by James W. Alexander
Consolation in regard to departed
We need consolation both when we lay beloved bodies of friends or brethren in the grave, and when we shudder on the brink of our own dissolution. In regard to both, we rest with complete repose of soul on the declaration of the Word, that believers "sleep in Jesus."
Before proceeding to consider this doctrine in its positive meaning, we find it necessary to remove the grounds of two portentous errors; one of which is the familiar tenet of popery; and the other a kindred opinion—that the human spirit lies unconscious from death until resurrection.
There is a communion in glory, which renewed souls have with Christ their head, partly in this world and partly in the next. Death is the point of transition between these two portions of life. They are very unequal. The first is troublous, blemished, changeful, and brief; the second is fixed, pure, glorious, and eternal. Yet two strange things are true respecting our judgment of the two. First, we are most taken up, in thought and affection, by that which is inferior, short, and transient; and, secondly, the point at which we pass from one to the other, is that which of all things we most dread. We are about to contemplate this change in one of its aspects, as viewed by the believer, for his encouragement amidst the afflictions of life. That which buoys up his soul amidst toils and privations, is the blessed truth, which causes him to count affliction nothing, in comparison with the "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
The doctrine which we are called to contemplate is, that when the SOUL leaves the body it passes at once to Christ, to perfection, and to heaven, thus to abide in peace and glory until the resurrection. The BODY, we admit, is left in the grave. The sentence goes into execution—unto dust shall you return. After our death, worms shall destroy this body. It has been the beloved companion and useful instrument; but now it passes to dissolution. The remains of those whom we love are sacred. We have the best authority for confiding them to the faithful tomb, with due solemnity and tenderness. But we are not left to the cheerless dogma, that when corruption has done its work, we shall behold them no more; and that the Christian parent, the sister, or the son, whom we have laid in the earth, shall never again be known in the body—but have shared the lot of beasts. The gospel reveals a blessed hope, which heathenism could not imagine, and which the dreams of enthusiasts and the cavils of atheists cannot take away. The bodies of Christ's brethren do rest in their graves until the resurrection. That union, whereby we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones, still endures. They are still his; and from his heavenly throne he watches over them. They are beautifully said to be asleep in him. "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those who sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." 1 Thes. 4:14. It is a reviving hope for those who expect soon to lay aside the flesh, and a consolation for any who have followed their friends to their burial. Though the body is left, it is not forsaken.
But when the soul leaves the body, it passes immediately to Christ. Is this a vain speculation? Can it be a thing of indifference, whether at my last breath I enter at once to glory, or plunge into some unknown condition of suspense or pain? Would it not overcloud our dying moment, to have this question unanswered? Your hearts reply, that the investigation is reasonable; and it is answered in the Word. He who is absent from the body is present with the Lord. The teaching of Scripture is so express on this point, that enlargement would be unnecessary, if it had not been for erroneous teachers, who have endeavored to rob the saints of this part of their inheritance, and to postpone the beginning of their joys. These ERRORS may be reduced to two, which it will be profitable to hold up in contrast with the divine verity.
I. When Christianity began to grow corrupt, and the ministers of Christ assumed to be priests, a dogma was privily brought in, plainly heathen in its source, that souls which are imperfect, instead of entering heaven, enter some intermediate state of further probation, where they are tried with fire, punished for their sins, and rendered fit for heaven. This is known by the invented name ofPURGATORY. While it has not a single passage of Scripture even speciously in its behalf, it has been a mine of wealth to the hierarchy. It has brought in its train the long retinue of prayers and masses for the dead, indulgences, rich donations, and fresh subjugation to Romish tyranny. In upholding their doctrine, the Papists have gone so far as to affirm, that the patriarchs and other Old Testament saints were not received into heaven at their death—but were retained in what they called 'Limbo' of the Fathers; the word meaning in Latin the exterior border of a flowing robe or mantle. Though this is distinct in their mythology from Purgatory, the same principles apply to both. How the imaginations of religionists may be inflamed by such teachings, we may learn from the poetic but solemn pictures of the great Italian, Dante, who by his potent wand conjures before our horror-stricken fancy blindness, tears, lamentations, blood, and fire. Travelers in Italy are too well acquainted with the horrible paintings and more horrible harangues, whereby money is begged from the superstitious—for the poor souls in Purgatory.
