How much success can you bear?
I am using J.C.Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Luke’s Gospel for my personal devotions. Although his thoughts are not always dead centre on the main theme of a passage, they are true, realistic, nourishing, and challenging. They are doing me good day by day.
Last Monday I read Luke 10:17-20 and was struck by Ryle’s applications. Here’s the first. He comments on verse 17: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ’Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’”
How ready Christians are to be puffed up with success”
Success is what every faithful labourer wants. We long to see “Satan’s kingdom pulled down, and souls converted to God.” But “the time of success is a time of danger to the Christian’s soul. The very hearts that are depressed when all things seem against them, are often unduly exalted in the day of prosperity… Most of Christ’s labourers probably have as much success as their souls can bear” (my emphasis).
I was convicted especially by that last sentence. I suppose it is better that you and I are elated at gospel success than personal success, but better still that we are not elated by success at all.
Why should a Christian study Job?
Let me be more precise. Why should a Christian make a careful and thoughtful study of the whole of the book of Job, rather than being satisfied with a rough idea of the storyline and a few of the highlights? Why read the whole book rather than just “watch the movie highlights” through a short and often minimalist sermon series?
It’s a good question. After all, it’s a long and demanding book. Parts of it are pretty hard to fathom, and plenty of it is dark and distressing. You and I need good reasons to plunge right in to the detail. Here are seven suggestions (a good bible number!).
Above all, the book of Job will force you to think deeply about God and about Jesus Christ the Son of God.
- Job will press you to think carefully with doctrinal thoughtfulness and depth, about how the universe is governed. Many Christians default either to a monistic understanding of God’s sovereignty that is more Islamic than Christian, or to a practical dualism in which God and Satan are independent powers. Neither is biblical. Job sets before us a universe in which God is completely sovereign, and yet in which he governs the world partly through the paradoxical agency of evil powers.
- Job is God’s antidote to the prosperity gospel and the therapeutic gospel, both of which are rampant in the worldwide church. The prosperity gospel teaches that it is God’s purpose that you have plenty of money, a house, a family, and health. If you already have these things (as many of us do in developed countries) then the prosperity gospel metamorphoses into the therapeutic gospel. This adds that it is God’s purpose that you feel fulfilled and happy. Neither is true in this age. Job shows us why.
- By immersing you in suffering, Job shows you both how to feel something of the sufferings of Christ (in a way that the gospels do not) and how to feel the depths of the sufferings of Christ’s people. This will help you identify with the persecuted church.
- Job is finally full of hope and comfort, for its message rests in the end on the comprehensive sovereignty of God over all creation, and specifically on how his sovereignty encompasses all the powers of evil. To understand something of the majesty and logic of redemptive suffering gives hope to the suffering believer.
- Because so much of Job is poetry, a deep immersion in the book will help you develop your emotional and affectional ‘pallet’ (to use a painting metaphor) so that you will learn to feel, to desire, and to grow more sensitive to all manner of experiences in life. Few of us habitually read poetry. And yet God has chosen to give us much of scripture in poetry. Job will sensitise you to poetry and how it communicates. By immersing yourself in Job you will – as a valuable side effect – learn better to read, for example, the Psalms.
- God will deal with you as you grapple with Job. I have found that grappling with Job over the past several years, on and off, has been a life-changing and life-shaping experience. As I have grappled with this amazing book, God has been grappling with me. If you too will plunge in to Job, I am confident God will deal deeply and graciously with you too.
This post first appeared on the Crossway blog. Christopher's forthcoming commentary on Job in the Preach the Word series will be first available in the UK this summer at the EMA.
Athanasius on singing the psalms
But why do we sing the psalms to music? Athanasius says the reason is not just aesthetic, to please the ear. No, for “Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate” (!). He offers two reasons:
- Poetry enables us to express our love for God with all the strength and power we possess
- Chanting the Psalms has a unifying effect upon the singer, because it demands our full concentration: “For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved… and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil… And it is in order that the melody may thus express our inner spiritual harmony, just as the words voice our thoughts, that the Lord Himself has ordained that the Psalms be sung and recited to a chant.”
Following on from (2), he says that “the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit”; this has a correspondingly good effect on the hearers, as did David when he sang to Saul (1 Sam.16). “When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart.” When a man sings well he “puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone.”
He adds towards the end a word of warning: “No one must allow himself to be persuaded, by any arguments whatsoever, to decorate the Psalms with extraneous matter or make alterations in their order or change the words themselves. They must be sung and chanted in entire simplicity, just as they are written, so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us, yes and even more that the Spirit, Who spoke by the saints, recognizing the self-same words that He inspired, may join us in them too.”
He concludes, “And so you too, Marcellinus, pondering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the meaning of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-fearing saints who spoke them at the first.”
