It doesn’t seem like a high priority to many. What pressing relevance can previous centuries have when our world is so different? Isn’t it just for those who like that sort of thing? No, because God requires us to recall His works done in the past (Psalm 105:5). And do we think that God has stopped working since the apostles? Church history glorifies God. We are to learn for our own benefit from what has happened to God’s people in the past (1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4). How will we understand our own times unless we know the influences that have shaped our generation (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)? How can we build the Church if we take no time to understand what it is, has been and where it is going?
Looking back and understanding what God has done in the Church gives us a sense of perspective. We see how little we are and how short lived some of the ideas that seem so powerful today. The idea that new and now are always better is proud and short-sighted. An understanding of church history can keep us from error and give us hope and encouragement for the future. We can be humbled when we take time to learn about the courage, godliness and failings of those that have gone before us. David Dickson puts it memorably: “God’s old works have new use in all ages, for the furtherance of believer’s faith, patience and comfort”.
Robert Fleming says that what we see in Church history is Scripture being fulfilled. God has made promises to the Church and we see these fulfilled again and again. Christ says that He will build His Church, we have abundant proof of this. We can admire this way in which the Word shines on “all the paths and footsteps of the Lord towards His Church in every age”. “One generation should declare the works of the Lord to another, and transmit the memory of His goodness to succeeding ages”. Every period adds something to this history, it brings “forth something further into the world, of the Lord’s counsel and design about His Church” (Robert Fleming). Even our period of Church history does this.
These are some of the things that we forget when we forget God’s works in His Church in the past. David Dickson summarises a selection of them in expounding Psalm 66:5-7 which speaks of the ongoing relevance of God’s works in the past. In doing so Dickson shows that Scripture requires us to gain an understanding of Church history for our good and God’s glory.
Dickson notices that the Psalmist especially points out the Lord’s works already done for His people. The Lord works for the Church’s deliverance and His own glory. People are so careless about observing His works, however, that there is great need to stir up our slothfulness. We must observe and make a right use of God’s works for His praise and our benefit. This is why the Psalmist says: “Come and see the works of God” (Psalm 66:5).
1. Wonder at God’s Works
Whoever does observe the works of God for His people will be forced to fear and admire His wonderful acts and care for them. “He is terrible in his doing toward the children of men” (Psalm 66:5).
2. God’s Remarkable Deliverances
The work of redeeming His Church out of Egypt is worthy of being made use of by everyone to the end of the world. It is in itself sufficient to show, that if necessary, God will invert the course of nature. He will do this for the good of His people and to deliver them from difficulties. “He turned the sea into dry land” (Psalm 66:6).
3. God is Faithful to His Promises
Just as the Lord did wonders in delivering His people out of misery, so He will work wonders in fulfilling His promises to them. He will do what is necessary to bring them into possession of what He has given them a right to by promise. Drying up the river Jordan so that His people might go in to possess the promised land provides evidence of this purpose of God for all future times.”They went through the flood on foot” (Psalm 66:6).
4. Our Unity with the Historic Church
The whole people of God are one body. That which is done in one age and to one generation concerns them all. Everyone is to make use of it in their generation. Everyone in future times should reckon themselves to be one body with the Lord’s people in former ages. They should make use of God’s dealings with them as if they had been present with them then. The Church in the Psalmist’s time joins itself with the Church in Joshua’s time, rejoycing in God with them at their entry into Canaan. “There did we rejoyce in him” (Psalm 66:6).
5. God Can Do What He Did in the Past Again
The Lord is able and ready to do in any future time whatever He has done for His people in any past time. He rules by His power forever (v7). His actions in the past are perpetual evidences and pledges of similar actions that will be done in the future as necessary.
6. God Witnesses Everything that Happens to His People
Nothing is done in any place to which the Lord is not witness. There is no plot or movement against His people which He does not see. “His eyes behold the nations” (v7).
7. Those Who Oppose the Church Will Not Prosper for Long
There will be from time to time a generation who will not submit themselves to this sovereign ruler. They stand out against Him and malign His Church. Yet they will not prosper for long nor have cause to triumph in their rebellion: “Let not the rebellious exalt themselves” (v7).
In the verses from Psalm 66:8 onwards, the Psalmist exhorts the Church in his time to praise God. He has preserved them from being wiped out during their fiery trial and painful affliction under the tyranny and oppression of their enemies. This shows us that in every age (besides all the reasons for praising God for works done in the past) the Lord’s people have their own unique reasons for praising God’s care, providence and kindness. One purpose of the Church’s troubles is to test the graces of God’s people and purge out their corruptions. This is why God brings one trouble after another, as metal is put into the fire more than once to refine it (v10).
There is no escape when God brings His Church into a time of trial (v11). He then shows us whether it is easier to serve God or men (v12). Yet when He delivers His people and gives them a time of release it carries as much comfort as their trials did grief (v13). These considerations are helpful as we use Church history to reflect on our own times. We may experience a time when the rebellious are exalting themselves but it will not be for long, comparatively speaking. “For the rod of the wicked shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous” (Psalm 125:3).
We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation. This is why we have created some short documentaries highlighting a period of history not just forgotten in schools but also in many churches. It’s called Scotland’s Forgotten History and the final parts were filmed during the past week. It looks at what we can learn from this period as well as what we can learn about it. Together with the videos we have produced a discussion guide. This is designed to help small groups discuss the biblical principles outlined in the videos along with relevant passages of Scripture. We look forward to being able to release the series soon, God willing.