PERSECUTION IN TURKEY–FROM POLYCARP TO FIKRET BOCEK by Simonetta Carr

If it’s true, as the ancient Tertullian said, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” much seed has been sown on Turkish soil, from the 2nd-century martyrdom of Polycarp to the massacre of Christian Armenians in 1915 (where 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives). And these are only the most notorious cases. In Turkey, persecution against Christians has spanned centuries, perpetrated first by the Romans and then by the Muslims. In fact, it’s still happening today. In every case, the justification is political: Christians are enemies of the state.

A Turkish Pastor Under Fire

A 1998 graduate of Westminster Seminary in California, Turkish-born Fikret Böcek moved back to his country in 2001 to plant a confessional Reformed Baptist church in Izmir – the ancient Smyrna, the persecuted city of Revelation 2:8-11, where bishop Polycarp famously died for his faith.

From the start, Böcek aimed to make his church completely visible and open to all. He knew the risks. He had already been arrested soon after his conversion to Christianity in 1987.[1]

Evangelizing Turkey is also a difficult task. “Conversions of Muslims to Christianity have been historically rare here,” he recently told me. He remembers one man converting in 1960, his son in 1970, and about 25 more Muslims between 1970 and 1980. The numbers increased to 80 people between 1980 and 1988, still a drop in a bucket in a country of 52 million people (79.5 million today).

Convinced of the power of the gospel, Böcek has persevered in spite of the difficulties, preaching, meeting people, distributing Bibles, and translating. He even started a translation of the Bible from the original languages, to replace the current Turkish Bible which is a paraphrased version. Today, his church (Izmir Protestan Kilisesi) includes 153 Muslim converts, an impressive number in less than ten years. He has also helped other pastors to establish churches.

So far, Böcek has only undergone short-term arrests, but is now is facing the strong possibility of a long-term imprisonment. The Turkish government, in fact, has linked him to Andrew Brunson, the evangelical pastor from North Carolina who is currently in a Turkish prison under charges of plotting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The Accusations

The official Indictment against Brunson mentions a connection between some American churches and the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government considers Gülen the mastermind behind the 2016 failed coup against Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to the official Indictment against Brunson, Böcek has been in touch with the US pastor, sharing the same hotel conference hall to meet converts, and selling him a church building. Böcek, however, calls these points of contact unplanned. It’s not unusual for pastors to use the same facilities for meetings.

As for the church building, Böcek rented it for three years, until he was able to purchase another in a better location. A year later, Brunson rented the first building from its owner.

The Indictment builds on these fortuitous connections by accusing Böcek (“certainly a person connected with the CIA”) of passing on “his intelligence mission” to Brunson, adding that it was Böcek who invited Brunson to Turkey.

The prosecution draws its evidence from the testimonies of anonymous witnesses – frequently prisoners who, according to Böcek, are glad to give false testimony in exchange for a favorable treatment. There are no favorable witnesses, Böcek explained, because all Christians are considered suspects and disqualified from testifying.

Some evidence is found in the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, with its mention of Armageddon and an antichrist “king of the north.” Since Turkey is north of Israel, the Turkish government concluded that Christians have been targeting their country, especially since a few Protestants have posted pictures of Erdoğan with the caption, “Antichrist has come.”

Dire Prospects

Brunson, who has been detained 21 months, is still waiting for a trial, which has been postponed to July 18. In the meantime, Turkey is waiting for the next presidential elections (scheduled to be held on June 24), when Erdoğan has promised to end the state of emergency. Either one of these dates could bring relief to Brunson, who has also received great support from American and European agencies and politicians.

What about Böcek? Hopefully, any charge against him will be dropped. At this point, however, he is ready for jail. He has already packed a bag with books he always wanted to read but couldn’t find the time. “We were supposed to use the summer to raise funds for our Bible ministry,” he said, “but when the judge said he will not release Andrew [Brunson] and will not accept my testimony, I saw a high probability that I will be arrested by July 18.”

In the meantime, his life continues as usual, with a high priority on preaching and strengthening his church. When I talked to him, one of his daughters was doing homework next to him while his dogs were barking fiercely at the wild boars outside their walls – a common occurrence in that area.

His wife Darlene and their four children (ages 14-21) are prepared for any event. Böcek knows his arrest will cause them pain but adds that he can’t shelter them from all problems. Besides, he is confident that Darlene will be able to continue to lead the family and raise their children in the Lord.

He describes himself “content in God’s will.” He adds that this mind-set is quite different from “Islamic fateful thinking.” It’s based on a sincere trust in God’s promises, leaving tomorrow in His hands. “We have a great God,” he said. “We cannot complain or worry.”

This trust doesn’t make him immune to worry. “Once I was pulled over for a routine check that normally takes a couple of minutes and had to wait for an hour, and I worried.”

He is well aware that Turkish prisons are not just a place to catch up on one’s reading. To Westerners, they bring back memories of the movie Midnight Express. Böcek remembers the beatings and torture that accompanied one of his arrests. While Turkey doesn’t hold the death penalty, some unexplained deaths occur in its prisons. “The Romans were fairer in their persecution of Christians,” he told me.

Ready to Die

Why not leave? His wife is American, and the family has received several invitations to move to the US or England. The thought must have crossed his mind, but his decision to stay is unmovable.

How can he leave, when he has spent years encouraging his flock to stand up for their faith and persevere while being victims of persecution and discrimination, and losing jobs, friends, and family for Christ’s sake?

“Christ promises persecution,” he said. “We see it clearly here, not only with arrests. Christians are disliked.”

“The converts are looking at us,” he continued, explaining that his testimony from jail may serve to strengthen their faith. He knows this by experience. His previous arrests have only reinforced and toughened his and other Christians’ convictions, as the fear of men was replaced by the fear of God.

Confirming Tertullian’s statement, within seven years from the 1988 raid, the number of Muslim converts in Turkey jumped from 80 to 500. Presently, there are about 4300 Turkish Muslims attending churches.

Just in the few months since Böcek decided to stay, God has given his church two new Muslim converts – quite an attainment, especially considering that the new members’ training at his church lasts eight months and requires a serious commitment. “This alone is enough to make it worth it all,” he said.

Some foreign missionaries have already left the country because of the political situation. In fact, one was leaving as I was speaking to Böcek. “I told him,” Böcek remembered, “’Just when you are about to preach in Turkish, you will leave.”

Their reaction is understandable, especially under Turkey’s present state of emergency, but Böcek (who calls Turkey “the graveyard of all mission agencies”) believes it has much to do with their initial attitude.