Athanasius on the unique place of the psalms
Here's some church history to gladden your Monday morning. It's from Athanasius' letter to Marcellinus. Marcellinus has been ill, and using his illness “to study the whole body of the Holy Scriptures and especially the Psalms. Of every one of those… you are trying to grasp the inner force and sense. Splendid!”
The uniqueness of the Psalms
- Athanasius describes each book of the bible as “like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also those of all the rest.”
- Of the uniqueness of the Psalter, he also writes this: “besides the characteristics which it shares with (the other bible books), it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.” In it “you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.”
- Then he goes on to “yet another strange thing about the Psalms”, which is that we not only hear “the words of holy men as belonging to those who spoke them”, but “it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.” So, in the Psalms, “the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.”
- What is more, when one sings them, “he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction” – whether it be repentance, hope and trust, joy, lament, praise, or whatever. So “just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given to us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.”
- Also, the Psalms help us more deeply to understand Christ, for “before He came among us, He sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms”.
PRAYER and the ministry of the word
Last Monday I wrote a blog about godliness. We are headlining this at the start of the Cornhill year. I said then that we are headlining one other emphasis. So here it is: prayer, intercessory prayer for the people to whom we teach and preach the Bible. We had a profitable morning on this (at least, I thought it was profitable). We want our students to keep saying to themselves as they work at bible exposition, ‘godliness and prayer,’ that these two are vital, essential, indispensable, to the work of a bible expositor.
Part of what we studied was what we might call ‘the double ministry’ of the prophet, of the Lord Jesus, and of the apostles. That is to say, all of these both speak to people for God and speak to God for people; they preach and they pray. This double pattern appears with remarkable consistency throughout the Old Testament; the apostles reaffirm it in Acts 6:4 when they slip in ‘prayer’ alongside ‘the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:2) as the priorities of apostolic ministry. The intercessory prayer of the prophets and of the apostles was not an optional extra to their ministries; it was an integral and essential part of their work. If the prophet merely speaks God’s words, but doesn’t intercede for his hearers, he will not truly be exercising his ministry.
Spurgeon spoke of a minister who limped along ‘for his praying was shorter than his preaching’. Let us not be like that.
How to host a visiting speaker #2
Introduce the visitor properly at the meeting
Because you have invited the visiting speaker, you probably know them, or at least know about them. This may be true for some others. But we ought never to assume it is true for all. If we just say, ‘Well, we all know Ebenezer so he needs no introduction and I’ll just hand over to him’, nothing is so calculated to make the newcomer feel an outsider. ‘Ah,’ she thinks, ‘I and I alone don’t know him; how could I be so ignorant? I wish I hadn’t come.’
Here are some practical tips about welcoming and introducing speakers in a way that is courteous and helpful to the hearers.
1. Show them before the meeting where they are to speak from and where they can rest their notes
2. Show them any arrangements for amplification and ask them in advance if you would like to record their talk
3. Interview the speaker briefly sometime in the meeting before they speak. Discuss with them in advance what questions will help the hearers to feel they have begun to get to know them. Keep the interview crisp and light, but try to include something to identify them as a human being (rather than just the doer of a job!) and something about the work in which they are involved
4. If a speaker’s wife or husband has accompanied them to the meeting, make a point of welcoming them as well, rather than ignoring them. Perhaps get them to the front for the brief interview, if there is time.
5. Offer them the opportunity to tell people a little about the work they are doing
6. If they have written a book or published a booklet or article that might be of interest to those at the meeting, take the trouble to have a copy to hand and mention it; unless the visitor is into self-promotion he may be reluctant to draw attention to it himself.
7. If you have a bookstall, get some copies ordered in good time for this
8. Say clearly what subject or passage you have asked them to speak on
9. Pray for the speaker, the hearers and the grace of God to be at work in the meeting
10. Hand over to them
11. Thank them briefly at the end, but avoid capping what they have said with lengthy extra observations of your own. Remember the aim is not to leave people thinking how well or badly the speaker has spoken, but rather going away to do the word of God.
Thank them afterwards
There are two things to remember afterwards.
1. Send them enough to cover their expenses. They won’t expect anything more than this (and if they do, then you probably don’t want to invite them!) But if you want to give them some kind of thank you gift, think about what will be most appropriate. Book Tokens are less welcome than they once used to be, because it forces people to buy expensive books in bookshops when they can usually get them a fair bit more cheaply on the Internet. How about an Amazon token?
2. Write to thank them for their teaching or preaching. Even if you can’t think of much good to say about it, try to say something. And if you say it in writing they can share the thanks to encourage those who have been left behind, perhaps coping with children.
How to host a visiting speaker #1
Some time ago I put together a few pointers for those who host visiting speakers. This is hardly the last word on the matter, but I thought it may be worth a couple of posts. You will see it rather quaintly refers to the now obsolete OHP. You need to update this in your mind for more modern technologies (WiFi passwords, proper connectors for laptops, USB sticks etc).
