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A Lamb … and with Him an hundred forty and four thousand.
I. Who are these 144,000? They are the identical 144,000 sealed ones spoken of in chapter 7., with only this difference, that there we see them in their earthly relations and peculiar consecration; and here we see them with their earthly career finished, and in the enjoyment of the heavenly award for their faithfulness.
II. What are the chief marks or characteristics of these 144,000?
1. The first and foremost is that of a true and conspicuous confession. They have the name of the Lamb and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. This is their public mark as against the mark of the worshippers of the Beast. There is nothing more honourable in God’s sight than truth and faithfulness of confession.
2. Another particular is their unworldliness. Whilst most people in their day “dwell upon the earth,” sit down upon it as their rest and choice, derive their chief comfort from it, these are “redeemed from the earth”--withdrawn from it, bought away by the heavenly promises and the Divine grace to live above it, independent of it. They are quite severed from the world in heart and life.
3. A third point is their pureness. “They are virgins,” in that they have lived chaste lives, both as to their faithfulness to God in their religion, and as to their pureness from all bodily lewdness.
4. A further quality is their truthfulness. “In their mouth was not found what is false.” These people were truthful in speech, had also a higher truthfulness. They have the true faith; they hold to it with a true heart; they exemplify it by a true manner of life. They are the children of truth in the midst of a world of untruth.
III. What, then, is their reward?
1. Taking the last particular first, they stand approved, justified, and accepted before God. “They are blameless.” To stand before God approved and blameless from the midst of a condemned world--a world given over to the powers of perdition by reason of its unbelief and sins, is an achievement of grace and faithfulness in which there may well be mighty exultation.
2. In the next place, they have a song which is peculiarly and exclusively their own. Though not connected with the throne, as the Living Ones, nor crowned and seated as the Elders, they have a ground and subject of joy and praise which neither the Living Ones nor the Elders have; nor is any one able to enter into that song except the 144,000. None others ever fulfil just such a mission, as none others are ever sealed with the seal of the living God in the same way in which they were sealed. They have a distinction and glory, a joy and blessedness, after all, in which none but themselves can ever share.
3. They stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion. To be “with the Lamb,” as over against being with the Beast, is a perfection of blessing which no language can describe. It is redemption. It is victory. It is eternal security and glory. To be with the Lamb “on Mount Zion” is a more special position and relation. Glorious things are spoken of Jerusalem which have never yet been fulfilled. On His holy hill of Zion God hath said that He will set up His King, even His Son, who shall rule all the nations (Psalms 2:1-12.). The Lamb is yet to take possession of the city where He was crucified, there to fulfil what was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin over His head when He died. And when that once comes to pass, these 144,000 are with Him, His near and particular associates in that particular relation and administration.
4. They are “a firstfruit to God and to the Lamb,” not the firstfruit of all the saved, for the Living Ones and the Elders are in heavenly place and glory above and before them; but a firstfruit of another and particular harvest; the firstfruit from the Jewish field, in that new beginning with the Israelitish people for their fathers’ sakes, which is to follow the ending of the present “times of the Gentiles.” They are brought to the confession of Christ, and sealed in their foreheads with the name of both the Father and the Son, during the time that the rest of their blood-kin are covenanting with and honouring the Antichrist as Messiah.
IV. What, now, of the angel-messages?
1. The first message. That an angel is the preacher here is proof positive that the present dispensation is then past and changed. It is no longer the meek and entreating voice, beseeching men to be reconciled to God, but a great thunder from the sky, demanding of the nations to fear the God, as over against the false god whom they were adoring--to give glory to Him, instead of the infamous Beast whom they were glorifying--to worship the Maker of all things, as against the worship of him who can do no more than play his hellish tricks with the things that are made; and all this on the instant, for the reason that “the hour of judgment is come.”
2. The second message. With the hour of judgment comes the work of judgment. A colossal system of harlotry and corruption holds dominion over the nations. God has allowed it for the punishment of those who would not have Christ for their Lord, but now He will not allow it longer. Therefore another angel comes with the proclamation: “Fallen, fallen, the great Babylon,” etc. The announcement is by anticipation as on the very eve of accomplishment, and as surely now to be fulfilled. The particulars are given in chapter 17. and 18. There also the explanation of the object of this announcement is given. It is mercy still struggling in the toils of judgment, if that by any means some may yet be snatched from the opening jaws of hell; for there the further word is, “Come out of her, My people,” etc.
3. The third message. And for the still more potent enforcement of this call a third angel appears, preaching and crying with a great voice, that whosoever is found worshipping the Beast and his image, or has the Beast’s mark on his forehead or on his hand, even he shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God which is mingled without dilution in the cup of His anger, and shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the angels and in the presence of the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment ascends to the ages of ages, and they have no rest day and night! It is an awful commination; but these are times of awful guilt, infatuation, and wickedness. And when men are in such dangers, marching direct into the mouth of such a terrible perdition, it is a great mercy in God to make proclamation of it with all the force of an angel’s eloquence. The same is also for the wronged and suffering ones who feel the power of these terrible oppressors. It tells them how their awful griefs shall be avenged on their hellish persecutors.
4. The fourth message. There is no suffering for any class of God’s people in any age like the sufferings of those who remain faithful to God during the reign of the Antichrist. Here, at this particular time and juncture, is the patience or endurance of them that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. To come out of Babylon, and to stand aloof from its horrible harlotries, is a costly thing. Therefore there is another proclamation from heaven for their special strengthening and consolation. Whether this word is also from an angel we are not told; but it is a message from glory and from God. And it is a sweet and blessed message. It is a message which John is specially commanded to write, that it may be in the minds and hearts of God’s people of every age, and take away all fear from those who in this evil time are called to lay down their lives because they will not worship Antichrist. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth.” And when violence, cruelty, and slaughter are the consequence of a life of truth and purity, the sooner it is over the greater the beatitude. (J. A. Seiss, D. D.)
The communion of saints
I. The communion of saints is the restoration of fellowship between God and man. There are in the will and work of God three perfect and eternal unities: the unity of three Persons in one nature; the unity of two natures in one Person; and the unity of the Incarnate Son with His elect-the Head with the members of His Body mystical. This is the foundation of the communion of God and man. “A Lamb stood,” etc.
II. The communion of saints is the restoration of the fellowship of men with each other. Our regeneration unites us to the Divine Person in whom God and man are one; and by union with Him we are reunited to all whom He has likewise united to Himself. As the vine has one nature in root and stem, branch and spray, fibre and fruit, so the mystical and true Vine in earth and heaven has one substance and one life, which is the basis of all fellowship in love and will, in sympathy and action, in mutual intercessions of prayer, and in mutual ministries of power. Lessons:
1. Let us learn, first, that we can never be lonely or forsaken in this life. No trial can isolate us, no sorrow can cut us off from the communion of saints. There is but one thing in which the sympathy of Christ has no share, and that is, the guilt of wilful sin.
2. And let us learn further, by the reality of this heavenly fellowship, to live less in this divided world.
3. Lastly, let us learn from this communion of saints to live in hope. They who are now at rest were once like ourselves--fallen, weak, faulty, sinful, etc. But now they have overcome. Only one thing there is in which we are unlike them: they were common in all things except the uncommon measure of their inward sanctity. In all besides we are as they; only it is now our turn to strive for the crown of life. (Archdeacon Manning.)
Having His Father’s name written in their foreheads.
The sublimest human distinction
I. It is the most beautiful. The face is the beauty of man; there the soul reveals itself, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in clouds. The beauty of the face is not in features, but in expression, and the more it expresses of purity, intelligence, generosity, tenderness, the more beautiful. How beautiful, then, to have God’s name radiating in it! God’s name is the beauty of the universe.
II. It is most conspicuous. “In their foreheads.” It is seen wherever you go, fronting every object you look at. Godliness cannot conceal itself. Divine goodness is evermore self-revealing.
III. It is most honourable. A man sometimes feels proud when he is told he is like some great statesman, ruler, thinker, reformer. How transcendently honourable is it to wear in our face the very image of God! Let us all seek this distinction. With the Father’s name on our foreheads we shall throw the pageantry of the Shahs, the Czars, and all the kings of the earth into contempt. (Homilist.)
The name on the forehead
I. A claim of appropriation.
II. A sign of office.
III. A mark of dignity.
IV. A pledge of security.
V. a memento of obligation.
1. To remember that ye are not your own.
2. To profess openly.
3. Faithfully to discharge functions.
4. To the exercise of unvarying trust.
5. To be holy. (Preacher’s Portfolio.)
Harpers harping with their harps.--
Musical art in its relation to Divine worship
We claim for music the first place among the fine arts.
1. Because it is the most ideal, for the ideal is the highest.
2. Because it most thoroughly expresses the various emotions of the human mind, and therefore has the widest reach over human life.
3. Because, like love, it is eternal.
I. What kind of music is best? Universal agreement on the subject is not to be expected, because the subject is so mixed up with questions of expediency, of taste, of knowledge. People have a right to expect that the canticles and hymns shall be sung to music in which they can join, but devout people who can sing must be taught that, while spiritually alert, they must be vocally silent in many parts of Divine worship.
II. How can we best secure the best music for Divine worship? As to the voices, assuming that those of the men are sweet in quality, the success of a male choir may be said to depend on three things mainly: First, that the voices of the boys shall be properly trained, so that they produce a clear and flute-like tone. Secondly, that no music should be attempted which is beyond the ability of the choir to execute. Thirdly, that nothing be put on the programme until it is thoroughly rehearsed and well known. Then let everything be done “decently and in order.” Then will our Church music be a real help to devotion. Hearts will be uplifted, voices upraised. Then will our sacred songs be as the echo of the angelic songs above, and God will be glorified. (J. W. Shackelford, D. D.)
Music in heaven
There is music in heaven, because in music there is no self-will. Music goes on certain laws and rules. Man did not make these laws of music; he has only found them out; and if he be self-willed and break them, there is an end of his music instantly; all he brings out is discord and ugly sounds. The greatest musician in the world is as much bound by those laws as the learner in the school, and the greatest musician is the one who, instead of fancying that, because he is clever, he may throw aside the laws of music, knows the laws of music best, and observes them most reverently. And therefore it was that the old Greeks, the wisest of all the heathens, made a point of teaching their children music; because they said it taught them not to be self-willed and fanciful, but to see the beauty of order, the usefulness of rule, the divineness of laws. And therefore music is fit for heaven; therefore music is a pattern and type of heaven, and of the everlasting life of God, which perfect spirits live in heaven; a life of melody and order in themselves; a life of harmony with each other and with God. (G. Kingsley.)
They sung as it were a new song.--
The new song in the soul
(with Ephesians 5:19):--The text from St. Paul is the necessary introduction to the one from St. John. They both suggest for us the necessary connection of inner and outer harmony of being. What makes martial music noisy, blatant, offensive? It is when a spirit of mere savage quarrelsomeness is in connection with it. And what makes it majestic and able to marshal and lead hosts? It is the force of national duties and earnestness, giving it commanding power. Our texts give the highest Christian form of this truth, the connection of inner and outer harmony. It declares that no man can learn the new song who has not been redeemed in nature; none can sing it who has not made, first, melody in the heart unto the Lord. First, consider this in connection with the statement that holiness, goodness, is a concord. Every virtue is a harmony. It is the result of combining different and separate tendencies. It is complex. It is, as it were, a chord of the inner music, formed by striking different notes of character together, and combining them in one. And that is what makes virtue so hard of acquisition and a virtuous Christian life such a struggle. The true graces are harmonies of different notes; are chords of character; not merely a single note of character, struck with a single finger, easily, and at once; but each, a combination of various notes of character, revealed only by using all the hand, and both hands of life; including different parts and requiring earnest, anxious toil, before it is harmoniously and truly struck--struck with pleasure to the great Hearer, to whose ear your character makes melody in your heart, the Lord. Look at some of the several virtues, and see if it be not so; that each one is a chord, a combination, a harmony. Take love, or charity, the most winning and prominent of virtues. It is not simple. In its true height it is a combination. It is composed of the union of self-sacrifice and benevolence to others. Passion is never true love, for it is selfish. Or take another human virtue, true human courage, and see its component parts. Who is a brave man, but he who, keenly alive to pain, tingling through and through with sensitiveness of danger and love of life, is yet also full of the sense of duty and the glow of patriotism, and out of those two very different parts constructs the delicate, perfect harmony of his courage? Or again, select a third one out of the catalogue of noble human characteristics; and see how, in its true form, it is harmony, a combination of differing elements. Take freedom, liberality, or liberty of spirit. There is a true and a false freedom. The false freedom is simply license. It has only one thought--to do its own will, to get its own desire, to be unbound by others’ will. It has no harmony. It has but a single note, a single tone, and it is easily gained. There is no struggle, no argument to reconcile and combine any differences in a melody. But there is a truer human liberty than this; that which Paul describes when he says, “as free, but as servants”; one which strives, while doing its own will, to be sure that it is also doing the will of God and truth; one which labours to combine obedience with freedom, to be obediently free and to be freely obedient; to make it the freest action of the human will to do God’s will, and to obey the commandments of His love and truth. That is a hardly gained, but a very rich harmony. Take still one more example of the fact that every virtue, in its true, essential form, is a concord, a combination of tones. You will find it in the trait of justice. To be just is not a very simple operation. It requires, first, wisdom, judgment, intelligent power of discerning and discriminating. It requires, secondly, courage, freedom to announce the decision of wisdom, without fear or prejudice. It requires, thirdly, temperateness, power of self-restraint, that there be no excess, or passion, or over-statement of one’s decisions in the vehemence of his convictions. Every act of justice must include these three. But let us think on a little further. The Bible calls human virtues and graces “fruits of the Spirit.” Their harmony is produced by the Spirit of God. Have you ever stood and wondered at the wild, sweet music of an AEolian harp--held by no human hands, resonant under no human fingers, but swayed by the breathing winds of nature, bringing forth its strange combined melodies? Such an instrument is the human soul. Strung and held by no human hands, with the spiritual breath of God the Spirit passing over its strings, seeking to awaken them to speak in those perfect harmonies which we call “virtues,” but which the Bible calls “fruits,” or results “of the Spirit.” Oh, let us not quench the Spirit. It is about us, fraught and laden with all the airs and strains of God; able and waiting to call them out of our hearts, and the materials of our character and nature. By it we may be able to make melody in our hearts to the Lord. By it we may strive to do here what the redeemed shall de by it at last before the throne, in that land of the Spirit. We may learn from the Spirit that perfect new song which can only be sung by a melodious heart and nature. (Fred. Brooks.)
The music of heaven
1. The heavenly song is described as “a new song.” And it is so in that the theme of it will be new. “They sing,” says St. John, “the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” The song of Moses celebrated redemption out of Egypt. Here, on earth, the Church cannot fully comprehend the whole development of the plan of Divine mercy. The process is still going on, and not until all the saved are brought to glory will it be completed; and hence those songs which most appropriately express our holiest thoughts and aspirations here will not be suited to our condition hereafter. “The new song” is adapted to our enlarged powers and to our altered circumstances.
2. Continued freshness will characterise the song of heaven. The sweetest strains lose more or less of their freshness by constant repetition.
3. Further, the music of heaven shall give rise to new emotions. In the life of the celebrated composer Handel it is stated that upon being asked how he felt when composing “the Hallelujah Chorus,” he replied, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” And it is said that a friend called upon him when he was in the act of setting to music the pathetic words, “He was despised and rejected of men,” and found him absolutely sobbing. What will be the emotions of joy and gratitude which will be experienced when all the redeemed, gathered out of every nation, and kindred and tongue shall unite as with one heart and one voice, and sing “the song of Moses and of the Lamb”?
4. And then unlike the songs of earth, “the new song” shall never be interrupted. Sin, sorrow, death, are all unknown there! The song of heaven shall be an eternal song, and the strains of the music of the heavenly harpers shall flow on for evermore! Have you the prospect of joining the heavenly throng? (S. D. Hillman.)
