Saturday, 14 November 2015

God's loving kindness in tragedy

I recently preached in Stirling Baptist Church on Ruth and the Brokenness of Family Life. You can listen to the sermon here.  The following blog post is a summary of what I said.

I was recently at a course on the 'Power of Storytelling'.  It was a great course and it proved that our brains are wired to respond to stories rather than large amounts of data.  As one of the facilitators said 'storytelling is data with soul'.  Surely this is why God has given us so many great stories in the Bible?  Through these powerful stories God doesn't want us to understand dry data but living truth and exciting doctrine.  He uses rich and powerful stories to teach us eternal truths which point us to our need of Christ.

There can be few more powerful stories than Ruth in the Bible.  It asks some of the big questions like; Where is God in all the suffering around us?  Where is God in death?  Can God still be in control when there is so much evil and chaos all around?

Perhaps, like we often ask in Bethany Christian Trust , you are asking, how does God want us to respond to
the poor?
 to the destitute?
 to the refugee?
 to the widow?
 to the hungry?

These are the questions that are asked and answered in the story of Ruth. 

There can be few Biblical stories more relevant to Europe in 2015 that the story of Ruth;

 A couple face the stark choice of bringing up their family in the midst of a natural disaster (a famine).  They give up everything and travel to a strange country.  They arrive disenfranchised, powerless and with nothing but what they can carry.

While away in this strange land, the tragedy turns into nightmare as Naomi stands at three open graves.  With no tears left to cry, Naomi returns to her homeland bereft, alienated and lonely.

How many millions of people are experiencing what Naomi experienced in this book?

As the church seeks to respond to the challenge of our age, what can we learn from Ruth?

We can look at Ruth chapter 1 under 3 headings.

1. Rebellion

a)  When the Judges ruled

Chapter 1 begins with the words ‘in the days when the Judges ruled’.

What kind of days were they? The last verse of Judges 25 tells us. It was a time of chaos, rebellion and apostasy.

The covenant God Jehovah had promised blessings for his chosen people when they came into the promised land. These blessings were dependent on their faithfulness to God’s law.

Deuteronomy 28 promises that God will bless the people of Israel;

And the Lord make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord swore unto thy fathers, to give thee.  The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, even the heaven to give rain unto thy land in due season, and to bless all the work of thine hands: and thou shalt not lend unto many nations, but shalt not borrow thyself.  And the Lord shall make thee the head. and not the tail, and though shalt be above only, and not beneath.   Deut 28 v 11, 12, 13.

God had laid out the requirements of his people very carefully but they had rebelled.

Doesn't that sum up Scotland today?

We are living in a time of national rebellion.

We see this in family life don’t we?

·        The CSJ published a report in July 2014 stating that while 62% of 15 year old boys in the UK had a smart phone butonly 57% lived with their fathers.

·        1 million kids had lost contact with Grandparents as a result of separation and divorce.

·        Family breakdown cost the country £50 billion per year

·       By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, according to Government data.

We are a nation in rebellion against God.  He is judging us for our unfaithfulness.

b) Looking for help in the wrong place

The book of Ruth tells us that Bethlehem (House of Bread) was now a place of famine and desolation.  Instead of turning back to the Lord, Elimelech and his family turn their back on God.  They travel to Moab. Elimelech means 'my God is King' while Naomi means 'pleasant'.  They were Ephrathites – from the area of Ephrath or Ephrathah – now Bethlehem.  These were true Hebrews – they would have known the law of God.  But Elimelech took his family to Moab – a people God had forbidden Israelites to have anything to do with.  The  Moabites had refused to give Israel food and water in their wilderness journey (Deut 23 v 4).   Balak, King of Moab, called for Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 23 v 7).  God commanded the Israelites; ‘Do not have anything to do with the Moabites or the Ammonites in all your generation, forever (Deut 23 v 3)

Elimalech had heard God’s voice in providence, in the famine, and he had also heard God’s voice clearly through the law.  So why did he disobey?

Elimelech was addressing the wrong problem.  The problem was not the lack of bread – the problem was the lack of a right relationship with God.  There had been famines before and God had raised up Joseph to respond to that famine (Psalm 105 v 16-17).

The famine wasn’t the issue it was the rebellion that was the issue. 

Isn’t this the problem with our society?

So often we are addressing a whole range of issues when the fundamental issue is a spiritual and moral one.

What Scotland needs more than anything else is a spiritual and moral revival. 

No amount of social work intervention can ever stem the tide of family breakdown, abuse, domestic violence and intergenerational poverty.  Social workers do a heroic job in incredibility difficult circumstances with increasingly limited resources. Of course we need to help people in crisis but fundamentally we need to build a stronger and more caring society and that can only happen through the gospel.

It will only happen as churches in Scotland live out the gospel in their community – touching broken lives and stemming the tide hurt and pain through grace and love.  Only Christ can ultimately heal our broken nation.

