Archive for June, 2022

Considering Unity

I have been studying Jesus’ high priestly prayer this month. Earlier I focused on the hatred of the world toward Jesus and those who believe in Him, remaining in Him and His Word. Jesus doesn’t necessarily say how we are to treat the world in this prayer, but we see elsewhere that we are to seek peace and love those who call themselves our enemies.

What of our relationship to one another?

Consider who the disciples were. We have fishermen. John’s family may have been fairly successful, not just getting by based on some hints in the gospels. We have a tax collector who was wealthy, and was seen as facilitating and furthering Roman rule over the region and the Jewish people. We have a Zealot who wanted to end that Roman rule. In terms of personality we see Peter being quite bold and impetuous. Philip seems more timid and uncertain, slow to believe.

We see men of similar faith but very different backgrounds, economic status, political views and personalities. Without Jesus keeping it all together it seems like this will quickly fragment. As the gospel goes from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and the ends of the earth, it will only get more complicated and tenuous.

20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me. John 17

In His prayer, Jesus has shifted to “those who believe in me through their word” referring to the disciples. He is addressing the growing body of believers.

In the span of these few verses He prays for their unity three times. It is of utmost important to Jesus. He wants the Father to unite them, not simply they themselves. We don’t necessarily want unity (the works of the flesh include dissensions, factions, strife and envy- Gal. 5- which all work against unity).

Our unity is like the unity of the Godhead. It is a spiritual reality accomplished by the Spirit. Father and Son mutually indwell one another (something we can’t quite understand but affirm).

The purpose of our unity expressed here is that the world would know the Father sent Jesus and loves His disciples. It has a testimonial value in a world that sees the world thru differences, dividing people by the differences and hating those who are different.

In the US we are currently focused on differences in race, class, politics and more. We divide and fight. The works of the flesh are fully evident.

Protests & Counter-Protests (LA Times)

Imagine what happens when people who remain in Jesus and His Word are united, dwelling together in unity, despite their differences of gender, race, class, politics etc.? They see the spiritual reality of the communion of saints. They see evidence of the power of the gospel!

One metaphor Paul uses to express this reality is that of the body. Christ is always the head, but we are individual members of the body and therefore one another. Each cell has the same DNA, but has a different function and therefore concern. A blood cell is very different in function than an optical cell. What affects one may not directly affect the other.

Paul doesn’t break it down to the cell, but different parts: hands, eyes etc. The point remains- all are united into ONE BODY and work together under the leadership of the Head to accomplish the purposes Christ has in mind. In a healthy body, each part responds to (submits) to the voluntary and involuntary impulses sent from the head through the central nervous system. In a healthy body, the different parts are not at war with one another as if they have an autoimmune disease.

The different experiences, backgrounds and concerns are all to be brought together in Christ.

Male and female are not to battle one another in the Church, but are to recognize all we share together in Christ, our common roles and our differing roles.

Slave and free (different economic classes and stations) are not to battle one another in the Church, but are to recognize all we share together in Christ, our common roles and differing responsibilities. One’s wealth does not grant them spiritual power in the Church. The poor, who may be rich in faith, may have positions of great responsibility and be officers.

Jew and Greek (ethnic and racial differences) are not to battle one another in the Church for superiority. They are to recognize that we have a common inheritance in Christ and have both common roles and differing roles (not based on those differences but gifts from the Spirit). Power and position in the Church are not granted on the basis of race or ethnicity. Acceptance in the Church is not based on race or ethnicity but on Christ to whom we are united!

Tax collectors and zealots (political differences) are not to battle one another in the Church either. People from both parties (in our very imperfect system here) are Christians, but may connect more with concerns raised in one party (or candidate for the more independent voter). That should not mean they fully embrace every aspect of a platform. We can also differ on how to address problems like poverty and abortion while still recognizing them as problems. Acceptance in the Church should not be based on political affiliation, but on Christ to whom both are united!

Yes, living this way is hard. Maintaining the bond of peace in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3) is difficult precisely because flesh and Spirit are in conflict in us individually and corporately.

