Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bishop Murdo Mackenzie

This short extract from a book called Historical and Traditional Sketches of Highland Families, and of the Highlands by John Maclean records the career of an Inverness minister during difficult days for evangelicals in the Highlands during the second half of the seventeenth century. The preacher concerned, Murdo Mackenzie, was willing to side with the government’s interference in the Presbyterian church and so became a bishop during the Covenanting period. The extract points to a possible origin of the Question Meeting (once common at communions) and also contains a rather strange response to one of Mackenzie’s sermons.

The Rev. Murdo Mackenzie. The above clergyman was a member of the family of Gairloch, and his first outset as a preacher was on being appointed chaplain to a regiment in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden; after which he was settled minister of the parish of Contin, Ross-shire; and from thence translated to Inverness in 1640, where his ministrations were highly appreciated.

The ‘speaking on the question’, or the meeting of the ‘Men’, on Fridays before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, originated with Mr Mackenzie – not in the church, however, but in his own house at Kingsmills, in which place, during his incumbency in Inverness, pious laymen were wont to assemble, edifying and instructing each other by stating their own Christian experience, as also their opinions of select passages of the Scriptures. Subsequently the meeting of the ‘Men’ became general throughout the Church in the North.

Although Mr Mackenzie had thus begun and established soul-edifying exercises in Inverness, yet he was so disgusted with the impiety of some of his parishioners that he determined on the first opportunity that presented itself to leave the parish. The following ludicrous affair heightened his resolution: Whilst addressing the Gaelic congregation from the important words, ‘Take up thy cross and follow me,’ a drouthy knight of the awl sat in the gallery in a state of inebriety, listening as attentively as he could to the impressive discourse of the preacher; and the words of the text attracting his attention, it occurred to him to turn them to a subject quite foreign to the purpose.

Accordingly, as Mr Mackenzie was returning home in the afternoon, and when ascending the Flesh Market Brae, he was suddenly alarmed by hearing moans and groans immediately behind him. Turning quickly round to his dismay he saw a man carrying a stout woman on his back. The bearer of the unwilling burden was the shoemaker, who, on Mr Mackenzie’s demanding to know why he behaved in such a manner to a female, was answered that he was hearing him that day in the Hielan’ Kirk, and that he (Mr Mackenzie) desired him to take up his cross and follow him, which he was just doing. The shoemaker had thus persisted in following the worthy minister, and it was only when the latter gave him a sixpence that he could get rid of him, desiring him at the same time to get out of his sight with his abominable cross.

Soon after this unhallowed affair, Mr Mackenzie, in 1645, was translated to Elgin, and on the restoration of Charles II., was consecrated Bishop of the diocese of Moray, on the 1st of May 1662; and in the end of the year 1676 was translated to the see of Orkney, where he died in February 1688.

Robert M'Watt

Another Disruption worthy, ‘a good minister of Jesus Christ,’ has gone to his rest.

Mr M’Watt was born at Inverness, of religious and reputable parents, in the year 1801. He received the rudiments of his education in his native town, where he was known as an apt and lively scholar. At a very young age he entered King’s College, Aberdeen, where he not only took a full curriculum, but a good place in his classes. He afterwards studied theology at the same university, and was duly licensed to preach the gospel. But though his vivacious youth, his glowing fervour, and his evangelical preaching made a deep impression wherever he preached, he had to wait a long time for a charge.

He acted as tutor for fifteen years in the family of Altyre, where he was held in high esteem, until he was presented by the Earl of Seafield to the church in Rothes in 1839. But he had scarcely set his manse in order when he felt bound in conscience towards Christ to leave it. Conservative in politics but thoroughly evangelical in religion, and true to the ancient polity and historical tradition of the Church of Scotland, he joined in 1843 the noble Disruption host, with whose contendings he was in fullest sympathy.

For several years both before and after this event he was so instant in season and out of season, preaching generally thrice on Sabbath, and frequently in the neighbourhood all round the week, that he sowed in his elastic and vigorous frame the seeds of the debility and pain of his later years.