Turning from these ravings to the truth, we find the Bible teaching that the souls of the patriarchs and other saints who have departed have passed immediately into a state of happiness. This is proved irrefragably by the argument of our Lord against the Sadducees. Moses, says he, calls the Lord "the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For he is not a God of the dead—but of the living; for all live unto him." Luke 20:38. It is proved by the history of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke 16:19. You remember the case; it is never said to be a parable; and if a parable, it teaches truth. The beggar died, and was carried by angels—not into purgatory, not into "Limbo'—but into Abraham's bosom, that is, into the joy of Abraham's God. The rich man also died, and was buried, and (not in purgatory—but) in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments.
This is further proved by the words of our dying Savior to the thief on the cross—"This day shall you be with me in Paradise." I am almost ashamed to rehearse the quibbles by which this passage is evaded. It is said, for example, to mean, "I this day say unto you, you shall;" a violent perversion of the words, which is not favored by a single ancient version, and which, robbing our Lord's words of all their emphasis, represent him as uttering the most useless declaration. His gracious reply was occasioned by the preceding request of the dying malefactor, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom!" It is said, again, that by Paradise Christ means the intermediate place of the patriarchs. But is it not the uniform method of Scripture, by Paradise, to set forth the highest heaven? When (2 Cor. 12:4) Paul tells us of "one caught up to the third heaven," he instantly adds, interpreting himself, "How that he was caught up into paradise." In the Apocalyptic message to Ephesus (2:7) it is said to the victor—"To him who overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." Now this is plainly parallel with the promises to the other victors, as (v. 10) "I will give you a crown of life," (v. 28) "I will give him the morning-star;" (3:12) I will make him a pillar of the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out." This is proved, also, by the hopes which cheered the ancients amidst long journeyings and toils, of a speedy admission to rest, of a city having foundations, and of respite after death. The attempted proof of a purgatorial state from the Scriptures is lamentably defective. The very difficult place in 1 Pet. 3:19, concerning Christ's preaching to spirits in prison, is quite as difficult for our adversaries who urge it. To discuss it at length would exhaust modern patience—suffice it to say, "The meaning of the text appears to be, that the Spirit of Christ influenced Noah, who was a 'preacher of righteousness,' to warn the unhappy men, whose spirits were then, and still are, in prison, of the danger which was so near them, while the ark was preparing. Now, to build such a momentous doctrine as that of purgatory on a passage admitting of this construction, and on one or two others, still more violently tortured for the purpose, shows the total lack of a solid foundation for the superstructure which is created. It may also be added, that even the passages which are brought from the apocryphal writings, which are not canonical Scripture, do not warrant this doctrine, as it is held and taught by the Church of Rome."
And let us thank God that it is so; and that we have no Christian reason (when we stand beside a dying friend) to suppose that his departing spirit is about to enter penal fires, and the sufferings of his agony to be exchanged for ages, years, or even days, of still heavier torment; no reason (on our own bed of death) to shudder at the prospect of horrible incarceration and fresh conflicts. No, my brethren, "the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
II. Leaving this, there is another error, which has prevailed among Romanizing Protestants, a class unhappily increasing day by day. It is equally a denial of our doctrine, for it maintains that theSOUL SLEEPS with the body, from death to the resurrection. Such sleep of the soul is an anti-scriptural dream. There is no evidence that the soul ever ceases to think, or that it can so cease, without losing its identity, and ceasing to be a soul. There is no proof, that, the moment after death, the soul shall not exert an unwonted elasticity; or that the body, though an instrument here, is a necessary instrument. That could scarcely be denominated an everlasting life, which should be subject to so direful an interruption. But the Scriptures leave us no doubt. The passages already cited, are here in point. The crucified thief passed into paradise. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (not yet risen), are yet alive, and live unto God. Such is the condition of all the blessed, of whom Paul, says (Heb. 12:23), "You have come," you are now come, "to the spirits of just men made perfect." Ancient prophecy foresaw the same. "He shall enter into peace; they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." Is. 57:2. The body rests—the soul walks in uprightness. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he felt that to die was gain. He knew not which to choose; and was in a strait between two; which could not have been, if the choice had been between labor and unconsciousness—"having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ;" to be with Christ! an expression, which undoubtedly means more, than rest in sleep, or even joy beyond the resurrection. No, he could say with David (73:24), "You shall guide me with your counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory." And when he felt the frailties of the present state, and was warned of speedy dissolution, he could look beyond the breaking up of the existing fabric, to the escape into an abiding city. "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." He longs "to be clothed with the house from heaven." He exults in the thought (5:3) that he "shall not be found naked." More strikingly he tells what shall immediately supervene on death (v. 4)—mortality shall be swallowed up of life! He groans, that "being at home in the body," he is "absent from the Lord." And inasmuch as our whole question with adversaries is concerning the state of the soul when unloosed from the body; and inasmuch as they affirm that this is a state of unconsciousness, we adduce the apostle as a triumphant witness, when he exclaims, "We are confident and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord." Unless, therefore, these terms can be shown to import an unconscious slumber until the final trumpet, we may regard the doctrine as established, that when the soul leaves the body it passes to a heaven of enjoyment.