  1. Remember that ALL of us are brought together in Christ because of Christ’s work for us, not because we are good, righteous, wise and have it all together. We all stand or kneel at the foot of the Cross. We are all accepted in Christ, not on the basis of our race, politics, gender or social class.
  2. Remember humility. None of us is perfect and has all the answers. None of us is the authority. We all have blind spots and prejudices. We need another another to see the fuller picture. Don’t exalt yourself over those who are different from you, but realize you are members each of one another and therefore need one another.
  3. Remember that true disciples also are marked by self-denial. We are cross-carriers! We are to forsake our self-will to submit to Christ’s will, and that will includes loving our brothers and sisters who have different opinions. We don’t demand our way but follow the example of Jesus who submitted as a slave even to the point of death (Phil. 2).
  4. Remember that the Spirit is at work in you to apply Christ’s cross to your sinful desires and desires that you make more important than unity in Christ. The fruit of the Spirit protects unity. Pray for the Spirit to bear them in greater measure so that you are not the source of disunity. Seek to be changed rather than demand that others change.
  5. Remember that God is patient with us as we work our salvation with fear and trembling because He’s at work in us. This means He’s also patient with them as they do the same. Be patient with one another as God works out these differences. Guard unity with patience and gentleness.

As we remember these things, I think we will experience more of the unity God gives us, and will show ourselves to be God’s people. We will be proof that the Father sent the Son and that God can love sinners like us.

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Jesus said it, but we have a hard time believing it. Even as Christians we have a hard time believing many things Jesus says.

18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. John 15 (CSB)

14 I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. John 17 (CSB)

Too often we are surprised when we draw the ire of the world. It is happening again with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The arguments given were constitutional, not religious but conservative Christians, who have protested, lobbied and voted for year, are seen as the culprit.

Vandalism in Winter Haven, FL

The world hates us when we do not bend to their will. The world hates us when we stand with God against foolish and deadly notions. The world hates us because they hate God whose Word we are standing on in opposition to worldly foolishness.

God is the One who opens the womb of particular people so they are pregnant. He gives this gift even when we misuse the gift of sex (which He also invented). From our perspective pregnancy may be planned or unplanned, intentional or accidental, desired or undesirable. But from His perspective He ordained that particular sperm and egg to connect and form a new person. He knits us together in the womb, even with the flaws needed that we would seek and know Him.

God is the One who gives eternal life too, and that life is found only in His Son Jesus. I didn’t come up with this. But Jesus did say “no one comes to the Father except thru Me” (John 14). It angers people who want their own religion with the rules they like. It angers people who are under the delusion they are “good enough” without Jesus.

God is the One who made man male and female. He created two genders, not 3 or 40. He also bestowed a gender on each person. As part of the general curse due to Adam’s sin, some are born intersex. It isn’t punishment for their particular sins, or those of their parents. It is that Adam’s sin affected us physically as well as spiritually. This should cause us to call out to be made whole and right, not matter what genetic issues we have. But to affirm God’s creation regarding gender draws the hatred of the world.

God is the One who made marriage a permanent one flesh union between a man and a woman. He instituted marriage to be a picture of the union between Christ and the Church. It provides help for each partner, pleasure in knowing one another in many ways, and the best way to raise children produced by that union (or adoption).

The world hates that we affirm God’s plan for marriage. They reject God’s purposes for marriage (now it is self-actualization and lasts only as long as both parties want it to last. It also rejects God’s instruction on who can be married.

God is the One who gave us the gift of sex as a bonding agent for that permanent, one flesh union. Biologically, chemicals are released that bond you to the other person. It’s brain chemistry, put there by God. But the world works against God’s desire by making sex only about pleasure. We bond and break that bond eventually becoming unable to bond as intended.

In so doing, God prohibits many sexual practices the world embraces in increasing measure that corrupt sex and its purposes in God’s economy.

The world is in rebellion against its Creator. It wants to throws off what it perceives as chains but which really are bonds of love to protect us from ourselves. His law is a reflection of His character, which we as people made in His image were intended to share. People unknowingly become enslaved to sin, and the faulty thinking needed to justify it.

