Sunday, 30 December 2012

The ends of 2012

In a couple of days 2012 will come to an end. Of course we are not surprised at this fact because we have known that this would happen. Perhaps we will be glad to know that it is over because we have experienced difficulties during it. Or we may be sad that it will have gone because many interesting, even exciting things happened to us during it. Perhaps it has flown by very quickly or perhaps it has seemed very long. Whatever our experience, we know that 2012 will conclude tomorrow evening.
Yet we also know that the word ‘end’ has another meaning in addition to ‘conclusion’. The alternative meaning is ‘purpose’ and we are familiar with this usage of the word in the first question of the Shorter Catechism, ‘What is man’s chief end?’ When we consider it from the point of view of purpose, we can think of two different ones – God’s purpose for 2012 and our purpose for 2012.
I’m sure most of us had purposes for 2012 back at the end of December 2011. Some of them may only have been possibilities, like where we would go on holiday. These purposes may not have happened and we can forget about them. Yet other of our purposes might have been more serious, especially if they were connected to our spiritual lives. We may have decided back then that in 2012 we would pray more regularly, read the Bible more frequently, witness for Jesus when opportunities came our way, etc. We may have failed to do them, despite having plenty time (twelve months). In that regard, the end of 2012 was not achieved. How should we respond to our failure? The answer is that we should go to God and repent, and he will forgive us. And we should ask for grace to help us achieve our spiritual goals in 2013.
Of course, a lot of us may have managed to implement some of our spiritual ‘ends’ in 2012. If that is the case, such should give thanks to God. Yet even when that progress has been achieved, we cannot assume that we have reached a spiritual plateau from which we cannot descend, and descend quickly, in 2013. God will expect us to maintain, with his help, the ‘ends’ we have for the coming year.
Some of us may have intended to be converted in 2012. Yet the year has passed and the change has not happened. You are aware that time is passing, and very rapidly. The reason that you are not converted is not God’s fault. On any of the moments of every day in 2012 you could have gone to him and asked for pardon for your sins. You could have received his mercy. Yet you can still do so in 2012, because today and tomorrow remain. But you should not delay because none of us knows when our personal opportunities will be gone forever.
The other Person who had ‘ends’ in 2012 is God. We come to the close of the year aware that we have failed, even when we have made some progress. Yet the Lord has accomplished everything he planned for 2012. He has not failed to any extent in anything that he purposed to do. His purpose is so large that we cannot comprehend a fraction of it. But he always knows all of it, and he never fails. At the end of one year and at the beginning of another, it is good for us to know that the Lord is capable in all he does and remains sovereign over all.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Remembering

November 2012 editorial in the Record of the Free Church of Scotland

This month saw the annual Day of Remembrance for those who gave their lives in defence of our nation. It is very appropriate that we show our gratitude for their sacrifices. Yet although they gave their lives we know that they have no influence over the choices and directions of subsequent generations in their nation. In a sense, apart from their example of giving their all, their contribution ceased when they gave their lives. Nevertheless we have an obligation to think about the values that caused them to make the ultimate sacrifice and what it was that they were fighting for.

Their example speaks to us. While we may not be called upon to give our lives in battle we should always be ready to defend the values that we hold dear. Because the fact is, our country is fast losing its Christian heritage and if we don’t give our all it will be gone. Of course, it might be gone even if we give our all, but it is better to lose it after attempting to keep it than losing it without doing anything. After all, we know that in order for evil to triumph it only requires that good people do nothing.

What can we do? Pray is the most important response and it demands participation. We can pray individually at any time, yet it is obvious that united prayer is more likely to be heard. It is surprising, at least to me, how little prayer is being arranged, despite the obvious rapid departure of our country from its Christian heritage. We are in danger of sleep walking into the night!

Why can’t our congregations meet once a week for focussed prayer about the issues that mark our national decline? I know most have short times of prayer attached to our midweek meetings, but such occasions cannot really be called prayer meetings. If we have not got the time to meet to pray about our national situation, there is something very wrong with our priorities.

Of course, we must do more than pray, but we cannot do more until we pray. What else can we do? That is up to you (and me)! Anyone of us can provide a list of things we should do. I suspect each of us already knows a couple of responses we can make. The one thing we cannot do is to wait for someone else to do something.

The people we recalled on Remembrance Sunday are recalled with admiration and affection. Hopefully, future generations of the Christian church will have the same memories of us when they look back to how we responded to our current crisis!