He was not only the assiduous pastor, and even the medical adviser of the parish of Rothes, but, as the only Disruption minister in the parish of Aberlour, he either planted or watered all the Free Church congregations of the bounds. He also acted as Clerk of the Presbytery for twenty-seven years with singular courtesy, close attention to the business of the court, and much knowledge of Church law.

Towards the close of his long and laborious life he suffered from paralysis, and had the help first of a probationer, and latterly of an assistant and successor, for some time before his death, which took place at the manse on the 27th November, 1880.

As a minister of Christ, Mr M’Watt preached not only the old Puritan theology, but the gospel of God with great fervour, faithfulness and love. And we know that he was wise in winning souls to Christ, some of whom wept over his bier and bless his memory. He was beloved not only by his own people and co-presbyters, but by the congregations of the Presbytery and the whole community, who laid him in his new tomb with reverence and regret, feeling that they had lost a father in Israel. He was not only a man of culture, of polished manners and genial gentleness, but full of faith and of the fire of devotion, a good example of the Christian gentleman. Mr M’Watt, who was unmarried, was a brother indeed to the two sisters in whose society he lived, one of whom survives him.

(Dr Scott, Aberlour, Free Church of Scotland Monthly Record, June, 1881).

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Winsome persuasion

‘Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the Lord has promised good to Israel’ (Num. 10:29-32). This invitation to Hobab by Moses is well known and has often been used in preaching the gospel. It is likely that Hobab already was a believer in God, being a son of Jethro. Although he initially refused to go with Moses, he went later (Judges 1:16; 4:11).

How did Moses go about persuading Hobab to join them? In Moses’ method, there are four lessons for us regarding how to witness to others.

First, Moses, as he talks to Hobab, speaks as one who has experienced the redeeming power of God that was revealed when Israel were delivered out of Egypt. Hobab had not experienced that for himself, but Moses assures him that if he aligns himself with the people of God then he and his family will have their full share in the blessings of the promised land. In this, Moses is a picture of a believer urging another person to make the same choice as he himself as made.

Second, notice also that Moses is prepared to repeat the invitation. He did not think that telling Hobab once was sufficient. Not only did he repeat the invitation, but the second was more warm than the first. The second contains an element of pleading. Moses realised that Hobab would be the loser if he went home instead of continuing with the Israelites. Experience tells us that it is harder to resist an affectionate offer than a clinical one.

Third, Moses requested that Hobab would use his talents for the benefit of the people of God. He pointed out to Hobab that he could be useful in helping the Israelites cross the desert. True, they had the pillar of cloud and fire to guide and protect them, but Hobab would be useful in warning them of dangers and of providing them with shelter. Similarly, we can ask an individual to use his talents in the service of God rather than for promoting something else.

Fourth, Moses reminded Hobab that the Lord had made many promises of good to Israel. These promises are many: there was the promise of forgiveness of their sins, of divine protection on the journey, of God’s presence with them, of their prayers being answered. In addition, he assured Hobab that all the people would help him and share with him. And we can witness to the many blessings and benefits connected to the Christian life.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea showed his love for his Saviour at a crucial time and buried him in his own tomb. He is a reminder to us that God has his person for every emergency. Joseph is an example of a person who has been in the background spiritually but who comes to the fore when the cause of Christ seems to have been abandoned by everyone else.

The only details we have about Joseph are in the incident recorded in connection with Christ’s burial. No mention is made of him elsewhere in the New Testament. Arimathea, his hometown, has not been found with certainty. His life can be summarised as follows: he was a prominent man because he was an honourable counsellor; he was a pious man because he is described as being good and just; and he was a hopeful man, waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God.

Joseph served Jesus at an unlikely time. The cause of Christ was at a low point. All his disciples had fled. There seemed to be no one to take care of the body of the Saviour. Despite all the good he had done, it was too dangerous to identify with him.