A song of freedom
A “new song,” it is doubtless the song of a new and higher victory. A song is, above all, an expression of the heart, something spontaneous, the irrepressible upspringing of an inward emotion. A bird sings because it cannot help singing, and because its little heart is thrilling with an overflowing joy; and so they who sing the “new song “ have had, doubtless, some true experience of a great good and joy which causes them to sing. I think that it is the experience of every thoughtful man that all the real misery springs, in some way, from spiritual wrong. If he have lost friends, which is one of our great natural griefs, yet if sin had not thrust itself into this sorrow, if the soul of the friend as well as one’s own had been perfectly true to God, and to right, one would find in the bereavement a cause to rejoice, for to the holy dead God reveals the fulness of His love. It is the conscious want of the love of God, manifesting itself in acts of selfishness, ingratitude, and treason to truth and duty--it is always this that has made the human spirit wail. Selfishness is a constant pain, and love a constant joy. I do not deny the many natural sorrows of life, and that they are sometimes painful beyond human power to endure, but we would be strong from a Divine strength to bear troubles and sufferings which fall to our lot in this life, and they would be only for our discipline and perfection, were we without transgression. These would be outside sufferings. But it is the feeling that we have acted unrighteously, that we have stained our soul’s honour, that we have been unthankful to the heavenly Father. It is this that consumes the spirit within us. If we arc raised for one instant by the quick motion of faith, by the absorbing exercise of prayer, by the unselfish act of pure obedience, into the light and liberty of God’s presence, we gain inward freedom and peace, we experience an absolute deliverance from the tyranny of evil. We may perceive, then, why the power of sin in our human nature is called in the Scriptures a “bondage.” It is pure absolutism. Let the bondsman strive once to free himself, to shake himself loose from his bonds, to change his own nature, and he will see what a grasp evil has. To be freed from the power of evil would soothe all pangs, would wipe away all tears, sorrow, care, and would restore to the life-giving presence and joy of God. Can we not then begin, in some feeble manner I grant, to perceive or imagine what may be the significance of the “new song”? It is in truth a song of freedom, and we need not wonder that it is represented to be like the sound of many waters, the outpouring of innumerable hearts on the free shore of eternity, for God has made the soul to be free and to have no law over it but the law of love. There are, indeed, but few such chords that vibrate in human hearts. Sorrow is one of these. Coleridge said that at the news of Nelson’s death no man felt himself a stranger to another; and of these universal chords, that of freedom is also one. Such a spontaneous cry rises from an enslaved nation, whose chains are broken by some God-inspired man. Never shall I forget the mighty shout I heard that went up from the whole people of Florence, gathered together in the great market-square of the beautiful city on the Arno, at the news of a decisive victory gained over the powerful enemy of Italian independence--Austria. A new, unlooked-for joy poured into the hearts of the suffering and long-oppressed Italian people that they were at length free! It made them one. It overflowed their hearts with sudden strength, and men fell upon each other’s necks and kissed each other, and their joy found expression in shouts and songs. So it will be a new joy in heaven to be free--to be free from the shameful oppression of evil. The believer may, in some feeble and imperfect measure, in his best times, when Christ his Light is near, be able to conceive of this state of entire victory over, or deliverance from, sin, because he has in the present life yearnings after it, and prophecies of it; but to the unrenewed mind this truth is not quite clear. It is, on the contrary, a thought which gives that mind, when it thinks at all, much uneasiness and confusion. For it has had fleeting tastes of sweetness in this earthly life, and in those pleasures into which God does not come, poor though they be, and it fears to lose those alloyed and swift-passing experiences of happiness in being holy. It would not release entirely its hold upon these, for fear of losing its happiness altogether. But we must let go one to win the other. We must push off from the shore of this world to gain the free shore of eternity; and so complete is the victory of heaven, that not even such an electric thought of evil as has been described, shall pass over the soul. Holiness is happiness. Goodness is joy. Love is freedom. There are no remains of the conflict of temptation. The spell of sin is broken; and as freedom is one of those things that never grows old, so the song of heaven shall be a “new song.”
II. But another and higher sense remains, in which it would seem that the song of heaven is called a “new song,” arising from the fact that this heavenly freedom which is sung, does not end in ourselves, in our freedom or holiness or joy, but ends in Christ, and in the Divine will in which dwells this pure and mighty power of the soul’s deliverance from evil. (J. M. Hoppin.)
The song of the redeemed
I. Their character. They are “redeemed from the earth.” Redemption, in their ease, was not merely virtual, but actual; not in price only, but also in power. It was a redemption carried into their personal experience. Such must ours be, or the price of our redemption has been paid for us in vain. There is pardon, finely represented as implying submission to God, and acceptance and acknowledgment by him. The Father’s name is written in their foreheads. There is confession of God before men. They practised no unholy concealment; their religion was public, and declared at all hazards. They were undefiled. They were unspotted from the world, even its more prevalent errors-errors recommended by example, justified by sophistry, alluring by interest, and enforced by persecution. There is their obedience. This is impressively described by their following the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. There is their completeness. Sanctified throughout, they were preserved blameless in spirit, soul, and body. And there is their redemption from earth. They were redeemed from its corporate society, as the world. That remained; they were chosen out of it. They were redeemed from its cowardly and selfish principles, by which truth is sacrificed to ease and gain; whereas these sacrificed ease and gain for truth. From its example; for, while the multitude were wandering after the beast, these were following the Lamb. From Rs pollutions; for they had been washed from their sins by the blood of Him who loved them. From earth itself; for they are now before the throne.
II. Their place. “Before the throne.”
1. It is the place of glorious vision.
2. It is the place of eternal security. Day is there, never succeeded by night. There is quiet, unbroken by alarm: the gates of the city are not shut by day or night. There is life, never to be quenched in death. For ever does the river flow from under the throne, and the tree of life feels no winter.
III. The represented action.
1. “They sang.” Powerful emotions of joy seek for outward expression. This is one of the laws of our very nature. The expression will be suitable to the emotion. Grief pours forth its wailings; joy is heard in the modulations of verse, and the sweet swells and cadences of music.
2. They sang “a new song.” Every deliverance experienced by the saints of God calls for a new song: How much more, therefore, this, the final deliverance from earth! Their song is new, as demanded by new blessings. John saw before the throne “a Lamb, as it had been newly slain.” The phrase intimates that blessings for ever new will flow from the virtue of His atonement, and the manifestation of the Divine perfections by Him. Nor shall the song be new as to individuals only, but as to the whole glorified Church.
3. They sang it “before the throne.” The glorious fruit of “the travail of His soul.”
IV. The peculiarity of their employment. “No man could learn that song.” Not so much to the sound, the music, of the song, as to its subject, does this language refer; and such subjects only can be turned into song, as dwell in the very spirits of the redeemed.
1. There are remembered subjects. The redeemed from earth recollect the hour when light broke In on their darkness.
2. There are present subjects. (R. Watson.)
The unlearned song of the redeemed
What can be the meaning of this singular announcement of a song not to be taught even to the other inhabitants of heaven? We need but refer to a familiar principle of the mind’s operations, whose religious significance is often not perceived; by which toil, pain, and trial, however grievous in the experience, turn to comfort and delight in the retrospect. As, by the influence of chemical attraction, the most glossy white is brought out on textures originally of the blackest dye, or as the mere constant falling of the bleaching sunlight makes a dull surface glisten like snow, so do the soul’s melancholy passages change as they are acted on by reflection, and the darkest threads of its experience brighten in the steady light of memory. There are few enjoyments more exquisite than the father feels in telling his son of the hardships of his early life. How he dilates on the efforts and sacrifices with which he began his career! But would he spare one hard day’s labour, though it wore and bent his frame? one hour’s thirst, with which his lips were parched? Not one: not one act of self-denial, not one patient stretch of endurance; for all these, by this transforming principle, have become most pleasant to his mind. On the same principle, we can understand, without referring to unworthy motives, the soldier’s interest in his oft-repeated narratives. Oh, the dark and deadly scene! the ground wet with blood, and the smoke of carnage mounting heavy and slow over the dead and the dying I It is not necessarily that his soul breathes the spirit of war; but it is that these, like other trials, turn to joys, as viewed from the height of his present thought, stretching picturesquely through the long valley of the past. The same principle operates in the hardships of peaceful life. The sailor has a like gladness from the dangers with which he has been environed on the stormy deep. He interprets the almost intolerable accidents that overtook him into good and gracious providence, and sings of his calamity, privation, and fear. So all the sweetest songs, and all the grandest and most touching poetry, that have ever been on earth breathed into sound or written in characters, have sprung out of such work and strife, sorrow and peril. And why should not a new song, unknown even to the elder seraphs, be so composed and framed in heaven, out of all life’s trouble and disaster; while the mercy of God, the atoning influence of Christ, all heavenly help and guidance that they have received in their struggles, shall add depth and melody to those voices of the redeemed? Such is the mystery and bounty of the Divine. Paradoxical as it may seem, God means not only to make us good, but to make us also happy, by sickness, disaster, and disappointment. For the truly happy man is not made such by a pleasant and sunny course only of indulged inclinations and gratified hopes. Hard tasks, deferred hopes, though they “make the heart sick,” the beating of adverse or the delay of baffling winds, must enter into his composition here below, as they will finally enter into his song on high. There is more than pleasant fancy or cheering prediction in that language about beauty being given for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; for out of dust and ashes alone beauty can grow; supreme gladness glistens nowhere but upon the face where grief hath been sitting; and the highest praise to God is sung when He hath delivered us from the pit of woe and despair. The opening of one of the most strangely beautiful flowers, from the roughest of prickly and unsightly stems, is an emblem of the richest blooming of moral beauty and pleasure from thorns and shapes of ugliness in the growth of the immortal mind. But there is a strict condition. They who would blend their voices in that happy choir, to which the hosts of heaven pause to listen, must be faithful in performing this toil, in overcoming this temptation, in enduring this trial. An ancient poet says, it is a delight to stand or walk upon the shore, and to see a ship tossed with tempest upon the sea; or to be in a fortified tower, and see hosts mingled upon a plain. But what is such pleasure compared with that felt by those who look down from the firm ground of heaven upon their own tossings in the voyage they have with a sacred and religious faithfulness accomplished, and fix their retrospective eye on the fight they, with a holy obstinacy, waged with their own passions and besetting sins? (C. A. Bartol.)
The new song
We shall begin our meditation on this vision by considering the occupation of those referred to. They sing. Praise is often spoken of as the chief occupation of the saints in heaven. Nor need we wonder that such is the case. They have passed to the land of pure delight. They mingle in congenial society. Above all, they behold Him, whom they have long adored afar off, and with Him they maintain unbroken communion. His presence and voice fill their hearts with joy, deep and intense. Nor does the inspiration of their song come only from the present; it comes also from the past. Then they fully learn what has been done to them and for them during their earthly journey. This praise, too, is unceasing. Other engagements and interests concern men in this life. They have wants that must be supplied; they have burdens that must be borne; they have battles that must be fought. And these urge them to prayer as often as to praise. Even up to the Jordan’s bank they must stretch forth their hands and raise their voice in supplication. But, in that better land, they enjoy satisfaction and rest. Full provision has been made, and they have only to celebrate the goodness that has done it all. That which they sing is called “a new song.” It is heavenly in origin and character. It is no feeble strain of earth, weak in thought and poor in expression. It far transcends in matter and in form the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs of the Church below. These were suited to the partial knowledge of this lower sphere, but they are inadequate to the fuller view and the deeper experience to which the redeemed have risen. Of that anthem we catch some echoes in the revelation which John has given us. It is a song of salvation, it is a shout of triumph. It is called “the song of Moses and of the Lamb,” and this title is suggestive of its tenor. From a danger greater than that to which the Israelites were exposed have those who are with the Lamb been delivered. Not from physical evil or an earthly enemy, but from spiritual loss and death, and from the power of the wicked one, have they been rescued. Not only, therefore, do they sing the song of Moses; they sing also the song of the Lamb. Being a new song, it must be learned by those who would sing it. But the text warns us that this is possible only for those who have undergone a certain training. Without discipline we cannot take our place in the choir above, engage in the occupations, or enjoy the beauties and delights of the Paradise above. This, indeed, we might understand apart from revelation. All experience combines to suggest it. In the material world everything has its place and work, and is specially fitted for filling the one and performing the other. We recognise in that sphere the reign of law. Every branch of industry has its own rules and its own methods. To learn these an apprenticeship must be undergone. And this is as applicable to the moral region as it is to the social and the intellectual. Place a man of dissolute habits, of vicious temper, of impure thought, of blasphemous speech, in the company of men and women who are spiritual in tone, pure in thought, reverent in speech, and what will his experience be? Not certainly one of satisfaction and enjoyment. He will be wretched. He will long to escape that he may go to his own company and to his own place. Now, this truth, which is received and acted on in all spheres of human activity, has force beyond the limits of earth. It touches the constitution of things: it rests on our nature, and must, therefore, determine our experience not only here but hereafter. To occupy our minds with the foolish, if not the wicked, things of earth, is to render ourselves incapable of dealing with the concerns of heaven; that before we can even learn the song of the redeemed we must have been prepared, for not every one can learn the new song that is being sung before the throne, before the four beasts, and before the elders. But we are not only warned that preparation is required; we are also taught in what it is to consist. Its general character may, indeed, be gathered from what has just been said. We have been reminded that to engage heartily in any occupation we must make ourselves acquainted with its rules and methods, that to enjoy any society we must have in some measure risen to the attainment of its members. In order, then, to discover what is needful, by way of training, before we can join this company, enjoy their fellowship, and sing their song, we have only to inquire by what features they are marked. They are spiritual in character, they are with the Lamb on Mount Zion, they are pure and holy. From this it follows that the education which those who would join them must undergo is spiritual. It is not intellectual only. Mere acquaintance with what concerns persons is not of necessity sympathy with them. Only when knowledge touches heart and life can there be fellowship, for only then are companions animated by the same spirit and interested in the same subjects and pursuits. Nor, on the other hand, can the training be merely mechanical. By no outward washing or cleansing can we free the soul from its foul blot; can we make ourselves pure, worthy to stand before the great white throne and Him who sits thereon. The one hundred and forty and four thousand who do learn the song are said to have been “redeemed from the earth.” They have been “redeemed.” This indicates that by nature they are not fit for the occupation referred to. The faculty qualifying them for it has been lost, and has to be restored. The dormant faculties must be roused and developed, the powers that have been misapplied must be converted. The term “redemption” is employed in Scripture in two different senses, or rather to suggest two aspects of the change which it indicates. At one time it signifies release from the bondage of the Evil One without; at another, release from the bondage of the evil nature within. Here it is the inner rather than the outer reference that is in view. It is less escape from slavery and danger than purity and elevation of character that is thought of. Not at once are we made fit for heaven in the fullest sense: not at once is the hold which sin has gained on us relaxed. That comes by struggle, by warring against the powers and principalities arrayed against us, and to which we have submitted. Emancipation in this view is education, growth, advance. The possibility of it rests on living faith, and the realisation of it is gradual, to be carried forward day by day. We have not yet attained, neither are we already perfect, but we follow after, pressing “toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” In His footsteps we should be seeking to walk, and only as we are doing so are we preparing ourselves for the engagements and the delights of the Better Land. That such is the nature of the redemption spoken of in the text becomes still clearer when we observe that those spoken of are to be redeemed “from the earth.” By the earth is meant the lower nature, and what stands related to it. To be redeemed from the earth is to be lifted above it, to use it without abusing it, to act under the control of the Spirit, and this is a movement that should be upward as well as onward--not monotonous progress on a dead level, but achievement, victory, exaltation. It must be apparent to every one that redemption from earth means meetness for heaven, Heaven and earth, in their spiritual use, stand opposed to each other. To be subject to the one is to be beyond the range and influence of the other. We should then be striving after this redemption; we should be seeking to value aright the things around, and we should be endeavouring to free ourselves from their dominion; we should be struggling, that the evil powers within may be subdued--knowing that only thus can we be prepared for joining the glorious company above, for learning the new song, and for celebrating the praise of Him who hath wrought salvation for us. (James Kidd, B.A.)
The new song
Whilst passing in early manhood through a stage of deep dejection, John Stuart Mill found occasional comfort in music. One day he was thrown into a state of profound gloom by the thought that musical combinations were exhaustible. The octave was only composed of five tones and two semi-tones. Not all the combinations of these notes were harmonious, so there must be a limit somewhere to the possibilities of melody. No such possibility can limit the range of the “new song,” for it shall be pitched to the key of God’s ever-renewed mercies. We need not dread an eternity of monotonous, mill-round worship. The originality of God’s mercy will be a spring of originality in us. (T. G. Selby.)
No man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand.--
Man training for heaven
I. Heaven requires his training. Man cannot blend in the happy harmony of the celestial state without previous training. Analogy would suggest this. In the physical system, every being is fitted to his position; his organism is suited to his locality. In the social system the same principle of fitness is required. The stolid clown could not occupy the professor’s chair; nor could he who is reckless concerning law, right, and order, occupy the bench of justice. It is just so in relation to heaven. To feel at home in the society of the holy, cheerfully to serve the Creator and His universe, and to be in harmony with all the laws, operations, and beings, in the holy empire, we must manifestly be invested with the same character. But what is the training necessary? It is moral--the training of the spiritual sympathies; the heart being brought to say, “Thy will be done.”
II. Redemption is the condition of his training. “Those who were redeemed from the earth. The redemption here referred to is evidently that procured by the system of Christ (Revelation 5:9). The training requires something more than education; it needs emancipation--the delivering of the soul from certain feelings and forces incompatible with holiness--a deliverance from the guilt and power of evil. The grand characteristic of Christianity is, that it is a power “to redeem from all evil.”
III. The earth is the scene of his training. “Redeemed from the earth.” The brightest fact in the history of the dark world is, that it is a redemptive scene. Amidst all the clouds and storms of depravity and sorrow that sweep over our path, this fact rises up before us as a bright orb that shall one day dispel all gloom and hush all tumult. Thank God, this is not a retributive, but a redemptive scene. But it should be remembered that it is not only a redemptive scene, but the only redemptive scene. (Homilist.)
It seems that when the song of grace rises in heaven, there are a great multitude who are incompetent to take part in it. What is the song that utterly defies the unfallen spirits of heaven? It is the song of redemption, and I shall give you two or three reasons why those unfallen spirits find it an impossibility to sing it.
1. First, they never were redeemed from sins. Standing in the light of heaven, they know nothing about the joy of rescue. Having sailed for ages on the smooth seas of heaven, they know nothing about the joy of clambering out from the eternal shipwreck. Beautiful and triumphant song, but they cannot sing it. It is to them an eternal impossibility.
2. Again, these unfallen spirits of heaven cannot mingle in that anthem because they do not know what it is to be comforted in suffering. You sometimes find a pianist who has been through all the schools, and has his diploma; but there seems to be no feeling in his playing. You say: “What’s the matter with that musician?” Why, I will tell you: he has never had any trouble. But after he has lost children, or been thrust into sickness, then he begins to pour out the deep emotion of his own soul into the instrument, and all hearts respond to it. So, I suppose that our sorrows here will be somewhat preparative for the heavenly accord. It will not be a cold artistic trill, but a chant struck through with all the tenderness of this world’s sufferings.
