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31 October 2017

Journeying Together

A Review of The Pilgrim’s Progress

By James Steer

James Steer

We are all familiar with journeys. Many journey to work each day, others to do the weekly shopping, others will journey for a day or more on their way from one country to another. In most of these journeys we are aware that we are travelling, whether we are taking a quick trip to a store by car or cramped into economy class for twelve hours!

Christians too are on a journey. The author of Hebrews encourages us to “strive to enter that rest” (Heb 4:11, ESV), or as Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress says several times, “I am come from the City of Destruction, and am going to Mount Zion.”[1] This is the Christian life. However, amid the routine and grind of everyday life it is easy for us to forget that we are on a journey. This is where The Pilgrim’s Progress is so helpful to us.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a wonderful book full of vivid pictures, anecdotes, and stories about pilgrims traveling to their eternal home. Though it was written over 300 years ago and some of the language is old and difficult to understand, the story is a delightful allegory of the Christian life. The book graphically presents the pilgrims’ (and our) journeys, trials, temptations, battles, and joys in a way which “gets under the skin” in a way that other books don’t. It gives us reason to pause, reflect on our lives, and ask questions like, “How successful have I been in my battle with this sin? How am I helping other Christians in their fight? Am I rejoicing with other believers in their growth?”

Traveling companions

Pilgrim’s Progress starts with Christian coming to an awareness that, because of his own sin, he stands condemned before God. In pure abandon he cries out, “What shall I do to be saved?”[2] At this point he meets Evangelist who directs him to the wicket gate—the narrow gate that Jesus urges us to enter (cf. Lk 13:24). Thus begins Christian’s pilgrimage to the Celestial City. As he travels, he meets people who seek to take short cuts (which lead to their destruction) and he faces hardships (e.g. the Valley of Humiliation). Such encounters along the way help us understand the importance of enlisting “travelling companions” as we journey to the Celestial City.

Christian’s first fellow-traveler is Faithful. Close fellowship provides opportunities for them to encourage one another with the truth of the gospel and to persevere. For example, when Faithful recounted his encounter with Shame, Christian says: “But let us still resist him; for, not withstanding all his bravadoes, he promoteth the fool, and none else.”[3] Faithful responds, “I think we must cry to Him for help against Shame.”[4]

After Faithful was martyred in Vanity Fair, Christian acquired a new traveling companion called Hopeful, a citizen of Vanity Fair who responded to Faithful’s testimony. Further along on the journey, when Christian and Hopeful found themselves trapped in Doubting Castle, Giant Despair encouraged them to kill themselves. Christian’s fears caused him to despair of life itself and he cried out, “my soul chooseth strangling rather than life.”[5] At this time, Hopeful gave Christian the exhortation he needed: though their situation was dreadful, suicide was not the correct solution; patience was needed in their trial since the Lord may improve their situation.

Through different trials and temptations, Christian and Hopeful persevere until they reach Mount Zion. But the story does not end there. In the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress, we discover the subsequent journey that Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their children took to reach the Celestial City.

Traveling guide

Christiana and the children are given a guide, Mr. Great-Heart, to lead them and a growing company along the way. Though they made the same journey and faced perils similar to Christian’s, we glean new insights as these pilgrims face new situations. Along the journey, Mr. Great-Heart leads the pilgrims to Gaius’s house (cf. Rom 16:23) and Mr. Mnason’s home (cf. Acts 21:16), places of safety and rest that Christian did not experience. Christiana’s encounters along the way help us to see the importance of being part of a church where we can be built up, supported, protected, taught, and equipped as we make our pilgrimage together to the Celestial City.

Mr. Great-Heart’s role is to guide “pilgrims that are going to the Celestial country,”[6] and to “comfort the feeble-minded, and to support the weak.”[7] He describes himself as “a servant of the God of heaven; my business is to persuade sinners to repentance.” As he sees it, “I am commanded to do my endeavors to turn men, women, and children, from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.”[8] In other words, Mr. Great-Heart’s role is that of a pastor—to proclaim the gospel, to support and nurture weak and struggling Christians, and to bring all God’s people to their final destination.

We see Mr. Great-Heart fulfilling this role throughout the second book: he answers questions of those under his charge, teaches them of righteousness and the gospel, warns them of dangers and leads them through, prepares them for trials, patiently bears with struggling or troublesome believers, rescues various pilgrims from danger, and gathers other believing travelers into his care.

The presence and help of the pastor stands in clear contrast to Christian and Hopeful’s experience. As a result of Mr. Great-Heart’s guidance of the group of pilgrims, they become strong in faith and when they come near to Doubting Castle and Giant Despair, they contemplate whether they can demolish the giant and his castle and set free any captive pilgrims. Indeed, Mr. Great-Heart and five others “fight the good fight of faith” against Giant Despair and defeat him.[9]

CONCLUSION

Pilgrim’s Progress reminds us that as we journey from the City of Destruction to Mount Zion, we (like Christian and Christiana) need godly traveling companions and a faithful pastor and church if we are to reach our destination safely. Additionally, it shows us that, as workers in Asia, we have various roles to play: we are Evangelist as we seek to proclaim the gospel; we are Mr. Great-Heart as we strive to guide and disciple pilgrims to the Celestial country; we are Gaius and Mnason as we give rest to the weary on the way. Pilgrim’s Progress helps us to see concretely what these different roles and responsibilities look like as we press on, build each other up in Christ, and seek to encourage others on their journey to Mount Zion.

[1] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition), 38.

[2] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 13.

[3] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 57.

[4] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 57.

[5] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 83.

[6] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 177.

[7] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 193.

[8] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 175.

[9] Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 201.

To be a Pilgrim

John Bunyan

“Who would true valor see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avow’d intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit;
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away
He’ll not fear what men say;
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.