Posted by: stpowen | August 22, 2016

The Aberystwyth Conference & the Bible League

 

Proverbs 10:20-21.  ‘The tongue of the righteous is choice silver……..The lips of the righteous feed many.’

Romans 14:4. ‘Who are you to judge another’s servant?  To his own Master he stands or falls.  Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.’

Earlier this month, I was once again at the Aberystwyth Conference run by the Evangelical Movement of Wales.  What a blessed time this was!  It is the fifth such conference that I have attended, and while each one has been excellent, this one, in the opinion of many to whom I spoke, was the very best.

The main speaker was Joel Beeke from Grand Rapids, USA.  His four morning talks were expositions of the last four chapters of Revelation.  These were wonderfully blessed to us all.   Beeke’s warmth and earnestness raised us up to heaven while simultaneously warning any unbelievers present of the dreadful fate of the lost.  I hope that the recordings are made widely available as these talks deserve the greatest possible audience.

The Monday evening talk tends to be evangelistic and Bill Bygroves was right on target as he spoke on 2 Cor. 5:17.  The following evening, he was in expository mode as he dealt with 2 Cor. 5:21.  The other speaker was Mike Reeves who spoke on Isaiah 61:10 – 62:5 and 2 Cor. 3:7-18.  I did not care very much for Reeves’ style of speaking which I found rather histrionic, but his content was excellent.

However, Aberystwyth is about more than listening to talks.  The prayer meetings are always very blessed and this year was no exception.  As usual, I opted for the early morning meetings (8-15am) led by the excellent Chris Rees, minister of the Baptist church in Narberth (wherever that is!).  Chris provides just the right amount of leadership to point us in the right direction so that the prayers follow a broad theme.  For an hour each day, there was scarcely a moment’s silence as fervent prayer ascended to God.  It was a privilege to be part of it.

As one would expect from a welsh conference, the singing is always a highlight, being both rousing and tuneful.  Certain developments have taken place over the past two years which may upset some but which I have found a blessing.  The words are now put up on a screen and we are no longer entirely restricted to the contents of Christian Hymns.  Each evening, before the start of the meeting, there is the opportunity to practise a new song, carefully chosen by the conference committee.  These were excellent and I look forward to singing them in my own church.  The accompaniment is still a single piano, which I personally prefer to the ubiquitous praise bands.  Most of the hymns sung were traditional, and I agree with the speaker from the Christian Hymns committee that churches must certainly not allow the stream of new material to supplant the old.  Some modern hymns will survive the test of time and find a place in the repertoire of conservative churches.  Most however will not, and we will be greatly impoverished if we allow the current fad for modernity to rob us of our traditional hymns.

 

So, having been so very blessed and uplifted by the conference, I was disappointed to read an article written over a year ago in the Bible League Quarterly {1}  attacking the E.M.W. for inviting Dr. Paul David Tripp to the 2015 conference.  The article, written by Dr. E.S. Williams, declares that Dr. Tripp should have been considered persona non grata to Aberystwyth for two reasons:  firstly because Tripp has had some sort of dealings in the past with Mark Driscoll, and secondly because of his teaching concerning the believer’s identity in Christ.

Dr. Williams and I have crossed swords before on the subject of Mark Driscoll {2}, not because we differ in our assessment of the man- readers will search this site in vain for any recommendation of Driscoll from me- but because Dr. Williams appears to believe that any contact whatsoever with Driscoll causes one to contract a sort of moral leprosy which disqualifies one from any further work in the Church.  In this case, it appears that as the allegations surrounding Driscoll and Mars Hill Church began to grow, Tripp was asked to join the church’s ‘Board of Advisors and Accountability,’ presumably to try to sort out the mess.  It seems that after six months, Tripp decided that there was nothing he could do to help and pulled out.  I fail to see how this means that he is contaminated by Driscoll’s errant theology or anything else.

The second claim concerns Dr. Tripp’s teaching on the believer’s identity in Christ.  Here is Dr. Williams:

 ‘[Tripp] claims that the identity you assign to yourself dictates the course of your life. “You never escape the identity that you assign to yourself, ever.” And so come Tripp’s big questions: “Who do you think you are? Where will you look today, for identity?” Referring to the first five verses of Psalm 27, Tripp describes the characteristics of the Lord — the Lord is light; the Lord is salvation; the Lord is stronghold. Then he says, “What I’ve just given you is nasty, dangerous, bad theology — but it’s the theology, I’m convinced, that has infected the Church of Jesus Christ. Because what I have done is violence to the gorgeous identity comfort of this Psalm.” Tripp then emphasises David’s use of the personal pronoun, because David says, “The Lord is MY light, MY salvation, MY stronghold.” He makes a profound statement: “I want to say, enough of abstract, impersonal, distant, isolated, informational theology, it’s not the theology of the Word of God; it doesn’t help us it hurts us … the theology of the Word of God, properly understood, never just defines who God is, it redefines who you are as His children … that two letter word my makes all the difference.” Tripp is saying that theology is not about understanding the character of God, but about the needs and comfort of man — theology does not just define who God is, it defines who we are. So the last thing we need is more informational theology about God.’

Now I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, but I know enough to know that believers can be depressed.  Fifty years or more ago, Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached a series of sermons on the subject that have come down to us as a book called ‘Spiritual Depression.’  Way back in the 18th Century, the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper suffered grievously from mental illness and depression.  His problem was not a lack of Biblical information, it was an inability to apply the promises of the Bible to himself.  He knew that the Lord Jesus Christ had died for sinners, but he could not believe that He had died for him.  He knew that He was the Saviour, but he could not believe that He was his Saviour.  It is one thing to believe, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, that the Lord is a Shepherd, but unless someone can say,  “The Lord is my Shepherd,” he is unlikely either to follow the Lord or take comfort in Him.  It is the one who can say, “O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1) who has the assurance that the Lord is really on his side.  So I am on Paul Tripp’s side here:  mere Biblical information will not help the downcast Christian unless it teaches him about his identity in Christ Jesus.

Finally, I was present at the 2015 Aber conference and I heard Paul Tripp speak.  I heard nothing that caused me alarm as to his theological soundness.  I strongly commend the Aberystwyth Conference to my readers, and especially to Dr. Williams, as the best conference that I have ever attended.

 

{1} http://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/beware-of-paul-tripp/

{2} Mark Driscoll was the controversial Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, a vast megachurch.  For some years he was hugely popular with an enormous following. Sadly, the whole edifice came crashing down around the end of 2014 amid allegations of improper accountability.

 

 

Posted by: stpowen | July 2, 2016

Prayer in Uncertain Times

Psalm 61:1-2.  Hear my cry, O God; attend to my prayer.  Frome the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed.  Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.’

2 Samuel 30:6. ‘But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.’

The referendum is done and Britain is on her way out of the E.U.  The economic and financial hob-goblins that the pundits forecast would be unleashed upon us do not appear to have afflicted us as yet; on the contrary, the Stock Market is booming as I write this, and the Pound, having fallen steeply in the first few days, is steadily rising against other currencies.

Of course, on the other hand, Britain has hardly started on her journey as yet, and we are all in uncharted waters as we look forward to the negotiations to leave the E.U. in the friendliest and most beneficial way possible.  Indeed, who knows if the E.U. will survive in its present form?  The political repercussions have been most remarkable as both main political parties are embroiled in leadership elections, and those who were thought to be the main candidates have ruled themselves out.  Everything seems most uncertain.  The Lord Jesus spoke of ‘Distress of nations with perplexity’ and ‘men’s hearts failing them from fear…..’ (Luke 21:25-26).

Is not now the very time that God’s people should be deep in prayer to God, asking Him to use these uncertain times to draw men and women to Himself?  The next Concert of Prayer meetings are scheduled for next Saturday between 10-00am and 12 Noon.  Churches all over the UK will be praying for God to forgive this nation for its grievous sins and to bring us revival.  Why not see if such a meeting is scheduled for your town, and if not, why not call your Christian friends together and start such a meeting yourself?  At the same time, make sure that you are ready to point to Christ those of your non-Christian friends who speak to you of their fears concerning these difficult times.

Posted by: stpowen | May 13, 2016

Referendum Blues

Psalm 4:6.  ‘There are many who say, “Who will show us any good?”  LORD, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us.’

Psalm 131.  ‘LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty, nor do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.  Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.

 O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forever.’