“They come with a 2-5-year plan,” he said. “We want them to come ready to die, like the missionaries of old.” He particularly remembers Henry Martyn, a British missionary to India and Iran who died of fever in eastern Turkey in 1812. “In those days people came for life.”

Many of these missionaries, Böcek explains, “want comfort, whatever happens in their churches. I feel like helping them but they don’t listen. All their ideas are developed in Texas or California, and don’t really work here.”

This scarcity of missionaries is another reason why Böcek believes he should stay. “We are all called for a reason – wherever we are in life and whatever situation we are facing – and we need to look for a way to be a witness to God. I need to persevere in my calling.”

Please pray for Rev. Böcek and his family!


[1] For the story of Böcek’s providential conversion, see “To the Church in Smyrna: The Story of Fikret Bocek,” Office Hours, Westminster Seminary California, July 7, 2010, https://www.wscal.edu/resource-center/to-the-church-in-smyrna-the-story-of-fikret-Böcek, “A Christian Mission in a Muslim World,” WHI-1072, October 23, 2011, White Horse Inn https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2011/10/whi-1072-a-christian-mission-in-a-muslim-world, and “Personal Story,” given to Heritage Reformed Congregation, March 15, 2015 https://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Fikret_Bocek

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HAVE YOU BECOME WHAT YOU WORSHIP ? by G. K. Beale

An interview with G.K. Beale

Does idolatry relate to the modern world? Why is it that we become whatever we worship? Is idolatry ultimately about our conception of who God is and who he is not?

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, talks with Greg Beale about the nature of idolatry and why it is so ironic and destructive. Greg Beale (PhD, Cambridge) holds the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including A New Testament Biblical Theology, Book of Revelation (New International Greek Text Commentary), Revelation: A Shorter Commentaryand We Become What We Worship.

Many today tend to think of idolatry as a thing of the past, something primitive cultures struggled with but we no longer are tempted by in our modern day. Is this true?

There is so much reference to idol worship in the Old Testament. How is this related to our own time? You do get some references in the New, but one has to ask, when you are in the Old Testament, “How does all this idol worship in Israel relate to the modern world?” And the way to know how it applies is to go to the New Testament.

Paul will say things, for example, in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 5, that greed and covetousness is idolatry. The point is that there are idols other than trees or statues that one bows down to, to worship. There are things like money. You begin to realize that there are commitments to other things in the world that involve idol worship other than literally bowing down to some statue.

If you go to any city, you do not have these cult statues at every corner as sometimes they had in the ancient world or in Athens, as Paul observed as he was passing through the city. The book of Revelation, for example, has a very interesting phrase. It talks about those who dwell upon the earth. It repeats it about seven or eight or so times. I was reading a commentator by the name of G. B. Caird commenting on this phrase, and I think he is exactly right. He says what it means is this: the phrase never is applied to believers in the book of Revelation. Why is that? Because we live on the earth, why can we not be called those who dwell upon the earth? Well, the reason is because wherever you find that phrase in the book of Revelation, often it is in the immediate context of idol worshipers.

John uses that phrase in a very broad way to explain the broad principle of idolatry. Those who live upon the earth are called that over and against Christians because they cannot find security in anything but this earth. They cannot look beyond this earth for their security and trust. They are rooted to this earth, and so the book of Revelation presents them as being judged along with this earth because they have made it or some aspect of it into an idol. Just as idols had to be destroyed in the Old Testament, so the world must be destroyed at the end of time. Why must the world be destroyed? Because the world has become an idol. People have made it an idol, whether it is trees, whether it is crops, as in Baal worship, or whatever it is. The point is – the way you go from Old to New and to our own time, in terms of idolatry, is realizing that idolatry can be any commitment to something that is not to God – that becomes one’s idol.

Having this perspective is extremely applicable. Idolatry can be jogging. Jogging is fine, but if you commit yourself to it above all else, then it becomes an idol. God’s good gifts in his creation are good gifts as long as we accept them as good gifts from him; but when we begin to trust in those, to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in those things, and not God, they become an idol. God’s good gifts in his creation are good gifts as long as we accept them as good gifts from him; but when we begin to trust in those, to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in those things, and not God, they become an idol. CLICK TO TWEETOne woman said, “Tom used to be a Methodist, now he’s a jogger.” She may have been joking, but there was truth in what she said. There are jokes about a guy whose first name was Moses some years ago in basketball, in the NBA, and he was known as “Moses leading his people to victory into the promised land.” That is how it was explained. You watch football games and fathers will dress up as football players and their sons will be dressed up likewise, and it is not a joke, but there is some element of truth to it. They become like that to which they are committed. Athletes are idols. Why do we call them idols? It is because people do shower some level of worship upon them. They idolize them. This is only what emerges above the surface that may seem humorous at times, but it reveals something deeper about where people’s commitments are. For example, take the music idols. Young people begin to dress like them. They may get the same tattoos or the earrings, wear the same hairstyle, talk in the same way. Unfortunately, sometimes they will take on their lifestyle of drugs, so they begin to reflect them – that is pretty practical and a practical warning.

How then would you define idolatry?

Idol worship is committing yourself to something that is not God. Luther said something like, “idolatry is trusting in something other than God for your ultimate security and your happiness.”  J. A. Motyer said that “the idol is whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.” I think these are basically good definitions.

You have argued that since we are made to image God, committing idolatry results in the sinner imaging that which he worships instead of God. Why is it that we become what we worship?

The Bible asserts that humanity is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Thus, we are created to be beings who reflect. We were originally created to reflect God. But, after the Fall, some people (a faithful remnant) reflected God’s image but others reflected the image of something in the world. In Romans 1:18-26, Paul talks about idolatry. I contend there that Paul is arguing, and he is basically arguing on the basis of Jeremiah and the Psalms, that people become like the idols they worship. And that is what Paul is arguing in Romans 1: that ultimately, if you do not worship the true God, then you reflect the creation instead of the Creator.

And then he picks up on some of the very same terms from Romans 1 in Romans 12:1 – 2. He says, “I urge you therefore brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God which is your spiritual service of worship.” So, in Rom. 12:1, you are to be committed to God. And then he says in the very well-known passage of Rom. 12:2, “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and complete.” The point of those two verses in Romans 12 is that they are actually picking up parallel words from chapter 1, and that helps us really see even more than what Paul has in mind in that first phrase in Rom. 12:2, is idol worship – do not be conformed to this world. Do not be committed to it and become like it; but, become like God.

