Tag Archives: hope

The River of Death

Now, I further saw, that between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over: the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the Pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went in with them said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.

The Pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate; to which they answered, Yes; but there hath not any, save two, to wit, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world, nor shall, until the last trumpet shall sound. The Pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said: No; yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.

They then addressed themselves to the water and, entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then said the other, Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death have compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spoke still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother’s head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavor to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you. And so have you, said he to Christian. Ah! brother! said he, surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he has brought me into the snare, and has left me. Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, “There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men. These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.

Christian and Hopeful Crossing the RiverChristian and Hopeful are now nearing the end of their journey. They are within sight of the Celestial City, but one great barrier separates them from the Gate. They face a deep and foreboding river. The River represents death—the “last enemy” —and the pilgrims must cross it before they can gain entrance into the city.

“The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

The river appears daunting and formidable. Christian and Hopeful are both stunned. They begin to despond when they see no way around it and no bridge to cross it; there is no way to escape death. When they ask if there is any other way to the Gate, they are told, “Yes”! But Scripture speaks of only two who did not die but were translated to glory: Enoch and Elijah.

So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him (Genesis 5:23–24).

By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him”; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God (Hebrews 11:5).

Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).

Apart from these two, only those who are alive at Christ’s second coming will not taste death:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51–52).

The pilgrims now realize that death is unavoidable. As they prepare to enter the water, they are encouraged and accompanied by the Shining Ones. Throughout the allegory the Shining Ones represent God’s work of grace in heart. In the country of Beulah these servants of the King walk and minister openly. They are sent to guide pilgrims in the final steps of the journey. The Shining Ones inform the pilgrims that the river will be shallow or deep depending on their faith. As the pilgrims enter the River, we see indeed that they experience death differently.

Christian is in great turmoil. His pride has long been his greatest obstacle, and even in death, his thoughts are of himself. He remembers his sins and ponders his failings. He begins to sink and cry out in distress. His words are taken from the laments of David:

Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
(Psalm 42:7)

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
Where there is no standing;
I have come into deep waters,
Where the floods overflow me.
(Psalm 69:1–2)

Deliver me out of the mire,
And let me not sink;
Let me be delivered from those who hate me,
And out of the deep waters.
Let not the floodwater overflow me,
Nor let the deep swallow me up;
And let not the pit shut its mouth on me.
(Psalm 69:14–15)

When the waves of death surrounded me,
The floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
(2 Samuel 22:5–6)

The pains of death surrounded me,
And the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
(Psalm 116:3)

For Christian, death is a great trial. Doubts that he believed were long past, flood his soul again.  Fears engulf him—fears he will never make it to the Celestial City. The foes he faced earlier in the Valley of the Shadow of Death (that had all but vanished in the country of Beulah) now return and seek to pull him under.

But Hopeful is full of hope. He finds the river much shallower and, unlike Christian, walks across with firm footing. He keeps his head above the waves and sees the Gate when Christian is unable. Once again, it is God’s kindness that Christian and Hopeful walk together. Hopeful’s thoughts are of Christ. Even in death, Hopeful encourages his brother and points him to the Savior and to the promise of eternal life. Hopeful reminds Christian of Scripture and tells him that even the trial he is facing in death is an indication of God’s grace at work. Unlike the wicked who will be cast away, Christian is concerned for his soul, distressed by his doubts, and troubled by his sin.

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
(Psalm 73:2–5)

It is a mark of grace that Christian is not in anguish over the loss of this world. Rather, he grieves his lack of faith and holiness.

Every true pilgrim who sets out for the Celestial City will complete the journey. God will do everything necessary to bring us home to glory.

being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

But our awareness of His grace as we near the end of life and experience death will be strengthened or weakened by our faith, as we “believe in the King of the place.” We must exercise our faith now. We must learn to walk by faith, not by sight, and be grateful for every circumstance and providence that keeps us pointed to Christ and oriented toward eternity. This requires a radical shift in our thinking. Too often we value what profits us little and spurn what God can use for our good. It is a paradox that what we consider to be an advantage in this life can actually hinder us (if it distracts us from trusting in Christ). And what we consider to be a disadvantage in this life can actually help us (if it makes us more mindful of our need for Christ). What this world most prizes—status, privilege, wealth, youth and vigor—are things that bind us to this life. Sadly, they can prevent us from looking to Christ and yearning for the life to come. But what the world most fears—hardship, illness, poverty, old age and frailty—are things that cause us to grow weary of this life. Thankfully, they can serve us, if they teach us to value Christ and yearn more for the life to come.

Those most at home in this world will have the hardest time leaving it. It is difficult to face death when you are clinging tenaciously to the world. Those least encumbered by the world will have an easier time leaving it. When we realize that Christ and His promises—which for now are unseen (seen only with the eyes of faith)—are more real and more valuable than anything the world can offer, then we can greet death not as an enemy but as an entrance to glory.

The River

Lord, we pray for those now crossing
Through the River, death’s cold tide.
Help them through its flowing current,
Bring them safe on Canaan’s side.