 

Once again the whole nation is agog waiting for Martin Marprelate to tell it how to vote in the forthcoming election.  Well, he will keep you in suspense no longer; he believes that Britain should assert her independence by leaving the E.U.  This is not for religious reasons, though some have written to claim that the Nation State is God’s will for mankind.  Possibly so, but what God demands of the nations is godliness, that seems to be in short supply throughout the world.  No, Martin’s view is simply that Britain should be responsible for her own destiny, should set her own laws, control her own borders and make her own trade deals.  Not everything that comes out of the E.U. is evil- some of it has been beneficial- but Britain and Britons should be the ones who decide what we should do.  In short- we want our country back.

 

The idea that all our trade will disappear and our economy crash the moment we leave is a nonsense.  The day after the referendum we shall still be in the E.U. with all the treaties in place.  Withdrawal would take place slowly over the following two years.  Even more ridiculous is the suggestion from the Prime Minister that war in Europe is more likely if Britain leaves the E.U.  Whilst all the nations of the E.U. remain in NATO, war between them is unthinkable.  The real threat to peace and stability in Europe is the Euro and the European Central Bank.  Nations like Greece, Spain and Portugal have the most terrible unemployment, especially among the young, and no hope of any real improvement because they cannot devalue their currencies to stimulate trade.  Martin is amazed that there has not been much more violence on the streets in these countries, but we are seeing a rise in extreme politics in several of them, and who knows what the results of endless years of austerity will be?

 

But Britain’s real need is not freedom from Europe but freedom from enslavement to sin.  As one who goes into schools from time to time, Martin gets the opportunity to speak to teachers, and the portrait they paint of our young people is very worrying.  Depression and self-harming is endemic; a third of children between 11 and 15 have had thoughts of suicide; many young girls (and increasing numbers of boys) are suffering from bulimia and anorexia; the practice of ‘sexting’ is causing even more distress.  So many children have messy home lives, with their parents (often unmarried) changing partners with dizzying regularity, that many of them find their only structured existence in school.  And to cap it all, they are told (implicitly, if not explicitly) that they are nothing more than accidents of nature; that their lives have no ultimate purpose; that they evolved from slime and to slime they will return.  Is it any wonder that our children are bewildered and depressed?

 

Families, if they are not breaking up altogether, are living with colossal quantities of debt.  The open advertising of various forms of gambling along with galloping consumerism have seen to that.  Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant, with some of them becoming resistant to anti-biotics, and finally, the knowledge of Jesus Christ has almost disappeared from the land.  Children are more likely to know the meaning of Eid or Diwali than that of Easter.  They have not the faintest idea that there is a God who loves sinners like them so much that He sent the Lord Jesus to suffer and to die to take away their sin.

 

None of this will change whether the U.K. leaves the E.U. or stays within it.  The pressing need of our nation is revival.  By all means let the reader vote for his choice in the coming referendum, but let us not fool ourselves that the result will give Britain the change she really needs.  Let us make it our priority to attend the church prayer meetings and put the emphasis, not on Uncle Charlie’s sprained wrist or whatever, but on beseeching the Lord to send the Holy Spirit down on this land again.  The next Concert of Prayer meetings are scheduled for thee second Saturday in July.  Would it not be wonderful if hundreds of people came to these meetings up and down the country to spend two hours praying for revival?

‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Peoples shall yet come, inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, ssaying, ‘Let us continue to go and pray to the LORD, and seek the LORD of hosts.  I myself will also go'”‘ (Zechariah 8:20-21).

Posted by: stpowen | April 23, 2016

Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900)

May 10th will be the bicentenary of the birth of J.C. Ryle, the great Protestant Bishop of Liverpool.  The May issue of Banner of Truth is dedicated to him and is well worth reading.  I have drawn the quotation below from its pages.

Many of my readers come from the USA or elsewhere where he may not be as well known as he is among British Reformed Christians. His great book, Holiness and his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels should be on every Christians bookshelf (or on his Kindle!).

Writing of the vital principles of Christianity, he declared them to be:

The extreme sinfulness of sin, and my own personal sinfulness, hopelessness and personal need.  The entire suitableness of our Lord Jesus Christ by His sacrifice, substitution and intercession, to be the Saviour of the sinner’s soul.  The overwhelming value of a soul, as compared to anything else.  The absolute necessity of anybody who would be saved being born again, or converted by the Holy Ghost.  The indispensable necessity of holiness of life, being the only true evidence of a true Christian.  The absolute need for coming out from the world and being separate from the vain customs, recreations and standard of what’s right, as well as from its sins.  The supremacy of the Bible as the only rule of what is true in faith, or right in practice, and the need of regularly reading and studying it.  The absolute necessity of daily private prayer and communion with God, if anyone intends to lead the life of a true Christian.  The enormous value of what are called Protestant principles, as compared with Romanism.  The unspeakable excellence and beauty of the doctrine of the Second Advent of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.  the unutterable folly of supposing that Baptism is Regeneration, or formal going to Church Christianity, or taking the sacrament a means of wiping away sin, or clergymen to know more of the Bible than other people, or to be mediators between God and man by virtue of their office.

I have often had hard things to say about the Church of England.  J.C. Ryle was an Anglican through and through, but before that he was a Protestant Christian.  May God send us men like him in these days, Anglican or otherwise.

 

Posted by: stpowen | April 16, 2016

Revelation 22. The Consummation

Isaiah 65:17-19. ‘For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.’
1 Thes. 4:17. ‘And thus we shall always be with the Lord.’

Finally, we have come to the end of this wonderful book. The prophecy closes with the conclusion of the depiction of Paradise from Chapter 21, and final comments and warnings.

Verse 1. ‘And He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.’
Here we see the consummation of a number of prophecies. ‘A river went out of Eden’ (Gen. 2:10); in the new Jerusalem, Eden is restored. Ezekiel saw a river flowing out from the Temple (Ezek. 47:7ff); Zechariah saw living waters flowing from Jerusalem (Zech. 14:8); here, they flow from the throne of the new Jerusalem. God and the Lamb personify the Temple (21:22). Jesus is the One from whom the living waters flow (John 4:13-14; 7:37ff).

Vs. 2-3a. ‘In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse.’
The tree of life, of course, was in the Garden of Eden, but Man was cut off from it because of sin (Genesis 2:9; 3:24) and access denied. It was part of the curse on creation pronounced by God in Gen. 3:17. ‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope’ (Rom. 8:20). Now, in verse 3, hope has become reality; the curse is lifted. Christ has undone the work of Satan. ‘For this reason the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the evil one’ (1 John 3:8).

The Tree of Life is in constant flowering. It pictures the eternal and abundant life of those who enter into the New Jerusalem. The mention of the ‘healing of the nations’ does not signify that there will be sickness. The reference is to Ezek. 47:12. The curse brought about sickness, Pain and death. The Tree symbolizes that all these things are healed and are seen no more.

V.3b-4. ‘But the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their forehead.’
In the Bible and in ancient times, to see someone’s face meant that one was in his presence. We shall enjoy the very presence of God (1 John 3:2b) and ‘serve’ Him with our praise and adoration. Note that we shall serve ‘Him,’ not ‘Them.’ There is only one God to serve.
Bob Dylan once sang, ‘It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna serve somebody’ (cf. Rom.6:16). In Rev. 13:16 we read that the beast from the earth, also called the false prophet, required his servants to have his mark either on their right hands or their foreheads, indicating that they were serving Satan with their actions or their thoughts. God’s servants have their Master’s name on their foreheads (Rev. 14:1), indicating that their minds and their wills are subject to God.
V.5. ‘There shall be no night there; they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.’
In the New Jerusalem, everything is light. ‘This is the message that we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). We are reminded of the first three days of creation, when light came directly from God. There will be no end to our time in God’s presence: no partings, no grief; only joy unlimited and unending, and although we shall serve our Lord, we shall also reign with Him (Dan. 7:18, 27; 1 Cor. 6:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:12a).

