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The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
July 10, 2023 12:01 am

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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July 10, 2023 12:01 am

During difficult times, Christians can be vulnerable to temptation and doubt. Today, Derek Thomas opens The Pilgrim's Progress, the classic book by John Bunyan, to encourage us that God will not desert His people.

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It's clear that in Bunyan the place described as the valley of the shadow of death is not, I think, to be understood as a reference to death itself or bereavement, but rather to the circumstances and situations that produce a kind of spiritual death within us. And he's thinking of the loss of assurance. Having a lack of assurance, not knowing if you're truly saved, can have a crippling effect on a Christian.

It can feel like being in the valley of the shadow of death. So where should we turn, if that's where we find ourselves? Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for being with us today for Renewing Your Mind. For hundreds of years, believers have found John Bunyan's allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, helpful as they've sought to apply biblical principles to their Christian life, helping them navigate the challenges of assurance, the influence of worldliness, and even facing death. The Pilgrim's Progress follows a man named Christian and his journey to the celestial city. This week, Ligonier teaching fellow Derek Thomas takes us on a guided tour through this classic allegory. Christian has already begun his pilgrimage, and he finds himself right now in the valley of the shadow of death.

Here's Dr. Thomas. Well, welcome back in our road trip of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Last time we left, Christian engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Apollyon. That is one of the most powerfully descriptive passages in Pilgrim's Progress and the description of the battle and of the allegations that Apollyon makes. And Christian's counter charges, let alone the fighting, all of that, I think, is just wonderfully graphic. But it's also Bunyan being a pastor.

He's being a teacher. He's trying to explain to us something of the nature of the Christian life. And before we move on too far in the journey, let me just emphasize something of the powerful descriptive imagination of Bunyan, but the way that he is employing that in the interests of pastoral theology. One of the things that surely now that you're expecting in the narrative is that having fought this fierce battle with Apollyon, that Bunyan would introduce at least a period of rest and a period of quietness.

But actually that's not what's going to happen. And again, you're sort of jolted. It's a wonderful way of telling a story, of course, because you're always encountering the unexpected.

So it's a page-turner. So Bunyan knew how to tell a good story. But more than that, he's telling you something that's deeply pastoral, that often in the wake of one fierce battle where you have emerged victorious, the temptation is then to rest and to rest on your laurels and perhaps to leave off the reins of perseverance and perhaps to grow a little presumptuous about the nature of the victory that you've just won. So in the wake of that, another trial now follows immediately on the heels of Christian's battle with Apollyon, and he finds himself in the valley of the shadow of death.

This is a very lonely place. Bunyan describes it as being much worse than the valley of humiliation with Apollyon. Two men attempt to persuade him to return. How many times have we encountered so far in Pilgrim's Progress people are trying to get Christian to go back? It's the temptation to give up. It's the temptation not to persevere, to grow miserable, resentful, cynical, to go home. Now, trials sometimes arise because of the narrowness of the way. They looked into the valley, and what they saw, what Christians saw in the valley were hobgoblins, satires, and dragons, as well as a continual howling and yelling as of people under unutterable misery.

And it keeps them from going any further. This is why these two men are telling Christian to go home. Christian keeps on going and knowing that the way to the celestial city lay in this direction.

There was no other way to the celestial city but through this terrain. And as he walks, he sees a ditch on the one side into which the blind lead the blind, and a dangerous quag, or we would say quagmire, on the other side into which David once fell and would have been choked had he not been rescued. He's thinking of Psalm 69, rescue me from the mire, Psalm 69 and verse 14. Now, that's interesting because this psalm is cited in the New Testament along with Psalm 22 as being a psalm that describes the sufferings of Jesus, the references to being surrounded by the dogs and so on on the cross is a reference to Psalm 22 and this Psalm 69, rescue me from the mire, a psalm then that depicts the sufferings of Jesus. It contains those lines giving Him vinegar to drink cited in the gospel, especially I think in Matthew, as fulfilling the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. It's a reminder of the way in which in this valley the Master Himself has trodden.

Jesus Himself has been here. Bunyan is introducing a well-known Christological psalm that reminds us that even in this valley of the shadow of death, Jesus has been here. Now, Bunyan describes this valley in a very vivid way. The way through it was narrow and dangerous. Bunyan says of Christian that when he sought in the dark to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other, and also when he sought to escape the mire with great carefulness, he'd be ready to fall into the ditch on the other side. One of the most damaging trials of all is the loss of assurance. And it's clear that in Bunyan, the place described as the valley of the shadow of death is not, I think, to be understood as a reference to death itself or bereavement, but rather to the circumstances and situations that produce a kind of spiritual death within us. And he's thinking of the loss of assurance.