2.  Return

a) A change of name

The time that Elimalech and Naomi spent in Moab became a nightmare.

As strangers in a strange land Naomi lost not only the bread winner, but both her sons – she had no living fruit from her womb.  The sons left two widows – Orpah and Ruth.  We see three widows in a patriarchal society with no assets and little hope.  As Iain D Campbell says;

The family had left Bethlehem-Judah and they had come to Moab expecting to find great things; instead all that they found were broken hearts and broken dreams, and sore experiences under God’s hand.

What good could possibly come out of this tragedy?

How could God be at work in such devastation?

Naomi is numb with grief as she says in Ruthe 1 v 13 and 20 – 21.

Naomi is not saying ‘the Lord has embittered me’ or ‘I am very bitter’.  Rather she is saying ‘I have experienced bitterness.’

In the midst of tragedy Naomi did not embrace atheism but rather anchored herself in the God of the Covenant.

b) A change in circumstances

We see in v 6 ‘the Lord had come to the aid of his people.’  Naomi hears that the famine had come to an end and prepares to ‘return.’  Just like the Prodigal Son, while she is in the far country people in Bethlehem are feasting.

Often we see in scripture that words that give signals.  'Return' is used 10 times in chapter 1

Return or go back – v 6, 7, 8,10,16, 22
Return home – v 11, 12
Going back – v 15

This Hebrew word 'shub' is used again and again to illustrate that Naomi and Ruth weren’t just going back to Bethlehem – but they were also returning to God and his covenant grace and mercy.   This was more than a journey for Ruth it was a spiritual transformation as we see in verses 8 – 18.  Orpah returns but how does Ruth respond?

Where you go I will go....

This word ‘return’ is running like a melody line throughout the whole story.  God is at work in the midst of tragedy.

This isn’t just a journey – it about turning back to God, it is about returning to his grace, it is about coming to faith.

Here we see God starting to work out his purposes.  This tragedy was used by God to bring a heathen Moabites to trust in Jehovah.

We see in the passage that all the women wept.  Orpah perhaps wept because she had left Moab and wanted to return.  Naomi wept tears of regret because she had gone to Moab ‘because the Lord’s hand has turned against me’ v 13.  Her decision (along with Elimalech) had brought down the judgement of God.  Ruth wept tears of joy because she had a new life, a new path and new people.  She no longer worshiped the gods of nature – she worshipped Jehovah.

Don’t you see God’s hand as we look back at this story 1000’s of year later?

Out of death God brings life.

As Sinclair Ferguson says It is a gospel secret that death is the way of life.

Think of the death of Stephen – stoned to death.  Yet this was the means to awaken Saul.

3  Redemption

Finally Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem.  The city was ‘moved’ or ‘stirred’.

How did God provide for these widows?  What provision was there in the Biblical economy?

Will the Lord answer Naomi’s prayer of verse 8?

a) The law of love for the poor

We often think of the Old Testament laws as harsh and cruel.  But God’s law actually expressed his love, particularly for the poor.  Leviticus 19 v 9-10 and 23 v 22 commanded farmers not to exhaust their crop but to leave it for those in need.  Everyone within the compass of God’s covenant – the haves and the have not’s had provision.  This was the law of grace – the rule of a bountiful father.

The Bible shows us again and again that God is interested in the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  God is concerned for justice for the oppressed and mercy for the needy.  Provision is made for Ruth by good laws from a gracious God.

Notice Ruth’s willingness to work.  Work gives people purpose, dignity, confidence and self-esteem.

b) The ties that bind

Notice also that in God’s providence help is to come through the family.  Ruth gleans in the field of a relative of her father in law – Boaz.

After her first day of harvest she brings back around 30lbs of barley.  See the surprise of Naomi in Ch 2 v 19.  You see what God is saying: ‘Naomi rebelled and came back empty, Ruth put her trust in me and has come back full.’

It was no accident that Ruth gleaned in Boaz field.

Boaz was Ruth’s guardian redeemer or kinsman redeemer.

Boaz showed Ruth kindness or hesed ch 2 v 20.  This word hesed is used 250 times in the O.T. – it means God’s loving kindness.  As Sinclair Ferguson says;

It [Hesed] means God’s deep goodness expressed in his covenant commitment, his absolute loyalty, his obligating of himself to bring to fruition the blessings that he has promised, whatever it may cost him personally to do that.

You see, through all the darkness, death and tragedy, God’s hesed was at work.

Ruth eventually marries her kinsman redeemer (Boaz) and they have a son called Obed, who has a son called Jesse who has a son called David.

As Ferguson says;  What God was quarrying out of the suffering of these two women was nothing less than his purpose to bring his Son into the world in Bethlehem.

God not only provided bread in Bethlehem but he went on to provide the Bread of Life.

The line of Jesus came through gentile woman with a Jewish mother in law.