Vs. 6-7. ‘Then he said to me, “These words are faithful and true. And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place.”
“Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”’
In verse 6, it is still the angel who is speaking, but in v.7, the speaker must be the Lord Jesus Christ. The angel reiterates 21:5; we can rely completely upon God’s promises. It is the God of prophecy who has unveiled the future to His people in this book. Some people have difficulty with the words ‘shortly’ and ‘quickly,’ asking how these words can be used for an event that has been delayed for 2,000 years. Well ‘shortly’ is not limited to our Lord’s Return but to the whole of Revelation. If the interpretation that I have been giving throughout these articles is correct, then many of the events described have been occurring all through the centuries. With regard to the Return of Christ coming ‘quickly,’ we need to interpret this in line with 2 Peter 3:8. ‘But, beloved, do not forget one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day’ (cf. also Hab. 2:2-3). God is not tied to time as we are; everything to Him is a boundless ‘now.’ But we are told in several places that Christ will return quickly in the sense of ‘suddenly’- ‘like a thief in the night’ (16:15; 1 Thes. 5:2; Matt. 24:43). His people are to be ready: ‘watch therefore, for you do not know at what hour your Lord will come’ (Matt. 24:42). It is in this context that we are told to keep the words of Revelation in our hearts.

Vs. 8-9. ‘Now I, John, saw and heard these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. Then he said to me, “See that you do not do that. For I am your fellow-servant, and of your brethren the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”’

John appends, as it were, his signature to this book as Paul does five times in his letters (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thes. 3:17; Philem. 19). He is so overwhelmed by the vision that, as in 19:10, he falls at the feet of the angel and is firmly rebuked. We are not to worship leaders, angels, dead saints or the Virgin Mary, but God alone.

Vs. 10-11. ‘And he said to me, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand. He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still.”’
Daniel was told (Dan. 12:4) to seal up his prophecy because it related far into the future. The book of Revelation has continuing relevance for all Christians from John’s day to ours. Therefore the book is left unsealed so that all may read it and learn from it. Then the contrast is stressed between evil and righteousness, filthiness and holiness. The wicked will not repent of their own volition (cf. 9:20-21; 16:9) unless God gives them new birth, because of the hardness of their hearts (Ezek. 36:25-27). Outside of that, one either grows as a Christian or regresses as a sinner (Matt. 7:17-18).

Vs. 12-13. “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to His work. I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.”
The speaker here is the Lord Jesus Christ. On the Day that He returns, there will be a reward for the holy and righteous, and a reward for the filthy and evil. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, but our deeds will show whether we have indeed been saved in that way. ‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Eph. 2:10). If anyone has been born again of the Spirit of God, his life will surely reflect his new parentage. It is interesting to compare v.12 with Isaiah 40:10. Jesus is Jehovah, as we may clearly see when we compare 1:7 and 1:17 with v.22:13.

In vs. 14-15, the contrast between the saved and the unsaved is continued and reinforced. One group will enter into the New Jerusalem and one will not. Those who enter are they whose new birth is proved by their actions. “If you love Me,” says Jesus, “Keep My commandments” (John 14:15). No one is saved by keeping the commandments (Luke 17:10), but they are the evidence that we are the Lord’s. Those who enter the Holy City are those whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ and who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit (Ezek.36:25-28; Titus 3:3-7).

V.16. Jesus is both Root and Offspring of David (cf. Isaiah 11:1, 10). He is David’s offspring according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3), but as Almighty God He is also his Creator. He is also “The Bright and Morning Star” because He is the fulfilment of all Biblical prophecy and of the hopes of God’s people down the ages. ‘I see Him, but not now; I behold Him but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel’ (Num. 24:17).

V.17. ‘And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!”’ The bride is of course the Church which, in the power of the Sprit, is to call a perishing world to the Saviour. The preaching of the Gospel is absolutely free. ‘And let him who hears say, “Come!”’ Every Christian has the right and the responsibility to reach out to his neighbours with the Gospel. ‘And let him who hears come. Whoever desires, let him take of the water of life freely.’ No one should think that he is beyond salvation. The gates of heaven are wide open and the Lord Jesus Christ declares, “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). The sad fact is that sinners will not come to Christ unless the Spirit opens their hearts to receive Him (John 3:19; Acts 16:14), but that does not mean that sinners may not be assured that if they will repent and turn to Christ, He will receive them (Isaiah 55:1).

Vs. 18-19. ‘For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of this book, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.’

These very serious warnings reflect those given in Deut. 4:2; 12:32, and Prov. 30:5. ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (or ‘God-breathed’)…….’ Christians are not to play fast and loose with God’s word, but to observe and preach His ‘Whole counsel’ (Acts 20:27).

V.20. The Lord Jesus may be coming sooner than any of us think. After all, ‘Now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed’ (Rom. 13:11). We should be living in the light of our Lord’s return. ‘Therefore, since all these [worldly] things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?’ (2 Peter 3:11).

V.21. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.’ And so it will be to all who have placed their trust in Him.’

Judges 21:25. 'In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what 
was right in his own eyes.'

We continue our account of Medieval religion in England.

The earliest Christians believed in the primacy of preaching (Matt. 24:14; 2 Tim. 4:1-4 etc.), but at the time of the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire, levels of education and literacy declined sharply and this affected the clergy as much as anyone else.  It became the fashion for most priests to limit their activities to liturgical and sacramental functions.  They celebrated the mass, heard confessions, baptized infants, heard confession and buried the dead.  ‘Western Catholics thus became accustomed to a form of worship in which many things were done but hardly anything was explained’ (1).  The mass was in Latin, and just so long as the priest could pronounce the words correctly, even he might not understand what they meant.  Regular Lord’s Day preaching was rare; if there was anything at all it was likely to be a homily, a sermon written by someone else and read out by the priest.  These also were quite likely to be in Latin so the congregation would be none the wiser.  Robert Grosseteste (2), 13th Century Bishop of Lincoln, was an exception to this custom, insisting that it was the clergy’s duty to preach the Scriptures and the people’s duty to listen.  He preached in English, not Latin, declaring, ‘The work of a priest is not giving people the mass, but preaching the living truth.’

As the 15th Century progressed, people became more and more eager to hear preaching.  Margery Kemp became so frustrated at its lack that she herself attempted to preach, to the bemusement of her neighbours and the ire of the priests.  But where preaching was to be heard, she records, ‘How fast the people came running to hear the sermon,’ when a well-known preacher visited her home town of King’s Lynn, although she rather haughtily doubted the motives of her neighbours in so doing (3).

So where preaching was to be heard at all, it was more likely to be from itinerant friars or ‘pardoners’ than from the Parish priests.  Such preaching tended to concentrate upon the horrors of hell and of purgatory.  The Roman Church taught that even Christians needed to have their sins purged, and this was done by a sojourn of indefinite duration in purgatory.  ‘Though every Christian might hope for heaven, only the saints could hope to go there directly.  All who died in a state of venial sin, all who had forgotten or concealed such sins in confession, all who had not yet fulfilled every part of the penance imposed in confession for sins repented, confessed or absolved, all who had had insufficient penance imposed on them by over-indulgent confessors, all who fell short of that fullness of charity which lay at the root of salvation…..all these were bound to spend some times in the pains of purgatory’ (4).  Part of the problem with Purgatory was that since it appears nowhere at all in the Bible, no one could say how long it might continue before one was released to heaven, nor how severe the pains might be.  Duffy reports some lurid accounts of the agonies allegedly experienced there, ‘souls…..suspended by meat-hooks driven through jaws, tongue and sexual organs, frozen into ice, boiling in vats of liquid metal or fire……  There was general agreement that, al least as far as its activities and staff were concerned, Purgatory was an out-patient department of hell rather than the antechamber of heaven….. In Purgatory, declared [Bishop] Fisher, “Is so great acerbite of pynes that no difference is between the paynes of hell and them, but only eternyte.’ (5).

Unsurprisingly, the result of this teaching was that men and women were desperate to avoid Purgatory, and in their desperation they became the victims of another unbiblical doctrine.  The Roman church taught that prayers for the dead were not only efficacious but important in lessening the time spent by the departed in purgatory.  Every week the Parish priest would bid the people pray, ‘For all the souls that abide the mercy of God in the pains of Purgatory.’  For those with the necessary finance, the local church or monastery would arrange special prayers for the newly departed.  How could a dutiful son or daughter refuse to pay for masses to be said for recently deceased parents?  And wealthy folk, instead of leaving their money to their children, would leave it to the church for masses to be conducted on their behalf.  Duffy relates the case of one John Clopton, who in 1494 wrote in his will, “As far as I can remember, I am clear of all wrongs done to any person.”  Nonetheless, he felt it expedient to leave 50 Marks to secure 2,000 masses within the first month following his death.  “I know well,” he said, “that prayers are a singular remedy for the deliverance of souls in purgatory, and especially he offering of the blessed sacrament of our Lord’s body” (6).  The churches and monasteries grew mightily rich on the back of such donations, playing on the fears of a superstitious populace.