3. Again, I remark that the unfallen spirits of heaven cannot join in the anthem of grace in heaven, because they never were helped to die. Death is a tremendous pass. Do you not suppose when we get through that dark pass of death, we are going to feel gratitude to Christ, and that we will have a glorious anthem of praise to sing to Him? But what will those unfallen spirits of heaven do with such a song as that? They never felt the death shudder. They never heard the moan of the dismal sea. But you say: “That makes only a half and half heaven; so many of these spirits will be silent.” Oh, there will be anthems in which all the hosts of heaven can join. The fact that there will be a hundred and forty and four thousand, as stated in the text, intimates that there will be a vast congregation participating. That song is getting sweeter and louder all the time. Some of our friends have gone up and joined in it. If our hearing were only good enough, we would hear their sweet voices rippling on the night air. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Not defiled with women.--
The words cannot be literally understood, but must be taken in the sense of similar words of the Apostle Paul, when, writing to the Corinthians, he says, “For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy; for I espoused you to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” Such a “pure virgin” were the hundred and forty and four thousand now standing upon the Mount Zion. They had renounced all that unfaithfulness to God and to Divine truth which is so often spoken of in the Old Testament as spiritual fornication or adultery. They had renounced all sin. In the language of St. John in his first Epistle, they had “the true God, and eternal life.” They had “guarded themselves from idols.” (W. Milligan, D. D.)
Follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.--
The followers of the Lamb
I. An outline of the character of those blessed ones while they are here.
1. First, notice their adherence to the doctrine of sacrifice while they are here: “These are they which follow the Lamb.”
2. And, next, it is clear of these people that they followed the Lamb by practically imitating Christ’s example, for it is written, “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.” Try to put your feet down in the footprints that He has left you. Do aim at complete conformity to Christ; and wherein you fail, mark that.
3. Now, notice in the sketch of these people that they recognised a special redemption: “These were redeemed from among men.” Christ had done something for them that He had not done for others.
4. And as they recognized a special redemption, they made a full surrender of themselves to God and to the Lamb: “These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.” If you are the firstfruits unto God, be so; if you belong to yourself, serve yourself; but if, by the redemption of Christ, you are not your own, but bought with a price, then live as those who are the King’s own, who must serve God, and cannot be content unless their every action shall tend to the Divine glory, and to the magnifying of Christ Jesus.
5. These people who are to be with Christ, the nearest to Him, are a people free from falsehood. “In their mouth was found no guile.” If we profess to be Christians, we must have done with all craft, policy, double-dealing, and the like. The Christian man should be a plain man, who says what he means, and means what he says.
6. And then, once more, it is said that they are free from blemish; “they are without fault before the throne of God.”
II. A glimpse of the perfect picture in heaven.
1. Well, first, those who are with Christ enjoy perfect fellowship with Him. Up there, they “follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.” They are always with Him.
2. Well, now, notice in this complete picture, next, that up there they are perfectly accepted with God: “These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.” God always accepts them; He always looks upon them as His firstfruits, bought with His Son’s blood, and brought by His Son into His heavenly temple, to be His for ever. Sometimes here we mar our service; but they never mar it there.
3. Observe, also, that they have perfect truth there in heart and soul: “ In their mouth was found no guile.” “No lie,” says the Revised Version. Here, we do fail into error inadvertently, and sometimes, I fear me, negligently.
4. One more feature of that perfect picture is this, they enjoy perfect sinlessness before God: “They are without fault before the throne of God.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The followers of Jesus
I. The instructive view of Christians which the text presents.
1. To follow Jesus is to maintain a visible profession of His religion. Are we doing this, or are we halting and hesitating? Is our character uniform, or are we religious and the contrary just as serves our convenience, and meets the wishes of our associates?
2. To follow Jesus is to receive Him as a Saviour. This implies the subjection of the soul to Him.
3. To follow Jesus is to listen to Him as a teacher. A scholar follows his master; he respects his authority.
4. To follow Jesus is to obey Him as a Sovereign.
5. To follow Jesus is to imitate Him as an example.
II. What there is in such persons remarkable; or why our attention should be so particularly directed to them: “These are they.”
1. We see in them the favourites of heaven. The Lord loves them; He honours them; He delights to bless them, and to do them good.
2. We see in them the monuments of Divine mercy. “These are they” whom God hath called out of darkness into His marvellous light.
3. They are the most honourable characters on the face of the earth. Honourable in reality, not in appearance; in the sight of angels and of God, not perhaps in the judgment of men.
4. They are the most happy persons in times of difficulty and trial. These enter into the spirit and life of religion: they taste its comfort, they prove its real enjoyment.
5. They are the instruments of the Redeemer’s glory. “All Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine; and I am glorified in them”; glorified in their faith, their patience, their hope, but especially in their holy and active obedience.
6. They will be the inhabitants of a better world, the companions of Christ in His kingdom.
In that upper world they still follow Him, but without the least reluctance, without the most distant feeling of languor. Reflections:
1. Are we the followers of Jesus?
2. What cause have we all to lament our carelessness and cowardice in religious concerns!
3. Let us rise to greater vigour in the ways of the Lord, and be unreservedly devoted to Him. (T. Kidd.)
Devotion to Christ
I. In devotion to Christ we find the true guide of life.
II. In devotion to Christ, we find the true joy of life.
III. In following Christ is revealed to us the true end of life. (R. Forgan, B. D.)
The followers of the Lamb
I. What it is to follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. In His commandments--teaching--providences--example. Truly, without hypocrisy; constantly, without apostasy. Speedily, truly, undividedly, zealously, humbly, cheerfully, diligently, constantly, faithfully, transcendently.
II. Why they follow the Lamb. Because they are redeemed by His blood--enlightened by Him--loving Him--possessing His spirit, etc.
III. The excellency of following the Lamb. They have His presence--shall know His mind--may come boldly to Him--shall be protected by Him, etc.
IV. How they may be known who follow the Lamb. By their character--spirit--name--graces--associates--language. (W. Dyer.)
Absolute obedience to the guidance of Christ
We do not, of course, take the number here specified as implying more than greatness and completeness. It is based, probably, upon the number of the twelve apostles, and of the twelve tribes largely multiplied, and expresses, as has been said, the native and not degenerate progeny of the apostles. They are the princes of the kingdom, perfect in a multiform unity, which are so delineated, equally derived from every quarter. What has won them their high pre-eminence? What has caused them to excel their brethren, so as to stand nearest to the Lamb upon the heavenly mount? Others may be pure, for the pure alone shall see God; others are redeemed, for otherwise there could be no salvation; but that which builds the thrones of the twelve and the long line of saints who come after is the following--the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.
I. It is probable that there are few, if any, amongst you who do not hold what called the main truths of the gospel. Complete unbelief is yet a rare thing amongst us. But if we go a little further and inquire to what the acceptance of the Christian Faith on the part of the multitude amounts, it will be found that their belief is but vague and general, that a vast element of scepticism mingles with their faith. To a certain extent, and to a certain extent only, do they follow the leading of Christ. Whilst He speaks of that which is easy of apprehension, which accords with the natural instinct, or is of palpable utility, they attend Him closely. Lo! He tells of meekness, and purity, and uprightness, and charity; they go heartily along with Him. He warns of a judgment to come, by which the inequalities of this earthly life shall be adjusted; this squares with the conclusion of human intellect and is cordially received. But when He would lead them further, to the acceptance of truths which cannot be demonstrated, which to some extent, at any rate, must be believed on the witness of others, they recoil. Thus the duty and expediency of public worship is admitted. It is a national acknowledgment of duty, an instrument of Christian instruction; but to partake of the Blessed Sacrament involves the admission of certain supernatural powers still operating among us, and forthwith the great congregation dwindles to a scanty company. Nay, is not this sort of feeling on the increase? Just as there have been those who would not neglect prayer, though abstaining from Holy Communion; so, because prayer involves the present action of God, we are now hearing of men refusing to pray, and reducing religion yet further to the hearing and acting out moral lessons. Thus, while the guidance of the Lamb conducts to the knowledge of what is within the grasp of human reason, men are well pleased to wait upon His steps; but no sooner does He move, as it were, out of the open country, and pass onward into the narrower defiles of a land on which rest clouds and darkness, and there is nothing to guide save His footfall, than their steps halt. They follow Him not whithersoever He goeth.
II. But we would not confine the application of the text to the case of doctrine; it may well be extended to that of practice also. There is no more sad spectacle than that of a man whose conduct falls short of his convictions. He can admire the nobility of character, the self-devotion, the unworldliness of the saints of God; he is acute enough to perceive that the doctrines which theoretically he has accepted do, if fairly worked out, lead to a higher line of life; but, withal, he shrinks from pursuing it. He foresees how much must be surrendered, how many difficulties must be encountered, how few, perhaps, will appreciate him when all is done; and so he continues to live on a commonplace life of coldness and self-indulgence, with high principles and low practice--a splendid ideal, but no personal approach to it. “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth!” How do they stand out, those saintly ones, in sharpest contrast with the half-obedience of ordinary Christians! Once having embraced the faith, theirs was the firm, unflinching tread of men prepared to resign all, to lose all. Through evil report and good report, through honour and dishonour, they followed their Lord whithersoever He led. Whithersoever--to the snapping asunder of closest ties, to the abandonment of our cherished hopes. Whithersoever--to the restraint of the reasoning faculty, to the submission of private opinion, to the subjection of the will, to the quenching of the passions. Would to God we might only drink in a little of their temper! There is, it has been well said, a first superficial will in man which resents opposition, refuses chastisement, as the child puts from it the medicine draught. So even Jesus Christ prayed that the cup might pass from Him. There is a second, deliberative will in man, which is formed upon reflection, and which is, in fact, the real act of volition. By this Jesus Christ took the cup and drank it to the dregs. That, whatever our first impulse, this second truest will shall in all things acquiesce in what God speaks and does about us and for us, must be our effort; so only can we train ourselves here for following the Lamb whithersoever He goeth along the infinite windings of the Everlasting Hills. (Bp. Woodford.)
The firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.--
The greater salvation
There is a salvation greater and less. For here it is said that these hundred and forty-four thousand are “firstfruits.” Therefore we learn--
I. What these are not.
1. They are not all the saved. The very word indicates that there is much more to follow. They are but the beginning. Nor--
2. Are these firstfruits the mass of the saved. True, a large number is named; but what is that compared with the “great multitude that no man can number, out of every,” etc.
II. What they are. The word “firstfruits “ teaches us that these thus named are--
1. The pledge of all the rest. Thus Christ has “become the Firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Corinthians 15:20). And so the natural firstfruits of corn guaranteed the rest of the harvest. For the same sun, and all other nurturing forces which had ripened the firstfruits, were there ready to do the same kindly office for all the rest. And so we are told, “The Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies.” The same power is present for both the first and after fruits.
2. The pattern and representative of all the rest. Compare the first and after fruits. In the main they were alike, and so in the spiritual world also. But--
3. The firstfruits were pre-eminent over the rest. They were specially presented to God, and held in honour; so was it with the natural grain. But, without question, there is pre-eminence implied in being the firstfruits of the heavenly harvest.
(1) In time. Theirs is “the first resurrection,” of which we read in chap. 20. “The rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years,” etc. (chap. 20.).
(2) In honour. St. Paul called it “the prize of our high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” And our Lord tells us that there is a “first” and “last” in the kingdom of heaven; “a least” and “a greatest.” “One star differeth from another star in glory.” There is “an entrance administered abundantly,” and there is a “being saved so as by fire.”
(3) In service. That they were pre-eminent here, who that knows their history on earth, or reads even this book, will question?
(4) In character. See how they are described as to their spiritual purity, their unreserved consecration, their separateness from the world, their guilelessness and freedom from all deceit.
(5) In the approval of God. Of them it is written, “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection” (chap. 20.).
4. They are the elect of God. In another part of this book they are spoken of as “the called, and chosen, and faithful.” All are not firstfruits, greatest, first, in the kingdom of heaven. The very words imply order, gradation, rank. But it is for us to take heed as to--
III. What we should strive to be. (S. Conway, B. A.)
The Church God’s firstfruits
The mention of the hundred and forty and four thousand as “firstfruits” suggests the thought of something to follow. What that is it is more difficult to say. It can hardly be other Christians belonging to a later age of the Church’s history upon earth, for the end is come. It can hardly be Christians who have done or suffered more than other members of the Christian family, for in St. John’s eyes all Christians are united to Christ, alike in work and martyrdom. Only one supposition remains. The hundred and forty and four thousand, as the whole Church of God, are spoken of in the sense in which the same expression is used by the Apostle James: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” Not as the first portion of the Church on earth, to be followed by another portion, but as the first portion of a kingdom of God wider and larger than the Church, are the words to be understood. The whole Church is God’s firstfruits, and when she is laid upon His altar we have the promise that a time is coming when creation shall follow in her train, when “it shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God,” when “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before the Redeemer into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.” Why shall nature thus rejoice before the Lord? Let the Psalmist answer: “For He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth.” (W. Milligan, D. D.)
In their mouth was found no guile.--
It is related that when Petrarch, the Italian poet, a man of strict integrity, was summoned as a witness, and offered in the usual manner to take an oath before a court of justice, the judge closed the book, saying, “As to you, Petrarch, your word is sufficient.”
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach.
The angel in mid-heaven
I. The revival of a missionary spirit in the Church of Christ. We say a revival, for that spirit not only formed a necessary element all through the new dispensation, but it had its recognised place in the old. How many of the prophets of Judah and Israel, in varied words and imagery, exulted in the prospect of times when the exclusive privileges of the covenant-land would cease, when nations sitting in darkness would see the great Light! How often in the Psalms do we find the same aspirations! The sweetest strains of the minstrel monarch of Israel are missionary odes. It was the apostolic age, however, which was the era for the grand development of missionary zeal. But was missionary ardour to expire with the primitive era in the Church of Christ? a transient outburst of enthusiasm, when Peter and John crossed the borders of Palestine for the regions of Asia Minor and the distant lands of the dispersion; or when Paul braved the surges of the Adriatic and confronted the merchant princes of Corinth, the philosophers of Athens, and the captains of Imperial Rome? Far away in the distant east there lay a mighty empire. Poetry had sung of it as “the climes of the sun,” and British arms and enterprise had claimed it as their proudest trophy. But the darkness of spiritual death is brooding over it, and polluted fires are rising from unnumbered altars. Thither the Angel of the vision wings His way. Altar-fire after altar-fire is quenched. The chime of the Sabbath bell and the hum of the Christian school break the stillness of moral solitude, and he comes back to tell, “In the region and shadow of death light has sprung forth.” The evangelist beheld the Angel of the vision “flying.” It denoted at once suddenness and rapidity.
II. The instrumentality employed, “the everlasting gospel.” This was the book the Mission Angel held in his hand. It may seem to proud reason a poor weapon with which to effect the moral conquest of the world. And more especially when that gospel is proclaimed, not by angels, but by feeble men. “But the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” It seems to be a law or distinguishing feature in His government of the world that the mightiest ends are effected by the simplest and often unlikeliest means; that results are brought about by agencies and instrumentalities in themselves apparently inadequate to produce them. Look at His providential dealings as these are recorded in the page of Scripture. It was the sling of a shepherd-boy and a few pebbles from the brook which brought to the dust the giant of Philistia. Twelve humble fishermen from Tiberias’ shores (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). And, powerful in the past, the same moral and spiritual forces are still to be mighty for the pulling down of heathen strongholds. Countless Dagons are to fall before this Ark of God. And who can fail to admire the wondrous adaptation of that everlasting gospel to all characters, and ages, and times! The vision of the text, moreover, tells us it is destined, on a yet vaster scale, to vindicate its title to be “the power of God unto salvation” unto the very ends of the earth--the grand fulcrum and lever in one which is to elevate degraded humanity.
III. The extent of the commission: “To preach to them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.” (J. R. Macduff, D. D.)
The flight of the angel through heaven
I. The subject of his ministration: “The everlasting gospel.” This blessing God designs by the Christian ministry to confer upon the whole world.
1. The heathen have lost the knowledge of God. We may infer the greatness of this loss from the fact that the knowledge of God is the only foundation of religion. But how can this knowledge be restored? It is only taught by three volumes--Nature, Providence, and Revelation. But Nature and Providence never taught this knowledge without the comment of Revelation. Nothing restores the lost knowledge of God but the gospel.
2. They are without the knowledge of their sinful state.
3. They are without the knowledge of acceptance and pardon through the true Mediator.
II. The characteristics of this ministry.
1. It is the ministry of men. The term “angel” is not a designation of nature, but of office; ministers are called angels in Holy Scripture. The ministry of the gospel is exercised by men, that they may not only teach doctrine, but be the witnesses of what they teach.
2. It is an authorised ministry. An “angel” is a messenger, and a messenger must be sent. The command of the Lord is, “Go ye into all the world,” etc.
3. It is an open and undisguised ministry. St. Paul gloried in using “great plainness of speech.” There is nothing in Christianity that requires concealment.
4. It is a zealous and successful ministry. The attitude of “flying,” in which the angel is placed before us in the text, denotes zeal and activity; an eagerness to deliver the message, and to carry it into the remotest regions. And, thank God, we have such a ministry in progress. It has met with difficulties, and future difficulties await it, yet it is pressing onward.
