Sunday, 4 December 2016

Spurgeon on a preaching priority

Reflecting the other day upon the sad state of the churches at the present moment, I was led to look back to apostolic times, and to consider wherein the preaching of the present day differed from the preaching of the apostles. I remarked the vast difference in their style from the set and formal oratory of the present age. I remarked that the apostles did not take a text when they preached, nor did they confine themselves to one subject, much less to any place of worship, but I find that they stood up in any place and declared from the fulness of their heart what they knew of Jesus Christ. But the main difference I observed was in the subjects of their preaching. 

Surprised I was when I discovered that the very staple of the preaching of the apostles was the resurrection of the dead. I found myself to have been preaching the doctrine of the grace of God, to have been upholding free election, to have been leading the people of God as well as I was enabled into the deep things of his word; but I was surprised to find that I had not been copying the apostolic fashion half as nearly as I might have done. The apostles when they preached always testified concerning the resurrection of Jesus, and the consequent resurrection of the dead. It appears that the Alpha and the Omega of their gospel was the testimony that Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures. 

When they chose another apostle in the room of Judas, who had become apostate (Acts 1:22), they said, “One must be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection;” so that the very office of an apostle was to be a witness of the resurrection. And well did they fulfil their office. When Peter stood up before the multitude, he declared unto them that “David spoke of the resurrection of Christ.” When Peter and John were taken before the council, the great cause of their arrest was that the rulers were grieved :because they taught the people and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). When they were set free, after having been examined, it is said, “With great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). 

It was this which stirred the curiosity of the Athenians when Paul preached among them, “They said, he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods, because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.” And this moved the laughter of the Areopagites, for when he spoke of the resurrection of the dead, “Some mocked, and others said, we will hear thee again of this matter.” Truly did Paul say, when he stood before the council of the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am called in question.” And equally truly did he constantly assert, “IF Christ be not risen from the dead, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is vain, and ye are yet in your sins.” 

The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the righteous is a doctrine which we believe, but which we too seldom preach or care to read about. 

Though I have inquired of several booksellers for a book specially upon the subject of the resurrection, I have not yet been able to purchase one of any sort whatever; and when I turned to Dr. Owen’s works, which are a most invaluable storehouse of divine knowledge, containing much that is valuable on almost every subject; I could find, even there, scarcely more than the slightest mention of the resurrection. It has been set down as a well known truth, and therefore has never been discussed. Heresies have not risen up respecting it; it would almost have been a mercy if there had been, for whenever a truth is contested by heretics, the orthodox fight strongly for it, and the pulpit resounds with it every day. 

I am persuaded, however, that there is much power in this doctrine; and if I preach it this morning you will see that God will own the apostolic preaching, and there will be conversions. I intend putting it to the test now, to see whether there be not something which we cannot perceive at present in the resurrection of the dead, which is capable of moving the hearts of men and bringing them into subjection to the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

From his sermon on Acts 24:15.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Happiness is…

It seems that one of the happiest days in Israel occurred during the annual Feast of Tabernacles, when it was about to come to an end for the year. On the final day of the feast one of the Jewish priests collected some water from the stream of Siloam and poured it on the altar. While he did so, the joyful crowd sang from Isaiah 12:3 the words, ‘With joy shall you draw water from the wells of salvation.’
If we look at Isaiah 12:1, we will see that the prophet says that people will sing that song during a particular period. That period is described in the previous chapter, Isaiah 11, and when we read it we will see that it describes the period when the Messiah will be active in blessing needy sinners.
This suggests the question: ‘what would Jesus do should he be present when people sang that verse?’ Because if he did do something or say something, he would show what the verse meant. We are told in John 7:37-39 about one such occasion. John speaks about what he calls the great day of the Feast of Tabernacles – it was regarded as great because of the celebration that was connected to the activity of the priest described earlier.
Jesus said to those singing the verse on that occasion that instead of going to the pool of Siloam for water they should come to him for living water. If they did that, they would not merely watch water being poured out on the altar by a priest. Instead they would experience water being poured out in their inner lives by Jesus. Did any of them pay heed to what he was offering?
How would Jesus do this? John tells his readers that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus would commence doing this amazing activity after he was glorified. His glorification took place at his ascension to heaven, forty days after he rose from the dead. One of the activities in which he has been engaged since then is giving the Holy Spirit as the provider of satisfaction, of living water.
Obviously the worshippers at the Feast of Tabernacles were very happy. Yet we can say that their joy was connected to an external ritual which may, or may not, have been a spiritual experience with the living God. Some might have been happy because there was a big crowd participating in the event; others might have been happy because they had just spent a week holidaying in Jerusalem and had seen family and old friends; some others might have been happy because the traditions of the fathers were being continued (there was no command in the Old Testament for this ritual); and others might have liked to sing the song that Isaiah wrote but did so without any understanding of its connection to Jesus and what he could do for them.
Given that Jesus asks all of them to come to him, his invitation suggests that none of them were getting spiritual benefit from taking part in the ritual that brought so much happiness. They were happy without Jesus! But the gracious Saviour offered to them real happiness when he urged them to come for living water. What was the qualification for receiving a drink from him? The mere fact that they were thirsty. Of course, knowing one is thirsty is pointless knowledge unless one also accepts the refreshing water that is offered.
Drawing water from a well points to fresh water. Drawing water from the wells of salvation points to fresh experiences of the Holy Spirit as he pours his blessings into our souls from the exalted Jesus in heaven. Is that what we enjoy as we gather in church to engage in religious rituals? Jesus is willing to give us heavenly blessings that will transform our religious activities into joyful experiences of his rich and amazing grace.
What can we enjoy? We can know something far more wonderful than the happiest day in Israel. And we can know that joy in our souls every day, not just once a year or even once a week. When we do, it will not be the little amount of water that can be held in a jar. Instead there will be rivers saturating our souls. That is what Jesus has promised. 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Daniel as a Man of Prayer

