Reprinted with permission from “The Gospel Coalition” blog by Ivan Mesa
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Joel Beeke—president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite biographies, his favorite Puritan work, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
My nightstand is always overflowing. The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible is there, of course. My wife and I read it together every day—including the family worship sections at the end of each chapter.
Samuel Rutherford’s Letters has been there for more than 20 years; Valley of Vision, a Puritan collection of poetry, has been there for 10 years. I read these books especially if I’m feeling a bit discouraged, as they are pick-me-uppers.
Then, presently, there’s Shawn Wright’s Theodore Beza, as well as an old copy of Beza’s own book on The Song of Solomon (only the first three chapters)—published in English in 1587, 18 years before he died.
There’s also an out-of-print manuscript by John Calvin on suffering, and a doctoral dissertation by Eric Rivera, ‘From Blackfriars to Heaven’: The Puritan Practical Divinity of William Gouge.
Then there are about 10 manuscripts by contemporary writers I have to review in the next two weeks to determine whether Reformation Heritage Books should publish them.
Finally, my own forthcoming Debated Issues in Sovereign Predestination: Early Lutheran Predestination, Calvinian Reprobation, and Variations in Genevan Lapsarianism (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) is there, as I’m doing a final proofing of the text before it goes to press.
What are your favorite fiction books?
I love John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War. My dad read Pilgrim’s Progress to us every Sunday evening after church for about 30 to 45 minutes for all 20 years I was at home. We would sit at his feet, drill him with questions, and he would often set the book down, and teach us from Bunyan about how the Holy Spirit works in the souls of sinners like us—with the tears streaming down his face. When my parents had their 50th wedding anniversary, and all five of us children thanked each parent for one thing, all five of us chose to thank my dad for those amazing times around Pilgrim’s Progress.
I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve hardly read any fiction as an adult, however. I have 30,000+ non-fiction volumes in my library—most of which I still haven’t read—so in this short life, in which I still have so much I want to learn, I’m quite sure I’ll be sticking with non-fiction to the end. I know I’m strange, but honestly, fiction puts me to sleep, whereas Bible-based, historical-theological, God-glorifying non-fiction wakes me up.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
Charles Spurgeon’s The Early Years and The Full Harvest made me go to my dad at the age of 15 (when Spurgeon started to preach!) to tell him I thought I had to quit high school and start preaching. My dad wisely said, “God is a God of order, son—you had better finish your education first!”
Later in my teen years, Arnold Dallimore’s biography of George Whitefield (2 vols.) had a tremendous effect on me as a teenager in fostering zeal for ministry and evangelism.
Then, too, nearly all of the biographical writing Iain Murray has done over the decades—especially his two-volume set on Martyn Lloyd-Jones—has profoundly influenced me to love the Lord more and to pray much that God would make me more useful and fruitful in and for his kingdom.
Finally, George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life gripped me like few books I’ve ever read. I think I read it in a week. It made me want to have a single eye for God’s glory in all that I think, say, and do.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
Though I read a lot, I don’t re-read much other than the Bible. I have literally hundreds of books in my “must read” piles, so it’s hard for me as a seminary president, pastor, and author to find time to do much re-reading. Exceptions would be Samuel Rutherford’s Letters and Spurgeon’s Chequebook of the Bank of Faith, because they stir up within me love to Christ.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students has molded my ministry more than I can express. I read it often in the first few decades of my ministry, and I never cease to be amazed at its practical wisdom.
But I’d have to say that for an all-round book on ministry, Charles Bridges’s The Christian Ministry has most profoundly shaped how I strive to do ministry. His sections on experiential preaching, how to minister to various kinds of hearers, and how to kill one’s own abhorrent pride are superlative—but so is the entire book. Bridges is so biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical about how to handle all kinds of ministry, from preaching to counseling to living, that for me—especially when I was in my 20s—it was a Godsend. More recently, studying and teaching a course on the leadership style of Jesus and of other biblical leaders in the Bible (Joseph, Moses, Paul, and so on) has been most helpful.
