The Bishop: Take True Christians as They Are

Richard Baxter was a minister at Kidderminster for seventeen years in the 17th century. While Baxter’s views on justification depart from reformed orthodoxy, he was an exemplary model of pastoral care and faithfulness.

“I do not ask men to regard him as a perfect and faultless being, any more than Cranmer, or Calvin, or Knox, or Wesley. I do not at all defend some of Baxter’s doctrinal statements. He tried to systematise things which cannot be systematised, and he failed. You will not find such a clear, full gospel in his writings as in those of Owen, and Bridge, and Traill. I do not think he was always right in his judgment. I regard his refusal of a bishopric as a huge mistake. By that refusal he rejected a glorious opportunity of doing good. Had Baxter been on the episcopal bench, and in the House of Lords, I do not believe the Act of Uniformity would ever have passed.

But in a world like this we must take true Christians as they are, and be thankful for what they are. It is not given to mortal man to be faultless. Take Baxter for all together, and there are few English ministers of the gospel whose names deserve to stand higher than his. Some have excelled him in some gifts, and some in others. But it is seldom that so many gifts are to be found united in one man as they are in Baxter. Eminent personal holiness, amazing power as a preacher, unrivalled pastoral skill, indefatigable diligence as a writer, meekness and patience under undeserved persecution, all meet together in the character of this one man. Let us place him high in our list of great and good men. Let us give him the honour he deserves. It is no small thing to be the fellow countryman of Richard Baxter.” —J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times

The Walking Is Not a Speed Bump (John 6:1–21)

John 6:5–7 (ESV)

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.”

—John 6:5–7

As the fourth sign of feeding the five thousand coasts along from the sign itself (6:1–15) towards its significance (6:22ff), we may feel that the fifth sign of Jesus walking on the water is an unnecessary speed bump. Why it is here? Yes, it is chronologically sequential and explains how we get from one side of the sea to the other with the same crowd. This is true, but we’ve only relocated the question. This tells us something of why John wrote the story this way, but why does the Father write it this way? Why does the Father ordain that the walking happen now? Why does he pave the road from here to there with what seems to be a speed bump in between? Why didn’t Jesus in this instance just get into the boat and go to the other side with the disciples and retire to a solitary place thereafter?

If there is one word that more than any other links the feeding to the walking and the talking, it is the word “test” (v. 6). Jesus said this to test him. Only in John is the question directly directed to Philip, who hailing from the nearby town of Bethsaida, would best know where bread could be procured for such a crowd. In the Synoptics, this problem is put to all the disciples. You can see that here too as Andrew feels free to pipe in and as all the disciples are given commands to deal with the need. Jesus tests Philip. Philip stands in for all the disciples. Jesus is testing them. What is Jesus testing? Mark spells it out for us as he links the walking with the feeding. 

“And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

—Mark 6:51–52

They did not understand the feeding, but after the walking the lesson begins to set in. Their tested faith being found lacking, is now tested by water, and comes out cleaner on the other side. Matthew tells us, “And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:32–33).

Does John really intend to demonstrate that the faith that faltered in the feeding is strengthened by the storm? On the other side of the sea, when many depart from Jesus as He unpacks the significance of the feeding, Jesus turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you want to go away as well?” This time it is Peter who speaks for the twelve. He replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

John tells us that this gospel is written to put these signs before us that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing, we might have life in His name. These signs are for faith. They are not only for sowing faith in the barren hearts of unbelievers. They are for strengthening the established faith of those who believe. These signs are both for the budding and the blooming of faith.

The walking is no speed bump in-between the feeding and the talking. It is wind in the sails of the disciples’ faith bringing them to the other side.

The Bishop: Beware the Middling Unprotestantizer

William Laud, the bane of the Puritans, was Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I from 1633–1645.