Sunday, 21 October 2012

Christ the Heart of Heaven

This poem was written by Anne Ross Cousin, the author of The Sands of Time are Sinking, which was based on sayings of Samuel Rutherford. She was the wife of William Cousin, a Free Church minister in the Scottish Borders in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Andrew Bonar, in his Diary, mentions having a sweet prayer meeting with him. I have been reading her volume of poems called Immanuel's Land and Other Pieces, and one can see the influence of Rutherford in some of them. In it she has several poems describing heaven. This particular poem helped me today as I was thinking about heaven.

The harps of gold are ringing
across the crystal sea;
A gentle breath is bringing
their echoes down to me.
Now steals their soft outpouring,
now swells their clear acclaim;
Throughout, the deep adoring
of One Beloved Name.
Christ is the Heart of Heaven,
The theme of all the throng;
If Christ was not in heaven,
All silent were the song.

The sun of love is beaming
to dry the dew of tears;
Love’s golden sun, outstreaming
to bless the cloudless years.
Its shining beauty brightens
the summer land above;
With warm sweet smile it lightens –
That golden Sun of Love!
Christ is the Heart of Heaven,
Its glory and its light;
If Christ were not in heaven,
Its noonday were as night.

Each joy in heaven beareth
life’s freest bloom and breath;
Yet, won by blood, it weareth
the costliness of death.
From grief doth gladness borrow
the garland of the blest;
The cross of bleeding sorrow
endears the crowned rest.
Christ is the Heart of Heaven,
Triumphant now He stands,
The Sceptred Man in heaven,
With nail-prints in His hands.

O dower of passing sweetness!
O cup filled to the brim!
O perfect, pure completeness
that saints possess in Him!
O sweet unwearying story,
Sung in each various tone!
And O fair feast of glory,
that tastes of love alone!
Christ is the Heart of Heaven,
Its fulness and its bliss!
No banquet, e’en in heaven,
For hungering souls, like this!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Biography of Archibald Brown

This review appears in the November 2012 issue of The Record of the Free Church of Scotland.

Iain H. Murray (2012), Archibald G. Brown, Banner of Truth, Hardback, 432pp.


In the second half of the nineteenth C. H. Spurgeon so towered above English Calvinistic Baptists that other giants seemed to be much smaller, with one outcome being that quickly they were forgotten by subsequent generations. This was the case despite the great achievements connected to some of those men. One was Archibald G. Brown. Perhaps the only words by Brown that people today have read was the fine eulogy he paid to Spurgeon at his graveside. Yet the fact that Brown was given this privileged role should alert readers to his importance.

A brief summary of his life will reveal why he was a spiritual giant. Brown was a Londoner whose family had connections to Spurgeon’s congregation. Born in 1844, he was converted as a teenager and immediately began to make a strong public witness for Christ, including a willingness to preach even at a moment’s notice. At the age of eighteen he became a student in Spurgeon’s Pastors College. It was not the usual practice to let such a young person begin such studies, but Spurgeon recognised the striking abilities possessed by Brown.

It was the intention of the College to ensure that the students also engaged in practical evangelism and church planting. So Brown was given the responsibility of preaching to a small group who met in Bromley, and the outcome was that a small church was founded there in the following year (1863), and Brown ministered to them until 1866. Spurgeon had involved himself in helping Brown in this work.

On leaving the College, Brown was called in 1867 to a Baptist Church in Stepney, which had been planted by another of Spurgeon’s students. Spurgeon had recommended Brown to them by saying he knew a man he would walk four miles to hear. Brown preached his first sermon there in January 1867. The congregation, which had seventy-six members, began to grow, with over seventy young men converted during one sermon preached in the following month. By the close of 1868, several hundred gathered to hear Brown preach, with hundreds unable to get in. Stepney was a very deprived area, yet Brown worked hard in contacting the many people who lived there, most in appalling conditions. In 1872, Brown pointed out that 500 of the 650 members who had joined the church since he arrived had not come from a church background. A prominent emphasis in the congregation’s life was prayer (there were three weekly prayer meetings). The church continued to grow and eventually a new building holding 3000 had to be erected and was called the East London Tabernacle.

Although Brown was a dynamic preacher, he also built up a congregation that recognised the importance of getting involved in spreading the gospel. The author mentions that at one stage it had seventy Sunday School teachers, a thousand people who went to visit homes every Sunday afternoon, and others who were involved with helping various forms of need. Brown insisted that the essential purpose of all these activities was to speak about Jesus to those they came in contact with. Male and female church workers visited the community regularly. The congregation provided material help for many of the large numbers of needy people living in the area.

