"My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better!" Philippians 1:23
How marvelous is the transforming power of the religion of the Lord Jesus! Whatever it touches, it beautifies; and all that comes within its range receives a luster and a loveliness from the reflection of itself. Everything on which its light is cast, appears the very reverse of what it appeared before.
Where there was darkness — light springs into existence;
where there was previous gloom — brightness shines;
and where there was sadness — songs begin to abound.
How true this is in reference to the heart. "The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked!" Jeremiah 17:9. Behold your heart in its natural sinful state — can you imagine anything more devoid of anything that is lovely? Can you think of anything more dreary to the view? 'Tis a wilderness, a wilderness overgrown with briars and with thorns, while these are interlaced with poisonous plants, and in and out among them there creep reptile lusts and serpent sins. It is enough to make an angel weep to look at such a sight!
But behold! God's hour of mercy touches that heart — saving grace enters it. See now the contrast. Instead of the thorn — there is the fir tree; and instead of the briar — the myrtle tree sends forth its sweet perfume; while the birds of praise carol as they rest in the branches of the trees of the Lord's right-hand planting; and the serpents are either destroyed, or else they hide themselves in their holes. The religion of Jesus has touched that heart — and at its touch there has been a magic transformation; where dreariness and death reigned, there is now beauty, delight and joy.
What it does for the heart, it also does for the life. Previously the life of that man had been a wasted, frittered, foolish life — baneful, perhaps, to all who came within the range of its influence. But now how different. There is not a greater change in the heart, than there is in the life; and the man who previously had lived to himself begins to say, "For me, to live is Christ!" Phi 1.21.
The very countenance seems to have caught additional beauty. Previously, those compressed lips spoke of selfishness; but now there is something in the very eye that says the man is living for others rather than himself. Before it was easy to see how an evil temper knit those brows; but now as we look at him, we can see that he is longsuffering and not easily provoked. The lion is turned into the lamb — and the vulture is transformed into the dove.
The outward life is as marvelously changed as the heart within the breast. Then what it does for the heart and for the life, it does for all the surroundings of the man. Everything he looks at appears different.
For example, take the sorrows and troubles of life. Before he had Christ, it was darkness without alleviation; but now, though the religion of Jesus does not free him from sorrow, it alters its aspect. If it does not take away the black pall, it puts a fringe of gold on it. If it does not altogether take away the storm cloud — yet it throws a light behind it that shines through the rifts, or else it paints a rainbow on its black brow, and the man exclaims with astonishment, "Why, everything is altered. The very things I wept over before — I can rejoice over now. How is that?" The answer is simple, "It is the blessed religion of Jesus that has thus changed everything."
And then going a step further, we add that it likewise alters death. When a man has Christ in the heart, death becomes as much transformed as everything else. It is no longer a dreadful thing to him, a dark thought that is only associated with corruption and the tomb. Death now appears to him to be more like an angel than anything besides. Death to the Christian is not death — but simply God kissing his child to sleep. There is the last sigh drawn; one gentle breath; in the arms of eternal mercy the redeemed child has fallen asleep — and death, from being the greatest foe, has been transformed into the choicest friend!
This is what the religion of our Savior accomplishes. You will observe that in our text Paul gives a very beautiful description of death, "I have a desire" — not to be annihilated, not to cease to live, not even to die. "I have a desire to depart" — to depart. The idea of continued existence is in that word. The one who departs has not ceased to be. The one who leaves one spot to go to another, still lives.
Meditating on these words, it seemed to me that perhaps Paul's idea might be very well illustrated by a sight that doubtless many of you have often seen. There is an emigrant ship lying in the docks yonder, and it is about time for her to start on her voyage. The relatives are assembled on the dock, watching the departure. Many are the tears rolling down the cheeks of those standing on the quay — but I do not see, after all, so many tears on the faces of those on board. They believe that they are going to a far better land, and they go brightened with hope. By-and-by there comes the last shake of the hand; and now the narrow plank between the dock and the ship is removed, and the vessel begins to glide out of the dock into the river.
I think I can hear the last goodbye as it comes from the ship to those on the shore. And I think, too, I can see the mother as she waves her handkerchief to her boy leaning over the bulwarks. The ship goes quietly down the river; you see her — yet more and more indistinctly. Now you can scarcely see her at all, and at last that bend in the river shuts her out from sight. Well, the emigrants have departed — but they are there all right. And so Paul says, "I have a desire to depart; I am willing to start on the voyage to cross yon narrow sea."
Why? "That I may be with Christ." Oh Paul, this explains your longing. I had marveled up to now why you would have any desire to depart or die — but these two magic words explain it all, "with Christ." Only two words — but Heaven is condensed in them, "With Christ." Only two syllables — yet such a concentration of bliss in them that Heaven itself will never unfold the depth of them.