“Laud’s real policy next demands our attention. What was it? What was he driving at all his life? What did he want to do? What was his object and aim? I do not believe, with some, that he really desired to Romanize the Church of England, or meant and intended, if possible, to reunite it with the Church of Rome. I think those who say this go too far, and have no sufficient ground for their assertions. But I decidedly think, that what he did labour to effect was just as dangerous, and would sooner or later have brought back downright Popery, no matter what Laud meant or intended. I believe that Laud’s grand idea was to make the Church of England less Protestant, less Calvinistic, less Evangelical, than it was when he found it. I believe he thought that our excellent Reformers had gone too far; that the clock ought to be put back a good deal. I believe his favourite theory was, that we ought to occupy a medium position between the Reformation on the one side, and Rome on the other, and that we might combine the ceremonialism and sacramentalism of St Peter’s on the Tiber with the freedom from corruption and ecclesiastical independence of St Paul’s on the Thames. He did not, in short, want to go back to the Vatican, but he wanted to borrow some of its principles, and plant them in Lambeth Palace. I see in these ideas and theories a key to all his policy. His one aim from St John’s, Oxford, till he was sent to the Tower, was not to Romanize, but to unprotestantize the Church of England. Some may think this a nice and too refined a distinction. I do not. A ‘Romanizer’ is one thing, an ‘unprotestantizer’ is another.”

When Jesus Calls Witnesses (John 5:30–47)

31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true.

John 5:31–32

C.S. Lewis wrote, 

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”

Very true, yet, we might say Lewis gave the ancient man too much credit. While our Lord walked this earth, as the Jews were constantly “judging” Him, they were expressing a sin with roots running all the way back to Eden. In trying to be like God, we treat God like a man. We sit in judgment. We might still believe in a God who is judge, but we’ve remade Him in our own image so that we fare better under His judgment. We have tried to flip the court. 

Jesus flips it back right side up. He calls forth witnesses. Witnesses to His identity. When Jesus calls witnesses, it is essential we remember who sits in the dock.

Man is not without a witness to God, and thus, man stands in the dock as guilty for rejecting this witness. All have the witness of general revelation. This is a revelation of given generally to all men through creation, providence, and the conscience. Romans 1:18ff tells us that the eternal power and divine nature of God is revealed to all men. Further, because men suppress this truth, the wrath of God is revealed against them for their doing so.  Look honestly around at this world under the curse and left in its sin and you cannot deny this conclusion: God is powerful and God is angry. He is just. We are condemned. We are not without witness. We have witness not only to the eternal God, but to our infinite sin and of our cursed condemnation.

All men have this witness, but some also have the witness of special revelation. And though this revelation speaks even more clearly of our sin and our condemnation, it does so as a presupposition for another purpose. Special revelation testifies to the mercy and grace and redemption of the Triune God. It witnesses to these truths. This is the witness that has long been set before the Jews. And now in this text, with Christ, the light of redemptive revelation is nearing its zenith. Yet the Jewish authorities are blind. They are so blind, they think Jesus is in the dock and it is they who sit on the judgment bench as judge.

Dear souls, this is the witness that is set before you today in the Scriptures. Creation speaks of the glory of your God and the heinousness of your sin against Him and the terror of His wrath. Scripture speaks louder of this glory that you have sinned against but adds to it the glory of His redemption. In the light of this witness, there will either be a great salvation or a great sin today. Realize that you sit in the dock with the Jews. Do not try to flip the courtroom as they do. Do not think you are hearing witnesses called for you to stand in judgment over Jesus.

Jesus calls witnesses as one who stands ready to save you, a sinner already condemned. Graciously Jesus puts these witnesses before these men and before us. We are in the dock. Jesus testifies to Himself here. 

Receive Him and there is life. Reject Him and you don’t simply remain in your sin. Your sin has grown exponentially more deplorable and your judgment greater, for you have not just suppressed the witness of general revelation, but the witness of special revelation.

How you receive this testimony is a matter of life or death. Hear this witness, and you will leave the court graciously justified. Reject this witness, and you will leave justly condemned.

The Bishop: Pernicious Trifles

“Now, I say there can be no greater mistake than to suppose that the great controversy of our times is a mere question of vestments and ornaments; of chasubles and copes; of more or less church decorations; of more or less candles and flowers; of more or less bowings and turnings and crossings; of more or less gestures and postures; of more or less show and form. The man who fancies that the whole dispute is a mere aesthetic one, a question of taste, like one of fashion and millinery, must allow me to tell him that he is under a complete delusion. He may sit on the shore, like the Epicurean philosopher, smiling at theological storms, and flatter himself that we are only squabbling about trifles; but I take leave to tell him that his philosophy is very shallow, and his knowledge of the controversy of the day very superficial indeed. 