So, you have two choices. I used to think, sometimes, in my Christian life that you could be in spiritual neutral. You know, maybe I am not reading my Bible or praying or thinking that much about God or living a godly life; maybe I am in neutral, perhaps, spiritually. But early on, I began to realize that there is no such thing as neutrality. You are either becoming like something in the world or you are becoming like God because God has created humans as reflecting beings and we must reflect something – it is intrinsic to our created nature. It is one or the other. You are either becoming like something in the world or you are becoming like God because God has created humans as reflecting beings and we must reflect something – it is intrinsic to our created nature. It is one or the other. CLICK TO TWEETAnd that is what Romans, chapter 12 and verse 2 is saying.

The positive aspect of this is that when we commit ourselves to God, he promises that we will become like him. More specifically, we become like Christ, because this passage in Rom. 12:2 has been anticipated positively in Romans chapter 8, where it says, in verse 29, “for whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of the Son.” We become like Christ, who is the last Adam if we are committed to him.

If idols are spiritually lifeless, should we really be surprised that we too become spiritually dead when we turn to idols rather than the one, true, and living God?

It is natural and not surprising that if one commits oneself to the world or something in the world, one will become like the world or whatever in the world to which one is committed. And, since the world or objects in the world lack God’s Spirit, then the idolater will become as lifeless and as inanimate as the world or objects in the world.

Isaiah 6:9-10 says that God punished Israel by making them like their lifeless idols: since the idols had no true eyes to seen or ears to hear, so Israel reflects the idols by not having eyes to see nor ears to hear. This led to Israel’s destruction and judgment of exile. For a further example, when Israel sinned by worshiping the golden calf, Moses’ narration about that event was that they had become stiff-necked, unbound, wandered from the way, and they needed to be re-gathered and led again at the gate. That is the language of rebellious cattle needing to be regathered again. Moses is mocking them saying, “Israel, you have become as spiritually lifeless and inanimate as that golden calf that you have been worshiping.” This led to the destruction and judgment of the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness.

How do warnings against idolatry in scripture remind us that there is a fundamental difference between the Creator and the creature? Is idolatry ultimately about our conception of who God is and who he is not?

God demands that people give him glory. We are not to give ourselves glory, but some people do glorify themselves (which is worshipping oneself and is self-idolatry). We are not to give anything else in the creation glory but only the Creator. God is set apart from the rest of creation in that he is the only being worthy of and deserving glory.

Idolatry ultimately is about our conception of who God is. If people have a significantly wrong conception of who God is, then they commit themselves to a false and distorted conception of God and thus a false God. This becomes tantamount to idolatry. This is why God’s people must know his word. Only by knowing God’s word and thinking God’s thoughts after him will they have a right conception of who he is and, thus, worship the true God.[1]


[1] Some of the above material has been taken from an interview of G. K. Beale (about his book, We Become What We Worship) with Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance, January 26, 2018.

G.K. Beale

Greg Beale (PhD, Cambridge) holds the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including A New Testament Biblical Theology, Book of Revelation (New International Greek Text Commentary), Revelation: A Shorter Commentaryand We Become What We Worship.

DISCIPLINE: THE MISCONSTRUED GRACE by Mark Johnston

Discipline: the Misconstrued Grace

It was John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, who added discipline to the word and sacraments as the third mark of a faithful church. Perhaps it was because the Celts are an unruly lot by nature and he felt the latter two needed the firmer hand of the former to bring the Scottish churches into line! Nevertheless, he rightly highlighted the need for this third element of church life for the church to be what it ought to be under Christ, its sole King and Head.

Sadly, however, discipline has too often been misperceived as some kind of blunt instrument only to be used as a measure of last resort when things go wrong in the church. Although it clearly does have this function, it would be utterly wrong to see it only in these terms. John Knox certainly did not see it narrowly in that way and neither do the Scriptures.

Knox’s Book[s] of Discipline were drawn up as books of church order. They were intended to be the practical outworking of the doctrine summarised in the Scots Confession. Since doctrine is always intended to shape life, so the Reformer wisely saw fit to spell this out under specific headings as it related to the life and worship of the church. The Westminster Divines did something very similar over 80 years later when they drew up the Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Church Government. Both these documents put practical flesh on the doctrinal bones of what the church was taught to confess.

These aspects of ‘discipline’ are a healthy counterbalance to the narrow view of its only having to be invoked to deal with those who refuse to respond to gentler means to encourage godliness. They remind us that, just as with our natural human families, the church needs to be a well-ordered community as the family of God. And the order to which it conforms must be that of God himself in his triune wisdom and glory.

Scripture provides a further insight into what discipline entails and how God uses it for the good of his children. We see this towards the end of Hebrews where the writer is speaking of the means God uses to enable his people to go the distance in the life of faith: persevering to the very end.

Immediately after his exhortation to run with perseverance the race that is set before us with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus (He 12.1-2), he goes on to say,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes those he accepts as a son’ (He 12.5-6)

In the context of the letter the writer clearly had something in view that was more than just the church being ordered under God by its leaders, or their having to exercise formal ‘church discipline’ in face of the threatened apostasy by some of its members. He speaks explicitly of ‘hardship’ as ‘discipline’ (12.7) – almost certainly a reference to the harsh providences these believers had recently experienced. It seems likely that these Hebrew believers belonged to the church in Rome and had suffered significantly under persecution – right down to numbers of them being martyred for the faith. Hence the writer’s words were designed to help them see God’s hand at work even in such painful experiences.

This tallies with what the Scriptures say elsewhere about how God uses suffering to strengthen character, burn off the spiritual dross in our lives and teach us perseverance in the faith. In that sense, as Peter tells his readers, we should not be surprised by it, or regard it as ‘something strange’ (1Pe 4.12).

There is, however, something very distinctive about the Hebrews statement on discipline. It places it firmly in the context of God’s dealing with his people as ‘sons’ (an expression that includes women as well as men to signify that both share the same status and privilege in God’s family) and proof that they are not in fact ‘illegitimate children’. Despite its potentially negative feel, it is intended to have a manifestly positive function. Rather than wearing us down in the faith, it is intended to build us up.

This actually makes perfect sense in the competitive world we live in. Whether it be in the realm of sport with its personal trainers and rigorous fitness regimes, or that of academia or commerce where people routinely push themselves to be the best they can be, why should we be surprised at the thought of God’s pushing us beyond our slothful limits to build us up? If people in the world around us accept hardship as a means of improving fitness, character, personal well-being and effectiveness; how much more this should be true for Christians as they accept the disciplines of God’s family in all their many forms.

In this sense, ‘discipline’ should be a most glorious component of church life and very much part of the experience of every Christian. It should not be seen as a ‘stick in the cupboard’ for the erring few; but another aspect of the grace of God designed to make us more like Christ.

