Crossing the river in Pilgrim’s Progress

Among the songs our church sang on Easter Sunday was “Because He Lives.” The third verse reads:

And then one day, I’ll cross that river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

The line about crossing the river reminds me of a late scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian & Hopeful must cross the river of death to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan’s depiction of the weakness of our flesh and our wavering faith in the face of death is arresting and somehow comforting. Until the day that it is destroyed, death remains an enemy that threatens us with fear and tempts us to despair (1Cor 15:26). We need not fear death when it comes (Heb 2:14-15), but who can say how we will fare in the heat of our last battle? On the heels of Easter Sunday I’m thankful that God’s promise of eternal life is certain even when I am not.

Now between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were stunned. Then the men who went with them said, “You must go through the river or you cannot enter the City at the gate.”

The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate, to which they answered, “Yes, but there have been only two, Enoch and Elijah, permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world. And no one else will be permitted to go that way until the last trumpet shall sound. “

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah, my friend! The sorrows of death have compassed me about. I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead.

It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage.

All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead.

Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin he has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men’ (Psa. 73:4, 5). These troubles and distresses you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole.

With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ (Isa. 43:2).”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those shall be the heirs of salvation.” Then they all went along together toward the gate.

Now though the city stood upon a mighty hill with its foundations higher than the clouds, the pilgrims went up with ease, agility, and speed because the ministering spirits supported their arms as they led them. Also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they had gone in with them, they had come out without them.

-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (ed. C. J. Lovik)

He clothes us with incorruption

The Word thus takes on a body capable of death, in order that, by partaking in the Word that is above all, this body might be worthy to die instead for all humanity, and remain incorruptible through the indwelling Word, and thus put an end to corruption through the grace of his resurrection. […] Hence he did away with death for all who are like him by the offering of the body which he had taken on himself. The Word, who is above all, offered his own temple and bodily instrument as a ransom for all, and paid their debt through his death. Thus the incorruptible Son of God, being united with all humanity by likeness to them, naturally clothed all humanity with incorruption, according to the promise of the resurrection.

-Athanasius of Alexandria, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 288.

the King is sleeping

Today, there is a great silence on earth — a great silence and a great stillness. There is a great silence because the king is sleeping. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have fallen asleep ever since the beginning of the world. God has appeared in the flesh, and Hades has swallowed him. God will sleep for a short time, and then raise those who are in Hades. […] He has gone to search out Adam, our first father, as if he were a lost sheep. Earnestly longing to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he – who is both their God and the son of Eve – has gone to liberate Adam from his bonds, and Eve who is held captive along with him. […] “I am your God. For your sake I have become your son[; …] I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead! Arise, my seed! Arise, my form [morphe], who has been made in my image [eikon] !”

-unknown Author, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 292.

A good quote for Good Friday

“I have paid the debt, and it is right that those who were imprisoned on account of that debt should now be set free to enjoy their former liberty and return to their own homeland.”

Therefore the Lord takes upon himself the curse that lay on all humanity and removes it by a death which was not required by justice. He himself was not under the curse […] but he endured the death of sinners; and he contends in judgment with the vengeful foe of all our human nature, becoming the champion and advocate of our nature.

He says, with justice, to our harsh tyrant: “You are trapped, you villain, and ensnared in your own nets. […] Why have you nailed my body to the cross and handed me over to death? What kind of sin have you found in me? What breach of the law did you detect? […] If the smallest fault is found in me, you would have every right to hold me, in that death is the punishment of sinners. But if you find nothing in me which God’s law forbids, but rather everything which it demands, I will not allow you to hold me wrongfully.

What is more, I will open the prison of death for others also: and I will confine you there alone, for transgressing the law of God. […] And since you have taken one prisoner unjustly, you will be deprived of all those who are in fact justly subject to you. Since you have eaten what was not to be eaten, you will vomit all that you have swallowed. […] I have paid the debt, and it is right that those who were imprisoned on account of that debt should now be set free to enjoy their former liberty and return to their own homeland.”

With those words the Lord raised his own body, and sowed in human nature the hope of resurrection, giving the resurrection of his own body to humanity as a guarantee. Let no one suppose that this is an idle tale. We have been taught from the holy Gospels and the apostolic teachings that this is indeed a fact. We have heard the Lord himself say: “The ruler of this world is coming, and he finds nothing in me” (John 14: 30) […] and in another place: “Now is the judgment of this world: now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12: 31).

-Theodoret of Cyrrhus, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 292-93.

Newton: A final farewell not only tolerable, but pleasant

Alterations and separations are graciously appointed of the Lord, to remind us that this is not our rest, and to prepare our thoughts for that approaching change which shall fix us forever in an unchangeable state. Oh, madam! what shall we poor worms render to him who has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, taken away the sting of death, revealed a glorious prospect beyond the grave, and given us eyes to see it?