Joseph was an unlikely disciple. He was an important man, a member of the Sanhedrin. He was also a rich man. He had his reputation to think about. Yet he used his position for Jesus – he had access to Pilate and so he went and asked for permission to take down the body of Jesus from the cross.

John’s Gospel was written last of the four Gospels. By the time it was written, about AD 90, Joseph is not remembered for his status in society or for his riches, but for what he did for Jesus. At the end of the day, that is what each of us will be remembered for.

Joseph was also an unlikely disciple from another point of view. Involving himself in the burial of Jesus would have made Joseph ceremoniously unclean, so he was depriving himself of participating in the Passover. This was an important occasion, something that he no doubt valued. But he was prepared to put Jesus before his own interests. In this he is a challenge to us.

Joseph’s actions also involved him in taking part in an unusual gathering. When he and Nicodemus went to the cross they would have met there the Roman centurion and the penitent robber. It is not too much to imagine that they would have told Joseph all that had taken place. The penitent thief could speak of his assurance of heaven because of the promise of Jesus. The centurion could describe how watching Jesus led him to realise that he was the Son of God. Nicodemus would recall his evening meeting when Jesus spoke to him of the new birth. In a sense, this gathering was just like a church, in which different people tell what Jesus has done for their souls. It is a picture of the spiritual unity that exists, between Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, noble and ignoble, all forgiven by the Saviour who died for them.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Samuel Rutherford, the preacher

From The Scottish Pulpit by W. M. Taylor, writing about Samuel Rutherford

In the writings of his contemporaries, and those who immediately followed them, we get some interesting glimpses of the preacher and his manner. Thus Patrick Simpson says, ‘He had two quick eyes, and when he walked it was observed that he held aye his face upward and heavenward. He had a strange utterance in the pulpit; a kind of shriech (shriek or scream) that I never heard the like of. Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ, and he never was in his right element but when he was commending him.’

An English merchant, during the Protectorate, describing some of his experiences in what was probably a business tour through Scotland, said, ‘I went to St. Andrews, where I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man (Blair), and he showed me the majesty of God; after him I heard a little fair man (Rutherfurd), and he showed me the loveliness of Christ; I then went to Irvine, where I heard a well-formed, proper old man, with a long beard (Dickson), and that man showed me all my own heart.’ That was a very remarkable and a most accurate discrimination; so accurate that, as Wodrow says, ‘the whole General Assembly could not have given a better character of the three men.’

The ideal preacher, no doubt, should combine the three in himself; yet we may not refuse the palm to him who dwelt upon the loveliness of Christ, for that in the end will lead to the discovery of the other two. Now that was Rutherfurd’s distinctive excellence in the pulpit. He might and did deal with other themes, but these he only possessed; this one, on the contrary, possessed him, and whenever he entered upon it he was carried away with it.

We read that, ‘One day when preaching in Edinburgh, after dwelling for some time on the differences of the day, he broke out with “Woe is unto us for these sad divisions that make us lose the fair scent of the Rose of Sharon”; and then he went on commending Christ, going over all his precious styles and titles about a quarter of an hour,’ upon which one of his hearers said in a loud whisper, ‘Ay, now you are right; hold you there.’

Grosart says of his practical discourses that their one merit is ‘that they are full of the exceeding great and precious promises and truths of the Gospel’, and that ‘they hold forth with wistful and passionate entreaty a crucified Saviour as the one centre for weary souls in their unrest, and the one hope for the world.’

