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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.

Are the Saints in Heaven Aware of Us?

May 5, 2011 2 comments

Often nowadays in my Bible studies, I will hear the same idea from two or more sources at about the same point in time.  At the time of the Bible Prophecy Blog article about Lordship salvation, for instance, I was continuing to hear more of the issue from things said by S. Lewis Johnson in a special message about it and elsewhere (such as in his Matthew series).  More recently, another idea — are the saints in heaven aware of things going on down here? — was mentioned by S. Lewis Johnson and by Spurgeon, in two unrelated messages:  first in SLJ’s message about the transfiguration, and a few days later in Spurgeon’s sermon #203, “The Sympathy of the Two Worlds.”

From SLJ I learned that John Bunyan certainly believed that the saints in heaven are aware of what’s going on down here, as depicted in Pilgrim’s Progress:  when the pilgrims from this world call at the gates, Moses and Elijah and some other saints are looking out over the gates.  Knowing how Spurgeon was greatly influenced by Bunyan explains Spurgeon’s similar view:

Does not the Apostle tell us that the saints above are a cloud of witnesses? After he had mentioned Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Gideon and Barak and Jephthah, did he not say, “Therefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight”? Lo, we are running in the plains and the glorified ones are looking down upon us! Your mother’s eyes follow you, young man! A father’s eyes are looking down upon you, young woman!  The eyes of my godly grandmother, long since glorified, I doubt not, rest on me perpetually. No doubt, in Heaven they often talk of us! I think they sometimes visit this poor earth—they never go out of Heaven, it is true, for Heaven is everywhere to them. This world is to them but just one corner of God’s Heaven, one shady bower of Paradise.

The saints of the living God, are, I doubt not, very near unto us when we think them very far away. At any rate, they still remember us, still look for us, for this is ever upon their hearts—the truth that they without us cannot be made perfect—they cannot be a perfect Church till all are gathered in and, therefore, do they long for our appearing!

As to the Hebrews 12 verse referenced by Spurgeon, though, some Bible teachers — including S. Lewis Johnson, as well as John MacArthur — do not hold to such an interpretation.  Rather, they see that text as referring to the Old Testament saints — not as spectators of us but as witnesses in Scripture, and thus witnesses to us of the life of faith.

Yet scripture does give some hints elsewhere — and only hints — that the redeemed in God’s presence are aware of us in this life.  Spurgeon in the above sermon related it to Luke 15:10, which certainly teaches that the angels in heaven are aware of what’s going on here, since they rejoice over every sinner who repents.  SLJ saw a hint of this also in the transfiguration account, where Moses and Elijah are conversing with Jesus and aware of His soon departure to be accomplished at Jerusalem (reference the parallel account in Luke 9:31).

Johnson also pointed out an answer to the common objection:  how can the saints in heaven possibly be in bliss if they know about all the terrible sin and unhappiness going on down here on the earth?  But God of course also knows about all the terrible things going on here, and yet certainly He is resting in His own bliss.  Likewise the angels are certainly aware of this world’s affairs, since they then rejoice every time a sinner repents and comes to salvation.

It is a nice thought, one I hadn’t really considered that much before, but very possibly true.  In closing I offer up the following somewhat humorous words from S. Lewis Johnson, when he was here with us:

Now that’s a very comforting thing, really. That means that when I get to heaven you can think of me appearing over heaven wondering what’s going on in Believers Chapel.  I’ve often said to my students at the theological seminary, when they depart from the faith my ghost will disturb them.  Now someone might say, well my goodness, if in heaven we know what’s happening down here on the earth with all of the sin and unhappiness and tragedy, how can we possibly be in bliss in heaven if we know what’s going down here on the earth?  Well, I reply with another question.  Does not God know?  Is He not resting in the leisure of His own bliss?  Of course He is.  You see, He knows the end from the beginning, and then we shall have better perspective too.

