A commended worker for sixty years, a teacher, preacher, mentor, and author of eighty-four books, including the Believer’s Bible Commentary, William MacDonald was a man who said and wrote much. Yet, for the those who knew him well, it was his life that left the greatest impression.
Speaking of the Lord Jesus, the Bible says, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6). Bill wrote in his commentary, “Jesus’ life, as set forth in the Gospels, is our pattern and guide. It is not a life which we can live in our own strength or energy, but is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility is to turn our lives over to Him unreservedly, and allow Him to live His life in and through us.”
In 1962, Bill wrote True Discipleship, a summary of what it means to walk in the same manner as Christ walked. In the foreword, he said:
This booklet is an attempt to set forth some principles of New Testament discipleship. Some of us have seen these principles in the Word for years, but somehow concluded that they were too extreme and impractical for the complicated age in which we live. And so we surrendered to the chill of our spiritual environment.
Then we met a group of young believers who set out to demonstrate that the Savior’s terms of discipleship are not only highly practical but that they are the only terms which will ever result in the evangelization of the world. We acknowledge our indebtedness to these young people for providing living examples of many of the truths set forth here.
To the extent that these truths are still beyond our own personal experience, we set them forth as the aspirations of our heart.
Bill listed seven principles of Christian discipleship.
1. A supreme love for Jesus Christ.
2. A denial of self.
3. A deliberate choosing of the cross.
4. A life spent in following Christ.
5. A fervent love for all who belong to Christ.
6. An unswerving continuance in His Word.
7. A forsaking of all to follow Him.
Challenged by these seemly impossible standards, Bill wrote:
The writer realizes that in the act of setting them forth, he has condemned himself as an unprofitable servant. But shall the truth of God be forever suppressed because of the failure of God’s people? Is it not true that the message is always greater than the messenger?
The message is indeed greater, but in this case, the messenger also was noteworthy.
Perhaps Bill’s life can best be recalled by a final visit to the apartment where he lived for the past thirty-four years. The building is unremarkable, unless one remembers that the occupant of apartment number seven had a Master degree in business administration from Harvard Business School and was a former investment analyst for the First Bank of Boston. One would have expected such a man to live in a large home in a gated community, rather than in a one bedroom apartment on a busy street. The stainless steel doorbell/intercom panel guarding the front lobby door is new. Had we visited two or three years earlier, however, we would have noticed on the old panel that the button for Bill’s apartment had been replaced. His many visitors had worn it out prematurely.
Entering the lobby and turning to the staircase on your visit to Bill MacDonald’s apartment, you would pass a row of mailboxes. Though conveniently placed, Bill never received his mail there. He preferred to have it delivered to Fairhaven Bible Chapel a few blocks away. He would stop by Fairhaven each day, greet the secretaries, and pick up his mail. He had helped to start the Discipleship Intern Training Program there and taught in it for twenty-one years, training scores of men to serve Christ.
As you topped the first flight of stairs, Bill would be waiting at his apartment door with a smile and a hearty handshake, or if he knew you well, a hug. Unlike many who become grumpy and bitter as they grow old, Bill grew more warm-hearted and sympathetic as he aged. More like Christ.
Entering his one-bedroom apartment, you would pass a small windowless kitchen on the left. While others over the past thirty-five years had invested thousands of dollars remodeling their kitchens, Bill’s had remained the same-a stove, a sink, a refrigerator, and a small counter, just enough room for one person to work. “It’s fine,” he would say. He enjoyed cooking for himself and his guests, serving full meals with dessert. If there is a reward in heaven for the bachelor who showed the most hospitality, Bill will easily win it.
Beyond the kitchen you would see a small table pushed against the wall, a chair on either end, two chairs down the long side. A woodworking class had made it for him. Above it hung a large calendar and a glass Scottish thistle. Though born in Massachusetts, Bill’s heart was in Scotland, his parent’s birthplace. He had spent a memorable year there on the Isle of Lewis as a youth.
On the kitchen table, you would see a small stack of cards. If you examined them, you would find a Bible text on one side and its reference on the other. After serving dinner, Bill enjoyed inviting his guests to select a card, read the text, and try to identify the book, chapter, and verse from memory. Of course, he knew them all.
Passing into his living room, you would see that it was divided into two spaces, each about seven feet long and ten feet wide. The one nearest to the kitchen was furnished with three chairs, two bookcases, and a small electronic keyboard. Bill would serve you tea and you could talk about the things of the Lord. When alone at night, he liked to spend a few minutes playing hymns unto God. He played by ear and knew the lyrics to hundreds of songs. In later years, a tremor in his hand put an end to it.