What is God’s purpose in Naomi, Ruth and Boaz?  He was quarrying for diamonds.

By the end of the book they had all experienced God’s hesed.

The story began with no king in Israel
·        It led to a day when there was no bread in Bethlehem
·        A dark night when there was no children in her family
·        Now this covenant keeping, all sufficient God, Yahweh and El Shaddai, has given her a grandson, and within a few generations will give Israel it’s greatest king.

Do you know this King?  Have you come to know the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer - the Lord Jesus Christ?  This King who loves the poor and the marginalised?

‘Praise be to the Lord who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.  May he become famous throughout Israel’ (ch 4 v 14).

Let's make our Kinsman Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, famous in Scotland. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Dr Thomas Guthrie on Wisely Considering the Case of the Poor

William Carey, the great missionary, when leaving for India in 1793 said 'I'll go down into the pit, if you will hold the rope.'   When Dr Thomas Guthrie was called to Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh in 1837 from his country charge of Arbirlot he said something similar when comparing the difference between his two charges; 'I can compare it to nothing else than the change from green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of a coal pit.'

Throughout his whole ministry Guthrie took a great interest in the poor of his parish - primarily, although not exclusively, in the overcrowded Cowgate.  Even before arriving in Edinburgh Guthrie believed a minister should live amongst his people; 'Now, I should like a clergyman never to step out of his own door but he steps in amongst his people.  I would have him planted in the very centre of his population' (letter to Mr Dunlop in 1837).  Initially Guthrie lived in Argyll Square and then in Brown Square which would have both been where today's Chamber Street is as can be seen from this old map.  It is hard to imagine the squalor and poverty that Guthrie saw on a daily basis as he visited his parish.  He recounts his early days; 'I can never forget, nothing can efface the impression made on my mind, when I first lifted the veil from the hideous veil of starvation and sin that lay before me. The scenes that I was called on to witness the first three or four days of my parochial visitations almost drove sleep from my pillow.  They haunted me like very sceptres, and, after visiting till my heart was very sick, I have come up from the College Wynd with the idea that I might as well have gone to be a missionary among the Hindoos on the banks of the Ganges.'

Dr Guthrie was no ivory tower minister.  He was the embodiment of salt pressed against the decaying flesh of the world around him.  This came at a heavy price with Guthrie's future health problems.  He became a magnet for his parishioners seeking temporal and spiritual help on a daily basis; 'My door used to be besieged every day by crowds of half-naked creatures, men, women, and children, shivering with cold and hunger; and I visited many a house that winter, where there was a starving mother and starving children, and neither bed, bread nor Bible - till, with climbing stairs my limbs were like to fail, and with spectacles of misery, my heart was like to break.'So how did Guthrie respond to all the challenges around him?

His starting point was that man is made in the image of God.  The half naked child sleeping on the streets of Edinburgh was, to Guthrie, as precious in the sight of God as the Queen on the throne. In his first plea for Ragged Schools in 1847 he compared what some regarded as 'rubbish' as shining jewels; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, "These are the pests of the city."  Call them, if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching.  Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and forever in a redeemers crown.'  Our response to poverty will depend on our starting point.  If we see people with honour and dignity, made in the image of God, our response will be full of compassion and we will seek to go the extra mile.  If we see people as economic units as George Osborne does, our response will be very different.

Secondly, Guthrie took sin seriously.  He was no socialist.  He knew that little is achieved by the mass and indiscriminate distribution of money or food.  Sinful nature often makes a bad situation worse as Guthrie found on his many pastoral visits.  Poor families with little we're ravaged further my a drunken or profligate parent.  This was the time of the 'dram houses' and 'gin palaces'. Indiscriminate (however well meaning) compassion often compounds problems rather than solving them. If you need any evidence of this just look at Africa and the billions spent my Western aid agencies with little long lasting effect.  For more on this read 'When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself' by Corbett and Fikkert.  In believing in original sin as the source of society's problems, Guthrie responded, as we shall see next, in a gospel centred way.

Thirdly, Guthrie believed in the 'omnipotent power of Christian kindness'.  Our response to poverty needs to be gospel centred.  Guthrie knew that compassion without the power of the gospel would change little.  Only the grace of God can truly change the human heart.  We get a flavour of Guthrie's view of poverty in his great work 'Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools' (published 1847, 1849 and 1860).  Having outlined the plight of thousands of 'ragged children' on the streets of Edinburgh he famously said 'These Arabs of the city are as wild of those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, - those of discipline, learning, and industry, not to speak of cleanliness.  To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness.  Harsh words and harder blows are thrown away here.'  The ragged school model sought to work with families by offering the children a comprehensive system of education, food and industrial training during the day while encouraging the children to return home in the evening.  The aim of the ragged school was to teach young people how to survive and thrive.  Unlike today's welfare state it did not crush people under the weight of a faceless and unresponsive bureaucracy.  Christian compassion needs to be personal, genuine and it needs to go 'above and beyond'.