"With Christ." Let us take these two words and specially dwell on them, looking at them in three ways:
First, as expressive of the believer's desire throughout life.
Secondly, as the believer's song in death.
And then we will close by observing them as the dying words of my own dear father.
I. Let us then, first of all look at them as EXPRESSING THE BELIEVER'S DESIRE THROUGHOUT LIFE.Paul desired to be with Christ, and every believer has this same goal before his mind's eye. The arrows of his desires are flying towards the same target. He remembers well the time when he was without Christ. He also looks back and remembers that anxious period when he was first awakened to the consciousness of the awfulness of his unsaved state. Well does he bear in mind those days and nights of agony and fear — they are indelibly printed upon his memory. Then he calls to mind that moment when by faith he rested on Jesus, and when he could say "Christ is mine!"
So he says. "I have known what it is to be without Christ; I have known what it is to live on Christ — and now I long for the closing experience of being with Christ. I have had the darkness of being without him — I have had the break of day, the grey morning light of living on him; and now I want the noontide glory of being with Him. I have known what it is to have the burning thirst; I have known what it is to drink of the stream; but my spirit longs to drink at the fountainhead! I have known what it is to have the wail of sorrow in my heart; I have known what it is to have the first notes of praise struck in my soul; but I want to join in the full anthem of Heaven's praise!
Without Christ — I have been that.
Living on him — I am that.
But oh! to be with Him — with Him! This yet remains, and 'tis after this that my spirit pines."
Now this longing to be with Christ is very easily explained.
1. The saint being born from above — naturally desires to go above. All things tend towards the place of their origin. The sparks having first come from the sun in ages back, leap upwards towards it the moment they are liberated from the dark prison-house of that lump of coal. The eagle that is born in yon high rocky eyrie is not content to skim the water's edge like the swallow; having an eagle's eye, an eagle's heart and an eagle's wing — she beats her way upward on the storm blast, and sails at a dizzy height. Water, let it have its own way, will always find its level; it will rise to the elevation from which it came.
So too, grace having come from Heaven, struggles to get back again to Heaven. And the life which a believer has in his soul, being a life which has come directly from Christ, will allow him no rest until it reaches the place of its birth. The believer suffers from homesickness — a desire for his own country.
I remember well, some few years ago, being acquainted with a young Swiss lady who had come over to live in England; after a while everyone felt concerned about her health. The bloom had faded off her cheeks, and all thought she was going into a rapid consumption. She became weaker and weaker, and tried all sorts of expedients to recover her health, until at last a friend suggested, "I believe, after all, she is only suffering from homesickness. Send her back to Switzerland." The very thought had magic power in it, and no sooner was she once more among the valleys of the Alps, breathing the crisp air that came to her fresh across the glaciers, then all signs of consumption fled. Having a Swiss heart beating within her breast, she could not rest until she was back again in Switzerland.
So too, having a new heart that has come from the heavenly land, we suffer from homesickness, and yearn to get up to where our life came from.
2. A second reason is — the believer's relationship to Christ. Think for a moment of the relationship between the saint and his Savior, and then you will understand how it is that the saint has a desire to depart and to be with Christ. He is the believer's bridegroom — the believer is Christ's bride. The Savior is the believer's husband — the believer is His wife. Is it a strange thing if the wife longs to be with her husband?
Imagine for a moment that a husband leaves his wife, and says, "I am going across the Atlantic — but I will either come back to you or else I will send word for you to come to me." Do you think that when the letter comes one morning bearing the postmark of the place where she knows him to be, and she reads that she is to go over to him, that she will weep many tears about it? Not one! She has a wifely heart, and is therefore willing to cross the Atlantic, or ten oceans, to be with her husband again.
Just so, Christ has left us, and he says, "I will either come to you again, or else I will send word for you to come to me across the Atlantic-billows of death. I will be waiting on the other side to receive you!" Oh, is it a remarkable thing then, if his spouse says, "I have a desire to depart and to be with Him"? And so, Lord Jesus, we are your bride; and we sigh either for your coming to us — or your message to us to come to you.
This, then — our relationship to Christ — explains the desire of the apostle to depart and be with him.
3. But thirdly, all that the believer knows about Christ inflames his desire to be with him. O if only we had a better tongue to dwell upon this theme — but let your own memory supply our lack of words.
What has Christ been to you? Everything you know of Christ thus far — does it not make you want to be with him, for has he not been all sweetness? Has his name not become all music to your ear? Can you not say that what you know of him only inflames your soul to know him more? Can you not add with truth, "The very thought of him fills my soul with rapture!" The embraces of his love have been such, that you long to have a still closer embrace. The fellowship you have had with him, has not satiated or satisfied your soul. It has only quickened the appetite, and you cry "More, more, more!"