Adolph Saphir describes the prayer life of Daniel in the following passage from his book on the Lords Prayer. Many comments could be made, but one is, ‘Do I have time to pray?’

‘Let me remind you of the example of the saints of God, as recorded in Scripture. We read of David, “Seven times a day do I praise Thee, because of Thy righteous judgments”; and of Daniel, “that he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God.” This had always been his habit, a habit dear to him as life, for he would not relinquish it even at the risk of death. Nathanael was most probably in prayer under the fig-tree when our Saviour saw him. Peter had fixed hours for prayer: we read of his going up to the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.

‘These examples are very striking, especially when we notice the character and circumstances of the men. Take the case of Daniel. He was a man in a most prominent position, filling a place of the greatest responsibility. In one of the greatest empires which this world has ever seen, he held the chief ministry; pre-eminent among the presidents who ruled over the hundred and twenty princes who governed that vast monarchy. What a burden must have been upon his mind! How little leisure could he have enjoyed! And yet he found time to pray three times a day. He was determined to secure it; for he knew that prayer is a gain of time, an increase of strength, the safeguard and prosperity of work.

‘And thus we learn this great lesson, that regular private prayer is compatible with an active and busy life; that we cannot excuse ourselves by pleading the onerous character of our work, or the incessant claim that our occupations have on our time. The examples of diligence and regularity in prayer are taken from the chambers of the most active men of the world; who, though not of the world’s spirit, yet belonged to the world’s sphere and engagements. The men who prayed most have done most work; they were not slothful in business, because fervent in spirit.

‘The influence of this habit on the life of Daniel shows how the Father, who seeth in secret, rewards openly. The king and all the nobles noticed there was an excellent spirit in Daniel. The world may not be able to appreciate orthodoxy of religious opinion, or fervour of religious sentiment; it may not be able to see the height of your lofty doctrine, or the depth of your spiritual affections; but the world notices the excellent spirit of a man – his tone, the tenor of his life, his unfeigned humility, his unostentatious love of good works, his kindliness of heart, his integrity, his firmness and consistency: they recognise the man who is actuated by an inward principle and a heavenly influence.

‘This illustrious man had nothing to facilitate, but everything to obstruct, his spiritual life. In a heathen land, among a court worldly and opposed to the faith of Israel, far from the Temple of Jerusalem, and without the cheering influences of congregational life, he was exposed to temptations of doubt and despondency, in which it was easy to fall into languor and lukewarmness. Many envied him; not one sympathised with him. And yet they could find no fault in him. No inconsistency in life or temper, no injustice, no harshness, no pride; his only fault was ‘concerning the law of his God’. He was a worshipper of God, fearing and loving him. This was the only fault which jealous and watchful enemies could point out. What an illustration of the power of prayer!’

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Known and Felt by Stuart Olyott (Evangelical Press, 2014)

Earlier this week, I read a short book
(150 pages) which deals with a crucial aspect of Christian living, but an aspect that one does not hear much about today. It is the author's conviction that the gospel and its benefits affect our feelings as much as they do our understanding and our behaviour.

The book contains seven chapters, preceded by a short autobiographical introduction in which the author recounts personal experiences with God, including individual and church occasions when the Lord made his presence known. Reading this account took me back to times when this was regarded as normal Christianity.