And the doctrine is most reasonable. The term of trial and of suffering is over—it is to be expected that the time of joy should begin. The case of each soul being, as all Christianity confesses, unchangeably settled, it is proper that the reward should ensue; and that the last pang should be followed, not by the stupor of centuries—but by the garden of pleasures—that Paul, weary of labor, might hope, when absent from the body, not to be happy after four or five thousand years—but to be "present with the Lord." It is consistent with the love, the intercession, and the kingly power of Him who is at the right hand of God, and whose longing is, that those whom the Father has given him may be with him, to behold his glory. It agrees with the spirit of the holy angels, those loving ones, who are "all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation," who hover about dying beds with folded hands, and who spread their seraphic wings to carry even a Lazarus into Abraham's bosom. It is beautifully accordant with the doctrine, that the human soul is entirely independent in its actings on its present companion, and may exist without it in an unembodied state.
Contemplate the escape! It is a passing to perfection. In the present life, we acknowledge that sanctification is incomplete. But now the trial is at an end. "Then shall I be satisfied, when I awake with your likeness." There is no long slumber between the finishing of the race—and the crown. The passage is short. To be dismissed from earth, from temptation, from passion, from the body, and from sin—is to be admitted into that greater but invisible world, upon the verge of which we are continually living. It is to emerge from time—into eternity. It is to close the outward eye as needless, to lose sight of all its objects—and to open the inward eye upon the world of glorious spirits. It is to say farewell to a group of weeping friends, and bid welcome to the multitude of ransomed souls. It is to leave all care, and pain, and uncertainty, and sin forever behind us!
It is also a passing into glory. God is there! He who is everywhere present, yet unseen—is there present to the lively apprehension of the redeemed. Christ is there! And the longing soul finds itself in his embrace. The breaking up of the tabernacle sometimes reveals glimpses of this glory, even here.
The soul's poor cottage, shattered and decayed,
The conflict has ended. How else can we explain the words, "Death is swallowed up in victory?" Rest, indeed, there is—but rest in Christ's bosom of love, and on his throne of glory. Heaven is ready for them, and, by grace, they are ready for heaven. Contemplate the change as instant. God has granted this blessed hope to his dying child. He does not summon him away to a useless inaction of ages—but to the vision of himself, to be with him in paradise, to be present with the Lord. Heartily do we acknowledge that there are many expressions of Scripture which show that the reward of the righteous is not complete until the re-union of soul and body at the general resurrection. But the interval is not only painless—but is conscious, intelligent, and joyful. It is short, when measured on the great scale of heaven.
These redeemed souls are even now beloved; joined to Christ; recipients of his Spirit; bringing forth fruit; sitting down already with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who live unto that God who is the God not of the dead but of the living. And when the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, the triumph shall be consummate. We may well consent, my brethren, to leave these perishing bodies in the grave, with such an expectation for the soul. The dust is sacred, being still united to Christ. I am persuaded that not even death (Rom. 8:38) "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." The grave is sacred; it is perfumed by the merits of him who lay three days and three nights within its vaults. Those expectant remains are no longer the subjects of disease, weariness, and pain. "The sting of death is sin," and it is no more. The doctrine of the resurrection must be a separate topic; but even here, we must say, that disembodied spirits wait "for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body." And if they cast a glance at the ashes of their tomb, they do it in remembrance of Him who has "become the first fruits of those who sleep;" and in lively hope of the hour when "that which is sown in dishonor shall be raised in glory."