It should come as no surprise when they hate all who stand with God, and against them. We aren’t saying we are perfect. We break God’s law too! But Christianity includes the call to humble oneself to be instructed by God regarding good and evil, instead of seeking to know it apart from God as Adam and Eve tried to do. Christianity includes self-denial as we learn to submit to God instead of ourselves and our desires.

The world doesn’t understand when we forsake greed, drunkenness, deceit and cheating. The world hates us when we don’t join them in promoting all manner of sexual sins, abortion to cover the mess apart from repentance, and its growing confusion over what a person is.

Don’t be surprised. Don’t be disheartened. Don’t be dissuaded.

Remember that ultimately it is God they hate. Ultimately it is God who stands in the way of their “self-actualization”. It is God they are mad at, but we are present. They strike at us to strike Him. It isn’t about us. They want to crucify Him again.

Here are some more unpopular words of Jesus that clarify what is going on:

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. 14 How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. Matthew 7 (CSB)

Be careful which road you take. Friendship with the world is hatred of God (1 John 2). This refers to worldly values, not having friends who don’t share your values. We can and should love people who aren’t Christians. We just don’t want to share in their sin. But they may not love us back. Live at peace with them, seek to overcome evil with good. But also recognize you still need to be transformed in the renewing of your minds so you aren’t squeezed into the pattern of the world (Rom. 12).

Fear not, as they hated Him so they will hate you. Don’t hate them back! To borrow a title from a book, love them into the Light!

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I first read The Bruised Reed at the end of 2007. Cornerstone Community Church had closed and I was reeling. Like Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ I found it a good balm to my soul.

It is 2022, and after 5 years of difficult ministry I find myself on sabbatical and turning again to Richard Sibbes and The Bruised Reed. My previous review was very short. Uncharacteristically short. This is probably reflective of the condition of my soul at the time. The book itself is short (my edition is 128 pages), and the 16 chapters aren’t long as a result. This makes for more meditative reading.

The book is Sibbes’ reflection on Isaiah 42 and the beginning of the Servant Psalms. Jesus would apply this to Himself and His ministry in Matthew 12. While the sentences are longer than usual today, Sibbes is one of the easier Puritans to read.

“This is my servant; I strengthen him,
this is my chosen one; I delight in him.
I have put my Spirit on him;
he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or shout
or make his voice heard in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed,
and he will not put out a smoldering wick;
he will faithfully bring justice. Isaiah 42

The Reed and the Bruising

Sibbes begins with Christ’s calling to provide the proper context for this passage and his book. He develops this in Trinitarian fashion to help us see that in Christ God is for us though we may be struggling with sin, temptation or affliction. In Christ we have a Mediator who gently carries out His ministry to the elect leading to their conversion, and afterwards.

Yes, we are often bruised and smoldering leading up to our conversion. And we are often bruised reeds and smoldering wicks after our conversion as well. To be bruised is to be in some misery: sin, temptation or affliction. To be smoldering is to be overcome with fears and doubts.

Jesus does not abandon us to our misery or our fears & doubts. Jesus does not destroy us, but gently ministers to us to restore us and reinvigorate faith.

Ministry is not easy. While a real sinner who really sins, some of the accusations made against me amaze me. Ministry can be undermined in the eyes of others, and yourself. Betrayal, fear of betrayal, loss of joy and so much more, can be overwhelming.

This is not simply true for pastors. Everyone experiences betrayal of various kinds. We all struggle with temptations that keep returning. We can doubt God could love such wicked failures such as ourselves. The ministry of Jesus matters. We will all find ourselves as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He doesn’t break us. He doesn’t put us out. He came to heal and restore.

Bruising humbles us and exalts Christ. At first we can be focused on our pain and fear. But the ministry of the gospel turns our eyes back to Jesus. We see our weakness and folly, and His greatness and mercy. We learn, as Sibbes says, that we are not oaks but reeds: fragile and weak.

Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed

Part of Jesus’ ministry to bruised reeds and smoldering wicks is interceding for them as their Great High Priest. He is the Great Physician who works to heal us. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah does not use His strength against us, but for us.