The first chapter focuses on what the Bible says about emotions in the Christian life. Olyott points out the obvious, which is that repeatedly the Bible depicts believers as having powerful emotional experiences, whether it is awareness of sin in their hearts or the joy of forgiveness by God or in answered prayer. The psalms, for example, are full of such cases.

In the second chapter, Olyott explains the role of the Holy Spirit in giving life to those who are spiritually dead. The Spirit comes alongside the Word of God and brings sinners into a relationship with Jesus. Thereafter, the Spirit will work in us.

The topic of chapter three is assurance. Some believers don't have it. This can be because of wrong teachings about assurance, it can be because of sinful attitudes and practices, and it can be because of a stereotyped view of conversion that imagines each one is the same. The author then describes how one can get true assurance. It is given to those who have faith in Jesus, who are troubled by their inward sins, who persist in loving their fellow Christians, and who experience the strengthening activity of the Holy Spirit as he keeps those three outlooks alive in their hearts.

Olyott makes the valid point that such assurance is needed by Christians who suffer for the faith (apparently, a believer is martyred every eleven minutes today, which means a couple have been killed since you started reading this review). He also points out that assurance is needed by the Christian teenager who is derided in school for her faith, by the Christian soldier facing problems in the barracks, and by the Christian wife living with an unconverted husband who attempts to cool her love for the Lord. The truth is, we all need assurance.

Chapter four deals with the matter of the felt presence of Jesus. It does not mean that a person has a vision of Jesus or sees an unusual phenomenon such as a bright light (or similar). Instead it is grasping with delight who Jesus is, and appreciating what he has done and is doing for his people, which is a reminder that the Spirit works through our minds into our emotions. The person who experiences this thinks very little of himself and thinks very highly of Jesus. Like the two on the way to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them after Jesus explained biblical passages about himself to them, believers find their hearts moved.

Guidance is the theme of the fifth chapter. The Bible says some things are right and others are wrong. Even on things that the Bible does not mention specifically, it provides principles as to whether or not a Christian should do them. The main area in which Christians have difficulty is in discovering their vocation. According to the author, the way to obtain guidance is by engaging in prayer according to the Bible, aware that God will be gracious to us and has given us many promises to use. In providing guidance, the Lord may bring Bible verses to mind, interject new thoughts, create inward compulsions, bring about providential interventions and use unexpected ways - he may also use a combination of them.

The next chapter is about having confidence that our prayers have been answered by God. His comments are based on John's statement that if we pray according to God's will we will have the assurance that we have been heard, even if the answer is not experienced for a while. The author argues that a kind of supernatural conviction is given by God that such prayers will be answered. He gives examples from his own life and from Christian biography about this aspect of Christian experience. Of course, he is aware that some may confuse a passing impression with a Spirit-given persuasion, and advises that when we think we have such assurance we should keep quiet about it and just wait for the answer(s). The basic point to note is that such awareness is given only to those who spend time in communion with God.

The final chapter is concerned with waiting about God. Our age is marked by two wrong outlooks - immediacy and activity, both of which are not helpful for waiting upon God. Many blessings come to those who wait upon God, and the author suggests that they can be gathered together under the thought of 'quietness of soul'. Waiting on God requires time in which we speak to him about all our concerns and usually it ends with an awareness of his peace. The consequences of this experience enables them to live differently. They enjoy God's company whether they are alone or with others, and they love to pray.

The author writes in a straightforward manner and explains his ideas in understandable English. It would not take long to read this book - a few hours would be sufficient, and the effects could be life-changing.

Why should we read this book? Maybe our emotions are not what they should be. Perhaps we want to participate in the next Lord Supper with strong love for Jesus and his people in our hearts. Or maybe we sense that we have left our first love. Is our prayer life patchy, even non-existent? How many answers to prayer are we expecting?

Reading the book in itself will not provide warmth for our affections, but it does show us how to get them. And for that, we thank the author, and may he and us know increasingly what he describes.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The referendum

Congregational Newsletter (26/6/2016)

If we wanted to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3, we could say that there was a time to be in the European Union and a time to be out of it. At the moment we are still in it, but are also on the way out of it, and not too sure about where we are going. Still, the author of Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that all that happens is under the control of God, that whatever time it is, whether we like the changes or not, has been brought about by God for his own purposes. So what should we do? Here are some suggestions.

First, it is important in a changing time to focus on the One who changes not. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). All power has been given to him in heaven and on earth, and Paul states elsewhere that Jesus is head over all things for the benefit of his body, the church. So whatever else may happen because of the recent vote, one thing is sure – Jesus will overrule for the benefit of his kingdom.