III. Its extensive commission. It is sent to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.”
1. The gospel is equally needed by all nations, and equally adapted to all.
2. There is an essential difference between the Jewish and Christian dispensations. The Jewish dispensation was restricted to one nation and period; the Christian dispensation is universal, embracing all the different tribes of men, and extending to the end of time.
3. The extensive commission recorded in the text is the foundation of universal philanthropy.
4. It gives noble and expanded views to Christians. Study and understand your own religion. It is not one amongst many modifications of human opinion. It is from God, and it is intended by Him, like Aaron’s rod, to swallow up every other.
IV. The specific objects of the angel’s ministry.
1. The angel cries out, “Fear Him.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the source and guard of virtue. But the heathen are without it. They have religious fear, but not the fear of God. The fear of God is a mixture of awe and love.
2. To establish His worship. This is another effect of the promulgation of the gospel. Instead of idols, to place the true God in His temples. Instead of polluting orgies, to teach men to wash their hands in innocency, and thus to encompass God’s altar. Instead of vain mediators, to have the name of Jesus in which to trust.
3. To claim for God His revenue of praise and glory.
1. Behold, then, a glorious object of contemplation--the progress of the angel in the midst of heaven.
2. It depends on you to speed or delay the angel.
3. Let it not discourage us, that the world maybe tossed and troubled. (R. Watson.)
An ideal preacher
I. His theme is glorious.
1. A gospel-message of Divine love.
2. An ever-enduring gospel.
(1) Because its elementary truths are absolute.
(2) Because its redemptive provisions are complete.
3. A world-wide gospel.
(1) A necessity to all mankind.
(2) Equal to all mankind.
II. His movements are expeditious.
1. The message is urgent.
2. The time is short.
3. Life is uncertain.
III. His sphere is elevated. It is the characteristic of all truly regenerated men that they are not of the flesh, but of the Spirit; that they set their affections on things above; that though in the world, they are not of the world; that they live in heavenly places. (Homilist.)
The dissemination of good and the destruction of evil
I. The dissemination of good.
1. The gospel in itself is good. It is at once the mirror and the medium of eternal good.
2. The gospel in its ministry is good. It comes from heaven, and is conveyed by heavenly messengers to men.
3. The gospel in its universality is good. It overleaps all geographic boundaries, all tribal, linguistic distinctions, and addresses man as man.
4. The gospel in its purpose is good. Its supreme aim is to induce all men to worship Him who made heaven, earth, and sea.
II. The destruction of evil.
1. This aggregation of evil must fall. Faith is to overcome the world.
2. This aggregation of evil falls as the good advances. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The preaching of the everlasting gospel
I. The commission to preach the gospel. Some persons are heard falsely to argue that there is no need to send the tidings of redemption to the heathen; that they will be saved or be lost, according to their use or abuse of the light they have received; and that to impart to them the gospel is only to increase their condemnation, if they die unbelieving. But to such cavils we need not reply. Our Lord’s command, as well as the conduct of the angel in our text, is clear and express.
II. The manner in which that commission is to be executed.
1. By calling sinners to repentance.
2. By directing them to Christ.
3. By warning them of a future judgment. (C. Clayton, M. A.)
The undying theme--the originality and acceptability of the gospel
1. The gospel, in its authorship, is one with nature.
2. The gospel, in its comprehension or extent, includes heaven and earth. The flying angel unites the two, and shows in clear and bold figure the celestial origin of the gospel. It is no growth of the darkened earth--no high stage of a merely natural development--no offspring of civilisation. Heaven and earth are made one again in the gospel.
3. The gospel, in its history, advances from the deepest obscurity to the highest prominence.
4. The gospel, in its design, unites the particular and the universal.
5. The gospel, in its spirit, unites the purest mercy with the most perfect justice.
I. A statement of the gospel.
1. Its originality. That is original which is the first of its kind, and stands alone. Absolute originality is to be found in God alone; for the Divine mind alone has the power of pure creation. The gospel is original, whether we view it as emanating from God, as a series of facts in human history, or as a new life in man--that is, whether we view it as a creation of God the Father, of God the Son, or of God the Holy Ghost.
2. Its acceptability lies in this--that it satisfies the demands of an honest and earnest mind. Is proof required that the Word of God, as a historical and literary production, is what it claims to be? It possesses more evidence on this point than any other book. But the point in respect of which the gospel is most widely and warmly accepted is that it satisfies the heart and conscience.
II. How the gospel is everlasting. We may here take the two aspects under which we have just considered the gospel, and show how the epithet everlasting applies to each--how it is for ever original or new, and how it is for ever good or acceptable.
1. The gospel is everlasting in its originality. The word new has two meanings, not only different, but apparently opposed to each other, which yet, taken together, give all the more complete an idea of the gospel. We call that new which is the first of its kind; we also call that new which is the last or latest of its kind. The gospel is the first and last system of truth, the oldest and the newest thought of God. It is everlasting, although new. Other new things soon lose their freshness, wither, and grow old; but it remains ever new, full of the life of God, fresh as the morning of creation. It continues new by ever growing newer--ever leading us deeper into its source in God.
2. The gospel is everlasting in its acceptability. We do not grow insensible to its influence through repeated experience of its power. The more we come into living contact with it, the more do we see its beauty and profundity--the more do we see that its meaning and charm are quite inexhaustible. (F. Ferguson.)
The missionary angel
1. It is the everlasting gospel, because it deals with everlasting things. It proclaims the everlasting God.
2. It is the everlasting gospel because it emanates from the everlasting God.
3. The everlasting gospel because it is based upon the everlasting covenant.
4. The everlasting gospel because it guarantees to us everlasting life, the life of communion; the life of knowledge, of entering more and more into the mind of God, and drawing our whole life’s power from Him, the Lord our God.
5. The everlasting gospel because it is sure to bring to us everlasting joy. (E. A. Stuart, M. A.)
The everlasting gospel
I. The angel spoken of is not merely an individual, but the representative of all faithful ministers of the gospel.
II. The title which the Spirit of God here gives it. It is called in our text “the everlasting gospel.”
1. It is called the everlasting gospel because the substance of it was settled in eternity by the triune Jehovah, in the counsel and in the covenant of peace. It is the revelation of the eternal purpose of God.
2. It is called the “everlasting gospel” because, in spite of all the opposition that has been offered to it, it has continued still to be preached, and it will always so continue.
3. Another reason is because, amidst all the changes to which this sublunary state is subject, the gospel alone is unchangeable, and alone affords a safe and solid foundation, on which the people of God can rest.
4. Once more, it is called “the everlasting gospel,” because all its promises “are yea and amen in Christ Jesus,” and never can be revoked.
III. The instrumentality employed in its promulgation.
IV. The predicted triumphs of the gospel. (R. Shutte, M. A.)
The everlasting gospel
Some one not long ago published a book with the title, “Gospels of Yesterday.” It discussed the writings of several authors who, in our generation, have caught the popular ear, and analysed their doctrines with keen incisiveness. At present I will not pass a judgment on its estimates. But how striking the name itself! “Gospels of Yesterday”--how many there have been of them! They lasted as long as they could, but the world outgrew them. There is only one gospel which is everlasting. Now, why is this? What makes the gospel of Christ everlasting?
I. Its universal message. The reason why so many gospels have been doomed to become gospels of yesterday has been because they have addressed themselves to what is transient or partial in human nature, and not to what is permanent and universal. Men have been hailed as saviours of society because they have been able to give relief from a need pressing at some particular time, or because their doctrines have fallen in with some passing phase of popular sentiment. But the glory of Christianity is that its teaching is addressed to what is most characteristic in human nature and absolutely the same in all members of the human race, whether they be rich or poor, whether they inhabit the one hemisphere or the other, and whether they live in ancient or modern times. You have only to glance at the most outstanding words of the gospel to see this. Take, for example, the word soul. This word was in the very forefront of the teaching of Jesus. Jesus went down to the child, the beggar, the harlot--the weakest and most despised members of the human family; and when He was able to find even in them this infinitely precious thing, it was manifest that He had discovered the secret of a universal religion; because, if this existed even in the lowest, then it existed in all. Or take another great word of the message of the gospel: take the word sin. This word also is borne on the forefront of Christianity, and how universal is the response which it finds in the heart of man! Not to multiply illustrations too much, take only one more--the word eternity. This is also a word which the gospel carries on its very front. It speaks of it wherever it goes. Christ brought life and immortality to light by the gospel; He spoke of the objects of the world invisible as one who had lived among them; and He spoke to men of a home of many mansions to which they were to aspire. Now, this message strikes a chord in every human heart.
II. Its particular message. The great things in human nature are, as I have said, common to all; yet human nature is never precisely the same in any two specimens. There were never in this world even two faces absolutely alike; and much less are the minds ever precisely alike which lie behind the faces. The gifts of nature, such as beauty, strength, ability, genius, are distributed in ever-varying proportions, and the various circumstances in which people grow up emphasise the natural differences. Some are born to wealth, others to poverty; the gifts of some are improved by education, the genius of others is buried beneath the hard conditions of adversity. What a difference it makes in the fate of a human being whether he is born in the heart of Africa or in the capital of England! But the gospel has a message for this difference in each specimen of human nature, and for each quarter of the globe and each age of the world, as well as for that which is common to all. God has a special message for every age. His gospel has a word in season for every condition of life--for the little child, and the young man in his prime, and for old age--a word for the multitude and a word for the few. The Chinese, when they accept the gospel, will find secrets in it which the British have never discovered; the twentieth century will discover phases of the Christian life which are lacking in the nineteenth. We have not exhausted Christ, and we have not exhausted the gospel of Christ. (J. Stalker, D. D.)
The gospel in terms of duration
This word “gospel,” we bethink us, gets only its modern form in our homelier phrase “good news.” The word here linked with it, therefore, is scarcely the sort of word we would naturally link with it--“an eternal gospel.” Eternal good news? The combination is one which strikes our ear as if it contradicted itself. News flashes and fades. How little is there that we would still call news after a day’s sun has set upon it! Yet there is a sense in which news may be said sometimes to last. The news is so important to us that it lingers in the heart, and in a manner keeps itself fresh. The gospel is always new, because you are always gathering something further of its import, or sighting something hitherto unexplored of its sublimity.
I. The gospel has in it every element of durability.
1. There are some enterprises, some houses of business so “safe,” as you call them--so set for enduring--that even prudent men will count upon the future of them as if it were present. Such concerns are always conceived and conducted, you will find, on principles of wisdom--of wisdom that is calm and clear-sighted, fit to anticipate dangers and to provide for difficulties, so that surprise or loss is made as unlikely as may be. Such concerns, moreover, are usually built up slowly--grow firm as they grow great, and at every stage are solid all through to the heart. This element of durability belongs to the gospel. It took existence under a wisdom which was at once infinite in its range and eternal in its experience. The gospel was matured in sight of every difficulty and every danger it could ever meet. It has never shown the least kinship with things hasty, immature, unstable. It is built into the system of things, and is thus settled upon foundations that are too deep and broad to come within the power of any law of destruction or damage or change.
2. There is another important element of durability in the gospel. The Divine justice, it is evident--the eternal sense of what is morally due, and the eternal fulfilling of what is morally right--cannot afford to brook the least breath of contravention. Now, it is an eminent peculiarity of the gospel, that it stands in the most intimate harmony with justice. It is such, that whithersoever it goes supreme justice goes with it.
3. The gospel has still another element of durability. Purity is proof against decay; impurity is decay already begun. And the gospel is a holy thing. It sprang from holiness: it was framed upon holiness; it makes for holiness.
4. I will name only one thing more about the gospel which involves its enduringness. We count upon the success of an undertaking which has abundance of strength behind it. What project would we not reckon secure of a firm place in history if the flag of every nation were unfurled around it, and every heart was knit to every other in the resolve that it should prosper and last? But all our figures are poor when we bring them alongside of the fact concerning the strength which girds this gospel. It is the gospel of the Omnipotent. But is His gospel then omnipotent? Virtually it is.
II. The gospel may be called “eternal” because duration hitherto has been so full of it. The material universe, we have come to know, is stupendously great. Thought wearies itself in a wilderness of world-systems; and when our glasses have carried our vision farthest into the teeming depths of space, we more than conjecture that we have only been gazing around the horizon-line of an ocean of Divine handiwork. Yet, in the minds of those to whom both are equally known, the gospel bulks larger than this universe that is so nearly infinite. We catch stray echoes of the converse of mightier intelligences than time can hold--of beings who know creation with a knowledge which dwarfs all our science into the knowledge of children; and for once that they are thinking of God’s creation they are ten times thinking of God’s salvation. And this, we may assure ourselves, does no more than reflect the thought of the adorable Creator. The Lord of the gospel is the Lord of creation, and He is the Lord of creation as the Lord of the gospel--this actually now, and this potentially from “before the world began.” This gospel would seem to be the oldest thing we know. For it has the look of being more than an eternal thought of the Divine mind, and more than an eternal purpose of the Divine will; it wears an appearance of completeness, of maturity, of readiness, of actuality almost; it has gotten a prerogative of making a place for itself among eternal things, and of casting its own influence into the whole current of the immeasurable past. We listen on this sea-board of time, and the sound which reaches us out of the shoreless eternity is a gospel-sound. We are hearing the far-coming murmur of “an eternal gospel.”
III. The gospel may be spoken of as “ eternal” because it will always be what it has always been. No change is to be detected in its character or its contents through all the changes that have come to pass in its condition and its circumstances. It has not even developed, save in manifestation and in the spread of its influence among men. What, then, of the future? What of the coming generations of the history of the gospel in the world? These may see more of change than even the past generations have seen. Shall the gospel itself be touched with change? The Scriptures, which hold the revelation of it from the beginning, may come to be beheld in a light so searching, that venerable beliefs as to their formation may be universally modified. Meanwhile the gospel will stand as it has never but stood; and the total result of all new light, of all new movement, will be the more full and luminous display of what those tidings are which abide for ever. And is it so? Shall this gospel which we so poorly preach, and which men are so slow to hear--shall it be to some of us our theme, our motive, our inspiration, the breath of our life, when the first ages of redemption have gone far into the past? Still new?--and still the same? Even so. The same Saviour, the same great kinship to Him, the same clearing of the dark past, the same upward road to spiritual health and power, the same “everlasting righteousness,” the same mercy, the same love, the same peace and joy made up to eternal measure--this, with deepening knowledge of what it all means, and ever-gathering enrichment from what it all infolds, will the gospel of Jesus Christ continue to be as long as eternity continues I
IV. The gospel may be called “eternal,” in contrast to so much that is associated with it in the world. Is there anything at all in the world that is unshifting and sure? We think little about the uncertainty of things, because we know so little else. Yet it would be a luxury, we imagine, to be able to fix our thought, not to say our hope or our love, upon something which will not catch the general infection of things as it gets into treacherous motion, or slips our grasp, or vanishes, leaving us to soothe as we can our aching hearts. It is this gospel. It is what brings us to the friendly stability of God as a personal and present and settled possession. For the good tidings, from generation to generation, from man to man, from experience to experience, abides the same enriching, comforting, rectifying thing, unable to disappoint or deceive. (J. A. Kerr Bain, M. A)
The everlasting gospel
I. The gospel. It is a “glad message” from God to man; good news from heaven to earth.
1. Of God’s free love.
2. Of God’s great gift.
3. Of God’s propitiation for sin.
4. Of God’s righteousness.
5. Of God’s kingdom.
II. The everlasting gospel. (H. Bonar, D. D.)
The survival of the fittest
I. Because it gathers up all the teachings of nature. Ii. Because it fulfils all the predictions of prophecy.
III. Because it meets the universal wants of man.
IV. Because it possesses immortal youth.
V. Because it is ever gaining fresh empire and renown.
VI. Because its author has risen and reigns for ever. (F. W. Brown.)
The gospel of retribution
1. What, then, is this gospel? It is the gospel of retribution; we are to fear and glorify God because the hour of His judgment is come. This is the truth which the angel flying in mid-heaven, between God and man, proclaims and always will proclaim. This is the truth which St. John calls “an eternal gospel”--not the gospel, and still less the only gospel, but still glad tidings of great joy to us and to all mankind. Are you disappointed? Do you say, “That is true enough, no doubt. Sooner or later the actions of men do round upon them in the strangest way. A man may as soon jump off his own shadow as evade the consequences of his own deeds. But we need no apostle, no angel out of heaven, to teach us that. Our poets, our moralists, our philosophers, our very novelists, have long sung in that key. And our own hearts, our consciences, our experience of life, have taken up and swelled the strain. We need no future witness to the fact of retribution. But there is no gospel in the fact. It brings no good tidings to us, but rather tidings of despair. A gospel of redemption would be good news indeed if it could possibly be true; but a gospel of retribution is a mere contradiction in terms.” Are you so sure that every man must receive according to his deeds that you have made your ways and doings good, that you dread and resist every temptation to do evil? You respect and observe the law of gravity because you are quite sure that it k a law. Do you show an equal respect for the law of retribution? Consider, again, if the law of retribution is familiar to you, is it nothing to you to be assured that what you admit to be a law is also a gospel? When we are told that God’s judgments on sin are an eternal gospel, a gospel for all beings in all ages, what is implied? This is implied--and there is no truth more precious or more practical--that the judgments of God are corrective, disciplinary, redemptive; that they are designed to turn us away from the sins by which they are provoked. Nothing can be more wholesome for us, and no truer or nobler comfort can be given us when we are suffering the painful consequences of our evil deeds, than the assurance that these retributions are intended for our good; not to injure or destroy us, but to quicken life in us, or the godly sorrow which worketh life. And, surely, up to a certain point at least, we can see that this law is a good law, deterring us from evil, driving and inviting us toward that which is good. But if the law work good it is good; i.e., it is a gospel as well as a law. It would be bad news that the law was to be repealed. That there is much in the operation of this law which as yet we cannot fathom, or cannot prove to be good, must be admitted. One man’s guilt is another man’s loss or pain. We often suffer as much from our ignorance as from our sins. The best people often have the hardest life. And here, as we cannot walk by sight we must walk by faith. Retribution is a gospel, an eternal gospel, because it is medicinal and redemptive, because it either corrects that which is evil in us, or because it is a discipline by which we are prepared for larger good.
