September 19, 2017

There Cometh One After Me …

Kerry James Allen

Probably most of us who are attempting to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in some capacity aspire to recognition and acknowledgment of our accomplishments. We would like to think that our teaching, preaching, and assorted labors for the Kingdom will have an impact on this and future generations.

Discouragement is part of our portion, mostly due to the fact that we have high expectations of what should be and what we would like to accomplish. When there is a disparity between that which is desired and that which is, despondency results, because we feel we are not accomplishing all that we would or could. (Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life— Proverbs 13:12.) This is a shame, because all sweat, blood, and tears expended for the Savior toward men and women for whom He died will be greatly rewarded, right down to the giving of a glass of cold water.

The question to be explored here is not, Are you discouraged, and if so, how shall we set about to cheer you; but, Are you discontented, thinking perhaps that God should have something greater for you? Might your expectations be too high and not have their source in God? (My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him—Psalm 62:5.) Perhaps the example of an unknown man and a few thoughts from the life of Jesus Christ will bring home to our hearts the concept that through death comes life, and that only through the eye of faith will we ever see just how much good we are all accomplishing for Christ.

In 1843, out of humble beginnings in Massachusetts, a life began that would touch the lives of millions around the world. This young man studied at Yale, became a decorated Civil War hero, and met President Lincoln. He then went on to become a lawyer, a journalist, and an author, writing 40 books. He eventually trained in theology, becoming a Baptist pastor and starting a church that grew to 4000–5000 in attendance (one of the largest in America). He pastored for 43 years. He founded a school of theology in Philadelphia for the purpose of training men for the ministry. This man was a consummate philanthropist, founding Temple University, where he served as president for 38 years, and Samaritan Hospital. The university and hospital, both in Philadelphia, were funded primarily by the lecture “Acres of Diamonds,” given nationwide and delivered more than 6,000 times, raising $4 million. It was conservatively estimated that he spoke face-to-face with over 13 million people in his lifetime. His name? Russell Herman Conwell.

However, this story is not about the mighty Conwell, but about an unknown man who influenced him, a man named John Ring. Note this Civil War excerpt in Conwell’s words from his biography, written by Robert Shackleton, concerning the young man John Ring.

“A boy up there in the Berkshires, a neighbor’s son, was John Ring. I call him a boy, for we all called him a boy, and we looked upon him as a boy, for he was undersized and underdeveloped so much so that he could not enlist.

“For some reason he was devoted to me, and he not only wanted to enlist, but he also wanted to be in the artillery company of which I was captain. I could only take him along as my servant. I didn’t want a servant, but it was the only way to take poor little Johnnie Ring.

“Johnnie was deeply religious, and would read the Bible every evening, before turning in. In those days I was an atheist, or at least thought I was, and I used to laugh at Ring, and after a while he took to reading the Bible outside the tent on account of my laughing at him! But he did not stop reading it, and his faithfulness to me remained unchanged.

“The scabbard of my sword was too glittering for the regulations”—the ghost of a smile hovered on Conwell’s lips—“and I could not wear it, and could only wear a plain one for service and keep this hanging in my tent on the tent-pole. John Ring used to handle it adoringly, and kept it polished to brilliancy. It’s dull enough after these many years,” he added somberly. To Ring it represented not only his captain, but the very glory and pomp of war.

“One day the Confederates suddenly stormed our position near New Berne and swept through the camp, driving our entire force before them. All, including my company, retreated hurriedly across the river, setting fire to a long wooden bridge as we went over. It soon blazed up furiously, making a barrier that the Confederates could not pass.

“Unknown to everybody, and unnoticed, John Ring had dashed back to my tent. I think he was able to make his way back because he looked like a mere boy. However that was, he got past the Confederates into my tent and took down, from where it was hanging on the tent-pole, my bright, gold-scabbarded sword.

“John Ring seized the sword that had long been so precious to him. He dodged here and there, and actually managed to gain the bridge just as it was beginning to blaze. He started across. The flames were every moment getting fiercer, the smoke denser, and now and then, as he crawled and staggered on, he leaned for a few seconds far over the bridge in an effort to get air. Both sides saw him; both sides watched his terrible progress, even while firing was fiercely kept up from each side of the river. And then a Confederate officer—he was one of General Pickett’s officers—ran to the water’s edge and waved a white handkerchief and the firing ceased.

“‘Tell that boy to come back here!’ he cried. ‘Tell him to come back here and we will let him go free!’ “He called this out just as John Ring was about to enter upon the worst part of the bridge—the covered part, where there were top and bottom and sides of blazing wood. The roar of the flames was so close to Ring that he could not hear the calls from either side of the river, and he pushed desperately on and disappeared in the covered part.

