The Earliest Christian Hymnbook

The Odes of Solomon, considered to be the earliest Christian hymnbook, contains more than forty odes (lyric poems intended to be sung). In this post I will examine one of these odes which is entitled “The Cup of Milk.” This ode is listed as number 19 in The Earliest Christian Hymnbook: The Odes of Solomon (2009) translated by James H. Charlesworth. The text for “The Cup of Milk” as cited in this post is taken from this book.Ode

The Cup of Milk (Ode 19)

Stanza 1
The cup of milk was offered to me.
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness

In the first stanza of Ode 19, the Odist may be thinking of God’s Word when he says “the cup of milk was offered to me.” It is not uncommon for a Jew to refer to God’s Word as milk, as Paul and Peter themselves do in 1 Corinthians 3:2 and 1 Peter 2:2. And by drinking the milk, the Odist is showing the trustworthiness of the Word. We can rely on the Word; we can drink it, for it is God’s Word. However, in the second stanza, the Odist tells us that the cup of milk offered to him is actually the Messiah:

Stanza 2
The Son is the cup.
And the Father is He who was milked.
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him.

Thus, what the Odist is most likely saying is that the Son—who is often portrayed as the Word in the Odes—is “the cup of milk” which he drank (an expression that seems to have been borrowed from the Eucharist). Who offered the cup or the Son to the Odist? From stanzas 2 to 5, we know that the cup of milk (i.e., the Son) came from the breasts of the Father and that it was the Holy Spirit who milked the Father. That is, it was the Holy Spirit who drew the Son out of the Father’s breasts and gave him to the world.

Stanza 3
Because His Breast were full;
And it was undesirable that His milk should be
released without purpose.

Stanza 4
The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

Stanza 5
Then She gave the mixture to the generation without
their knowing.
And those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.

So, it was the Holy Spirit who offered the Son to the Odist. And the Odist did not reject this offer; but rather, he received it “in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.” His acceptance of the offer only intensifies the claim of scholars that the Odist was “most likely a Jew who came to believe in Jesus’ Messiahship” (Preface, xii). And because he drank the milk, which is another way of saying, because he believed in the Son, he was “in the perfection of the right hand” of God. As the fifth stanza says, “And those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.” Commenting on the term “right hand,” Richard S. Hess states, “The right hand can be used interchangeably with the hand in poetic texts (Judges 5:26; Psalm 74:11). The hand of God, and especially the right hand, is also understood as a place of salvation, refuge, and protection (Psalm 16:8)” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, s.v. “Hand, Right Hand.”). Therefore, having believed in the Son, the Odist is now in the place of salvation, safe and secure. While the name “Jesus” never appears in the entire Odes, no doubt the Son in whom the Odist put his faith was none other than Jesus Christ. And his message that salvation is through faith in the Messiah is consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures.

Based on the above discussion, let’s observe the following points of the ode:

First, the Son, described as the cup of milk, came from the breasts of the Father. The picture that we have here simply teaches the truth that Jesus proceeded from his Father (Jn. 8:42). The imagery also demonstrates the intimate relationship that the Father and Son have with each other. It is fascinating, though, how the Odist depicts the Father in feminine terms as having breasts. James H. Charlesworth thinks that the Odist employs this feminine imagery “most likely to warn against imaging God as a male or a warrior god” (Introduction, xxxiii). In other words, the Odist may want to emphasize God’s loving and gentle character, likening God to a nursing mother who cares for her baby. There is, of course, nothing unusual in the Odist’s use of feminine imagery for God. Some biblical writers have done the same. For instance, in Isaiah 49:15 God is likened to a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

Second, according to stanza 3, when the Father’s “breasts were full,” the Holy Spirit milked the Father. Notice, it was when the Father’s breasts became full with milk that the Spirit milked the Father. The idea of fullness echoes what Paul has written in Galatians 4:4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…” The last six stanzas of the ode focus on the virgin who gave birth to the Son. No one can deny that in these stanzas the Odist is thinking of the biblical tradition that Jesus was born of Virgin Mary. Yes, the Odist penned Ode 19 before the formation of the New Testament canon; and thus as Charlesworth asserts, “we should not expect the Odist, as a poet, to quote from these [New Testament] documents. Yet, scholars have rightly perceived traditions preserved in the New Testament are evident in this Hymnbook” (Introduction, xxvii). The tradition that Jesus was born of a Virgin in Ode 19 is a proof of this.