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This article appeared in PLACE FOR TRUTH; JULY 19, 2018.

AN IMPORTANT QUESTION ANSWERED by J. G. Vos

An important question answered

Question: If a person’s sins—past, present and future sins—are all for- given when he is justified, then why should a Christian daily confess sin and pray for forgiveness, throughout his life?

Answer: This problem has puzzled many Christians. The key to its solution lies in the distinction between justification and adoption. Justification and adoption, although simultaneous and inseparable, are nevertheless two distinct acts of God, and they involve two distinct rela- tionships between the believer and God.

In justification, God is our Judge; in adoption, God is our Father. Justification makes us citizens of God’s kingdom; adoption makes us members of God’s family. Justification is a judicial act, which concerns the legal penalty of sin and the legal requirement of absolute righteous- ness. Adoption is a matter of personal relationship, which concerns our position as children in God’s family, and our enjoyment of the light of his countenance.

Justification, on the ground of the blood and righteousness of Christ, settles for all eternity the question of the Christian’s standing in relation to the law of God. In justification God declares, once and forever, that the penalty of the law has been satisfied, and that by reason of the imputed righteousness of Christ, the Christian is positively and abso- lutely righteous in God’s sight. This is done once for all; it never need nor can be repeated. To all eternity, there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. Justification is a permanent, final transaction.

Adoption, on the other hand, concerns the relation of the Christian to God as his heavenly Father. The penalty of the law has been satisfied, and the righteousness demanded by the law has been imputed. All that is finished business. But by reason of his continuing sinful nature the Christian still daily sins against God in word, thought and deed. These daily sins cannot bring the Christian into condemnation. They cannot take away his permanent justification. They cannot have the slightest effect on his eternal safety. But they can and do displease God, the Christian’s heavenly Father. They are violations of the holiness of the family of God.

If these daily sins are not promptly repented of and confessed, they will have serious consequences in the believer’s life. True, they will not take away his justification or his eternal salvation. But they will have serious consequences in the present life. They will harden the believer’s own conscience, grieve the Holy Spirit, and bring God’s chastening upon the Christian in the form of suffering of some kind. They will also destroy the believer’s present usefulness in Christian service. And they will cast a deep gloom upon his soul, as the light of God’s countenance is withdrawn. Read Psalm 32 and see how miserable David felt during the interval between his great sin and his confession of that sin. But if David had died during the interval, he would instantly have gone to heaven, for he was a justified man.

The chastening which God visits upon his sinning children has absolutely nothing to do with the judicial punishment of sin. As far as the judicial penalty of sin is concerned, the believer has already had the sen- tence of death executed upon him in the person of his representative, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary. God’s chastening of his children is not punishment but discipline. It proceeds not from his right- eous wrath, but from his fatherly love and compassion. Its purpose is not to satisfy the righteous demands of the law, but to bring erring children back to a spiritual state.

The Christian’s daily repentance and confession of sin concerns exclu- sively this relation to God as Father. It has nothing to do with the judicial guilt and penalty of sin, which is settled forever by justification. Rather, it is necessary in order that right relations may exist within the family of God. When the believer truly repents and confesses, as David did, the light of God’s countenance will be restored to his soul. In short, the believer should daily repent and confess his sins, not because of any dan- ger of eternal damnation, but because he has offended his heavenly Father, and needs to have his consciousness of the Father’s favour restored.

J. G. Vos

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This article appeared in the July, 2018 BANNER OF TRUTH MAGAZINE.

 

RICHARD SIBBES AND THE CENTRALITY OF THE HEART by Mark Dever

For Richard Sibbes, Christianity is a love story: God is essentially a husband to His people: “with the same love that God loves Christ, he loves all his.” “You see how full of love he was. What drew him from heaven to earth, and so to his cross and to his grave, but love to mankind?” In fact, “Religion,” Sibbes said, “is mainly in the affections.” God is the affectionate, loving sovereign, with every “sincere Christian… a favourite.” Given this understanding of Christianity, it is not surprising that Sibbes published sermons on the Song of Solomon; the book’s erotic poetry expressed well “the mutual joys and mutual praises of Christ and his church.” Sibbes realized that sensual language is a powerful metaphor for the love between God and the soul.

“The putting of lively colours upon common truths hath oft a strong working both upon the fancy and our will and affections,” and it was the will and affections, Sibbes said, that must be reached by the preacher. “By heart I mean, especially, the will and affections.” As the understanding is in the brain, so the will, affections, and desires are in the heart. Thus Sibbes often used the four words interchangably. The heart is the faculty to which the understanding gives its thoughts and reasons “as a prince doth his wiser subjects, and as counsellors do a well ordered state.” The heart, in turn, affects the understanding. Sibbes spoke of the heart as essentially revealing the person. Though the heart, or will, always chooses “with the advisement of reason,” it is the heart, not reason, that is the determining (not judging) faculty of the soul, particularly in the unregenerate man. It is the “fountain of life,” the “inward motion,” the “feet,” the “wind” of the soul. Therefore, Sibbes said, “Love is the weight and wing of the soul, which carries it where it goes.”

Sibbes presented even depravity in affectionate terms. All non-Christians, he said, are “hard-hearted”; before conversion, all are “full of malice and base affections.” The carnal heart, overcast with passion and strong affections to the world, hates God naturally and cherishes corruption and rebellion against Him.

According to Sibbes, the heart’s preeminence is not a result of the fall but is central to God’s design. Yet, Sibbes recognized that problems occur where the heart or will is unsubdued; in such souls, the will usurps the rightful role of the understanding, where “the heart being corrupt sets the wit awork, to satisfy corrupt will.” Thus, both the heart and the understanding are dealt with in conversion and sanctification, the heart being the goal but judgment always being the entry point. As a result, the role of the understanding is to “breed” and “lead,” to “work upon,” to “warm” and “kindle” and even “inflame” the affections. Reason, Sibbes said, “is a beam of God.”

On the other hand, Sibbes was not content with religion contained entirely in the brain; he scorned men that “never see spiritual things experimentally… though they know these things in the brain.” “A man knows no more in religion than he loves and embraceth with the affections of his soul.” To embrace something in one’s affections was to know it experimentally, because the “will is the carriage of the soul.” If the grace of Christ were effectually working in the heart, one would do good; on the other hand, to be warned about evil desires and yet persist in pursuing them is “atheism” in the heart.