Fourthly, Guthrie's response went to the root of the problem.  His response to poverty was what might be termed today 'tough love'.  He sought to restore self respect, hard work and sobriety.  While he had all the time in the world for the innocent victims of drunkenness and poverty he was very outspoken against those who perpetuated their poverty through vice.  He had no time for encouraging laziness or indolence through well meaning compassion; 'The money which is lavished on sturdy beggars, on the wasteful slaves of vice, on the reckless and improvident, you have no right to expect repayment of.  These are not the poor.  On the contrary they plunder the poor, and prey on poverty; and hardening men's hearts by their frauds, improvidence, crimes and detected impostures, against the claims of real poverty, they deserve not charity but chastisement.  It is a scandal and a shame that such devouring locusts are permitted to infest our city and swarm in its streets.  These vices of a system which the police stangely tolerate, and our charity unwisely maintains, are visible in the botched and brazened features of those thriving solicitors.  The very breath with which they whine for charity smells of the dram shop.  It poisons and pollutes the air; and those who contribute to foster this profligate system have no claim to the blessing.'  The Victorians often receive a bad press for their view of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor but how can it be compassion to prop up a man or woman's vice while their children starve?   Welfare must always be a hand up not a hand out.  This is surely the principle of 2 Thess 3 v 10.  If a man is able to work, and work is available, our whole system of welfare should be focussed on helping him work.

Finally, Guthrie wasn't interested in 'harm minimisation' or 'risk management'.  His focus was on transformation. This final quote perhaps best sums up Guthrie's views.  It encourages us to have a 'wise' response to the poor.  
'Blessed is he that wisely doth
The poor man's case consider'

'So run the opening words of the 41st Psalm, in the Scottish Psalter.  Wisely?  He wisely considers the case of the poor who, wherever it is possible, supplies them with work rather than money; who helps them to help themselves, who encourages them to self-exertion, and teaches them self respect; who patronises not indolence but industry, not the intemperate but the sober; who applies his money to relieve the misfortunes that come from the hand of Providence, rather than such as are the divinely ordained and salutary penalties of vice.  And who thus goes to the work of Christian benevolence will meet with many cases to cheer him on, and keep him up to this mark, "Be not weary in well-doing."

This is the challenge for the church today.  As Bryant Myers says in his book Walking with the Poor; 'Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.'  Poverty is not just about money.  It is about lacking the networks and relationships that can lift us up when we fall.  This is where the church needs to be - to go beyond relief and an emergency response to poverty and walk with the poor in the long and often hard journey of discipleship.  What our broken, fractured communities need more than anything is the bread of life, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian compassion so often compounds the plight of the poor rather than offering a helping hand to a new and better life.  In the Psalmists (and Guthrie's) words we do not 'wisely' consider the poor. Compassion that compounds and excuses sin is not biblical compassion.  We need to feed the hungry but also present Jesus in all his beauty and majesty.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Elisha (2) A Miracle in Samaria

In our first study entitled Elijah and Elisha; Law and Grace we looked at the background to the prophet and how he was the prophet of grace.  Elijah's ministry had been characterised by judgement and the law and as Rev Alexander Stewart has said; 'Before Elisha could have sown the seeds of grace, Elijah must have ploughed the fields of judgement.'  As we also saw in our last study this was an age of prophetic action rather than great sermons.  We see this illustrated in the story of Naaman and his miraculous cure from leprosy recorded in 2 Kings 5.  We'll briefly look at 4 different aspects to the story and see how it radiates with gospel light.

1.  An Incurable Condition.

Naaman was the Commander in Chief of the Syrian army.  Given that the Syrians were warlike people their leaders would have been tried and tested in battle.  Naaman was no bureaucratic appointment.  He would have been a national hero with great achievements under his belt.  We are also told that he was highly favoured by the King (Ben-hadad II) so he would have wielded great power and influence.  In many ways he had it all.  Like so many today Naaman had all that his heart could wish for yet God allowed for a pot hole on his road to success.  He was arrested at the zenith of his glory.  We read in 2 Kings 5 v 1 'but he was a leper'.  The word 'leprosy' covered a number of conditions in the Old Testament but assuming it was what we know today as leprosy, it would have been a devastating diagnosis for Naaman.  Leprosy is a condition that damages the small nerves on the skins surface resulting in loss of sensation.  We think of pain as a great evil but pain is in fact a gift to tell us when something is wrong.  Those suffering from leprosy don't have this early warning system and often lose limbs, go blind and suffer terrible sores on their skin.  Even worse than this, leprosy, even today, leads to discrimination and isolation and people are shunned by their family and community. Amazingly there are still 3 million sufferers of leprosy today with 200,000 new cases each year (see Leprosy Mission for more information).  Naaman faced disfigurement, blindness, discrimination, social dislocation.  All his hopes were dashed.  