We cannot follow the departing spirit; the flight is too rapid, and it is into a world all unseen. Yet as we stand around the breathless, cold, and stiffened corpse, the analogy of faith suggests a shadow of what may be the condition of the ransomed soul. The snare is broken, and it is escaped! The fetters have been stricken off at a blow. How vast the transition! How rapidly is the earth, with all its scenes, left behind! We may justly suppose, that the blessed spirit finds itself surrounded by the instant presence of God; yet (as his unveiled glory would be insufferable) by the presence of God revealed in Christ. Infinite love can and will save the poor, trembling, shrinking soul, newly come into the sublimities of a strange world, from the shock of a surprise, which otherwise would astound or annihilate, and so hold back the face of that throne, and so spread a cloud over it, and so mitigate its splendors, that the frail creature, born into an untried state, shall be able to bear it. There will indeed be the surprise of discovery, and the shock of ecstasy—but he who hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, and spoke to Elijah in the still small voice, will doubtless address his ransomed one in the gentlest whisper of redeeming love.
Throughout a wearisome lifetime the cry of the church has been, "We would see Jesus!" now the wish is gratified, now the veil is withdrawn, now the separate spirit is present with the Lord. The prayers of a lifetime are answered, and the object of a life-long affection is embraced. And O, what an escape and transition—from dying anguish to a throne! How shall we dare to give utterance to sentiments, which here we can scarcely imagine!
"And is this Heaven? and am I there?
Is this the heavenly friend who hung
Hail you fair offspring of my God!
Lo! he presents me at the throne,
"The place of burial," says Chrysostom, "is called a cemetery (that is, a dormitory), a place of slumber, to teach you that they who have departed are not dead—but have lain down to sleep." The ancient Pagans sometimes employed the same figure—but with the adjunct of a terrible epithet; for they take care to call it a "perpetual," or an "everlasting "sleep. Thus, in one of the idyls of Moschus, the Greek poet, after saying that plants cut down by the winter, and seeming to die, yet revive in the spring, subjoins—
"But we, or great, or wise, or brave,
In agreement with which heathen darkness, the revolutionary philosophers engraved over their famous burying-places, the inhuman blasphemy, "Death is an eternal sleep." It would have been a fit inscription for a field where the carcasses of brutes are cast—but observe, my brethren, it is only of man that the term is used; it is man only who, dying, falls asleep. And the beautiful phrase is too often repeated in the Scriptures to be set aside as a casual metaphor. Hebrew worthies are said to sleep with their fathers. The Psalmist, filled with anticipations of awakening, cries—"Then shall I be satisfied, when I awake with your likeness." But, as might be expected, the term is most appropriate to the New Testament. It was when Christ died, and the veil of the temple was rent, that "many bodies of the saints which slept arose." "Our friend Lazarus sleeps," said our benignant Redeemer; "but I go that I may awake him out of sleep." And even amidst the violent agonies of the first martyrdom, the beloved Stephen, already beholding heaven opened, "fell asleep."
It seeing to have become the usual word among the ancient Christians for departure from this life. For, speaking of the forty days of Christ's tabernacling here, after the resurrection, Paul says, concerning the five hundred witnesses—"Of whom the greater part remain unto this present; but some are fallen asleep." Nor could human language furnish us a more sweet and tranquilizing emblem. It invests the dying form with a promise of restitution; enlightens the darkened chamber; hangs a garland upon the sepulcher; and draws gentle curtains around the couch of the beloved. Blessed be God for this new aspect of what we thought our enemy!
1. The emblem is natural, and is derived from the obvious resemblance.This is my first observation. In ancient mythology, sleep was the brother of death. The first death was probably thought a sleep; as the first sleep, according to Milton, was mistaken for death. I stand by the side of an infant, and behold it in quiet slumber. What on earth can be more lovely? The eyes are closed; the senses are locked up; the great external world is shut out. All is stillness and repose. We look and wonder—but feel no pain, because we expect a resurrection from this slumber. In like manner, I stand by the couch where a beloved friend has closed his eyes. The doors of sense are shut; the outer world is excluded; but the greater, lovelier, more solemn inner world is there. The marble brow; the serene, unmoving features; the settled smile of lips which were late so eloquent; all speak of deep slumber. But Christianity tells me to dismiss my fears; for Jesus comes to awake him out of sleep.