Conversion must, then, take place in the heart. Though it must include sanctification of judgment, it must also include the subduing of the will. “For it is not knowledge that will bring to heaven, for the devil hath that, but it is knowledge sanctified, seizing upon the affections.” In the unconverted man, the heart or will runs roughshod over the understanding, bribing it and bringing it along with its carnal desires. In conversion, both the mind and the heart need to be changed—the mind is enlightened, and the very desires and tastes of the heart are altered. God must come in to the heart to rule it, seizing on the powers of the soul, subduing the inward rising of the heart and the innate rebellion against the truth of God; He must “bring the heart down” by opening the heart to believe, and working in it to cause repentance. God “turns” the heart to Himself and “frees the will” to serve Him. Though the whole man remains touched by the fall, the enlightened understanding will increasingly judge correctly and will be obeyed rather than coerced, allowing man to show his distinction from the beasts. In Sibbes, then, both depravity and conversion find their core in the heart, but neither in such a way as to deny the essential role of the understanding.

Therefore, while Sibbes taught that the will or heart is the most powerful faculty in the soul, that it must be changed at conversion, and that the understanding will never move the soul without the will, he never presented religion as essentially arational: “All grace come in through the understanding enlightened.” The mind is “the most excelleant part of the soul.” The purpose of regeneration is to “reestablish” the “ideal supremacy of reason over will.” In the regenerate man, the Spirit of God subdues the will to His Word coming through the understanding: “All comfort cometh into the soul by knowledge…. Indeed, all graces are nothing but knowledge digested.”

Given the centrality of the heart in Sibbes’ presentations of depravity and conversion, it is no surprise to find him speaking of the Christian life as one driven by holy loves and desires. “The gospel breeds love in us to God,” he said. Though this love may first be simply for the salvation Christ has brought, “when she [the soul] is brought to him, and finds that sweetness that is in him, then she loves him for himself.” God becomes the one thing the soul most desires. Echoing Augustine’s Confessions, Sibbes wrote, “The soul is never quiet till it comes to God… and that is the one thing the soul desireth.” Only those who so love God, preferring Him to carnal pleasures, riches, and honors, find Him. A desire to do all to honor God and love Him typifies the life of the Christian. “Whatsoever we do else, if it be not stirred by the Spirit, apprehending the love of God in Christ, it is but morality. What are all our performances if they be not out of love to God?”

For the Christian, to be in this world means separation from what he most desires. Christ Himself underwent this during the incarnation. Therefore, Christians, too, must expect this life to be marked by longing. Like David, the Christian will desire “to see the beauty of God in his house, that his soul might be ravished in the excellency of the object, and that the hightest powers of his soul, his understanding, will, and affections might be fully satisfied, that he might have full contentment.” “Therefore, we should press the heart forward to God” because the Christian will only find rest in heaven, “where all desires shall be accomplished.” Affectionately stated, the point of the Christian life is “to grow in nearer communion with God by his Spirit, to have more knowledge and affection, more love and joy and delight in the best things daily.” Therefore, Christians are to “labour to have great affections” for God, and subsequently, for other, lesser goods, particularly His ordinances through which His presence is enjoyed. Whereas the worldling must always finally loose that which he desires, the Christian never does.

Preeminently, the affection God uses is love. Once one is converted, this love becomes the driving force of the soul to God. As the “prime and leading affection of the soul,” the “firstborn affection of the soul,” love motivates the soul to action. “Love is an affection full of inventions,” zealously pursuing the pleasure of the beloved. Thus, love “will constrain us to obedience” because “it studies to please the person loved as much as it can every way.” That is why Sibbes exhorted: “Beloved, get love…. It melts us into the likeness of Christ. It constrains, it hath a kind of holy violence in it. No water can quench it. We shall glory in sufferings for that we love. Nothing can quench that holy fire that is kindled from heaven. It is a glorious grace.” Similarly, love performs a “sweet kind of tyranny” making a man willing even to die. “Nothing is hard to love; it carries all the powers of the soul with it.” Thus, since one who loves will do anything for “the contentation of the person beloved,” “one should “labour for a spirit of love… . Nothing is grievous to the person that loves.”

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© 2018 Ligonier Ministries

AGING IN HOPE

 

by Johan D. Tangelder

 

Posted on June 14, 2018

I am 68 years of age and retired, so I suppose I am considered old. In our politically correct times, I am called either a “senior citizen” or “chronologically gifted.”

 

What is aging? How do we react to it? These questions are no longer academic for me. When I was in my teens, I thought that people in their fifties were old. At this juncture in my life, a fifty-year-old seems relatively youthful. So aging is ambiguous. Bernard Nash describes aging as a paradox: “Does it not strike you that we all want to live longer but none of us want to grow old?”

 

Throughout our lives we think otherpeople grow older until we gradually realize that we ourselves have aged. Some say that aging can be compared with the fall season when the fruits ripen and the leaves fall; others claim that the moment of aging has arrived when the sum total of memories has become greater than our expectations. Aging, says the American gerontologist Howel, “is not a simple slope which everyone slides down at the same speed. It is a flight of irregular stairs down which some journey more quickly than others.”

 

To grow old also means to lose acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death. Obituaries testify that life is the process of aging, and aging is the steady progress of dying within us. Every moment we are alive, we are aging. Life and death are intimately linked. The day is coming when all our earthly possessions will be swept away, including our ability to enjoy them. This is not a morbid view of life – it is simply reality.

 

As the 17th century poet Robert Herrick wrote,

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying.

And this same flower, that smile today,

Tomorrow will be dying.

 

So how do we cope with aging? We live in a society that has shown little understanding of growing old, and valued it even less. The Christian literature on aging seems sparse, with far more attention paid to child-rearing. Too little attention has been given to caring for aged parents.

 

DENIAL CAN’T LAST

It’s seems the fear of aging has contributed to a denial of reality – if we don’t talk about it, maybe it won’t happen to us, right?

 

This sort of denial is why some find visiting a nursing home a burden. They can’t imagine themselves ever being there. They don’t want the reminder of their own mortality.

 

Our society views frankness about death as deviant, a subject not to be discussed in polite company. For many death is the last taboo in Western culture; for others it has become an exploited sentimentality: people don’t attend funerals anymore, but instead “celebrations of a life lived.”

 

And when they do talk about death, it is to make light of it, with styrofoam tombstones on the front yard on All Hallows’ Eve. But their atheistic naturalism leaves them unable to face the brute finality of death. And because they are unwilling to return to a biblical perspective, a new generation puts their faith in reports of out-of-body experiences and in New Age mysticism.

 

Still, try as it might, the world cannot keep death out of sight and mind. The moment we are born, we begin to die.