Is leprosy not a picture to us of what sin is like?  Doesn't sin create blindness?  Doesn't sin disfigure and twist our personalities?  Doesn't sin dislocate our relationships?  We are all like spiritual lepers. The question is are we aware of it?  Do we see our need?  Naaman at least saw that he needed help. This was the first step to a cure.  

2.  An Unlikely Messenger.

Who signposted Naaman to Elisha?  Was it a prophet?  A preacher?  A priest?  No, it was a little slave girl serving in Naaman's house.  In a heathen land this little Israelite girl remembered the covenant God of Israel.  She had every reason to remain silent.  Her master had ripped her from her homeland and her family.  Yet she showed him kindness by pointing him to Elisha the prophet.  Isn't this an encouragement to us?  God uses the weak things of this world to confound the wise (1 Cor 1 v 27).  God is building his Kingdom through little slave girls, fisherman and through feeble saints like us.

Notice also how God is at work in the seeming tragedies of life.  In what the Israelites would have regarded as a tragedy God was at work to save one of the most significant heathen generals in Syria. We can think of this in the life of Joseph.  He faced 40 years of setbacks and disappointments and yet all the time God was preparing him to be a great leader in Egypt.

3.  A Surprising Solution and a Radical Restoration. 

Naaman travels to Samaria.  He carries a letter from his king to Jehoram, the King of Samaria.  The King is beside himself; 'Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy?'  (2 Kings 5 v 7).

Thankfully Elisha hears of Naaman's arrival and invites the general to his house.  He arrives to no fanfare or great ceremony but just a lowly servant who asks him to wash in the river Jordan 7 times. What can we learn from this?

a) Naaman's cure shows us how God saves.  Many people turn away from the gospel in anger.  To them Christ crucified is a stumbling block and the gospel is foolishness.  You see the gospel runs counter to human wisdom.  Naaman had his own plan.  He had his position, his wealth, his letter from the King.  How could Elisha refuse to help him?  The easiness of the real cure made him furious.

You see, God's cure for Naaman went right to the root of his condition.  Elisha knew that even worse than Naaman's leprosy was his pride.  He prescribed a cure that would deal with Naaman's pride.  The gospel calls us to abandon our works, our self righteousness and our pride.  This is why people refuse the gospel offer.  As Alexander Stewart says; 'Our idols are too dear to be dethroned.  Our habits too strong to be given up.  Our transgression too pleasant to be forsaken.'  Salvation involves submitting to God and accepting Christ freely in the gospel.  Christ said we need to become like little children to become Christians - we need to have that simple child like trust in our heavenly father (Matthew 18 v 3).

b) Naaman's cleansing illustrates the miracle of conversion.  Naaman wasn't just miraculously healed from leprosy but he was spiritually transformed.  Look what he says in ch 5 v 15 'Now I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.'  His healing led him to see the living and true God so that he was physically and spiritually transformed.  Notice how the proud military captain talks about being a servant.  His encounter with God has humbled him.  He renounced his false gods and gave thanks to the true God.

4.  A Serious Warning.

The story of Naaman starts and ends with leprosy.  Elisha's servant Gehazi is given to us as a serious warning.  He runs after Naaman and makes up a story so that he can ask for some of the money and clothes that Elisha had already refused.  Think of the sermons and miracles Gahazi must have witnessed. Yet all the time he was a coveter, a liar, a cheat and a thief.  Gehazi reminds us of Judas Iscariot. He was close to Jesus but his heart was unchanged, he remained a coveter.  As Stewart says; 'the sin of covetousness is black with the shame and dishonour of the great betrayal; it is crimson dyed with the blood of the holy and just one.'

Gehazi and Judas remained in their sin despite their closeness to Elisha and Jesus. What does this teach us?  That outward privileges and associations don't make us a Christian.  We may have grown up in the godliest home, have the finest parents, have been brought up in the best church, sat under thousands of sermons, and yet none of these things make us a Christian.  We can remain just as hard as Gehazi and Judas.  It is not our religious efforts that make us a Christian, only the extent to which we rest on the finished work of Christ.


What can we learn from the curious story of Naaman?  Well just like Naaman, we all have a serious condition and we desperately need a cure.  The condition of sin is much more serious than leprosy. We are all twisted, diseased and terminally ill.  The wages of sin is death, eternal death.  Nobody spoke more about hell than Jesus - just read Mark 9 v 35 - 50.  The great news is that there is a cure.  Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick.  If you have a sense that you are sick and lost, seek Jesus who is the only one who can restore you.

Why did Jesus reach out to so many lepers?  He was sending out a message.  He was saying 'I am here for the outcast'.  I'm here for the marginalised, the broken, the outcast and the rejected.  This is why Jesus mentions Naaman in Luke 4 v 27.  He was saying that he was here for Jew and Gentile alike.  He was here for pagan generals like Naaman.

