This week, I’ll combine my summary of chapters 3-4 of The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. In these two small chapters the author begins to explain what is meant by the second metaphor of the book, “the smoking flax.” To review, the book is based upon the messianic description of Jesus from Matthew 18:21.
18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (ESV)
The ESV says, “a smoldering wick he will not quench,” but Sibbes goes with the wording as “the smoking flax he will not quench.” Sibbes sees this phrase as referring to those who experiencing a “little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption” (16). Or, you might think of it as the smoldering wick/smoking flax are whose faith is present but the flame is just flickering. This might be a season or it might be where they are after conversion, but Sibbes seems to be referring to those whose faith isn’t yet where they would like it to be. He then uses paragraph after paragraph to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in how he loves, cares for, and fans into flame the smallest sparks of grace in us.
In fact, Sibbes reminds all of us that there is always a mixture of grace and corruption in us (this side of heaven). Just like earlier he said God bruises us so that reeds might know they are reeds and not oaks, here also he reminds us that corruption is not taken away at conversion so we might continually see our need for Christ. “The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them” (18). We are indeed being refined, “but not so exactly as that no dross remains…Perfect refining is for another world, for the world of the souls of perfect men” (25).
Unfortunately, remaining sin robs many believers from the assurance God desires for them. In Chapter 3 Sibbes shepherds us with the caution not to look to our sanctification but to our justification to know that we are secure in Christ. Subsequently in chapter 4 he offers two reasons why Christ will not quench the smoking flax:
1) The spark is his own; kindled by the Spirit.
2) It leads to his glory in how he preserves light in the midst of darkness.
Several examples are given of how Jesus patiently loved and even sought out those with but a little spark: Thomas in his doubt, the two wavering disciples on Emmaus, Peter in his denials, and the churches in Revelation. Using the example in Matthew 15:32, he writes, “Christ’s heart yearned…when he saw the people without meat, ‘lest they faint in the way;’ much more will have regard for the preventing of our spiritual fainting” (21). Sibbes knows the heart of man all too well and admits we do not often treat others with such grace, and in fact our natural tendency is to quench the smoldering wick. It should not be so, which is why he sets for the example of Jesus and calls us to mirror him our grace and kindness to Christians in their weaknesses. This proves difficult, because some are need of the rod, but we must be careful not to give the rod to those who need us coming in meekness.
Sibbes doesn’t simply move from the perceived “problem” of a smoking wick to the “solution” of a strong flame. Many of us, like me, are too quick to see sin as a problem needing fixed and the ultimate goal being our maturity as disciples. While sin does need eradicated and we do need to grow like “oaks in righteousness”, it is even more important that we meet Christ in our sin as the one who draws near and helps us out. Richard Sibbes tells us in plain words that even our sin must not be missed as an opportunity to experience our need for Christ and his unrivaled sufficiency. “Where Christ shows his great power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are” (23). Later he echoes the sentiment that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. “Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God” (23). In all four chapters this theme has been sounded loud and clear. God is not impressed and attracted to us when we think we’ve performed well, nor is he disappointed and driven away when we think we’ve been utter failures. Our greatest problem remains our sin, and yet when we confess our sin to God it can be used as our greatest comfort, God’s grace. “Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace” (18).