat on the Mississippi which decided to have the loudest whistle on the river. And it did. The only trouble was, when the whistle blew, the engines stopped. I remember making lots and lots of speeches on the floor. But lately I’ve noticed that, as one gets older, one doesn’t say it if someone has already said it! But for all our verbiage, the word of God was the touchstone of all debate.

But now, after 63 years, things are beginning to happen. The latest published General Assembly minutes show the OPC having a total membership of 21,765, with 192 churches and 42 mission works. And remember that, nineteen months later, those statistics are obsolete! At the same time, Midwest Presbytery reported 3553 members in 25 churches and 8 mission works. It’s not because we “old guys” are so great. Yes, I’ve lived through those years—all in the OPC—but there aren’t many left among us, to borrow words from Longfellow, “Scarcely a man is still alive who remembers that famous day and year.” Whenever I go to GA, when they take the count of the decades in which ministers and elders present were ordained, John Galbraith and I have stood alone for those ordained in the 30s. The commissioners applaud. And it feels good for awhile, until we remember that we just happen to have lived longer than the rest of our peers who are now in their graves. It isn’t we that account for the good days in which we’re living now, when people are coming to us and asking to get into the OPC. It’s you people here whom God has used to fulfill the vision of our founders. And the secret is that, by God’s grace (and I must emphasize this!), we’ve been able to maintain the Reformed tradition which we steadfastly believe is faithful to the word of God! We are not infallible nor super-wise. May I put it differently: evangelicalism, as we have known it in the last half century, has begun to slide. I wasn’t fully aware of this till I read David Wells’ book No Place for Truth. It would seem, by God’s grace, we’ve been too busy trying to stay true to the word of God to notice. I think that’s why so many, with the help of Jim Bosgraf, have been knocking at our doors wanting to get in.

III. My Vision
I do get visions—not the visions of the Old Testament prophets; my visions come from inside of me. So I was pleased when Lendall Smith asked me to bring you my vision for the future of our two presbyteries. Please, don’t get me wrong; I’ve not the foggiest notion of just how big and influential we’ll be when the OPC celebrates its centennial, if the Lord tarries. My vision is that in the near or far future, we won’t self-destruct as many great denominations have done in the recent past. My vision is that, when Jesus comes, he’ll find us faithful! Let me conclude by returning to Jacob—now named Israel.

Let’s go back to that day and night before he met Esau. He was aware of God’s command to return to his father’s house. He was also aware that Esau was justly angry with him for stealing his blessing. He was understandably afraid for his life. Remember his name: Jacob the supplanter. He was a schemer all his days till that hour. He was undoubtedly taken advantage of by Laban. But he needn’t have planted those peeled rods before the feeding troughs of the ewes. God saw to it that he would accumulate worldly wealth during those last six years. But Jacob thought that he must get it by his own wits.

Now, however, like the prodigal at the swine trough, Jacob came to himself. He prayed: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac…I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which you have shown to your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.” Here is my first prayer for the Presbytery of the Midwest, and for the OPC.

Our beginnings were pitifully small and unimpressive—just as Jacob’s status fleeing for his life from Esau’s fury. But now we have become a church that Reformed Christians the world around are taking notice of. How must we react? As unworthy sinners whom God, in his inscrutable providence, has graciously blessed!

And learn the true meaning of Mahanaim: It was not that Jacob’s entourage had, for safety’s sake, been divided into two bands; it was earlier, after he had parted from Laban and he saw a host of angels accompanying him on his way, that he conceived the idea of Mahanaim. It was Jacob’s company traveling with the heavenly host! Mark that well! And so with the present Presbytery of the Midwest: “We are not divided, all one body we.” And so it will still be when the year 2000 dawns. Let it be that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church marches forward in company with the angels!

Jacob stayed behind that night and wrestled with a man. It was dark, and it was quite possible that he didn’t know who he was wrestling, but by the time the sun began to rise he knew that it was no ordinary man; it was a divine Messenger. And he was permitted to overcome his antagonist!

What was the deeper meaning of that wrestling? I’ve consulted some trusted commentaries on this question—some say one thing, some another, some say, “We don’t know.” I would hazard a guess: Jacob the supplanter was wrestling against the characteristic that, while coveting the birthright and the patriarchal blessing, sought to attain them by unworthy measures. And he was permitted to prevail! This accounts for the dialogue: “What is your name?” “Jacob.” “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” Please note that sometime during the night’s wrestling the Lord touched the sinew of Jacob’s thigh so that it shrank. And from that time onward (how long we are not told) he walked with a limp. That physical weakness was a constant reminder of his fleshly frailty! And, despite the prophecy concerning the change of names (from “supplanter” to “Israel—a prince with God”), yet in reality, unlike the change of names of his grandfather, from “Abram” to “Abraham,” he was alternately “Jacob” and “Israel.” indicating that he must, till the hour of his death, struggle against his remaining corruptions.

So with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: God has blessed us and given us “a goodly heritage.” But it is all of grace! We have within us as a church all the seeds of our own destruction; So, if we are to prevail, we’ve got to struggle continuously with our own remaining sinfulness. Later Jacob named the place of his struggle “Peniel,” saying, “For I have seen the face of God, and my life is preserved!” Yes, brothers, our success over the last 63 years is in that we (once considered as a mere splinter) have “seen the face of God, and our life has been preserved,” meaning that we have beheld the glory of his grace in the years of his blessing.

So this is my vision: that (by an analogy between the OPC and Jacob/Israel) we may survive till the Lord comes! And to that end, some admonitions:

“Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” Never forget: it is not of yourselves that God has stooped to use you!
With boldness and fear and trembling, bring the gospel where it’s most needed: for instance into the inner cities and such cesspools of iniquity as we see in the world which is our parish.
Cleave to the great truths of the gospel of grace, for there is where the battles of tomorrow will be fought. Beware of the tendency to over-refine those gigantic mountains of divine truth!
Finally, limp as you go forward to fight the battles of the Lord. Beware of training your guns on your brothers in conflict. Train them rather on the enemy whose primary tactic is to divide and conquer!

Presbytery of the Midwest
Final Worship Service
Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Orland Park, Illinois
September 17, 1999

Welcome—Rev. Lendall Smith
Call to Worship: Psalm 67
Hymn: “Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face”
Scripture: Genesis 32:1-12, 22-32
Sermon: “Mahanaim”—Rev. Lawrence R. Eyres
Hymn: “The Church’s One Foundation”
The Lord’s Supper—Rev. Donald F. Stanton
Ruling elders: Gerrit Hamstra, Keith LeMahieu, Tripp Martin, Jim van’t Voort
Hymn: “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”
Benediction—Rev. Donald F. Stanton