Saturday, 12 July 2014

Guthrie and the Gospel in Ezekiel

Despite it's rich gleanings, the book of Ezekiel is often an unread book by many Christians.  A bit like the book of Revelation or the book of Daniel, the book of Ezekiel is allegorical and apocalyptic so needs to be interpreted with great care.  Many of us perhaps feel it is impenetrable for anyone who is not a preacher or theologian. 

Given his status as one of the best and most accessible preachers in Scotland it is little wonder that Thomas Guthrie's 'Gospel in Ezekiel', first published in 1855, went on to be a best seller.  The book opened the darkness of Ezekiel to a new audience hungry for the warm and winsome style in which Guthrie communicated truth through preaching or writing. 

Normally you can pick up a second hand copy of the Gospel in Ezekiel on ABE Books here but I am delighted to hear that my friends at GLH Publishing are working on an e-book version so keep an eye out for it here.  I am so grateful to Michael Pate from GLH for all the work he has done to convert Guthrie's books into e-books so a new generation can read Guthrie for themselves.  You can download other Guthrie books here and here.

The Late Starter
Despite his legacy as a popular writer, it wasn't until 25 years into his ministry that Thomas Guthrie approached writing with a degree of intentionality.  Prior to the publication of the Gospel in Ezekiel in 1855, Guthrie had written two major booklets both on the Original Ragged School.  His first publication was entitled 'A Plea for Ragged Schools' which first came out in 1847 with subsequent versions in 1849 and 1860.  The three booklets were all eventually published in one book with extensive appendices.  Guthrie's 'pleas' proved to be a huge success and Guthrie describes them 'as a spark amongst combustibles.'  They were the means in  God's hand to launch the ragged schools from a small provincial enterprise into an organised and structured movement. Clearly Guthrie had a gift not just as an orator but also as a writer.

When the Gospel in Ezekiel came out, Guthrie has been a parish minister in Arbirlot for 7 years and had been in Edinburgh for eighteen years.  When he came to Edinburgh in 1837, he had started out as assistant to John Sym in Old Greyfriars before planting the new St John's Church and was now at the height of his career as senior minister at Free St John's.  Due to Guthrie's fragile health, Rev William Hanna (son in law of Thomas Chalmers) had been appointed as an assistant to Guthrie in 1850.   There was clearly a congenial and warm relationship between the two preachers because Guthrie dedicated the Gospel in Ezekiel to Hanna;

To you, my dear Sir, I dedicate these Discourses - the substance of which was preached to our Congregation - not so much as an expression of my high admiration of the genius and talents which you have consecrated the cause of our common Lord, as a mark of the warm affection which I cherish for you, and of the kind, cordial, and most happy intercourse, which we have enjoyed since our union as colleagues and pastors of the same flock (Edinburgh, December 1855).

The Pattern and Contents of the Book
The Gospel in Ezekiel is a series of twenty two chapters all based on Ezekiel 36 v 16 - 37.  While some of Guthrie's writing appears to the modern reader as rather flowery, the sermons can only be described as majestic.   Guthrie seeks to follow the gospel narrative working his way from; the messenger, the defiler, man sinning, man suffering, God's positive justice, God's motive in salvation, man an object of divine mercy, God glorified in redemption, the wisdom and holiness of God illustrated in salvation, the benefits flowing from redemption, man justified, man justified through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, man converted, the heart of stone, the new heart, the renovator, the new life, the blessedness of the saints, the security of the believer, and the nature, necessity and power of prayer.

Despite becoming a prolific writer until his death in 1873, Guthrie was probably best know for his volume on Ezekiel. In their Memoir of their father David and Charles Guthrie make mention that by 1875 the Gospel in Ezekiel had sold over 40,000 copies.  This is a remarkable figure given the subject and length of the book.  But as always it was the content and the author that it made it such a best seller.  Here is a taster of some of the content from the title entitled The Messenger.  Guthrie is proving that God has entrusted gospel treasures to earthen vessels and drives home the point that he is not just referring to ministers;

I am anxious that you should understand that the honours which I have spoken of are not reserved for pulpits.  The youth who, finding rest and refreshment in Christian labours, teaches a Sabbath class; the mother with her children grouped around her, sweet solemnity sitting on her face, and an open Bible resting on her knee; the friend who deals faithfully with another's soul; any man who kindly takes a poor sinner by the hand, and offering to guide, and urging him to go to the Saviour, says "Come with us and we will do you good;" "arise, for we have seen the land, and behold it is very good;" "these are ministers of the Gospel, and not less than its ordained pastors are fellow-labourers with God.

Its Effects
There was plenty of evidence that the Lord used the Gospel in Ezekiel to great spiritual good.  An officer in the army wrote from a distant outpost in 1864; 'about eighteen months ago a friend directed me to where I would find your 'Gospel in Ezekiel.'  I may say, any hope of eternal happiness (and I trust my hope is well founded) is derived under God from it.  Although I have never had the pleasure of seeing or hearing you, I can scarcely restrain a strong feeling of looking upon you in the light of a father in the gospel.' 

There were other stories, particularly of the effect of his sermons in India.  A Dr Lowe mentions how while he was a missionary in India he usually gave the local catechists and evangelists an hour each Thursday to help them prepare a sermon for the coming Sunday.  One week he didn't have the time to prepare and gave them the headings and vivid illustrations of a Guthrie sermon.  The sermon was preached to around 60 congregations the following Sunday and caused a great stir.  The local preachers asked for Dr Lowe to read the sermons to them weekly and they were adapted for their local congregations.  So the 'Gospel in Ezekiel,' 'The Way to Life' and 'Speaking to the Heart' were used regularly across the Neyoor district in India.  Apparently when told, Guthrie raised his hands and said to Dr Lowe 'My dear sir, I thank God for such tidings.  I rejoice to know in some measure I have helped to tell the sons and daughters of India the story of the cross.'

Guthrie's writings went on to have a huge impact in America, and his books were translated into French and Dutch.  His sons quote a remark in their Memoirs of their father that D.L. moody once said that 'I owe more to the writings of your father than to those of any other man.'

In many ways Guthrie was an accidental writer.  He was almost forced into writing when he wrote his first 'Plea for Ragged School.'  It is hard to believe but Guthrie came back from the printer in 1847 believing that he had made a fool of himself.  However, he went on to become one of the most popular Christian writers of his day and extended the reach of his pulpit to a worldwide audience.  In the Gospel in Ezekiel he showed that the gospel of Jesus Christ is as richly portrayed in the Old Testament as it is in the New, albeit in types and shadows.  Ezekiel was looking way beyond the Babylonian captivity of Israel to a greater and more permanent kingdom.  He is also pointing to better and fuller redemption.  As David Murray has recently shown so well in latest book, when we study the bible in the light of the incarnation of Christ we can indeed see 'Jesus on Every Page.'

1 comment:

  1. Andy, what an encouraging and inspirational blog. Thanks for sharing this