"In Those Dark Hours" (Machen)


J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings

(This is a re-post from September, 2010)

In the early 1900s, J. Gresham Machen faced intense spiritual struggles – he was asking some deep questions about Christianity.  There were three people who helped him through it: Francis Patton, Bishop Blougram, and his own dear mother.  Here’s what he said of his mother – how she helped him through his spiritual struggles.

“Another thing used to be said to me by my mother in those dark hours when the lamp burned dim, when I thought that faith was gone and shipwreck had been made of my soul.  ‘Christ,’ she used to say, ‘keeps firmer hold on us than we keep on him.’”

“That means, at least, when translated into worldly terms, that we ought to distrust our moods.  Many a man has fallen into despair because, losing the heavenly vision for a moment, passing through the dull lowlands of life, he takes such experience as though it were permanent, and desserts a well-grounded conviction which was the real foundation of his life.  Faith is often diversified by doubt, but a man should not desert the conviction of his better moments because the dark moments come.”

“But my mother’s word meant something far deeper than all that.  It meant rather that salvation by faith does not mean that we are saved because we keep ourselves at every moment in an ideally perfect attitude of confidence in Christ.  No, we are saved because, having once been united to Christ by faith, we are his forever.  Calvinism is a very comforting doctrine indeed.  Without its comfort, I think I should have perished long ago in the castle of Giant Despair.”

The above quote is found on page 561 of Machen’s Selected Shorter Writings.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Hebrew Masoretic Accent Marks

Learning Hebrew is a daunting task – and that’s an understatement! It takes years of actually interacting with the Hebrew text to take steps forward in understanding the language more. One of those steps in learning Hebrew is understanding the basics of the Masoretic accent marks (not the vowels, but those other dashes, dots, and lines above and below the Hebrew consonants/words).

These accents, inserted by the Masoretes (c. 500–1000 AD) have three functions: (1) to indicate whether a word should be joined to or separated from the following word; (2) to mark the accented or “tone” syllable; and (3) to indicate a word’s melody for singing (cantillating) the text.

The Hebrew Bible Insert, Quakertown: Stylus Publishing, 2002, 52

The Masoretic accents can actually help us translate and interpret the Hebrew text in a few ways. Of course, these accents aren’t inspired, but they are very helpful and shouldn’t be “casually dismissed” (ibid). The accents can help us find out which words go together and which ones don’t. They also help us learn how to divide the verse up into sections. In some ways, the Masoretic accents are like punctuation.

This is a larger discussion that’s worth looking into if you’re a student of Biblical Hebrew. While there isn’t space to go into more detail here, I do want to point out a few accent marks worth noting.

First, the silluq (a disjunctive accent). The silluq is a short vertical line under the last word of a Hebrew verse and marks a pause. (האֽרע)

Second, the ‘atnah, another disjunctive accent. This wishbone looking mark that appears under a word divides the verse into two major logical sections. When I print out the Hebrew text I always divide the verse based on the ‘atnah. Here’s what it looks like: אלה֑ים

Third, the munah (a conjunctive accent mark). This mark looks like a backward “L” and is found under a word. It joins the marked word to the following word (marking a construct chain, verb with subject, or a noun and adjective that go together). (בר֣א)

There are quite a few other Masoretic accent marks. Some are rather minor, but some are worth looking into a bit more. The ones I’ve listed above are three that should be taken into account when translating and interpreting Hebrew. Feel free to share a chart or helpful resource if you have any!

The above information was derived from these sources: The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, The Hebrew Bible Insert, and Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

They Shall Come To Me (Bunyan)

In John 6:37 Jesus said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (NIV). These words of Jesus convey a precious relatity and a comforting promise. They are well worth memorizing! Here’s how John Bunyan commented on these words in Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ. I’ve updated the language slightly for ease of reading:

[I conclude] that coming to Jesus Christ rightly is an effect of their being, by God, given to Christ beforehand. Note: They shall come. Who? Those that are given. They come, then, because they were given, “They were Yours, and You gave them Me.”

Now, this is indeed a singular comfort to those that are coming in truth to Christ, to think that the reason why they come is because they were given by the Father beforehand to him. Thus, then, may the coming soul reason with himself as he comes: “Am I coming, indeed, to Jesus Christ? This coming of mine is not to be attributed to me or my goodness, but to the grace and gift of God to Christ. God gave first me to him, and, therefore, has now given me a heart to come.”

John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, p. 254 (Works, Volume 1).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

On Pastoral Humility (Newton)

Wise Counsel: John Newton's Letters to John Ryland, Jr.

Since a pastor is often in the spotlight, so to speak, it sometimes happens that he gets a big head. The old Adam in him loves to be noticed, loves the attention, and enjoys the publicity. And sometimes the pastor begins to covet more social media followers, retweets, and sermon “shares.” Along the way humility shrinks and pride grows.

All that to say a pastor needs to pray for humility and cultivate it in biblical ways. For example, he might have to constantly remind himself that his pride is a sin and that his calling is not a call to be popular. He might have to tell himself over and over that his desire for more followers is a tactic the devil can use to mess up his ministry. He needs to remember that his heart has its dark spots and corners.

On this topic, John Newton wrote a letter to his friend who was a Christian pastor. Another pastor they both knew had just suffered a stroke. Newton noted that he hoped the man would recover, since he was a blessing to the church. Then Newton wrote this:

“I hope that he and you and I shall all so live as to be missed a little when we are gone. But the Lord standeth not in need of sinful man. And he sometimes takes away his most faithful and honored ministers in the midst of their usefulness, perhaps (for this reason) among other reasons, that he may show us that he can do without them.”