As the years passed, it was inevitable that the work of such a large congregation would wear Brown down physically and he retired from his position as pastor in 1897. After a break of a few months, he resumed preaching at another Baptist congregation, this one being in West Norwood in south London, a very different kind of location from the poverty of east London, as well as being a church in decline. Although it was suggested to Brown that the gospel message that had been so effective in east London would not be successful in south London, he proved them wrong and soon the building, which held 1100, had large congregations. Over 500 were added to the church by 1900, and 1300 had joined by 1907, the year that Brown resigned from the pastorate.

The reason why Brown resigned was that he was called to help at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the former church of C. H. Spurgeon, which was going through difficulties. While one can understand why the congregation wanted him, it is debatable whether he was wise to do so at his age because he became responsible for the many activities connected to the Tabernacle. Yet despite various difficulties in the congregation, Brown’s preaching was blessed, with over 450 joining the church by 1910, the year in which Brown was compelled by health problems to resign.

In his remaining years, in addition to preaching in England, Brown travelled abroad, preaching in places as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Jamaica. Having arranged to preach in South Africa in 1914, he was not able to return to England until 1919, after the First World War was over. He returned to a much-changed country. His final years were spent in Northamptonshire, where he died in April 1922.

Although Brown had a spiritually prosperous ministry, he knew great personal difficulties, with each of his four wives dying before him. His first wife Annie had been instrumental in his conversion. From his family, three of his daughters worked with missionary organisations in China and one of his sons (Douglas) was a preacher who was involved in revivals among the fisherfolk in the 1920s.

Regarding his doctrinal outlook, Brown was a convinced Calvinist and never moved from his beliefs throughout a long ministry. Like his friend Spurgeon, his Calvinism did not deny him great gospel success. Brown was not afraid of standing up for his Master and when, during the 1880s, the theological liberalism that was spreading throughout British Protestantism affected the Baptists, Brown was one of Spurgeon’s closest and ablest supporters in the Downgrade Controversy.

But above all, Brown was a preacher. Concerning gospel proclamation, he said, ‘The gospel is a fact, therefore tell it simply; it is a joyful fact, therefore tell it cheerfully; it is an entrusted fact, therefore tell it faithfully; it is a fact of infinite moment, therefore tell it earnestly; it is a fact about a Person, therefore preach Christ.’ Because he did so, thousands throughout the world heard him gladly.

As we struggle today to build community churches, here is a record of how one church took seriously its calling to take the gospel to its community. We may suspect that it was easier back then, but I doubt if it was. The church as a whole had lost touch with the lower classes, but Brown and his congregation rediscovered how to do it. They did not adopt any unusual practices but focussed on prayer, preaching the gospel, witnessing to Jesus and providing material help to the needy. It worked!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Hosea the preacher

What was Hosea like as a preacher? Here are some suggestions from Hosea 1 and 2.
Before the word of the Lord spoke through Hosea (1:2), it had to come to Hosea (1:1). Obviously, this had to be true in a sequential sense, but it is also true from a proclaiming sense. A true preacher should not declare a message (1) that he has not received from God, (2) that has not spoken to him first, (3) that has not become part of his outlook.
The names of the kings in Hosea 1:1 inform the reader that changes in the political world did not cause Hosea to adjust the message he had received from God.
The changes also reveal that he was sent by God to the last generation of Israel (1:4 describes the collapse of the house of Jehu when Jeroboam II died, which set off a sequence of short reigns in Israel before it went into captivity in Assyria). The reigns of the mentioned kings was a time of great prosperity for some, but marked by oppression, injustice and poverty for others. Syncretism in religious worship was widespread. Political changes, social conflict and popular religious declension meant it was a difficult time for Hosea to be God’s servant.
Hosea’s lifestyle had to be in line with his God-given message. A servant of God must have divine authority for unexpected actions. Hosea probably had to endure lots of comments about his family life, even from pious people. In order to persevere, he needed clear divine guidance in his own mind.
Hosea as the Lord’s servant had to feel in measure what the Lord felt regarding the waywardness of his people when they wandered away.
It is also the case with Hosea that his message had to include references to the emotional experiences of God, especially with regard to how he felt at his people’s rejection of him. God was disappointed, angry, longing to forgive and to restore.
Hosea had to discover the awfulness of sin before he could declare his message. Sin, especially among God’s people, is the spiritual equivalent of infidelity (which stresses its heinousnes).
Eventually, after years of obedience to God’s requirements (performing obligations that indicated divine judgement), Hosea was given a great promise of future divine blessing (1:10-11). The fulfilment was far in the future, and came in a manner perhaps not anticipated by Hosea (Rom. 9:25-26).
The message Hosea was given about God, as far as chapter 1 is concerned, was that he is a God of justice who will punish sinners, that he is a God of sovereign mercy who chooses to forgive sinners (1:6-7).
God, in telling Hosea what to say, also tells him how he is to say it. In 2:2, God twice tells Hosea that his manner of preaching has to be pleading. Clearly, this is an Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Growing Together through Christ's Gifts

In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul describes an ideal church situation, one in which the ministry of Christ’s servants will know success. A crucial aspect of that ideal situation is unity and Paul refers to it in 4:1-7, and he does so in three ways.
 
