What does my newborn granddaughter, Iona, have to do with the power of the Gospel and the perpetuity of the Church?
Three years ago I traveled with my son David to the island of Iona. It just so happened that we were traveling with his wife to be. He didn’t know it then, but he hoped. Now he has named his firstborn daughter, Iona Wisdom Brown.
Why the name Iona?
Iona is a dreamy, beautiful island in the Inner Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. On the ferry going across the sound from the Island of Mull to Iona I could only think one thought. It was Jesus word, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”’ (Matthew 16:18). These comforting words make it plain that God will never leave himself without a witness in the world and He will be a keeper and shepherd of His people. Even if the kingdoms of this world rise up against the church, it will never be snuffed out. The light of the gospel will shine until He comes again. This means that there will always be a people who love God. There will always be a place of worship. Iona means that to me.
Christianity first came to Scotland in 563 through Columba on the island of Iona. This tiny island, only one and a half miles wide and three miles long became a mission station that sent missionaries all over the world. When Columba arrived Iona was controlled by Druids. He was 40 years old and had already planted 100 churches in Ireland. He first evangelized the Picts and then he trained pastors and established churches all over Scotland and beyond. Amazingly, there are 48 kings buried there in one of the oldest continuously used graveyards in the world. And even more striking, the same writings (petroglyphs) found on Iona can be found on rocks from West Virginia to Arizona. These writings were most likely placed there by missionaries to the American Indians. Most people believe that America was discovered in 1492, but the evidences are plain that Columba’s missionaries were in America long before Columbus.
It was through the work of Columba on Iona and the faithful churches that were planted, that the spark of the gospel was kept alive in Scotland while the Roman church was attempting to extinguish it. The story of Iona teaches us the importance of preserving the gospel wherever God takes us.
What happened on Iona was a marvel. The legendary Book of Kels, which today is in Trinity College in Dublin, was based on biblical categories and was probably written there in 690 AD. And, at the battle of Bannockburn, over 500 years later, the Scots had the remains of Columba with them.
Here are some points that illustrate the importance of Iona
First, it is a living picture of the power of the simple gospel of Christ and the apostles.
Second, it proclaims the message of God’s sovereign hand in preserving His church.
Third, it shows a vibrant missionary church. It was on Iona where the true church was preserved locally and promoted worldwide. It was through the biblical pastoral care established by Columba and the aggressive evangelism that his disciples practiced that made Iona one of the most important sites in Christian history.
Fourth, it illustrates the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Columba believed in what we call the regulative principle of worship. He believed that we were only authorized to worship in the way God has commanded and we are not free to make things up on our own. This is why he established elders on Iona. Columba was never a bishop but always a presbyter who consulted with his brothers in all matters. He viewed himself as under the authority of the other believers there. Adamnan, a biographer (and ninth generation elder from Columba), tells of a situation where a presbyter from Ireland came, and Columba had him lead the Lord’s Supper. This situation reflects the biblical view of church government they maintained.
Here are some of the evidences of their faithfulness to Scripture:
They sang hymns. The earliest hymn book of the Scottish church was written by Columba.
They celebrated the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.
There was no extreme unction recorded.
They did not receive the supremacy of the pope.
They did not implement tonsure.
They were not ritualistic and sacramental.
The abbots were actually biblically defined and qualified elders.
There is no record of prayer to the virgin Mary or any worship of Mary.
In the middle of the 7th century the Pope came to Christianize the Celts on Iona. There was a showdown on many issues including “tonsure,” the day of worship and the other practices the Roman church was insisting on. Some of the Celts were slaughtered, and others hid in the Highlands of Scotland. These were the Culdees. It was these believers in the Highlands who kept the spark of the gospel alive. When the reformation came, these believers were already walking in the simple faith of the apostles. It was these who were used of God to fan the flames of the reformation.
Then, in the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of the Scotch Irish went to the southern part of America where they saved the south from the incursions of Unitarianism that destroyed the church in the North in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today, the religion on the island is a strange blend of “spirituality,” religious jargon, and environmental activism. It is a secular religion of social justice, opposing nukes and focusing on environmental and constitutional concerns. In their literature, they state that they have a priority for the exploration of human sexuality and the promotion of interfaith dialogues, sharing traditions, having a concern for young people, healing, the promotion of the UN and one world government.
Here are four lessons for us today from Iona:
First, trust in the power of the Word of God. The preservation of the true church is only possible when she embraces the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Second, don’t despise the day of small things. Iona was an incredibly small island that was hard to reach in a very unpopulated area off the coast of a small country with a very small population. Yet, it was here that the gospel was planted and preserved. The importance of preserving the gospel in your home and in your local church and in your town is the most important work we can do in this life.
Third, be a missionary church and send out laborers to the uttermost parts of the earth. How important it is to establish our churches as discipleship centers where elders are sent out to remote lands to establish more churches.
Fourth, acknowledge the long range plan of God and be encouraged by the way God works across many generations.
It was here in Iona that the seeds of the American Revolution were sown. The Christian faith on Iona held the thinking that made America possible. Joe Morecraft explained it this way,
“This is the most important place on earth, for you can trace the reformation and the founding of America to the followers of Columba. Their history belongs to us. Our roots as American Christians can be traced to this community in Iona.”
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