What’s one Puritan book would you recommend to every Christian and why?
For a starter, read Thomas Watson’s Heaven Taken by Storm as it teaches us practically how to use the Christian disciplines and how to live the Christian life with passion to God’s glory. Based on Matthew 11:12, Watson describes how the Christian is to take the kingdom of heaven by holy violence through the reading and exposition of Scripture, prayer, meditation, self-examination, spiritual fellowship, and keeping the Lord’s Day. His explanation of how the believer is to battle against self, Satan, and the world is unmatchable, as is his countering all our objections against offering such violence. This little, overlooked treasure is vintage Puritan, experiential teaching at its best.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
Three things have lately impressed me:
1. The more we live with Trinitarian intentionality—walking with simple faith in Jesus, trusting in his Father’s sovereign will, and depending on his Spirit—the more we will be conformed to Jesus’s image, which is the supreme purpose of life (Rom. 8:29). I yearn to be more like him in his servant, loving, and humble heart.
2. The value of Christ’s intercession is growing on me. I’m convinced that this doctrine is the most underrated truth in the Christian faith. What a comfort to know that he ever lives to intercede for me as my efficacious Elder Brother from moment to moment (Heb. 7:25; cf. John 17)! Anthony Burgess’s 17th-century volume of 145 sermons on John 17 has helped me a great deal here. (Together with his Spiritual Refining, it has catapulted Burgess into first place as my favorite Puritan author.)
3. As I get older, I look forward much more to being with Jesus forever, which translates into more preaching about utopian marriage with him in heaven. Recently preaching through the Book of Revelation, and then publishing my sermons on it, has greatly sweetened my longing to be gazing upon Immanuel’s face forever.
Hiking the trails of our national parks can be an experience of exhilarating beauty, or utter frustration when you get lost in the woods. A good guide can make all the difference. In the same way, the Family Worship Bible Guide will lead your family down the trails of the Bible to see the glory of the Lord—and avoiding getting frustrated. Who among us has not known what it is like to read a chapter of the Bible to our children or for our devotions, and have no idea what it has to do with our lives today? Here is help.
This book offers brief, major takeaway thoughts for personal application for every chapter of the Bible. Whereas most devotional books address only select parts of God’s Word, this book is unique in that it walks you through the whole Word of God and shows how to apply it to your life, one chapter at a time. Yet its emphasis on application is not man-centered, but God-centered, for it builds upon the foundational truth that all the Scriptures testify to the glory of God in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Whether you are looking for help with your personal devotions, or desire to lead family worship in the home, are reading the Bible with a friend, or need wisdom as you prepare to teach or preach in church, this is a great tool, regardless of what Bible translation you read.
The Family Worship Bible Guide also includes an eight-page introductory essay on how to do family worship, an excellent starter course for those who have never done it before, and a helpful refresher for the experienced Christian parent.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Below is a short video where I explain how a sense of God’s majesty transforms how we view sin, Christ, and everything. To learn more about the fear of God, join us at the NCFIC national conference, October 27–29.
The closing curtain of this year reminds us that our end is drawing near on earth. When the true believer bids farewell to the house of God below, he finds another home above. The departed saint reaches the summit of Mount Zion and enters the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22–24). He joins the innumerable company of angels and saints, whose names are written in heaven. He appears in peace and reconciliation before God, the Judge of all, and forms an everlasting fellowship with the spirits of the just made perfect. He comes to Jesus “the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:24).
Oh, how blessed is a believer’s translation from the church on earth to the church in heaven! Goodness and mercy have followed him throughout life, and now goodness and mercy surround him on every side. Who shall describe the unspeakable joy of his soul as he enters into glory? How satisfied he will be with all he sees and hears! With grateful adoration he will worship his faithful God who has fulfilled all His promises and surpassed even the believer’s highest expectations. Who can conceive of the joy and gratitude with which he will join in the song of his redeemed brethren: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5–6)!