Now the reflection that we must ere long take a final farewell of what is most capable of pleasing us upon earth is not only tolerable, but pleasant. For we know we cannot fully possess our best friend, our chief treasure, till we have done with all below; nay, we cannot till then properly see each other. We are cased up in vehicles of clay, and converse together as if we were in different coaches, with the blinds close drawn round. We see the carriage, and the voice tells us we have a friend within; but we shall know each other better, when death shall open the coach doors, and hand out the company successively, and lead them into the glorious apartments which the Lord has appointed to be the common residence of them that love him. What an assembly will there be! What a constellation of glory, when each individual shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father! No sins, sorrows, temptations; no veils, clouds, or prejudices, shall interrupt us then. All names of idle distinction (the fruits of present remaining darkness, the channels of bigotry, and the stumbling-block of the world) will be at an end.

— John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. Place,” August 1775; Letters of John Newton, 235-6.

From the mailbag: Was God ‘ok’ with polygamy in levirate marriage?

What follows is a slightly edited exchange that sprang from a church member’s personal Bible reading. Always encouraging to know others are reading and thinking.

I have a question regarding levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25. My ESV study Bible says that in the case that the brother-in-law (the “kinsman redeemer” ?) already had a wife, polygamy would be permissible. The commentary we have doesn’t exactly address polygamy here, and I haven’t been able to find another resource to comment on it (polygamy) for clarity. I understand that the purpose of levirate marriage is to preserve the line, etc., but I (admittedly) am a little bit unsettled by my study Bible’s comment that polygamy is “ok” here. I also know this was written to a different audience at a different time for a specific purpose…But my question is: in this case, is God’s Law approving polygamy? Any pointers on where/how to better understand this? Thanks in advance!

Deuteronomy_WrightIf you’re interested in a good commentary on Deuteronomy, I’d recommend this one by Christopher Wright. It’s concise, easy to follow, and sheds light on the intent behind Israel’s laws.

Here’s what I would say concerning the possibility that a levirate marriage would lead to bigamy. This isn’t everything that could be said but I think it’s a good start.

First, the Law needs to be read in it’s historical & social context as you recognize. It wasn’t delivered in a historical vacuum and in certain respects the Law deals with Israel as she is rather than as she ought to be.

Second, much of the Law would re-ordered Israel’s life toward the divine ideal, but some commands were concessions to circumstances that were less than ideal. In other words, the law was a less-than-perfect way to constrain sin and its effects. This is precisely the point that Jesus makes when he was questioned about the Law’s provision for divorce:

Mark 10:2-9  Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.  3 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  4 They said, “Moses permitted a man TO WRITE A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY.”  5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment6But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE.  7 “FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER,  8 AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

God created marriage to be a permanent union and He hates divorce (Mal 2:16). Nevertheless, divorce was permitted under certain circumstances in order to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Were it not for hard hearts, no such concession would have been necessary.

Similarly, levirate marriage was provided to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. The perpetuation of the family line & a permanent share in the land were two of the biggest material blessings that God gave to His people. Beyond the material experience was a profound message: that God would create & preserve a people who would enjoy his enduring promises. But a man who died with no children lost his place among the nation since his name would die out and his share of the promise (land) would go to someone else. Levirate marriage, then, guaranteed that a bad situation (i.e. losing a man) didn’t lead to worse harm (i.e. losing a family line). Were it not for death, a levirate law would never be necessary.

Third, levirate marriage was very different from typical bigamy/polygamy in its intent. In polygamy, a man sought to acquire wives for his own benefit. In levirate marriage, a man was ‘assigned’ his brother’s widow for the sake of the deceased. Levirate marriage was apparently a less than desirable scenario in many cases since the Law attaches a shameful stigma to the man who would refuse his legal obligation (Deut 25:7-10).

Finally, I’ve come to learn is that it’s ok for us to be uncomfortable with some of the things we read in the OT Law. Since God gave the Law to lead us to Christ & a better covenant, it’s good for me to be dissatisfied with an imperfect solution to the mess created by sin & death. My heart and mind should say “Is this the best that we have? Isn’t there a better way?” And that draws me back to the promised perfection that we find in Christ. In Christ, we never have to worry about our names being erased or our inheritance being lost. Nothing that has been given or promised to us depends on what we can create or sustain. Better mediator. Better promises. Better covenant.