God is restoring the outcast.  The question is have you received Christ as your Lord and Saviour? Naaman had religion but he didn't know God.  You need to humble yourself and receive Christ's finished work.  Come to him today. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

John G Paton on his Father

'My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsel and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. His tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! He grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly said: "God bless you, my son! Your father's God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!" Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me further, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return, his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonour such a father and mother as He had given me. The appearance of my father when we parted has often through life risen vividly before my mind, and does so now as if it had been but an hour ago. In my earlier years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian Angel. It is no pharisaism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in all my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example.'

Quoted in Missionary to the Hebrides by John G Paton

Monday, 25 May 2015

Read any Good Books Recently?

This is an article by my father (Rev John J Murray) which appeared in the Banner of Truth Magazine in April 2015 entitled 'Profiting from Good Books'.  The article is also available as a separate leaflet.

How many pastors today have to acknowledge that their people are not readers of good books? In the same way as there is not a great desire for sound preaching, so likewise there is not a hunger for good books. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when congregations seemed eager to have bookstalls, and publishers readily complied. It was not unusual even to see a queue forming when a newly published title reached a Christian bookshop.

What has gone wrong? The spiritual appetite seems to have decayed.  Judging by the front window displays in many Christian Bookshops the literature in popular demand is of a very light character. We are also living in a visual age. The overhead is taking over in our churches. Items of praise and Scripture passages are projected on to a screen in front of us. Bibles are being set aside.  The ‘download’ is being used more and more. It is a rare sight to see a Christian home with a bookshelf of Christian classics.

The testimony of history
We have only to look back in history to see the important place that books have played in the progress of the Christian Church.

There are many instances of books being used in the conversion of sinners, who subsequently became mighty instruments in God’s hands. There is one oft-quoted chain of effect in this area. The ‘heavenly’ Richard Sibbes produced The Bruised Reed in 1630 and it was used in the conversion of Richard Baxter. The ‘saintly’ Baxter wrote  A Call to the Unconverted (1657). Many years later, the book was blessed to the conversion of Philip Doddridge. His Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745) was used to bring light into the soul of William Wilberforce.  Then years later Wilberforce’s Practical View of Christianity (1797) helped to bring from death into light and life the soul of the ‘Moderate’ churchman, Thomas Chalmers, who became  the instrument under God of the Revival of 1839-42. We could also think of Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man being the means of the conversion of George Whitefield.

There are also instances of books that have had an influence in producing a new era in spiritual life.  At the time of the first Awakening in New England,  Jonathan Edwards gave an account of it in  A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737).  Iain Murray notes:  ‘Edwards’ Faithful Narrative was possibly the most significant book to precede the great evangelical Awakening on both sides of the Atlantic’. (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Edinburgh: Banner, 1987, p 122). We have also to think of the effect that Edwards’s An Humble Attempt to Promote Extraordinary Prayer had on the Baptists in England and the subsequent rise of the  worldwide missionary movement. Dr John Macleod gives an interesting example of the power of a book when he tells us of what happened in Kilbrandon (Argyll). The minister, Rev John Smith, was invited by Lady Glenorchy to translate Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted into Gaelic. ‘As he advanced with the work he used what he translated as pulpit matter, and when the people of Kilbrandon came thus in touch with the bones of the Puritan prophet, an awakening began, the memory of which has not yet passed away.’ (John Macleod, Some Favourite Books, Edinburgh: Banner, 1974,p 90).

We could also recall the way in which good books shaped the lives of generations of Christians in, for example, Puritan England and Presbyterian Scotland. Family religion encompassed regular family worship, the keeping of the Sabbath and the reading of good books. Most Christian homes would have a shelf or more of books some of which were ‘thumbed out of existence’ There were the classic writings of such men as Rutherford, Guthrie, Bunyan, Boston, Brown, Henry, M’Cheyne and Spurgeon. The books would be passed on through the generations. Of Boston’s Fourfold State it could be said,  ‘It did more to mould the thought of a generation than anything except the Westminster Shorter Catechism’.  The farm labourer had more knowledge of Scripture and a greater grasp of doctrine than many a learned scholar.

The need of the present hour
The effect of a renewed hunger for reading would do much to rectify some of the failings of modern evangelicalism:

1 Ignorance of doctrine, ‘children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine’ (Ephesians 4.14). In the words of Dr Robert Reymond, ‘a theological illiteracy which invites the rise of wholesale heresy pervades the Church’. The great lack of discernment, even among leaders in the Church, is alarming.

2 Lack of depth in Christian experience,  ‘even as unto babes in Christ’  (1 Corinthians 3.1). We have an anaemic version of faith that signs up to the benefits purchased by Christ with no evidence of a radical change in relationship and lifestyle.