Stanza 6
The womb of the Virgin took (it).
And she received conception and gave birth;

Stanza 7
So the Virgin became a mother
With great mercies.

Stanza 8
And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

Stanza 9
And she did not seek a midwife,
Because He allowed her to give life.

Stanza 10
She bore with desire as a strong man.
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she possessed with great power.

Stanza 11
And she loved with salvation.
And she guarded with kindness.
And she declared with greatness.

Third, stanza 3 tells us that the releasing of the milk from the Father’s breasts was not without purpose. The Holy Spirit did not take the Son and send him to sinners without purpose. What was the purpose of the giving of the Son to the world? The answer is found in stanza 5—so that those who receive the Son might be saved. And in the Odist’s mind, the Son, the long-awaited Messiah, has already come. Charlesworth mentions that the “beauty of the Odes seems to lie in their spontaneous and joyous affirmation that the long-awaited Messiah has come to God’s people” (Introduction, xvi). As such, the Odes are a means of apologetic response to those who still wait for the first coming of the Messiah.

Finally, Ode 19 clearly acknowledges the existence of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet, interestingly the Odist regards the Holy Spirit as feminine, referring to him with the pronoun “she”: “the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him.” Perceiving the Spirit to be feminine was typical though among “Christians who worshipped in Aramaic and Syriac (Introduction, xxxiii).” The KJV, on the other hand, occasionally uses the pronoun “it” to refer to the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:32; Rom. 8:16 & 26). That the Spirit is sometimes referred to as neuter does not mean, of course, that he is neuter. Someone puts it this way: “while the Holy Spirit is neither male nor female in His essence, He is properly referred to in the masculine by virtue of His relation to creation and biblical revelation. There is absolutely no biblical basis for viewing the Holy Spirit as the ‘female’ member of the Trinity.” Nevertheless, the Odist’s feminine description of the Holy Spirit may be due to his desire to portray the Spirit as gentle, sweet, compassionate, and caring—traits that have universally been considered as feminine. And if this supposition is true, the Odist should be appreciated for his desire to emphasize the aforementioned traits of the Holy Spirit.

 

Note: Amazing Grace, a part of the series called “Stories behind Favorite Hymns for Ages 3 to 6, is now available through Reformation Heritage Book.

Amazing Grace (front cover)

 

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Church Fathers Hymns

Six Practical Pieces of Advice Regarding Our Tongues

1. Acknowledge that you have a tongue that is prone to sin.

One of my favorite hymns is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” written by Robert Robinson in 1757 when he was only 22 years old. Listen to what he says in fourth stanza:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Here Robinson humbly acknowledges his heart’s great tendency to sin. Of course, our tongues are equally prone to sin also. Indeed, your tongue and my tongue have a natural inclination to curse God, take His name in vain, bear false witness against our neighbors, hurt our spouses, provoke our children to anger, damage our relationship with others, and destroy our lives. We should not deny this reality but humbly accept it.

2. Ask God to deliver you from your sinning tongue.

Pray with David, “Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (Ps. 120:2). Or we can borrow the words of Robinson’s hymn and apply them to our tongues and say to God, “Bind my wandering tongue to Thee. Here’s my tongue, O take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.” May it be our daily prayer to God that He will keep our tongues from sinning!

3. Aim to glorify God in everything that you say.

God created us to glorify Him forever. He created everything in us (including our tongue) for His glory. Therefore, we must use our tongues for His glory. The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

4. Avoid careless talkers such as gossipers.  

Do not tolerate people like them. Proverbs 11:13 says that “People who tell secrets about others cannot be trusted. Those who can be trusted keep quiet.” Then Proverbs 18:8 adds, “Gossip is so tasty—how we love to swallow it!” (GNB). Oh, may we not engage in careless talking, or passively listen to gossip and slander.

5. Admit your sin and look for forgiveness in Christ.

We need to confess all our sins, including those sins that have to do with the use of our tongues. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We need to realize, too, that only Jesus can deliver us from the power of all our sins. Therefore, we need Jesus, for he alone can change us. He alone can transform our tongues from being instruments of evil into being instruments of good.

6. Anticipate your glorified tongue.  

Yes, while we remain in this sin-stricken world and in our corrupt bodies, we will continue to struggle with the use of our tongue. We will sin with our tongue, in what we say and how we say things. However, someday God will completely deliver us from sin. He will glorify our bodies; we will not be able to sin anymore. We will have a tongue that is perfect—a tongue that will forever praise God, for “when [Jesus] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John. 3:2).