Second, we should pray for our rulers, present and future. We will have a new Prime Minister later this year. This development was unexpected when Mr Cameron won the General Election last year; it looked then that he would be in power for five years. In that election he won when he was expected to lose, and in the referendum he lost when he was expected to win. No doubt, he is disappointed, and we should pray that he and his family would discover God’s blessings. And we should also pray about his successor, whoever he or she will be. 

Third, the obvious aspect of the referendum is the division of opinion seen in the closeness of the votes and in the geographical breakdown of how different areas voted. It is a bit odd to describe ourselves as the United Kingdom at this time. No doubt, there are many reasons for this situation. Yet we must recognise that such trenchant division is a dangerous path to be on, and we don’t know what kind of social upheaval could result. So our rulers need wisdom to take us through the next while until things are sorted out, and we should pray to God that he will guide our governments in the choices they need to make, and that our people will come together.

Fourth, it was frequently stated on the night of the referendum that politicians and the other elites in society have lost touch with large sections of the population, and that the vote to leave was an expression of discontent with those above. I suspect that many don't listen to what the politicians have to say on most topics, and have not done so for a long time. So in the communication age we have a lack of communication between those at the top and those elsewhere. Somehow we have to start using words with clear meanings.

As a Christian church, we too have to ask ourselves if we have lost touch with large sections of the community who have concluded that we have nothing of value to say to them, mainly because we have not said anything coherent to them about the gospel.

Fifth, in such situations as we are in, it is helpful to recall what the author of Ecclesiastes says about God – he has made everything beautiful in his time. We might think that there is chaos at the moment, but the Bible tells us that behind the scenes and in the scenes One is at work whose purpose cannot be sidelined or diverted. We might say that with regard to the referendum we did not know what we were doing, and that the politicians did not know what they were doing, but we cannot say that God did not know what he was doing. And in ways that we cannot imagine, he will make something beautiful of this time, and future generations will be able to look back and see what he did. At the moment, what we have to do is trust him.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Expelled, we might say, for mercy

‘He drove out the man’ (Gen. 3:24). I think most people would assume that this divine activity towards Adam, when God expelled him from the Garden of Eden after his sin, was a sign of judgement only. Yet a well-known Scottish preacher from the nineteenth century, Charles J. Brown, in a sermon on the verse from Genesis 3 argues that it was also an act of mercy because it forced Adam away from a method of attaining holiness that no longer existed for him.

It was judgement
The divine judgement was twofold. First, the permanent expulsion from the location of great beauty (the Garden) is a reminder that the wrath of God was revealed strongly against those who had forsaken him as the fountain of living waters. Such rejection of God is astonishing, and the nature of the divine response reveals the seriousness of rejecting him.

Second, the expulsion was the final shutting out of man from finding salvation by the covenant of works. The covenant of works was the arrangement made by God with Adam that he would remain upright as long as he obeyed God’s requirements from the heart. While he had been in the Garden he would have eaten of the tree of life which symbolised for him that his hope of endless glory was dependent on him keeping the law. But now Adam had forfeited any right to life in that way, although he may have imagined that he could still have done so by eating from that tree. Therefore, he was driven from the Garden, away from the former path of obtaining eternal life, a path that no longer existed because of divine judgement.

It was mercy
In order to appreciate that the expulsion was an act of mercy we have to remember that it followed the announcement of a coming Deliverer, the Seed of the woman. So expelling Adam away from the possibility of trying to recover what he had lost in the Garden was an act of mercy because it made it possible for him to trust in the coming Saviour. Outside the Garden, there is only one way of salvation revealed for sinners whereas in the Garden Adam would have wondered if there was another way back to God. This means that the expulsion was providential mercy because it removed Adam from attempting an alternative way of returning to God.

No doubt, the Garden was an easier to place to live in than outside of it. After all, it was the Lord who had planted in Eden the garden and then placed Adam there in a very pleasant and beautiful environment. Brown suggests that the Garden would have been for Adam the sinner ‘a show of heaven without the reality of it’. In order to get to the Paradise of the future, he had to be expelled from the Paradise of the past, even if the location he now found himself in was marred by the curse. And God would use the problems and troubles of Adam’s new location as means to make him long for the real Paradise.

According to Brown, many people imagine that by their own spiritual interests and activities they can recover the experience of Eden. Yet he points out that we are no longer in an Eden now, and then adds, ‘How terrible to miss both Paradises.’ Because that is what will happen to those who try and find salvation by their own works. In contrast, those who trust in Jesus expect no Eden here, nor do they want the Eden of the past. They recognise that troubles they face are both the consequences of sin and the means by which God shows mercy to them because through afflictions they learn his statutes. And those troubles lead them to think of the Paradise to come. As they journey towards it, they come up from the wilderness leaning on their Beloved.