Between Weeping and Rejoicing

22 03 2008

With the passing of Good Friday in the Easter celebrations, and the anticipation of Resurrection Day tomorrow, we are left with the painful memory of Golgotha, and the powerful prospect of an empty tomb. We are between weeping and rejoicing, between all-pervading horror and overwhelming joy. This is the paradox of the passion of Christ, this is the wonder of setting aside time to think of what He has done for us in His death, and what He has gloriously achieved in His resurrection.

This note of muted pain, or suppressed joy, is wonderfully sounded by Spurgeon in a sermon preached on the 3rd November 1878 entitled ‘Sorrow at the Cross Turned Into Joy’. It is a meditation on John 16:20-22 where Christ states ‘ye now therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again, and you heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you’.

The great preacher’s thoughts on these words are characteristically lyrical, and filled with intense love for the suffering, now risen, Saviour. They have blessed me at this Easter season, and I trust that they will move your heart also.

“We were just singing now a hymn in which the first verse started a difficult question:

It is finished; shall we raise
Songs of sorrow, or of praise?
Mourn to see the Saviour die,
Or proclaim his victory?

The case is well argued in the second and third verses:

If of Calvary we tell,
How can songs of triumph swell?
If of man redeem’d from woe,
How shall notes of mourning flow?

Ours the guilt which pierced his side,
Ours the sin for which he died;
But the blood which flow’d that day
Wash’d our sin and guilt away.

The conclusion at which we arrived in the concluding verse seems to me to be the right one:

Lamb of God! Thy death hath given
Pardon, peace, and hope of heaven:
‘It is finished’; let us raise
Songs of thankfulness and praise!

The chief thought connected with the Redeemer’s death should be that of grateful praise. That our Lord Jesus Christ died upon the cross is a very natural cause for sorrow, and well may they who pierced him, and we are all among the number, look unto him and mourn for their sin, and be in bitterness for him as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. Before we know that we are pardoned our grief may well be exceeding heavy, for till sin is put away we stand guilty of the Saviour’s blood. While our souls are only conscious of our guilty share in the Redeemer’s blood, we may well stand aghast at the sight of the accursed tree, but the case is altered when by faith we discern the glorious fruit of our Lord’s sufferings, and know that on the cross he saved us and triumphed in the deed…

Privileged Children of the Digital Age

20 03 2008

Having been blessed by Flavel’s meditations on Providence in February’s Puritan Reading Challenge book, I’ve been applying my mind to consider some of the blessings which we presently enjoy as believers. Flavel’s great skill was to closely analyse the blessings and benefits present in life, and turn them into worship of God for His goodness and grace. These blessings literally range from the womb to the tomb and beyond, and his teaching has changed my way of viewing life considerably. Such are the blessings of reading Puritan literature!!

In our own generation there is arguably even more to praise God for. While we might bemoan the onset of the digital age with its instant access, immediate contact, always-on agenda, there are also rich benefits for believers. I’ve been meditating on this more and more in recent days, considering the peculiar blessings of living at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This morning I am able to read Thomas Watson in fellowship with a wide band of fellow believers linked across the world by a network of blogs. I am able to listen by MP3 to Tim Keller defending Christianity in an age of scepticism while I go for a walk. I am able to watch John Piper’s sermon from last Sunday in Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis while sitting in my living room in Ireland. I am able to listen to the hymns of Stuart Townend and a host of others on iPod. I am a moment away from being in contact with missionary friends in Peru, Europe, and Asia. I am able to read electronic versions of academic journals from my computer at home, and have exegetical tools at my fingertips in BibleWorks which previously would have occupied shelf upon shelf in the study.

In many ways, ours is an age like no other. While we are in the midst of unsurpassed evil and depravity, whilst godliness is at a low ebb in the Western church, there is still much to praise God for. I am at times chilled by Jesus’ words ‘To whom much is given, much will required'(Luke 12:48), when I think of the benefits and blessings which we are surrounded with. We have a host of Bibles in our own language, Christian books which are written at a popular and academic level whose backbone is evangelical. We have the mobility to host speakers from across the world at regional conferences, and travel to these ourselves for fellowship and edification.

How good God has been to us in our day, and how careful a stewardship we ought to exercise over the blessings which are ours. We truly are privileged children of the digital age.

A Little Change to the Puritan Reading Challenge

20 03 2008

For those enjoying the Puritan Reading Challenge, Timmy Brister has added a post to his blog about a change in the schedule of readings. Rather than working through Brook’s Precious Remedies in April, the book for the month will now be Jeremiah Burroughs’ ‘The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment’.

‘Precious Remedies’ is now scheduled for August instead.

Normal service should resume shortly!!!