 

PERPETUAL TEENAGERS

The world’s death denial is evident, too, in how it is now a common goal among the aged to stay young. Or, rather, not just stay young, but stay immature. Whereas in the past becoming an adult was the ideal, today the older generation wants to look as young as possible, with some trying to camouflage their age by dressing like teenagers.

 

In his own inimitable and not very flattering way, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge reported on a month he spent at a resort in Florida. He said that everything was done to make senior citizens feel that they were not really aged, but still full of zest and expectations; if not teenagers, then keenagers. These seniors, he said, had withered bodies arrayed in dazzling summer wear, hollow eyes glaring out of garish caps, skulls plastered with cosmetics, lean shanks tanned a rich brown, bony buttocks encased in scarlet trousers. Muggeridge’s description may be exaggerated, but it does say something about the affect contemporary youth culture has on our society. It has a negative and morbid view of aging.

 

FOREVER ON EARTH?

The advertisement industry contributes to this mood. Wherever we look, there are ads for anti-aging creams, yoga routines, nutritional programs, and medical interventions. Growing old is seen not so much as part of the human condition but rather as a solvable medical and scientific problem. Hence, doctors and scientists search for a solution to the “problem of old age.”

 

What are the chances that scientific advance will find a way to extend life indefinitely? A number of investors have paid large sums to have their bodies frozen at death by means of cryogenics, which is used to freeze beef and vegetables, as well as people. But as Dr. Russell points out in his secular work Good News About Aging, those who cherish dreams of being defrosted and living forever some time hence are probably cherishing an implausible dream because freezing destroys human body cells. He adds:

“…even if we can overcome this and other problems, no scientific evidence suggests that we can expect to eliminate death now or in the future because all things break down over time.”

 

And what if we couldlive forever? In our fallen world, would we really want to? In his 1922 play The Makropulos Secret, Karel Capek probes this issue with the 337-year-old character Emilia, who notes:

 

“… no one can love for three hundred years – it cannot last. And then everything tires one. It tires one to be good, it tires one to be bad. The whole earth tires one. And then you find out there is nothing at all: no sin, no pain, no earth, nothing.”

 

What a hideous future! To be given an everlasting longevity without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, without hope to be with the Lord in the new heaven and earth, is a dismal prospect. It is to live under a curse.

 

If we could live on in this world with all its pain, conflicts, without solving the immense human problems, a medically-expanded life would simply set the stage for more of same human conflicts and social injustices.

 

IMPATIENCE INSTEAD OF HONOR

Death denial is also evident in our youth’s treatment of the elderly. Aging frustrates modern youth – it interferes with their desire “to get things done.” Have you ever noticed the impatience shown in a lineup at the bank when a senior is trying to carry out a transaction? Their slower pace often exasperates the clerk and the younger customers waiting for their turn. These young people can’t imagine ever being in the same situation. Sure, other people age…but not them.

 

The conflict between the generations is a subject of much discussion. Many seem to view aging as a process to endure and suffer through, rather than as a temporally contingent gift from God to be approached with gratitude. The Canadian philosopher George Grant observed that old age is more and more seen as an unalleviated disaster, not only for those outside of it but by those people who are old themselves. And he noted that we do not see age as that time when the eternal can be realized, and we therefore pity the aged as coming to the end of historic existence.

 

Sociologists even refer to ageism, which can be defined as a general distaste for the elderly in our culture – equivalent to racial prejudice, but in this case unfair generalizations are made about any who are old: “all elderly people are forgetful,” “all elderly people are ill-tempered,” “all elderly people suffer from depression,” or “mental impairment is endemic to aging.” Contrary to the myth about aging, seniors do not necessarily decline in intelligence or lose their decision-making abilities. History gives us countless examples of creative, active, and productive seniors.

 

  • At 71, Michelangelo (1475-1564) was appointed the chief architect of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
  • After he was 63 years old, Joost Van den Vondel (1587-1679), Holland’s greatest poet, wrote Jephta, Luciferand Adam in ballingschap(Adam in exile).
  • George Bernhard Shaw (1856-1679), Irish dramatist and author, wroteFarfetched Fablesat 93.
  • Polish-born Arthur Rubinstein (1888-1982) gave a stunning performance at Carnegie Hall at the age of 90.

Like these famous people, there are millions of elderly people who are still productive and active in their own way and want to remain so. Ageism seems to comes about because people know little about old age, and because what they know is based on myth and fear.

People even talk about generational wars. In recent years, the conflict between the generations has become most noticeable due to the decreasing ability of government to pay for health and pension benefits. The pinch is already provoking generational conflict in the ambitious welfare states of Northern Europe, where birthrates and immigration rates are lower than in the United States and where the elderly wield considerable political clout. Young Europeans are complaining about the high cost of healthcare for the elderly, and are resentful of fees that are eroding the tradition of free university education. One German youth leader gained notoriety by suggesting that old folks should use crutches rather than seek expensive hip replacements.

 

Unfortunately, this generational conflict is also seen in churches today. Seniors don’t like to call their dominee “pastor Jack” and they certainly don’t like his casual appearance when he comes visiting. But when a vacant church thinks of calling a pastor there is a strong emphasis on youth. It seems that some search committees look for a twenty-five-year-old man with thirty years of experience.

 

A CHRISTIAN ALTERNATIVE

The differences between the generations don’t need to lead to conflicts. Christians can offer alternative understandings of aging. The Bible views the conflict between generations as abnormal. Yes, youth is a wonderful thing, but it is not the only thing. It is a blessing in many ways, but it can, on some occasions even be a curse. When Isaiah pronounced judgment on Jerusalem and Judah, he said, “I will make boys their officials; mere children will govern them” (Isa.3:4).

 

Young and old can come to mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. In the Kingdom of God, “Children’s children are a crown of the aged, and parents are the pride of their children” (Prov. 17:6). Old men dream dreams and young men see visions (Joel 2:28; cf. Acts 2:17). And God promises that He will be with His people of every age bracket. “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you” (Isa. 46:4).

So how do we face the twilight years of life? With feelings of dread… or of hope? Let’s delve further into God’s Word and see.

 

AGING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

In the Old Testament we find that God regards great age as the supreme reward of virtue. The aged were shown respect and honor. Old age is a blessing and not a curse. Scripture says, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Lev.19-32).

 

The psalmist testifies to growing old in hope. He says,

“The righteous … will still bear fruit in old age; They will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him” (Ps. 92:14-15).

 

Growing old became a symbol of blessing, wisdom, and righteousness – an honorable process by which God rewarded those who were obedient, for example, in honoring their own parents: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12).