Note: You may also want to read my book entitled The Gospel-Driven Tongue available through Amazon.

driven tongue

 

The Gospel-Driven Tongue

The Way of Salvation As Seen Through the Heidelberg Catechism

Here’s my interview with Cornelius VanKempen about his book The Way of Salvation As Seen Through the Heidelberg Catechism. n.p., 2017, 206 pp., paperback.  thewayofsalvation

Thank you so much for your willingness to be interviewed about your meditations on the Heidelberg Catechism. Here are some of my questions for you about your work:

 

1. Can you please tell us more about yourself and the occasion in which you wrote your book?

I was born in the Netherlands and came to the United States with my folks and sister at age 6 in 1949.  I spent my childhood on a farm in Coopersville, Michigan.  Most importantly, I was raised in a Christian home. To be right with God was emphasized as the one thing needful.  As a teenager, sports became an obsession which led me away from where I should have been.  God sent callings into my life. At age 15 I came down with rheumatic fever, not being able to get out of bed for 3 months (all summer). My life was stopped and I had much time to think.  I made promises to God that I would change my ways and live to His honor if He would heal me. God did, and for a few weeks I was healed, but soon I went back to my old ways, now to the sorrow of my parents, although I continued to go to church every Sunday, outwardly I looked like a Christian.  This continued for many years.  I married a wonderful woman, Susan GeBuys in 1965 and together we had 5 children (4 boys and 1 girl).  I worked in the automotive field my whole life, still obsessed with sports.  But God was not done with me, in the eighties through the preaching of His Word I came to see my wasted life; sin became sin.  The most concerting was that God brought the vow I had made when I was 15 to my conscience.  All I could expect was to be cast away for the Bible says, “it is better not to make a vow than to break it.” At the same time my whole life was a testimony against me.  I became a lost sinner with no hope of ever being saved.  I had sinned against God’s love.  But I began to earnestly reform my life, sports were out, God’s Word was studied. Good books were read. I became legalistic trying to impress God.  But the more I tried the more sin surfaced, until I cried out, “I am undone, O God be merciful to me!”  No hope only condemnation for me. I came home from work one evening, there was a mid-week service and I felt compelled to go. Dr. Joel Beeke was preaching. His text was from Hosea 14:4, “I will love them freely.”  The Holy Spirit opened my heart to see that all my work would amount to nothing, but it was because of God’s love that made the difference.  All my repentance before was only trying to escape judgment, but God gave true repentance and forgiveness of sins for His own name’s sake.  This brought hope into my heart that it could also be for me.  The cross of Christ became my refuge and my hope, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus would do.”  God was and is so merciful. All that I am I own to Him!  Reading, meditating, and praying on God’s Word became my life.  There is still much sin that brings grief, but when God again shows Himself through His word, by preaching and reading, He opens for me that fountain filled with blood by which I must daily be cleansed.

My book came about some years ago by the Spirit awaking me during the night many times with the words, “What is thy only comfort.”  This puzzled me and in prayer would ask God what are you saying to me?  I’m not able to write. I don’t have the training to do this great work.  But it just kept coming back.  I sought out help and went to the seminary and as I drove up, Dr. Jerry Bilkes came out.  I spoke to him and he asked me how my writing was doing.  I told him what was on my heart and my inability for such a work.  He told me it is God that gives the ability. Then he said to me, “follow Him, pray to Him and write.”  What happened then is inexpressibly.  Never had God drawn so near and so dear as one question after another opened up showing in each one that it is the Triune God, through Jesus Christ who is the only comfort.  Yes! It was a special time in my life which I shall never forget.  I had more blessings myself than ever the book will be to whoever reads it.

2. What is the Heidelberg Catechism and why should one spend time studying or at least reading it?

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the three Articles of Unity adopted by the Reformed churches as to our beliefs.  The Catechism is known as the “Book of Comfort.”  It brings forth the preciousness of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, through the God-Man Jesus Christ.  The Heidelberg Catechism was written at the request of Elector Frederick III to bring harmony to the Protestant teaching and to the establishment of the Reformed Faith.  He appointed Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus to write it to address the errors of the day, bringing out the doctrines necessary to know for this life, but also for the life to come.