First, there is unity of character, seen especially in humility towards one another, gentleness and patience as we interact with one another, and love as we put up with one another. These features not only produce godly character, they also result in corporate peace. It may help us to understand the importance of unity of character if we imagine their opposites. Think of a congregation in which there is pride and self-centredness, roughness and impatience, and an absence of caring love. There will never be unity in such a congregation. Obviously, it is far better to have a congregation composed of those who have unity of character.
 
A second principle of Pauline unity here is unity of doctrine. As a body, Paul expected the Ephesians to believe the same truths and mentions seven in particular. He ranges from truths about God to details about Christian practice (baptism) and position (adoption). Doctrinal unity is very important. Obviously a Christian has to be instructed about those doctrines, which leads to the third method of unity.
 
The third principle of Pauline unity is sharing in Christ’s gifts. Paul refers to this when he writes about the ‘grace given according to the measure of Christ’s gift’. In the context, I would say that the gifts are those who can communicate the word of Christ on his behalf.
 
In this regard we can think of a minister as an ambassador of a country who conveys the riches of that country to all who want to receive them. Christ gives to congregations the gift of a man who can inform them about the riches of Christ, who can inspire them to seek for those riches, and who can assure them that the riches are free and unending. When Jesus gives a minister to a congregation he is saying, ‘He will tell you about my riches. Believe what he says and come to me and get them.’ Such a reality is wonderful aspect of unity. When that happens, a church is a gathering of bankrupt sinners together participating in the riches of Jesus and enjoying his wealth of blessings.
 
Such a church has an effective witness. Those outside look on and deduce that the members love one another. They will then conclude that the members are Christ’s disciples, which is the point of their witnessing. In contrast, in a church where there are constant divisions and power struggles rather than unity, all it will produce is nothing of value, and that is what those outside will see as they look in.

First in More Than One Way

The first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared was Mary Magdalene, one of his devoted followers (John 20:11-18). He had delivered her from seven demons and in response she used her wealth and provided material help for Jesus and his disciples. She had shown recently that her devotion was much stronger than that of Jesus’ male disciples – she had remained at the cross until he died and then followed his body to the tomb where he was buried.
 
It does not seem to have entered the minds of the male disciples to do anything about the body of Jesus that had been placed in a borrowed tomb. Yet Mary and her female friends, marked still with tender love for Jesus, had resolved to engage in a last act of love for him. They did not mind the potential danger of helping one who had been crucified as a criminal. Nor did they have a clue as to how to remove the large stone from the entrance to the tomb. Love does not have excuses for not honouring Jesus, and so they made their way to the garden of Joseph. Jesus was their world, even when they thought they could no longer have it.
 
Why did Jesus appear first to Mary? I think that those who suggest it was because of her deep love for him are correct. If there is one feature in the lives of his disciples that the risen Jesus will not resist, it is overflowing love. True, Mary’s love was uninformed, yet it was pouring out of her heart.
 
Before she came to the tomb that morning, she had been sad because her hopes had been dashed. But in the garden she is still miserable, even although she has both the evidence of the empty tomb and the angelic explanation of the resurrection of Jesus. Sadly she had not listened carefully to the words of the heavenly messengers. That is evident in her continued belief that Jesus was still dead. Sorrow can deafen our ears to the words of comfort. Neither had she fully absorbed the significance of the empty tomb, although it was enough to convince John (John 20:8). Sorrow can blind our eyes to what may be obvious to others.
 
But there was another cause for her sorrow. The reason why she was crying was because all these helps could not make up for her the sense she had of the absence of Christ. As David McIntyre pointed out, ‘The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite convincing to the historian, but the lover of Jesus may crave for something more intimate.’
 
It was not enough for Mary that she had known Jesus in the past; she wanted more than a memory of what once had been her contact with Jesus. And she had not forgotten why she had come to the tomb, which was to care for the dead body of Jesus. Spiritual love at times be may be irrational, but it is better than clinical theology. Such love is always marked by a desire to serve, and Mary wanted to serve Jesus by taking care of his body (similar to the way a devoted servant will look after the affairs of his dead master).
 