Hope this is helpful.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams

JAdams_letterI am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forevermore.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Steps of pride

In 1124, the French monk Bernard of Clairvaux published his first work, On the Steps of Humility and Pride. Bernard had been asked to put into writing a series of talks he had given on the topic of humility,  but the finished product ended up discussing pride as much as humility. He explained:

You are perhaps saying, brother Geoffrey, that I have done something different from what you asked and I promised, and instead of writing about the steps of humility I have written about the steps of pride. I reply, “I can teach only what I have learned. I did not think I could fittingly describe the steps up when I know more about going down than going up.”

Unsurprisingly, Bernard’s insight is as relevant today as it was nearly 1,000 years ago. Here are his twelve steps of pride with portions of the exposition.¹

  1. Curiosity. You see a monk of whom you had thought well up to now. Wherever he stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander. His head is lifted. His ears are alert. . . . He has grown careless about his own behavior. He wastes his curiosity on other people. . . . And truly, O man, if you concentrate hard on the state you are in it will be surprising if you have time for anything else.
  2. Light-mindedness. For the monk who instead of concentrating on himself looks curiously at others, trying to judge who is his superior and who is his inferior, will see things to envy in others and things to mock. Thus it is that the light-minded follow their roving eyes and, no longer pinned down by proper responsibility, are now swept up to the heights by pride, now cast down into the depths by envy. . . . He displays these changes of mood in his speech: Now his words are few and grudging; now numerous and trivial; now he is laughing; now he is depressed; but there is never any reason for his mood.
  3. Foolish merriment. The proud always want to be happy and to avoid sadness . . . . Anything that shows him his own vileness and the excellence of others checks his curiosity; but on the contrary, he is always ready to notice anything which makes him seem to excel. He uses his curiosity to perceive how he excels others, and he always deceives himself so that he avoids sadness and he can go on being happy.
  4. Boasting. When vanity has begun to swell the bladder and enlarge it, it makes a bigger hole for the wind to escape. . . . His opinions fly about. His words tumble over one another. He butts in before he is asked. He does not answer other people’s questions. He asks the questions himself and he answers them, and he cuts off anyone who tries to speak. . . . He may say something edifying, but that is not his intention. He does not care for you to teach, or to learn from you what he himself does not know, but that others should know how much he knows.
  5. Trying to be different.  When a man has been boasting that he is superior to others it is galling to him not to outdo them in performance, so as to make it obvious that he is more advanced than they are. . . . He acts not so as to live better but so as to seem to triumph, so that he can say, “I am not as other men” (Lk 18:11). . . . He is very anxious to perform his own special exercises and lazy about. . . . But [the simple-minded] do not see his motive and by canonizing the wretch they confirm him in his error (Lk 18;11).
  6. Arrogance. He believes the praise he hears. He is complacent about what he does. He does not give a thought to his intentions. He puts that from his mind when he accepts what others think of him. He believes that he knows more than everybody about everything else, but when they praise him he believes them rather than his own conscience.
  7. Presumption. He who thinks himself superior to others, how can he not presume more for himself than others? At meetings he must sit in the most important place. In discussions he speaks first. . . . What he himself has not done or ordained he considers not to have been done right, or to be arranged displeasingly. . . . But since he is so eager to offer his services and rushes at things rather than taking thought before he acts, he is bound to make mistakes sometimes. . . . So when he is accused of a fault he adds to his sins rather than giving them up. If you see someone answering back when he is reprimanded you will know that he has fallen to the eighth step of pride, which is self-justification.
  8. Self-justification. There are many ways of making excuses for sin. One person will say, “I did not do it.” Another will say, “I did it, but it was the right thing to do.” Another will admit that it was wrong but say, “It was not very wrong.” Another will concede that it was very wrong, but he will say, “I meant well.” If he is forced to admit that he did not mean well, he will say as happened in the case of Adam and Eve that someone else persuaded him to do it.
  9. Insincere confession. An earthen vessel is tested by fire, and tribulation makes it clear who is really penitent. A real penitent does not shrink from the labor of doing penance, but whatever hateful task is imposed on him for his sin he patiently embraces without complaint. If obedience forces him to what is hard and goes against his wishes, and even if he suffers reproach he has not deserved, he bears it without flagging, so that he shows that he stands on the fourth step of humility. But he whose confession is all pretense, when he is tested by one little punishment cannot simulate humility or hide the fact that he has been pretending up to now. He complains and murmurs and grows angry and proves . . . that he has sunk to ninth step of pride which, as we said, can rightly be called insincere confession.
  10. Rebellion. The divine mercy may look on such a man and inspire him to do what is very difficult for him, to submit without a word to the judgment of the community. But if his response is to frown and be insolent, by his rebellion he falls lower and to a more desperate state . . . and he who before secretly despised his brothers in his arrogance now openly shows by his disobedience that he despises his superiors.

