Ian Jackson, Eastbourne, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
During our enforced sabbatical, my wife and I have been taking long walks in beautiful East Sussex. The heaths and woodlands of the Ashdown Forest, the verdant, rolling countryside around Bodiam and Brightling, and the picturesque Seven Sisters have been our companions. They have helped us to be leaner, fitter and thoroughly exhausted!
Being mere beginners at this we have not been following maps so much as detailed, downloaded directions. Purist hikers will, no doubt, look askance at us for this, but at least it has meant we have managed to find our way back to the places where we parked the car! During these hikes there have been many times when we have been struck by the ways in which they have reminded us of important things in the Christian life. Here are some of them.
The accuracy of the guide
Our guides are detailed, clear, illustrated and easy to read, but successful negotiation of the routes demands care and attention to what they say; wrong turns are easy to make. The suppositions of the ignorant walker are no match for the knowledge and wisdom of the author.
The language of any good guide is precise, and failure to read carefully and obey exactly leads to error. We have taken some wrong turns simply because we did not read the instructions with due diligence. We have learnt the difference between ‘bearing right’, ‘turning right’ and ‘forking right’, and between a ‘track’, a ‘footpath’ and a ‘bridleway’.
Should we be less careful with scripture? It is written for our learning, but how will we learn if we do not give it the careful attention it demands? We shall certainly be confused in our walk for the Lord if we don’t distinguish things that differ, such as Israel and the church, or the body of Christ and the local church. What if we fail to distinguish omniscience and foreknowledge? What if every future judgement conflates into one judgement; or the day of the Lord, the day of Christ and the day of God are confused? The list is endless; the need for care is paramount. Words have meanings and the significance of a particular word or, perhaps, a passage will be missed if we do not fully consider it.
We are to be diligent to shew ourselves ‘approved unto God’, workmen who do not need ‘to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’, 2 Tim. 2. 15. We may only rightly divide the word of truth by careful attention to its accurate, God-breathed words.
The importance of context
There have been times on our walks when a statement of direction has not made a lot of sense until we considered the next couple of sentences. It would have been so easy at these times either to go wrong or to go back, disappointed with the author and thinking that it was not worth following the guide. How wrong we would have been! In fact, on each such occasion, once the need for context has been recognized, we have seen the beauty of the accuracy of the statement we thought was nonsensical. The author knew all along!
In reading the Bible with the aim of understanding it, nothing is as important as context, whether the context is the whole book or chapter, or just the surrounding verses. In Bible study we quite properly look carefully at the meaning of words, with lexicons and concordances at the ready. However, especially in Bible Readings, people sometimes conclude that unless such detailed studies have been done, they have no hope of understanding the passage. This is not so. Nothing takes the place of contextual reading of the scriptures.
Here’s an example. What does the expression ‘the firstborn of every creature’ signify in Colossians chapter 1 verse 15? Some cults suggest that it has the idea that the Son of God was the first created being, thereby depriving Him of deity and relegating Him to mere creaturehood. This is so evidently not true that it takes a particularly devilish influence to make anybody think it. In fact, the preceding phrase, ‘Who is the image of the invisible God’, precludes the possibility that He is less than God, whilst the next phrases fully explain the meaning. He is the firstborn of every creature and of all creation because He designed it, He made it, and He is the object of it.
Similarly, and by way of further example, what is ‘the purchased possession’ in Ephesians chapter 1 verse 14? A non-contextual reading might see us concluding that we are the purchased possession and that the redemption of our body is in view. The context makes it clear, however, that the apostle is thinking about the inheritance we shall share with Christ, when a unified system of administration in heaven and earth will be headed up in Him. At Calvary He purchased it and its redemption; its deliverance from its present subjection to vanity, will take place when He comes to reign, Rom. 8. 16-22.
The need to retrace wrong steps
Even when taking care about the given directions it is possible to go wrong. On one occasion I was not completely happy when an already long walk became a whole lot longer because of my error! The only sure way to recover the right way, as set out in the guide, is to go back to the place where you went wrong.
