The Third Man for the Church
by Patrick Lafferty
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Charles Lindbergh experienced it near the end of his groundbreaking transatlantic flight. Several who have traipsed up the punishing heights of Mt. Everest attest to the same. Even the last man out of the South Tower on 9/11 speaks unabashedly of a similar occurrence—something anyone else might consider lunacy.
These and numerous others all share the experience of sensing an unnamed, unbidden, but discernible presence with them in their most arduous moments. John Geiger has written a book about those experiences entitled The Third Man Factor, which takes its title from a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together." Eliot penned the line after hearing Ernest Shackleton recount his own episode of being strangely accompanied while seeking rescue during his doomed expedition to the South Pole.
Geiger cites various explanations for the phenomenon, but in the end he suggests an evolutionary adaptation we fortuitously accrued in order to help us brace ourselves in dire situations.
Sunday refreshed our memory that the Lord’s earliest and most enduring promise is to be a God who is with His people. He would accompany Israel where she goes and in what she does.
Here in Joshua 1, the Lord clarifies His promise: the courageous strength that comes from confidence in God’s presence is significantly bound up with the knowledge of God’s Word—of having His word as Joshua’s constant companion. Mere acquaintance with what the Lord has said would not do and would not serve, only a deep familiarity (“Let not this Word depart from out of your mouth”). A familiarity born of regular, thoughtful and prayerful consideration (“You shall meditate on it day and night”). A consideration that leads to cherishing and submitting to that Word (“Be careful to do according to all that is written in it”). The threats to Israel would not necessarily subside by virtue of her knowledge of His Word and submission to it. But the capacity to sense His being with them, irrespective of their circumstances, would rest specifically on intimacy with His Word. On those terms would they sense Him as their “third man.”
Jesus taught no differently when He promised to send a Helper who would teach them all things and would bring to remembrance all He’d said to them (John 14:26). The third person of the Trinity would be the third man for the church, and with His help they would know a peace from Jesus vastly different from what this world provides.
Paul solidifies the relationship between our knowledge of His Word and our sense of His being with us in a single metaphor when he speaks of “the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17). Only what is deeply known can be deeply felt. And if it is the Word of the Spirit that moves us to faith (Acts 10:44), why would we not think it able to move us to peace in His presence?
So, would you characterize your relationship to His Word as that of acquaintance or constant companion? Do you regularly consider it? Is the consideration thoughtful and prayerful? Do you wrestle with its meaning and its mandate until you see its truth and submit to its teaching?
Our Reformed forbears heralded the efficacy of the scriptures to bring, with the Spirit’s aid, the knowledge of salvation, but they also acknowledged the inherent challenges to making sense of every detail of scripture (WCF I.vii). If in your good faith efforts to make sense of His Word you have run into the difficulties they spoke of, have you given up in despair, or have you sought the help of others in making sense of what it says?
Whether Lindbergh or Shackleton bore testimony to a spiritual presence with them or an evolutionary-adaptation in them (a letter to the editor about the review linked to above argued this question), what we can be sure of is man’s enduring desire “to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). The Lord Jesus is that help, confirmed by His work on a cross outside Jerusalem—His Father seemingly far off, but with Him in His darkest hour. The peace to be had from that truth confirmed so long ago shall be confirmed in us today by companionship with His Word. Factor that in. It will serve you in both tame and tumultuous moments.