(from A Prayer for Pilgrims)

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2019 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Hopeful’s Reassurance

Hopeful: Indeed, our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me than thus for ever to abide; but yet, let us consider, the Lord of the country to which we are going has said, You shall do no murder: no, not to another man’s person; much more, then, are we forbidden to take his counsel to kill ourselves. Besides, he that kills another, can but commit murder upon his body; but for one to kill himself is to kill body and soul at once. And, moreover, my brother, you talk of ease in the grave; but have you forgotten the hell, for certain the murderers go? “For no murderer has eternal life,” &c. And let us consider, again, that all the law is not in the hand of Giant Despair. Others, so far as I can understand, have been taken by him, as well as we; and yet have escaped out of his hand. Who knows, but the God that made the world may cause that Giant Despair may die? or that, at some time or other, he may forget to lock us in? or that he may, in a short time, have another of his fits before us, and may lose the use of his limbs? and if ever that should come to pass again, for my part, I am resolved to pluck up the heart of a man, and to try my utmost to get from under his hand. I was a fool that I did not try to do it before; but, however, my brother, let us be patient, and endure a while. The time may come that may give us a happy release; but let us not be our own murderers. With these words Hopeful at present did moderate the mind of his brother; so they continued together (in the dark) that day, in their sad and doleful condition.

Well, towards evening, the Giant goes down into the dungeon again, to see if his prisoners had taken his counsel; but when he came there he found them alive; and truly, alive was all; for now, what for want of bread and water, and by reason of the wounds they received when he beat them, they could do little but breathe. But, I say, he found them alive; at which he fell into a grievous rage, and told them that, seeing they had disobeyed his counsel, it should be worse with them than if they had never been born.

At this they trembled greatly, and I think that Christian fell into a swoon; but, coming a little to himself again, they renewed their discourse about the Giant’s counsel; and whether yet they had best to take it or no. Now Christian again seemed to be for doing it, but Hopeful made his second reply as follows:

Hopeful: My brother, said he, do you not remember how valiant you have been heretofore? Apollyon could not crush you, nor could all that you did hear, or see, or feel, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement have you already gone through! And are you now nothing but fear! You see that I am in the dungeon with you, a far weaker man by nature than you are; also, this Giant has wounded me as well as you, and has also cut off the bread and water from my mouth; and with you I mourn without the light. But let us exercise a little more patience; remember how you played the man at Vanity Fair, and was neither afraid of the chain, nor cage, nor yet of bloody death. Wherefore let us (at least to avoid the shame, that becomes not a Christian to be found in) bear up with patience as well as we can.

Locked in Doubting CastleIn the depths of Doubting Castle, cruelly abused by the schemes of Giant Despair and his wife Diffidence, Christian has reached the point of despairing even of life itself. But in his misery, he has a tremendous advantage. He is not on the journey alone. He has Hopeful as a companion. And Hopeful comes to his aid with counsel and encouragement.

Hopeful begins by pointing Christian to God and His Word. Our hope, if it is to hold, must be anchored in the commands and promises of Scripture.

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4).

1) Hopeful reminds Christian of who God is. He is Creator of heaven and earth. He is in control, not the giants who have them pinned down.

2) Hopeful reminds Christian of what God has said. God commands: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Murder, including suicide, the taking of one’s own life, is contrary to God and truth. It plays into Satan’s design, who from the beginning has sought to mar and destroy God’s creation.

You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (John 8:44).

Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15).

3) And Hopeful reminds Christian that they must resist Despair. Giant Despair trembles at the light. He is vulnerable and can lose his strength and leave off his vigilance. God may yet provide His pilgrims an opportunity for escape. They must be patient and endure.

It is worth noting in Bunyan’s story that the pilgrims do not find immediate relief. The darkness remains. Resolve and good counsel do not free them. For a time, their endurance and will to press on only brings about increased suffering. When the giant rages, Bunyan describes Christian as falling to a swoon.

Bunyan himself experienced bouts of depression where he “swooned” as Christian did. He describes such a time in Grace Abounding:

At another time, though just before I was pretty well and savory in my spirit, yet suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ, that I was as if I had never seen or known them in my life; I was also so overrun in my soul, with a senseless, heartless frame of spirit, that I could not feel my soul to move or stir after grace and life by Christ; I was as if my loins were broken, or as if my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains. At this time also I felt some weakness to seize ‘upon’ my outward man, which made still the other affliction the more heavy and uncomfortable ‘to me.’ [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 261]

But Hopeful again reassures Christian with truth. He reminds his brother of the difficulties and dangers that he has already endured by God’s grace.  He reminds him of his valiant stand for the gospel at Vanity Fair, a testimony that served in part to lead Hopeful to Christ. And he exhorts him not to bring shame upon himself, but to “bear up with patience.”

How great is our need for a companion such as Hopeful—a brother or sister who will stay near us in times of distress, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer” (Romans 12:12). And there are many opportunities for us to be Hopeful and help others around us cling to truth. Mason says in his commentary on The Pilgrim’s Progress:

Here is the blessing of a hopeful companion; here is excellent counsel. Let vain professors say what they may against looking back to past experiences, it is most certainly good and right so to do; not to encourage present sloth and presumption, but to excite fresh confidence of hope in the Lord. We have David’s example, and Paul’s word to encourage us to this, “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37); and says Paul, “We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9)—(Mason).

