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Judges 2-3, Thorns in the Side, and Experience and Providence

September 1, 2021 1 comment

Several years ago when I was referencing a sermon series in 2 Corinthians and the Apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a blog reader here noted the word study and Old Testament references to “thorns,” which gives indication that when Paul used this term he was referring to the Judaizers who were causing such agitation for him; they were his “thorn in the flesh.”

One of these mentions of “thorns in the side” comes from Judges 2:3, the Lord’s pronouncement to the people of Israel, who had broken the covenant with Him.  Therefore, the Lord would no longer drive out the inhabitants of the land; rather, they (the peoples dwelling among them) shall be thorns in your side.  

As I continue through the book of Judges, chapters 2 and 3 mention the people being tested — a theme referenced elsewhere such as in Deuteronomy 8 and 13 — to know whether the people would be true to the Lord, to walk in His ways, to keep His commands.  Here, Judges 2:22: so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the Lord, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not,”  and again in Judges 3:1 and 3:4 — the surrounding nations were left to test Israel.  So, the nations were left as a “thorn in the side,” as something that could snare them, and then described also as a test, to see if the people would keep the ways of the Lord, or not.  

Then another reason is mentioned for this new providence from God:  for later generations to know military discipline and war.  The surface level explanation brings to mind the idea of military tactics and actual battles of war.  Yet, as George Bush’s commentary points out, this text includes a deeper level of meaning, beyond this first idea that he describes as an inadequate view. 

The term ‘to know,’ must in fairness be interpreted according to its usual Scriptural import, which is to have not merely an intellectual, but an experimental knowledge of any thing. By those therefore who ‘had not known all the wars of Canaan,’ we understand those who had not with confiding faith, with lively zeal, and from a prompt and grateful spirit of obedience, entered into and persevered in those conflicts with the Canaanites which God had enjoined.

As they had grossly failed in their duty in this respect, and had not ‘known’ these wars as they should have done, their children, according to the righteous economy of Providence, were appointed to reap the bitter fruits of their neglect. They were to know to their cost, to be taught by sad experience, the trouble, vexation, and annoyance that should come upon the successive generations descended from those who, by their culpable remissness, had so righteously incurred this afflictive judgment.

(From George Bush, “Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Judges: Designed as a General Help to Biblical Reading and Instruction.”)

Such a great point made here, and a fuller explanation of this text. Indeed, Judges 3:4 notes that the testing’s purpose was to know “whether they would obey the commandments of the Lord” — commandments (to their fathers by the hand of Moses) which clearly encompassed a lot more than just battle tactics used by Joshua and those immediately after Joshua. We can see the application to our own spiritual warfare–and our great failures, with the bitter consequences of past neglects. So true it is, that we must often learn this way, through sad experience of our failures. God chastens and disciplines His children. (Ref. Hebrews 12:5-6.) Yet, praise God, He does not leave us there. In the book of Judges, the people sometimes were oppressed for many years (in one example in Judges 3, for 18 years), but when they learned to cry out to God, to seek Him earnestly, God again brought deliverance. We learn from these examples (ref. 1 Corinthians 10:11), and likewise seek God, knowing that He will answer us when we call upon Him, in true repentance, as we seek Him earnestly.

Study: The Book of Judges, and Othniel as a Type of Christ

August 26, 2021 3 comments

I’ve started a study on the book of Judges.  A local church Bible group is doing a study of it, and though it didn’t work out to attend that one, the book of Judges is a good study topic, a book not often thought of for Bible study yet, as always with God’s word, quite appropriate and relevant for our day.  

Dr. Alan Cairns (see previous post) did a 23-part series in the book of Judges (1989-1990)– not covering every chapter and verse but on quite a few passages, starting with Judges 1 and 3 in a look at the life of Othniel, the first judge.  For more detailed study of all 21 chapters, verse by verse, a good commentary I found, from an author recommended by Charles Spurgeon, is “Notes, Practical and Expository, on the Book of Judges,”  by 19th century scholar George Bush  — a distant relative/ancestor of the recent U.S. Presidents.

Judges is a book relevant for our time, an age of apostasy, as Dr. Cairns noted in his first sermon.  The particular apostasy he noted was the influence of Roman Catholicism and surveys showing the lack of doctrinal knowledge by Protestants (who by their answers to questions appeared to believe Roman Catholicism instead of Protestant theology).  The apostasy is much more pronounced now, a generation later. 

Othniel was the first of the twelve Judges in the Book of Judges — along with a 13th, Abimelech.  From the references to him in Judges 1:13, and again in Judges 3:9-11, here are some interesting observations about Othniel, including ways that he can be considered a type of Christ.  

First, Othniel’s name means “Lion of God,” and our Lord is referred to also as a Lion, the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah.”  Like Christ, Othniel was called by God, raised up for conflicts and for conquest.  Othniel delivered the people from their bondage (Judges 3:9).  Othniel purchased his bride (Judges 1:13), again a type/illustration of what Christ accomplished for His people. 

From Bush’s commentary on Judges chapter 1, another interesting observation:  life for the Israelites during this era was not always one of conflict and falling away.  This book highlights the times when the people were disobedient, and the continual cycle of disobedience, punishment, and deliverance — through a judge brought to the scene, to deliver the people and bring them back to the Lord. Yet peaceful times, many years at a time, are mentioned in brief sentences, years we are told almost nothing about.  In Othniel’s day, for instance, after the war and conquest by Othniel we are told that the land had rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). 

Here I recall a “Chronicles of Narnia” scene in which C.S. Lewis depicted this idea, that there are times of peace during which little appears to happen, punctuated by great dramatic times of conflict and conquest:  the children entering Narnia had only visited at the major, important times of crisis in the land’s history, but the Narnians recalled living through the ordinary, routine years of peace.  So with the book of Judges, we do see a lot of conflict, and a lot of apostasy throughout, but (by God’s grace) there were respites, times of peace for the Israelites.  Of these years, though, we are only told the consequence, in the terrible reality of human sin and depravity:  those years of peace only brought about complacency and worldliness, for the people to forget about God and to quit serving Him.  Then another era of oppression, also lasting several years at a time, would come, before God would again send another judge to deliver His people.