Pastor James Armstrong: A Brief Tribute

17 03 2008

Yesterday morning, at around 1030am, Pastor James Armstrong of Milford, Co.Armagh, passed into the presence of the Saviour whom he loved and served. At 92 years of age he had lived a full life, one which was devoted to the cause of Christ and the extension of His Kingdom. During my five years as Pastor in Armagh Baptist, I came to know Pastor James (as he is affectionately known to all) very well, and the more I became acquainted with him the more my love and esteem for him grew. He truly was a great man of God, a sterling servant, who courted no acclaim or recognition for the considerable service he rendered to his Master.

My abiding memory of Pastor James is of his deep sincerity, and his unyielding devotion to prayer. In my years as Pastor he had largely become housebound, but this did not stop him interceding for the work of God right around the world, and writing regularly to many people to encourage and help them in their walk with God. He regularly wrote letters to people who were not Christians, winning their attention and affection by his gracious manner and flowing style. The word of God was not chained.

Only in the fond recollection of others did I ever encounter the Pastor James of years gone by. A physically robust man, who had represented his country in shot-putting, had served as a soldier with the Irish Guards, and had known considerable success as a police officer with the RUC. He was a man of tremendous strength both morally and mentally, who commanded respect from all who knew him. Prior to taking up the work of Pastor in Armagh Baptist Church he had served as an itinerant evangelist, knowing what can only be described as the profound blessing of God on his ministry. People were saved through the Gospel campaigns in which he was involved by the score, something which he was always keen to attribute to the sovereign grace of God. Men and women who are presently serving God across the world trace their spiritual lineage back to God’s gospel being faithfully and powerfully proclaimed through James Armstrong. His ministry extended to Canada, where he was much in demand as a preacher. People there still recall his service in glowing terms.

He initially took on the Pastorate of Armagh Baptist on a temporary basis when numbers were low and encouragements were sparse, and eventually served over 20 years in ministry in the church. Those who listened to his preaching still regularly quote the truths he taught, a favourite subject being the sovereignty of God over all of our circumstances.

As a young Pastor coming to my first church, I could not have hoped to have met a more encouraging mentor and model for ministry. From my first encounters with him, Pastor James and his dear wife Jean showed humbling support and concern for Carolyn and I in the work of God. Never once did I feel the weight of his many years of service brought to bear when I would falteringly read and pray in their home, after enjoying coffee and a long and encouraging chat. Pastor James’ hearing had significantly ebbed away in latter years, but we would sit together in their living room in Milford, with Mrs Armstrong acting as interpreter between us in conversation. He would often say, ‘I’m good for nothing now, only prayer’, an assertion which made my heart soar in gratitude to God for one who faithfully interceded on my behalf. Every Sunday night as I preached the Gospel in Armagh I was assured that he prayed continuously for the service, and for a work of God to be done. It is hard to express in words how much that meant.

Pastor James’ memory was incredible, with an ability to recall snatches of verse, stanzas of hymns, sections of Scripture, and news stories which was utterly astounding for a man of his years. He would occasionally pass on clippings from the newspaper which he thought might make good fodder for sermon illustrations. They were always helpful. I once preached a message in Armagh which borrowed an outline from one of his sermons – Jesus makes ‘Life worth living, death worth dying, and eternity something to be looked forward to’. His wife told him when she returned home from church that night that she didn’t think that she would hear James Armstrong preaching in Armagh again, but she had!! If only I had known a fraction of his force, fire and effectiveness…

He would speak of heaven in longing terms. With the complications of ill health he had a strong desire to be at home with his Saviour, and would make this known to any who called to see him. He carried a consistent and touching testimony with all of the health care staff who encountered him, many speaking appreciatively of his prayers and gracious manner. The loving care lavished on him by his wife, and the sense of partnership which they had shared throughout their life together, shone through in bright relief against the difficult backdrop of illness.

I write this little tribute today with a sense of great privilege. God has allowed me to know a man of depth, sincerity, honour and integrity – a man who loved God, His Word, and His people. I, along with many others, combine sadness at his passing with celebration of his life. A true soldier of Christ has been called home. My prayers are with his wife, Jean, his sons David and Andrew, and his daughter Helen – along with their families and the wider family circle. His love for them, and theirs for him were an inspiration.

I know that the funeral tomorrow will be honouring to God, and a marker of a life lived out by the grace of God to the glory of God. I would covet the prayers of any who read this blog as I lead and preach at the service. It is an event which is much bigger than me, but it is also an opportunity to exalt the Saviour whom Pastor James loved and served before a wide and varied congregation of people.

It seems fitting to conclude with words which Pastor James would quote from memory on a regular basis. They are representative of so much of his Word ministry in earlier years, and of his personal testimony more recently:

Sovereign Ruler of the skies,
Ever gracious, ever wise,
All my times are in thy hand,
All of events at thy command.

His decree who formed the earth
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place, and time
All appointed were by him.

He that formed me in the womb,
He shall guide me to the tomb;
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree.

Times of sickness, times of health,
Times of penury and wealth;
Times of trial and times of grief,
Times of triumph and relief;

Times the tempter’s power to prove,
Times to test the Saviour’s love;
All must come, and last, and end
As shall please my heavenly friend.

