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Bishop Ryle’s napkin

May 22, 2011

In Jesus’ parable of the ten pounds, Luke 19:11-27, a nobleman delivered ten pounds to his ten servants, before he journeyed to a far country, where he would obtain a kingdom. When he returned, some of the servants had traded with what they had received, and gained much more.

John Charles Ryle

John Charles Ryle (1816-1900)

John Charles Ryle  (1816-1900), Bishop of Liverpool, published a sermon using part of this parable as his text, to which he gave the title “Occupy till I come.” The text was Luke 19:11-13. [1]

Ryle discussed three points in his sermon; (1) the mistake of the disciples, about when Christ’s kingdom would appear; (2) the present position of the Lord Jesus Christ; (3) the present duty of those who profess to be Jesus Christ’s disciples.

Ryle made much of the views of the disciples, who at that time had not yet received the Spirit of Christ, about when God’s kingdom would come. He wrote: [2]

They appear to have concluded that now was the day and now the hour when, the Redeemer would build up Zion, and appear in His glory (Psalm cii. 16),–when He would smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips slay the wicked,–when He would assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah (Isaiah xi. 4, 12),–when He would take the heathen for His inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession,–break His enemies with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm ii. 8, 9),–when He would reign in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His ancients gloriously (Isaiah xxiv. 23),–when the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven would be given to the saints of the Most High. (Dan. vii 27.) Such appears to have been the mistake into which our Lord’s disciples had fallen at the time when He spoke the parable of the Pounds.

Ryle did not quote the entire parable; he looked only at the introductory verses quoted in his text. Reading the entire parable may have suggested a different view of the nature of Christ’s reign, and his kingdom. The nobleman instructed his ten servants before he left, and gave them ten pounds. Verse 14 says, “Now his countrymen hated him, and sent a deputation after him to say, `We are not willing that he should become our king.'” Is this not about the nobleman reigning, even when absent? The quote is from Weymouth’s translation.

Upon his return, having received his kingdom, the nobleman reckoned with his servants. One had traded with his pound, and gained ten more. Another had gained five. Yet another servant had wrapped his pound in a napkin. It remained exactly as it was, when he had received it.

The single pound given to that servant was taken away from him, and was given to the servant who had gained ten pounds. And the nobleman said, “But as for those enemies of mine who were unwilling that I should become their king, bring them here, and cut them to pieces in my presence.'” [vs. 27]

This suggests that the nobleman expected his servants to “occupy,” and to be productive with what had been committed to them, during the period when their master was absent. By failing to properly use the pound that he had been assigned, the servant who wrapped it up in a napkin showed himself unfaithful.

His attitude was, “Sir, here is your pound, which I have kept wrapt up in a cloth. For I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man: you take up what you did not lay down, and you reap what you did not sow.” [Luke 19:20-21] Fear was his excuse for being unproductive. If for the pounds that the servants received in this parable we understand prophecies of scripture, the approach of the unfaithful servant resembles those who insist upon a literal interpretation. In that view, the kingdom of Christ can only mean an earthly, visible kingdom, where Christ reigns in an earthly Jerusalem, with much pomp, and visible glory. And in the Old Testament prophecies, Israel can only mean the descendants of Abraham after the flesh. Judah can only mean literal, ethnic Jews, who practice Judaism. Jerusalem can only mean Jerusalem. Zion can only mean the literal, earthly Mount Zion. Literalism corresponds to the attitude of the servant who wrapped his pound in a napkin. A literal approach rejects the idea that Christ reigns now; his reign is to be far off in the future.

In a footnote to p. 44, Ryle quoted a comment supporting his view of an earthly, visible kingdom, from Increase Mather in 1669. Mather said: [3]

“Christ did never absolutely deny His having such a visible glorious kingdom upon earth as that which His disciples looked for; only He corrected their error as to the time of this kingdom appearing. Christ did not say to them that there never should be any such restoration of the kingdom to Israel as their thoughts were running upon; only He telleth them the times and seasons were not for them to know; thereby acknowledging that such a kingdom should indeed be, as they did from the holy prophets expect. Herein was their error,–not in expecting a glorious appearance of the kingdom of God, but in that they made account that this would be immediately.” –The Mysteries of Israel’s Salvation: by Dr. Increase Mather. 1669. p. 130.