After Mary had repeated her desire to take care of the body of Jesus, he spoke to her personally. He called her by the name her intimate friends would have used, ‘Miriam.’ This was the voice of the Good Shepherd calling his own sheep by name.
 
She responded to Jesus with an expression of great love. When she says, ‘Rabboni,’ she means ‘my dear Master’. It expresses deep affection. According to Leon Morris, no-one would use the title in speaking to another human; instead it was used in addressing God. So Mary was marked by devout adoration. She virtually says the same as Thomas did later on when he addressed Jesus as ‘my Lord and my God’.
 
In her heart, there was recognition of Jesus. How often had she heard his sweet voice speaking personally to her! One word from Jesus removed the darkness from her soul and replaced it with eternal light. In her heart also there was rejoicing. The sweet voice that had comforted her and guided her before was still speaking to her. One word from the risen Jesus removed the sorrow of her soul and replaced it with great joy.
 
So Mary had the great privilege of hearing the first words spoken on earth by the resurrected Christ: ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ These words echo down to us in our sad situations and ask us, ‘What are your priorities?’
 
Are there any lessons for us from this incident? Surely it tells us not to stop with the messengers (angels) but to persevere and meet the risen Master; it tells us not to stop at the sign (the empty tomb) but to seek the risen Saviour until we are satiated with his joy; it tells us that the greatest privilege is to serve the risen Christ in whatever way he chooses for us.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Mary Slessor

The modern missionary movement, which had its origins in the late eighteenth century, continued to make advances during the nineteenth, often with great cost to the missionaries involved. Initially the missionaries were men and the only women to be seen in missionary work were the wives of married missionaries. This outlook began to change during the nineteenth century and eventually single women were accepted by missionary societies. One such single woman was Mary Slessor.

Mary was born in Aberdeen in 1848. Her family were very poor and circumstances forced them to move to Dundee. There the whole family lived in one room and slept on a mattress on the floor. She was often hungry. When she was fourteen, after a rudimentary education, she started to work full-time in a mill, with her weekly hours numbering almost sixty.

Despite their poverty, Mary’s mother had taken her family to church and Mary developed an interest in missionary work at a young age. After she was converted in her teens she began to prepare herself for possible missionary work. One reason behind her thinking was the sad fact that her elder brother, who had intended to be a missionary, had died and she wondered if she should become a missionary instead of him. The area of Africa that she felt burdened over was Calabar in south-east Nigeria and eventually she arrived there as a missionary of the Calabar Mission in 1876.

Her first period there lasted less than three years. Initially she worked among women and also taught in the school. She quickly learned the local language (Efik) and became a fluent speaker of it. Unfortunately she contracted malaria and had to return to Scotland to recover. When she returned to Calabar she was allowed to work by herself and to live where she wanted. She chose to live with the local people who were very poor. Her upbringing in a poor home in Scotland had prepared her for such a lifestyle in Africa.

Mary became aware of some of the horrible practices that existed among the local people. One was the murder of twins (the locals regarded the birth of twins as a curse) and Mary determined to rescue as many as she could as well as to take care of the mothers who were shunned by society for giving birth to them. On her next trip home to Scotland she took a rescued six-month old baby girl with her. She took the baby with her whenever she was on a speaking engagement and the presence of the infant was a living example of Mary’s work.

She then returned to Africa determined to push further inland. Inevitably she became involved in many local situations. In addition to rescuing children, she acted as a peacemaker between warring tribes and told the local people about the love of God for sinners. When she heard about the death of her mother and sister, she realised that she was free to focus on travelling even further inland. So she journeyed to Okojong and continued her manner of work there, living in a mud hut.

When she was fifty-five, she moved on again and worked among other people groups for over a decade. She died in 1915 in a mud hut after a painful illness, having given forty years of her life to serving Christ among the poor people in Nigeria. Her method of doing mission, which we would describe as incarnational and sacrificial, worked in that it enabled her to draw near to the people she wanted to tell about Jesus.

What was the secret of her commitment? She had learned tenacity in her childhood situation, but it required more than that to keep her serving the Lord in difficult circumstances as an adult. Perhaps the secret is found in words she wrote about herself: ‘If I am seldom in a triumphant or ecstatic mood, Christ is here and the Holy Spirit. I am always satisfied and happy in his love.’