The things I have spoken of are trifles, I fully concede. But they are pernicious trifles, because they are the outward expression of an inward doctrine. They are the skin disease which is the symptom of an unsound constitution. They are the plague spot which tells of internal poison. They are the curling smoke which arises from a hidden volcano of mischief. I, for one, would never make any stir about church millinery, or incense, or candles, if I thought they meant nothing beneath the surface. But I believe they mean a great deal of error and false doctrine, and therefore I publicly protest against them, and say that those who support them are to be blamed.” —J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times

Jesus Visits a Healing Service (John 5:1–18)

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

—John 5:2–5

Jesus, unlike modern faith healers, visited the sick ward. Joni Erickson Tada, after becoming a quadriplegic at 17, went to a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service where she was taken to the wheelchair section. The spotlight shone over the crowd, highlighting the many attesting to be healed, but Joni said the spotlight never shone on the wheelchair section. Kuhlman never visited the wheelchair section. Justin Peters, who has cerebral palsy, also went to faith healers at a young age and has a similar testimony. Jesus, unlike Benny Hinn, Todd White, or Bill Johnson, often went to the sick ward. He wasn’t afraid of being discredited or exposed as a fraud.

From this multitude, John singles out one man in particular. John singles him out because Jesus singled him out, (v. 5). This is no easy case. Here is a man who has been an invalid, suffering likely from some form of paralysis or extreme weakness, for 38 years. Jesus, seeing this man and knowing that he had been there a long time, doesn’t pass him by, but engages him, (v. 6). The Son shines a spotlight on this man in the wheelchair section.

Some manuscripts explain that an angel would visit the pool and something supernatural would follow (see vv. 3b–4 in the KJV). Instead of “Last one in is a rotten egg!” it was a game of “First one in gets a healed leg.” This explanation appears to be a later editorial gloss as it is only in some manuscripts and varies markedly among those that do contain it. I don’t believe it tells us why the pool was stirred so much as it tells us why they believed the pool was stirred. These poor souls had gathered for a healing service, and Jesus visited the wheelchair section. The multitude gathered here says the pool is inefficient at best or, more likely, that it is ineffective all together.

Jesus singled this man out. This man who has his poor-man’s pallet with him. He heals him and tells him not simply to rise and walk, but to “get up, take up your bed, and walk.” The seemingly benign phrase “take up your bed” would stir the pool of Jewish leadership. This would lead to Jesus stirring things up more by explaining that the reason He is working is because His Father is working. This work doesn’t count as work because it is a divine work. When Jesus cleansed the temple, they demanded a sign. Now, they have one, and they want to kill Him for it.

These signs were written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30–31). The spotlight fell on this man so that the spotlight might fall on Christ. He is the Christ, the one who can deal with the curse of sin because He will deal with the sin of the curse. He is the Son of God, the only begotten, the eternally begotten, who was in the beginning with God and was God, and remaining what He was, became flesh.

The Bishop: Dying He Lived

“At first it was fully expected that he [John Hooper] would suffer in Smithfield with Rogers. This plan, for some unknown reason, was given up, and to his great satisfaction Hooper was sent down to Gloucester, and burnt in his own diocese, and in sight of his own cathedral. On his arrival there, he was received with every sign of sorrow and respect by a vast multitude, who went out on the Cirencester Road to meet him, and was lodged for the night in the house of a Mr Ingram, which is still standing, and probably not much altered. There Sir Anthony Kingston, whom the good bishop had been the means of converting from a sinful life, entreated him, with many tears, to spare himself, and urged him to remember that ‘Life was sweet, and death was bitter.’ To this the noble martyr returned this memorable reply, that ‘Eternal life was more sweet, and eternal death was more bitter.'” —J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times

An Unwelcoming Welcome (John 4:43–54)

“After the two days he departed for Galilee. (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.”