How imperfect are our highest conceptions of the beauty, blessedness, holiness, and glory of God’s eternal house. To know it as it is, we must be caught up, as Paul was, into the “third heaven,” but even then its realities cannot be described in earthly language (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). As great as is the happiness and glory that the departed saint enjoys in his purely spiritual condition, there is more to come. His mortal body will be raised out of the dust and no longer be natural and corruptible, but be transformed into a Spirit-dominated and immortal body, made fit for heaven (1 Cor. 15:44). Gathered from the dust of the grave by the hand of the Creator, it will become a pure and crystal vessel prepared to receive the believer’s glorified soul. Joy will abound in the house of the Lord on resurrection morning, when the souls of the saints are joined with their resurrected, glorified bodies. They will be delivered from the bondage of corruption and be introduced into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). “So shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
When the Great Shepherd appears in the heavens, there will be joy unequalled in heaven and earth. The “times of the restitution of all things” will gladden all the holy angels and every redeemed human being (Acts 3:21). The trumpet will sound to proclaim that “the year of my redeemed has come” (Isa. 63:4). Universal liberty will be granted to all God’s elect. The bond slaves of corruption will finally be emancipated. The prison house of the grave will be thrown open, and its bodies resurrected. There will be a continuous season of spiritual peace, harmony, joy, brotherhood, happiness, and prosperity. All the saints will be arrayed in white and shining garments; as victors, they will wave palm branches and wear crowns of life and righteousness received from the hand of Christ.
The dead in Christ will rise first, and the saints who are still alive will be changed into the likeness of their Lord. Then in one blessed company they will all be caught up in the air to meet their glorious Redeemer (1 Thess. 4:13–18). He has already changed their vile bodies into the likeness of His glorious body—incorruptible, powerful, spiritual, and heavenly (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:42–44, 49). So in soul and body the redeemed saints will now be the perfect possession of their Lord. Their names will be confessed before the angels of God (Luke 12:8), and they will possess their everlasting inheritance. They will forever dwell in the house of the Lord and surround the throne of the Lamb!
The pilgrims will rest in their true home (Heb. 11:13). As good and faithful servants, they have completed their work, which the Lord declares to be well done. They are then invited to enter into their Master’s joy (Matt. 25:21). The runners of the race have finished their course and have won the prize of their high calling (Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 4:7). The soldiers of Christ have fought the good fight of faith, secured victory by grace, and received the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
The little flock of sheep need not fear anymore, for they see that their Father’s good pleasure was to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32). They were poor but now find treasure in heaven, inheritance in light, fullness of joy, and an eternal weight of glory (Ps. 16:11; Matt. 6:20; 2 Cor. 4:17). All doubts of their acceptance are gone. Faith has given way to sight; hope has given way to fruition. They see that the One who went before them has indeed prepared a place for them (John 14:2). They are safe within their fold. They are welcomed at the table that their gracious Host has prepared for them. They behold the King in His beauty (Isa. 33:17) and live in the enjoyment of His love. The reigning Lamb leads them to fountains of living water and wipes away all their tears (Rev. 7:17). The Lord God Almighty is their unfading portion, their ever-open temple, their everlasting light, and their eternal glory (Rev. 21: 22–23).