Plagues and death around me fly;
Till he bids, I cannot die.
Nor a single shaft can hit,
Till the love of God sees fit.

John Ryland (1753-1825), Baptist minister, cited by J.I. Packer, God’s Plans for You, pg. 9.

Confessions Are Good For the Soul

15 03 2008

I’m extremely excited by this month’s free download from They are offering an audio version of the Augsberg, Westminster and Heidelberg confessions COMPLETELY FREE OF CHARGE! These resources are normally worth $20.98 in monetary terms, but are priceless in spiritual terms.

Just follow this link to the free download for this month, being careful to put in the MAR2008 coupon code when prompted.

This offer will only last until the end of the month, so its definitely worth a visit and a download!

Gabblings of a Greek Geek

13 03 2008

I’m trying to learn New Testament Greek, which I’m finding to be an enriching and frustrating experience. I am not a linguist, but am blessed through the good teaching I’m getting at college and some of the great resources available in print and online.

The following is a sample of what is encouraging me:

Dan Phillips’ superb Know Greek blog is well above my level in the language, but it gives me something to aspire to.

Duncan Forbes has started to post about using the Greek NT for personal devotions. His blog is a good mix of information and inspiration. Have a look at his awe inspiring quote from John Paton if you need a bit of incentive about studying the original languages.

In terms of hard copy resources, there are too many to mention. However, John Piper’s ‘Brothers Bitzer was a Banker’ chapter in Brothers We Are Not Professionals has been used of God to pick me up when I feel a bit overhwhelmed by my own lack of progress.

I don’t know how far or long my Greek journey will last, but I would encourage you if you are thinking of taking it up. My prayer each day is that God would aid me in all of my inability to learn enough of the language to glorify Him and edify His people.

If you’re learning/have learnt NT Greek and have other resources to share please leave a comment and I’ll do a separate post on good materials available, in the near future.

Forgiving Margin

12 03 2008

When it comes to Bible reading and study, people often fall into one of two camps – the markers and the non-markers. Those in the former school will often sport a copy of the Scriptures which is well-worn and ink stained with thoughts and insights which have come to them over the years. Their margins might contain thoughts which emerge from private study, which they have picked up while listening to preaching, or quotes on verses from commentators which are particularly illuminating.

Those in the latter camp are generally appalled at the thought of making such marks. Their prejudice against writing in their Bible might be cultural (none of the books on their shelves have a single crease or notation) or spiritual (feeling that it is some form of desecration to write on holy writ).

I think I fall between both camps.

I always hesitate before I write something in the margin of my Bible. For me there is the handicap of being left handed. My handwriting wavers dangerously between being a juvenile series of unconnected letters, and being a scrawl worthy of any NHS prescription. Then there is the problem of what to write, and what not to write. A thought that seems rich and powerful to me today, may not seem so in a few months, and I might look back with regret that I’ve marred the margin for no good reason. Another factor is that I preach quite a bit, and I worry about being distracted while ministering by marks and comments made in the past. I also don’t like the sense of ostentation that can accrue to having an ink-laden copy of Scripture. If I have to share my Bible with someone they might on the one hand form an excessive and unrealistically positive picture of my spirituality (if they fall into the marking camp) or could possibly pass out in the pew at such sacrilegious scrawling on Scripture (if they belong to the non-marking crew).

With all of those reservations, however, I still mark my Bible. There are times when God speaks so personally, when a truth comes home so profoundly, or when a preacher expounds a passage so precisely, that I feel an overwhelming compulsion to remind myself of it in days to come. For a while I marked my ESV Cross Reference edition, but soon ran out of space in the minuscule margin, as well as having to look at ink-bleed on the back of each page.

Last spring, when we had reached our decision to follow God’s leading into cross-cultural mission, a very dear friend and spiritual mentor bought us a copy of the ESV Journaling Bible. This has been a panacea to my Bible marking split personality. The margins are ruled, wide, and forgiving, and there is more than enough space to record multiple thoughts on any one verse. For my 30th birthday I got the Bible rebound into beautiful leather, and it has now become a treasured posssession. I don’t use it for my daily devotions at the moment (I’m reading through the NIV Study Bible), but when a thought, quote, or piece of clear guidance comes during my reading of the Word it is marked with joy in the margin.

This has left me with only one loose end in terms of Bible marking morality – what about the academic work I need to do in Scripture? In years to come I don’t want notes and quotes from Bultmann and a whole host of other infidels to cloud the clarity of what God has said to me through His Word. Another ESV solution has proven pretty good in this area – the single Gospel editions of the ESV printed by The Good Book Company. I’m working on John’s Gospel and have been able to purchase one of these for £1.00, which allows me to work through passage exegesis, making marks as I go, without leaving indelible print on my conscience.

Whether you’re a marker or non-marker, isn’t it great to record the ways in which God speaks to us, rebukes us, and encourages us through His living Word for the glory of His name? For some it may mean a journal or diary whose pages are laced with God’s grace, and for others a margin marked by God’s mercy.