Ryle railed against Christian scholarship in which the promises to Israel are understood to apply to the church. He wrote: [4]

I believe it is high time for the Church of Christ to awake out of its sleep about Old Testament prophecy. From the time of the old Fathers, Jerome and Origen, down to the present day, men have gone on in a pernicious habit of “spiritualizing” the words of the Prophets, until their true meaning has been well nigh buried. It is high time to lay aside traditional methods of interpretation, and to give up our blind obedience to the opinions of such writers as Pool, Henry, Scott, and Clarke, upon unfulfilled prophecy. It is high time to fall back on the good old principle that Scripture generally means what it seems to mean, and to beware of that semisceptical argument, “Such and such an interpretation cannot be correct, because it seems to us ‘carnal!'”

It is high time for Christians to interpret unfulfilled prophecy by the light of prophecies already fulfilled. The curses on the Jews were brought to pass literally :–so also will be the blessings. The scattering was literal:–so also will be the gathering. The pulling down of Zion was literal:–so also will be the building up. The rejection of Israel was literal:–so also will be the restoration.

It is high time to interpret the events that shall accompany Christ’s second advent by the light of those accompanying His first advent. The first. advent was literal, visible, personal:–so also will be His second. His first advent was with a literal body:–so also will be His second. At His first advent the least predictions were fulfilled to the very letter:–so also will they be at His second. The shame was literal and visible:–so also will be the glory.

It is high time to cease from explaining Old Testament prophecies in a way not warranted, by the New Testament. What right have we to say that the words Judah, Zion, Israel, and Jerusalem, ever mean anything but literal Judah, literal Zion, literal Israel, and literal Jerusalem? ‘What precedent shall we find in the New Testament? Hardly any, if indeed any at all. Well says an admirable writer on this subject:–“There are really only two or three places in the whole New Testament,–Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation,–where such names are used decidedly in what may be called a spiritual or figurative state.–The word ‘Jerusalem’ occurs eighty times, and all of them unquestionably literal, save when the opposite is expressly pointed out by the epithets ‘heavenly,’ or ‘new,’ or ‘holy.’ ‘Jew’ occurs an hundred times, and only four are even ambiguous, as Romans ii. 28. ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelite’ occur forty times, and all literal. ‘Judah’ and ‘Judea’ above twenty times, and all literal.” –Bonar’s Prophetical Land-marks, p. 300.

On the third point in his sermon on the parable of the pounds, Ryle encouraged his readers to be very generous with their money! But, in his parable, Jesus encouraged creativity. Prophecy may be a more fitting, and more enlightening interpretation of the pounds in the parable, than money. The literal approach to prophecy is not necessarily a superior one.

In a sermon on the future of the Jews, in the same volume, with the title “Scattered Israel to be gathered,” Ryle used for his text Jeremiah 31:10: “Hear the Word of the Lord, 0 ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock.”

Ryle insisted that “Israel” must mean literal Jews, after the flesh. But Paul wrote, “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel,” [Romans 9:6]  which seems to undermine his literalist position. Also, Paul wrote: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” [Romans 2:29] Ryle wrote: [5]

The meaning of the word “Israel.”

The definition of terms is of first importance in theology. Unless we explain the meaning of the words we use in our religious statements, our arguments are often wasted, and we seem like men beating the air.

The word “Israel” is used nearly seven hundred times in the Bible. I can only discover three senses in which it is used. First,–It is one of the names of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes; a name specially given to him by God. Secondly,–It is a name given to the ten tribes which separated from Judah and Benjamin in the days of Rehoboam, and became a distinct kingdom. This kingdom is often called Israel, in contradistinction to the kingdom of Judah. Thirdly and lastly,–It is a name given to the whole Jewish nation, to all members of the twelve tribes which sprung from Jacob, and were brought out of Egypt into the land of Canaan. This is by far the most common signification of the word in the Bible. It is the only signification in which I can find the word “Israel” used throughout the whole New Testament. It is the same in which the word is used in the text which I am considering this day. That Israel, which God has scattered and will yet gather again, is the whole Jewish nation.

Now, why do I dwell upon this point? To some readers it may appear mere waste of time and words to say so much about it. The things I have been saying sound to them like truisms. That Israel means Israel is a matter on which they never felt a doubt. If this be the mind of any into whose hands this address has fallen, I am thankful for it. But unhappily there are many Christians who do not see the subject with your eyes. For their sakes I must dwell on this point a little longer.

For many centuries there has prevailed in the Churches of Christ a strange, and to my mind, an unwarrantable mode of dealing with this word “Israel.” It has been interpreted in many passages of the Psalms and Prophets, as if it meant nothing more than Christian believers. Have promises been held out to Israel? Men have been told continually that they are addressed to Gentile saints. –Have glorious things been described as laid up in store for Israel? Men have been incessantly told that they describe the victories and triumphs of the Gospel in Christian Churches.–The proofs of these things are too many to require quotation. No man can read the immense majority of commentaries and popular hymns without seeing this system of interpretation to which I now refer. Against that system I have long protested, and I hope I shall always protest as long as I live.