The Catechism is broken down into three main categories of the experiences of God’s people: misery, deliverance, and gratitude.  It has been and still is a blessing for God’s people, and as a preaching tool, it brings out many of the doctrines of the Bible which would otherwise be forgotten.

3. A number of commentaries or meditations have already been written on the Heidelberg Catechism. What do you think is the unique contribution of your book to the study of this catechism?

There are many commentaries written on it, but short meditation on it, are few and far between.  To sit down and read a commentary takes much discipline and soon it is left setting on the table.  These meditations are short and bring you to search the Bible for the truths found in the catechism.  In our times meditation time becomes secondary to our way of life.  I find that though they are short, they may open the heart by God’s grace, so that we may find enjoyment in them.  We were created to do all to God’s glory and honor.  My prayer is that God would use it for His glory.

4. In your study of the Heidelberg Catechism, what did you find to be the catechism’s strengths and weaknesses?

Its strengths are the doctrines that are expressed in it, leading us to learn who we are, but also who God is.  It lifts us above the things of this world to see the glory of the Triune God in Jesus Christ.  Its weaknesses I guess I don’t see because the more I study it the more precious it becomes.

5. The Heidelberg Catechism has 129 questions and answers. What is your favorite of all of them? Explain why.

I love the whole Catechism, but since question and answer 1 was so laid upon my heart, it has a special place in my heart.  Salvation is a personal experience. It must be for me!   When reading this, take notice of the personnel pronouns.  Salvation is a precious doctrine, but as precious as it is, it must be for me! The plot as you read through it, it shows man in his desperate need for deliverance which he cannot earn for himself, bringing us to the only way of salvation, When this is experienced there cannot but be gratitude for so great salvation.

Question:  What is thy only comfort?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of death, and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to life unto him.

This question and answer is the summation of all the 129 question and answers in the precious Heidelberg Catechism.

6. What projects are you currently working on?

I write short meditation on many texts as God opens them for me.  I do have a complete set on all 150 of the Psalms, the beatitudes, the Christian Armor, and the Seven Cross Words.  My hope and prayer is that God would use them for His glory and the salvation of sinners.

thewayofsalvation

Heidelberg Catechism Interview

The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts

Here’s my interview with Chris Fenner about his edited book The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts. Frisco, TX: Doxology & Theology Press, 2016, 641 pp., hardcover.  Watts

Chris, thank you for editing The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts. I thought you did an excellent job. I have some questions for you:

1. Can you please tell us more about yourself and the occasion in which you edited this book?

I am the Digital Archivist in the archives office of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). My job in general is to digitize and preserve old media formats (audio and video tapes, LPs, etc.), but my academic research specialty is hymnology. I am also a minister of music at Green Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I have worked at SBTS for eleven years now, starting when I was a graduate student in the worship arts program. I finished that degree in 2011, then completed a  Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Kentucky in 2017.

In 2016, Matt Boswell, director of Doxology & Theology Press, had been preparing a new edition of hymns by Isaac Watts, and he asked my colleague Esther Crookshank to write a foreword for it. Crookshank shared a draft of the project with me, and upon examining the work, I had several ideas for how it could be improved, so I got in touch with Matt and persuaded him to allow me to help him craft the book into something that would reflect the highest standards of scholarship possible, something that would really stand out from what other publishers had done before.

For the work, I was able to examine digital copies of Watts’ original collections. We included both of his original prefaces (this is really two books in one volume, Hymns and Spiritual Songs with the Psalms of David Imitated). We included all of Watts’ original footnotes for the Psalms, which explain his methodology and theology. We added some detailed indices, with pastors worship leaders in mind. We also included a set of tunes that had never been reproduced in any edition of Watts over the last 250 years. The whole project is a major improvement over any other edition of Watts currently on the market.

2. Who was Isaac Watts and why did he write his hymns?

Isaac Watts was a pastor in the dissenting tradition (Protestant, separate from the Church of England). Watts had some serious concerns about the condition of congregational singing in his time. In Protestant churches, the norm had been to sing only from the Psalms and a few select passages from the New Testament (like the Song of Simeon, for example). If people are only singing from the Old Testament, then they are singing an incomplete theology, and a theology rooted in the Old Covenant. Watts found this unacceptable, for good reason. So for his poetic translations of the Psalms, he wanted to infuse the texts with New Testament ideas, making connections to the work of Christ, as if David had been a New Covenant believer. In this regard, Watts was charting new territory.