Now, one of the great commentators on Pilgrim's Progress is a man by the name of Charles Overton. And he says, this land of darkness into which our pilgrim now entered seems to represent the dark and unhappy frame of mind into which a true believer may fall, the absence of all sensible comfort, the trouble that is caused by the hiding of the Lord's face, the inability to find any spiritual communion with God in the use of ordinances, a dark and desponding feeling pervading the mind, bodily languor, and Satan's temptations may all unite to make this region a darkness. Very frequently in the Holy Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, Book of Job, we read the sorrowful complaints that have been uttered by the Lord's people on such occasions.

These are trials of the mind. These are temptations to despair. These are dark thoughts.

This is the temptation of melancholy, depression, if you will. Bunyan depicts something here that for some Christians is all too familiar. The wicked ones crept up behind him and, quote, whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind.

Now, I don't know whether you've ever experienced that. Some of the Lord's people have experienced that, that they have these blasphemous thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. They don't want these thoughts. They haven't sought these thoughts, but they've come into their mind, and these are suggestions from the evil one. This troubled Christian, not merely because such thoughts were suggested to him, but to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before.

To which Bunyan adds the telling comment that Christian did not have the discretion to close his ears or to know what the source of these blasphemies was. The devil can attack with evil thoughts. Temptation begins in the mind.

It begins with what you think. Be spiritually minded, Paul will say in Romans chapter 8. The mind of the Spirit thinks the things of the Spirit, and the mind of the flesh thinks the things of the flesh.

So, there are these dark, satanic attacks now upon the mind, upon what Christian is thinking about. Now, Bunyan is undoubtedly reflecting here something of his own autobiography. We read in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners that he knew this. He had experienced this himself. He didn't have the discretion either to stop his ears or to know from whence these blasphemies came.

That was his own experience. There's one weapon which is more important than any other in overcoming such trials as these, and that weapon is the weapon of all prayer. When Christian left Pallas beautiful, he was given certain armor, a sword and a shield and so on, and a helmet.

But these are of no use here. They were of use to battle Apollyon, but they're of no use to battle these inner thoughts in his mind. And Bunyan says Christian was forced to put up his sword and betake himself to another weapon called all prayer, the weapon of all prayer. Now, the noises around him in the valley are mingled now with the ceaseless prayers that Christian is now offering to God. And as he prays, a company of fiends meet him, and he cried out, I will walk in the strength of the Lord God.

And so they went back. It's an interesting point, isn't it, that prayer is the only weapon capable of fortifying Christian in this valley. The more dangerous the journey, the more spiritual our resources need to be. Scripture demonstrates to us the more spiritual the duty, the more taxing it is on the flesh and of the body.

In a sermon on Moses and Joshua against the Amalekites, in which Joshua prevails when Moses' arms are raised up in the act of supplication and prayer, Spurgeon comments that Moses needed help to keep his arms raised, which Joshua did not. Similarly, I think Bunyan is thinking here of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, that Jesus is being tempted, and he's being tempted with turning back. He's being tempted with the difficulty of the journey.

He's being tempted with the arduousness of the task now that lies before him. And what you see Jesus doing in the Garden of Gethsemane, you see him falling on his knees, beseeching the Lord, sweating, as it were, great drops of blood falling to the ground. Now, Christian was comforted by what he thought to be the voice of a man, saying, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

This is faithful. This is one of the most beautiful characters, extraordinary characters in all the book, and we'll catch up with him in our next lecture. He appears for a little season and glows like the evening star and then disappears and is taken from us again. He's one of the most remarkable characters, the most wonderful of characters in Pilgrim's Progress, faithful. But you overhear him now in the tale. It's a wonderful way of telling a story because you hear this voice that says, Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. And you're saying, Well, who is this, this man so full of courage in the midst of this foul place? And his name, as we shall see, is faithful. It gave Christian a great deal of comfort, and that for several reasons, three reasons at least.

One, because he realized that others had passed through this valley. You know, Bunyan's a pastor. He had been ordained as the Baptist pastor of the church. Once John Gifford had died, the church elected him to be the pastor. He was in prison, right? He couldn't be their pastor. He was in prison, but they elected him as their pastor. And Bunyan is engaging here in some pastoral theology, and he's saying that sometimes we need to remind ourselves in the fellowship of God's people, in Palace Beautiful, in the Church of Christ, we share our stories and we realize we're not alone.

Others have been here before. There's this man, and he has been in the valley of the shadow of death. Second, because he reasoned that if God had been with others in the valley, he would be with Christian, even though Christian could not perceive this to be the case.

Right? So even though his feelings have left him, even though he cannot feel God's presence, he reasons in the midst of his trial, if God can help him, then God can help me. This is an act of the reason. This is an act of the mind dictating now to the affections. Well, this is 17th century faculty psychology that Bunyan is operating with, the relationship between the affections and the will and the mind. And for the Puritans, the mind was in many respects a dominant feature in their understanding of how we operate, and that the affections, you know, we live in the 21st century governed by our affections, and if we don't feel something to be true, it isn't true.