Sibbes applies this, encouraging us to seek God’s mercy for He shows Himself merciful in Christ. While Christ may wound, it is as a surgeon to restore health rather than to destroy us. These bruises are signs of His love, not His hatred. He bruises that we may see our sin and turn to Him for relief.

Jesus is making war on our sin and hard-heartedness. We need to remember that He was bruised for our transgressions. He creates a holy despair in us that only He can remove in His gospel.

“Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in some thing or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep.”

The Smoking Flax

He sounds like Newton (whom he predates)in briefly discussing the several stages in Christian experience. Grace often has small beginnings and we should not despise those small beginnings. Sibbes returns to humility and humbling ourselves.

Grace is mingled with corruption in our lives. Our corruption is not removed at conversion, but at glorification. Until then, the Christian experiences both grace and corruption. At times we are focused on God’s grace in our lives, and at other times our corruption. When we focus on the later we experience those doubts and fears characteristic of smoking flax. We think we have no grace, and no part in Christ.

Christ Will Not Quench the Smoking Flax

Sibbes uses a number of biblical illustrations to remind us that corruption does not erase grace. Jesus supports and cares for the smoking flax, or smouldering wick. He bears with the many imperfections of His saints. This is good news for us.

Here Sibbes reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 5, the text I may one day use for a DMin dissertation on the heart of pastoral ministry.

14 And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 1 Thessalonians 5

The smouldering wick is discouraged and weak. Such a person does not need warning or rebuke (the word for admonishment is used). We must be careful to address people properly. Jesus does this, and all things, perfectly. He comforts and helps as needed. He doesn’t rebuke the smoking flax.

“Where Christ shows his gracious power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are. .. Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which of so little reckoning with God.”

Jesus is so not like us!

Jesus uses timely words to make us better.

The Spirit of Mercy Should Move Us

His mercy leads us to repentance, according to Paul (and the Westminster Confession of Faith). True faith apprehends God’s mercy toward us displayed in Christ’s cross. Mercy draws us near to God. Mercy humbles us further.

Sibbes warns against taking up Satan’s ministry against yourself (or others, I add). To not use timely, appropriate words is to accuse the brethren or yourself instead of comforting and encouraging. Perhaps it has happened to you, it has happened to me. You are honest with another about your fear & doubts, and instead of praying with and for you they begin to accuse and chide. You plunge deeper into darkness because they hide the mercy of God from you, expressing judgment and condemnation.

We can take up these accusations ourselves. We can join the accusing chorus. Been there, done that. These accusations are like thorns in your side, growing infected.

We need to recall, as Sibbes reminds us, that the Church is a hospital. While we may not all suffer the same symptoms, we all have a spiritual disease.

Marks of the Smoking Flax

“Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on bitter things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them.”

Sibbes answers this with talk of the double transfer. The law breaks bruised reeds and quenches smoking flax, but the gospel protects and nourishes them. Sibbes speaks of the Spirit’s secret operations that we don’t recognize in the present, but which sustain us.

Here he discusses how to distinguish the presence of the heavenly fire (grace) and the carnal man who is lost in their sins.

Help for the Weak

He begins with the temptations that hinder receiving comfort from Christ. One is lacking assurance, forgetting that even our best actions continue to smell of smoke. Weakness of body can lead us to forget God’s grace. In a paragraph similar to William Still, he speaks as well of Satan’s attacks with out of character, and grievous, temptations. And there are the persistent temptations that arise from our sinful corruption. He reminds us that we can only see these sinful desires because we are in the light (partakers of grace), but we often think it means we have no grace.

The carnal man is not troubled by his corruption. Those who have received grace are troubled. They are humbled. They are in the place of grace. God is not opposing them, as they fear (1 Peter 5:5).

Sibbes encourages us to continue with duty despite our weakness and fear. God is not expecting us to wait for the “perfect moment” or full strength. We are to obey when the opportunity arises, rather than let our weakness win the day.

“Let us not be cruel to ourselves when Christ is thus gracious.”

He explores this more fully in Duties and Discouragements. He provides gospel advice for overcoming discouragements.

“Suffering beings discouragements, because of our impatience. … But if God brings us into the trial he will be with us in the trial, and at length bring us out, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross.”