Towards the end of the 14th Century, two books were published in English which cast a helpful light on religion of the time and on the attitude of the people towards the clergy.  The first of these was Piers the Plowman by William Langland (1332-c.1400).  Langland was in ‘minor orders’ in the Church (7).  He was clearly concerned at the state of England in his day, both politically and spiritually.  The book takes the form of an account of a dream that he had, and is filled with angry and sarcastic allusions to church and government officials.  Here is an example from his prologue:

A gaggle of hermits with crooked staves set out for [the shrine of the Virgin Mary at] Walsingham, with their whores behind them.  Great strapping layabouts, foes of a fair day’s work, dressed up in copes to look different from the rest, and, hey presto! They’ve become hermits- gentlemen of leisure!

I found there all four orders of friars, preaching to the people for the benefit of their bellies.  They interpreted the Gospel as it fitted their book, reading into it whatever meaning they fancied in their greed for smart clothes.  Many of these masters can afford to dress as they please because their costs and their earnings fit like hand in glove.  Now, since charity’s turned trader and heads the queue for hearing noblemen’s confessions, many untoward things have happened in the last few years.  Unless the friars and the church can improve their relations, a terrible calamity will soon hang over our heads.

There was a pardoner (8) preaching there for all the world is if he were a priest.  He produced an indulgence, covered with episcopal authorizations, and said that he himself had the power to absolve all and sundry who had failed to observe their fasting-penances, or had broken solemn vows.  The ignorant put their full trust in him….and came up on their knees to kiss his bull.  ……..This, good people, is how you lay out your cash- to gluttonous skivers.  You hand it to layabouts who toss it to their tarts.  Now if the bishop was a man of God (and if he had a decent pair of ears), his seal would not be at the service of men who con ordinary people. But the bishop doesn’t intend this- that charlatans should go about as preachers.  No, it’s the parish priest who splits the silver with the pardoner- money that would reach the poor of the parish, if it wasn’t for the pair of them.

Rectors and vicars were there, complaining to their bishops that the parishes had been destitute since the time of the plague.  They asked for special permission to reside in London and sing mass there for a more profitable tune- the sweet sound of silver!’ (9).

Pardoners seem to have been especially distained by the people of this time.  The second great writer of the late 14th Century was Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1344-1400).  In the prologue of his famous Canterbury Tales, he gives several less than flattering pen portraits of several clerical folk and none is so severely dealt with as the Pardoner.  This man had a bar-towel in his bag which he claimed was the veil of the virgin Mary, a piece of the sail of St. Peter’s fishing boat,

‘and in a glas he hadde pigges bones;

But with these relikes, whan that he fond

A povre person dwellynge on lond,

Upon a day he gat hym more moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;

And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,

He made the person and the peple his apes.’

Along with the Pardoner came his friend the Summoner. A summoner was someone hired by the church to call people before the ecclesiastical court for their spiritual crimes, like adultery or heresy, the punishment for which could be as servere as excommunication. Chaucer’s summoner was just as corrupt as the Pardoner:

‘He wolde suffer for a quart of wyn

A good fellawe to have his concubine

A twelf month, and excuse him atte fulle.’

It is interesting that another famous medieval book, Dante’s Inferno describes hell as having ten descending circles of punishment. The tenth circle was reserved for traitors like Judas Iscariot, and the ninth for abusers of ecclesiastical privilege.

Chaucer’s other characters include a Prioress whose virtue was somewhat suspect and a monk who much preferred hunting and feasting to the manual labour (‘swynk’) prescribed by St. Augustine (Austyn):

‘He yaf not of that text a pulled hen

That seith that hunters be nat hooly men,

Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees;,

Is likned til a fissh that is waterlees-

That is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.

But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre;

And I seyd his opinion was good.

What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood [crazy],

As Austyn bit? How shal the world be served?

Let Austyn have his swynk to hym reserved!’

But the biggest rogue in Chaucer’s gallery is probably the friar. This man is a philanderer, venal in his giving of absolution and penance, much preferring the company of publicans and bar staff to that of lepers or beggars:

‘Ful swetely herde he confessioun,

And plesaunt was his absolucioun;

He was an esy man to yeve penaunce,

Ther as he wiste to have a good pittaunce.

For unto a povre ordre for to yive

Is signe that a man is wel yshryve.’

……..He knew the tavernes wel in every toun

And everich hostiler and tappistere

Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;

For unto swich a worthy man as he

Accorded nat, as by his facultee,

To have with sike lazars aqueyntaunce.

It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce.’

 It is plain that church officers generally commanded little respect among the people, but it would not be fair to omit the one of Chaucer’s characters to whom he gives sincere approval- the ‘Povre Persoun of a toun.’ This parson preached the Gospel of Christ diligently, did not extract his tithe from the poor, was diligent to visit his flock in all weathers. Nor did he follow the examples of some of his contemporaries by abandoning his post:

‘He sette nat his benefice to hyre

And leet his sheep encombred in the myre

And ran to Londoun unto Seinte Poules

To seken hym a chaunterie for soules

…….But Cristes loore and his apostles twelve

He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.’

We should not suppose that every Monk, Friar, Pardoner, Summoner and Pardoner In medieval England was as big a rogue as the ones depicted by Langland and Chaucer, nor that every Priest came up to the standard of Chaucer’s Parson, but through their works we get an idea of the corruption that was endemic throughout the land.

 As the 15th Century wore on, literacy among the middle classes began to increase, along, it seems, with an increasing spiritual hunger.  This brought about a custom of compiling a sort of spiritual scrapbook or ‘commonplace book.’  These would be filled with a variety of prayers, spells, wise  sayings and secular diary items.  Duffy (10) mentions, amongst others, a rural artisan and businessman, Robert Reynes, who was also a church-reeve and lived around the 1480s.   In among family dates, business concerns and notes about church repairs come a list of saints’ days, a ‘life’ of St. Anne in verse, a devotional poem on the number of drops of Christ’s blood, an account of the shrine images at Walsingham, a ‘number of other poems of a pessimistic nature on the brevity of life and the need to prepare for death by receiving the sacraments’ and brief summaries of the Ten Commandments, the seven sins, the ‘works of mercy,’ the ‘virtues’ and the sacraments.

Along with these, Duffy also records a prayer charm to St. Apollonia against the toothache, an invocation to Christ, the apostles, prophets, angels and saints against fever and a charm involving Christ and St. Peter against malaria.  There was also astrological material, including a formula for conjuring angels into a child’s thumbnail!  It is clear that Reynes and his middle-class contemporaries were very religious and eager to learn more, but it is equally clear that their zeal was not according to knowledge.  The one thing Reynes lacked for guidance was a Bible.  The Constitutions of Arundel absolutely forbade the Bible in English.  To read it one needed to have recourse to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, and even this was largely restricted to the higher clergy.

In around 1440, came the invention of the printing press in Germany by Johanes Gutenberg.   Printing came to England in 1476 when William Caxton set up his press in Westminster.  Without doubt this was the greatest step in world history in the furtherance of personal freedom.  Previously, books could be burned faster than they could be written; now they could be printed at prodigious speed, faster than they could be confiscated and burned.   Moreover, books now became much cheaper than before so that even people of modest means could afford to buy and read them.  The martyrologist John Foxe writing a hundred years later declared, “How many presses there be in the world, so many block houses there be against the high castle of St. Angelo [ie. The Papacy], so that that either the Pope must abolish knowledge and printing, or printing must at length root him out” (12).   Duffy pours cold waters on this statement, witnessing the vast array of religious books that flowed from the printing presses over the next fifty years.  “The advent of printing in the 1470s and the enormous surge in numbers of publications after 1505 did not flood the reading public with reforming tracts or refutations of the real presence.”  Nor did it, but the reasons for that were twofold.  Firstly, printing in England lagged behind its development on the Continent.  Until well into the 16th Century, there were only three printers in the country:  Caxton, Richard Pynson, and the wonderfully-named Wynkyn de Worde.  Secret, moveable presses lay some way into the future.  Secondly, the Constitutions of Arundel still threatened with the severest punishment, anyone producing the Scriptures in English, and indeed, any material subversive to the Church of Rome.  The Lollard Bibles (13) still needed to be written out by hand and distributed by stealth in fear and trembling.