3 Neglect of Church history, ‘There arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord nor yet the works which he had done for Israel’ (Judges 2.10). As Dr Lloyd-Jones observed many modern evangelicals think that evangelism began with D L Moody. Others think the blessings of Pentecost were only re- discovered in the 20th century! The love and promotion of good books could provide an antidote to these ills.

1 The Reformers knew that ignorance, not learning, was the breeding ground for heresy and superstition. Luther, Calvin and Knox flooded the market with instruction in the Christian faith.  They saw the need for producing catechisms, confessions and manuals of doctrine. A solid foundation was laid in the minds of the young. How desperately our generation stands in need of that foundation!

2  The more genuine and deep the conversion experience the  more likely our people are to go back to the books that came out of ‘white hot’ soul experience and have an unction attending them. George Whitefield, writing of the Puritans, said:  ‘Though dead, by their writings they yet speak, a peculiar unction attends them to this hour, and for  these thirty years past I have remarked, that the more true and vital religion hath revived either at home or abroad, the more the good old Puritanical writings have been called for’. (Whitefield’s Works, Vol 4, p 306).  A modern preacher presents a vivid picture of what we mean: ‘As furnaces burn with ancient coal and not with leaves that fall from today’s trees so my heart is kindled with the fiery substance I find in the old Scripture-steeped sermons of Puritan pastors.’ (John Piper, in a recommendation for Meet the Puritans by Beeke and Pederson).

3 It is by reading the history of the Church and the biographies of men and women of God in the great eras of the Christian Church that we come to be convicted of what we are lacking in our day, individually and corporately.  It gives the longing in our hearts to identify with the spirituality of those days and to recapture something of it for ourselves.  C H Spurgeon speaks of his discovery of Puritan classics in the room in the old manse at Stambourne. ‘Out of that darkened room I fetched those old authors when I was yet a youth, and never was I happier than when in their company’. (Autobiography of C H Spurgeon, vol. 1:The Early Years, London: Banner, p 11). Happily, they had the effect of producing a God-centred, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered ministry, the effects of which continue with us to this day.
May we respond with Augustine to the voice which cried ‘Take up and read’!

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Men of Lewis (1924 reprint)

This volume, first published in 1924, under the title The ‘Men’ of the Lews, consists of articles which originally appeared as a series in the Stornoway Gazette. They present  sketches of some of the Lewis worthies of the 19th and 20th centuries, some of whom were known to the author himself. Norman C Macfarlane was a native of Lewis and after studies at Glasgow University and the New College, Edinburgh he was ordained and inducted to the ministry, serving congregations in Cruden and Juniper Green, Edinburgh. With the help of Dr John Macleod he has provided an invaluable collection of material well worth bringing to the attention of a new generation. Apart from the lives of the men themselves, there is interesting sidelights on church life in Lewis in past years, including Communion Seasons, Question meetings and such like.
Published by William Murray, Dornoch £5.00 (p&p £1.50)
John J Murray, 7 Greenacres Way, Glasgow G53 7BG

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Dr Guthrie on true Christianity - doing good and being good

What is true Christianity?  There are so many churches and so much confusion today that we desperately need to answer this question.  Knowing and understanding what constitutes true Christianity is critical not only for our own salvation but also so we can preach and defend true Christianity against false Christianity.  It shouldn't really surprise us that there are people claiming to preach Christ when they are preaching error.  Christ said that 'many false prophets shall arise, and shall deceive many' Matthew 24 v 11.  Many

So what is real, genuine Christianity?  Dr Guthrie, in his book 'Man and the Gospel', entitles his sermon on James 1 v 26, 27 'Doing Good and Being Good'.  In it he gives a helpful summary of true Christianity.  Christianity is about truth and love, faith and practice.  As Dr Guthrie says;

'It is not, therefore, what we profess, but practise; it is not what a man says with his tongue, or signs with his hand, but what he does with his heart, that settles his religion in the sight of God, and on that great day of judgement shall settle his fate.'

Later on in the sermon he also says;
'Still it should not be forgotten, lest any deceive themselves, that to talk about religion, ministers and sermons, missions and missionaries, religious schemes and books, revivalists and revivals, in not religion.  Some have been the most fluent talkers about things who felt them least.  Shallow rivers are commonly noisy rivers; and the drum is loud because it is hollow.  Fluency and feeling don't always go together.  On the contrary, some men are most sparing of speech when their feelings are most deeply engaged.'

