The Nature of True Greatness

zechariahvision

your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. Luke 1:14-15

The measure of greatness which is common among men is utterly false and deceptive.  Princes and potentates, conquerors and leaders of armies, statesmen and philosophers, artists and authors, – these are the kind of men whom the world calls “great.”  Such greatness is not recognized among the angels of God.  Those who do great things for God, they reckon little. They measure and value every man according to the position in which he is likely to stand at the last day.

Let us not be ashamed to make the angels of God our example in this matter.  Let us seek for ourselves and our children that true greatness which will be owned and recognized in another world.  It is a greatness which is within the reach of all – of the poor as well as the rich, – of the servant as well as of the master.  It does not depend on power or patronage, on money or on friends.  It is the free gift of God to all who see it at the Lord Jesus Christ’s hands.  It is the portion of all who hear Christ’s voice and follow Him, – who fight Christ’s battle and do Christ’s work in the world.  Such may receive little honor in this life.  But great shall be their reward at the last day.”  

JC Ryle, “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Volume 2″, (Michigan: Baker Book House, 2007) 14.

True Peace is Not the Absence of Conflict

The_sinking_of_the_Steamship_Ville_du_HavreThe story behind one of my favorite Gospel hymns is recounted in James Boice’s commentary on John.  If you aren’t familiar with the history, take a moment to read.

“In 1874 a French steamer called the Ville du Havre was on a homeward voyage from America when a collision with a sailing vessel took place. The damage to the steamer was considerable, and as a result it sank quickly with the loss of nearly all who had been on board. One passenger, Mrs. Horatio G. Spafford, the wife of a lawyer in Chicago, had been en route to Europe with her four children. On being informed that the ship was sinking she knelt with her children and prayed that they might be saved or, if not, that they might be willing to die, if that was God’s will.

anna spafford cableWhen the ship went down, the children were all lost. Mrs. Spafford was rescued by a sailor who had been rowing over the spot where the ship had sunk and found her floating in the water. Ten days later, when she reached Cardiff, she sent her husband the message: “Saved alone.”

This was a great blow, a sadness hardly comprehensible to anyone who has not lost a child. But though a great shock, it did not destroy the peace that either of the parents, who were both Christians, had from Jesus.

Spafford wrote as a testimony to the grace of God in his experience:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll-
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed his own blood for my soul.

This is the meaning of the Christian’s peace. It is not an absence of conflict or any other kind of trial or disappointment. Rather it is contentment and trust in God in spite of such circumstances.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:27).

Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: An expositional commentary (1241–1242). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

The Centrality of the Cross by James Montgomery Boice

Nail-in-cross-istockphoto

…if the death of Christ on the cross is the true meaning of the Incarnation, then there is no gospel without the cross. Christmas by itself is no gospel. The life of Christ is no gospel. Even the resurrection, important as it is in the total scheme of things, is no gospel by itself. For the good news is not just that God became man, nor that God has spoken to reveal a proper way of life for us, or even that death, the great enemy, is conquered. Rather, the good news is that sin has been dealt with (of which the resurrection is a proof); that Jesus has suffered its penalty for us as our representative, so that we might never have to suffer it; and that therefore all who believe in him can look forward to heaven. …Emulation of Christ’s life and teaching is possible only to those who enter into a new relationship with God through faith in Jesus as their substitute. The resurrection is not merely a victory over death (though it is that) but a proof that the atonement was a satisfactory atonement in the sight of the Father (Rom 4:25); and that death, the result of sin, is abolished on that basis.

Any gospel that talks merely of the Christ-event, meaning the Incarnation without the atonement, is a false gospel. Any gospel that talks about the love of God without pointing out that his love led him to pay the ultimate price for sin in the person of his Son on the cross is a false gospel. The only true gospel is of the ‘one mediator’ (1 Tim. 2:5-6), who gave himself for us.

Finally, just as there can be no gospel without the atonement as the reason for the Incarnation, so also there can be no Christian life without it. Without the atonement the Incarnation theme easily becomes a kind of deification of the human and leads to arrogance and self advancement. With the atonement the true message of the life of Christ, and therefore also of the the life of the Christian man or woman, is humility and self sacrifice for the obvious needs of others. The Christian life is not indifference to those who are hungry or sick or suffering from some other lack. It is not contentment with our own abundance, neither the abundance of middle class living with home and cars and clothes and vacations, nor the abundance of education or even the spiritual abundance of good churches, Bibles, Bible teaching or Christian friends and acquaintances. Rather, it is the awareness that others lack these things and that we must therefore sacrifice many of our own interests in order to identify with them and thus bring them increasingly into the abundance we enjoy… We will live for Christ fully only when we are willing to be impoverished, if necessary, in order that others might be helped.’