    For you must know that all the steps I have divided into twelve can be put into three groups. In the first six there is contempt for one’s brothers. In the next four there is contempt for one’s superiors. In the remaining two pride comes to a head in contempt for God.

  11. Freedom to sin. Then he begins to travel roads which seem good to men (Prov 14:12; 16:25) and, unless God blocks his way (Hos 2:6), he will come at their end to the depths of hell, that is, contempt for God. . . . When he stands there, the monk who recognizes and fears no superior and who has no brothers whom he may respect enjoys doing what he wants the more safely as he does it the more freely; and he does things which in the monastery fear or shame would have held him back from doing. . . . Like someone entering a river, he does not plunge, but goes step by step into the torrent of vices.
  12. Habitual sin. And after he finds that his first sins go unpunished by the terrible judgment of God (Heb 10:27), he freely seeks to enjoy again the pleasures he has experienced. Habit binds him as desire revives, and conscience slumbers. The wretched man is dragged into the depths of evil (Prov 18:3) and handed over captive to the tyranny of the vices as though to be swallowed up in the whirlpool of fleshly desires; and he forgets the fear of God and his own reason. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God” (Psa 13:1).

¹Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Writings (trans. by G. R. Evans), The Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press (1987), 99-143.

The virtue of silence

paper quote bubbleThe Five Day Bible Reading plan has me in Proverbs for a couple weeks and I’m always struck by just how much God’s instruction in this book goes against my nature and popular opinion. These days especially I’m convicted by how quiet, slow, and deliberate the path of wisdom is in contrast to our noisy, hurried, and reactionary age. The contrast is especially stark when it comes to habits of speech.

Americans value free speech and rightly so. We have laws protecting and a history defending all kinds of speech whether by word, art, demonstration, or money. Some modes of speech have a longer history than others, but the Information Age has introduced a dizzying array of platforms for our speech: TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. 

Talking has never been easier and thanks to 24-hour news cycles and the internet we never lack things to talk about. COVID19, lockdowns, Presidential politics, social justice, nationwide protests, and Supreme Court rulings—all of these matters beg for comments and will be discussed ad nauseam.

So what should Christians say about these things? Maybe less than we think:

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable; But he who restrains his lips is wise. Prov 10:19

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind. Prov 18:2

The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him. Prov 18:17

Today we have the means, motive, and opportunity to speak our minds every day and, thanks to technology, we don’t even need to leave the house to find an audience. But is it wise to talk as much as we do? If given a minute of Spirit-driven reflection, how much of what we say, share, and type is motivated by pride and anger?

Maybe Christ will be seen more clearly through those who speak less and, even then, reluctantly. Remember, it’s the peacemakers, not the opinion makers, who show themselves to be wise sons of God (Mat 5:9; James 3:13-18).  

Dear Sir: That’s not what the verse means

Dear Sir,

I’m not a reguar listener to your radio program, but I drop in from time to time just out of curiosity. Today I heard you quote Prove 29:18a as a way to explain the trouble we’re having in America:

Where there is no vision, the people perish {Prov 29:18, KJV}

Your point was that our country is in trouble because our leaders have no vision for the future and/or have abandoned the vision laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Politics aside, you have misinterpreted and misapplied this verse. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the OT meaning of vision means something completely different from what we modern Westerners mean when we talk about vision. We speak of vision as a product of creativity or imagination, especially as it expresses our goals and aspirations (e.g. CEO’s vision for where he wants to take the company; my vision for the future). The OT speaks of vision as divine revelation. In the case of Prov 29:18, the OT sense of the word is readily apparent when we read the entire proverb and find that vision is used in parallel with the law:

Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he
.

Second, you quoted the KJV version which is arguably the pithier translation but also the poorer in this instance. Due to the surprising popularity of the KJV rendering, most people don’t even know that all of the other major English versions (i.e. ESV, NAS, NIV, NKJ, RSV) translate the line differently:

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)
Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (NAS)

We can be more sympathetic with this misunderstanding due to an unfortunate translation, but a correction is still in order. You seem to take the proverb to mean something like “without a vision, the people will not prosper/thrive” when the author means something like “without divine revelation, the people have no inhibitions.”

In short, the proverb isn’t warning us about the dangers of doing business without a five-year plan; it’s telling us that blessing is found when we live in light of God’s revealed will.

I trust I haven’t come across as overly critical. Your misappropriation of the verse is far less irritating than when the error is made by someone who should know better—say, a Christian author or pastor. In fact, you’re probably just passing on what you heard from one of us in the first place. I suspect that if we handled our Scriptures more carefully, we both could’ve been saved the trouble of this letter.

Sincerely,

JM