On the two bookcases, you could check out his personal library. He limited it to those few shelves. This meant that as new books came in others went out, usually to be passed on to an eager young Christian. He liked to joke about earlier days when he owned a smartly bound edition of the complete works of John Nelson Darby. They made him feel spiritual and intelligent, he liked to tell others, until a young disciple asked him if had read them. He admitted that he had not. Darby was good, but difficult to follow. He sold them soon after, putting the money into the work of the Lord.
You would notice that the second half of the room was configured in a square. The room’s only window was on the back wall. It looked out to a parking lot. Nothing much of interest there. On the other side of the building was the town’s fire department. Bill said the sirens didn’t bother him. He had learned the art of not letting small things get under his skin. He had something more important to do.
Three desks completed the square, two long ones lining either wall and a shorter one across the front of the workspace, leaving enough room to pass. Bill spent most of his waking hours there when at home. He used the desk on the right (a door blank supported by two file cabinets) for Bible study. On a shelf for reference books above it, you could count seven or eight translations of the Bible. Bill’s favorite translation was the King James Version, but for many years he taught from the New American Standard Bible. One year he exclusively used the New International Version to familiarize himself with it. In his latter years, he settled on the New King James Version. He could explain the strengths and weaknesses of each translation and would warn young disciples to stay out of the controversies over which one was best. Throughout his life, Bill strove to maintain balance. When someone took issue with his interpretation of Scripture, he would listen politely and then quote Harry Ironside, saying, “Well, dear brother, when we get to heaven, one of us is going to be wrong, and perhaps it will be me.”
Bill knew little Hebrew or Greek. He had set a goal as a young man to master the English Bible and that kept him busy enough. He knew it as well as any scholar. He could quote Scripture at length, a God-given ability. After completing a study of a passage, he usually had it memorized without drills or review.
On the same desk where he studied, Bill kept his phone and fax machine. You wouldn’t be there long before a call would interrupt your visit. They came in from around the world. Usually the caller was an elder, asking advice on a difficult problem in his assembly.
You would find a second long desk of the same design on the left with a computer monitor and printer on it. Bill did his writing there. By the age of eighty, he had completed eighty books. “One for every year of my life,” he would say with a smile, “though I didn’t start when I was one.” He finished his eighty-forth book a few weeks before going to be with Christ and just short of his ninety-first birthday. It was a new commentary on the book of Proverbs.
Bill was an early adapter. He had been given his first computer in 1982 at the age of sixty-five. He never really understood how the thing worked. The difference between a computer file and computer folder, for example, baffled him. He didn’t let it stop him. He knew this new technology could advance his work for the Lord, and so decided to use it. With help from others and an array of Post-It notes and instructions on cards, he got the job done.
On the third desk, an aluminum folding table, you would find Bill’s typewriter and a stack of correspondence. In a typical week, Bill would answer ten to twenty letters. He found it taxing, especially in his latter years, but he couldn’t rest until every letter was answered and every gift acknowledged.
Bill filled the hours in his apartment with study and writing. “Most of my Christian life has been hard work,” he writes in an unpublished memoir, “steady plodding, routine duties and lonely hours. There have been times when I have wondered if anything was being accomplished. If I ever thought of turning in my commission, the Lord would drop some little handful of encouragement that would nerve me to go on a little longer.” Nothing encouraged him more than receiving in the mail a copy of his commentary freshly translated into a foreign language. A fund has been set up with CMML to continue the work.
Leaving the living room and entering Bill’s bedroom. The furniture is cheap and dated-a bed, two small bookcases holding an assortment of his books and tracts to give to people, a dresser, a small television, and a bedside stand with a book on it. He read himself to sleep most of his life. In the last two or three years his eyes wouldn’t allow it. “The tent is coming down,” he would say.
Bill liked to watch the news. He never went to a movie theater or to a theatrical play, mostly out of deference to his mother, he would explain, who saw no good in them. He occasionally watched a movie with a Christian theme on DVD. His favorite was Chariots of Fire, the story of a Christian athlete, a Scotsman, as one might expect.
In the bedroom closet, you wouldn’t find much. Bill was always well groomed, but he spent little on clothes. There you would find his suitcase. He had used the same one for over fifty years. It looked something like an oversized bowling bag. It was all he needed. He traveled light, but he traveled far, circling the globe teaching the Bible.
Of course, if you were to visit apartment number seven now, you wouldn’t find Bill there. On Christmas Day, 2007, Bill went home to be with Jesus. He left little of earthly value. The former investment analyst, you see, had no stock portfolio, no property, no investments of any kind on this earth. Everything he received beyond what was necessary for his basic needs, he gave away. We still have the books he wrote. We can thank God for that. We still have precious memories of the example he left us. But Bill is no longer with us, and we already miss him terribly. He reminded us so of Jesus.