Amongst the flood of religious books that came from the new printing presses were ‘pamphlets advocating the merits of the rosary, treatises on a good death…..visions and revelations about purgatory……the fourth book of the Imitation of Christ (on the sacrament) [and] a series of individual saints’ lives…..designed to promote pilgrimage to particular shrines’ (14).  One book in particular is worthy of mention.  The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesu by Nicholas Love was published in 1410 as a kind of ‘Harmony of the Gospels.’  The book was approved by Archbishop Arundel with the aim of superseding Wyclif’s Lollard Bible.  The book became very popular, and was printed in turn by Caxton, Pynton and de Worde.  Duffy declares that the book ‘went a long way towards satisfying lay eagerness for knowledge of the Gospels’ (15).

If this were true, it would certainly detract from the thesis set forth in these articles that the Reformation was a people’s movement to reclaim the Bible.  But is it true?  Let us inspect the book to find out.  The Mirror consists of sixty-four chapters, each with a heading describing its contents.  But rather than a Gospel harmony, it would be better described as a devotional historical novel.  The circumcision of our Lord, which Luke’s Gospel describes in a single verse, Nicholas Love turns into several pages of rather maudlin irrelevance as the Virgin Mary attempts to comfort the weeping Christ child.   There is more of the same as the Lord Jesus leaves His mother and goes to be baptized by John the Baptist.  The New Testament again deals with this event in a single verse (Mark 1:9), but the Mirror expands it into a long discourse:

‘After that twenty-nine years were complete in which our Lord Jesu had lived in penance and abjection, as it is said, in the beginning of his thirtieth year, he spake to his mother and said: “Dear mother, it is now time that I go to glorify and make known my father, and also to show my self to the world, and to work the salvation of man’s soul, as my father hath ordained and sent me in to this world for this end.  Wherefore, good mother, be of good comfort, for I shall soon come again to thee.  And therewith that sovereign master of meekness, kneeling down to his mother, asked lowly he blessing.  And she also kneeling, and clipping him [fondly] in her arms, with weeping, said thus …………..’  And so forth at considerable length.  None of this, of course, is in the Bible.  At the cross, we find long speeches given to Mary, and indeed, throughout the book, Jesus plays second fiddle to His mother.

However, when we come to the doctrinal portions of the Gospels, nothing is there.  Chapter 16 is headed, ‘Of the excellent sermon of our Lord Jesu on the hill,’ which sounds promising, but when one looks, there is nothing concerning the Sermon on the Mount.  We are told that the Lord Jesus led His disciples up a hill, ‘and there gave them a long sermon full of fruit,’ but of that sermon there is nothing.  There are extracts from Augustine and pages of quotations from the Church fathers on the Lord’s Prayer, with one or two phrases from it given in English, but that is all.  There was an utter determination by the Church to deny the people access to the Scriptures.  Duffy admits that ‘the fear of Bible translations was a major weakness in the educational and devotional programme of late medieval English Catholicism, and a principal reason why serious interest in religious education in the vernacular could tip over into, or be confused with, Lollardy.’  He goes on to opine that sooner or later the Church authorities would have relaxed the ban on the Bible in English (16).  However, from the Constitutions of Arundel until Henry VIII’s ‘Great Bible’ lay 120 years during which the Church and State combined to deny the Scriptures to the people and to pursue to the death those who dared to provide or read them.  This (DV) will be the subject of the next chapter.

 

Notes

  1. N. Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 2 (Grace Publications, 2000).
  2. See Chapter 2.
  3. Book of Margery Kemp, Page 149.
  4. E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale Univ. Press) Page 341.
  5. Ibid. Pages 338-9, 344.
  6. Ibid. Page 347.
  7. There were four kinds of ‘minor orders’- ‘doorkeepers,’ who looked after the church fabric, ‘lectors,’ who read out the Scriptures in Latin in the services, ‘exorcists,’ who prayed for catechumens and those thought to be demon-possessed, and ‘acolytes’’ who assisted the priests in their work in the church.
  8. A pardoner was an non-ordained itinerant cleric who raised money for the church by the selling of official church pardons or ‘Indulgences’ which offered the purchaser redemption from their sins and reduced periods of purgatorial punishment.  Not surprisingly where salvation was available for purchase, the Christian doctrine of repentance and forgiveness inevitably grew corrupt.  Pardoners were known to exaggerate the efficacy of their indulgences and claimed the authority to promise deliverance not just from purgatory, but from hell itself.
  9. William Langland, Piers Plowman, rendered into modern English by A.V.C. Schmit (Oxford Univ. Press).
  10. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Page 71ff.
  11. Ibid. Page 71f.
  12. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Vol. 3.
  13. See Chapter 4.
  14. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Pages 78-79.
  15. Ibid. Page 79.
  16. Ibid. Page 80.

 

 

Posted by: stpowen | February 1, 2016

Suffering and the Return of Christ

From a sermon preached on Matthew 24:1-14 at Scott Drive church, Exmouth.

Isaiah 66:15. ‘For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger, and His rebuke with flames of fury.’

Mark 13:35-37. “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the Master of the house is coming- in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning- lest, coming suddenly, He find you sleeping.  And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”

We have arrived at the start of the New Year, and looking forward to 2016 with, perhaps a degree of trepidation.  The country is, sort of, at war and since the attacks in France there is the terrible threat of terrorism hanging over us.  The prophet Jeremiah warned Judah in Jer. 5:6, ‘A leopard shall watch over their cities’ and so it feels for us; a malign force seems to be waiting for the moment to strike.

In addition to that, it is becoming more and more difficult to be an evangelical Christian.  Certain Christian views, which would have been considered mainstream just a few years ago, are now completely unacceptable in the minds of many, and Christians may lose their jobs and preachers may be arrested just for voicing them.  And things seem likely to get worse in this respect rather than better.

So with this in mind, let us read Matthew 24:1-14 together, paying particular attention to verse 14.

In Chapter 23, the Lord Jesus has been giving the most furious condemnation to the religious hierarchy of Israel.  “You snakes!  You brood of vipers!  How will you escape the condemnation of hell?” (v.33). This is pretty strong stuff!  We don’t hear too many sermons on that text these days.  Perhaps we should.  Anyway, in 24:1, Jesus is walking out of the temple area and his disciples are perhaps trying to distract Him and soften Hs mood a little.  “Look, Teacher!  What massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1).  This, of course was the Temple as enlarged and beautified by King Herod the Great shortly before our Lord’s birth.  It was indeed vast and impressive.  The Jewish writer Josephus declared that anyone who had not seen the Temple in Jerusalem had never seen a beautiful building.  And is this huge building really going to be destroyed so utterly that not one stone shall be left upon another?  Ridiculous!  It couldn’t happen!  Imagine someone saying that about St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London; you might say, “Impossible!”  Imagine, before September 11th 2001, someone saying it of the World Trade Centre; people would have scoffed at him.  Yet it did happen, and in AD 70, just 40 years after our Lord foretold it, the Roman soldiers came to Jerusalem and the whole Temple was utterly destroyed.  One part of the wall left for the Jews to pray against, but the rest obliterated so completely that future generations found it hard to believe that anything had ever been built there.

So a little later the disciples came to Him, and it’s very important to the understanding of Matt. 24 that you note that the disciples asked Him three question, and He answers three questions.  If you don’t see that, you will get into the most hopeless mess.

The questions are:

  1. When will these things (the destruction of the Temple) be?
  2. What signs will there be?
  3. How will this present age end?

The Lord Jesus answers all these questions and the trick is, as you go through the whole chapter, to know which question He’s answering at any particular time.  But the first 14 verses, which we shall look at tonight, is a sort of introduction, and He’s talking about the whole time from His ascension into heaven, which was just a few weeks away, and His return in glory, so these verses applied to the disciples then, and they apply equally today.  ‘For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we, through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope’ (Rom. 15:4).

In verses 1-12, Jesus speaks of seven things that we may expect to see during this present age:

  1. Deception, especially over the return of Christ (vs. 4-5)
  2. Wars and rumours of wars (vs. 6-7).
  3. Natural disasters (v.7)
  4. Persecutions (v.9).
  5. Apostasy & betrayal (v.10).
  6. False prophets bringing more deception (v.11).
  7. Increasing wickedness and lack of love among Christians (v.12).