2. But this mystery of unprovoked or disproportionate suffering may grow clearer to us as we consider that, in his eternal gospel, St. John includes not only present, but also future judgments. The angel is always proclaiming judgment, but he also proclaims “hours” of judgment, crises in which the whole story of a life, a race, or an age, is summed up, and finally adjusted by an unerring standard. Such an hour was then at hand. Such an hour is never far off from any one of us. No fact, no truth, proclaimed by Christ and by His angels or messengers, has been invested with more awful terrors than this of the last judgment--the last, or at least the last for us, the judgment which closes this earthly span. And, to flesh and blood, it must always be full of terror. And yet there are considerations which may well abate our surprise. For, with all his fear of judgment, there is a deep craving for justice in every man’s heart, and a profound conviction that, in some respects at least, he has never had it, or never had it to the full. His neighbours have wronged him. He has had to suffer for their folly, their extravagance, their crimes, their sins. His actions have been misrepresented, his motives misconstrued. Or circumstances have been against him, and he has never been able to get the culture he longed for and prized. Poverty, drudgery, grief, and care have exhausted him, leaving him no leisure and no force for pursuing the loftier aims of life. Or he has been unfortunate in the relationships he has formed, and found them a burden instead of a help. As you all know, there are men who, in a thousand different ways, have been crippled, hampered, thwarted, defeated in the race of life, who have never had a fair chance, whose hearts have been shaken and soured by the accidents and changes of time. And if to any of these sufferers from misfortune or injustice, sitting in darkness and asking, “What does it all mean?” you could say with conviction and authority, “It means that the end is not yet; but the end is coming. God will yet do you ample justice, redress all your wrongs, compensate you for all your losses, turn all your sorrows into joy, make you what you would be, and enable you to do and to get all you crave”--would not such a message be a true gospel to him? If he could believe it, would it not be to him as life from the dead? Would he be slow to give glory unto God? And is it not good news that when we pass from the hasty censures of a busy and careless, if not a cruel, world, we shall be weighed in finer scales and a truer balance? that our most inward and delicate motives will be taken into account, as well as the blundering actions which so ill expressed them by One who knows us altogether, and reads the thoughts and intents of the heart? Fear God, then, and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgment is coming and is nigh. You cannot help but fear Him, indeed, for His pure eyes must discern much evil in you which you have failed to detect; and at His bar you will have to answer for your injustice to your neighbours, for the wrongs you have done them, for your misconstructions of their characters, their actions, their motives. But, according to St. John, with fear or reverence we are to blend thanksgiving. According to him, retribution is a gospel as well as a law, and we are to give glory to God even as we advance toward His judgment-seat. How should either an apostle, or an angel, bid us bless God for the hour of judgment as for a gospel, if there were no mercy, no hope, no blessing in it?
3. This gospel is an eternal, or universal, gospel, a gospel for all ages, for all men. It is proclaimed unto “every nation, and tribe, and tongue and people.” And here, surely, we may find a theme for praise. The world is full of injustice, full of misery. And as you think of these common events, events as common in every other circle as in your own, what a gospel is this which the angel, flying in mid-heaven, proclaims with a great voice: “This world is not all. It is not the end, but only the beginning; and the beginnings of life are always obscure and mysterious. The hour of judgment is coming, in which the mystery will be explained and vindicated; in which God will redress every wrong, compensate every loss.” Take the world as it is, cut it off from the great astronomical system of which it forms part, and it is a mystery which none can fathom. And take human life as it is, as a story without a sequel, and you can only give it up as aa insoluble problem, a mighty maze without a plan. But listen to this gospel of retribution, connect this world with the world, or worlds, in heaven, regard the present life as an introduction to, a discipline for, a larger, happier life to come, and your burden is eased; the problem becomes capable of a happy solution. If you must still fear God, you can also give Him glory because the hour of His judgment is coming, the hour at which He will gather the whole world under His rule, and all nations and tribes, and tongues and peoples, shall become His people and know Him for their God. That this law of retribution has another aspect, that the justice of God must be full of terror for as many as cleave to their sins and will not let them go, none of us are likely to forget. (S. Cox, D. D.)
The gospel enduring
Mineralogists and geologists are predicting in doleful strains the exhaustion of coal. Even such an eminent Christian philosopher as Dr. Chalmers believed that the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of nature would fail to keep pace with the wants of a rapidly increasing population. But the gospel is eternal. “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” Amid all life’s vicissitudes He is unalterable in love and power.
There followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen.--
The doom of the world-power
The second angel follows on the first; the doom of the world-city, the metropolis of the empire of the world-power, follows the proclamation of the gospel. The principles of Christ’s gospel must undermine the world-power: the fall of some Babylon principle has almost always succeeded the age of spiritual revival. Pagan Rome goes down before the gospel. (Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image.
Soul prostitution and soul loyalty
I. Soul prostitution.
1. The prostitution of the soul to wrong is an alarming crime.
2. The prostitution of the soul to wrong always incurs lamentable suffering. The metaphors here are borrowed from the sacred books of the Hebrew people, and they convey the idea of suffering of an alarming kind, suggesting--
(1) A consciousness of Divine antagonism. “Wine of the wrath of God.” In the sense of malignant passion there is no wrath in Him who is love. But it is a psychological fact that the man who suffers because he has done another an injury, has a consciousness that the one he has offended is angry with him, and this consciousness is the chief element in his suffering.
(2) A sense of intense agony. “Shall be tormented with fire and brimstone.” Brimstone adds intensity to the heat and fury to the flames of fire. “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” said Cain. A guilty conscience has its Tartarus or Gehenna within itself.
(3) A state of constant restlessness. “They have no rest day nor (and) night.” There is no rest in sin. “The wicked are like the troubled sea.”
II. Soul loyalty. “Here is the patience of the saints.” What is patience? It is not insensibility. Some people are lauded for their patience who should be denounced for their stoicism and indifference. Patience implies at least two things.
(1) The existence of trials. Patience lives only in difficulty and danger, in storms and tempests.
(2) The highest mental power. Man’s highest power of mind is seen not in unsurpassed mechanical inventions, or the sublimest productions of art, not in the most baffling and confounding strategies of bloody war, but in the successful effort to govern all the impulses and master all the boisterous passions of the human soul. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever.--
I. We affirm there is a hell; punishments finite in degree, but infinite in duration.
1. Scripture gives no countenance to this absurd opinion, that the wicked shall have no part in resurrection and judgment (Rom 3:4-5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12-13; Revelation 20:15; John 5:28-29).
2. Scripture clearly affirms that the punishment of the damned shall not consist of annihilation, but of real and sensible pain (Matthew 26:24; Matthew 11:24). Scripture-images of hell, which are many, will not allow us to confine future punishment to annihilation. It is a worm, a fire, a darkness; they are chains--weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
3. It appears by Scripture that future punishment will be eternal (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:44; Matthew 18:8; Revelation 20:10).
II. If the doctrine of eternal punishment imply a contradiction, it must either regard man, the sufferer of the pain, or God, who threatens to inflict it.
1. The nature of man hath nothing incongruous with that degree and duration of punishment of which we speak.
2. Let us attend now to objections taken from the nature of God. A man, who opposeth our doctrine, reasons in this manner. Which way soever I consider a Being supremely perfect, I cannot persuade myself that He will expose His creatures to eternal torments. All His perfections secure me from such terrors as this doctrine seems to inspire. In short, when I consider God under the idea of an equitable legislator, I cannot comprehend how sins committed in a finite period can deserve an infinite punishment.
(1) Observe this general truth. It is not probable God would threaten mankind with a punishment, the infliction of which would be incompatible with His perfections.
(2) Take each part of the objection drawn from the attributes of God, and said to destroy our doctrine, and consider it separately. The argument taken from the liberty of God would carry us from error to error, and from one absurdity to another. For, if God be free to relax any part of the punishment denounced, He is equally free to relax the whole. The difficulty taken from the goodness of God vanisheth when we rectify popular notions of this excellence of the Divine nature. Goodness in men is a virtue of constitution which makes them suffer when they see their fellow creatures in misery, and which excites them to relieve them. In God it is a perfection independent in its origin, free in its execution, and always restrained by laws of inviolable equity and exact severity. Justice is not incompatible with eternal punishment. It is not to be granted that a sin committed in a limited time ought not to be punished through an infinite duration. It is not the length of time employed in committing a crime that determines the degree and the duration of its punishment, it is the turpitude and atrociousness of it. The justice of God, far from opposing the punishment of the impenitent, requires it. Were we to examine in this manner each part of the objection opposed against our doctrine, we should open a second source of solutions to answer it.
(3) The doctrine of degrees of punishment affords us a third. There is an extreme difference between a heathen and a Jew; there is an extreme distance between a Jew and a Christian; and a greater still between a Christian and a heathen. The gospel-rule is, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Take this principle which Scripture establisheth in the clearest manner; press home all its consequences; extend it as far as it can be carried; give scope even to your imagination till the punishments which such and such persons suffer in hell are reduced to a degree that may serve to solve the difficulty of the doctrine of their eternity; whatever system ye adopt on this article, I will even venture to say whatever difficulty ye may meet with in following it, it will be always more reasonable, I think, to make of one doctrine clearly revealed a clue to guide through the difficulties of another doctrine clearly revealed too, than rashly to deny the formal decisions of Scripture. I mean to say, it would be more rational to stretch the doctrine of degrees too far, if I may venture to speak so, than to deny that of their eternity.
(4) The fourth source of solutions is a maxim from which a divine ought never to depart, and which we wish particularly to inculcate among those who extend the operations of reason too far in matters of religion. Our maxim is this. We know, indeed, in general, what are the attributes of God, but we are extremely ignorant of their sphere, we cannot determine how far they extend. We know, in general, God is free, He is just, He is merciful. But we are too ignorant to determine how far these perfections must go, because the infinity of them absorbs the capacity of our minds. Apply this to our subject. The idea of hell seems to you repugnant to the attributes of God, you cannot comprehend how a just God can punish finite sins with infinite pain; how a merciful God can abandon His creature to eternal miseries. Your difficulties have some probability, I grant. Your reasons, I allow, seem well grounded. But dost thou remember the attributes of God are infinite? Remember, thy knowledge is finite. You think future punishment inconsistent with the attributes of God, but your notion of inconsistence ought to vanish at the appearance of Scripture-light.
III. Observe the quality and the duration of the punishments of hell.
1. The quality of the punishments of hell is expressed in these terms--smoke, torment. These metaphorical terms include five ideas. Privation of heavenly happiness, sensation of pain, remorse of conscience, horror of society, increase of crime.
2. It remains only that we consider the length and duration of them. But by what means shall we describe these profound articles of contemplation? Can we number the innumerable and measure that which is beyond all mensuration? Can we make you comprehend the incomprehensible? And shall we amuse you with our imaginations? (J. Saurin.)
Here is the patience of the saints.
Patient waiting upon God
The duty, necessity, and good effects of patience are often set forth in the Word of God. This is the more remarkable, because, by the wisdom of the world, patience, unless accompanied by selfish cunning, or a proud contempt of others, is regarded rather as a weakness than a virtue. Evangelical or spiritual patience is not mere resignation to the ills of life and the dispensations of providence, nor mere perseverance in the path of duty, although neither of these can really exist without it. It is something more than either, or than both combined, that is described in Scripture as the characteristic patience of the saints, or, as it is frequently expressed, their patient waiting upon God. In those parts of Scripture where the duty of waiting upon God is enforced, the idea of serving Him is certainly implied, but the primary meaning of the phrase is that of waiting for, expecting God, His presence, His favour, the fulfilment of His promises, as well as the utterance of His commands. This patient waiting upon God is represented not only as acceptable to Him, and as a source of good in general, but of specific benefits, without which spiritual life can never flourish, if it can exist. For example, it is represented as a source of strength, that is, spiritual strength, the power of performance, and endurance, and resistance; of withstanding evil, and of doing good (Isaiah 40:31). So far from warning us against excess in the employment of this means for the recruiting of our spiritual strength, the Scripture points it out as the highway to perfection (James 1:4). It is presented, likewise, as the only security against the disappointment and frustration of our strongest confidence and highest trust. Is it then a mere inert quiescence, a stagnation of the soul, without affection or activity, that God’s Word sets before us, as a duty, as a necessary source of strength, and as the highway to perfection? Such a conclusion is well suited to the tendency of human nature to extremes; but if it were correct the apostle could never have used such a combination (Hebrews 6:12). The patience that is heir to the promises of God is therefore not a mere negation, not a stagnant patience, not a slothful patience. It is urged on to action by a potent principle, the love of God, without which patient waiting, in the true sense, is impossible (2 Thessalonians 3:5). But this Divine love may itself be personated by a mere inert affection, or by a corrupt one, which refuses to be subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. He has therefore taught us that obedience to His will is an essential characteristic of true patience. “Wait on the Lord,” and “keep His way,” that is, walk in the way of His commandments, are inseparable precepts, forming, not severally, but together, the condition of the promise, “He shall exalt thee to inherit the land” (Psalms 37:34). They for whom glory, and honour, and immortality, and eternal life are reserved, are they who seek it, not simply by patient continuance, but “by patient continuance in well doing” (Romans 2:7). “Ye have need of patience, that after ye have done the will of God, ye may inherit the promise” (Hebrews 10:36). The patience of the saints, then, is neither an inactive nor a lawless patience, but a loving and obedient patience. It is through faith and patience, a patient trust and a believing patience, that the saints in glory have inherited the promises. From such a faith hope is inseparable. He who would not be slothful, but a follower of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises, must do so by” showing diligence” in every duty “to the full assurance of hope unto the end” (Hebrews 6:11). The faith and hope which are thus represented as essential to the patience of the saints, are not merely a vague trust and expectation, founded upon no sufficient reason, or simply on the attributes of God, or His promises in general, without regard to the restrictions and conditions by which they are accompanied, but a specific trust and expectation, having a definite object, reason, and foundation. We have seen already that the exercise of Christian patience is described in Scripture as a patient waiting, not for something unknown, not for evil, not for good in the general, but for God. “Blessed are all they that wait for Him “ (Isaiah 30:18). It might be asked how or why should men wait for or expect the Lord? He will be for ever what He is. He will be for ever, as He is now, intimately present to His creatures. But the definite object of the true believer’s patient expectation is the manifestation of God’s mercy in His own salvation, in His complete and final deliverance from suffering and from sin. “Wait on the Lord, and He will save thee” (Proverbs 20:22). “It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.” But even here, the expectation of the Christian might be too vague to secure the exercise of genuine patience. He might look to God for salvation, but without understanding how it was to be procured, or how it could be reconciled with the Divine justice. While this doubt or ignorance existed, he could hardly rest with implicit trust even on God’s mercy, and could not therefore be expected to possess his soul in patience. The only remedy for this uneasiness and restlessness of spirit is a just apprehension, not only of God’s nature as a merciful Being, but of the precise way in which His mercy can and will be exercised, in which He can be just and yet justify the ungodly. In other words, the soul must not only see God as He is in Himself, but see Him in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and not imputing their trespasses unto them, but imputing them to Christ; making Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. The man whose hope is fixed, not on abstractions or on generalities, not even on the attributes of God, as such, nor on His promises at large, but on the positive, distinct, specific promise of justification and salvation even to the chief of sinners, who renounces his own righteousness and submits to the righteousness of God, by a simple trust in the righteousness of Christ, that man may indeed be said to “wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Galatians 5:5). The attitude of that soul is indeed one of waiting, of patient waiting, of patient waiting for God, of patient waiting for the salvation of the Lord, of “love to God and patient waiting for Christ.” (J. A. Alexander, D. D.)
The triumphs of patience
I. God has always a people for His name; He owns them to be saints; and they are often found where we should little expect to find them. They are called holy for two reasons.
1. The first is taken from their dedication God.
2. The second is derived from their personal renovation. The instruments under the law were only holy by appropriation. No change passed upon them. It is otherwise with us; we must be “made meet for the” great “Master’s use.” Hence regeneration is necessary.
II. On the connection there is between saints and patience.
1. Saints only have patience. A man may endure, and not be patient; there may be no religious principle or motive to influence him; it may be a careless indolence; a stupid insensibility; a kind of mechanical or constitutional fortitude; a daring stoutness of spirit resulting from fatalism, philosophy, or pride. Christian patience is another thing; it is derived from a Divine agency; it is nourished by heavenly truth; it is guided by Scriptural rules.
2. Every saint possesses patience. They do not indeed possess it in equal degrees. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit; it is an essential part of the Divine image restored in man.
3. It highly becomes saints to cultivate patience. “The ornament of a meek and quiet spirit is in the sight of God of great price.” It ennobles the possessor. It recommends his religion. It carries along with it a peculiar conviction.
III. Some cases in which the patience of the saints is to be rendered illustrious and striking.
1. It is to be displayed in bearing provocation. “It must needs be that offences will come.” Our opinions, reputations, connections, offices, businesses, render us widely vulnerable.