The first chapter of Judges has a few other positive lessons, from the good things that occurred before the disappointments:  Judah and Simeon worked together as a team (Judges 1:3-5).  One group was stronger and the leader (Judah), and Simeon assisted.  Commentator George Bush notes the lessons: 


Judah therefore must lead in this perilous enterprise; for God not only appoints service according to the strength and ability he has given, but ‘would also have the burden of honor and the burden of labor go together.’ Those who have the precedency in rank, reputation, or influence, should always be disposed to go before others in every good work, undismayed by danger, difficulty, or obloquy, that they may encourage others by their example. … [Regarding Simeon]: ‘Observe here that the strongest should not despise but desire the assistance even of those that are weaker. It becomes Israelites to help one another against Canaanites; and all Christians, even those of different tribes, to strengthen one another’s hands against the common interests of Satan’s kingdom.’ Henry.

Another commentary I’ll be referencing along the way is the well-known Matthew Henry commentary, a standard go-to commentary for most books of the Bible for his insights and applications in the details of these texts. (As seen in the above excerpt from Bush, he also included selections from Matthew Henry in his commentary.)  All three of these — the two commentaries, and Alan Cairns’ sermons series, are good study helps as I continue this study, past the first chapter and through the rest of the book.

Dr. Alan Cairns, Historic Premillennialist

April 8, 2021 5 comments

A great resource I’ve recently become aware of, a Covenantal Historic Premillennialist, is the late Dr. Alan Cairns.  I had heard the name a few times, in connection with the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony (SGAT), and from online links and recommendations from a few others.  Dr. Cairns preached for 25 years at Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC, before retiring in 2007, and then continued speaking at some annual conference events until as late as 2018.  

SermonAudio has a catalog of 6,390 sermons from Alan Cairns, content which is also available from the radio program / podcast ‘Let the Bible Speak Radio.’  

I’ve listened to a handful of messages from a few different series so far, and appreciate these sermons.  For premillennialism, this 5 part ‘The End Times’ series from an October 2011 conference is interesting.  Each SermonAudio page also includes a PDF file with outline notes of the content, such as this one in reference to the first lecture.  Cairns makes great points regarding many topics, looking at scripture texts including Daniel, Hosea, and other relevant scriptures, taking a futurist view regarding the unfulfilled prophecies and referencing some of the well-known SGAT resources such as B.W. Newton and S.P. Tregelles. 

In ‘The Millennium’ he briefly mentions his own view of Ezekiel 40-48, a particular sub-topic that has brought forth many different opinions even within historic premillennialism.  Some of the 19th century classic covenantal premillennialists saw these chapters as describing a future millennial church worship structure, such as Charles Spurgeon’s view — and I am here addressing only the issue of the temple structure itself, and not the question of the described animal sacrifices). However, Cairns took the idea I’ve heard from some amillennialists, that the temple was a description of what could be provided, conditionally upon Israel’s repentance; but that repentance did not happen, thus this temple was never built.  Personally, I do not find that idea satisfactory; but the overall material from Cairns is helpful and interesting.

Another series of interest is Millennial Milestones: six messages from the year 2000, with history highlights from the last thousand years, starting with an interesting history lesson from 11th century England, on down through the recent centuries.  In this series Cairns provided summary themes for these eras of time, such as describing the 17th century, with reference to the activities and events of the Pilgrims and the Puritans, both in the American colonies and in Britain, as “The Quest for Purity and Liberty.”  The lesson on the 20th century, Back to Babel, has a good summary of the modern ecumenical movement in its various forms, what Cairns saw — and this was over 20 years ago — as the boldest attempt yet to reverse God’s curse: the return to Babel, the great development of the ‘one world’ church movement with headship of the Roman Catholic Church.  “Watch the Jew” and “Watch Europe” are some key takeaways.

I’ve listened to a few other messages, such as a few on particular Psalms (including some of his series on Psalm 138), and a few messages on the later chapters in Luke’s gospel — part of his Life of Christ series, which included teaching on some but not all texts from Luke and the other gospels. From what I’ve listened to so far, I also appreciate Cairns for his depth of subject matter, including the experimental (he noted his dislike of the term ‘experiential,’ preferring “experimental”) focus of the Christian life, and his descriptions such as in his sermon about Jesus’ temptation, in the Garden of Gethsemane, by the devil, and the reality of demonic activity that affects believers.

So, as others have recommended Alan Cairns, I now add my recommendation as well, for this great resource for sermon listening.

Reflections on the Pandemic, and Signs of the Last Days

March 22, 2021 17 comments

What a year this has been.  It was a year ago, March 17, that I and co-workers first started working from home due to the pandemic lockdown, and we are still working from home for the foreseeable future.  As I reflect back on all the events of the last year, I frequently think of the term “apocalypse” in its broader, general meaning — as a “revealing,” and the revealing of the hearts and minds of people as a result of particular trials and afflictions, such as what the events of the last year have revealed.  

The people of Israel in Exodus 4:31 heard from Aaron and Moses, and believed them.  Yet one chapter later, in Exodus 5:21, the same people (a group within the overall group from Exodus 4:31) declared that the LORD should judge Moses and Aaron, for putting a sword in the Egyptians to kill them.  The different circumstance brought out a very different response. Likewise, in our day, the unusual events of the last year have been a revealing of people’s hearts under afflictions and difficulties.

