One of my students recently asked me what books I turn to for devotional reading. My response was immediate: the Puritans.
Although the word “devotional” attaches itself to books that are sometimes theologically thin and spiritually vapid, I use it here to refer to resources characterized by a careful use of Scripture and penetrating insight into the human heart. I need books that not only present me with sound doctrine but that will also wield that doctrine to unearth my sin, humble my heart, and open my eyes to the beauty and goodness of Christ in the gospel. Puritan works have a strong track record in my own life for consistently providing deep spiritual conviction and spiritual comfort.
Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was an English Puritan preacher, lecturer, and author who is best known for his book The Bruised Reed [read TGC’s review]. Despite the wide and well-deserved attention that book received during Sibbes’s life and still receives today, there are other works within Sibbes’s oeuvre that merit consideration, including The Glorious Feast of the Gospel.
First published 15 years after Sibbes’s death, The Glorious Feast is a collection of nine sermons in which Sibbes unfolds and applies Isaiah 25:6–9. The setting is a grand banquet hosted by the King, located on a mountain and open to all people. The menu consists of “fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined” (Isa. 25:6, KJV). The meal is luxurious and abundant. The meat is of the highest quality, and the wine is well aged.
I need books that wield doctrine to unearth my sin, humble my heart, and open my eyes to the beauty and goodness of Christ in the gospel.
While it’s possible to read these descriptions of a future feast in a literal sense, Sibbes takes them to refer to the spiritual “benefits, prerogatives, graces, and comforts” that Christ provides to his people. According to Sibbes, these blessings can rightly be compared to a feast of the finest food and drink: “The love of Christ is the best love, and he himself incomparably the best, and hath favours and blessings of the choicest” (9).
Some may dismiss Sibbes’s application of this passage because they reject his interpretation of it (i.e., they take the description of the feast as a reference to a future banquet with real food and drink), but I think such a dismissal is unnecessary. I believe Isaiah 25:6 refers to a future banquet involving some luscious cuisine, yet I find the subsequent exposition to be both sound and spiritually nourishing.
For example, Sibbes sees variety in the feast that God has provided for his people. From this observation, he draws a comforting application:
In Christ there is variety answerable to all our wants. . . . Are we defiled? He is sanctification. Are we in misery? He is our redemption. If there be a thousand kinds of evils in us, there is a thousand ways to remedy them by Jesus Christ.” (10)
What a glorious truth! Even if Sibbes’s application of Isaiah 25:5 isn’t rooted in our preferred hermeneutic, it still has clear biblical warrant (e.g., 1 Cor 1:30–31), as does his primary metaphor of eating and drinking (John 6:54–58). We lose much valuable insight if we shelve Sibbes over some interpretational differences.
Eat and Drink Christ
Eating and drinking is an apt metaphor for the enjoyment that the believer is to have in Christ, and Sibbes exploits this metaphor throughout the book, particularly in the first three chapters. If we’re to prepare our pallets for spiritual delicacies, we must “purge our souls from the corruptions of flesh and spirit” and resist the allurements of “carnal corruptions” that stifle the soul’s appetite (20).
There must be a “digesting” of spiritual truths lest they never make their way to our affections (25). Spiritual food that isn’t taken deep into the soul cannot nourish us or provide us with the strength necessary to walk near to God. But how can we ensure full absorption of the truth into our spiritual bloodstream? By dwelling on the forgiveness of God that is ours in Christ: “Therefore, feed especially upon the favours of God, and get forgiveness of sins, and then all the rest of the chain of grace and spiritual life will follow” (26).
Redeeming Death and Sin
The latter two-thirds of the book focuses on the remaining verses of Isaiah 25:7–9. In this section, still within the setting of a mountaintop feast, the prophet describes additional benefits afforded God’s people:
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He shall swallow up death in victory, and all tears shall be wiped from all faces, for the Lord hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice.
We all know that a looming fear of death will sap happiness from festal gatherings, no matter how grand the celebration. Sibbes writes, “Suppose a man were set at a feast furnished with all delicates, royally attended, clothes suitable, and had a sword hung over his head ready to fall upon him, it would cast such a damp on his spirit, as would spoil the joy of his feast” (62).
It’s difficult to eat and drink with exuberance when your adversary is just outside the gate, ready to annihilate you and your compatriots. To secure his people’s joy, therefore, God promises to defeat death. “And then there is victory of [death], Christ overcomes him and overcomes him gloriously. It is not only a conquest, but a swallowing him up” (64).
Spiritual food that isn’t taken deep into the soul cannot nourish us or provide us with the strength necessary to walk near to God.
Now that death is overcome, both Satan and death serve our good. “And God being satisfied for sin,” Sibbes writes, “the devil hath nothing to do with us, but to exercise us, except it be for our good” (65). All we suffer under Satan’s hand, though temporarily painful, works for our ultimate spiritual blessing (see Rom. 8:28). Even death itself has become a friend: “It ends all our misery, and is the inlet into all happiness for eternity. And whatsoever it strips us of here, it giveth us advantage of better in another world” (74).
Amazingly, God even uses our sin for our spiritual advantage. Sibbes writes, “As Augustine saith, I dare be so bold, it is profitable for some to fall, to make them more careful and watchful, and to prize mercy more” (75). Sibbes is not offering his readers an excuse to sin under the delusion that “grace will abound” (see Rom. 6:1). He’s reminding us that in Christ, Christians ultimately succeed even when they fail, for God will use our sin to help us better feel our weakness and our need for Christ.
Finally, Sibbes encourages us as we wait upon God in the day of trial to “treasure up” stories of God’s past kindness so we have continued hope for future mercy. “Go along with God’s favours,” Sibbes warmly exhorts us, “and use them as arguments of future blessings. As former victories are helps to get the second victory, every former favour helpeth strengthen our faith” (155). Even providential kindnesses should serve to deepen our trust in our heavenly Father.
Take the Remedy
Sibbes was known in his time as the “heavenly doctor” for both his preaching and his holy life. He possessed a unique ability to expose the sinner’s disease while also providing the soothing remedy of Christ in the gospel. His writing humbles and refreshes readers in a deep and lasting way.
In this book, the remedy for malnourished saints is a hearty meal at the Lord’s table. Sibbes invites us to eat and drink upon Christ, enjoying his spiritual benefits and gracious presence. If you’ve been helped by Sibbes in the past and would like to taste more of such fare, A Glorious Feast pairs well with your daily prayer and Bible reading.
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