(1) His peace requires it. People love to sting the passionate.
(2) His wisdom requires it. “He that is slow to anger is of great understanding; but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly. Anger resteth in the bosom of fools.”
(3) His dignity requires it. “It is the glory of a man to pass by a transgression.”
(4) It is also required by examples the most worthy of our imitation.
2. Patience is to be displayed in suffering affliction.
3. Patience is to be exercised under delays. (W. Jay.)
The faith of Jesus--
The faith of Jesus
Those words ought to describe the Church of Christ at all times. Three characteristics: patience--“waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; “keeping the commandments of God”--holiness of living; “keeping the faith of Jesus “that of which St. Paul speaks at the end of his troubled life. Now, what is meant by “the faith,” “the faith of Jesus”? Is it not just this? The twelve apostles, whom Jesus gathered round Himself, watched His life, heard His words, weighed His claims, until at last, when He put the great question to them, “Whom say ye that I am?” one of them, speaking for the rest, was able to say, “Thou art the Christ,” etc. That was a formulated declaration of faith in regard to the Person of Jesus Christ. It was the first Christian creed, and He declared, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.” The faith of Jesus, then, being a definite thing, capable of and necessitating accurate definition in terms, it was obviously essential that there should be some short, comprehensive formula, which could be thus used at the baptism of converts. Undoubtedly some such form or forms did exist even before the books of the New Testament were written. In St. Paul’s Epistles there are distinct allusions to these. “The form of sound words” which he bids Timothy “hold fast,” is certainly some definite formula in use; and the “deposit” (“that committed to thee” it is rendered in our translation) which he bids Timothy to keep, is clearly the same thing. To us Anglican Churchmen that “Rule of Faith” is the Apostles’ Creed. One or two things, then, I may surely say to those whose entire Christian position rests upon this faith of Jesus, and upon this early form of confessing it.
1. You will, of course, thoroughly understand it--the Apostles’ Creed. You will take pains to do so.
(1) You will know, then, its history, I mean the history of its actual form.
(2) And, again, we should understand the substance of the creed. It is, indeed, little else than the gospel narrative thrown into a short form.
2. And, secondly, having this creed, pledged as we are to this creed, we should know not only its history, and its meaning, but we should know its value. It is, indeed, a most precious heritage. I might remind you of Mr. Keble’s words, “Next to a sound rule of faith, there is nothing of so much consequence as a sober standard of feeling in practical religion, and it is the peculiar happiness of the Church of England to possess in her authorised formularies an ample and secure provision for both.”
3. Last of all, we must regard our Christian creed as final. It is “the faith of Jesus,” “the faith once delivered to the saints.” It is the perpetual reiteration of St. Peter’s early creed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and it must hold good for all time, till He shall come again “who is the faithful Witness and the First-begotten of the dead.” “Here,” around this creed of His universal Church, this creed which you and I profess,--“here is the patience of the saints; here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” (Canon Gough.)
Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.
A glance into the world to come
Why are those happy that die in the Lord? Two reasons: “They rest from their labours,” and “their works follow them.” “They rest.” That is, doubtless, a happiness which is something negative, but which is none the less of great value. Who does not know by experience what sweetness there is in rest coming after fatigue? The present life is every moment a fatigue, from which death is an eternal rest; rest from labour, rest from sufferings, rest from sin. But the happiness of those who have died in the Lord is not merely negative. They are not only freed from the fatigues and the trials of life, they enjoy a boundless felicity. That is what the Holy Spirit declares in our text, when it is said that “their works follow them.” There exists a close connection between the present life and the life to come; the latter is, as it were, the continuation and the accomplishment of the former; the character of the life to come is determined in the case of each one by that of his present life. His faith bears its fruits in that other life, and it is changed into sight; he contemplates and he touches what he had believed. Here below, he saw the truth confusedly, and as through an obscure medium; but, sustained by faith, he advanced in peace in the midst of the perplexities of life; he waited with patience the great day of revelations; he accepted as good and full of love dispensations which he understood not. And now, to recompense his faith, he sees face to face; every veil is removed, all obscurities dissipated. To his view, which is illuminated from on high, the whole of the magnificent plan of God towards the world is all unfolded, and everywhere he discovers wonders of wisdom and of love. The most unsearchable, the most painful dispensations of the present life appear to him in the life to come the wisest and most paternal; and who can tell the transports of admiration and of holy joy into which that revelation of the ways of God casts him! His submission to the Divine will follows him equally after death; it bears its fruit in the life to come, and it is changed into happiness. It is very little to say that he is for ever delivered from the trials of every kind; these trials give place not only to rest, but to unspeakable enjoyments. We have said how the works of the people of God become after their death elements of their felicity; but there is yet another sense in which it can be said that these works follow them in the eternal life. Their works still follow them in this sense, that they continue in heaven that life of devotedness to the Saviour, and of activity for His service, which they commenced on earth. The happiness of heaven will not be a barren inaction; it will be an essentially active happiness. They will take part, in a manner which we cannot picture here below, in the work of God and in the government of the universe; perhaps each of them will have, as here below, special aptitudes, which God will make the most of, by assigning to each of them particular occupations in harmony with these aptitudes. In order to be able to apply the promises of my text, we must therefore die in the Lord.
1. To die in the Lord is, in the first place, to die in the faith of the Lard; it is to renounce all hope of salvation founded on ourselves, on our works, on our pretended merits, and to cause our hopes to rest only on the merits of Christ, on the atonement accomplished by His blood.
2. To die in the Lord is also to die in the love of the Lord; it is to love Him Who loved us first, and that unto the Cross; it is to feel ourselves drawn to Him by an intimate and powerful affection; it is, when dying, to be able to say with St. Paul; “I have a desire to depart, and be with Christ, which is far better.”
3. To die in the Lord is once more to die in obedience to the Lord. It is to die after having lived here below in imitation of Jesus Christ; after having purified ourselves as He also is pure; it is to have lived, I do not say in a state of perfect holiness, but at least in the constant desire of holiness, making continual efforts to reach it, and approaching it more and more.
4. In fine, and to say all in one single word, to die in the Lord is to die in communion with the Lord; it is to die, after having lived, dead to the world and to sin, with a life “hid with Christ in God.” (H. Monod.)
A voice from heaven
I. The character.
1. “Here is the patience of the saints.” To be blessed when we die we must be saints. By nature we are sinners, and by grace we must become saints if we would enter heaven. Since death does not change character, we must be made saints here below if we are to be saints above. The word “saint” denotes not merely the pure in character, but those who are set apart unto God, dedicated ones, sanctified by being devoted to holy uses--by being, in fact, consecrated to God alone. Do you belong to God? Do you live to glorify Jesus? “But how am I to attain to holiness?” You cannot rise to it save by Divine strength. The Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier.
2. But the glorified are also described in our text as patient ones. “Here is the patience of the saints,” or, if you choose to render it differently, you may lawfully do so--“Here is the endurance of the saints.” Those who are to be crowned in heaven must bear the cross on earth. Ii we are to win the glory we must be faithful unto death. “Here is the patience of the saints”; it cometh not by nature; it is the gift of the grace of God.
3. Farther on these saints are described as “they that keep the commandments of God.”
4. The next mark of the blessed dead is that they kept “the faith of Jesus.” Do not waver in your belief, but keep the faith, lest ye be like some in old time, who “made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience,” and were utterly cast away.
5. Notice that these people continue faithful till they die. For it is said, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” Final perseverance is the crown of the Christian life.
6. Those who thus entered into rest exercised themselves in labours for Christ. For it is said, “They rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.” The idle Christian can have little hope of a reward.
7. To close this description of character, these people who die in the Lord were in the Lord. That is the great point. They could not have died in the Lord if they had not lived in the Lord. But are we in the Lord? Is the Lord by faith in us?
II. The blessedness which is ascribed to those who dis in the Lord. “They rest from their labours.”
1. By this is meant that the saints in heaven rest from such labours as they performed here. There we shall not teach the ignorant, or rebuke the erring, or comfort the desponding, or help the needy. There we cannot oppose the teacher of error, or do battle against the tempter of youth.
2. They rest from their labours in the sense that they are no longer subject to the toil of labour. Whatever they do in heaven will yield them refreshment, and never cause them weariness. As some birds are said to rest upon the wing, so do the saints find in holy activity their serenest repose.
3. They rest also from the woe of labour, for I find the word has been read by some “they rest from their wailing.”
4. To the servant of the Lord it is very sweet to think that when we reach our heavenly home we shall rest from the faults of our labours. We shall make no mistakes there, never use too strong language or mistaken words, nor err in spirit, nor fail through excess or want of zeal. We shall rest from all that which grieves us in the retrospect of our service.
5. We shall there rest from the discouragements of our labour. There no cold-hearted brethren will damp our ardour, or accuse us of evil motives; no desponding brethren will warn us that we are rash when our faith is strong, and obstinate when our confidence is firm.
6. It will be a sweet thing to get away to heaven, I am sure, to rest from all contentions amongst our fellow Christians.
III. The reward of the blessed dead. “They rest from labours, and their works do follow them.” They do not go before them; they have a forerunner infinitely superior to their works, for Jesus and His finished work have led the way. Jesus goes before, works follow after. Note well, that the works are in existence and are mentioned; immortality and honour belong to them. No desire for another’s good is wasted, God has heard it. A word spoken for Jesus, a mite cast into Christ’s treasury, a gracious line written to a friend--all these are things which shall last when yonder sun has blackened into a coal. Deeds done in the power of the Spirit are eternal. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A letter from heaven
It is a brief letter, with only five lines, but each one most sweet.
I. The first line: that the union between god and his people continues through death--“die in the Lord.” When a ship enters the harbour, after the long and stormy voyage, the captain pays off the crew. If they wish to go on that ship again, they must reship. But the godly have signed articles to die. The Lord does not pay them off when they are going to die--they die in His employ. They die in the service, beneath the care and look of the Master; and He will have His people to die aright.
II. The second line: that the saints after death go to rest. It is impossible to rest and to make progress; one of the two can alone be had here. I have seen a tired traveller mounted on a milestone--to rest, apparently. He looked weary, and his parcel lay at the foot of the milestone. I do not know how long he had been there, but I know that whenever he started he had nine miles to go to the next town--it was that on the milestone. But yonder they rest--not from work, but from labour. They grow, and yet they rest; they rest, and yet grow. “They shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
III. The third line: that the works of the saints follow them. Many work on materials that cannot follow them to eternity. The artist for months works on the canvas: he dies, and leaves the portrait behind him. The sculptor works on the marble for years: dies, and leaves the sculpture behind. But the good man works on a material that will bear transferring to the other world without receiving any damage. He draws beautiful lines--draws them upon his own soul, upon himself. He has sought the best material to work on, that will last when the rocks melt. And their work in others will remain; it is cut deep enough, so that it shall be visible in the judgment. Many work upon objects which they will leave behind. True, that the lands must be tilled, and minerals raised, and iron wrought; but it is not as a farmer, or miner, or carpenter, or astronomer, or geologist, that any man passed into eternity.
IV. The fourth line: that the state of the saints after death is a state of bliss. What kind of a country would you like to emigrate” into?
1. A pleasant, country, with beautiful landscapes? Such is heaven--an “inheritance in the light.”
2. A plentiful country, without scarcity or want, never lacking any good thing? Such is heaven--“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.”
3. A healthy country? So is heaven--“The inhabitant shall not say, I am sick. Sorrow and mourning shall flee away.”
V. The fifth line: that it is to continue so. “From henceforth.” Parents have often received a letter from their children in America or Australia; but they will still say that they are expecting the mail every day, to hear again. Why? Because the country is changeable. Though all was well when the last letter was sent, things may have changed. But as to heaven, a single letter is as good as if you had one every day. There it is always the came--“from henceforth.” (D. Roberts, D. D.)
Heaven’s description of the sainted dead
I. Heaven’s description of the character of the sainted dead. They “die in the Lord.” Their character was that of vital union with Christ. This union may include two things--
1. Their existence in His affections. Christ’s disciples live in Him; they are in His heart; He thinks upon them; He plans for them; He works for them; He causes all things to work together for their good.
2. Their existence in His character. Without figure, we live in the character of those we admire and love. Arnold’s most loyal pupils live in his character now. We see their old master in their books, and hear him in their sermons. Christ is the grand object of their love, and the chief subject of their thought, and to please Him was the grand purpose of their life.
II. Heaven’s description of the condition of the sainted dead.
1. Their blessedness is in rest from all trying labour. Not rest from work, for work is the condition of blessedness; but from all trying labour, all anxious toil, all wearying, annoying, irritating, fruitless toll.
(1) Rest from all trying labour pertaining to our physical subsistence.
(2) Rest from all trying labour pertaining to intellectual culture. How much trying labour is there here to train our faculties, and to get knowledge.
(3) Rest from all trying labour pertaining to our spiritual cultivation.
(4) Rest from all trying labour to benefit our fellow-men. To do good here is a trying work. Not so yonder.
2. Their blessedness is in the influence of their works. No one act truly done for Christ, and in His spirit, will be lost.
3. Their blessedness begins immediately after death. “From henceforth.” Not from the waking of thy soul into consciousness after the sleep of centuries; not from the extinction of purgatorial fires--but from death. “To-day shalt thou be with Me.”
4. Their blessedness is vouched by the Spirit of God. He who knows the present and future; He who hears the last sigh of every saint on earth, and his first note of triumph. The Spirit saith it. Let us believe it with an unquestioning faith. The Spirit saith it: let us adore Him for His revelation. (Homilist.)
The blessedness of the dead in Christ
I. Our first question, then, is--“How is this heavenly blessedness attested?” We all profess to believe in heaven. How do we know that there is such a place and such a state? If we cannot give a good answer, the Apostle John could. “Write, blessed are the dead which die in the Lord!” “Mere enthusiasm!” you say, “the wish was father to the thought. He only dreamt in that lonely isle, and turned the vision into a reality!” A strange delusion surely that could give visions, so coherent, so far-reaching, so sublime! Could he have written all this, even had he wished it, without inspiration from God? And consider what had gone before in the history of the apostle. He had lived amidst wonders, which he could not but believe, and of which he had been a great part himself. He had kept company with One who professed to come down from heaven, and who had opened His mouth to describe it. Had we lived all that this Galilean fisherman lived through, should we have doubted? But this testimony, thus of an outward kind, has next an inward voucher to its own authenticity. It bears the stamp of the heaven, whence it professes to come. It is, you say, only a dream. Did ever mortal man, outside of the Word of God, dream thus of the heavenly blessedness? Here is not the Greek or Roman heaven, such as we have in its brightest form in the sixth book of the AEneid of Virgil; for this is a heaven of eating and drinking, of running and wrestling, of expatiating in green fields, and basking in the sunshine. This is not the old Scandinavian or Teutonic heaven of eternal battles and immortal drunkenness. Here is not the Mohammedan heaven of feasting and sensual pleasure. Now, we see what kind of a heaven is congenial to men’s natural fancy, and how different the heaven of the Bible would have been, had it been the creation of man. Here is a heaven of holiness and purity; of likeness to God, and fellowship with Christ, of eternal contemplation, worship, and praise! Did this dream, then, come out of the human mind and heart? Nor is this all the evidence that we have for the existence of heaven. The Spirit says, “Yea!” in a manner, if possible, more emphatic. It is not only in books that we read of heaven, even in that Book, which is above all. There is a testimony in living Epistles, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. This is our third evidence of there being a heavenly world, what may be called the evidence from Christian character. Had you been in company with the Apostle John, you would have said, Here is heaven begun! Suppose that this man still somewhere survive, and that there are others of the like character, who equally outlast the stroke of death, and meet in the same region, where they can reveal their character to each other, would there not be already many of the elements of heaven? And to crown all, let us suppose that it is the region whither Christ in soul and body is gone; and what would be wanting to make heaven essentially complete? As coals when thrown together and kindled make a fire, so must saints after death, in all the warmth of their love, when together with each other and with their Lord, awake the blessedness of heaven. We see the prophecy of this, in the renewed character and happy intercourse of Christians in the Church below. Let these then be reasons to us for the existence of this “land of pure delight”; and whoever may neglect it, whoever may discredit it, let us not be disobedient to the heavenly vision, but labour to enter into this rest!
II. This leads now to our second topic, raised by the second question--“how is this heavenly blessedness gained?” It clearly lays down two things as needful to the inheritance of the skies. The one is faith; and the other is holy obedience.
1. Faith, then, is needful to give a title to the heavenly blessedness: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” Faith is necessary to secure union to the Lord. Men simply as men are not savingly united to the Lord; and therefore cannot die blessed in Him. This is a connection that needs to be acquired; and to those to whom the gospel comes, it is acquired by faith in Christ (John 1:12; Galatians 3:26; Romans 8:1; John 8:24; John 14:5; 1 Corinthians 1:30).
2. The second point as to the means by which the heavenly blessedness is gained is the necessity of holy obedience. Beautifully has it been said, that the good works of Christians do not go before them to open heaven, but they must follow after, to make it a place of blessedness; for the spirit of heaven is the spirit that brings forth good works below; and thus “without holiness, no man shall see the Lord.”
III. We now come to our third question--how is this heavenly blessedness to be enjoyed? The answer is, “They rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.”
