Seventeen years after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, launching the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII separated the English church from Rome.
Though Luther’s Reformation movement was slowly transforming England, Queen Mary sought to reverse Henry’s separation during her reign from 1553-1558. She began persecuting Protestant reformers. After Mary’s death, her half-sister Elizabeth took the throne and decided to find some middle ground between Protestantism and Catholicism. This half-way reformation gave rise to the Puritans who wanted to purify England’s church from the remaining Catholic elements.
This is important background for understanding The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, College Park Church’s recent monthly book recommendation, which was published in 1630. For those hesitant to read Puritan literature, this edition thankfully uses some modernized language and clarifying headings to help with understanding. In the book, Sibbes draws conclusions from a statement about the Messiah from the prophet Isaiah which Matthew declares to have been fulfilled in Jesus, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.” ( Matt. 12:18-20) But what does that mean and why does it matter?
1. Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed
Sibbes writes, “God’s children are bruised reeds before their conversion and oftentimes after” (3). He explains that bruised reeds are people who are sensible to their sinful nature and then, recognizing their need for a redeemer, throw themselves upon the mercy of Jesus. After conversion, Christians experience bruising through the discipline of the Lord. Sibbes notes, “we need bruising so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks” (5). Bruising produces humility, which is the hallmark of a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). Jesus will not break the bruised reed because he was broken in our place, and he heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3).
2. Christ Will Not Quench The Smoking Flax
To us in the twenty-first century, this imagery might seem confusing at first. It refers to a candle that is barely burning—a smoking wick that is casting but a dim light. As Sibbes writes, the people of God “[look] sometimes at the work of grace, sometimes at the remainder of corruption, and when they look upon that, then they think they have no grace” (19). Yet, it is only by God’s grace that the candle burns at all.
New believers, weak believers, and discouraged believers can all identify with the imagery of the smoking flax. Sibbes is quick to note that just because this fire does not blaze like other Christians, it does not mean there is no fire at all: “We must, therefore, walk by [Christ’s] light, not the blaze of our own fire” (39).
3. These Truths Bring Comfort That Leads to Godly Conduct
Jesus is faithful. He will not break us; he binds our bruises. He will not quench our smoking ember of faith; he fans it to flame. Sibbes writes, “Grace conquers us first, and we, by it, conquer all else; whether corruptions within us, or temptations from outside us” (97). Let us not presume upon Christ’s gracious actions toward us. Instead, let us “[judge] sin the greatest evil, and the favor of God the greatest good” (11). As our smoking flax is set ablaze by Jesus, “it discards what is contrary to itself and refines itself more and more” (43). Pardon leads to obedience because Jesus is faithful to accomplish his victory in us.