A recent Wall Street journal article has considered how the pandemic has affected people — and the comments section at the Facebook posting also reveals the divide in the country and the experiences of many more.  A recent report from the Business Insider tells of at least a few cases where church pastors have left their congregations, due to radicalized conspiracy followers, and notes the high percentage of professing church-goers who hold to conspiracy ideas such as QAnon.  When fewer people returned to church services last summer and fall, it was speculated by those who were still attending (often at churches that considered face coverings optional) that the people at home viewing online would decide they preferred that instead of meeting in person.  Yet as noted in a recent survey, and observed locally, the vast majority, over 90%, do plan to return and already are returning to in person, now that a medical treatment, a vaccine, has become available.

A resource I’ve read from time to time over the last several years, the SGAT — the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony — has published a booklet, based on a set of sermons delivered on January 3, 2021, called “Where Are We In God’s Calendar?”  The booklet can be ordered online (I received it in the postal mail along with the latest two newsletters), and the original sermons, with some of the same content are online here, part 1 and part 2.  From the booklet comes this observation, regarding the signs of the times, and Christ’s Return:

Creeping Awareness

Is there not a creeping, growing awareness of things prophetic amongst a remnant?  …  Is there not a growing consciousness amongst true believers of the deepening apostasy, the universal rejection of God’s Word amongst those nations privileged for centuries to hear it proclaimed, and a recognising that, as never before, men are embracing everything that is unholy and ungodly?
There was a slow awakening to the wickedness of the World Council of Churches amongst evangelicals and likewise to the wicked departures of Billy Graham but light did finally dawn!
The darkness reigning over the nations is seen in that nothing seems to have been brought home to the multitude by this ‘Coronavirus’ plague.
Only a few have noted the ‘spirit’ of this day!
In the midst of the pandemic, the deaths and sicknesses, there has been little or no public reference to God.  Political leaders have purposely avoided any mention of Him altogether while the so-called ‘church leaders’ in the mainline churches have made such scant and irrelevant mention of Him, silence on their part would have been more beneficial!
Pulpits in evangelical assemblies are also largely silent on the matter, many with contempt dismissing the Covid virus as a mere ‘flu!
I believe that the events that are revealed by the opening of the first seal indicate the great need of this hour–a revealing of the approach of the Saviour’s return.
It is something for which we ought to be praying!  I will not be dogmatic about this but I think that what I say is worthy of some consideration.  If I am correct in suggesting that we are near to the opening of the first seal and the revealing and emphasising afresh to God’s people the great doctrine of the Saviour’s return in glory, then soon there will follow the events shown us here under the likeness of the opening of the pages of a book.  

God’s word tells us we should not be surprised, when we see ever deepening and widening apostasy, as we continue in these general “last days” and as we approach the days just before Christ’s return.  Just as the Jews of Jesus’ day were more focused on Christ’s Second Coming, His coming to rule and reign, so the NT church has focused mostly on His First Coming.  In Luke 18 Jesus observed, ‘when the Son of Man comes [His Return], will he find faith on earth?’  As I’ve been studying through the gospel of Luke, it is refreshing to read J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke, which has many great observations concerning our attitude toward Christ’s Return, and how we should be living, in light of this great truth. 
 
As indicated in texts such as Luke 18, also other accounts that describe even the people of God as “sleeping” and unaware and not looking for Christ’s Return, as the time lengthens and He has been gone for a long time — so it has unfolded in church history, that most are not looking to Christ’s Return in glory, nor thinking about the things that must take place before then.  It is said that dispensationalism has an imminent return of Christ, that He could return at any time, nothing has to take place before the ‘rapture of the church;’ the dispensationalist has some awareness of end times things that must occur, such as Israel back in the land — but tends to think that he/she will not be around to see all of these things that will take place.  The post-millennialists (a rare group nowadays, unlike the pre-World War I era) are looking for the world population to come to Christ, to become a Christianized world, a ‘golden age’ before Christ returns.  The amillennialist, and particularly the common form of preterist amillennialist, is the one with a strong “imminent” any-moment return of Christ, since in this view most of the “prophetic texts” have already happened, in the first century, and — in an odd way they have this much in common with dispensationalist — Christ can return at any moment: and even more so for them, no reason to look for the “general season” of things that will occur shortly before the Second Advent. 
 
Historic premillennialism, the view I hold to, affirms a non-imminent return, that certain things must take place before Christ’s Return:  at first, such things as Peter’s death prophesied, and the gospel going forth to other lands, and time to allow for prophecies indicating wars and rumors of wars; then, other “stage-setting” events that are implied in the descriptions of texts about the Lord’s return:  Israel regathered in unbelief, and a world with great technology such as we now see for our own eyes.
 
Among the prophetic texts are some lesser known passages that describe things that, if taken in their normal, plain language sense, could very reasonably occur in our day, with our 21st century technology.  For example, Revelation 11’s description of the two witnesses laying dead for 3 1/2 days and their bodies observed by people from all over the world, and the people of the world rejoicing and exchanging gifts with each other, all in the space of 3 1/2 days, could very well occur in today’s instant worldwide communication, a literal fulfillment that Horatius Bonar thought, based on 19th century technology, could not really mean 3 1/2 days.  Likewise, Revelation 13’s description of technology that limits people’s ability to transact business, is already occurring in some form, for some types of transactions, in China and possibly other totalitarian government countries.  It’s also interesting that at least some evangelical leaders are also realizing at least this much — such as a clear statement from Al Mohler in a podcast interview last fall, stating his belief that the technology exists today for the literal fulfillment of the biblical prophecies.
 
Another interesting thing I’ve observed recently in the overall culture:  people who do not even recognize and acknowledge anything of the providence of God, of “acts of God” events — such as weather storms or the spread of new diseases around the world.  As one example, the recent winter storm here in the American South, of a severity not seen in a lifetime, was actually considered by some TikTok users a “fake” storm perpetrated by the “powerful left” who somehow created something that looked like but wasn’t really snow.  The fact that some people actually ascribe such powers over the weather, or at least the ability to create a “fake” snowstorm — to mere man, rather than recognize what society has always understood as an “act of God,” is telling.  It appears that, more and more, our technological age has brought about what has been called the “social imaginary,” to the point where some are denying the reality of actual events that have occurred — a pandemic that has caused soaring hospitalization rates and higher than normal levels of death, and even severe winter storms — instead ascribing these to “fake” events caused by mere human political actors.
 