 

In Proverbs readers are essentially promised a long life if their hearts will but, “keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they give you” (3:1-2). The very display of gray hair itself, a sure sign of growing old throughout the centuries, becomes in Scripture “a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Prov. 16:31).

 

By pushing the elderly aside to fringes of society, we diminish them and make our society the poorer through the loss of their experience and maturity. When Moses was 80 years old, God called him to lead His people to the Promised Land. At that greatly advance age, Moses became the historian, leader, and statesman of Israel. At about 85 years of age, Joshua was divinely commissioned to succeed Moses. At his death at 110 years of age, he was deeply mourned and his eminent service widely acknowledged (Josh. 24:29-31).

 

A NEW TESTAMENT BLESSING TOO

In the New Testament the attitude towards aging is no different from that in the Old Testament. Those who reached an advanced age were honored and esteemed in the community. Aged saints have a significant role in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The first characters to appear on the stage are the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were both “advanced in years” (Luke 1:7). They are the instruments of God’s purposes and the first interpreters of God’s saving acts.

 

Simeon and Anna are the prophetic chorus welcoming the child Jesus on the occasion of his purification in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). The remarkable thing is that the aged Simeon dies in the beginning of the Gospel account. His eyes are fixed in hope on the one newly born, in whose life, death, and resurrection the world will know peace. He has long been hoping for “the consolation of Israel,” and has been promised by the Holy Spirit that he will not die before he has seen the Lord’s Messiah. Anna – an eighty-four-year-old prophetess who frequents the Temple to worship and pray night and day – recognizes Jesus, gives thanks to God, and declares the news about him “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). As people who have clung to God’s promises over many years, they embody the virtues of long-suffering patience and trust in God’s ultimate faithfulness. They also exemplify faith and hope, even when circumstances seem hopeless.

Aging was not seen by the early Christians as a “problem” to which some sort of religious solution was required. In the entire New Testament, particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, the respect due to older members of the community is emphasized. The exhortations imply and speak explicitly of dutifully caring for widows, honoring the elderly, imitating their faith, and faithfulness. For example, “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as you would a father.” Here we find also specific directives that the community should provide assistance to widows over age of sixty, and that women recognized by the Church as widows should devote their energies to prayer, hospitality, and to service to the afflicted (2 Tim.5: 3-16).

 

In our youth obsessed culture, the elderly are strongly tempted to act youthful. They are expected to get a workout to remain in shape, get beauty treatments to rejuvenate themselves, and to dress in youth fashions. Should seniors long to be young again? I don’t think so. For Christians old age is not a dead-end street. As we age, we can still grow spiritually. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). He said to the Ephesians that we can progressively succeed in putting off the old self and putting on the new self and “be made new in the attitude of our minds.” This renewal through the Holy Spirit impacts our mental attitude, state of mind, and disposition with respect to God and His world throughout our life. In other words, we continue to develop our walk with God (Eph. 4:22-24).

 

NEVER TO OLD TO SERVE THE LORD

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, who suffered unspeakable horror in Nazi concentration camps, says that there is no reason to pity old people. And he adds this remarkable statement, “Instead, young people should envy them.” Why? Because seniors have something young people don’t possess. Frankl says that seniors have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the values they have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

 

In Book X of hisConfessions, Augustine (354-430) calls memory a “vast court” or “great receptacle.” The elderly have a rich storehouse of memories, and inner landscape to explore: times lost in idleness, opportunities well used, a fulfilling career, children grown up, and suffering gone through with dignity and courage. What an opportunity for our youth to tap into the memories of their grandparents! Covenantal obligations never cease. The Christian faith is passed on from one generation to the next. It depends on that transmission. That’s why there must always be a most intimate relationship between the present and the coming generation if there is to be a future generation of Christians.

The Church cannot be the Church without the elderly. They are the embodiment of the Church’s story. Of course, we do not expect that all the elderly will be able to express the “wisdom of their years.” But there can be no substitute for some old people in the Church passing on their wisdom to the younger generation.

 

The youth simply cannot do without the older generation. In our culture, for a few years young adults may pretend (egged on by social and cultural forces) that they can live forever as autonomous, self-reliant, self-fulfilling beings. The pretense, however, collapses soon enough. The presence of the visible vulnerable elderly is a reminder that we are not our own creators. All of us will age; dark and blond hair will turn grey. Consequently, young Christians need the elderly so they will not take their lives for granted. I will say it again: the Church cannot be the Church without the elderly. That’s why throughout history the Church has frowned on separating the young from the old through conducting youth services. I have even read about a Church where no older people were expected to attend. But according to Scripture old and young belong together. They are all part of the great family of God.

Our covenant youth need to hear from their grandparents and seniors in the Church what it means to be a Christian. Grandparents know the family traditions and values. They can tell the story of their wartime experiences, their immigration with its hardship and adventures, and the reasons for leaving the country of their birth. Seniors can give to the youth the lessons and spiritual resources that have been harvested over a lifetime.

 

Our times are so confusing and threatening for our young people. Why not explain to them that the Christian faith is for all of life: hence the founding of Christian schools, colleges, universities, a Christian labor association, Christian magazines and bi-weeklies, and a Christian political party? Why not tell them that doing good works is doing your work well? Why not testify to them how the Lord’s promise “Surely I am with you always” (Matt.28:20) is a reality and not a myth? The lessons learned from godly grandparents and other Christian seniors are often long remembered.

 

HOPE IN CHRIST

As we age, we become more aware of the swift passing of years. We can either let the fear of death put a mental stranglehold on us or we can look to the future with hope. Let’s remember, the best is yet to come! Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord is the ground of our hope and the promise of our deliverance.

 

The hope of the resurrection lies at the heart of the way in which Christians embody the practices of growing old. We serve a faithful God who will never forget us! We are strangers and pilgrims on earth, the older we become the nearer we are to our eternal home. This truth encourages even the oldest individual to cherish each moment of life while preparing to relinquish it. Each day is a gift from God. We look to Him for our daily bread while making sure that we seek first the kingdom of God rather than squandering our time and energy on secondary concerns. With the prospect of a glorious future for all who are in Christ, we can identify with Martin Luther’s suggestions that “in the purpose of God, this world is only a preparation and a scaffolding for the world to come.” I also think of John Calvin’s teaching in his Geneva Catechismthat we are “to learn to pass through this world as though it is a foreign country, treating all things lightly and declining to set our hearts on them.”

 

We all face death some time or another. When we are old, it is more of a reality than in the days of our youth. I pray that our attitude toward death may resemble that of Lutheran pastor, scholar, and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who with shining face in joyful expectation, said to the two Nazi guards who had to come to take him to be executed, “For you it is the end, for me the beginning.”

