The Ministry of the Burning Heart

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The Ministry of the Burning Heart

It is not so long ago that in almost every church service we would hear the opening words, “Let us worship God”, or, “Let us unite in the public worship of God”. When it came to the public reading of Scripture, the preacher would say, “Let us hear the Word of God”. A tendency to be contemporary and less formal has led to the disappearance of these phrases. In some churches we may be greeted with a “Good Morning”, and a “Welcome to our service”. There may be what is called a ‘worship leader’ in charge for a sizeable part of the service, followed by the pastor sharing ‘a message from the Bible’. We need to ask: Is this conducive to the purpose of what has been known as “the means of grace”? Do ‘new-style’ services bring us to the place of worshipping ‘at the feet of Jesus’? We have a pattern set for us by the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. (Luke 24:13-35)

The incident took place on the day of the resurrection of Christ. This was the dawn of a new creation. As the first creation came into being out of the “darkness upon the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2), so the new creation emerged from the darkness of the tomb. Christ was the “firstfruits” of the new creation (1 Cor. 15:23); other fruit was about to follow. Two disciples were making their way to the village of Emmaus. They were talking about what had happened in Jerusalem in the previous few days. They felt bewildered and sad. The risen Christ came alongside them but they did not recognize him (Luke 24:16; Mark 16:12). One of them, named Cleopas, poured out his heart about the events. Jesus took over and rebuked them for their slowness of heart. He then gave a sermon about Himself from the Old Testament. They were so taken with His company that they wanted Him to stay. He accepted their hospitality and at supper He made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.

In trying to analyse their experience these two disciples said one to another: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked to us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” What caused that burning of heart?

1) There was a transforming view of Christ

What a privilege to have the risen Christ as their companion and teacher! The fact that he was not recognized by the physical eye was to do with the lesson that had to be learned. Hereafter it was not so much the opening of the physical eye but the opening of the ear to hear the Word of Christ and the opening of the heart to receive Him. Here is the incarnate Word opening up the written Word. The written Word contains the portrait of Christ. Jonathan Edwards spoke of Scripture as “the emanation (flowing out, proceeding) of his glory”. The “exceeeding great and precious promises” of Scripture are given so that “by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1:4). These disciples became partakers of the divine nature. They received “with meekness the engrafted word” (James 1:21). They experienced what Paul later described as the shining in their hearts of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

2) There was an embracing of the whole truth

The secret of true living is having a big enough object to live for. The sadness the disciples experienced arose out of a defective view of the Old Testament Scriptures. Their hopes focussed on the coming of a prophet and a king, who would deliver them from the Romans. It was a kind of ‘pick and mix’ theology that is quite common in the church today. They completely failed to see the sufferings and glory of the promised Messiah. No wonder their expectations were dashed. It was when the Master Himself gave them the key to the true understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures that it all fell into place. Now they began to see the big picture. The sweep of God’s redemptive work is from eternity to eternity. From the moment of man’s fall in Adam, the Son of God, as the appointed Mediator in the eternal covenant of redemption, intervened for the salvation of sinners. He is God’s great gift to the world and through Him God is preparing His bride, the Church, who will be to the praise of His glory to all eternity. The heart was inflamed with love for the truth.

3) There was a pattern to be followed

The disciples discovered the secret of onging Christian living. The Puritan William Gurnall said: “The Christian is bred by the Word and must be fed by the Word. While travelling on the road these two disciples were in effect ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus’ and listening to His voice. The experience was such that they wished to continue in His company. “And they constrained him saying, Abide with us” (v.29). They were setting the pattern for the ongoing Christian life. The secret is sitting under the Word of God, in the God-appointed means of grace. Calvin said, “Wherever the Gospel is preached it is as if God himself came into the midst of us.” It is through His anointed ministers that souls are fed and as a result give an appropriate response in worship and obedience. By the blessing of the Holy Spirit hearts are given up to the object of their affection as they burn in Christ’s presence.

Sinclair Ferguson in a recent contribution on ‘Preaching as Worship’ in Pulpit Aflame, Essays in Honour of Steven J Lawson (Heritage Books, 2016), speaks of our spiritual forebears saying, “I sit under X’s ministry”. He goes on to explain: “They sat ‘under’ the Word because they believed that the most important thing about preaching was that in and through it they heard the voice of Christ, bowed before Him and worshipped Him. Preaching was not so much the transfer of information (no matter how insightful), but the reality of submissive communion with Christ. The goal was not instruction but adoration.”

Ministers as Burning Lights

This shows us how vital is the Gospel ministry to the individual Christian and to the Church. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my lambs”, “Feed my Sheep” (John 21:15-17). Paul exhorts the elders at Ephesus: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Jonathan Edwards, in explaining how a Gospel minister is to be “a burning light”, points to the Holy Spirit as “the spring of divine life”, and whose energy is likened to fire. The Spirit’s presence, Edwards believed, will be seen in a preacher as “a holy ardour”, and he continued: “divine love or charity is the sum of all true grace, which is a holy flame enkindled in the soul” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Banner reprint 1974) Vol.2, p.955, ‘The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister’). John Willison of Dundee (1680-1750) said: “When he is signally to increase his kingdom, he will raise up and qualify ministers for the work who shall be men of large hearts…inspired by a burning love to Christ and the souls of men; inclined to prefer the good of Jerusalem above their chiefest joy.” (Practical Works of John Willison, Glasgow, 1844, p.433)

“Religion has never, in any period, sustained itself except by the instrumentality of the tongue of fire” – William Arthur.