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Church history

When the Word of God is not preached

Half-truths, little tidbits of information used for one's own interpretation and advantage, can be harmful, even damnable. Zeal without knowledge can be destructive, extremely destructive. Indeed, this type of zeal can become the devil's toy.

*****

More than 250 years ago, a little girl was born in the parish of Ottery St. Mary, in the county of Devon in the west of England. The month was April and the year was 1750. Joanna Southcott, for so the girl-child was baptized, grew up in rather poor conditions. Her father, William Southcott, sprang from rich stock, but circumstances had reduced him from living on a manor to working a small dairy farm. A Church of England member, by all accounts, he read the Bible to his family. As she grew older Joanna was taught to help out on the farm, even running it for a time when her father was ill. She was capable girl.

Eventually Joanna left home to begin a career. Employed by an upholsterer in Exeter, she learned how to cut cloth, choose fabric, work with trims and sew welted edges. It was during this time that she became engaged to a young man by the name of Noah Bishop. Noah was a footman, whose duties at his place of employment included admitting guests and waiting at table. They seemed a well-matched couple. However, after a rather short courtship, Joanna suddenly broke off the engagement. The reason she gave her fiancé was rather strange - she let him know that an angel had appeared to her one night telling her that she must not allow her body to be defiled by a man. Poor Noah!! His intentions towards Joanna had been honorable. He concluded that she was deranged!

During Joanna's stint of employment with the upholsterer, a revivalist Methodist preacher visited the area. Notoriously amoral, he openly lived with a mistress and flirted freely with the opposite sex. Yet he was allowed in the pulpit, preaching loudly about sin and damnation. Proud and boastful of his salvation status, he openly thanked God for not making him like the other “sinners” in the congregation. All Joanna's fellow workers were afraid of him. Joanna was not. She saw through the man and was amazed that his hoax was accepted.

Leaving the employ of the upholsterer after breaking her engagement, Joanna began work as a domestic servant in Exeter. According to a later portrait drawing of her by artist and engraver William Sharp (1749-1824), we can conclude that Joanna was probably a sweet and pretty-looking girl in her younger years, becoming more buxom and well upholstered around the waist in middle age.

A woman in need of friends

Although she had been raised in the Church of England, Joanna joined the Wesleyans in 1792. Persuading others that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme. She also began to teach, preach (Had she never been taught regarding I Tim. 2:12?) and prophesy. A number of her predictions seemed to come about. Many of these “prophecies” referred to events that occurred during her lifetime. For example, she is credited with having foretold the famine of 1795, the bad harvest of 1797, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the deaths of several more or less well-known persons.

Was Joanna a loner? She surely needed Christian companions who loved her enough to caution her. Her feet and her mouth were steering her towards greater and greater heresy. The worst heresy was that she claimed to be the woman mentioned in Revelation 12:1-6. Quite a profession! She openly designated herself a prophetess whom God had divinely appointed to be the mother of the Messiah. (What happened to Isaiah 7:14? Did she not know the Christ Child had already been born?) Joanna must have been without Christian friends. Friends will caution you; friends will reprove you; friends will point you to the truth of the Gospel fulfilled; and friends will tell you of the hope of heaven and the danger of hell if you do not turn from error.

Joanna's followers were marked by peculiarity of dress, which resembled that of Quakers, the men sporting long beards. With thousands of adherents, among whom were some clergy, Joanna also began making and selling printed seals which supposedly guaranteed the buyer entry into paradise after the Apocalypse. (Even the familiar John 3:16-18 seems to have been lost on Joanna and her supporters.) Seating, it was said, was limited to 144,000, so buy seals while you can. Exorbitant prices were charged. Joanna, denying that she was profiting from the sale of these “indulgences,” continued to manufacture them. Some six or seven thousand were sold and a number of them are still in existence. They are small pieces of paper with a circle drawn in the middle. In this circle are written words which imply that the buyer is saved. Every one of these seals was signed by Joanna Southcott.

In addition to teaching and lecturing, Joanna also wrote some thirty or so books which were published during her lifetime. The manuscripts, many of which are written in different handwritings, are still available, pointing to the employment of an assistant.

Pregnant at 63?

In 1813, Joanna now being 63 years old, and living with two lady companions, began to take on the appearance of a pregnant woman. Her stomach grew rounder and rounder, and she announced to her followers that she was now about to become the mother of the promised Child spoken of in Revelation 12. She asserted that redemption would be completed in herself. (What happened to Hebrews 9:12?) She would bruise the serpent's head and the immediate aim of her life was to destroy the devil.