And unless I feel it's true, it can't possibly be true. And the 17th century is operating in a different way, and it's saying to the affections, I don't care what you feel, reason, see the logic of this. Now, you know, we think of logic and we throw bad words at it, and we throw Aristotelianism at it, and we throw Ramism, if we know what Ramism is, we throw that at it, and we call it, you know, all head and no heart. And sometimes when there is no heart, all that you have is head. And Bunyan is saying here in the midst of situations where your affections are all over the place, reason, reason. Thirdly, because if he overtook them, he might enjoy their company and fellowship. He hears this voice, right, it happens to be faithful, and he says to himself, you know, if I can catch up with him, I can learn from him, I can have his help, I can have his support, I can have his companionship. You know, I really do think Bunyan teaches us in Pilgrim's Progress, over and over again, the importance of friendship, of Christian friendship, of close Christian friendship, of faithful and Christian. We're going to be introduced now to, you know, we'll throw modern fancy words like accountability, partners, and all that kind of thing at it, but in Bunyan's time it was just having a good friend, and what a treasure that is, somebody that you know, somebody that you respect, somebody that you trust, somebody that you can open your heart to, somebody that you can expect to tell you when you do something wrong, but to do it as a brother who loves you, and not somebody who's trying to lord it over you. And there's going to be a brief period here where faithful and Christian are going to emerge as very close friends, and I want you to see that, the importance of friendship. And what I think we ought to see is, you know, Bunyan is writing this alone in prison. He misses his family.

I have no idea what the death of his daughter would have done to him while he was in prison, but he misses close friendship and companionship, and I think he introduces that into the story. What a wonderful blessing it is. I have someone whom I've called pretty much every week for probably twenty-five years. He's a dear friend, and we share all kinds of stuff, from serious stuff to nonsense stuff, but he's a friend.

It's a wonderful blessing to have a good, close friend. Now, when the sun rose, Christian was thankful for God's presence and guidance and keeping him through the darkness. And Bunyan has an interesting reference now to, he saw in the daylight now, in the light that appears, that ahead of him, in this valley of the shadow of death, there are all kinds of pits, nets and snares and traps. And Bunyan has an interesting reference to two giants who sat in a cave, and they were responsible for entrapping pilgrims and crushing their bones.

And one was called Pagan, who Bunyan says, rather strangely, has been dead many a day. You know, he's in the 1660s, right, he's in the middle of the 17th century, when there's been an enormous revival of religion in England. Puritan churches grew and mushroomed in the thousands, right, possibly even in the tens of thousands in the middle of the 17th century. So, paganism has sort of been banished almost from the land. You know, many of the Puritans thought the end was coming. They thought the second coming was coming in the 1680s, because everything now seemed to be pointing in that direction, because the kingdom of God just seemed to be advancing.

Of course, they were looking at it through the myopic lenses of England being the center of the universe, forgive me. But one is called Pagan, the other is called Pope, whom Bunyan describes in the following terms, Though he be yet alive, he is by reason of age, and also of the many shrewd brushes that he met with in his younger days, grown so crazy and stiff in his joints, that he can now do little more than sit in his cave's mouth, grinning at pilgrims as they go by, and biting his nails because he cannot come at them. Now, he could only have written that in the middle of the 17th century, of course, but he is describing a period in history where Catholicism seems to have receded into the background, and where true evangelical biblical faith has been in the ascendancy for a number of years, despite the fact that he himself has been persecuted. He has actually been persecuted not, of course, by Catholicism, but by largely an Anglican church in cahoots with the civil state. So, paganism has long ceased to be responsible for putting Christians to death. It's the Roman church, of course, in the previous century.

In the late 16th century, 288 martyrs were killed in the time of Queen Mary, including pregnant women and bishops. But that was the century in the past for Bunyan, and he is now viewing that Roman Catholic persecution of Protestants in the 16th century as a thing of the past. Now, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, Tertullian said, and Bunyan is reflecting here something that is true of the Protestantism that emerged out of the 15th century. But the story now goes on from here, and we shall see where it goes in our next lecture. There's so much wisdom and insight in the pilgrim's progress. I'm sure you can see why Christians turn to it again and again.

It's a family favorite for us, and we're actually reading it with our youngest right now, and he's loving it. And Derek Thomas' guided tour through the Pilgrim's Progress, which you heard a message from today on Renewing Your Mind, helps draw out the meaning of this allegory and how to apply those biblical principles to your own life. You can request your copy of Dr. Thomas' 19-part series, The Pilgrim's Progress, a guided tour, today for your donation of any amount. Simply visit, or call us at 800 435 4343, and we'll send you this DVD set and give you digital access to all of the messages and the study guide. So I encourage you to visit and study along with Dr. Derek Thomas. As we're in the Pilgrim's Progress all week, Christian is making his journey to the Celestial City, but he has to cross through Vanity Fair, and there's no way around it. And that's where we'll find ourselves tomorrow, here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-10 02:39:23 / 2023-07-10 02:47:55 / 9

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