Good Uses for an MP3 Player: Free Audio Resources

February 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I finally have one of modern technology’s more recent tools:  an MP3 player.  (Not the popular iPod, but a good second brand — Sandisk Sansa Clip+.)  I’ve never seen such a tiny device before, but it works and does its purpose:  to hook-up to a large stereo system and play books and sermon files while I’m exercising at home.  Since I’m already listening to two other series throughout regular days (one during commute time, and another half-message during the workday), and exercise sessions are at the end of the workday or on weekends and varied from week to week, I’m now trying this third area as a catch-all time for various independent material.  Here I can listen to current series at Believers Chapel, various audio recordings of J.C. Ryle or Spurgeon material, or free audio-recordings of classics such as “Pilgrim’s Progress” (available from Librivox.org).

So far I’ve listened to a few of the free recordings of J.C. Ryle material, some available here at sermonindex.net, others from this British website, GraceAndTruth.org.uk.  The readings from GraceAndTruth feature a good British speaker, whereas the quality of readers for the sermonindex material varies.  One two-part series from there features a rather monotonous voice that lacks excitement and overall pitch and tone variation;  but that is to be expected, with free material you don’t always get good audio-readers.

I’ve also begun Geoff Brown’s in-progress series through the OT Kings, something being done as a Sunday School series at Believers Chapel.  Only six parts are available so far on the website, so I hope he continues the series — and I look forward to the updates.  Some of Dan Duncan’s series, through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are also loaded on my Sansa Clip+, along with the first two parts of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”  (which I discussed further in this blog).  The next several weeks of work-out time on the elliptical can thus become the more interesting with edifying reading.

Pilgrim’s Progress Update

September 8, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been enjoying listening to Pilgrim’s Progress during my commute time.  Like other listening in the car, it’s usually short periods of time (30 to 40 minutes per day at most), but the story is easy to follow and remember from one session to the next, and now I’m over halfway through.  I’ve noticed that much of the story pauses, for Christian to re-tell the previous events: an illustration of our continuing need to remember past experiences, our testimony of how God has been faithful to us.  So much of the Old Testament includes the re-telling of God’s past dealings with Israel — several places in the Psalms (such as Psalms 105 and 106), as well as throughout the history books.  The New Testament also gives the example of Paul’s testimony (Acts 21 and 26) of his Damascus road experience.

Pilgrim’s Progress is also built on strong dialogue, and all the characters show great depth of thought — something which indeed makes “Pilgrim’s Progress” stand out above all other (human) literature.  J.C. Ryle noted that Pilgrim’s Progress was the one book that all Christians could agree on, and it was because John Bunyan only knew the one book, the Bible:

Oh, that believers in this country would learn to cleave more closely to the written Word! Oh, that they would see that the more the Bible, and the Bible only, is the substance of men’s religion, the more they agree! It is probable there never was an uninspired book more universally admired than Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is a book which all denominations of Christians delight to honor. It has won praise from all parties. Now what a striking fact it is, that the author was preeminently a man of one book! He had read hardly anything but the Bible.

Now to observations concerning specific parts of the story:
The Palace Beautiful section includes some good conversation with three women: Discretion, Prudence, and Charity.  As always, Christian shows great maturity in his answers, to a depth not common at least nowadays for new converts.  When he is questioned about how he dealt with his family — wife and four young children — before departing from them to go on his pilgrimage, he describes how he continually warned them and tried to explain everything to them.  It seems too mature in today’s world of Evangelical Christianity, especially since according to the story he was not then even saved, but only still learning, first reading God’s word — before he had even met Evangelist.

As an aside here, my memory from the previous reading was correct, that the book does not place a great deal of emphasis on his family, excepting a few scenes like this one; and even here he is much more focused on God than on unsaved family members.  By contrast, the recent movie version portrays a Christian much more attached to his wife and family, one frequently bringing up the subject and wanting someone to go save them and bring them along the journey.  Obviously some things had to change for a movie version appealing to 21st century family-focused Christians, yet the original treatment shows a clearer picture of the proper perspective that has been lost in our day.  How would today’s Christian movie-makers deal with some of the true stories from Church history, such as the martyr Perpetua — who not only gave her life as a martyr, but forsook close family relations, her father and an infant son?