Well this is a rather gloomy set of predictions!  Perhaps you’re thinking, “I didn’t come here today to be depressed!  Why can’t we hear something encouraging?”  Well, I hope that by the time I’ve finished you will be encouraged, but when we see these dreadful things going on today, and we certainly do, we need to remember that they are nothing new.  They have been going on all through the Christian era, so if they weren’t happening somewhere in the world pretty regularly the Bible wouldn’t be true.  Let’s run through them quickly.

  1. 4-5. “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and deceive many.”

False teaching and deception have been about right from the beginning.   We see it forewarned in Acts 20:28-31, and it is already in the churches by the time Peter, Jude and John wrote their epistles (eg. 2 Peter 2:1-2; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 7; Jude 4).  Given the context of Matt. 24, which is basically apocalyptic, our Lord is saying that not everything that seems to be a sign of the end of the world actually is.  We are to beware of people saying that Christ has already come invisibly (hyper-preterism), that they know that He’s coming on a certain day (Harold Camping) or that they themselves are in some way God’s anointed spokesman (various bizarre end-time cults).  When Christ returns, everybody’s going to know about it (v.27).

Vs. 6-7a. “And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars.  See to it that you are not troubled, for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”

We don’t have ‘rumours of wars’ today.  Everything is on the news or internet almost as soon as it happens, but until the 20th Century you only heard vague reports of what was happening in China or South America.  During the Boer War in South Africa around 1900, it took many weeks for news to arrive in Britain as to how our troops were faring.  But now we get wars and killings on the news 24 hours of the day, and it’s natural to think, “What’s going on?  Is the world spiralling out of control?  What is God doing?”

But the Lord Jesus says, “See to it that you are not troubled.”  It’s quite a strong imperative.  You can be appalled, shocked or disgusted at the stuff going on in the world today, but not alarmed or troubled in your spirit.  “For all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”  If there were no wars, then the Bible wouldn’t be true.  As a matter of fact, these statements may have been more surprising to His disciples than they are to us.  Our Lord was speaking in a time of unparalleled peace, the Pax Romana.  From the time of the Battle of Actium in BC 34 until around AD 180, Rome was so dominant that there were very few wars.  This one great exception to that was the civil wars that broke out in AD 69 leading to the death of Nero and the ‘Year of the Four Emperors,’ and the following year that saw the destruction of Jerusalem.  So in AD 30, when our Lord spoke, people may have been quite surprised to hear that there would be continuing wars.

But why must things like wars happen?  It is because of sin.  ‘Where do wars and fights come from among you?  Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and battle’ (James 4:1-2).  Wars and violence come from covetousness, selfishness and lust for power.  And this has been going on ever since the Lord Jesus spoke these words, and will be going on until He returns.  ‘For nation will rise against nation.’  It’s been going on all through history.  It is God’s righteous judgement that sinful men and women are not going to live in a perfect world.  ‘Therefore just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death came to all men, because all men sinned…..’ (Rom. 5:12).  But it wasn’t always this way, when God made the world and pronounced it, ‘very good.’  The world is fallen through sin, and death, disease and disaster is the result.  The Cosmos itself is in a fallen state.  ‘And there will be famines, pestilences  and earthquakes in various places.’  Exactly as we see it today.

But look at verse 8:  ‘All these are the beginning of sorrows.’  Readers will know that I use the NKJV translation almost exclusively on this blog.  All in all I consider it to be the most reliable translation available today.  However at this point I believe that it errs in following the Authorized Version too closely.  The Greek word translated ‘sorrows’ is odin,  and I believe it would be better rendered ‘birth pains’ or ‘labour pains,’ as in 1 Thes. 5:3.  When one enters a maternity ward, one hears cries and moans of great pain, and one might think that someone is dying, but no- someone’s coming to birth!

With this thought in mind, read carefully Romans 8:18-22.  ‘For I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly,  but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together [Gk. sunodino] until now.’  The world as we see it is not as it was when God created it, but nor is it as it will be.  Today there is hardship and suffering, death and disease, but this is not God’s plan for the world.  Something better is coming to birth!

The Bible speaks of only two ages:  the present [evil] age (Gal. 1:4) and the age to come (Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 20:34-35).  With the coming of the Lord Jesus, the age to come broke in upon this present age, and even now Christ is gathering a people for Himself.  Consider Revelation 6 and the opening of the seals.  Jesus Christ is the Rider on the white horse (v.2. cf. 19:11), and He is going forth all through this age to sack, as it were, the borders of hell, and bring in a people to Himself.  But this is done against a background of war (vs. 3-4), famine (vs. 5-6), death (vs. 7-8) and persecution of God’s people (vs. 9-11).

Therefore we read in v.9 of our text, ‘Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My names sake’ (cf. Matt. 5:10-12).  This was the truth for the Apostles, truth during the Roman Empire, and truth all down the years to the present day.  Persecution.   And because we haven’t had it for a while in Britain, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been going on all over the world at various times.  Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, when a million or more Armenian Christians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks.

V.10. ‘And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will betray one another and will hate one another.’

This is a falling away from the faith; how we have seen this in Britain in recent times.  People cease to follow clear Christian teaching because it no longer appears mainstream, and those who are upholding Biblical morality are betrayed by those upon whose support they thought they could rely.   It reminds me of Groucho Marx; “Those are my principles, sir, and if you don’t like them…….I have others!”  But we should not suppose that this is a uniquely modern phenomenon.  At the time of the Restoration of Charles II, and again at the beginning of the 18th Century, many supposed Puritans and evangelicals departed from Biblical Christianity so as to receive preferment in the new regimes.

V.11. ‘Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.’  This would be a more general kind of false teaching to that described in v.5.  Once again, this has been going on all through Church history.  The heresy of Arius finds its counterpart today in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There is nothing new under the sun.

V.12.  ‘And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many  will grow cold.’  One thing leads to another.  False teaching often leads to a downgrading of the Ten Commandments- lawlessness; and lawlessness leads to a coldness towards God.  People in this condition do not abandon the faith altogether, but they lose their love for Christ and become nominal Christians, coming to church when it suits, or not at all.  Of course, some professing Christians are in this condition all their lives.  Christianity to them is purely formal- just going through a ritual.  Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister in the reign of Queen Victoria, once declared, “Things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to get personal!”

But how can anyone’s love grow cold when he thinks of what our Lord suffered to save sinners like us, the Innocent for the guilty?  ‘But he who endures to the end shall be saved’ (v.13).  The one who truly loves the Lord Jesus, and trusts in His blood shed for sinners on the cross, will be saved, but persecution and trouble are what separates the wheat from the chaff.  Following Jesus can cost you ridicule; it can cost you friends; in some cases it can cost you your job, even in this nation.  In some countries it can cost you your family, your freedom and your life.  Our Lord bids us count the cost (Luke 14:28-33).   But Jesus Christ is either worth everything or he is worth nothing.  If Christianity is false, it’s not worth a second thought, but if it’s true- and it is gloriously true- it’s worth everything, infinitely more than money or fame or sex or fast cars:  it’s the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46), and nothing can be compared to it.  So we stand firm in the faith, and we are saved.

V.14. ‘And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come.’  So finally we arrive at verse 14.  The Gospel started on the Day of Pentecost with just a few people in an upper room, and it has been spread all over the world, almost always in great weakness.  We think of great missionaries like William Carey, John Paton and James Hudson Taylor; none of them came from wealthy or privileged backgrounds- Carey was a cobbler- but in God’s strength they were able to do amazing things.  We notice that the Gospel is to be preached ‘as a witness.’  It is not to be supposed that everybody in the world will be saved.  Many will reject the Gospel and laugh in our faces as they do it, but the Gospel must be preached in every land.

When will the work be done?  God will decide that, but there is plenty still to do.  The F.I.E.C. has identified fifty towns in Britain that have no Gospel church in them.  If that is true of Britain, what about France, Spain or Saudi Arabia?  Does this not show us the need to support Bible-believing missions and missionaries?  2 Peter3:12 tells us that we can hasten the coming of the Day of God.  Let us be about out it by personal witnessing to our friends and neighbours and by supporting those in foreign lands.  This poor broken world is not meant to last forever.  It is in the throes of rebirth.