These are just some thoughts to consider, regarding the times we now live in.  In closing, a few selections from J.C. Ryle, from his Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke:
The disciples and all the Jews of our Lord’s time appear to have seen only one personal coming of the Messiah. They expected a Messiah who would come to reign, but not one who would come to suffer.
The majority of Christians, in like manner, appear to see only one personal coming. They believe that Christ came the first time to suffer. But they seem unable to understand that Christ is coming a second time to reign. Both parties have got hold of some of the truth, but neither, unfortunately, has embraced the whole truth. Both are more or less in error, and the Christian’s error is only second in importance to that of the Jew.
Also
It is well to know that He lived for us, and died for us, and rose again for us, and intercedes for us. But it is also well to know that He is soon coming again for us! … The course of this world shall not always go on as it does now. Disorder, confusion, false profession, and unpunished sin shall not always cover the face of the earth. … Let us wait patiently when we see wickedness triumphing in the earth. The time is short. There is One who sees and notes down all that the ungodly are doing!   
. . .
When the Lord Jesus left the world, He ascended up into heaven as a conqueror leading captivity captive. He is there sitting at the right hand of God, doing the work of the High Priest for His believing people, and ever making intercession for them. But He will not sit there always. He will come forth from the holy of holies to bless His people. He will come again with power and glory to put down every enemy under His feet, and to set up His universal kingdom on earth.
. . .
Jesus’ coming in person the first time to suffer, and Jesus coming in person the second time to reign are two landmarks of which we should never lose sight. We stand between the two. Let us believe that both are real and true.

Commentary on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

February 11, 2021 Leave a comment

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has retained its popularity down through the ages, and even inspired a few commentary volumes (from Charles Spurgeon and others), illustrations, teaching series for adults and children, and even several movies. I recently read through all of Pilgrim’s Progress (both parts), along with an interesting commentary book, Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress and on the Life and Times of John Bunyan, a 19th century work by George B. Cheever.  I read the full Pilgrim’s Progress once, over 20 years ago as part of a Sunday evening church class series (on the first part), and had listened to Librivox’s free audio recording (again, of part 1) a few times, but this was the first time in many years to read the full book in print — and now, along with a full commentary.  Cheever’s book includes a section, almost half of the book, on John Bunyan’s life, a commentary on Bunyan’s autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  Then Cheever continues with commentary on sections of Pilgrim’s Progress, in chronological sequence through part I, followed by one lecture on part II.

Cheever’s style takes some getting used to, but the content gets interesting after a while, particularly his discourse on each part of the story.  Pilgrim’s Progress is a book that ‘grows on you,’ with its depth of characters and depictions, the ‘layers’ of meaning, that I appreciate far more now than in my early Christian years.  After having been through more life difficulties myself, I appreciated the different characters, particularly identifying with some characters more so than others — a great gift from John Bunyan, why this book retains its popularity down through the ages, that every reader can find some characters they relate to.  For example, in part I Faithful tells Christian of his encounter with Shame [Christian himself met others but had not met Shame], a great passage with instruction on how to respond to shame’s temptations:

Faith. What? why, he [Shame] objected against religion itself. He said it was a pitiful, low, sneaking business for a man to mind religion. He said that a tender conscience was an unmanly thing; and that for a man to watch over his words and ways, so as to tie up himself from that liberty that the brave spirits of the times accustom themselves unto, would make him the ridicule of all the people in our time. He objected also, that but a few of the mighty, rich, or wise were ever of my opinion; nor any of them neither, before they were persuaded to be fools, to venture the loss of all for nobody else knows what. He, moreover, objected the base and low estate and condition of those that were chiefly the pilgrims of the times in which they lived; also their ignorance, and want of understanding in all worldly knowledge.  … … . But at last I began to consider that that which is highly esteemed among men is had in abomination with God. And I thought again, This Shame tells me what men are, but it tells me nothing what God, or the Word of God is. And I thought, moreover, that at the day of doom we shall not be doomed to death or life according to the spirits of the world, but according to the wisdom and law of the Highest. Therefore, thought I, what God says is best—is best, though all the men in the world are against it. Seeing, then, that God prefers His religion; seeing God prefers a tender conscience; seeing they that make themselves fools for the kingdom of heaven are wisest, and that the poor man that loves Christ is richer than the greatest man in the world that hates Him; Shame, depart! thou art an enemy to my salvation. Shall I listen to thee against my sovereign Lord? how, then, shall I look Him in the face at His coming? Should I now be ashamed of His way and servants how can I expect the blessing? 

It’s a commentary on many topics, from Christian’s experiences and other characters encountered.  Spiritual growth over time, one lesson brought out in scenes from Part 1, includes this insight from Cheever, about ‘Hill Difficulty’:

We see plainly that as a clear-sighted Christian looks back upon his own experience he sees himself in many aspects, and through the prism of his own nature he sees a thousand others; he sees through and through the motives, thoughts, feelings, veils, and hiding-places of every possible variety of the children of this world, because he has been one of them.  He sees some stopping with their characters in perfection at one stage of his own experience, and some at other stages; some more advanced towards the point where he himself really set out to be a Christian, and some less; but many he sees, through the perfect knowledge he has of his own past refuges of lies, evidently trusting in the same refuges; refuges where he himself would have stopped and died as a pretended Christian had not God had mercy on him.  On the other hand, a man of the world, a wicked man, an unconverted man cannot see beyond the line of his own experience; the things of the Christian are hidden from him, for he has never gone into them; it is a world unknown, a world hidden by a veil that he has never lifted, a region of blessedness, knowledge, and glory, where his feet have never wandered; a region of sweet fields and living streams and vast prospects, of which he knows nothing and can conceive nothing.  It is all like the unseen future to him.