Watts also wrote new hymns intended for congregational singing, for similar purposes, because he felt the Psalms weren’t enough for a well-rounded theology. All of this came at a point in time in which Protestants had been debating about whether it was OK to sing hymns in church, because when people start writing their own songs, doctrinal error can creep into the church. People had written hymns and poems before (George Herbert was very well loved in the previous century, for example), but Watts was so good at what he did, that people embraced his hymns and abandoned the strict adherence to the Psalms.

3. What are the key features of his hymns?

In addition to his infusion of New Testament theology in the Psalms, Watts strove to make his texts understandable to the average worshiper by using plain language and avoiding complicated terminology. Even though he wasn’t happy with the pre-existing tradition of Psalm singing, he wrote his hymns in such a way that they could be sung using the old Psalm tunes. This meant most of his texts fit into three different syllabic structures: common meter, long meter, and short meter, with some other exceptions. This is partly why his hymns have endured, because they are easily understandable and singable.

4. What are the weaknesses and strengths of his hymns?

If his hymns have any weaknesses, it would be because the English language has evolved, and the world has evolved, so Watts isn’t able to keep pace with all of the issues and perspectives that worshipers face today. In his day, his language was plain and simple, but in our day, his language can be a little antiquated at times and require some adjustment. His hymn “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” for example, is written from the perspective of someone who lived in a time of Colonialism and Imperialism, in which he was able to write about other nations being “barbarous.” Others are written very much from a British perspective and don’t work in other contexts.

5. Of all his hymns, what is your favorite? And why is this one your favorite?

I have a special love for his rendition of Psalm 23, “My shepherd will supply my need,” especially with the American folk tune known as RESIGNATION. It is a very thoughtful and tender paraphrase. In 2015, when my son Garrett died at the sweet age of 5, I sang this at his funeral. Where the psalmist had written “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” Watts wrote these beautiful lines:

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.

My eyes get watery and my soul burns just thinking about it.

6. What projects are you currently working on?

I recently finished a new edition of Charles Spurgeon’s Our Own Hymn Book for Matt Boswell at Doxology & Theology. It hasn’t yet gone to press, but it is going to be a beautiful, scholarly book, full of great insights into Spurgeon and the hymns that he loved.

This past summer, I launched a new website, HymnologyArchive.com, for the serious hymn lover and scholar, offering a visual history of great hymns, full of the best scholarship that simply isn’t available anywhere else. It’s still new and still growing; I add material almost every day.

Lastly, I am compiling and editing a new collection of essays related to the hymns of Charles Wesley, featuring contributions from many gifted scholars, to be published next year by Biblical Spirituality Press.

Watts

Hymns Interview

Discovering the Beauty of Mentorship among the Women

Note: This week our guest contributor is Annemarieke V. Ryskamp who has a passion for fostering mentorship among women. She herself leads a mentorship group. 

_____________________

I was born and raised in the Netherlands and was a teenager in the seventies. I attended a university in Utrecht. My family was like most families in Europe, not Christian at all. My dad was baptized as a baby, but the strictness of the elders of his church made his parents and himself reject the church with a vengeance. 

annemarieke

Annemarieke V. Ryskamp

My mom was from a completely non-Christian background, but she loved to read. When she was in her forties she read the Bible and became a believer. After her conversion to Christ, she encouraged me to join a student Bible study group. However, my problem was that I didn’t know a single Christian, apart from the Jehovah’s witnesses with whom my mother and brother and I had done Bible studies. We didn’t want to become Jehovah’s witnesses as the Holy Spirit had put in us discernment for the truth.  

So my family was not against God, yet we definitely didn’t like anything church related. Through a friend of mine, I could finally contact a “Christian” who welcomed me in their Bible study group. I kept asking though why this group was not taking the Bible as God’s Word, because isn’t that the definition of a Christian is someone who believes the Bible to be the very Word of God? They told me I was a “fundamentalist.” I asked them what that meant. I didn’t consider myself a Christian, but ironically I found myself defending the trustworthiness of the Bible every week. I had to read major parts of the Bible for my studies (in medieval literature) and every week God used my just-read knowledge to counter their Bible weakening arguments. By God’s grace at the end of that year I was saved. I came to know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  

The people in this group never invited me to come to their church, but I wanted to find a church where the gospel was preached faithfully, so I could learn more about my newfound faith. It took me two years to find a Bible believing church. Imagine my surprise when I found some members of that Bible study group in this church!