As believers, we will dwell in heaven in a perfected state; all good will be walled in, all evil, walled out. There we can do no wrong, see no iniquity, hear no evil, and receive no spiritual harm. The Redeemer, then seen in His glorified human form, will fill our thoughts, and will be the theme of our conversation and the object of our adoration. Our soul will burn within itself while Christ reveals what He has suffered and the glory that is now His. In beatific vision, we will experience inexpressible delight in Christ’s presence and praise the Triune God forever in high, holy, and celestial strains. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
Yesterday my dermatologist removed the basal cell skin cancer from my lower left eyelid. In Mohs surgery, the doctor removes a slice of the affected area. They examine it microscopically and, if there is more cancer, they remove another a slice until the margins are clear of cancer. Usually one or two slices are needed, but in my case he needed to take four layers, as it extended down and to the sides. This involved 60% of the lid. If it had been 30% or less, the plastic surgeon could have just pulled it together, but more extensive surgery was needed. Mary took me from the dermatologist’s office to the out-patient surgery center. God gave us the two best doctors possible. So the plastic surgeon grafted a sliver of skin from the fold of my upper eyelid to repair the lower wound. Then she made a flap of the cartilage from the upper eyelid and stitched it to the wound site. Consequently, my eye is sewn shut, allowing the cartilage to establish a blood supply and grow into the wound site. In three weeks, she will snip the shared cartilage and, aside from missing 60% of my lower eyelashes, the repair should not be noticeable. The amazing thing is how the body repairs itself—we are fearfully and wonderfully made!
I suppose that I am too much of a Puritan not to reflect upon lessons to be learned and to examine myself after going through these surgeries. I hope that such self-examination is a good thing, although it can be painful in itself, and, of course, it can become too introspective if it is not corralled by biblical principles, such as those taught by John Calvin. Calvin taught that self-examination is necessary and profitable so long as it is based on the Scriptures, ends in Christ, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Here are ten practical reflections the day after my surgery which I hope you will find helpful:
- Unlike God, doctors are not infallible, sovereign, and almighty. They too can make mistakes. I have a very skilled dermatologist with whom I often talk theology—he’s read a number of my books. Despite having a great dermatologist, he wrong diagnosed a wart on my lower eyelid early this year, and told me it was definitely not cancerous. Four months later, it proved to be cancerous, however. “Regretfully,” he said, “I was wrong last time, but you know your theology well enough to know that only God is infallible!” Well, I couldn’t argue with that! Meanwhile, it kept growing until I could finally get the two specialists scheduled back-to-back for yesterday, but I see even more clearly now that this is all, of course, God’s sovereign will for me. (Positively speaking, my dermatologist has been right the other ten times when I’ve had less serious spots taken off by him, mostly on my face. I seem to have inherited this thorn in the flesh from my father. My brothers and nephew have it too.)
- Under God, doctors are invaluable and important. We don’t put our trust ultimately on earthy physicians but in our heavenly Triune God, but even as we do so, we recognize that the Ultimate Cause of all things (our fatherly sovereign God) normally carries out His fatherly will through secondary causes (like earthly doctors). Therefore it is not wrong but actually important to ask meaningful questions and seek for highly qualified physicians in whose abilities you can have confidence on the human, secondary level. The doctors God appointed me are both well-known as being highly skilled and gifted—and I took some comfort in the fact that several of my friends who are physicians concurred strongly with this. I regard this as a significant act of God’s grace in the larger picture of what I experienced yesterday.
- Faith versus sense and unbelief wages a fierce war at times. That already began early this month when the plastic surgeon told me in a pre-op appointment that though it was rare (5 per cent chance, she said), there are times that if more than 30 percent of the lower lid needs to be taken, then the surgery becomes “messy and complicated,” and the eye must be stitched shut for about three weeks. Knowing how long this cancer had been growing, I was immediately afraid. A week later that fear was compounded by speaking with someone else who went through this surgery and developed severe problems such that another surgery was needed three months later. So, when my dermatologist yesterday said that a second surgical extraction needed to be made because the cancer was both deeper and wider than thought and the first extraction made was like mush, I asked the doctor if that means he’d have to take more than 30 percent of my eyelid, and that I would have to go through the more difficult plastic surgery route. When he said, “I’m afraid that it is looking that way,” my immediate thought was, “But Lord, didn’t the last person who prayed with me at the seminary this morning ask that Thou wouldst do exceedingly abundantly above all that we could ask or think—which was exactly my prayer the day before”—and isn’t this prayer being refuted now? The battle of faith versus sense was enflamed. My only recourse was to consciously discipline my mind to fly to Christ.