—John 4:43–45

Here, a puzzling statement makes the following statement puzzling. Unfortunately, we’re tempted to grab the hammer and make the pieces fit instead of doing the hard work of finding out how they fit. Rather than knocking off the rough edges of the first piece, it is after connecting its oddity to the second piece (a piece that initially didn’t seem to go with it) that it comes to make sense.

Jesus departs for Galilee because, as He has testified, a prophet has no honor in his hometown. That’s puzzling. To hammer the piece in place, a number of clunky explanations are suggested. The most reasonable of these is that, as in the synoptic gospels, “hometown” refers specifically to Nazareth. Jesus goes to Galilee, but once there, He doesn’t go to that place He is shown no honor—Nazareth. My problem with this explanation is that Nazareth is nowhere in view, the context doesn’t give the slightest hint of Nazareth.

Instead, I believe that what was true of Nazareth is being expanded to apply to the region of Galilee. Galilee, alongside Judea, is being set in contrast to Samaria. What we see in both Judea and Galilee is the truth John introduced in John 1:11, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

But the Galileans have a peculiar way of not honoring Jesus. They welcome Him. This isn’t puzzling in itself. It is puzzling in how it fits with the last piece. There is a way of welcoming Jesus that does not honor Him. The key word to unlocking what a dishonoring welcome consists of is the word “seen.” The Samaritans, we were told repeatedly, believed because of the testimony of the woman and the word of Christ (4:39–42). But these Galileans, like the Judeans, “believe” because of what they see.

“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23–25).

Not all welcoming is welcoming. Not all believing is believing. Not all receiving is receiving. And what distinguishes the true from the false is that in the false the eye is elevated above the ear. Marvel takes precedence over meaning. 

And so it is that Jesus is welcomed in many churches today where the eye is awed while ears remain deaf as the word of the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation is not proclaimed. Charismatic churches provide wonders. Evangelical churches have fog and lights. Even much of the young, restless, and reformed crowd has frequently proven to be more about hype than hearing. Such welcoming isn’t excited to receive the King, but the parade of gifts that come in His train. That this is so, that this is the correct interpretation I take to be clear in Jesus rebuff, “unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

Sinner, you do not need to see a sign for faith to be. You need to see the significance of the signs that are and believe. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. John records these signs so that you may believe this truth and that by believing you may have life in His name.

The Bishop: The Measure of a Church

“Which are the Churches on earth which are producing the greatest effect on mankind? The Churches in which the Bible is exalted. Which are the parishes in England and Scotland where religion and morality have the strongest hold? The parishes in which the Bible is most circulated and read. Who are the ministers in England who have the most real influence over the minds of the people? Not those who are ever crying ‘Church! Church!’ but those who are faithfully preaching the word. A Church which does not honour the Bible is as useless as a body without life, or a steam engine without fire. A minister who does not honour the Bible is as useless as a soldier without arms, a builder without tools, a pilot without compass, or a messenger without tidings.” —J.C. Ryle, Light From Old Times

The Fading Lamp Shines Brightest (John 3:22–36)

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

“He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John.”

—John 3:30; 5:35–36

O what paradoxical glory! As this lamp fades, he shines brightest. John was not the Light, but he was a lamp. It is when the lamp exclaims “I am not the Light” that it shines brightest. When John says “I am not the Christ” it is then that he radiates with Christ-like glory. Edward Klink comments, “It was only at the point of his ‘not’ that the Baptist could truly be who he was supposed to be, a messenger for the message and a witness to the true ‘I AM.’”

When a loyal herald announces the coming of the King, he isn’t downcast when people then move to the side and look down the street. That’s the point! If John were a fish, this is water. John, as one sent before the Lord, heralds, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And when the crowd then turns their eyes from him to the bridegroom, he “rejoices with joy.”

When all eyes look down the street for the king, that is when the herald is greatest and gladdest. Saints, this is oxygen, to use our lungs to say, “We are not! He is! Do not look to us. Look to Christ! We are just a voice. Jesus is the Word.” Saints, do you truly want to live? Then fill your longs with John’s exclamation, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”