James was probably the earliest New Testament book written after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.  The fledgling church was struggling with all sorts of issues; their founder was dead and had ascended into heaven, they were impatient, there was bitterness amongst them, some had become materialistic, there was spiritual apathy, they lacked focus, purpose, direction and vision.  Sound familiar?  James was seeking to teach these early Christians what the true characteristics of the faith were.  At the end of chapter 1 he gives them what can only be described a sort of early 'mission statement' of the early church.  How does James define true Christianity?  Well in keeping with this incredibly practical book, often described as the 'Proverbs of the New Testament',  James seeks to define true Christianity as more than just belief in God and a range of doctrines.  Faith in Christ, according to James, is connected to;
  • What we say

  • Who we love and,

  • What we seek

1. True Christianity is directly related to what we say
James 1 v 26 is a powerful verse against hypocrisy.  It says that our words betray our hearts.  The 19th century United Presbyterian minister Robert Johnstone translates the verse like this; 'If any man among you think himself to be observant of religious service, whilst at the same time bridling not his tongue, but deceiving his own heart, that mans religious service is vain.' 

Why the strong emphasis on our words?  Well surely it is because our words reveal what is in hearts and it is our hearts that is the source of sin.  This is very much in keeping with Christ's teaching in Matthew 15 v 17-20.  It is not our surroundings, our background, our social class or even peer pressure that makes us sin.  Some of these problems may make our lives more challenging but we can't blame anything except our own hearts when we sin against God.  What is the evidence of what is in our hearts?  The stuff that comes out of our mouths.  We see this connection between the heart and the mouth again and again in the bible; 'The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil' Proverbs 15 v 28.  James (in chapter 3) describes the tongue as a forest fire, corrupting the whole person, set on fire by hell and just like the rudder on a ship, small but incredibly influential in terms of our direction.

Somebody has said 'the tongue is the hinge on which the whole personality turns.'  James tells us that if we can't bridle out tongue our religion is vain, useless, devoid of power, of no purpose.

2.  True Christianity is connected to who we love
In James 1 v 27 we read that true religion is also connected to who we love.  One of the main characteristics of Christianity is love for the needy.  If we claim to be followers of Jesus we need to follow his example of loving the marginalised.  If Christ loved with no strings attached we need to do the same.

The Bible often mentions our duty to love and care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  In Deuteronomy 10 v 17,18 we are told 'He administers justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.'  Time and time again God was identifying himself with the three groups of people who were most marginalised and often despised in society.

Why are these groups of people mentioned again and again?  Well it is because these groups have nothing and the little they have is often swept away in a moment.  None of these groups have anything to repay if we show them kindness and generosity.  If we love God we must love those who God loves; the marginalised, the rejected, the unloved and the unlovely.   We must love with no strings attached.  Christian love is active, risky and costly.  As Dr Guthrie says;

'Religion does not consist in doctrinal or prophetical speculations; no lie like a corpse entombed in old dusty confessions.  She lives in action, and walks abroad among mankind - calling us to leave our books, to shut our bibles, to rise from our knees, and go forth with hearts full of love and hands full of charities.'

3.  True Christianity is connected to what we seek
It is not good enough to do good - the bible commands us to be good, to seek holiness.  Goodness and righteousness are bound together in scripture.  As Thomas Manton says 'let the hand be open and the heart pure'. As Micah 6 v 8 commands us; do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. James 2 v 27 tells us to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. We are literally to guard our hearts like a fortress.  The 'world' is the sinful system around us that includes what we see and hear every day. As Christians know only too well the world can defile or stain us.

The extent to which we seek the world is an evidence of true religion.  We are called to be in the world but not of it. Just like certain toxic paint that can cause brain damage Christians need to use a filter as we live in this world. We need to view sin as a deadly viper rather than as a house pet that we welcome in and feed.  Holiness can be an incredible witness.  As Manton says 'a holy life and a bounteous heart are ornaments of the gospel.'

So what do these two verses teach us about true Christianity?

Well we see that true faith is active. Visible obedience testifies to inner commitment.  A good tree bears good fruit.

We also see that the Christian who wants to bring glory to God needs to bridle their tongue.  We need to pray that the Lord would set a guard over our mouths (Psalm 141 v 3).  It is in the multitude of words that sin is not lacking (Proverbs 10 v 19).

We also see from these verses that God loves the needy and therefore it should be part of our DNA. Do we love the lonely?  Do we care for the old?  Do we support the sick?  This is the calling of the true Christian.

This passage also show us that true faith involves crucifying the world.  Always remember that the world is a dangerous place for the Christian.  Let's not have a legacy like Demas who forsook the godly because he loved this present world (2 Timothy 4 v 10).

Lastly true Christianity is about seeking Christ.  None of us can display pure and faultless religion without grace. We need to receive Christ by faith if we want to display that religion that God is pleased with.  God calls us to a high standard but not as a tyrant but as a father.  As Manton says;

'We serve God most comfortably when we consider him as a father in Christ.  Duty in the covenant of grace is far more comfortable, not only as we have more help, but because it is done in a sweeter relation.'

True religion is more than Sunday religion, it is a love and obedience from day to day.  Are we fit for Christ's service?  Are we pure?  Are we loving?  Are we guarding out mouths?  Let's remember it is grace that saves but it is also grace that enables us to serve him. Let's seek more of that grace and pray for greater fruit in his service.