1. There is, first, the rest of the worker. It is not sloth, torpor, or inactivity. God forbid. That would be no heaven to an Elijah, a Paul, a Luther, a Wesley, and many more. But it is rest; rest the most pure, refreshing, and exalted. Who that knows anything of Christian labour in its highest forms--the labour of the Christian parent, who travails as in birth till Christ be formed in the hearts of all His children; the labour of the teacher, who regards the welfare of the soul as inseparable from the growth of the mind, but will appreciate this delightful and soul-soothing prospect of rest! No more out amidst the billows, toiling in rowing for that the wind is contrary, but at last in smooth water, and with the ripple breaking on the shore! No more down in the mine, with the hard and painful routine of grimy toil amidst darkness, and fire-damp, and rocky hindrances at every turn, but aloft in the pure air, the soiled raiment laid aside for the Sabbath dress, and the song and melody of the sanctuary filling each weary sense! The rest spoken of in this text is a “Sabbatism”; the keeping of an endless Sabbath, with its holy calm for ever unbroken, as fresh as when, in its virgin beauty, it first dawned upon the emancipated spirit, recalling Eden with its dews and flowers, but without trail of the serpent upon them, since for the redeemed all the sanctities of that higher paradise are over-arched and guarded by the “rainbow round about the throne in sight like unto an emerald,”
2. But the second element of blessedness, and one which in the case of the Christian worker, is more positive, is the continued influence of the work. “Their works do follow them.” It is delightful to think of the perpetuity of all goodness. It is not too much to say that a truly good action, an action done from true love to it, and from a regard to the will and glory of God in it, lasts for ever. You are tempted to give an angry look. The memory of Christ restrains you; and you give a kind and loving one; and that glance--though sent forth in a moment of time, will be fixed as in a picture to all eternity. Nor are these influences for good that we have all received only to be traced back to persons of position and prominence in the true Church of God. The humblest have wrought with them. The history of the Church in regard to the influence of its members can only be written in the world of immortality; and what secrets of domestic, of congregational, and even of world-wide Christian import shall then be unveiled, where there is no fear of jealousy or misunderstanding being aroused, or of sensitive delicacy being offended. Much of the blessedness of heaven will arise from these disclosures, and from the endless bonds which they shall seal! In the light of these undying soul-relationships the labour of the way shall be forgotten. Such is the perpetuity of moral influence, and of its final disclosure, for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed, nor hid that shall not be known! And with all the other following of the good works of the righteous, let us not forget its influence upon themselves; for what are we but what our works make us? What on earth or what in heaven? We live in the atmosphere of our own actions, and if we have lived to God and to Christ, the work tells upon ourselves, more than upon all besides; and the spirit that prompted it is in us a well of water springing up into everlasting life! If these things be so, let us not mourn the dead that “die in the Lord.” Shall we mourn rest, freedom, blessedness? How can any of us be satisfied till we seek and obtain, through union to Christ, the comfortable hope that we are in the Lord, and that through His grace, our works, with all their failures and shortcomings, are so wrought in Him as to leave a memorial of the right kind behind! (John Cairns, D. D.)
The blessedness of dying in the Lord
I. Consider what we may understand by dying in the Lord.
1. Dying in the righteousness of Christ. By dying in His righteousness, understand dying interested in that atonement, which our Lord Jesus Christ has made for all such as believe upon Him.
2. Dying in the image of Christ. We are also to bear a resemblance to Him, and to be conformed to Him as our holy example.
3. Dying in union with Christ.
II. The blessedness of such as die in the Lord.
1. They are blessed in a freedom from troubles and sorrows.
2. They are blessed in their enjoyment of positive glory and happiness. (T. Gibbons, D. D.)
The Christian’s death
I. Death is a curse. My text, no doubt, says, “Blessed are the dead,” still death is a curse. The lower creatures die, but with how little pain I in what happy ignorance! Death springs on them with a tiger’s leap. The coming event casts no shadow before. I have seen a lamb go gambolling on its way to the slaughter-house cropping the wayside flowers. The bravest men are afraid of death; and true bravery lies not in insensibility to its terrors, but in facing what we fear. It is an easy thing for a soldier, amid the whirl and excitement of a battle-field, to dash on the serried bayonets; but show me the man, unless a true, lofty, strong-minded Christian, who will, calmly and undauntedly, meet his dying hour. Ah! this fate, from which nature shrinks with instinctive horror, tries the courage of the bravest, and the piety of the best of men. Separate and apart from the consolations of Christian faith, death is a tremendous evil. Nature shrinks from it, shuddering. I do not like to think of being a cold, pale, inanimate form of clay, unconscious of the love and grief of all around me; screwed down into a narrow coffin. Nor is that all; the grave is the land of oblivion; and who does not shrink from the thought of being forgotten? Besides these sad imaginings, the sufferings that usually attend the close of life and gather like heavy clouds around its setting sun, make death a curse.
II. Death is a blessing. How true these words--“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord!” A union that, more intimate than marriage which unfaithfulness in either party dissolves; a union that, more intimate than the connection between body and soul which a slight accident may endanger, which an ounce of lead, an inch of steel, a drop of poison, a wrong step, the hand of a child may dissolve; a union that, more intimate than binds together those sections of the Church which, though differing, co-operate. The union which is formed between Christ and His people being one of incorporation, and not one merely of co-operation, what the one is, the other is; and where the one is, the other is; and as the one feels, the other feels; and as our bodies and their limbs have blood in common, or the branches and trunk of a tree have sap in common, so Jesus and His people have all things in common. To be in Christ, therefore, to be in the Lord, implies that we shall infallibly enjoy all the blessings, temporal, spiritual, and eternal, which He shed His blood to purchase; these being secured to us by the great oath of God, and the bonds of a covenant which is well ordered in all things and sure. With Christ we shall be crowned, and throned in glory. Well then may the apostle say, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”! They must be blessed. How can it be otherwise? “Die!” No doubt they must die; but death has lost its sting; and it does not matter when, or how, or where they die. Think of it, therefore, not as death, but as glory--going to heaven, and to your Father. It is life through Christ, and life in Christ; life most blissful, and life evermore.
III. Death is a blessing as introducing us into a state of rest.
1. At death the believer rests from the toils of life.
2. At death the believer rests from the cares of life. Next to sin, these form life’s heaviest burden. There will be nothing in the household above to withdraw Martha from sitting with her sister at Jesus’ feet--there Jacob mourns no Joseph, and David weeps no Absalom; the pious widow dreads no empty barrel; Lazarus fears no rich man’s frown, nor courts his favour.
3. At death the believer rests from the griefs of life. (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
The blessed dead
I. The dead that die in the Lord.
II. Wherein are they blessed who die in the Lord?
1. Death is birth to the believer, and birth is ever blessed.
2. Born out of a life which is a long pain to a life which is a long bliss.
3. They pass out of relations and fellowships which are ever changing, to those which abide and enlarge their ministries through eternity.
4. Blessed are they, for they are for ever beyond the reach of all that may imperil the prize. (J. B. Brown, B. A.)
Blessedness in death
I. The impressive mode of communication.
1. Heaven never speaks on trifling occasions, or upon matters of indifference. Its utterances are always solemn and weighty. They apprise of danger; they caution us against sin; they counsel us in difficulty; they point us to duty; they cheer us in sorrow; they embolden us in the conflict. Yet, of all its revelations, none can be of such transcendent moment as those which respect the eternal state of the dead.
2. Heaven never speaks but in words of truth and soberness. No possibility of error, no thought of deception. Truth reigns in heaven.
3. Heaven never speaks but with authority. Whether God speaks in His own person, or through the medium of an angelic ministry, it is plainly the duty of man to listen with reverential and obedient attention.
4. These several suggestions receive additional force from the command given to the prophet, saying, “Write”; which further implies the abiding and unchangeable operation of this truth to the end of time. It is as if the voice had said, Write, that it be not forgotten. Write, that generations yet to come, and nations yet unborn, may read, and derive therefrom incentives to faith and holiness--lessons of triumph over mortality and death.
II. The great subject of proclamation. “Blessed are the dead.” How widely opposed is the verdict of man! Blessed rather are the living, around whom life throws its treasures of enjoyment and hopes--“yea, a living dog is better then a dead lion.” Death, to the eye of natural sense, is ever shrouded with gloom and sorrow. The gospel of life and immortality creates a difference; and, in the eyes of all who believe and obey the truth, arrays even this, the gloomiest dispensation of Divine providence, in colours of light and loveliness. A vital union with Him, the well-spring of life and happiness, secures them the uninterrupted flow of blessing through every changeful vicissitude of mortality. Death itself may not turn the stream, or prohibit its flow. The very sepulchre feels its fertilising influence, and they pluck flowers of hope and immortality from the margin of the grave.
III. The divine confirmation. “Yea, saith the Spirit.” Why this solemn and impressive asseveration? Does the voice from heaven require a voucher, that the Spirit of truth Himself should appear as witness? Is there need of further testimony? Assuredly not. Yet, in a matter of such passing interest, that our faith may be stedfast and settled, God condescends to supply it. The Spirit witnesses with the voice of blood, and every doubt must vanish. This testimony is given in His Holy Word, which everywhere corroborates the doctrine of the text. This testimony is further given in the believer’s heart. There, with still small voice, that Holy One doth sweetly and delightfully repeat the echoes of His written word; for “he that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself,” attesting and confirming whatsoever hath been written aforetime for our comfort and edification. Divine arguments are added for the fuller confirmation of our faith. The Spirit’s voice is not a delusion, but an appeal to the understanding and judgment. “They rest from their labours.” As the toilworn labourer retires from the busy and fatiguing occupations of the day, to seek his evening’s repose, so the Christian believer relinquishes life for the rest of paradise. More than this. “Their works do follow them.” When the rich man dieth, he shall carry nothing away, but leave his wealth to others. The great must relinquish their honours and distinctions; the wise and ingenious, the fruit of their labours. Nothing of all their pride and possessions may be transported beyond the grave; for their glory shall not descend after them. But these reap the reward of their own doings. No heir steps in to supersede the original owner, and enjoy his possession. As a glorious retinue, their works of piety and mercy grace their progress to the skies, and accompany them even to the very throne; yet not to plead their merits, but justify their faith; not to claim acquittal from the accusations of the law, but an interest in the promises of the gospel. They demonstrate a life of faith in the Son of God, and must therefore secure His approbation, as their author, their end. (John Lyth.)
The blessedness of them that die in Christ
I. What it is to die in the Lord, and who may be said to do so.
1. What is supposed to be necessary to it, as to their state, whilst they live. And here it is plain, they that die in the Lord must first live in Him. That is, as to the principle of their life, they must be quickened and made alive by Him: As to the work of their life, they must walk after Him: As to the scope of their life, they must live to Him.
2. That this includes, as to their temper, when they come to die. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”; that is, that die--
(1) In submission to His will; He having the fullest right to dispose of them as He pleases.
(2) In a dependence upon Him, for life and immortality after death, as what He hath purchased and promised, and will assuredly bring His people to.
(3) Dying in the Lord includes a sincere desire to be with Him, as far better than to be here.
II. That henceforth believers are blessed indeed.
III. Consider their blessedness.
IV. For what reason it is so solemnly proclaimed by a voice from heaven, and ordered to be recorded, that the dead are blessed that die in the Lord.
1. To let it be known in this world how it fares with the friends of Jesus in another.
2. To assure believers that death is no bar to their happiness, but the sure, though awful way to it.
3. To leave it on record to the end of time, and assure those that live in every age, that here is not their rest. (D. Wilcox.)
The blessedness of dying in the Lord
I. The introduction. “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write.”
1. We here see the truth of the subsequent announcement. The doctrine to be taught is not of human origin. It is neither a dictate of man’s imagination, nor an effusion of rash enthusiasm, nor a deduction of erring reason; but it comes direct from the region of unclouded light, the fountain of unerring truth.
2. We see also the importance of the doctrine announced.
(1) This is evinced in its origin. If heaven speaks, it is not to proclaim a useless or insignificant truth, nor to unveil some trifling or uninteresting mystery. This would reflect on the Divine wisdom.
(2) This is further seen in the command given. “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me”--What?--Remember?--or Preach?--No, but “Write.”--The truths thou art about to hear are of infinite moment, and deeply interest every child of man.
II. But what is it that is promulgated by this high authority, and is revealed with attendant circumstances which so clearly attest its great importance? “Blessed are the dead,” etc.
1. The subjects of this blessedness are the dead; yet not the dead indiscriminately, but “the dead that die in the Lord.” Such is the ambiguity of the phrase “in the Lord,” as to render its precise meaning in this passage somewhat uncertain. At times its obvious import is, “in the cause, or on account, of the Lord.” And looking at the entire connexion in which the passage stands, such an interpretation appears by no means inappropriate. Every Christian, truly so called, is “in the Lord.” Hence the striking language of the Redeemer Himself: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: abide in Me and I in you.” This all-important union is affected, on the part of the Christian, by faith, and is consummated, on the part of Christ, by the bestowal of His indwelling Spirit. Two important parts of their blessedness are here brought before us:--They rest from their labours--and their works follow them. Does the wearied traveller rejoice on seeing his loved but long absent home, where he hopes to end his wanderings. Does the mariner, long tossed by the fierce storm, and endangered by the rolling waves, and drifted sands, and sunken or frowning rocks, rejoice on his entrance into the harbour, in which fear is exchanged for security, and turmoil for peace? Yes, they rest from their labours, and account themselves blessed.
III. Who does not feel that such an announcement would be incredible were it not so attested as to place it beyond the reach of reasonable doubt? And, thanks to the condescension and abounding grace of God, such an attestation we have. “Yea, saith the Spirit.” The doctrine of immortality, with its glorious and awful results, is one of those primeval truths that constitute the religious belief of the first generations of men. It underlay both the patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations. But it was reserved for Him who came as the “light of the world” to present this doctrine in the fulness of its glory. But while in the economy of redemption it is the glory of the Son to ransom and save, it is the prerogative and glory of the Spirit to reveal and attest truth, and by its application to the understanding and heart, to enlighten, and sanctify, and make fit for heaven. And by that Spirit the great doctrine announced in our text is attested. “Yea, saith the Spirit.” “True--certainly, infallibly true--I, the Spirit of Truth, whose prerogative it is to search all things, even the deep things of God, and to reveal them to man--I corroborate the testimony that the dead which die in the Lord are, and shall be, thus blessed. Though one of the things which no mortal eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the most fruitful imagination conceived, yet do I thus solemnly avow, that in all the brightness of the glories it unfolds, and in all the richness of the blessings it promises, it is true. On it, as an immovable rock, you may rest. And in its assured prospects you may trample on the world and sin--mortify self--multiply works of faith and labours of love--and defy the powers of persecution, how fierce soever the forms it may assume, or agonising the tortures and deaths it may inflict. Labours, sacrifices, and tortures are momentary only, but recompenses are eternal.” (Thomas Allin.)
Death in the Lord
Let us look at the individual phrases of this remarkable text. In the first place, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.” That expression “from henceforth” is one of the most difficult that ever the exegists or expositors of the Bible have confronted. It may refer to a new point of departure with regard to the blessed dead. It may refer to a new point of departure with respect to the revelation of that blessedness. It may refer to a new departure with regard to the testimony of the Spirit. We may connect it with the second part of the verse, and not the first. I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. Yea, saith the Spirit, from henceforth they rest from their labours.” But you perceive as there is some doubt as to the application of the phrase, we are embarrassed by the riches in this case, for the applications of the phrase are so varied. It may be that the phrase looks backward to the beginning of the verse, and forward to the conclusion, so that it indicates somehow in the redemption of God, and revelation of Christ, and testimony of the Spirit, a new point of departure from Him henceforth. Certainly there is one very remarkable fact, the resurrection of Jesus Christ appears to mark a new departure even with respect to the terms used about the saints of God. Stephen was the first martyr, and, in fact, his death is the first death which is spread in record on the pages of Holy Scripture. It was the first death of a believer in Jesus, subsequent to Christ’s resurrection, and I beg you to notice that his death is manifestly typical, and the description of it is of typical significance. For we read that “he being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into Heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” “And when he had said this he fell asleep.” There are three marked features here evidently typical. In the first plaice the vision of heaven and of Christ. In the second place, perfect peace of mind even in the agonies of a violent death; and, in the third place, a new term applied to death. “He fell asleep.” Have you ever noticed the fact that from the time of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the last verse of the last chapter of the Apocalypse you will never once find death, the death of a believer, referred to as death without some qualifying phrase attached to it? There is one case of exception. In the ninth chapter of Acts we read of the death of Dorcas or Tabitha, and the word “died” is used with reference to her though she was a believer; but the reason of it is obvious. Peter was about to call her back from death to life, therefore it was important that the actual fact of her death should be unmistakably stated as if it had been said that she fell asleep; it might have been said that he simply roused her from her trance, but when it is said that she died there was no doubt of her resuscitation from the dead. But in every other case that I have been able to trace in the New Testament the death of the believer is never once referred to as death, except with some such qualifying phrase as we find in this text. Died in the Lord, which at once separates such death from the death of unbelievers. Now, that phrase “In the Lord” must have three great interpretations. In this sphere the limitation to which I have referred, the penitent believer goes from the world, and from sin and Satan, and condemnation redemptively into this Divine sphere of safety, and holiness and happiness. And then, in the second place, actively and actually, for your life is taken into the life of Christ; your work taken into the work of Christ; your destiny taken into the destiny of Christ; your life plan taken into the life plan of God (Romans 14:7-8). Oh, the magnificence of that thought! I would to God I could rise to it, and help you to rise to it. While you live you are in this sphere: in Christ Jesus. Each may enter into that sphere. When you die, when you fall asleep as to your body, you are at home with the Lord. Now the apostle says that the man who lives unto the Lord dies unto the Lord. The Lord has not surrendered His control of him when death comes upon him. Neither has he lost his identity and unity with Jesus when he falls asleep. So we have both active and actual redemption in the Lord. But look at the concluding part of this great text. “Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.” I need not say much about the first part of this clause, “They rest from their labours.” There is absolute rest for every believer who is at home with the Lord from everything that mars our service in this world. But I must fasten your thought for a moment on the lines of this great expression “and their works do follow them.” This is another difficult phrase. There are three principal applications. One is that the works done in Christ Jesus are a saint’s memorial and monument in this world. The second suggestion is that the works which he has done here follow him into eternity as his witness before the throne of God unto his fidelity, and are the means of increasing his reward. And there is a third which I venture to suggest, and which will, I believe, commend itself to us. The Greek word translated follow, really means and enter, it is the following of the disciple that treads in the heels of his Master just before him; it is following and companionship and fellowship. And there is another thing which suggests and confirms this interpretation--namely, the difference in the terms of the original, which appears in the English translation. They rest from their labours, and their works do follow them. What is the difference between labour and work? Labour in the original is a Latin word, and in the English word it suggests--as it does in the original Greek word--the idea of hindrance. All difficulty, all weariness, the burden-bearing which suggests the idea that the man is doing, toiling, and taxing his strength; that which fatigues him, so that he comes from his work worried and worn out; it suggests the idea that his strength is unequal to the task, and that he feels himself circumscribed with limitations. But the Master’s work simply means activity, doing, performing. Now see how blessed the thought that the Holy Spirit suggests to us. The saint of God, falling asleep as to his body, enters into the presence of his Lord, as to his spirit. For evermore the labour, toil, vexations, of this world is left behind him, but he carries with him his service into immortality--he goes to carry on his work for God. Thus his immortality has come at last. He goes where there are no limitations, where there are no vexations or hindrances to circumscribe his activity--where they rest, not because they are never tired or fatigued--where they wait on the Lord, but renew their strength, mount on wings, walk and never faint--but enjoy the tireless and the unending activity of redeemed souls, partakers of the tireless energy of the untiring God. (A. T. Pierson, D. D.)