All this helps to explain my very hesitant attitude to the church as an organization. But God has been working on me ever since and the mentor group is one of his lessons for me.

Fast forward! 30 years later I found myself with my American husband and two children in West Michigan, attending a reformed church twice every Sunday. This shows the radical difference in church life in West Michigan as compared to that of the Netherlands.

After doing a counseling course with Dr. Jeff Doll in Hudsonville, I felt called to do something with what I had learned. After my desperate remark that the only thing I knew how to do was lead a Bible study (because I’m a teacher by profession), my son suggested I do just that.

God gently led me to realize that I should lead a group for women in our church, mentoring them according to the principles in Titus 2, as I had been when I was raising my children. I couldn’t believe that God was calling me to this kind of ministry, so I felt very reluctant. However, God orchestrated all the details. Two mentor groups formed and since I could only lead one, God also provided another leader.

God knew that my growing up in Europe would be useful, since I’ve been already exposed to issues that women, whom I am mentoring, are beginning to encounter. The secularization in Europe is about 30 years ahead of West Michigan.  And that secularization is coming here, too, in Michigan. My friends in the Netherlands didn’t get married, but would live together. Or, when they got married, they would have 1 or 2 children and then get divorced. The children would grow up in child care facilities, because both parents needed to work. There was only contempt for the stay-at-home mother. Already my mom got her share of that. She raised me as quite the feminist. But I really wanted to raise my kids myself. Thankfully, my being among Christian friends and mentors, who were doing the same here in Michigan, encouraged me to raise my children myself.  

Most of societal changes here are déjà vu for me. And as I look at where Europe is now, these societal changes are not good. The pressures on Christians in the US are mounting, leading to social persecution already. The pressures on women who want to stay home, take care of their children, and homeschool them, are feeling incredible pressure from society. It’s very difficult to consistently ignore the secular opinions in our environment and to keep going against the current. Therefore, we, as church women, under the leadership and protection of the men, need to stick together. This becomes more and more necessary as the bias against us is mounting.

Having been mentored myself and through leading a mentor group, I am convinced that God wants women in his church to help one another to stay true to his Word and be blessed by it.  All of us Christian women need to encourage each other and gently steer our sisters back when they stray. We need to be there in times of sadness; we need to rejoice with them in times of joy. In short, we all need to be mentors to each other. God is working among women in many churches to start mentor groups. Let us be obedient to the Titus 2 mandate to mentor each other.

I pray that women mentor groups will raise awareness of the fact that all women need to be mentors. We go alongside our sisters and build each other up in Christ.

 

“It’s time to show those coming behind us the beauty of God’s truth and its sufficiency for the challenges of our day. I assure you, each time you’re obedient to this calling, you’ll be able to watch Him paint your life with bigger and bolder gospel colors than you ever imagined possible.” (Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth)

 

 

 

Mentorship

The Pursuit of Glory

Here’s my interview with Jeffrey D. Johnson about his book The Pursuit of Glory. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018, 113 pp., paperback.the pursuit of glory

Thank you for your willingness to be interviewed about your well written book which I enjoyed reading. Here are some of my questions for you about your work:

1. Can you please tell us more about yourself and the occasion in which you penned your book?

I am a pastor of Grace Bible Church in Conway, Arkansas (gbcconway.com) and the academic dean of Grace Bible Institute of Pastoral Studies. I have been married for 15 years to my wife, Letha, and we have four children (three boys and one girl). I love to snowboard, play the banjo, and write.

The book is a byproduct of the many years of counseling I have done. After teaching anger management for 10 years and counseling for 15 years, I saw the need for such a book. I wanted something I could give to people who were depressed about life. Our culture is screaming that our identity and purpose is found in ourselves. So many people feel empty, so it seems, because they have such a small and trivial purpose (such as getting a few “likes” on Facebook), and because they are unable to live up to this superficial and artificial standard. That is, people cannot even reach the low and insignificant standard they have place upon themselves. Deep down, we know we were created for something greater, something more lasting, and something real. If we can’t satisfy even a superficial purpose, what makes us think we can stratify a divine and eternal purpose? I wrote this book to explain that we were made for something beyond our abilities to reach, but also I wrote this book to show how God enables us, through faith in Christ, to obtain the highest possible objective—God’s glory. I am convinced that only when we live for the glory of God that we will find our happiness, purpose, etc…

Much of my counseling brought me to explaining these truths, so I thought, why not write a book on it.