Pilgrim’s Progress Part II is quite different, and tends to be neglected in comparison to the well-known first part.  Cheever’s lecture points out that the second part can be understood as the journey of many ordinary believers, as contrasted with that of the spiritual giants, the famous Christian teachers such as Bunyan himself.  At times, part II seemed harder for me to relate to,  as it portrays the women and children having a relatively easy life, and with good counsel and guidance all through their journey. Christiana’s four boys even grow up and all marry godly Christian women, the characters are doing works of charity, and all is pleasant with no great challenges.  As the commentary points out, this was Bunyan’s interest in affirming God’s positive purpose for marriage (in the Lord) and the local church.  As such, it reflects the experience of those who are given these blessings from God, strong marriages with godly partners, and solid local churches that rightly teach God’s word and have healthy leadership and communication.  Bunyan’s church era instead faced great persecution, which included his 12 years in prison, and possibly the churches of that era, the late 17th century, did not experience, or at least to as great an extent, the problems we are familiar with:  churches where great error is taught, and/or abuse of authority from the leadership. 

In the women and children characters, Pilgrim’s Progress Part II also describes the every-day believers that have been given more common grace including calm temperaments, and personalities and social skills within the normal range.  They are naturally more easy-going and more humble, such that the famous places where Christian had extreme difficulties (the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for instance) are much easier for them.  Here I am reminded also of an observation from Joni Eareckson Tada, in The God I Love: A Lifetime of Walking with Jesus: in her ministry work, she had observed two children who had lost their legs in an accident and would never walk again, yet their attitude was much more accepting and positive, than her own very negative reaction and struggle with God about what had happened to her.

Then again, part two includes many other characters (Cheever likens the variety of pilgrims to that of The Canterbury Tales) and describes other personality types, or parts of our personalities.  One such example is Mr. Fearing, a great contrast from the superficial characters such as Talkative, Ignorance, and Self-Will.  The actual description from Bunyan is quite detailed, and then Cheever spends two full pages of commentary, pointing out the problems taken to excess with Mr. Fearing, as well as his strengths.  In response to the simplistic attitude that would exhort believers, ‘Don’t be a Mr. Fearing’, it is worth noting that Bunyan included this reason, as to why such a believer should go about in the dark all his life:  the wise God will have it so; some must pipe, and some must weep.  The Apostle Paul also described the different types of believers, a verse often referenced in the topic of counseling:   1 Thess. 5:14, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”

Pilgrim’s Progress and Cheever’s Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress are great works for re-reading and reference, with a lot of observations regarding various trials and temptations, and different aspects of the Christian’s personality and experience.

2020 Reading in Review: Reformed Confessions Study

December 18, 2020 2 comments

A year ago I reviewed the 2019 books and looked forward to a year long study through the Reformed Confessions. Now I’m nearing the end of this study, which included reading through the Westminster Daily readings, a calendar schedule to read through the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two catechisms, WLC and WSC, along with:

From my original plan at the end of 2019, I completed Spurgeon’s devotional Faith’s Checkbook as well as Thomas Boston’s Crook in the Lot.  I added Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity as commentary reading along with some of the questions from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but found that I could not keep up with the Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God in addition to the Confession commentaries — so I plan to resume reading that in the near future.  I’ve also heard of Thomas Manton’s work on Psalm 119 as highly recommended, another to start on for 2021.

A few thoughts on these Confession commentaries:  A.A. Hodge’s is a straightforward read, covering the basic doctrine, and understandable, and not too lengthy; the reading can tend to the dry side, just basic academic reading, but at the layperson level.   This commentary includes a section of questions to be answered, at the end of each chapter of the confession — useful for a group study with assignments or discussion, or perhaps for family worship and use with children. 

Ursinus’ 16th century commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism is interesting in that it comes from the main author of this well-known catechism.  It is far lengthier (PDF over 1000 pages), and the writing style and content rather tedious; some of this is of course the older English writing of this edition, the public domain one available from Monergism and elsewhere (as far as I know, this one has not been recently republished in a modernized form).  The content includes statement of each Heidelberg question and answer, followed by an exposition of that question/answer; the exposition frequently includes a number of ‘objections’ and answers to these objections–some of which may be familiar to current-day readers (and many that are not as clear, from long-forgotten objections that Ursinus was familiar with).  Ursinus’ commentary has some good sections in response to, say, antinomians, Anabaptists, and a group called ‘Ubiquitarians’ (which I learned was the 16th century name for what we refer to as Lutheranism), regarding such things as God’s moral law and the Reformed interpretation of the Lord’s Supper (as contrasted with Lutheran / Ubiquitarian Consubstantiation).  The objection responses are phrased in terms of major and minor propositions, with terms such as affirm, deny, and syllogisms, and sometimes these objection-abswer sections are rather lengthy, providing ‘too much information’ for the average 21st century Christian, issues about particular doctrinal points not necessarily relevant to understanding the original Catechism question.  

One off-putting aspect especially of Ursinus’ writing, is his occasional references to eschatology, in which he states amillennial assumptions as though a given, assumptions stated in passing and as though not to be questioned — when a clear exegesis of the text clearly does NOT support that view. As for example, this section, at the beginning of section III. WHAT IS THE RESURRECTION, AND WHAT ARE THE ERRORS WHICH ARE ENTERTAINED CONCERNING IT? (page 513 in the Monergism PDF file)

The word resurrection sometimes signifies in the Scriptures man’s conversion, or his resurrection from sin, as, “This is the first resurrection.” (Rev. 20:5.)

Overall, the reading this year, the Reformed Confessions along with commentaries, has been a good study, covering the many different doctrines in the confessions and commentaries, and thus becoming more acquainted with the documents and the writings of these theologians from previous centuries.