The transition into the two states, under favorable circumstances, is the same. In blessed souls it is "a gentle wafting to eternal life." We make too much of the mere article of dying, and often overrate its pangs. Sometimes, I know, they are dreadful—but even then they are brief. And in a multitude of cases, no doubt, the dying person suffers less than he has endured many times before; while in repeated joyful instances, it is only a closing of the eyes for sleep. Let us be thankful when our friends are spared all extreme anguish on their dying beds. The resemblance, therefore, is undeniable; and it is good to contemplate the sacred sleep.
2. Sleep comes at the close of the day.To many a soul this is a pregnant consideration; for they are weary of task-work and of working hours. When the burden and heat of the day are over, then comes the season of repose. "Man goes forth unto his work and to his labor until the evening." In that evening God gives him exemption. It is implied in this, that the world's business is over. There is nothing more impressive than to stand amidst a great city at dead of night, when labor rests, 'and all that mighty heart is lying still!'
Thus is it when life's day is over. Of what pertains to this present time, no more can be done. The season of trial and of labor for our fellows is over; it is the hour of sleep. The time of study, for this life, is over; the time of earthly plans; the time of bold adventure; it is the hour of sleep. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go." And yet that grave is not so much a tomb as a resting place—a cemetery. How much more lovely and more Christian would our graveyards be, if they had more of heaven and less of earth; more of rest in that blessed sleep, and less of the restless pursuit of human glory; more of our oneness in Christ, and less of our earthly caste and separation!
"A scene sequestered from the haunts of men;
In that sleep there is an end of human pains to the children of God. "There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest; there the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master." The closing eye loses sight forever of every annoyance of this life. Perhaps, my brethren, you have never duly considered this important truth, that all the prayers of the believer in regard to himself are answered at once when he falls asleep. The angel of death breaks all chains, delivers from all enemies, repairs all losses, wipes away all sins, and accomplishes all wishes, even of a lifetime—and all this at one moment. These are sweet slumbers, "after life's fitful fever."
3. Sleep is a temporary state; an interval between important periods; it separates day from day.So the repose of death, far from the notion of the atheist, is a season of suspense—a preparation—a momentary hiding, before great events. The departed object of your attachment, who now "draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep," is but preparing for a wonderful awaking at the sound of the trumpet. Not that it is unconscious, not that it is inactive, not that the soul is gone; this were to contradict all the analogy; this were proper death, not sleep. "To depart" is "to be with Christ." While we are in this world, "at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord," but to go into this sleep, is "to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." Whence I add,
4. The dying believer sleeps in Jesus.How incomparably refreshing the language of the Apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 15:18, "those who have fallen asleep in Christ!" What a fragrance exhales from the sacred urn! How does it embalm the very bodies of those whom we have given in charge to Christ! They sleep in Jesus. It is in his arms they have fainted away, and he holds, sustains, and embraces them. This, which seemed a calamity, is foreseen and contemplated in the covenant. Their very dying has a connection with the blessed Savior, for it is joined to his dying. The term may have had a primary reference to the martyrs, who laid down their lives for Christ's sake—but was certainly intended to include likewise all who die in union with him. When they close their eyes in holy slumber, they may well be said to fall asleep in Christ; for
(1.) They BELIEVE in him. It is of believers that we have been speaking. They are disciples; they have lived as such, and as such they die; if permitted to enjoy any season of tranquil reflection and discourse before they depart, they gather up their powers and declare their confidence in the divine revelation of truth. In this honest moment, they show how sincere has been their conviction. A skeptical frame, or a wavering half-belief, would be but a spider's thread, at such an hour. Now the soul turns to its refuge, now it must hang by its grand support, now it must forget all that is dubious, all that is secondary, all things that are earthly, all things but one—and that is Christ. Now it is, that the greatness of Christianity is revealed, when a man is brought to the great emergency, and must die for it, by it, in it.