Christian endures the dungeon because he has Hopeful as a companion. Bunyan’s message in this portion of The Pilgrim’s Progress is clear. It is to our great advantage, even to the preserving of our lives, that we walk together in this journey, and that we make an effort to comfort and encourage one another along the way. (This is a theme that Bunyan explores in much greater depth in Part 2 of The Pilgrim’s Progress with the account of Christian’s family, Christiana and her children, and their companions as they travel to the Celestial City.)

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2017 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Behold Your God, Believe His Word!

Isaiah 40 Bible

A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
And all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
When the breath of the LORD blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God will stand forever.
(Isaiah 40:6–8)

Isaiah reminds us that God always is faithful to His Word.

Our experiences in this life are temporary—including both joys and trials; but God’s Word endures forever. We are like the grass that withers and the flower that fades—but God and His Word are not. Darkness and difficulties may come, or prosperity and ease—but regardless of circumstances, regardless of how well or how badly things appear to be going, God will always accomplish all He has purposed. His Word is true and faithful. For Judah, devastation and exile are looming, BUT there is hope, there is comfort, there is a SAVIOR. Christ will come, because “the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.”

Read more from this sermon on Isaiah 40 entitled “Behold Our God, Believe His Word”

Find More Sermons and Articles

Joined by Hopeful

Now I saw in my dream, that Christian went not forth alone, for there was one whose name was Hopeful (being made so by the beholding of Christian and Faithful in their words and behavior, in their sufferings at the fair), who joined himself unto him, and, entering into a brotherly covenant, told him that he would be his companion. Thus, one died to bear testimony to the truth, and another rises out of his ashes, to be a companion with Christian in his pilgrimage. This Hopeful also told Christian, that there were many more of the men in the fair, that would take their time and follow after.

Christian and HopefulBefore entering the town of Vanity, Christian and Faithful were warned that one of them would lose his life for the sake of gospel. They were aware of the danger, but they entered willingly, believing that Christ and the souls of those in the town were of more value than their own comfort, or even their own lives. In the end, it was Faithful who died bearing witness to the truth of the gospel. Faithful completed his journey and went on to his reward. Now Christian is left to press on without him. But Christian is not left to walk alone in sorrow. Hopeful has become a pilgrim and he tells Christian that he will be his companion.

What then can we learn from Hopeful’s conversion? Consider three valuable insights:

1. The journey is more pleasant if we do not walk alone.

Earlier in the story Christian discovered the value of Christian fellowship when he caught up with Faithful. Now, in God’s kindness, Christian once again has a companion to walk with him.

Walking with other believers on the journey is a great encouragement. Their labors in the gospel build up our labors. Their faith strengthens our faith. Their prayers increase our own prayers. Seeing God’s work of grace in others gives us strength and hope.

Paul often mentioned and gave thanks for fellow-labors.

In Thessalonica:

We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father (1 Thessalonians 1:2–3).

In Rome:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles (Romans 16:3–4).

In Philippi:

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now (Philippians 1:3–5).

It is a great joy to have brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we covenant together in the church, to walk and labor together in the hope of the gospel.

2. Pressing on in hope is rooted in seeing the work of God’s grace.

It is significant that Christian’s new companion is named Hopeful. God is a God of hope, who by the power of His Spirit, fills us with hope.

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus, that “in Him the Gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15:12). He “according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

Hopeful is new believer—his heart, a fresh work of God’s grace. His life is a testimony to the power of God’s transforming grace. God was at work, even in the midst of concerted efforts to suppress and silence the gospel. Hopeful was rescued from Vanity. And Hopeful himself has hope that the darkness of the town of Vanity can be overcome. He is sure that many others from the fair will in time follow and join them in their pilgrimage.

3. Our lives are ever on display before a watching world.

We don’t know how God may use our lives to influence and intrigue others around us for the sake of the gospel. Our joys and trials, and especially how we respond to joys and trials, can be of great consequence when brought to the attention of others in the purposeful designs of God’s providence.

Hopeful came to faith in Christ by “the beholding of Christian and Faithful in their words and behavior” and Bunyan adds for emphasis “in their sufferings at the fair.” It was especially in their endurance through suffering that Christian and Faithful demonstrated the true value and veracity of the gospel. Christ is a treasure worth more than all this world can offer—a treasure worth more than even life itself.

We live the gospel before others and share the gospel with others—our friends, family, children, neighbors, coworkers, even strangers — “that they may set their hope in God” (Psalm 78:7). Consider your own life. We live in a vain world. What do those around you see in the “beholding” of your life? Do you live in a way that commends the gospel? Do you demonstrate by choices, actions, attitudes, and reactions that Christ is your greatest treasure, and that the souls of people around you are precious? May God grant us to walk with hope that we might walk worthy of the gospel of Christ.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2017 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.