- Faith and pity can far too easily coexist. After the dermatologist took a large chunk the second time, I felt confident that the cancer was all removed, but the report came back that there was still cancer on both sides, which meant that even more of my eyelid had to go. For a few minutes faith receded and self-pity rose it’s ugly head. Again, my only recourse was to think about Christ—specifically that beautiful first question of the Heidelberg Catechism that my only comfort in life and death is that I belong to Him.
- Faith and false submission are often hard to discern apart. When word came back that I would need a nearly unprecedented fourth extraction, I felt nothing but submission, but it was a mixed submission. On the one hand, I felt like I could surrender all into Christ’s hands but at the same time I felt rather numb and stoical. I gave up the battle but that surrender was not pure in its motivation. Once more I had to flee to Christ for help and forgiveness in all my unworthiness.
- Despite faith’s activity, God’s deliverance is often like a beautiful surprise. The one time I expected the nurses to come back into the waiting room and say, “You still need more taken,” was when she said, “You can go to the plastic surgeon now!” I was so surprised that I had to ask her to repeat it. God’s goodness overwhelmed me, though I knew the road before us was not an easy one.
- Meditating on Christ is by far our most important help in days of affliction. The fact that He has suffered and died for me, is always interceding for me, never allows me out of His perfect high priestly eye, and has perfect plans and goals for me so as to wean me from this world and ripen me for glory helped more than anything else to make me submissive throughout this day more than anything else. Most helpful of all was this thought: if Christ was submissive while going through far worse sufferings for me as an unworthy sinner, why should I not be submissive to Him when His providence is leading me through trials for His glory and my good?
- A God-fearing spouse to support you and help you pray your way through a day of surgeries is a priceless gift. My Queen’s prayers with me throughout the day’s waves of disappointment, together with her periodical comments, “It is going to be OK, honey,” and “God will help you through this,” together with meant more to me than sermons at this point.
- The prayers of believers are also a remarkable support, both in person and through electronic media, particularly when they briefly stress one or two of God’s sweet and powerful promises. Each time we would go back to the waiting room after another layer of cancer was removed, we would pray, meditate, and then open up email and Facebook to find new prayers waiting for us. The love and help we felt from this—often coming from people who I have often visited in time of need—is beyond words. The communion of saints is sweet.
- Kindness, touch, and clear communication are significant human helps in distress. In both offices, the doctors and nurses were remarkably kind and empathetic, and also used touch in a non-flirtatious way, such as rubbing the shoulder empathetically while speaking to me. Their clear, honest communication was also a great help. For example, just before I went into surgery, my plastic surgeon, whom I had only met once before, assured me that though the stitched procedure was necessary and not pleasant, she had done a goodly number of these and believed it would turn out well long-term. She did a great job of encouraging me to meditate on long-term benefit rather short-term discomfort. She also gladly let me pray for her and thanked me warmly for doing so. After the surgery, she was very reassuring again, and told me exactly what to expect, and made clear she was available at any time to address any complications that might arise.
In conclusion, let me say that it is good for a minister to be on the receiving end of surgeries. Over the last four decades, I have had the privilege of visiting more than 5,000 parishioners in the hospital. Being on the receiving end makes one realize more strongly than ever how important bedside manners and words and prayers are on the part of physicians, ministers, and nurses.
It also gives me renewed respect and love for those who have had to face larger, more life–threatening illnesses and to reflect on their acquiescence. Their trials have a way of making us face our own mortality and the need to prepare to meet our God.
Well, the 20-minute ice-packs on and 20-minute ice-packs off over the next few days should give me more time for reflection, but I pray that these ten reflections may be of some help to all of us now.