Let the infidel bring forth his strong reasons; let him show any like confidence in such an hour. Have you known any examples of it? Have you heard any unbeliever on his dying bed send out for his fellow-doubters or fellow-deniers, to listen to his final confession of lies, or to pillow his head in the sinking moment? On the other hand, how often have we stood by the bed of death, when the tranquil believer has said, "See in what peace a Christian can die!" and when, with failing but unwavering lips, he has cried, "I know whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." Such is faith in these extremities—they believe in Jesus.
(2.) But they also HOPE in Him. "The wicked is driven away in his wickedness—but the righteous has hope in his death." From this moment of dying, he looks forward; his blessedness is to come. During all his pious course, this has been his discipline and his habit, and has distinguished him from the men of this world. His "citizenship," his heart, has been in heaven; he has lived perpetually under the impression, that he belonged to another, an unseen state. He has conducted all his mental progress with a direct view to this, and has had his eye fixed on a point, far beyond, at which all his problems shall be solved, and the cup of his knowledge made to run over. He has lived in this world, as not of it, exercising himself to be pure in heart, that so he might see God; a vision in which he has placed his heaven. And his delighted expectation of this has been founded on the intervention of the revealing Mediator, the Word, by whom we draw near to the Father. Conscious that he has joined himself to Christ, he admits the high persuasion of heirship, and such hope at times becomes assurance. Especially in the dying chamber, this hope in Christ, which during the glare of day, and the din of business, has lived apart, with folded wings, a silent unseen dove, having arrived at its proper moment, comes forth, spreads its wings, and soars into the brightest heaven. The eye which is closing on one world, is opening on another, in which its principal object is one, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Thus he hopes in Christ; and
(3.) He TRIUMPHS in Christ. The term does not imply noise, transport, or outcry. The ocean of thought may be deep while its surface is glassy. The silent language of an eye full of heaven is more than volumes of exclamation. But God does, beyond question, reveal himself in extraordinary supports, at such seasons, and sometimes condescends to open the very windows of heaven, and give light from the inmost sanctuary; so that the child of grace is not merely willing to die—but joyfully prepared to enter into his chief joy, overlooking and overleaping all the intervening pains of dissolution, and the darkness of burial, and exulting in the cry, "O death, where is your sting! O grave, where is your victory!"
But whether such graces be vouchsafed or not, and whether the soul departs amidst such visible triumph or not, he who dies a Christian, sleeps in Jesus.
5. Sleep is a state from which there is awakening.Here is the glorious point of the analogy. As the mother hushes, and embosoms, and cradles her little one, she awaits the unsealing of the eye, and the unbinding of the fettered limbs, and the resolution of all its features in a wakeful smile of love. And just as truly, when we take our last look of features which we have seen instinct with the varied spirit of a thousand sentiments, and on head, and hands, yes, and heart, which seemed never long asleep here, we close that coffin-lid in sure and certain hope of blessed resurrection. Away with the cold inventions which would summon me to bid an eternal farewell even to the body, which was all allied to soul, and was its chosen exponent; that temple of the Holy Spirit, which he who created it can with infinite ease create anew. Away with the prostituted learning of those who spend all their energies in robbing us of cherished hopes. It is because this night is to have a morning, because this slumber is to be broken, that we are comforted. It is the return of Christ in his glory which is the basis of our expectation. For what says the apostle? "I would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those who sleep in Jesus, will God bring with Him." When Christ the Lord shall appear, then shall they also appear with him in glory. That will be the day of blessed restitution, "when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe." They are now with Christ; they are this moment at home with the Lord. They shall still be with him when he shall come in triumph. Meanwhile his voice is heard among the tombs, saying, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live—And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."
Faith looks forward to the transcendent glory which, first enveloping in its cloud of light Christ, the head, shall next enclose and transfigure those who are Christ's at his coming; when God the Almighty Father shall bring into the burning focus of universal observation, not the Master only—but all who have loved and followed him; and the beams of that appearance shall be reflected from the central light on all the circle and retinue of attendant saints; for those who are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and "those who sleep in Jesus will God bring with him."