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Moody

While in Chicago recently we worshipped in the Moody Church in Chicago. It is a very imposing building capable of seating 4000 people. There were probably about 2500 in the morning service. The Lord's Supper was held during it and although the congregation was large, it only took about ten minutes for the bread and wine to be passed round the rows of seats.

We heard an excellent sermon on the differences between a Christian and every other type of person. A Christian travels via the cross of Calvary, and because he has been there he has different values (coming from his new heart) and a different destination (heaven). The preacher stressed the necessity of a changed life before a person can be regarded as a true Christian.

After the morning service, one of the staff introduced visitors to some of the features of Moody Church. It is not the building in which D. L. Moody preached, but was built about twenty-five years after he died. Because it was constructed before the age of microphones, it had to be designed in such a way that every word from the preacher could be heard in every inch of the building. The member of staff illustrated that this was the case with the building, although now they use microphones.

Our guide told us several stories about D. L. Moody. It is reckoned that he preached to twenty million people all over the world; on one occasion he preached to a crowd of over 15000 in Glasgow. Although he preached several times a day at times, and was often exhausted by the evening, Moody resolved never to let a day pass in which he did not speak personally to a new individual about Jesus. So if he did not manage to do so during the day, he would not go to bed until he had found a new individual to tell about Jesus.

On one occasion, Moody preached a two-part sermon. He planned to use the first sermon to explain the gospel and to use the second sermon to apply it. So at the end of the first sermon, after he had explained the gospel, Moody told his congregation to go home and think about the gospel, expecting to see them the following Sunday. Yet many of them did not live to hear the next sermon because shortly after the first sermon was over, a fire began which burned the entire city to the ground. Some of Moody's hearers perished. His response was to insist from then on in every sermon that his hearers make an immediate response to the gospel offer. And he was right to do so. Nobody knows what lies between one sermon and the next.

Moody had a great love for young people. He held special services for the many who had been left to wander the streets. Some of his methods were regarded as unbecoming by some of the more snooty churchgoers and they looked down upon his efforts, calling him Crazy Moody. The Lord arranged for Moody to be vindicated however. Shortly afterwards, a visitor to Chicago insisted on being introduced to Moody because he had heard about his methods. The visitor was Abraham Lincoln, who was on his way to Washington to become President. He did not ask to see the critics, but he did want to see the man who was trying to do something about the spiritual needs of the lost.

What was the secret of Moody's power? He had little education, was devoid of grammar (his wife had to write letters for him), and did not plan to be a preacher. One day he heard a preacher say, 'The world has yet to see what God can do with a man who is totally devoted to him.' Moody said in his heart, 'I would like to be that man.' So he devoted himself to serving God and little by little God opened doors for him to serve. Beginning with the young people and the down and outs in Chicago, eventually he found himself preaching all over the world. Through Moody's influence, God led countless others to serve him in an incredible number of ways. But the secret was that Moody was willing to serve God in places that others refused to go to. And he now has his reward.

I know that we have problems with some aspects of Moody's theology and evangelistic methods. I have been reading again the estimations expressed of Moody by Spurgeon and Andrew Bonar. No doubt, they could see flaws because no-one is perfect. Yet they rejoiced to see his zeal for Jesus.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Writing about Jesus

Recently I started reading a book with a rather uninspiring title called Sermons on Important Doctrines. We are told not to judge a book by its cover; neither should we judge one by its title, at least not this one. Mind you, I bought it because I have benefitted greatly from other books by the author, John Colquhoun, who was a much-loved minister in Edinburgh a couple of centuries ago.

This book could be summarised as describing what Jesus did for and can do for each of his followers. It begins with his person and moves on to his actions. Whenever I look at a book, I ask myself, 'What are the qualifications that the author will need for writing such a book?' Here are five that I would say are necessary for writing about Jesus:

An understanding of doctrine is essential because it is easy to go wrong; fortunately, Colquhoun understood what the Bible says about Jesus and is a sure guide.

A longing for his listeners and his readers to grasp what he had to say is also essential (it is an interesting subjective experience to realise that this preacher, who was dead long before I was born, was concerned for all who would read his words). 

 A third essential qualification for preaching and writing about Jesus is a warm love for him, and Colquhoun certainly had such a love.

Connected to the third qualification is a fourth, which is that the preacher/writer should enjoy speaking/writing about his Master. And Colquhoun lets us know his enjoyment when he says at the beginning, 'In elucidating this delightful subject...'

The fifth essential qualification is dependence on the Holy Spirit, which Colquhoun admits was his outlook.