But, after all, is not that the ‘one thing needful’ in all preaching? And it is for that especially that I would hold him up for an inspiration to you. Like him, preach the living, personal Christ, once crucified, but now risen and reigning as the Saviour and Sovereign of men. Unfold His loveliness. Proclaim His merits. Hold up Himself. Let the truth which you declare be the truth as it is in Him. Let the faith to which you urge be faith in Him. Let the loyalty which you enforce be loyalty to Him. Let the heaven which you hold before your hearers be to be with Him, and to be like Him. ‘Hold you there,’ and let your words be such as love to Him shall inspire, then you shall not lack hearers, and shall not need to lament the absence of results.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist by Edward Payson

1.       From this subject we may learn who are, and who are not, the real preachers of the gospel, the true ministers of Jesus Christ. You need not be told that among those who claim this title great differences prevail. Some preach one thing, and some another; and it is of infinite importance, of no less importance than your everlasting happiness, that you should be able to ascertain who are right; who are the true guides whom God hath appointed to conduct you to heaven. By attending carefully to the conduct and character of John the Baptist, you may learn how to do this.
2.        We know that he was divinely commissioned and taught; for we are told that he was a man sent from God; that he was a prophet and more than a prophet. We may therefore conclude that all, who are sent of God to preach the gospel, will resemble John in their preaching. And what did he preach?
3.     I answer, he preached repentance toward God. ‘I, indeed,’ says he, ‘baptize you with water unto repentance.’ ‘In those days,’ says the evangelist, ‘came John the Baptist preaching and saying, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ This he preached to all classes and characters alike. He also taught his hearers to manifest their repentance by a corresponding life: ‘Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance; for the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.’
4.        But while he inculcated repentance, he taught his hearers not to trust to their penitence, nor to baptism, nor to any outward privileges for salvation, but to Christ alone. To exalt Christ and turn the attention of sinners to him, seems to have been the great object which he always kept in view. Especially was he careful to teach his disciples that he could not himself save them. All who came to him he sent to Christ. He seems to have considered himself only as a waymark, whose business it was to stand with extended finger and point to the Saviour, crying, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world.’ He told the people that they should believe on him who should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. In all his preaching still he held up Christ to view as all in all, and like St. Paul testified to all his hearers of every description, repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
5.   That they might know how repentance and faith were to be obtained, he taught them the necessity of divine influence, of being baptized with the Holy Ghost as a purifying fire; and informed them that Christ alone could baptize them in this manner; that without this they would be no better than chaff, and as such would be burnt up with unquenchable fire.
6.     Thus he made Christ the whole subject matter of his preaching, and represented him as the beginning and ending, the author and finisher of our faith. Thus then will all preach who, like John, are sent of God. They will determine to know and to make known nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, and will teach all men to honour the Son even as they honour the Father. They will not seek their own glory but the glory of Christ. They will strive to draw disciples not to themselves but to him, and will feel no apprehension of exalting or teaching others to exalt him too highly. Nor will they fail to insist much on the necessity of divine influences, of being baptized with the Holy Ghost, saying with our Saviour, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God.’
7.    In the second place, all true ministers of the gospel will imitate John in their temper and conduct; especially in his humility. Highly honoured and distinguished as he was, you see how meanly he speaks of himself in comparison with Christ. He felt his need, as a sinner, of being baptized with his baptism. He felt unworthy to stoop down and loose the lachet of his shoes, a plain intimation of his readiness to cast himself and all that he possessed at his Saviour’s feet. Similar will be the temper of all who truly preach the gospel. They will learn of their Master to be meek and lowly in heart; and though, in consequence of his removal from this world, they cannot perform menial services for himself in person, yet they will be ready, in imitation of him who washed his disciples’ feet, to perform the meanest and most laborious offices of kindness for the lowest of his followers.
8.    Such, my friends, will be the mode of preaching, such the temper and conduct of the true ministers of Christ. When you find such you may safely follow them, for they are the followers of John, of the apostles, and of Christ; and those who refuse to follow such guides would have refused to follow Christ and his apostles, had they lived in their day.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Journey of Life

One of the common descriptions of a person’s life is that it is a journey. Our journey began when we were born and will end when we die. We all know the date on which our journey began, but none of us knows the date on which it will end. At present, we are further away from our starting-point and nearer to our end than ever before. Whether we realise it or not, we are always moving on this journey, even when we are asleep in bed. Such is our journey through life. This aspect of the human journey is shared by all people. Yet there are other aspects of the journey that are confined to those who trust in Jesus.