“There was dead silence except for the crackling of the fire. Not a man cried out. All waited in hopeless expectancy. And then came a mighty yell from Northerner and Southerner alike, for Johnnie came crawling out of the end of the covered way—he had actually passed through that frightful place—and his clothes were ablaze, and he toppled over and fell into the shallow water. In a few moments he was dragged out unconscious, and hurried to a hospital.

“He lingered for a day or so, still unconscious, and then came to himself and smiled a little as he found that the sword for which he had given his life had been left beside him. He took it in his arms. He hugged it to his breast. He gave a few words of final message for me. And that was all.”

In terms of “success speak,” the life and death of Jesus Christ had all the markings of abject failure, just as did the previous story of John Ring. In John 12, a group of Greeks had come to interview Christ, at what was a turning point in His ministry. Rather than seizing the opportunity to promote health, happiness, and heaven on earth, Christ launched into a sermon on the great themes of His life—and of our lives, if we are to become greatly useful to Him. It was not a message that would endear the throngs to Him in that day, nor in this one.

Defeat—Later leading to victory

“The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (John 12:23). In Christ’s economy, crucifixion comes before glorification, and His glory would come by way of shame. Just as His ministry was about to expand, He was now facing what would seem to be a great defeat. Just ahead was the agony of Gethsemane, the sweating of great drops of blood, an unjust trial, a crown of thorns, a brutal beating, and a cruel cross. Was Jesus defeated? Of course not. That cross was the route to victory over sin, death, and Satan. Likewise, our seeming defeats are but steppingstones to greater victories.

Death—Later leading to volume

“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Of course, this passage is primarily referring to Jesus, yet it is a truth that runs through the entirety of nature and man. Just as the kernel of wheat must die and give itself if it is to multiply, so too must we die to ourselves if we are to see our lives multiply to the influence of others. Charles Spurgeon, commenting on this passage, said, “If we wish to achieve a great purpose, establish a great truth, and raise up a great agency for good, it must be by the surrender of ourselves, yea, of our very lives to the one allabsorbing purpose. Death precedes growth. The Savior of others cannot save Himself. It is the law of divine husbandry that by death cometh increase.” In the spiritual realm, great reproduction has been brought about through death, first Jesus Christ, then His followers, many of whom not only spiritually died to self, but also died physically themselves. Are we willing to validate our faith by “resisting unto blood”?

Denial—Later leading to value

“He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (v. 25). There must be a daily denial of self, and self must be displaced by Another. We can either be empty vessels “meet for the Master’s use” or useless vessels full of our own desires and wants, but we can’t be both. Hear Charles Spurgeon again, on this matter: “If you and I empty ourselves, depend on it, God will fill us. Divine grace seeks out and fills a vacuum. Make a vacuum by humility, and God will fill that vacuum by His love.”

Directive—Later leading to valor

“If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve Me, him will my father honour” (v. 26). Note the sequence—following obediently, faithfully serving, then finally rewarded. How effective we are will be determined by how committed we are to following His directive. May we be found where He would have us be, doing all His bidding, cheerfully spending ourselves at His disposal and enjoying the Father’s approval at the last!

May we also note that there is no immediate payoff mentioned in any of the above Scriptures. Our investment is made by faith, without thought of return in this life. Many a Christian has expected too much too quickly. Impatience with the infinite is irrational!

Hear Conwell as he continues relating the rest of the story of how one man impacted his life for time and eternity:

“When I stood beside the body of John Ring and realized that he had died for love of me, I made a vow that has formed my life. I vowed that from that moment I would live not only my own life, but that I would also live the life of John Ring. And from that moment I have worked sixteen hours every day—eight for John Ring’s work and eight hours for my own.”

A curious note had come into his voice, as of one who had run the race and neared the goal, fought the good fight and neared the end.

“Every morning when I rise I look at this sword, or if I am away from home I think of the sword, and vow anew that another day shall see sixteen hours of work from me.” When one comes to know Russell Conwell he realizes that never did a man work harder and more constantly.

“It was through John Ring and his giving his life through devotion to me that I became a Christian,” he went on. “This did not come about immediately, but it came before the war was over, and it came through faithful Johnnie Ring.”

Seeming defeat, death to self, denial of ambition, directed by God—these are all characteristics of a life wholly given up to God that must, if the teachings of Christ mean anything, lead to eternal reward. We can’t all be an apostle Peter, a Dwight L. Moody, a Martin Luther, or a Russell Conwell. But we all can be an Andrew, bringing a relative to Christ; an Edward Kimball, witnessing to a Sunday school pupil; a Jacob Trebonius, faithfully teaching young scholars; or a John Ring, a shining witness and contented servant. These “unknowns” were simply conduits to deliver a message to those, who, through the sovereignty of God, became great. May we deign to be humble servants and heralds through whom truth can travel to those who may aspire and ascend to greater heights than we in the Kingdom of our God.


At the time of original publication, Kerry James Allen was pastor of Fox River Baptist Church in Oswego, Illinois.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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