Philip Ryken, and J.C. Ryle, on the Gospel of Luke

October 2, 2020 5 comments

A weekly Bible Study at church has started on a study of the gospel of Luke this year, and included Dr. Ryken’s Commentary in the list of recommended resources. So I’m listening to the next best thing to the commentary: the volumes of sermons from Dr. Ryken that form the basis of his commentary, a set of 14 volumes from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ podcast “Every Last Word,” available at ReformedResources.org.  The first three volumes cover the first 5 chapters of Luke, and are straight-forward sermons with exposition and application, on the wide range of topics within these first chapters of Luke’s gospel.

One pleasant surprise has been the frequent references to J.C. Ryle, with quite a few quotes from the great 19th century Anglican bishop.  In fact, in the early chapters at least (I’m currently in Luke 6) of Ryken’s sermon series, J.C. Ryle is one of the most (or possibly the most) frequently cited resources — along with quotes from a few others such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and at least one quote from existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

That brings me back to reading J.C. Ryle, several years after I read  his books such as Practical Religion, Holiness, and his book on prophecy, Coming Events and Present Duties.  Over the years I’ve read selected portions from his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (full e-book in PDF, Kindle, and EPUB formats available here), and now it’s been refreshing and enjoyable to read sequentially through J.C. Ryle’s full commentary on the gospel of Luke, alongside Ryken’s sermons each week.

Ryle’s writing style here is similar to other works, a devotional and educational commentary, simple and clear statements packed with truth, and always very quotable.  He well described the faith of the Old Testament saints, with the original, plain historic understanding that believers always had the Holy Spirit indwelling, though in less measure (quantity) — unlike several modern day teachers who want to come up with innovations, even such as a few who would come up with a “spirit of Christ” that indwells New Testament saints in contrast to Old Testament saints that were regenerated but not actually Spirit indwelled (since, supposedly, the Spirit of Christ did not exist in that earlier era).

Ryle’s Expository Thoughts also addresses the basics, with great application of texts, to exhort believers on the importance of Bible reading and study, evangelism, and diligence and hard work in our occupations and callings.  His comments on the Lord’s Day Sabbath, at the beginning of Luke 6, are also spot-on, instructive regarding Christ’s teaching on works of necessity and works of mercy brought out in the text, and in response to the same Sabbath criticisms in our day:  We live in days when anything like strict Sabbath observance is loudly denounced, in some quarters, as a remnant of Jewish superstition.  We are boldly told by some people, that to enforce the fourth commandment on Christians, is going back to bondage.  Let it suffice us to remember, when we hear such things, that assertions are not proofs, and that vague talk like this has no confirmation in the word of God.   J.C. Ryle elsewhere wrote an excellent short summary tract, Sabbath: A Day to Keep, referencing  many scriptures and how they relate together; but the additional comments in his Luke 6 commentary add to the full picture.

Just in going through the first chapters of Luke, it’s also interesting to see his clear statements regarding the future millennial era and ethnic Israel’s future, as with this sampling:

Christ was indeed “the glory of Israel.” The descent from Abraham–the covenants–the promises–the law of Moses–the divinely ordered Temple service–all these were mighty privileges. But all were as nothing compared to the mighty fact, that out of Israel was born the Savior of the world. This was to be the highest honor of the Jewish nation, that the mother of Christ was a Jewish woman, and that the blood of One “made of the seed of David, according to the flesh,” was to make atonement for the sin of mankind.  . . .

The day shall come when the veil shall be taken from the heart of Israel, and all shall “glory in the Lord.” (Isaiah. 45:25.) For that day let us wait, and watch, and pray. If Christ be the light and glory of our souls, that day cannot come too soon.  . . .

“and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever.” The literal fulfillment of this part of the promise is yet to come. Israel is yet to be gathered. The Jews are yet to be restored to their own land, and to look to Him whom they once pierced, as their King and their God.  . . .

The full completion of the kingdom is an event yet to come. The saints of the Most High shall one day have entire dominion. The little stone of the Gospel-kingdom shall yet fill the whole earth. But whether in its incomplete or complete state, the subjects of the kingdom are always of one character.

Also, a sampling of general application from passages in Luke’s gospel:

We do not expect a child to do the work of a full-grown man, though he may one day, if he lives long enough. We must not expect a learner of Christianity to show the faith, and love, and knowledge of an old soldier of the cross. He may become by and bye a mighty champion of the truth. But at first we must give him time.

and

In every calling, and vocation, and trade, we see that great effort is one prominent secret of success. It is not by luck or accident that men prosper, but by hard working. Fortunes are not made without trouble and attention, by bankers and merchants. Practice is not secured without diligence and study, by lawyers and physicians. The principle is one with which the children of this world are perfectly familiar.

Habakkuk, Genesis 3:8, and ‘A Day of the Lord’?

September 14, 2020 2 comments

A recent sermon series, “The Gospel According to Habakkuk,” has included a lot of good points on the law, gospel, trials and suffering, judgment, and more — all from the minor prophet Habakkuk.  Going through the first complaint-response and then Habakkuk’s second complaint, up to the beginning of chapter 2, includes many issues in Habakkuk’s struggle.  One’s basic orientation / disorientation, and reorientation toward life (after working through a very difficult time) is seen in Habakkuk’s experience, and often in the lament Psalms.