2. Your work deals with nine topics: (1) glory, (2) happiness, (3) purpose, (4) freedom, (5) companionship, (6) truth, (7) peace, (8) holiness, and (9) life. In light of this, why did you entitle your book The Pursuit of Glory which is the title of your book’s first chapter? Why not The Pursuit of Happiness, or The Pursuit of Life?

I started with “glory” and ended with “life” because these two things are essentially the same thing. Kind of like a circle that brings the readers back to where we started. I titled the book “The Pursuit of Glory” because I believe the word “glory” best incorporates all the longings that God has placed within our heart. We all desire happiness, purpose, freedom, etc…, and all these things can be summarized by our longing for glory. That is, we long for something eternal, something lasting, something real, something truly praise worthy. Ultimately, we are all longing for God—to know and enjoy God.

And I believe that the world is seeking to replace the reality of the glory of God with some cheap counterfeit that can never satisfy. Man is depressed, guilt redden, and miserable, a state which leads him or her to be utterly discontent. Man longs for the glory of God, even though he or she does not realize it. And as long as they are seeking for glory in all the wrong places they will remain disillusioned and frustrated.

I have counseled hundreds of people over the years, and it seems that much of the time their emotional problems comes from having their eyes placed on the wrong thing(s), and their values being shaped by the customs of this evil world. Living for the American dream ends with dreamers waking up to a nightmare.

3. You state in your book that every human being is looking for glory that can truly satisfy him or her. What is this glory that people are looking for?

The short answer is God. God is the only thing that is truly glorious. The longer answer is that man is looking for glory, which can only be found in loving and enjoying fellowship with God. The Bible tells the strong not to glory in their strength and for the wise not to glory in their wisdom. Rather, the only ones who have the right to glory are those who can glory in the fact that they know God. We too often, myself included, want to find our purpose and happiness in ourselves—ether in who we are or what we have accomplished. Such thinking leads us to vain-glory and pride. Moreover, such thinking leaves us feeling empty and unhappy because we know that we are not even good enough for ourselves. It is a terrible enslavement to depend on the constant affirmation and praise of others. We all need something more, something greater, and something more glorious than self-praise and popularity. We need God. It is only when we are satisfied with God that we will ever be satisfied at all. He alone is enough. Everything else put together comes up short—way short.

4. What do you think is the unique contribution of your book to the study of glory? And if there are three important lessons concerning glory that you would like your readers to learn from your book, what would they be?

Overall, I hope my book demonstrates that our own pursuit of glory is tied to the glory of God. If we want to find glory, it will be found only when we enjoy God’s glory. Once our lives are satisfied in God’s glory, will we have glory—meaning, purpose, life, and others.

Three practical lessons would be:

First, having innate desires, cravings, and passions are not (in-and-of themselves) sinful. Even the longings of the body are good when we seek to satisfy them by lawful means and do not exalt the things of the world above God.

Second, the body and the soul both have longings/desires. The five senses of the body crave the things of this world, while the craving of the soul craves after God. Though our depravity and selfishness tell us that we can only be happy when the insatiable longings of the body are being contentiously fed, that real satisfaction is only found when the longings of the soul are satisfied in Christ.

Third, that every longing of the soul (e.g., the longing for glory, happiness, purpose, freedom, etc.) is satisfied in one place—knowing God through faith in Christ.

5. What projects are you currently working on?

For the last 10 years, off and on, I have been working on a systematic theology.  I am about 1/3 done, so it will be a lifetime project. I have other smaller projects, however, that I am working on as well, such as revision and expanding a book I have written on the atonement, and a small little book on cessationism.

 

Note: To purchase a copy of The Pursuit of Glory, click here.

the pursuit of glory

Interview

Early Christian Spirituality

Before I survey the various facets of early Christian spirituality (a period which runs from around A.D. 100 to A.D. 600), let me first define the word “spirituality,” especially as this term is understood in diverse ways. Spirituality “is the outworking in the real life of a person’s religious faith—what a person does with what they believe” (McGrath, Christian Spirituality , 2). Spirituality may be distinguished from theology in that the former is about the experiential aspects of faith, while the latter is about the theoretical aspects of faith. Yet, the two are closely related and even inseparable: theology gives substance to spirituality; and spirituality gives life to theology.