In this he does address the problem of our sin which can rob us of a sense of our justification. Not our justification, but the sense or feeling we are justified. We continue to struggle with sin, of this Sibbes is clear. Such struggle is discouraging, but it is not a sign of gracelessness! He perfects His power in these weaknesses. He covers over our infirmities and the sins that flow from them. These struggles drives us deeper into Christ when we grasp the gospel. Satan is the one who whispers that we should hide or run from Christ for they are signs He is angry with us.

Believe Christ, Not Satan

Here is the call to believe Christ as His speaks in the gospel. To receive comfort and help, listen to Christ and stop listening to the Accuser. He speaks here of what Ferguson calls a legal spirit, which views God as hard and immovable. He speaks here of what Ortlund speaks of in Gentle and Lowly.

Jesus may seem to be our enemy, but only that He might show us greater mercy. Sibbes points to Joseph pretending to be his brothers’ adversary, knowing that he is and will be gracious to them.

“Satan, as he slanders Christ to us, so he slanders us to ourselves.”

Run, therefore, to Christ. Stop your ears lest you hear the satanic call and crash upon the rocks of law and condemnation instead of resting in the meadows of mercy and streams of grace Jesus provides.

Quench Not the Spirit

Sibbes speaks of both the false despair, and false hope, of Christ’s mercy. False despair forgets Christ’s mercy despite faith in Christ. At times it can resist His mercy, thinking oneself unworthy of it (which is the point). False hope presumes on His mercy without actually having faith in Christ.

He encourages us to make use of the ordinary means of grace, and believe the message of grace. He advocates communion or fellowship with other Christians, prayer, the preaching of the Word, and exercising grace.

“Infirmities are a ground of humility, not a plea for negligence, nor an encouragement to presumption.”

Pride leads people to despise these means of grace as mean. They are the means by which Christ descends to meet us in mercy.

The final section of the book addresses Christ’s victory through establishing His judgment in the heart. Sibbes brings out the establishment of Christ’s judgment. He will ultimately prevail over our corruptions. It begins by the judgment of sin in our hearts. We recognize our sin as sinful, repent and seek redress in Christ alone. The Spirit fights with the contrary desires of the flesh. The Spirit changes our desires over time. He also grants us holy affections.

His government in us is gentle as He brings us into submission. It is the resistant rebels that He will crush with His iron scepter. He gives “us grace to fight, and to subdue in some measure our base affections.” Christ’s pardon leads us to obedience. We receive not only justification but also sanctification from Christ (Calvin’s double grace). He gives us love for Himself to motivate and guide us. We serve voluntarily (Ps. 110).

Jesus also gives us wisdom. He provides the heavenly light we need. He governs us by this wisdom in our hearts.

In Grace Shall Reign he addresses why the enemy so often seems victorious. We overcome by suffering, not by avoiding suffering. It is Christ, whose pattern we follow, who triumphed over sin through suffering. God works “by contraries”. We are foiled that we may later overcome. Our roots grow deeper when shaken by the wind. Our weakness is revealed and we look to Christ for help. Grace, he notes, conquers us so that we then conquer our corruption by grace. Sibbes repeatedly reminds us that this victory is not easy nor early. He returns to the means of grace to sustain us in the battle against sin and corruption. But Christ shall triumph, publicly.

“We are reeds shaken with every wind. We shake at the very noise and thought of poverty, disgrace or losses. We give in immediately. We have no power over our eyes, tongues, thoughts or affections, but let sin pass in and out.”

Christ triumphs by exposing our weakness, revealing our dependence and coming as our strong support. Our victory comes through conflict. We should expect opposition. The flesh opposes the work of the Spirit. Each move toward holiness is opposed. Our victory comes only in Christ.

Yes, this book can feel a bit repetitive but sermons are frequently repetitive. Scripture often repeats the most important things. Sibbes follows suit. Sibbes also keeps bringing us back to Christ. This is why the Doctor found it so helpful. This is why The Bruised Reed is a balm to the soul. If you are in misery and tossed by doubts and fears, I’d suggest this book. One of my friends who’s a counselor recommends it often. This is helpful for better understanding how to minister to people as well- applying Christ’s ministry to them.

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