The two voices
“The voice said, Write,”--that is, the voice of God as it sounded from above; and the Spirit said, “Yea,”--that is, the spirit of inspiration and obedience, as it answered from within, ever keen to discern the heavenly revelations, and prompt to perform the heavenly will. That is the picture presented us here--a something that discloses and a something that assents--the announcement of an objective truth and the presence and the sympathy of a subjective response. It is God’s truth and the Spirit’s affirmative, God’s communication and the Spirit’s consent.
I. Take the principle, then, as it affects the production of Divine Scripture. For not only in regard to the announcement made here, but the doctrine and the narratives of Scripture throughout, it holds true that the voice said, “Write,” and the Spirit of God in the penman said, “Yea.” He said, “Yea,” as the Spirit of inspiration. And apart from the testimony of the Bible to itself, there is a proof of its origin in its own inner character. Take, among other evidences, this one: the persistency with which the facts and the truths transcribed run counter to the natural prepossessions and prejudice of those who transcribe them.
II. Note the same fact with regard to the acceptance of Divine truth. In regard, then, to the belief of the Scripture as well as its delivery, the Spirit returns His deep inward “Yea”; He returns it as the Spirit of conviction. And this, mark, in two cases. The response arises in the case of those whom the Spirit has entered to sanctify, and it arises in the ease of those with whom He is present to persuade. Deep in their heart of hearts there is a something that throbs back to them saying, “These things are real; I must believe them accordingly.”
III. Take the principle as it refers to the performance of the Divine commands. For the voice that bids us write and believe bids us also do and endure, and when it does so the Spirit again answers, “Yea.” He answers “Yea,” as the Spirit of submission and obedience.
IV. Take the thought of the text in regard to the enjoyment of Divine privileges. For the same voice from heaven has a message as to these, and while the message of assurance and of comfort is revealed from above, the Spirit responds from within with His “Yea”: He does so as the Spirit of adoption. And surely, of all the Divine intimations, the sweetest and the fullest is this: “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and He that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not, for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by thy name: thou art Mine.” There will be often a “Nay” to assurances such as these. There is the “Nay” of Satanic impeachment. Scripture clearly prepares us to meet and to deal with that. Y. Observe the principle of the text as it bears on the welcome of Divine hopes. And of these hopes take one--the hope of the Lord’s Second Advent. We close by considering His response as the Spirit of longing and of love. Try, again, there are voices that are raised in dissent. “Nay,” say the unholy, to whom the thought of Christ’s Advent is a terror; “Nay,” say the profane, to whom the prophecy is a scoff, asking, “Where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” But from a multitude whom no man can number, even the Church upon earth which a Saviour has chosen, to be saved through atoning blood, preserved by sanctifying grace, and made meet for eternal glory, there rises a mighty and manifold “Yea.” And well may the Spirit in the Bride’s heart say “Yea,” and speak of the prospect disclosed as that “ blessed hope, even the glorious appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (W. A. Gray.)
Rest in heaven
Dr. Bushnell, when well, abounded in life and action. He once preached a sermon on “The Employments of Heaven.” A weary, hard-working woman was heard to say, when the service closed, “Well, if heaven is such a place for work I don’t care to go there; I hoped I should rest.” Dr. B. said, as his strength began to fail, the thought of rest grew more precious to him also. It only illustrates how apt we are to see everything from ourselves. (Presbyterian.)
No Monday in heaven
There will be no Monday in heaven, and we shall not have to begin the old round of toil afresh as soon as the Sabbath’s peace is past. There will be an everlasting Sabbath.
Thrust in thy sickle, and reap.
The harvest and the vintage
It is held by many that both these refer to the same fact of God’s judgment against sin and sinners. And no doubt, at times, the “harvest” does mean such judgment (Joel 3:13; Jeremiah 51:33). In Matthew 13:1-58. both harvests--that of good and evil alike--are told of. “Let both grow together until,” etc. Still more commonly the figure stands for the people of God and their ingathering into His blessed presence. And we think that here, whilst there can be no doubt as to what the vintage means, the “harvest” does not mean the same, but that gathering of “the wheat into His garner” which shall one day most surely be accomplished. For see the preface (verse 13) to this vision. It speaks of the blessed dead and their rest. And but for the plain pointing out that the vintage did not refer to them, that also would have been so understood. And the Lord Jesus Christ--for He is meant--is Himself the Reaper (verse 14), Himself thrusts in the sickle (verse 16), whilst the vintage of judgment is assigned to an angel (verse 17), indicating that it is a different work from the other. And the figure itself, the harvest, the precious corn fully ripe, belongs generally and appropriately to that which is also precious and an object of delight, as is the company of His people to the Lord whose they are. It is not the time of the harvest, but the corn of the harvest, which is spoken of here, and this is ever the type of good, and not evil. Thus understood, let us note--
I. The harvest. “The harvest of the earth.” This tells of--
1. The multitude of God’s people. Who can count the ears of corn even in one harvest-field? how much less in the harvest of the whole earth?
2. The preciousness of them. What could we do without the literal harvest of the earth? Our all, humanly speaking, depends upon it.
3. The joy of God in them. “They shall joy before Thee with the joy of harvest.”
4. The care that has been needed and given.
5. The “long patience” that has been exercised. Who but God could be so patient? We often cry, “How long, O Lord, how long?” But He waits--and we must learn the like lesson--for the harvest of the earth, for that which is being ripened in our own soul.
6. The evidence of ripeness. We know of the natural harvest that it is ripe by the grain assuming its golden hue. And when it is thus with the people of God, when the golden light of the Sun of Righteousness shines on them and they are transformed thereby, then the evidence of ripeness is seen, and the season for the sickle has come.
7. God will certainly gather in His people. “Harvest shall not fail”; nor shall this harvest either. “Look up, lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”
II. The Vintage. Under the altar on which was “the fire,” over which the angel told of in verse 18 “had power,” were the souls of them that had been slain for the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 6:9). They had asked, “How long, O Lord dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” And now the answer is given. The vintage of vengeance has begun. For the “grapes” of the “vine of the earth” are fully ripe. It is the judgment of the whole earth, when “all nations” shall be gathered (Matthew 25:1-46.) before the Son of Man. The square of four--four ever the symbol of the earth--amplified by hundreds, the “one thousand and six hundred furlongs” of verse 20, likewise point to the universality of this awful judgment. Minor fulfilments--presages, predictions, and patterns of the final judgment--of these there have been many and will be many; but in this vintage of vengeance upon the world’s sin all are summed up and fulfilled. But will there be any such event at all?
1. Men have ever felt that there ought to be such judgment.
2. And now it is declared that such judgment shall be. Conscience assents to it.
3. Human law and justice strive after right judgment.
4. And the judgments that come now on ungodly nations, communities, and individuals are all in proof. (S. Conway, B. A.)
A coronation sermon
I. The illustrious personage intended. This we conceive to be no other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the exalted Messiah, who, for the suffering of death, was made a little lower than the angels, and is now crowned with glory and honour.
1. His characteristic designation--“The Son of Man.” This was the form or similitude He wore. The manhood of Christ is exalted to the throne of Deity.
2. His high exaltation. He is said to be throned on the clouds of heaven, and dignified with the highest honours.
3. The insignia appropriate to His office. He is advanced to the dignity and authority of a king, and therefore is invested with a crown of gold, and a sickle--an emblem of power, answering to a sceptre or sword, but put in this form, as having a relation to the service which was immediately to be performed in reaping the harvest of the earth. These are the regalia of His kingly office.
II. The magnificent appearance He assumed.
1. He is seated on a white cloud. On a cloud, to betoken His elevation and empire. On a white cloud, to signify the immaculate purity of His nature, as the Holy One of God; the unimpeachable rectitude of His administrations, transparent as the fleecy vapour of which these visible heavens are composed; and the blessed consequences of His government, when purity shall be universally established, and “white-robed Innocence,” returning to our forsaken world, shall take place of fraud and rapine, violence and blood. Furthermore, on this luminous cloud He is said to have been seated, as on a throne, expressing at once the high dignity and perfect repose which He enjoys.
2. On His head was a golden crown. The crown is an emblem of empire and dominion, and a crown of pure gold fitly represents the validity of His title, and the honour and glory by which He is encircled.
3. In His hand there is a sharp sickle. This I apprehend to be an emblem of His judicial authority and retributive vengeance. To Him the Father hath given authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man, and hath put all things into His hands. What havoc and slaughter shall be made by the sharp sickle, with which He is invested, when His irreclaimable enemies shall be made the helpless victims of His inexorable indignation! When the great day of His wrath is come, who shall be able to stand?
III. The practical lessons inculcated by the contemplation of the subject.
1. We infer the high and honourable conceptions we should form and entertain of the Lord Christ.
2. We infer that, “before honour is humility.”
3. Let us learn how important it is to ascertain whether we are among the subjects of this exalted Prince.
4. Let us learn to rejoice in the perfection of His administration.
5. Let us learn how terrible will be the final doom of all the enemies of this mighty Prince.
6. If such be the advantages and pleasures connected with the sight and contemplation of a glorified Saviour in this world, what will the beatific vision include? To see Him as He is, without the interposition of any obscuring veil, any dense medium! (G. Clayton.)
The harvest of the earth
The expression is a singular and, indeed, a striking one.
I. God prepared the earth for His seeding. Scientific men may wrangle over the ages and order of creation. It is enough for us to know that, at a given time, God had prepared the earth to be the scene of a moral trial for a new race of beings. The farmer cleans, and ploughs, and manures, and harrows, and ridges, his fields, in precise adaptation to the crop that he intends to grow upon it; and earth is the prepared field of God, made ready for His sowing.
II. God seeds His prepared earth with men. Scattering the seed all over the earth, that man’s probation may be carried on under every varying condition of soil, and landscape, and climate, and relationship. God keeps on seeding the earth with men; every seed with a great possibility in it; every seed set where its possibility may freely unfold, and where the God-provided influences all tend to the nourishment of all its best possibilities. Men, men everywhere are the seed of God. They are quick with Divine life, and sown in the earth to grow into a harvest for God.
III. The harvest God seeks from His seeding is character. God sows His earth with moral beings, in the hope of reaping moral character. But what is moral character? It is the proper fruitage of the earth-experience of moral beings. But can we understand it a little more fully than that? A moral being is one that can recognise a distinction between good and evil, and, when the distinction is seen, can choose for itself which it will have, the good or the evil. But a moral being must be put into such circumstances as will offer it the choice between good and evil. And substantially the test amounts to this: good is doing what is known to be the will of the Creator: evil is doing the will of the moral being himself, when that is known to be not the will of the Creator. The story of a life is the story of that conflict. It is the growth, through the long months, of God’s seed into the “full corn in the ear” of established moral character. It is the unfolding of what God would gather in from His seeding of men, the righteousness of the accepted will of God. One thing only does man take through the great gates--the character that he has gained. It is the full ear that heads the stalk, and ripens for the reaper.
IV. God has anxious times while His seed of men is growing into His harvest of character. Every blade that breaks the earth in the farmer’s field has to fight for its life with varied foes: insects, worms, mildew, rust, living creatures, varying temperatures, crowding weeds; the growth of every blade to stalk and ear is a hard-won victory. The stalk can do its best, and be its best, only at the cost of unceasing struggle and watchfulness. And the field of earth is but a type of the world of men. Every character is the product of a stern experience, the issue of a hundred fights; a triumph from an unceasing struggle. The problem of each man’s dealings with his surroundings--helpful be they, or injurious--God is intensely interested in. He is anxious as the farmer is anxious over his growing blades. The one thing of profoundest interest to God is the making of characters in His great earth-fields. Be it so; then a fact of infinite sadness has to be faced. The issue is disappointing, for God’s harvest-hope of reaping character from His sowing of men is only partially fulfilled. (R. Tuck, B. A.)
The twin mysteries: life and death
I. The true theory of a good man’s life ripening for the harvest. Did you ask, while you saw the farmer plodding his weary way, what means that sowing? Did you ask, as you saw the wind and the snow fulfilling the word of a higher power, what means the white flake and the rough blast? You have now the plainest answer in the growing of the corn. And if you again inquire, What is it growing for? the harvest will explain that. When the ear has been well filled, and the heat hath ripened and moulded the wheat, and the golden treasures are gathered home amid the reapers’ song of joy, and the barns are filled with plenty, the result will sufficiently explain the theory of agricultural toil and of natural influences. And in like manner the growth of the soul explains the moral discipline of life; and the harvest of souls in heaven explains their growth on earth. The days we spend at present are all days of discipline. Now, is this the theory of your life? Are you conscious of such growth and ripening? “No,” says some poor, timid, cast-down Christian, “there is no growth, no ripening in me; my heart is as hard and cold as ever it can be.” But, are you not conscious of resisting temptation? You cannot deny that you are fighting against sin. H you cannot boast of any good, and have a great deal of evil to lament, still you can conscientiously admit that if you did not make a decided stand you would have a great deal more of evil than you have at present. And is there not hope in that fact--that casting off of evil, and striving and praying and wishing to get rid of spiritual death?--is not that a sign of spiritual life, of spiritual growth, at least in its earliest stage? Thank God, there is hope. It is God working in you; He will not fail to watch over you for your good.
II. The true theory of death as illustrated by the text. First of all, it is never premature. If the wicked are not cut down until they are ripe for judgment, we cannot believe that God’s people are cut down till they are ripe for glory. Fitness for heaven, be it remembered, consists not in the particular state of mind in which a man may happen to be when the death-stroke overtakes him. It does not depend upon his being in a state of religious consciousness. No; it depends upon the habits in previous life, upon the principle of his previous history. Nor shall we be dismissed till we have had full opportunity of doing all that the Master intends us to do. There are different degrees of service, even as there are varied kinds of service. The terms of service are sometimes long and sometimes short. Nor forget that there may be much living to good purpose when the length of life has been very limited. We often measure life by length. Does not God measure it by depth and breadth? We look at quantity, does not He look at quality? The harvest is never premature, and is always carefully gathered in, and nothing lost. There is something very instructive in the signs of careful preparation for the harvest, which are indicated in the text. Before it is commenced, a voice announces the arrival of the time, and the purpose is calmly and deliberately executed. In the death harvest there is no haste and nothing lost. “Of all that the Father hath given Me,” said Christ, “have I lost nothing.” He is as careful of what there is of value in the soul as of the soul itself. How very apt are we to fancy, when such an one is suddenly cut off, that the great stores of his mind are wasted, that his acquirements by study and discipline are now lose to him. No, no, we may rely upon it, that there is not anything worth carrying into the eternal world that that sanctified soul will leave behind it; not one noble affection but is nobler than it ever was; not one great principle but it is stronger in the soul than ever, not one spiritual habit but it has grown in force, not one true excellence but it excels in beauty. And the harvest gathered in without less is preserved afterwards without loss: “Gather the wheat into My garner.” Corn is laid up to be preserved; but that is not all, it is also laid up that it may be used. At the death harvest, the soul is placed for ever beyond the reach of harm. The accidents to which it was exposed while growing, the moral frost, and blight, and mildew, and the blast of the lightning, they are all among the former things, and have passed away. But the soul is preserved where it will be of greater use than it ever was. The best use of the corn comes when it is cut. All before was subordinate usefulness, beautifying the landscape and furnishing subjects for poets and painters; but when it is cut, it feeds and sustains the nations. So the best use of the soul and its acquirements will be in heaven, not here. (J. Stoughton.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Revelation 14". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13