“[T]he fathers never split theology off from spirituality, as though theology was academic, mental exercise best practiced in one’s study, while Christian spirituality was more appropriately focused on the heart and centered in a church sanctuary. Any split between mind and heart, theology and spirituality, study and sanctuary would have met with scant toleration from the fathers” (Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, 10). Nevertheless, in this brief post, my primary concern is to look at the spirituality of the early Christians—to see how they behaved rather than what they believed. So how did they behave? Who were they?

First, the early Christians were men and women of prayer. They conversed with God as those who were aware that God was listening and as those who were confident that God was going to answer their prayers. And their prayer was solidly Trinitarian, addressed to the Father, in the name of the Son, and with the help of the Holy Spirit. A quick glance of Augustine’s Confessions, written in the form of a prayer, will readily prove this point. The doctrine of the Trinity itself, codified during the patristic era, came to us as a gift from the fathers who proclaimed and praised the Triune God. The more I read these early Christians, the more I am convinced that behind their success in the ministry was their prayer life. I am specially thinking of Patrick’s fruitful ministry in Ireland. We know from his Confession how he earnestly prayed for the Irish. Yet, he was humbly conscious that if he was able to pray fervently, it was because the Holy Spirit enabled him.

Augustine pic

St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502 (courtesy of Wikipedia) 

Second, the early Christians were lovers of the Scriptures. They “turn always to the Bible as the source of their ideas. No matter how rigorous or abstruse their thinking—for example, in dealing with a complex and subtle topic like the distinctive identity of each person of the Trinity—Christian thinkers always began with specific biblical texts” (Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 26). They read, studied, memorized, and mediated on the Scriptures. Augustine once said, “The hearer of God’s Word ought to be like those animals that chew the cud; he ought not only feed upon it, but to ruminate upon it” (Cited in Thomas, comp. Golden Treasury of Patristic Quotations, 34). Of course, some of them followed monastic rules, but for them their allegiance was first to the Bible and then to these rules. “We must surrender ourselves, said Augustine, “to the authority of Holy Scripture, for it can neither mislead nor be misled” (Golden Treasury of Patristic Quotations, 29). Their strong commitment to God’s Word resulted in the canon of the New Testament, another gift to us by the church fathers.

Third, the early Christians were pursuers of holiness. In the midst of their great struggle with their indwelling sin, they strove to live a godly life. In fact, their ultimate goal in the study of the Bible was not to produce a set of dogma, but to lead people “to holiness of life.” The “goal of life came to be understood as likeness to Christ” (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 22). They wanted to imitate Christ, taking holiness seriously. As a Protestant I confess that I am not comfortable with their monastic means of pursuing Christlikeness. However, I have a high respect for those who ascetically separated themselves from the world to devote their entire lives to God. For instance, I respect Macrina who chose a life of chastity and poverty, that she might devote her life fully to Jesus whom she considered her eternal husband. Her desire to maintain sexual purity and have a simple (not materialistic) life was commendable.

Fourth, the early Christians were zealously evangelistic and mission-minded. They were not quiet about their faith in Christ, nor were they afraid to share it with others. Even if they knew that proclaiming the gospel could mean suffering, or even death, they would still do it. Patrick wrote in his Confession, “In the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this choice, regardless of danger I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God” (Confession 14). At one point, when faced with threats (such as “murder, fraud, or captivity”), Patrick responded by simply entrusting his life to his sovereign God: “I fear none of these things because … I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty, who rules everywhere.” And Patrick’s passion to proclaim the gospel to others flowed out of his gratitude to God for saving him.

Finally, the early Christians were people who counted it a great honor to suffer, or die for Christ’s sake. If one were to ask them, “What’s your ambition in life?” Their answer would probably have been something like this: “to die for the sake of Christ.” And for them, it was through martyrdom that they could prove their deep devotion to Christ. No wonder then why they would even take delight in dying as martyrs. Listen, for example, to Ignatius of Antioch who longed to die as a martyr: “May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me. I will even coax them to devour me quickly, not as they have done with some, whom they were too timid to touch. And if when I am willing and ready they are not, I will force them … Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ” (Ignatius, Romans 5:1-3). Elsewhere Ignatius states, “It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake” (Ignatius, Romans 6). These early Christians were not afraid to die because they knew that their death would only usher them to the very presence of Christ.

May we capture the piety of these early Christians! May we be people of prayer, lovers of the Bible, pursuers of holiness, zealously evangelistic and mission-minded, and willing to suffer or die for our Lord’s sake.

 

 

 

 

 

Church Fathers Spirituality