I do not deny that Israel was a peculiar typical people, and that God’s relations to Israel were meant to be a type of His relations to His believing people all over the world.

I do not forget that it is written, “As face answereth to face, so does the heart of man to man” (Prov. xxvii. 19), and that whatever spiritual truths are taught in prophecy concerning Israelitish hearts, are applicable to the hearts of Gentiles.

I would have it most distinctly understood that God’s dealings with individual Jews and Gentiles are precisely one and the same. Without repentance, faith in Christ, and holiness of heart, no individual Jew or Gentile shall ever be saved.

What I protest against is, the habit of allegorizing plain sayings of the Word of God concerning the future history of the nation Israel, and explaining away the fulness of their contents in order to accommodate them to the Gentile Church. I believe the habit to be unwarranted by anything in Scripture, and to draw after it a long train of evil consequences.

Where, I would venture to ask, in the whole New Testament, shall we find any plain authority for applying the word “Israel” to any one but the nation Israel? I can find none. On the contrary, I observe that when the Apostle Paul quotes Old Testament prophecies about the privileges of the Gentiles in Gospel times, he is careful to quote texts which specially mention the “Gentiles” by name. The fifteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is a striking illustration of what I mean. We are often told in the New Testament that, under the Gospel, believing Gentiles are “fellow-heirs and partakers of the same hope” with believing Jews. (Ephes. iii. 6.) But that believing Gentiles may be called “Israelites,” I cannot see anywhere at all.

To what may we attribute that loose system of interpreting the language of the Psalms and Prophets, and the extravagant expectations of universal conversion of the world by the preaching of the Gospel, which may be observed in many Christian writers? To nothing so much, I believe, as to the habit of inaccurately interpreting the word “Israel,” and to the consequent application of promises to the Gentile Churches, with which they have nothing to do. The least errors in theology always bear fruit. Never does man take up an incorrect principle of interpreting Scripture without that principle entailing awkward consequences, and colouring the whole tone of his religion.

Reader, I leave this part of my subject here. I am sure that its importance cannot be overrated. In fact, a right understanding of it lies at the very root of the whole Jewish subject, and of the prophecies concerning the Jews. The duty which Christians owe to Israel, as a nation, will never be clearly understood until Christians clearly see the place that Israel occupies in Scripture.

Before going any further, I will ask all readers of this address one plain practical question. I ask you to consider calmly what sense you put on such words as “Israel,” “Jacob,” and the like, when you meet with them in the Psalms and Prophecies of the Old Testament? We live in a day when there are many Bible readers. There are many who search the Scriptures regularly, and read through the Psalms and the Prophets once, if not twice, every year they live. Of course you attach some meaning to the words I have just referred to. You place some sense upon them. Now what is that sense? What is that meaning? Take heed that it is the right one.

Reader, accept a friendly exhortation this day. Cleave to the literal sense of Bible words, and beware of departing from it, except in cases of absolute necessity. Beware of that system of allegorizing, and spiritualizing, and accommodating, which the school of Origen first brought in, and which has found such an unfortunate degree of favour in the Church. In reading the authorized version of the English Bible, do not put too much confidence in the “headings” of pages and “tables of contents” at beginnings of chapters, which I take leave to consider a most unhappy accompaniment of that admirable translation. Remember that those headings and tables of contents were drawn up by uninspired hands. In reading the Prophets, they are sometimes not helps, but real hindrances, and less likely to assist a reader than to lead him astray. Settle it in your mind, in reading the Psalms and Prophets that Israel means Israel, and Zion Zion, and Jerusalem Jerusalem. And, finally, whatever edification you derive from applying to your own soul the words which God addresses to His ancient people, never lose sight of the primary sense of the text.

The above is an excellent example, illustrating how the Bishop Ryle kept his God-given “pound” of prophecy safe, in the napkin of literalism!


1. John Charles Ryle. Coming events and present duties, sermons on prophetical subjects. London. Wm. Hunt & Co. 1879. p. 41-70.
2. Ibid., p. 43.
3. Ibid., p. 44.
4. Ibid., p. 49.
5. Ibid., p. 125-129.

  1. Bill Pitcaithley
    April 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Your final paragraph: “The above is an excellent example, illustrating how the Bishop Ryle kept his God-given “pound” of prophecy safe, in the napkin of literalism!”

    This seems to me to be a ‘criticism’ of Bishop Ryle’s approach – what is your counter opinion, or explanation, and where would it lead to in specific examples?

    And what do you think of his other works – e.g., his Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John?

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