As I made my way through the book, it remained obvious that the author possessed these qualifications.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Royal Company – review in Free Church Record


The following review of my book Royal Company appears in the March issue of The Record of the Free Church of Scotland. It is written by Dr. Iain D. Campbell.
In spite of the difficulties of handling the text, the Song of Solomon was a frequently commented on, and frequently preached on, book of the Bible until fairly modern times. Recently, however, it has suffered from something of a neglect in pulpits, with those evangelical ministers brave enough to preach from it not quite sure how to handle it.
At one level it is not difficult to see why this should be so. The text of the Song of Solomon is evidently written around the theme of love. Even here, preachers and scholars have been divided over whether the love is between a woman and the King, or whether the king is in fact the villain who is keeping the woman in his harem and away from her true love.
Malcolm Maclean has no difficulty with this question. The love celebrated in the song is between the sovereign and the lady, whose affections he has won and drawn to himself.
Nor does he have difficulty with the next question. Once you have established the storyline behind the song, how do you get from there to Jesus? After all, evangelical preachers know that all Scripture is profitable only insofar as the written Word sheds light for us on the incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. So is the king in the Song a type of Jesus? Is this poem an allegory about Jesus? Or is it suggestive of Jesus just because it is in the Bible?
Malcolm Maclean is not too concerned to justify his devotional work on the Song by dealing with such technicalities of exegesis. His consistent aim is to use the text of the Song to elevate our thoughts about Jesus and to shed light on our relationship of love to him.
The strength of this spiritual element in Malcolm Maclean’s book more than compensates for the lack of a justification for his method and style. In fact, of the devotional works I have consulted on the Song, this work is among the most rich in its suggestive allusions and its preachable material.
Deep in feeling and wide in application, this book shows a preacher’s heart as well as a preacher’s art. It makes no apology for opening up the Song as a commentary on the intimacy that ought to characterise our walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. Some may find the application too stretched in places, but so be it. This is devotional literature in the best Puritan tradition, allowing the illustrations, colours and sounds of the Song to be opened up in the light of the wider Scripture.
So, for example, the king’s description of his lady has having doves’ eyes in Song 1:15 is opened up with reference to ways in which the Bible speaks about the dove (pp. 62-65); while the description of the lady as a garden in 4:12-15 is opened up with reference to the way the Bible describes the believer as a fruit-bearer (pp. 151-153). This way of handling the text is a lesson in the way Scripture ought to be used to illustrate Scripture.
While some may quibble with the application of some passages, there is no doubt that Malcolm Maclean is doing something quite brave here: he is taking a text of Scripture and unashamedly applying it to the realm of Christian experience. Increasingly, evangelical preaching has shied away from such activity, preferring to make the sermon equal to the sum of the meaning of the words.
But this book reminds us that there is more to Bible words than their meaning. Christ’s words are living; they are spirit and they are life. As such, they touch our souls and move our hearts. Royal Company reminds us that there are such things as religious affections, and is enthusiastic about stirring them up.
Towards the end of the book, Malcolm Maclean writes: ‘The Christian life can be described in many ways. It is a race, a fight, an ascent; it is also a romance in which the Beloved comes and visits the one he loves’ (p. 224). His book may not satisfy every student of the Song of Solomon, but as a devotional work on this wonderful book of the Bible, it will kindle afresh our desire for such visits of King Jesus to our souls. At once heart-warming and soul-stirring, it will also enable us to search our hearts and return to our first love.
Iain D Campbell

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Royal Company

Christian Focus Publications are about to publish my book on the Song of Solomon called Royal Company. In it, I consider how Solomon's poems picture the relationship between Jesus and his people.

I suppose I can say that the contents are the results of almost forty years of thinking about how a Christian interacts with his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The earliest sermon that I can remember as a Christian was one on Song of Solomon 2:1, where the King describes himself as the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys. And I know what I heard then still comes to my heart with power – it as if someone wants me to think about it often.

During the first two decades of my Christian journey I frequently heard sermons and devotional addresses on the Song of Solomon, and enjoyed them all. I have not heard many in the last couple of decades. I don't believe the church has benefitted from that change of emphasis.

If you wish to read the introduction, it is found here.

Concerning the book, there are endorsements by, in alphabetical order, Peter Barnes, Joel R. Beeke, Sharon James, David Meredith, Alec Motyer and Geoff Thomas. I am grateful for their comments, even although they don't agree with everything I have said. So here they are, if you would like to read what they have to say.