Over the grave of those of God's people whom we have loved, a watchful angel seems to stand in silent waiting; his solemn hand ready upon the seal of the sepulcher, to loose from all bonds, at the appointed moment, those who shall have died in the faith. This may compose our minds amidst the sudden agitations of a violent bereavement; stay the flood of our tears, when those we most loved are carried out of our sight; and kindle hope amidst the darkest sorrow. This may encourage our belief, that when genius, and talent, and learning, and piety, are removed from the church below, they shall reappear in fresh beauty and enlarged capacities, in the church above. This may teach us, when friends and companions are smitten down beside us, in the midst of their labors and researches, to look more at what is yet to come.
If death is a sleep, and if there is an awakening out of this sleep, then we may with confidence commit their bodies to the grave. Let us look back in thought, to the great number whom we have consigned to this sure repose. Few are there among us, who have not some Christian friends over whom to shed the tear. They sleep—but it is to awake again. God has so promised, and he is faithful. Not only their souls are safe—but their very bodies shall be preserved. How precious is that doctrine of resurrection which Paul spreads forth at length in the fifteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians! There we learn that the bodies of believers are lost, only in the sense in which seed is lost, which we cast into the ground. It returns to dust; but the day is coming when it shall be raised and glorified. It is the day when our Lord shall bring with him all those who sleep in Jesus. They are as safe as the very angels. Their bodies in the tomb, their souls in paradise.
This casts a ray of holy sunshine over the green turf which swells above a Christian father, brother or child. Life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel. Infidelity has no such promises. As to the body, it gives that up to corruption. As to the soul, it can at best only surmise its immortality. The greatest philosopher looks trembling and hesitating into the gulf of futurity—while the humblest, yes (in other things) the most ignorant Christian widow, or Christian child, has an unbroken confidence on the assurance of Him who cannot lie, that there shall be a reunion with blessed spirits gone before, in that world which by a sublime attraction is drawing to itself the pure and the lovely of all ages. So much is a simple faith in the gospel above all philosophy of man.
In the same blessed faith we may prepare for laying our own bodies in the grave. For, beloved brethren, we must soon die. Some avoid the thought, and everything which leads to it. Some, with a cowardly superstition, dread even the making of a will, lest it should hasten the event. But do what we may, death is hastening on. Time, with mighty pinions, is carrying us towards the inevitable doom. There is no discharge in that war; and the true believer has no reason to dread the thought. He does not desire to always live in this poor perishing world. This is not his rest; this is not his continuing city; his citizenship is in heaven; his name is registered there. And though on his way there he must needs pass through the river of death; it is part of God's teaching to remove his fear of this last enemy. The grave loses its chill, to one who has beheld Christ's sacred body descending into it. And as that sacred body arose, so we know that the bodies of believers shall arise; and those who sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him. God will bring us, with Christ, to meet such as shall be caught up from the earth without dying.
In preparing for death (and it is wise to prepare), our thoughts should not dwell long on this transient and comparatively unimportant period of the grave. What is the grave in the scale of eternity? A momentary sleep; and those who sleep, Christ will awaken; we shall lie there but a little while. That which is beyond—is glorious.
6. That will be a glorious meeting with Jesus and his awakened saints.All earthly things ought to fade in the comparison. It ought to be much in our thoughts. Our contemplations ought to overleap intervening trifles. God has made us susceptible of exquisite social affections, and these are not limited to this world. They will be expanded, satisfied and glorified, in the world to come. There shall be gathered all those holy and redeemed souls whom Christ shall bring with him. New acquaintances shall then begin—but, unlike those of this world, shall never end. Ties are often created here only to be sundered—there, there shall be no sunderings. There is no reason known to us why all Christ's people, of all ages, may not learn to know one another during the lapse of a glorious eternity. Why not? Why should we not, as Dr. Watts beautifully represents it in his sermons on Death, be introduced, as a part of our happiness, to all those who have believed and been saved, from Abel downwards; all patriarchs, psalmists, holy kings, prophets, apostles, martyrs, reformers, missionaries, Christian laborers, sufferers; reading in the history of each the wonderful way in which Divine Sovereign Love works out its problem; and finding new cause to sing loudly to the praise of the glory of that grace, wherein all are accepted in the Beloved!