‘And then the end will come.’  The end of this present evil age.  The end of death and disease and want; the end of suffering and sickness and sorrow; the end of sin- the last relic of sin in us will be destroyed as we receive our new resurrection bodies.  But it will also be a beginning.  The beginning of unclouded joy for all God’s people- life in the very presence of God.

‘And on this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees. And He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations.  He will swallow up death forever, and the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of His people He will take away from the earth; for the LORD has spoken’ (Isaiah 25:6-8).

 

Posted by: stpowen | January 22, 2016

The People’s Reformation (2)

People’s Reformation (2):  Religion in Medieval England, Part One

Hosea 4:6. ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’

Before continuing our story, it will be helpful to consider the state of Christianity in England before the Reformation.  We can draw help in our quest to find the voices of ordinary people from three sources.  The first is an excellent book, The Stripping of the Altars by the Roman Catholic historian, Eamon Duffy (1).  This is a work of tremendous scholarship and in it Duffy is certainly able to prove that religion in England was very much alive and indeed dominated the lives of ordinary people.  What he is unable to conceal is that medieval worship was not according to knowledge and that those same people were kept in Stygian darkness and relentlessly fleeced by the Church of Rome.  The second resource is two of the first books to be written in English.  These are Piers Plowman by William Langland and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, both written towards the end of the 14th Century.  These two books have much to say about the Church of that time and the lives of ordinary folk.  A third source is The Book of Margery Kempe, believed by many to be the first English autobiography.  Margery Kempe was a well-to-do townswoman who lived around 1370-1440 in Bishop’s Lynn in East Anglia.  She was an extremely religious woman, and her experiences of church life are very interesting, though certainly not typical.

In the last post (2) we left Britain in the time of King John (died 1215), firmly in the grip of the Papacy.  It should be remembered that at this time the English scarcely possessed their own language; the language of the court and society was French and all official documents were in either that language or Latin, which was also the language of the Church.  English was the language of the common folk.  This would not change for around `150 years.  Englishmen were cut off from their culture and from their religion because they could not understand it.   G. M. Trevelyan described vividly the situation of the English peasant in church:

‘…..He stood or knelt on the floor of the church each Sunday, [he] could not follow the Latin words but …..watched what he revered and heard the familiar yet still mysterious sounds.  Around him blazed on the walls frescoes of scenes from the Scriptures and the lives of saints; and over the rood-loft was the Last Judgement depicted in lively colours, paradise opening to receive the just, and on the other side flaming hell with devil executioners tormenting naked souls.  Fear of hell was a most potent force, pitilessly exploited by all preachers and confessors, both to enrich the Church and to call sinners to repentance’ (3).  It should be added that the preaching was most unlikely to have come from the Parish Priest, but rather from itinerant friars or pardoners, the latters’ wallets being ‘Bret full of pardons, come from Rome all hot’ (Chaucer).

We may mention briefly the two ‘Reformation Candles’ before moving on.  Robert Grosseteste (or Greathead) was made Bishop of Lincoln in 1235.  At around that time, Pope Innocent IV was ordering the English Bishops to find benefices for three hundred Italians.  Specifically, Grosseteste was ordered to make Innocent’s infant nephew a Canon at Lincoln.  This he refused to do, declaring, “To follow a pope who rebels against the will of Christ, is to separate from Christ and His body” (4).  Grosseteste also made a stand for the Scriptures but after his death in 1253, his protests died with him.

During the hundred years that followed, England became a powerful nation and instead of French kings ruling in England, an English king was crowned in Paris.  Starting with Edward I, England began to assert its independence over the Papacy.  The great days of the Popes which had begun with Hildebrand were coming to an end, as the power of the nation state began to arise.  French nationalism began to assert itself against Rome and in 1309, Pope Clement V, who was little more than a puppet of king Philip the Fair of France, moved the papal court to Avignon, where it remained for the next 70 years.  Since France and England were almost constantly at war at this time, Edward III of England was not at all disposed to allow the Pope much jurisdiction, and during his reign, and shortly after, the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire asserted the rights of the English Crown against the Papacy.  During this time, Thomas Bradwardine, who had been chaplain to Edward III at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, became Archbishop of Canterbury.  He preached and wrote against the Pelagianism that had become rampant within the Church following the teachings of William of Occam and others, and upheld the Doctrines of Grace.  But like Grosseteste, Bradwardine died without too much disturbing the hold that the Church of Rome still held over the people of England, if not over her king.

The people of England had no approved (5) access to the Scriptures in English.  Neither Lay people nor clergy were encouraged to read the Bible at all, but those who were determined to do so were restricted to the Vulgate Latin translation of Jerome, dating back to the 5th Century.  This is by no means the worst translation in the world- it was the first to use the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, rather than the Greek Septuagint and is an improvement on some of the old Latin versions that preceded it.  However, it contained a number of errors, two of which are especially notable.  Firstly, it translated the Greek word metanoieo which means ‘repent’ as poenitentam ago, ‘do penance.’  Secondly, it rendered Luke 1:28, which should read, “Rejoice, highly favoured one” as “Rejoice, you who are full of grace,” and so the myth grew up around Mary that she was the repository of grace and had it to bestow on those who prayed to her.  From there it became the belief that certain great Christians or ‘saints’ also had an excess of virtue to bestow upon ‘ordinary’ believers.

Religious life in England centred around the Mass (6).  It seems that in the early Church, all Christians had taken part in communion regularly.  From the 6th Century, however, it became the custom for lay people to receive it only once or twice a year.  The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) specified that all Christians should receive at least once a year, at Easter.  In England, this was referred to as ‘taking one’s rights.’  But partaking at the mass was not the standard practice of the laity; usually the congregation merely watched the priest celebrate.  Since the end of the 11th Century it had been the custom for the priest, having intoned the words “Hoc est meum corpus’ to raise the wafer (7) above his head so that all the people could see and worship what the Church taught was the very body of Christ.  Most parish churches would celebrate “high” or “sung mass” each week, in which singing would be involved and the congregation joined in with the clergy, though only the clergy usually partook of the elements.  People would push and shove each other to get a seat at the front where they could get a seat toward the front and see the ‘host’ or wafer being raised.  Low mass was celebrated every day.  Here the only the parish priest took part, speaking the liturgy in a low voice and partaking of the elements himself.  Yet still many parishioners would come to the church to see the host in the priest’s hand, rising up out of their seats to get a better look.  In the larger churches, several masses might be celebrated one after another and a bell would be rung so that the laity might hurry from one to another.  The martyrologist John Foxe recounted how the early Lollard priest William Thorpe was preaching at a church in Shrewsbury, when the ‘sacring bell’ was rung and many of his congregation ran past him to see the host being raised in another part of the church.

Protestant Archbishop Cranmer had seen this enthusiasm among the people early in his career.  He asked rhetorically:  “What made the people to run from their seats to the altar, and from altar to altar……..peeping, tooting and gazing at that thing which the priest held in his hands, if they thought not to honour the thing which they saw?  What moved the priests to lift up the sacrament so high up over their heads?  Or the people to say to the priest, “Hold up! Hold up!”; or one man to say to another, “Stoop down before;” or to say, “This day I have seen my Maker;” and, “I cannot be quiet except I see my Maker once a day”? What was the cause of all these…….but that they worshipped that visible thing which they saw with their eyes and took it for very God?’ (cf. Deut.4:15).

The reason for the reluctance to partake of the bread and wine seems to have been dread of consuming the very body and blood of Christ unworthily.  Safer by far to observe the ritual from a safe distance. There were those who insisted taking the elements regularly.  Margery Kempe did so weekly and records that this was regarded by her neighbours as ostentation.  Duffy also mention a Lady Margaret Beaufort who received monthly and ‘even so was regarded as something of a prodigy’ (8).  As related, for the large majority, observance was once a year, at Easter, preceded by confession to a priest the week before.

The mass lay at the very heart of medieval Roman Catholicism.  The prestige and power of the priesthood rested on the belief that they, and they alone, had the power to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  To deny this was the ultimate heresy.  It was the reason for which all the English martyrs from the earliest Lollards to the victims of the Marian persecution were burned.  When Margery Kempe’s ostentatious piety put her under suspicion of heresy, she was investigated by the Abbot of Leicester and required to state her orthodoxy, which she did as follows:

‘Sirs, I believe in the sacrament of the altar in this wise, that whatever man has taken the order of priesthood, be he never so vicious a man in his behaviour, yet if he say duly the words over the bread that our Lord Jesus Christ said when he made his Maunday Mass [ie, at the Last Supper], I believe that it is his very flesh and his blood and not material bread, not may it ever be unsaid once it is said’  [9].