In addition to travelling through life, the Christian makes the journey with spiritual life. This means that he or she received new life from God at the time they turned to him in repentance and faith. Then they discovered that there was more to the journey than they could have conceived previously. The Bible uses several word pictures to illustrate this discovery: it is like a blind person receiving sight, it is like a dead person becoming alive, it is like a lame person becoming agile. What these pictures illustrate is that spiritual life cannot be understood until it has been experienced.

Until a person trusts in Jesus they are blind regarding who he really is and what he can do, they are unresponsive to his promises of help, and they cannot engage in spiritual activities. But once they trust in him, they become aware of who he is, his promises become meaningful in their experience, and they delight in the energy he gives to go along the path he has mapped out for them.

A Christian is not only travelling through life in the possession of spiritual life, he is also travellingtowards fullness of life. This fullness of life will only be experienced when Jesus returns; the date of his return is unknown, but one day it will occur. Even if it is not in the immediate future, we are still nearer to that day than ever before. This fullness of life is described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44; he says that such fullness will involve the body of each Christian becoming imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual – he also adds in verse 53 that immortality will be part of the fullness of life. In a sense, it is hard to explain the meaning of these terms because we have never yet seen or met a person who has them. But the Bible tells us that this fullness of life will be like the experience of Jesus after his resurrection. John assures us that when Christians finally see Jesus, they will become like him – full of life (1 John 3:1-2). That’s a destination worth travelling to in order to experience it.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Jesus and Difficult Trials

When the Saviour heard of the report of the murder of John the Baptist he found a solitary place (Matt. 14:13). This time of solitude was followed by the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:14-21). Again after this miracle, Jesus found a place of solitude (Matt. 14:23) in order to pray to his Father, and it was followed by the miraculous experience for Peter and the apostles on the stormy sea when Jesus walked on the water (Matt. 14:22-33). Jesus often went by himself to strengthen himself in God no matter his situation, be it a harrowing one or a triumphant one. The obvious lesson is that we can only cope with and benefit from every situation, whether it be pleasant or sorrowful, by going to God about it.

During his time of prayer with his Father Jesus saw his distressed disciples in the storm (Matt. 14:22-33). Since they already had experience of being rescued by him in a storm at sea (Matt. 8:23-27), it could be argued that their previous experience should have helped them cope with the current storm. Perhaps it did, but they also needed a fresh experience of Jesus for the new situation, no matter how similar its contents were to previous ones. It is clear that Jesus wanted to help them and the ferocity of the storm could not keep him away from his disciples.

This incident is a picture of many occurrences in the Christian life. The disciples were in the storm because Jesus had sent them on their journey. They were in the path of obedience when the storm came. It is a mistake to think that obedience to God will remove difficult times in providence.

But just as Jesus had his eye on his disciples, so he has his eye on us. From the heights of the mountain he had the best overall picture of the situation that his disciples were in – they may only have seen what was near at hand but Jesus saw everything. It is the same with us – we can only see the immediate effect of the trouble but Jesus sees where it fits into his overall plan of blessing for our lives.

Jesus came to the disciples at the right time. He wants to help us too. Just as the ferocity of the storm could not keep him away from the disciples, so the troubles that we face are not too big for Jesus to deal with. It is not the strength of the troubles that prevents Jesus coming to our aid; rather he knows best when to come and calm the storm that we may imagine is raging out of control. And when he does come, we will see that his timing was best.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The purpose of the Lord's Supper

What is the point of the Lord's Supper? As a congregation we had our quarterly celebration this evening. 

It is clear from the Bible that the Lord's Supper should not be participated in unthoughtfully. We can see this from Paul's instruction that all intending to take part in the Lord's Supper should examine themselves beforehand. Why should they examine themselves? The main reason is to assess the state of their current devotion to Jesus. How warm are their affections for him? How delighted are they in his forgiveness of their sins? How determined are they to serve him in their daily lives? Self-examination should not be used as a reason for not taking part in the Lord's Supper. If I discover defects in my heart, the proper response is to confess them to God and thank him that the Lord's Supper is for penitent sinners.