I love not those visionary views of heavenly enjoyment which reduce all to a vapor or a dream. The Scriptures teach otherwise, and lead us to expect a state in which our rational human faculties and propensities shall be sanctified—but not exterminated; and in which we shall still be capable of recognition, of converse, of mutual instruction, mutual love, and resulting peace and joy. And that which shall be so innocent and so rapturous in the possession we may look forward to with hope; distinctly presenting to ourselves the time when Jesus shall gather together in one all the people of God, from among all nations. And their number will be great. For all that I know, the world may stand thousands of years yet; and during that period the conquests of Christianity will probably be unexampled. From the rich harvests of all the continents, God will furnish for himself abundant glory. And in meeting with those who shall be with Christ, we shall meet with the glory of all lands and all ages. It would be narrow and insufficient to confine our views to those only who are of our own kindred. In that day we shall be kindred with the nations of them that are saved, through Him after whom the whole family, both in heaven and earth, is named.
But the doctrine lifts our expectations to a meeting not only with all saints—but with the King of all saints. "God will bring with Him"—with Christ. It is the connection with him that gives the safety and the glory. They died with him; they rose with him; they suffered with him; they shall be glorified with him. The wish of all believers in this world has been—We would see Jesus! Then they shall see him surrounded by all who have loved him. "We know not what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." This is the apostle John's idea of heaven, "We shall see him as he is." This will be enough. Here we have seen by glimpses, cloudily, in an enigma, "through a glass darkly;" but then, clearly, nearly, fully, "face to face." And the object so seen is of all in the universe the most worthy of being contemplated. God shines in Him. "In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." To see him, in the fullness of his unveiled excellence, will be a celestial pleasure, well worth dying for!
What serious self-examination ought there to be, to discover whether we are really of the number of those whom God will bring with Christ. Something has already been said as to their character. It remains for us to apply these truths to ourselves. Not all that die shall be so privileged; not all that rise, shall rise to glory—but some to shame and everlasting contempt. Some shall see him, only to hear him say, Depart, accursed one! Not all who have sat down at the Lord's table, and enrolled their names among his followers, shall thereby obtain inheritance; for to some who knock he shall say, "I never knew you!" Not all that die, shall sleep in Jesus. Come then, O my reader, with haste, and with deep solemnity, to the inquiry, whether indeed you have any title to indulge this pleasing anticipation. On what is it founded? On your having done no harm—on your innocence—on your having done as well as you could—on your baptism—on your church attendance? Alas! you have already pronounced judgment against yourself! These pleas will not abide the day of his coming? Have you seen yourself to be a sinful, guilty, helpless, ruined creature? and have you justified the law which condemns you? Have you despaired of all help in yourself? Have you believed the record, that God is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself? And so believing, have you accepted his free and sovereign promise, and cast yourself on his faithful and almighty arm? Do you perceive in yourself any marks of the new creature? Have old things passed away? Have all things become new? Are you striving to live a new life, to the praise and glory of him who has saved you? Do you war against all sin? Do you endeavor all obedience? Do you pray to God, rejoice in him, and seek converse with him? And have you any witness that you are accepted of him?
If these things, or any goodly number of them, are in you; then you may hope, through infinite mercy, to be among the throng of saved souls.
But if, on the contrary, conscience answers 'no' to these interrogatories, what shall I say to you? shall I encourage you to indulge pleasing thoughts of death and eternity? I dare not. Flee for your lives! Tarry not in all the plain! Flee from the wrath to come! Dying in your present condition, you will fall into a double death. God gives you warning—he brandishes his sword before he smites. He removes others, when he might as easily have removed you. Some day, he may remove you as a warning to others. Friends and comrades will gather around your coffin—but their words or thoughts about you will have no effect on your destiny. At that moment your soul will be either in heaven—or hell. And when Christ shall come, he will not bring you with him. You will indeed have to stand before him, to give an account of the deeds done in the body, to answer for all your Sabbaths, all your light and all your warnings. You will then see these things in their true light; but it will be too late.
It is still your day of grace, Christ's very warnings tell you so. I beseech you, lay a good foundation for time to come. Believe in this Savior of sinners, that you may be safe in that day of alarm, when the elements shall melt with fervent heat. Resolve, with God's aid, that you will be of that company, who shall have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. I am conscious of the reiteration of these entreaties and exhortations; but, until you heed them, what can I do but reiterate them? O be persuaded to be happy. O consent to be safe. O resist no longer the gracious arm that would lift you up to heaven.