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Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at ReformedReflections.ca.

BAND OF BROTHERS by David Robertson

Real men don’t eat quiche, and real men don’t do church. For a variety of cultural and sociological reasons, it has become an accepted fact that the majority of people in most churches are women. It is now a given in Western Europe and in much of North America that religion is “for the wife.”

Scottish sociologist Callum Brown, in his book The Death of Christian Britain, argues that the church was doing rather well until the 1960s, and it was only then that it began to fall apart. Why? Because the women, who were the gatekeepers of the church and who “brought men in,” were influenced by materialism, the sexual revolution, and changing roles in society. Men then began to abandon Christianity as the “crutch” for women.

It is an interesting theory, not without its flaws, but where it does resonate is in the simple fact that a church with very few men is a church that will not long survive. Perhaps the renewal of Christianity in the West will come through a renewal of Christianity among men.

But why would men come to church? Why would men come to Christ? Despite the mass gender confusion that I would term the “Calvin Kleinization” of our culture, I would like to suggest that the real, robust message of the other Calvin, the message and practice of biblical Christianity, is inherently attractive to men and provides what we all need. It is a sad fact that the teaching that in Christ “there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28) has too often been retranslated to mean that “there is no male.” We have been neutered. No wonder men stay away. The answer is not to paint ourselves in blue wode (a blue dye) and run through the woods yelling in search of our inner warrior. The answer is simply to be men of Christ and men of His Word, just as women are to be women of Christ and women of His Word. Indeed, just as the women need the sisterhood, so the men need the brotherhood — the band of brothers.

Many men fear that as they grow up they will be alone. Men need their friends, their pals, their mates. That is why some remember even the horrors of war with a certain fondness — something beautifully portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers. They really were together. There was a comradeship, camaraderie, and an esprit d’corps that transcended many of the fears and follies of war. Men today seek that in sports or in pubs and bars. I play chess in a local working- men’s club in my home city. The bar is invariably full of men playing games, watching TV, drinking, and just being together. There is a positive side to it, but it really is a pale shadow of what we should be able to offer in the church. Most men would be shocked to hear that, but we really do not ask men to give up the best aspects of being a man with other men; we offer an even better version. Men are not asked to become loners or feminized when they come to faith in Jesus. Instead, they become “real men.”

Take a look at Jesus and His disciples. Take a look, for example, at John 21. Let’s notice some basic principles about being a Christ-centered “band of brothers.” It was after the cross and the resurrection — amazing, stunning events. What were the disciples doing? They were hanging out together by the Sea of Tiberias. Seven of them. Bored. So Simon Peter announced that he was going fishing, and his friends quickly declared, “We’ll go with you.” They went out in the boat all night and caught nothing. (But it was not a competition, and I’ll bet they had a good time and enjoyed being together.) Principle number one: Men like being together and doing things together.

I was a minister in the small Highland village of Brora in Sutherland, Scotland. The village had a large church building. One day, a “brickie” (a man who did stonework on houses) turned up at the church and was amazingly converted — sweat pouring down his brow as he wrestled with the Lord. As a result, he came to the church one Saturday morning with some hand tools, a couple of drills, and some mortar. “Let’s remortar the church,” he said. We started off that morning with a couple of men, two ladders, and some basic tools. We ended the day with a compressor, a cement mixer, enough scaffolding to reach the roof (donated by a local contractor), and twenty men — about half from the church, the rest local men who stopped to chat and volunteered to join in. Every Saturday for several weeks we did the same thing. We laughed, chatted about everything from football (the real version, in which you use your feet) to the Lord, and had great fellowship together. It was with a sense of sorrow that we finished the work. Not only had we saved the congregation a fortune, but more importantly we had worked together, bearing witness to Jesus. Get your men together — and it doesn’t have to be with a men’s breakfast Bible study all the time.

Back to John 21. Then Jesus appeared, and though they did not recognize Him on the shoreline, they still did what He said — they let down the net and caught so many fish that these seven strong men could not get it in the boat. In an astonishing verse (v. 7), we are told that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” recognized Jesus and said to Peter: “It is the Lord.” Wait. Doesn’t Jesus love everyone equally? No. Jesus had His special friends too. Of course, He loved all His disciples, but He had a special love for John. They were all His friends, but John was His best friend. His inner circle included James and Peter also.

Principle number two: It is not only OK but essential that men have “best mates.” There are people with whom you click, with whom you bond more closely than others. This is not like some kind of exclusive club; rather, it is something that enables and strengthens you and your friends so that you are in a position to better serve others. The trouble with too many of us today is that we have lots of acquaintances but very few real friends. There is for us no “band of brothers” — and it is very lonely.

For twenty-five years, a day has hardly gone by when I did not phone or receive a call from my colleague and best friend, David Meredith, the minister of Smithton Free Church. I also thank God for providing me with another friend here in my city of Dundee. John is someone whose company I enjoy, and his friendship and fellowship go deeper and mean far more than I can say. And I am thankful to have other men whom I would want, and do want, in a fight with me. There is a Friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). And sometimes He provides us with special friends to sustain, encourage, enjoy, and bear our burdens.

Continuing our look at John’s gospel, after the disciples came ashore, Jesus invited them for breakfast, and the men duly joined in. Principle three: Men like food and drink. Work and sport, companionship and friendship, and now food and drink. Is there any culture in the world where that “formula” is not applicable to men? I am a Presbyterian, and for my sins this means that sometimes I have to attend presbytery meetings. Often these meetings can suck the spiritual blood out of you, although occasionally there is a renewed transfusion. But always the best part of the meeting is the break when a bunch of us head to a local pub or restaurant and have a meal together. The laughter, the sharing, — the food and fellowship — is a tonic. Incidentally, it always provides a point of witness when the waitress asks, “What do you guys do for a living?” The look on her face when we tell her is proof enough that the last answer she was expecting was “We are a bunch of Presbyterian ministers.”

Finally, my fourth principle: Men like challenges. After their meal, Jesus spoke to Peter and gently but firmly challenged him as to his failures, predicted his horrendous death, and called him to sacrifice and service. The challenge was not just to Peter — it is a collective one. The call to follow Christ is not just a call to a quiet life of inner private devotion. It is a call to radical and costly service. It is a call to real manhood.

The basic principle of our Christian “band of brothers” is that we really would die for one another. We are able to do so only because of our Brother who has gone before us and calls us, fills us with His Spirit, and enables us to live for Him, work for Him, and die for Him — together. One for all and all for One. It is so precious and real because it was bought with the greatest price of all. That is the beauty of Christian brotherhood.

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