Moreover, it is very important to realise that the Lord's Supper is communion. The communion is twofold: through the enabling of the Holy Spirit we have communion with Jesus (which means that we speak to him in our hearts and he speaks to us from his Word, mainly via his promises) and through the Holy Spirit we have communion with one another (which is why we should have our eyes open at the Lord's supper and is also why we sing words that exhort one another). The Lord's Supper is not a private meeting between Jesus and me! Instead it is a communion involving Jesus and us.

Another feature of the Lord's Supper is that it is a time of consumption. We have heard many times that it is a feast, and one reason for a feast is for the participants to enjoy plenty provision given by the host. It can be an insult to a host for a person to nibble when he should be eating plenty. What would cause a person not to eat plenty at a feast? One reason would be ill health and loss of appetite, another reason would be that the individual had filled himself with other food. We can easily see how those reasons illustrate spiritual problems. I can create a loss of spiritual appetite by not engaging in the regular activities that provide spiritual health, such as prayer and Bible reading. I can also fill my inner life with other things, which may be all right in moderation, but if pursued too much they replace Jesus in my heart. It is best to come to the Lord's Supper having prepared by prayer and Bible reading and having refused to fill our minds and hearts with other things. When we do so, we will discover that we can consume a great amount at the King's table.

The Lord's Supper is also a time for consecration. Like all the other means of grace, the Lord's Supper brings potential for the future. In ordinary life, eating a good meal gives strength for the activities we need to do. Similarly the Lord's Supper strengthens our souls, especially with regard to our affections. The outcome of participating in the Supper is that we should love Jesus more and love one another more. We know that the proof of eating a good meal is the strength we have for the tasks at hand. But in doing the tasks we don't think about the strength. Instead we just do them. If we spent the time thinking about where the strength would come from, others would think that we had forgotten we had eaten the meal that provides the strength. We should come away from today's remembrance meal strengthened for serving Jesus. This does not mean that we can ignore the daily sustenance we get from Bible reading and other means of grace. But the Lord's Supper does strengthen us for service.

Faith is often tested

When we read the story of the interaction between Jesus and the woman of Canaan (Matt. 15:21-28), we may be surprised at the way Jesus initially responded to her plea for help. It is possible that his way of dealing with her was designed to correct some misapprehensions that she had.

The lady was in a desperate state because of the health of her little daughter. She must have heard that Jesus was able to cure people with the same problem. When she met him, although she was not a Jew, she used terminology that only a Jew would have been expected to use when she addressed Jesus as ‘the Son of David’. Was one of her misapprehensions that she had to behave like a Jew before Jesus could help her? His answer to her, that he was only sent to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel, seems to suggest there was a difficulty about her race. I suspect she had to learn that she had to draw near as a needy Gentile sinner.

Whatever the reason, the disciples misread the silence of Jesus as a sign that he wanted nothing to do with her (v. 23). It was good for the lady that during her time of crisis she set her eyes on a silent Lord and not on the speaking disciples, for if she had listened to them she would have no hope. We have to be very careful when speaking about providences that happen to other people.

But Jesus was testing her regarding the reality of her faith. What kind of faith did she have? It is possible to be convinced that somebody can work a miracle and for that conviction to fall short of true faith; this would especially be the case when Jesus was healing numerous others. For many of those whom Jesus healed did not become his followers because their faith was limited to his ability to heal.

The outlook of faith, for which Jesus aimed, was for her to reveal humility. Her humble mind was displayed when she likened herself to a pet dog that sat below the children’s table as they were fed. She willingly put herself to the bottom of the pile. This is what made her faith great, that she realised that although she was an unworthy sinner Jesus had the power and love to help her. The lesson to us is that desperation itself is not enough when seeking the help of Jesus – there also has to be humility. Jesus was prepared to delay answering her request until she expressed her plea in a humble manner.