Possibly due to a tumor growing within her abdomen, Joanna presented herself to the public as one shortly to give birth. Those who believed what she spouted, waxed enthusiastic. Holding collections, they sent a delegation to an expensive cabinet-maker and bought a cradle - a fashionable cradle, richly ornamented and decorated. They set this up in a specially prepared place and began to collect accessories. Baby blankets, pillows, linens and embroidered sheets began to accumulate. It was, after all, for a miraculous child and who would not want to hail this baby with luxury and comfort!

The excitement over this apparent pregnancy and upcoming birth was palpable among the population, especially in the London area. The number of eager followers were said to have numbered around 100,000. Most of them were illiterate and rather credulous, but some were middle-class and clergy. They all fully believed the claptrap and nonsense. (Where there is no prophetic vision people cast off restraint - Proverbs 29:18.) One pastor even offered to resign from his diocese if the “Holy Joanna,” as he called her, failed to give birth to the Messiah.

The days and months passed. No baby was born. In August of 1814, a physician by the name of Dr. Reece, examined Joanna, to “ascertain the probability of her being in a state of pregnancy, as then given out.” He affirmed that she was indeed with child. Other doctors were called in, reputable medical men, and they, as well, concluded that she was pregnant. More weeks passed and Joanna herself, despite her grand delusions, became uncomfortable with her bulky stomach. She hesitatingly allowed that she might have been deceived by some spirit, either good or evil. Dead but still causing problems As the year of 1814 drew to a close, Joanna Southcott died. She died surrounded by a few of her ill-informed disciples, and she died without giving birth. She had been barren. Prior to her death another surgeon had been called in by Dr. Reece and he had, without any uncertainty, declared that Joanna was not in the family way, that she was ill, and that he did not foresee any hope of her recovery. Before her death at the end of December 1814, she had been confined to bed for ten weeks. Dr. Reece, who was in attendance during her last hours, immediately after Joanna died, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Monitor:

“Agreeable to your request, I send a messenger to acquaint you, that Joanna Southcott died this morning precisely at 4 a.m. The believers in her mission, supposing that the vital functions are only suspended for a few days, will not permit me to open the body until some symptom appears, which may destroy all hopes of resuscitation."

Holding on to the hope that Joanna would resurrect, something she had predicted, her followers wrapped her body in warm blankets, placed hot water bottles at her feet, and kept the room warm. Crowds assembled around the house, hoping and waiting for her to rise from the dead. However, it was all to no avail and her body began to putrify. Even as decomposition set in, there were those who swore not to shave their beards until Joanna's resurrection. Likely a great many men with very snarled and lengthy beards were consigned to the grave in the years that followed. A later autopsy showed that Joanna Southcott had suffered from dropsy which had killed her. She was buried in Marylebone cemetery on January 2, 1815. Laid into her coffin, she was interred under a fictitious name. The authorities feared that if they did not do this, grave robbers might want to open the tomb, ransack her remains, and profit by the sale of her bones. Prior to her death Joanna had dictated a will in which she professed to have lied, professed to have been prompted by the devil. In this document she insisted that after her death, the cradle and all things with it, should be returned to the people who gave them. The 1568 Bishops' Bible reads Proverbs 29:18 in this way:

When the worde of God is not preached, the people perishe: but well is hym that kepeth the lawe.

In twenty-first century English language this translates freely as:

When the Word of God is neglected, ignored or not preached properly, the people will perish: but discerning people who hear the Word of God and obey it, are blessed.

Again, where God's Word is not preached, people become fools, believing anyone and everything. Strange and ludicrous as Joanna's story is, many Joanna's have walked the earth in the past and are still walking it. A William Davies (1833-1906), leader of a Latter Day Saint schismatic group, taught his followers that one of his children was the reincarnated Jesus. Lou de Palingboer (1898-1968), founder of a religious movement in Holland, claimed to be “the resurrected body of Jesus.” And a couple of years ago, a parish in the Church of Sweden, tweeted out that Greta Thunberg, teenage climate activist, was an appointed successor to Jesus Christ. Pregnant with self-deception and self-importance, such people give birth to the wind and reap the whirlwind. Make sure you are able to recognize such frauds. Make it your 2020 resolution to become better acquainted with God's Word and to read it faithfully each day!

This article has been corrected to note that it was a parish in the Church of Sweden and not the Church of Sweden itself that tweeted “Announcement! Jesus of Nazareth has now appointed one of his successors, Greta Thunberg.”

Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton

*****

Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58:

As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.

Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2).

All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8).

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12).

Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161.

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."