Peter Barnes
Malcolm Maclean has sought to interpret the Song of Songs as a description of Christ and his people rather than as a love song. In doing so, he stands in a distinguished line of biblical interpreters, including James Durham, George Burrowes, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Alexander Moody Stuart, James Hudson Taylor, and Charles Spurgeon. It must be acknowledged that Ephesians 5:22-33 lends some considerable support to this now largely rejected approach. Even those who are unconvinced by the old approach – and I am one – will find this devotional work rich, powerful, and incisive, and will find it a challenge and a help to their souls.

Joel R. Beeke
The poetry of the Song of Songs invites us into the greatest love story ever written. It is the love song of the King and his bride. Malcolm Maclean leads us in a sweet yet sober tour of this garden of divine love. He walks us through the Song devotionally, moving believers to long for deeper communion with the Son of God. Simultaneously, this book will encourage backsliders to run back into his loving arms.

Sharon James
The beautiful reality of human married love was always intended by our Creator to be a temporary visual aid to illustrate the eternal love of Christ for the Church (Eph. 5:32). The Song of Songs has traditionally been understood as a glorious exploration of this theme (as well as a lovely depiction of married love). During the twentieth century the evangelical church was profoundly affected in many ways by the surrounding subjective and therapeutic culture, whereby human happiness was regarded as the central end in life. Unsurprisingly the Song of Songs was often reduced to being viewed as a purely human encounter between two lovers. This wonderful book retrieves the Song, unlocking its timeless truths in a way which inspires greater love for Christ and for his Church. It is a powerful reminder of the glory of Christ’s matchless love, and provides strong medicine for the soul.

David Meredith
It is no exaggeration to say that I have looked for this book for the whole of my Christian life! I have often strolled in the foothills of the Song of Solomon but Malcolm MacLean takes us up into the rarefied heights and gives us new vistas of the beauty and excellence of Christ. A fundamental desire which all believers must have at the beginning of reading a book or listening to a sermon is, ‘Sirs, we want to see Jesus.’ This longing is more than answered by this book which appears to be the work of a Christ-obsessive. The sheer loveliness of Christ is found on virtually every line. Judicious cross-referencing to other portions of scripture as well as allusions to a robust theological framework convince us that Royal Company is far from fanciful in its interpretation. Maclean succeeds in showing that, ‘Christ wishes to influence our emotions as well as inform our minds.’ I cannot think of a healthier note to be sounded to contemporary evangelicalism.

The other strengths of Royal Company are that it steers a road between some of the sugar of past interpreters but avoids the spice of some contemporary ‘expositors’. It also engages and graciously critiques the giants of the past like Durham, Burrows and Moody Stuart. It draws from the past and applies to the present. There is a paucity of decent expositions on the Song and it would not surprise me if this becomes a standard devotional work as well as a vital help to those of us who preach Christ glorious and crushed.

 Alec Motyer
The Bible abounds in symbols, each of which – Shepherd, King, Lover, Husband, Lion, Lamb, etc., – exists to enhance our knowledge of God and our intimacy with him. Please let it come as no surprise to you that within the Bible there is one whole book in which symbols – and not only the marriage symbol – crowd together and cry out for interpretation. With Malcolm Maclean we are in safe hands. To be sure, his treatment of the Song extends interpretation into elaboration and application, and he will not carry every reader with him all the time, but everything he writes is true to the full biblical revelation of God in Christ, of the marvel of his love for us, and of our often faltering walk with him. Throughout he leaves us with strong aspirations to know Jesus better, to love him more deeply and steadily, and to grow in his truth and grace. And not aspirations only; his work helps us to achieve as well as aspire. He will put every reader deeply in his debt.

Geoff Thomas
A former teacher of mine reminds us how the Song of Solomon comes to us in this world of sin, where lust and passion are on every side, where fierce temptations assail us and try to turn us from the God-given standard of marriage, and this book reminds us, in a particularly beautiful fashion, of how pure and noble true love is. But the God who put this book in the canon of Scripture, has also placed love in the human heart. He is himself pure, and so the Song of Solomon also turns one’s eyes to the Lord Jesus Christ. The eye of faith, as it beholds this picture of exalted human love, is reminded constantly of the one love that is above all human affection, that ‘love divine all loves excelling’ which is the love of the Son of God for the church, his bride. We sing the words, ‘From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.’ He sought us because he loved us, and he loves us still. Cecil Alexander wrote, ‘Oh dearly, dearly has he loved, and we should love him too.’ How we should love him for all that he is and all that he has done – with ourselves seeing so small a part of his love. How can we love him more? The Song of Solomon can assist us, and Malcolm Maclean’s lucid and warm commentary on the book led me into some royal communion with the King of kings. It will help every Christian reader to rest in his love and say with grander assurance, ‘This is my beloved and this is my friend.’