One of Habakkuk’s issues, of judgment, relates to understanding of the term apocalypse, which (as we know) means to uncover or reveal something.  Revelation is the actual English translation of the Greek term of apocalypse.  Here, though, one idea seems rather novel, something that I haven’t come across in the historic Reformed and Puritan commentaries:  the idea of many small ‘Day of the Lord’ judgment events — a wide definition that even includes Habakkuk’s experience.  In this sense, any event in one’s life that brings trials and difficulties, is a small ‘Day of the Lord’ event, one that helps each of us prepare for the coming final Day of the Lord.  The term ‘Day of the Lord’ thus refers to many different historic events, occurring throughout history and not limited to the future Second Coming.  Overall, yes, this makes sense, in that every difficulty presents itself as a growth opportunity, with a choice of faith or pride; we can humble ourselves, look to God in faith, and learn what God would have us learn (I especially think of Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot), or answer with pride and self-righteous anger.  As pointed out in this series, the recent events (including the response to the covid-19 pandemic) have revealed a lot of shallow and superficial Christianity, a lot of self-righteous pride, rather than humbly considering what it is that God wants us to learn.

Then we come to Genesis 3:8, which describes Adam and Eve hiding from LORD God in the cool of the day.  The new idea mentioned here takes a different interpretation:  this was not a comment on the weather, but God coming in judgment to Adam and Eve; the term ‘cool,’ sometimes translated as wind, can also mean spirit, and so this verse is describing a terrifying judgment scene rather than a casual conversation with God.  The sense of Genesis 3:8 is quite different than what is found from reading Reformed and Puritan commentaries such as John Calvin, Matthew Henry, or John Bunyan’s (unfinished) commentary on Genesis 1-11.  The text here is compared to other Old Testament texts that describe the terrifying experience such as what Moses and the Israelites heard on Mt. Sinai, and references in the prophets — such as Jeremiah 46:10 (about Egypt), Ezekiel 30:2-4, Joel, and Zephaniah 1:14-16.  Joel 2 — again, according to this view — is fulfilled in Acts 2.  This view then makes an even greater leap, to state that all of the Old Testament ‘Day of the Lord’ prophecies were fulfilled at the Cross.  Only the New Testament passages about the future Day of the Lord are still considered relevant, referring to Christ’s Second Coming.  Further, Revelation 1:8, which describes John being in the spirit “on the Lord’s Day” is equated with the Day of the Lord.

From all of this, it seems to me that general application of scripture — about how we learn and grow from our trials, as events that reveal our hearts and provide opportunities to repent and grow in faith — has been mixed in with doctrinal teaching about the prophetic scriptures that address the Second Coming of our Lord.  Both ideas are important and should be taught, yet that does not require conflating the two ideas as done here.  I’m also reminded of other modern-day doctrinal innovations such as this previous post coming out of the ‘Redemptive-Historical’ school of thought.  Again, I don’t find such ideas in the Reformed and Puritan commentaries, and wonder why modern teachers seemingly have the desire to come up with new interpretations rather than standing by traditional, historic teaching.

In closing, I appreciate this commentary excerpt from John Bunyan on Genesis 3:8:

“And they heard the voice of the Lord God.” This voice was not to be understood according, as if it was the effect of a word; as when we speak, the sound remains with a noise for some time after; but by voice here, we are to understand the Lord Christ himself; wherefore this voice is said to walk, not to sound only: “They heard the voice of the Lord God walking.” This voice John calls the word, the word that was with the Father before he made the world, and that at this very time was heard to walk in the garden of Adam: Therefore John also saith, this voice was in the beginning; that is, in the garden with Adam, at the beginning of his conversion, as well as of the beginning of the world (John 1:1).
“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” The gospel of it is, in the season of grace; for by the cool of the day, he here means, in the patience, gentleness, goodness and mercy of the gospel; and it is opposed to the heat, fire, and severity of the law.

James Boice on the Prophet Habakkuk (Part 2)

August 19, 2020 Leave a comment
As mentioned in the last post, James Boice did a 5 part series on Habakkuk (as well as teaching through all the other minor prophets).  Boice’s sermon dates are not that easy to determine, as he did not typically reference the year or specific events — unlike S. Lewis Johnson, whose sermons are fairly easy to date given the frequent date references.  Yet in this case, Boice mentioned a recent PCRT conference on the topic of Revival, and specifically that one of the messages was given by John Richard DeWitt.  It turns out that this conference was held in 1982, “Come, Change Our World”  (audio recordings available here) — which also explains Boice’s frequent references to revival, as what Habakkuk probably had on his mind.
Habakkuk 2:4 is a well known verse, cited three times in the New Testament:  Romans 1:17, Hebrews 10:38, and Galatians 3:11.  Here, James Boice pointed out the Greek construction with three parts — “the righteous” “by faith” “will live” — and that each of these New Testament texts provides an exposition of one of the three parts.  Romans provides the commentary on “the righteous,” Hebrews on the phrase “by faith” (with the great “hall of faith” Hebrews 11 soon after the Habakkuk reference in Hebrews 10), and Galatians adds the commentary on “will live,” how the righteous will live.
In the third chapter, Habakkuk has finally been brought from his earlier self-righteous angry attitude, to a God-ward focus.  Here we can see the value of a prepared composition and poem.  Yes, spontaneous prayer has its place and value, our daily talking with God, but Habakkuk’s prayer shows reverence for God, a focus on God that is not filled with the uncomfortable uhs and “ands” in our everyday speech.  Habakkuk’s earlier chapters included references to himself, and he considered God’s attributes.  But what really helps, to reorient our life back to God, involves more than just intellectually understanding God’s attributes.  What helps to get past the complaints, is to also remember and affirm God’s past actions, what God has done for His people in the past.  Habakkuk was terrified as he considered the coming judgment — verse 16:
I hear, and my body trembles;  my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me.
 and so now, what gets Habakkuk going again, is to remember God’s mighty acts of the past, and how God had delivered His people.  It is after this focus on God and recalling God’s actions for His people, that Habakkuk can truly trust and rejoice in the Lord, expressed in the final verses (17-19), a great poem and song of hope:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

Thoughts on John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon

July 30, 2020 2 comments
Going through my ChristianAudio collection of past free monthly offers, I recently read the audio version of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  It is also available online in text format, such as this one at monergism.  (The audio version ends with the Conclusion, and does not include the supplemental material, starting with the November 1660 imprisonment, continuation of the author’s life, through to the postscript.)  I’ve previously read short excerpts or heard about it, including — as for example, in several of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons — Bunyan’s time of great anxiety and fears, before God brought him to full sense and assurance followed by his later usefulness to the church in Bedford.