HT:  Monergism

The Spirited Boldness of Elizabeth Bunyan

elizabeth bunyan pleading Today Tim Challies posted an article (authored by Tim Keesee) in honor of John Bunyan’s birthday on November 28th. Given the occasion, I figure now is as good a time as any to bring out a piece on Elizabeth, John Bunyan’s young and faithful wife.

Although his writings are extensive, John Bunyan is most famously known for the great Christian classic, Pilgrim’s Progress.  According to Christianity Today, Pilgrim’s Progress “is the first place bestseller (apart from the Bible) in all publishing history.”[1] One biblical scholar states that “next to the Bible … Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress rates highest among all classics.”[2] Charles Spurgeon is said to have read Pilgrims Progress over 100 times in his lifetime.[3] Indeed, it is a roadmap whose precious biblical truths have lit the way home for many a pilgrim.

So, how does a working class man, imprisoned for over 12 years, accomplish such an enduring feat? I believe if John Bunyan were alive he would answer that by pointing to Proverbs 18:22: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.”

The year is 1659, and John and Elizabeth Bunyan have just been married. For John, it is his second marriage. His first wife died leaving him and their four small children, including blind Mary, behind. In less than two years, John is imprisoned for non-conformance with the Church of England and “preaching without license.”[4]  John’s arrest means his young wife is now forced to fend for herself and the children. Elizabeth rises to the occasion and gracefully takes on the responsibility of raising John’s children as her own. Throughout his imprisonment, she remains his most earnest advocate. So much so that her husband compares her to the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:3-5.[5]

Early in John’s imprisonment, Elizabeth visits the House of Lord’s in London, where she heroically pleads for her husband’s release. Her husband later wrote that his wife possessed “more spirit than they had expected to find in the helpmate of the tinker preacher.”[6]

Here is a summary of the exchange:

Elizabeth: My Lord, I make bold to come again to your lordship to know what may be done with my husband.

Judge Hale: Woman, I told thee before I could do thee no good, because they have taken that for a conviction which thy husband spoke at the sessions; and unless there be something done to undo that, I can do thee no good.

Elizabeth: My Lord, he is kept unlawfully in prison. They clapped him up before there was any proclamation against the meetings. The indictment also is false. Besides they never asked him whether he was guilty or not of preaching without a license. Neither did he confess the indictment.

Judge Chester: My lord, he was lawfully convicted … he is a pestilent fellow, there is not such a fellow in the country again.

Judge Twisdon: What, Will your husband leave preaching? If he will do so, then send for him.

Elizabeth: My Lord, he dares not leave preaching so long as he can speak … He desires to live peaceably and to follow his calling that his family may be maintained. Moreover, my lord, I have four small children that cannot help themselves, one of which is blind, and we have nothing to live upon but the charity of good people. I am but a stepmother to them, having not been married to my husband yet two fully years. Being young and unaccustomed to such things, I became dismayed at the news of his imprisonment and fell into labor, and so continued for eight days, and then was delivered, but my child died.

Judge: Alas! Poor woman, you make poverty your cloak. I understand that your husband is maintained better by running up and down preaching than by following his calling. What is his calling?

Some of the company: A tinker [repairman] my lord.

Elizabeth: Yes, and because he is a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised and cannot have justice … As for preaching, he preacheth nothing but the Word of God … God hath owned him, and done much good by him.

Judge: God! Your husband’s doctrine is the doctrine of the devil.

Elizabeth: My lord, when the righteous judge shall appear, it will be known that his doctrine is not the doctrine of the devil.

Judge: My lord, do not mind her, but send her away.

Another judge: I am sorry, woman, that I can do thee no good. Thou must do one of three things, either apply to the King, sue out his pardon, or get a writ of error. The last will be the cheapest.[7]

Upon hearing this, Elizabeth burst into tears. She writes, “not too much because they were so hard-hearted against me and my husband but to think what a sad account such poor creatures will have to give at the coming of the Lord, when they shall there answer for all things whatsoever they have done, whether it be good or bad.”[8]

It would be ten years before Elizabeth would hear again concerning the case against her husband. Thankfully she was able to visit him during that time. In 1672, after 12 long years, John Bunyan was released from prison, only to be imprisoned again for a shorter time. Elizabeth and John went on to have two children of their own, Sara and Joseph.  John died in 1688 and left what little he had, entirely to his wife.

As we honor the legacy of John Bunyan, we do well to remember the woman who humbly accepted the seemingly hard Providence of God, and faithfully administered her duties as John Bunyan’s help mate.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. – Proverbs 31:30

[1] Christian History Magazine-Issue 11: John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1986).
[2] Christian History Magazine-Issue 11: John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1986).
[3] The Spurgeon Archive, Did You Know? By Eric W. Hayden
[4] Edith Deen, Great Women of the Christian Faith, (New York: Christian Herald Books) 1959, 349.
[5] Ibid 350.
[6]  Ibid 351.
[7] Ibid 350-351.
[8] Ibid 351.