Brief the visiting speaker properly in advance
If the event is extra to your usual programme, perhaps an evangelistic breakfast or a day conference, we can be so busy organising and publicising the event that we neglect to brief the speaker. If it is a regular event, such as a Sunday sermon, we may assume they just know what happens; they may not. Here are some tips.
- Brief them in plenty of time. Don’t assume they are magicians who can conjure fresh high-quality new material out of nothing at a moment’s notice!
- Give them clear instructions about the date, place, start and end time (include the end time so that they can plan their journey home)
- If it is an event that covers more than one session, tell them well in advance the detailed timings for the day(s) (or invite them to join you in planning it)
- Tell them clearly how long you would like them to speak for, and whether or not it will be helpful to have a time for questions at the end
- Explain clearly to them the aim of the event. Is it to reach non-Christians, to build up Christians, to train workers, or what?
- Tell them what has come before and what will come afterwards. If it is a Sunday sermon, give them the full sermon series planner sheet or programme card. If it is a regular event such as a monthly evangelistic breakfast, tell them who has spoken before and what they have spoken about, and who is planned to speak later
- Tell them if you are planning some particular follow-up. Is there perhaps an enquirers’ course or follow-up literature?
- Give them some indication about the likely number of people attending, and what sort of people they are – Christians and non-Christians, well-taught or untaught, hungry or proud, younger or older, men or women, more or less educated, races, nationalities, regulars at these events or newcomers…
- Tell them if there is a preferred dress code, so that they don’t have to guess and risk embarrassment by turning up over or under-dressed
- Tell them if there will be bibles provided, and – if so – what version
- Send them a copy of all the publicity you have used for the event, so that they know what those attending will expect
- Tell them what teaching resources will (or can) be made available (e.g. projector, OHP, white-board)
- Invite them to send through any handouts and offer to run off the appropriate number of copies for them
The importance of praying the psalms part 5
Finishing today, the last in a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. Today, a worked example from Psalm 63.
In Psalm 63 we read of David’s deep desire for God (v1), David’s passionate delight in God (vv2-4), David’s enduring joy in God that continues through the darkest night (vv5-8) and David’s confidence that his enemies will be destroyed (vv9,10). If I try to make that my prayer (to draw the line of application direct from David to me), I end up saying things like, “David desired God, and I ought to try to desire God more than I do; David delighted deeply in God, and I really ought to desire God
more than I do; David had joy in God even in the dark nights, and it would be good if I could learn to do the same…” and so on. Which leaves me deeply discouraged, for it is exhortation with no gospel, and I can’t do it.
But the Psalm makes perfect sense when I read it of Jesus’ desire for the Father, Jesus’ delight in the Father, Jesus’ joy in the Father even in the darkness of a sinful world, and Jesus’ confidence in final vindication. It is his song before it can become mine, and it can be mine only in him. And then it is gospel. I thank God that there is one who desired God, delighted in God, rejoiced in God, was confident in God’s vindication.
Verse 11 is the key. For in verse 11 we meet three responses. First, “the king rejoices in God”; this is the song of the king. Second, “all who swear by God will glory in him”; this is where we come in, the king’s people sharing his desire, his delight, his joy, and his confidence, by his Spirit. And third, “the mouths of liars will be silenced”, those who will not be part of the king’s people.
As I look for opportunities to preach more and more Psalms, I am finding again and again that praying them as the people of God in union with Christ transforms them from a crushing exhortation (try to pray like the psalmist) into a liberating gospel (thank God for the one who prays like this, and who is our Representative Head).
The importance of praying the psalms part 4
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. To avoid the ‘skim and pick’ strategy, we need a better approach. I believe it’s to see the psalms as the songs of Jesus.
Here’s the big idea I’ve found helpful: think what it would have meant for Jesus of Nazareth to pray a Psalm in his earthly life, in synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath. Very many of the Psalms come into sharp focus when we think of Jesus praying them. It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’; some Psalms are about the Messiah rather than by the Messiah; others are corporate, as the people of the Messiah sing together; in yet others we hear the voice of the Messiah speaking to us. But many of the Psalms – and especially Psalms ‘of David’ – make the deepest, sharpest, and fullest sense when we think of the Messiah praying them to his heavenly Father. David is a prophet (Acts 2:30) and so he spoke and prayed by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12); what he prayed expressed his own experience, and yet pointed beyond this; it was the echo of a prayer yet to be prayed, by one who would pray it in its fullness.
Augustine has this lovely idea that Jesus is the cantor, or choir-leader, leading the people of Christ in the singing of a Psalm. The Psalms are his songs before they become our songs, and they become our songs only as we are men and women in union with Christ. We sing them in him, led by him our Representative Head.
There’s lots of theology surrounding this, and plenty of evidence, especially from the ways in which the New Testament writers appropriate the Psalms in Christ. I’ll illustrate this tomorrow in a psalm I’ve recently preached: Psalm 63.