The audio book divides the work into chapters, different mp3 tracks; apparently such chapter division was not original to Bunyan’s work but added later.  The section dealing with his doubts and dark times of heavy conviction is here in ‘chapter 3,’ the longest section.  A few interesting observations:  from early in the book, Bunyan observes the idea of the clean and unclean animals, in reference to “chewing the cud” and people who “chew on” the word of God.  Bunyan also, in his early days, observed in people what we see in all ages: professed believers, who were very concerned with their fortunes in this world, and who also greatly grieved the loss of their loved ones,  who had their focus on this world rather than the next.

Bunyan shared his desire to read old books, from long ago and before his day–and then acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians which he especially liked.   It’s interesting that in his day, which we look back on as the golden era of Puritanism, he wanted to read books from an earlier time.  Luther’s time to his was still relatively recent, about 130 years past.  The Reformers evidently had access to the really ancient books, of Augustine and the early church–because they knew Latin.  Presumably, the writings of the Patristic and medieval years had not — at Bunyan’s time — yet been translated into the common language of English, and so Bunyan and other laypeople had limited access, to a few of the Reformers’ works translated into their own language.  What a blessing and privilege it is to us in our day, to have ready access to English translations of so many early authors, going back 1500+ years.

The audio book ‘Chapter 3’ is the section often mentioned by others, Bunyan’s years of dark fears and heavy conviction.  For a period of a few years soon after coming to salvation, Bunyan seemingly obsessed over various biblical texts, identifying himself with profane Esau, or Judas Iscariot, fearful of having committed the unpardonable sin, and finding that somehow every other godly character in the Bible who had greatly sinned at some point in their life — such as David, Solomon, Manasseh, and Peter — was somehow of a different case and classification from his, one that seems to have included some confusion (at the time) regarding the continuity of scripture from Old to New Testament:  “these were but sins against the law, from which there was a Jesus sent to save them; but yours is a sin against the Saviour, and who shall save you from that?”

This lengthy section recalled to mind the important teaching, that I’ve read from Charles Spurgeon and elsewhere, that God’s people have differing experiences, and it is not necessary, and indeed not at all to be expected, that every person who comes to Christ should have the same lengthy, dark and strong convictions as Bunyan had.  Spurgeon mentioned this in several of his sermons, responding to people who held off from coming to saving faith because they were waiting to have this special ‘preparation’ similar to Bunyan’s.  A few excerpts on this point, from Spurgeon:

From sermon #1490 (August 1879)
Upon certain strong minds God lays a heavy load of conviction, as, for instance, upon John Bunyan, whose five years of inward contention you will find mapped out in his, “Grace Abounding.” But these cases are not the rule and in such instances the Lord means to make a peculiarly useful and experienced man. In the formation of a competent leader and a spiritual champion, the Lord exercises the man to make him expert in dealing with others. But He does not do this with poor, weak minds which are rendered still weaker by the assaults of Satan and their inward fears. “He gathers the lambs in his bosom, and does gently lead those that are with young.”

From sermon #1555 (August 1880)
John Bunyan gives a long story in “Grace Abounding,” and I am thankful that he does, but he never meant that we were to imitate him in his unbelief and harsh thoughts of God. Those hideous doubts and horrible fears were not the work of the Spirit of God. They were the work of John Bunyan’s vivid imagination and the devil together. They had nothing to do with the pardon of his sin except that they hindered him from finding it month after month. Your business, poor guilty sinner, is to believe that mercy is dealt out by God to sinners, not according to their despair and remorse, but “according to the riches of His grace.” Where has God commanded us to despair? Does He not command us to believe? Where has He ever commanded remorse? Does He not bid us hope in His mercy? We are to come to Jesus just as we are and trust Him and we shall be forgiv all trespasses in a moment by our loving, waiting Father.
From sermon #1824 (March 1885)
Therefore do not judge yourself by any man’s biography. Do not condemn yourself if, after reading John Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding,” you say, “I never went into these dark places.” Be glad that you never did.

A similar point is made in the 1689 London Baptist Confession chapter 15.1 in the teaching regarding those of ‘riper years’.  As noted in this post from a few years ago, this paragraph (copied from the Savoy Confession) addresses the more outwardly noticeable salvation experiences of older believers.  Again, we are not to compare our own conversion experience to that of other believers, for God works in different ways.  Arden Hodgins here mentioned the example of David Brainerd, who like John Bunyan had an especially strong and intense experience of his sinful condition; all believers will experience something of this in repentance, but not necessarily to the same depth; or sometimes the understanding is unfolded later throughout the believer’s life of ongoing repentance.

Throughout, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is filled with scripture quotations, the evidence of a godly man fully acquainted with scripture, and a similar feature that I so love in Spurgeon’s sermons, the continual interaction with and use of scripture.  Bunyan’s Conclusion contains some excellent thoughts to consider, applicable to all of us in our walk with God:
I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible, than I could well tell how to stand under; and yet at another time, the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick; or rather, My heart hath been so dead and dry unto it, that I could not conceive the refreshment, though I have looked it all over.
I find to this day seven abominations in my heart: 1. Inclining to unbelief; 2. Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifesteth; 3. A leaning to the works of the law; 4. Wanderings and coldness in prayer; 5. To forget to watch for that I pray for; 6. Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have; 7. I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves. When I would do good, evil is present with me.
These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with, yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good; 1. They make me abhor myself; 2. They keep me from trusting my heart; 3. They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness; 4. They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus; 5. They press me to pray unto God; 6. They show me the need I have to watch and be sober; 7. And provoke me to pray unto God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.