The principle for this is established by Abraham going up out of Egypt to the place where he had first built the altar, Gen. 13. 1-4. In going down into Egypt, he went without direction from the Lord to do so, being governed by expediency rather than faith. This was disastrous for a number of reasons, but especially because in Egypt he had no further revelation from the Lord and erected no altars with which to worship Him. Recovery was vital. It came in very difficult circumstances but we can each share the feelings of Abraham as he returned to where he went wrong and the place of the first altar. The principle is illustrated at other times in the Bible, not least with Simon Peter after his denial of his Lord.
Is this a major lesson to learn from lockdown? How barren and unfruitful is our testimony! How devoid of spiritual power we are, so often! Let us get back to the place where we might have gone wrong. Repentance is as big a subject for the saint as it is for the sinner.
The value of those who have gone before
We are living in strange times. Modern man thinks that he can overthrow all that has gone before, as if the wisdom of earlier ages amounts to not much at all. The ‘woke’ culture demands so much destruction of the past with its antiquated, ‘hateful’ ideas, so many of which are, in fact, Bible based. They come for statues today, but tomorrow they will come for believers who refuse to think or speak in the way they want us to, and who will not bow the knee to their ideological and philosophical gods.
In fact, in scripture we are told to value those who have gone before, whether they are found in the cloud of witnesses referred to in Hebrews chapter 12 or amongst those who in chapter 13 have spoken unto us the word of God. In our walks we have been grateful so often for those who have gone the way before us, making sure paths for our feet and marking the way through some difficult terrain.
Let us not overthrow what others have passed down to us. We have a great heritage of accurate Bible teaching, both in books and recorded ministry. We also have the example of many who have gone before us, negotiating some tricky situations and passing on to us their experience. We should not discard the accumulated wisdom of the past. I am glad that in my childhood and teenage years I took the time to listen in to conversations between my parents and older believers who so often visited our home. It taught me to value those with knowledge of the word, and varied experience of mature Christians who had known something of the heat of the battle and the burden of the day.
May the Lord help us in our own day and generation to stick to the old paths of obedience to the word. ‘Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls’, Jer. 6. 16.
Uphill paths reach an end
The variety of topography and terrain means that some paths are easy and pleasant, whilst others are rough and tough. Toiling up a steep ascent with uneven ground under foot, one could be forgiven for thinking, at times, that the difficulty will never end! But, of course, it does. Trials are like this. ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’, Ps. 30. 5. We take courage, therefore, that even the most severe trials will not last for ever and, indeed, they bring their own blessings. The joy of enduring to the end and the new vistas that open up make the ascent worthwhile. Seeing things from a height gives a perspective unavailable to those who never climb. One of the great words of Hebrews is ‘endure’.
‘Had I my way to choose, how easy I
Would make it: how free from chilling blast,
How sheltered and secure. No piercing sorrow should invade
The precincts of my life; no disappointment fall
Across my eager spirit, but I should know
The sweets of rest, the joy of comfort
Undisturbed by any outer power.
Choose then thy way, O soul, but know
The way thou choosest. For thee no mountain heights,
No rapturous delights in daylight breaking;
No sense of victory gained, or evil driven. No, not for thee
The strength that comes in conflict sore; the joy
Of grand achievement, the gain that follows every loss,
And most of all the glory of the Cross
– these, these are not for thee.
Oh, better far, to let Him choose thy way
Who never chose His own; to let Him lead thee
Through the valley drear, and up the mountain steep;
Through light and dark, through sun and snow, to where
Eternal Love makes all things plain, and show us
How severest loss was lasting gain. Oh, better far,
To let him choose thy way: what wilt thou say?
Choose Thou my way, O Lord, I dare not
Choose my own; the things I crave for most –
A spirit pure, a heart at ease, a life from sin
Set free; these Thou alone canst give: all else
Is but a passing thought. Oh, may I not resent
Thy chastening hand, but learn to understand
That only Thou canst order me aright’