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A Classic Study by John Flavel (1628-1691)

[Here, we continue our reprint of excerpts from John Flavel's book Navigation Spiritualized. John Flavel was a 17th Century minister in the seaside town of Dartmouth, England. A good many of his parishioners made their living on the sea, and so Mr. Flavel wrote Navigation Spiritualized, a book which draws parallels between things of the sea and spiritual things. This book is a masterpiece in the way it communicates spiritual truths in the language of its target audience, the seamen of Dartmouth. In fact, it was written specifically for the seamen to take on voyages and read, so that (for example), while they sailed the boundless seas, they could read of God's boundless mercies; or, while they adjusted their sails for shifting winds, they could read how to prepare their souls for the shifting winds of life; etc. And indeed, though few of us are seamen, we are all on a voyage through this life, so (I dare say) we may all profit from this study.]--Ed.

The Perpetuity of the Church

The rocks abide, though seas against them rage

So shall the church, which is God's heritage.


The rocks, though situate in the boisterous and tempestuous ocean, yet abide firm and immoveable from age to age. The impetuous waves dash against them with great violence, but cannot remove them out of their place. And although sometimes they wash over them, and make them to disappear, yet there they remain fixed and impregnable.


This is a lively emblem of the condition of the church, amidst all dangers and oppositions wherewith it is encountered and assaulted in this world. These metaphorical waves roar and beat with violence against it, but with as little success as the sea against the rocks: "Upon this rock will I build my church, and the [gates] of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. xvi. 18). The gates of hell are the power and policy of hell; for it is conceived to be an allusive speech to the gates of the Jews, wherein their ammunition for war was lodged, which also were the seats of judicature, there sat the judges; but yet these gates of hell shall not prevail. Nay, this rock is not only invincible in the midst of their violence, but also breaks all that dash against it: "In that day I will make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people; all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it." (Zech. xii. 3). This is an allusion to one that essays to roll some great stone against the hill, which at last returns upon him, and crushes him to pieces.

And the reason why it is thus firm and impregnable is not from itself; for alas, so considered, it is weak, and obnoxious to ruin; but from the almighty power of God, which guards and preserves it day and night: "God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early" (Psal. xlvi. 5, 6). This notes (saith Calvin) God's assiduous and constant help and succour, which is extended in all dangers, as constantly as the sun arises. And this assiduous succour to His people, and their great security thereby, is set forth in the scriptures by a pleasant variety of metaphors and emblems: "I, saith the Lord, will be a wall of fire round about it" (Zech. ii. 5). Some think this phrase alludes to the cherubim that kept the way of the tree of life with flaming swords; others to the fiery chariots round about Dathan, where Elisha was; but most think it to be an allusion to an ancient custom of travellers in the deserts, who, to prevent the assaults of wild beasts in the night, made a circular fire round about them, which was as a wall to them. Thus will God be to His people a wall of fire, which none can scale. So, in Exod. iii. 3-5 we have an excellent emblem of the church's low and dangerous condition, and admirable preservation. You have here both a marvel and a mystery. The marvel was to see a bush all on fire and yet not consumed. The mystery is this: the bush represented the sad condition of the church of Egypt; the fire flaming upon it, the grievous afflictions, troubles, and bondage it was in there; the remaining of the bush unconsumed, the strange and admirable preservation of the church in those troubles. It lived there as the three noble Jews, untouched in the midst of a burning fiery furnace: and the angel of the Lord in a flame of fire, in the midst of the bush was nothing else but the Lord Jesus Christ, powerfully and graciously present with His people amidst all their dangers and sufferings. The Lord is exceeding tender over them, and jealous for them, as that expression imports: "He that toucheth them toucheth the apple of mine eye" (Zech. ii. 8). He that strikes at them, strikes at the face of God, and at the most excellent part of the face, the eye, and at the most tender and precious part of the eye, the apple of the eye. And yet, as a learned modern observes, this people of whom He uses this tender and dear expression, were none of the best of Israel neither; but the residue that staid behind in Babylon, when their brethren were gone to rebuild the temple; and yet over these, He is as tender as a man is over his eye.


And is the security of the church so great! And its preservation so admirable, amidst all storms and tempests! Then why art thou so prone and subject to despond, O my soul, in the day of Zion's trouble? Sensible thou wast, and oughtest to be: but no reason to hang down the head through discouragement, much less to forsake Zion in her distress, for fear of being ruined with her.

What David spake to Abiathar, that may Zion speak to all her sons and daughters in all their distresses: "Though he that seeketh thy life seeketh mine also; yet with me shalt thou be in safeguard" (I Sam. xxii. 23). God hath entailed great salvation and deliverances upon Zion; and blessed are all her friends and favorers; the Rock of ages is its defence. Fear not, therefore, O my soul, though the hills be removed out of their place, and cast into the midst of the sea. O let my faith triumph, and my heart rejoice upon this ground of comfort. I see the same rocks now, and in the same place and condition they were many years ago. Though they have endured many storms, yet there they abide; and so shall Zion, when the proud waves have spent their fury and rage against it.

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