It may sound harsh, but it’s true and it’s something that we pastors do well to remember.

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 280.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Losing Identity, Losing Sanity (Keller)

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

As many of our readers know, identity issues and crises are a dime a dozen in our culture today. It’s not just a gender thing. People also find their identity in what they do or don’t eat, their political views, their preferred method of schooling their children, their excursions and adventures, or their looks/image. And the list goes on. Timothy Keller has a good chapter on this topic called “The Problem of the Self” in his book Making Sense of God. I’ll cite a paragraph from this chapter below, but you’ll have to get the book to follow the larger (helpful!) discussion that ends with a great empahsis on finding one’s identity in Christ:

If we base our identity on love we come to the same cul-de-sac that we saw with the novelist who got his identity from work. Just as he could not bear poor work, so we will not be able to handle the problems in our love relationships. The writer had to believe he is a great writer in order to be sane. We will have to believe our love relationship is ok – if it goes off the rails, we lose our sanity. Why? If our very identity is wrapped up in something and we lose it, we lose our very sense of self. If you are getting your identity from the love of a person – you won’t be able to give them criticism because their anger will devastate you. Nor will you be able to bear their personal sorrows and difficulties. If they have a problem and start to get self-absorbed and are not giving you the affirmation you want, you won’t be able to take it. It will become a destructive relationship. The Western understanding of identity formation is a crushing burden, both for individuals and society as a whole.

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 131.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

The Good In Sorrow (!?!)

I certainly don’t know all the thoughts and feelings of other Christians as they’ve suffered hard through trial and affliction. But I do know that some Christians have remarked that God blessed them greatly during their suffering. Sometimes when we suffer we experience the comforting presence of God in an unexplicable way. Other times God’s people step up and surround us with tender love when we suffer. David said that it was good for him to be afflicted because then he learned God’s rules (Ps. 119:71). When Paul was weak under affliction, he learned more of God’s strength and grace (2 Cor. 12:9-12).

While God has spared me from many trials and hardships, I know what it’s like to plow through a hard, heartbreaking, and somewhat lengthy affliction. I can say for sure that for Christians, there is some sweetness in suffering. I don’t mean suffering itself is sweet. I mean what Paul said when he explained how suffering was productive (Rom. 5:3-5). In God’s mysterious providence, suffering is not a waste. Here’s one helpful angle on this topic written by a Christian man who lost his daughter, wife, and mother in the same car accident:

[Sorrow] enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, or feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time. However painful, sorrow is good for the soul.

Deep sorrow often has the effect of stripping life of pretense, vanity, and waste. It forces us to ask basic questions about what is most important in life. Suffering can lead to a simpler life, less cluttered with nonessentials. It is wonderfully clarifying. That is why many people who suffer sudden and severe loss often become different people. They spend more time with their children or spouses, express more affection and appreciation to their friends, show more concern for other wounded people, give more time to a worthy cause, or enjoy more of the ordinariness of life.”

These words were written by Jerry Sittser in his excellent book, A Grace Disguised. It’s a tough book to read because Sittser’s story contains such deep sorrow. But it also explains in a God-centered way how to press on through sorrow and find the sweetness God often provides in and through sorrow.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Interpreting Revelation (Johnson)

Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation

Revelation is a great part of Scripture that in no uncertain terms tell us the reality of Christ’s ultimate victory, but it’s not always easy to interpret and understand the last book of the Bible. Some parts aren’t too tough; others are seriously difficult. One resource that has helped me study Revelation is Dennis Johnson’s Triumph of the Lamb. It’s a levelheaded, readable commentary that uses other parts of Scripture to help explain the symbols, visions, and images in Revelation. For example, in the introduction Johnson gives some biblical principles to help interpret Revelation. Here’s how he summarizes them at the end of the chapter:

  1. Revelation is given to reveal. It makes its central message so clear that even those who hear it can take it to heart and receive the blessing it promises.
  2. Revelation is a book to be seen, a book of symbols in motion. Because the appearance of individuals and institutions in everyday experience often masks their true identity, Revelation is given in visions full of symbols that paradoxically picture the true identity of the church, its enemies, and its Champion.
  3. Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament. Not only the visions of such prophets as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah but also historical events such as creation, the fall, and the exodus provide the symbolic vocabuary for John’s visions.
  4. Numbers count in Revelation. Since numbers are used symbolically in Revelation, we must discern the meaning they convey rather than trying to pull them as numbers directly into our experience, measured by calendars and odometers.
  5. Revelation is for a church under attack. Its purpose is to awaken us to the dimensions of the battle and the strategies of the enemy, so that we will respond to the attacks with faithful perseverance and purity, overcoming by the blood of the Lamb.
  6. Revelation concerns ‘what must soon take place.’ We must seek and understanding that touches the experience of our brothers and sisters in seven first-century congregations scattered in the cities of western Asia minor. Revelation is not about events and hostile forces remote from their struggle.
  7. The victory belongs to God and to his Christ. Revelation is pervaded with worship songs and scenes because its pervasive theme – despite its gruesome portrait of evil’s powers – is the triumph of God through the Lamb. We read this book to hear the King’s call to courage and to fall down in adoring worship before him.

Johnson does expand on these points earlier in the chapter – and it’s for sure worth reading. If you are looking for a commentary on Revelation that is solidly biblical and Reformed but not too technical, I very much recommend this one!

Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 22-23

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002