So no matter how evil the life and manner of an individual priest might be; no matter how great a rogue the Bishop who ordained him, once s ordained, he held the power to summon up the bodily presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to deny this was the greatest heresy.  Indeed, the greatest enthusiasm was expected of all at the celebration of the mass.  Duffy writes, ‘Holding up of the hands and the more or less audible recitation of elevation prayers at the sacring was a gesture expected of everyone; refusal or omission was a frequent cause of the detection of the Lollards.  And the refusal of such gestures might be held to exclude one from the human community, since they excluded one from the church…..’ [10]

To encourage belief in this doctrine of ‘Transubstantiation,’ special catechisms and didactic poems were composed for the congregation to learn.  For example:

‘It seems white and is red,
It is alive and seems dead,
It is flesh and seems bread;
It is one and seems two,
It is God’s body and no more.’

Also, many miraculous stories circulated about the mass.  These usually involved doubting folk being chastened when they saw the wafer bleeding copiously as it was broken by the priest.  Sometimes it was Pope Gregory the Great who convinced the doubter as his hands dripped with the blood of Christ; sometimes it was ‘St. Ode that was bishop of Canterbury.’  On other occasions it was doubting monks or priests who were granted this vision when their faith was weak.  All such doubts were held to be the work of the devil [11].

Another central feature of medieval religious life in England was the various festivals.  Prominent among them, and associated with the mass, was the feast of Corpus Christi celebrated in June each year.  Instituted by Pope Urban IV in 1264 and observed in England from 1308, it commemorated a communion wafer which allegedly shed blood in a church in Bolsena, near Rome.  A priest would carry a wafer through the streets in a golden monstrance, a special device for holding up the host for the adoration of the people.  On the streets through which the procession would pass, the residents would festoon their houses with bed-hangings and other decorations as the populace stood in the streets to catch a glimpse of the body of Christ.   Also popular in the late medieval period was the cult of St. Anne, reputed to be the mother of the virgin Mary, with feats and processions in her name from around 1383.  The reader will scour the Bible in vain for any reference to this lady, but although Mary must surely have had a mother, there is no reputable evidence that she was called Anne and certainly no reason to pray to her or any other saint.

Other saints there were however, in plentiful supply.  Duffy records that the parish church in Faversham, Kent, ‘had at least four images of the Virgin, including Our lady of the Assumption in the chancel, Our Lady of Pity in the south aisle, Our Lady in Jeseyn (childbirth), and our Lady and St. Anne, as well as images of St. Agnes, All Saints, Anthony, Barbara, Christopher, Clement, Crispin and Crispianus, Edmund, Erasmus, George, Giles, Gregory, James the Great, John (two images), John the Baptist, Katherine, Leonard, Loy, Luke, Mary Magdalene, Margaret, Michael, Nicholas, Peter and Paul, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Becket, Ronan, and Master John Schorne [who?].  All these images had lights before them, and several were housed in their own chapels, or on their own altars.  All attracted bequests for the maintenance of the lamps before them, and in the cases of the more popular saints………daily masses at their altars’ (12).

At the eve of the Reformation, Desiderimus Erasmus could not resist poking a little fun at the external nature of idol worship:   ‘One saluteth (St.) Christopher every day, but not unless he behold his image……..Another worshippeth one Rochas, but why?  Because he believeth that he will keep away the pestilence from his body.  Another mumbleth his prayers to Barbara or George, lest he should fall into his enemies’ hands.  This man fasteth to Apollonia, lest his teeth should ache.  That man visiteth the image of holy Job, because he would be without scabs……….

‘Honourest thou the bones of Paul hid in a shrine, and honourest thou not the mind of Paul hid in his writings?  Magnifiest thou a piece of his carcase shining through a glass, and regardest thou not the whole mind of Paul shining through his letters?’ (13).

Notes

  1. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10828-6.
  2.  https://marprelate.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/the-peoples-reformation-1-setting-the-scene/
  3. G.M. Trevelyan: England in the Age of Wycliffe.
  4. Quoted by J. Merle d’Aubigne: The Reformation in England (Banner of Truth. ISBN 0-85151-846-3).
  5. For John Wycliffe, the Lollards and the Bible in English, see Chapter Four.
  6. The word ‘Mass’ comes from the closing words of the liturgy of the mass: ‘Ite, missa est.’ “Go, it [the congregation] is dismissed.”
  7. It became the custom to use a wafer instead of bread so that it would not crumble and pieces of ‘Christ’s body’ fall to the floor and be trampled upon.
  8. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p.93.
  9. Book of Margery Kempe p.115 (Modernized language).
  10. Duffy, The stripping of the Altars, p. 103.
  11. Ibid. p.102-3.
  12. Ibid. p. 155-6.
  13. From Erasmus, Enchiridion.

 

Posted by: stpowen | January 2, 2016

Pray the New Year In

2 Chronicles 20:4.  ‘So Judah gathered together to ask help from the LORD; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD.’

Ephesians 6:18. ‘……Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.’

A very blessed new year to all readers of the Marprelate blog.  We may feel that the coming year is as uncertain and worrying to contemplate as any in recent times.  The country is- sort of- at war, and the threat if Islamic terrorism is very real.  It is the only way that I.S. can strike back at the countries that are bombing it, so the only thing that will prevent attacks on Britain is the vigilance of our police and intelligence service.  I am often put in mind of the Lord’s judgement on Judah announced by Jeremiah: ‘a leopard shall watch over their cities (5:6).  Peace and security is God’s blessing on a nation that seeks and honours Him (2 Chron. 14:7; 15:2).  ””There is no peace,” says my God, “For the wicked”‘ (Isaiah 57:21).  At the same time, the government seems determined to bring in laws against ‘extremism’ which will militate against free speech in general and Christian witness in particular.

Yet despite these threats and concerns, we should rejoice.  Christ is reigning, even in the midst of His enemies (Psalm 110:2), and as Christians we have read to the end of the book and we know who wins.  If the Lord continues to tarry, maybe this year will be the one when the Church in Britain touches bottom and starts to move forward again.  I believe there are hopeful signs with new churches being planted in many areas and numbers in evangelical churches holding up even if they are collapsing in the liberal denominations.  This is the Lord’s sifting of the wheat from the chaff and we should rejoice to see it.

The most important thing we can all do in this new year is to pray, and our prayers should be those of repentance and humility, beseeching the Lord to have mercy of our poor land, to forgive us our sins and to send revival..  I have mentioned before the Concert of Prayer meetings which take place quarterly in churches throughout the country.  The next date for this is next week, January 9th, between 10-00am and 12 Noon.  I do not have a list of churches where the meetings are taking place.  In Devon they are arranged at Newhouse Baptist Church in Smeatharpe near Honiton, and at Scott Drive Church in Exmouth.  If you don’t know of one in your area, why not start your own.  If you can only find two or three friends to pray with you, that is quite sufficient. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts’ (Zech. 4:6).  The battle belongs to the Lord, and He will give us the victory if we remain constant, undismayed and determined.

Posted by: stpowen | December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

2 Cor. 8:9. ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.’

Every blessing to you, good reader, this Christmas season. It has been another difficult year for the people of God: at home in Britain, where the apostasy seems to grow worse almost daily, and Biblical Christianity is becoming less and less acceptable to ordinary people; and abroad where the persecution seems to get worse and worse.

And yet, maybe this year has marked the turn of the tide, in Britain at least. At our church we have seen more visitors so far at Christmas than we have ever seen; among the evangelical denominations, many new churches are being planned and planted, among the Universities, there are more outreaches, and many are coming to faith. In the Middle east and elsewhere, many Moslems, sickened by the excesses of their co-religionists, are coming to Christ. Maybe we are at the turn of the long ebb tide; great storms are doubtless before us, but, if God wills it, the coming year may see things more amazing than we think possible today.

Two thousand years ago, something happened so tremendous that it beggars the imagination. God came and visited His people.

‘He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all;
And His shelter was a stable
and His cradle was a stall.
With the poor and mean and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.’

What He has set in motion God will most certainly bring to a triumphant conclusion.

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