Drama, Family, Movie Reviews

The man who shot Liberty Valance

Western 1962 / 123 minutes RATING: 8/10 What does it mean to be a man? In this classic Western, Hollywood offers up two answers. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is a successful horse rancher living just outside the town of Shinbone who prides himself on not needing anyone and not fearing anyone. He solves his own problems, and figures that everyone else should do the same. Self-reliant - that, in his mind, is what makes a man a real man. Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) is a lawyer, newly arrived to Shinbone who starts a school for both children and adults when he discovers that most can't read. He wants to bring law and order to town, but via the law book, and not the gun barrel, and that makes him naive. But he's also principled and caring, and that, in his mind, is what makes a man a man. To put both these models of manhood to the test, we have Liberty Valance, a bully and a killer. He and his gang do whatever they want, and none of the town folk dare stop him. Doniphon could stop him... but that would be solving other people's problems for them. Ransom wants to stop him... but he'll need more than just his law books. Cautions This is an all-time classic that everyone will enjoy...if they have the patience for it. It starts off slow, and the pacing throughout is far more relaxed than anything a modern viewer is used to. If it were made today, they would cut at least a half hour. But, if you go in understanding that, then this will be a grand film. It's the nature of Western to have some violence in them, but in this one a lot of it occurs offscreen, though just barely so, as when Ransom is whipped. Onscreen we see a manic Liberty striking furiously, but Ransom is just below the frame, so we don't see the blows land. A couple of people are shot, but without any real gore. The only language concerns would be one use of "damn" Conclusion If your children regularly watch TV then the pace of this film will be too slow to keep their interest. But otherwise this would be a classic worth sharing with the family including children maybe 10 years old and up. It's good fodder for a discussion about the difference between Hollywood's ideal man, and the type of man God calls us to be in passages like Ephesians 5:21-33.

Parenting

Parents: Understand that much depends on you

In this modernized excerpt, from his book "Duties for Parents" J.C. Ryle points to the enormous role God has given parents in shaping our children when they are young, and he urges us not to waste that opportunity.

****

Train your children always remembering that much depends upon you. Consider how very strong grace is. God’s grace can transform the heart of an old sinner – it can overturn the very strongholds of Satan, casting down mountains, filling up valleys, making crooked things straight. It can recreate the whole man. Truly nothing is impossible to grace. Our fallen human nature is also very strong. We can see how our nature struggles against the things of the kingdom of God – how it fights against every attempt to be more holy, right up until the last hour of life. Our fallen nature indeed is strong. But after nature and grace, undoubtedly, there is nothing more powerful than the education we as parents give our children. Early habits (if I may so speak) are everything with us, under God. We are made what we are by training. Our character takes the form of whatever mold was formed in those first few years. We depend, then, on those who bring us up. We get from them a color, a taste, a bias which cling to us more or less all our lives. We catch the language of our fathers and mothers, and learn to imitate them, and we catch something of their manners, ways, and thinking at the same time. Time only will show, I suspect, how much we all owe to our earliest training, and how many aspects of our personality and our character can be traced back to seeds sown in the days of our very infancy by those who were living with us. We can see God’s wisdom and mercy and in this arrangement. He gives our children minds that will receive impressions like moist clay. He gives them a disposition at the starting-point of life to believe what we tell them, and to take for granted what we advise them, and to trust our word rather than a stranger’s. He gives you, in short, a golden opportunity of doing them good. So see to it that the opportunity isn’t wasted. If we let it slip away, it is gone forever.

Daily devotional

October 4 – Not by bread alone

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone.– Deuteronomy 8:3 

Scripture reading: 1 Kings 17:7-16

What an encouragement the dried-up brook must have been to Elijah. God was fulfilling His promise of withholding dew and rain! It also meant that God was going to provide for Elijah some other way. He reaches Zarephath and, encountering the widow, he instructs her to bring him some water. As she leaves to comply he asks for a morsel of bread too. This unleashes an outpouring of her pitiable story. She has nothing baked, little flour, little oil, few sticks, and little time left to live.

You might think that Elijah might respond with something like, “I’m sorry. Yes, I understand. I’ll ask someone else. Just the water will be fine.” You might even think that would be the kind and sensitive thing to do. But he doesn’t. He intensifies the request. Do what you are going to do “but first make a little cake of it and bring it to me.” Does it need to be said that God’s request should have given her no hesitation? If obedience meant that yesterday’s supper was her last meal she should have given a morsel of bread to the man of God. God doesn’t ask for our leftovers or what we can conveniently part with. He demands our all to be given without hesitation.

But notice the Lord’s gentleness. He wins her obedience with a sandwich of assurance. Top slice: ‘Do not fear.’ Bottom slice: ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not empty . . .’ And every day thereafter was a reminder of the faithfulness of the Lord and His Word.

Suggestions for prayer

Ask God to teach us how generous and gracious He is, even in His demands, so that we might trust Him for His daily provision of grace and cheerfully give Him whatever He asks of us.

This daily devotional is available in a print edition you can buy at Nearer to God Devotional. Rev. John van Eyk is the Senior Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church (United Reformed) in Lethbridge, Alberta.


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