Spurgeon’s commentary, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress, has also proved helpful, with greater explanation of some scenes such as the Palace Beautiful.  From Spurgeon I learned that this scene is like a meeting that a new believer has “with the elders” for consideration of church membership, as done in traditional baptist churches.  From Spurgeon:

These are the messengers of the church: — Prudence, who does not want to let any hypocrites in; Piety, who understands spiritual matters, and knows how to search the heart; and Charity, who judges kindly, yet justly, according to the love of Christ which is shed abroad in her heart.

Christian quickly goes from the “mountain top experience,” the high point at Palace Beautiful, to encounters with Apollyon and then the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  How true that is to experience, both as shown in various Bible accounts (such as David’s declension in 1 Samuel) and in our own lives.

What’s Next: Commuting with John Bunyan and “Pilgrim’s Progress”

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

In the last year of commuting time (which isn’t that long of a commute), I’ve enjoyed listening to S. Lewis Johnson’s “Acts” and “The Divine Purpose” series.  Next, I plan to listen to a Librivox recording of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

I first read Pilgrim’s Progress in the late ’90s, when a church in the area had this book as their Sunday evening study topic. At that time I never purchased a print copy, but downloaded and printed off the online text from Gutenberg’s website of public domain books. Since then I’ve located a good free audio recording of it, from Librivox’s catalog of recordings — also available from Archive.org.  I’ve listened to a few parts of it, but never all the way through.  Another good media source, based on Pilgrim’s Progress, is the 2008 movie, a very good adaptation especially considering the usual quality of  low-budget Christian movies.  Steve Camp has also done a great song, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” with references to some of the characters and events in the book — click this link for a good YouTube presentation.

In the last year of reading Spurgeon sermons, I’ve again become aware of the great treasure to be found in Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,”  which Spurgeon often referenced in his sermon illustrations – a fact also mentioned by more recent great preachers including S. Lewis Johnson, and Phil Johnson.

It’s been a while since I’ve actually read the book, and so now I’m looking forward to these commutes: a good time to listen to sermons as well as good quality books.

Update:  The following link lists several online resources for Pilgrim’s Progress commentaries and study-guides:

http://bibchr.blogspot.com/2010/08/pilgrims-progress-study-guide_24.html

Typology (from S. Lewis Johnson teachings)

June 2, 2010 Leave a comment

S. Lewis Johnson frequently taught on the subject of typology, and now after studying through several of his series I have a much clearer understanding of what typology is and is not.  I’m currently listening to two series, one a study through Old Testament narrative chapters (Lessons from the Life of David), the other a doctrinal study of “The Divine Purpose.”  In previous Old Testament series I encountered SLJ’s usage of typology as early as Genesis and again in the “Typology in  Leviticus” study.  The subject comes up rather frequently, such that this week included treatment of typology in both the David series, and in the doctrinal study (currently in the section about dispensational theology and the hermeneutic).

Typology is really just another word for “illustration” or “example,” and has specific characteristics, including historicity and pattern, with correspondences between people, things (or institutions), or events.  The type is found in the Old Testament, a historical reality, as distinguished from allegory, of which John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progess” is a classic example.  According to S. Lewis Johnson, types are not restricted to only those which are explicitly pointed out in the New Testament (I have heard that claim before), but still must follow the pattern established by the definition.

The Bible does not contain any true allegories — and here SLJ has discussed the case of Galatians 4:24.   Some translations use the word “allegorically” (such as the ESV), but the more accurate translation should be “typologically”  (or “figuratively” as in the NIV).  In any case, the reference in Galatians 4 is to an event (Genesis 21) that actually happened, unlike the story and characters of Pilgrim’s Progress.

What I find especially helpful in Johnson’s teaching, are his many actual expositions of a text, in which he gives a point-by-point typology, showing in a particular case all of the features of a “type.”  During the Genesis series he gave such an example from the life of Joseph, showing the correspondences between Joseph and what he did for his brothers, and what Jesus has done and will yet do.  In the “Lessons from the life of David” he points out similar correspondences between David in the wilderness and Jesus Christ during the present age.