We cannot omit to also say that EARTH has her arguments to induce the soul to desire to depart. While there are heavenly drawings — there are earthly drivings. And while God lifts our spirit upward with a golden chain, link by link — there are arguments of earth that make it easy to go.
A cold heart that will always be cold until it is bathed in the light of Heaven; a stubborn will that is still so rebellious to a Father's will — these things make one long to go and to be different. Earth itself — with all its disappointments, bereavements, losses, crosses, treachery, faithlessness, and slander — makes the soul almost in a hurry to leave here and enter eternity. With the psalmist we sigh, "O that I had wings like a dove, for then I would fly away and be at rest!" Psalm 55.6. Yes, Heaven and earth both unite to make the saint exclaim, "I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ."
4. Observe, lastly, on this point, that the desire is confined to being with Christ. Paul does not say, "I have a desire to depart, and to be in Heaven." Oh no! It is far better than that.
Nor is it, "I have a desire to depart and to get free of troubles."
No, it is, "My desire is to depart and be with Christ!"
"With Christ! With Christ!" This honey in the mouth, and the more often you turn it over, the sweeter it becomes!
Heaven is not merely a place of golden streets and pinnacles glittering with the jewels. No! That is not enough for the believer. It is, "With Christ." All the pearly gates, and all the cherubic songs, and all the seraphic praises — fail to make the Heaven of our desire. Our Heaven is to "be with Christ!" It is not the glory of the place — it is the beauty of the person!
"With Christ!" Oh, how shall I illustrate it? It is the magnet that makes the soul tremble, and will not let it rest until it points true towards it.
"With Christ!" Yes, that is the distant haven on which the mariner gazes as the ship rocks and reels, as the timbers creak, and as the storm blast whistles through the rigging.
"With Christ!" These words are the bugle note that awakens all the heroism in a Christian's soul, and makes him willing to dash into the thickest part of the fray. He says, "I can fight my way out through ten thousand foes, for on the other side it is "with Christ!"
Now, much more briefly, in the second place,
II. Let us look at these two words as forming the Believer's Song in Death.We have marked the believer journeying homeward, having an intense desire to reach his goal. Well, he is getting near it now. I think I see him. He is gently breathing out his last in that quiet bedroom. The blinds are down, and sorrowing ones are standing grouped around the bed. The flowers are blooming by thousands in the garden outside, and the singing of the birds is plainly heard.
Has he got a song? He has. It is that which has been his desire through life. It is "with Christ!" That which was at a distance before, has now come wonderfully near. The magnet now is no longer at a distance but held right over the head of the dying one. The light in the window is no longer on a distant horizon — but near — so near that the gazing eye can see into the mansion itself. The haven of rest — there is only one billow between the ship and it.
The bugle note — oh, it is sounding now more clearly in his ear than ever — not now to urge him on to battle — but to tell him that the victory is won! It is the bugle of recall.
Ask him, "Brother, are you afraid of death?" His answer is, "No, not an atom!" He has put his hand into the shepherd-bag of Scripture and taken out two smooth pebbles called "with Christ." He has put the smooth stones into the sling of faith, and the Goliath — Death — with all his terrors, has fallen down before them! Death is conquered.
"With Christ," Yes! How small all other things appear to him now. He used to be an active business man. Go, whisper in his ear that there is a fall in the fund. He will smile and say "with Christ — this is the fund I have to deal with now." Go tell him there is a panic in the city. "There is no panic in my soul," he answers. Go, tell him there is a run on the bank. He only answers, "I have a heavenly bank that will stand any run on it. I will be with Christ soon!" And how that thought seems to drown all other thoughts, and as the man gets nearer and nearer to the realization of his desire — how the face seems to get something of Heaven's glory in it. And so, right down to the water's edge — that which has been the desire of the life, remains the song in the hour and article of death.
This brings us to our third point.
III. It is the believer's experience in eternity.
You see, we have watched his course from the moment when he was without Christ — until the moment when he is just dying. He is not yet quite with Christ — but he is very near, and now — there is one breath drawn, and that is the last!
"One gentle sigh, the fetters break,
We scarce can say 'he's gone,'
Before the willing spirit takes
Her mansion near God's throne!"
Ah, that last breath did it! Brother, you had only a breath between you and being with Christ — and that breath has been drawn, and you are with him now. There was but one gentle sigh between you and Jesus — and that sigh has been heaved; you will sigh no more forever. You are in the arms of your beloved Redeemer!
Have you ever thought, dear friends, what that moment will be when the spirit says, "Now I am in Heaven! Now I have reached home! Now the cares, the troubles, the sorrows of life are all over. Safely housed! Now I am with Christ! In Christ's own house, dwelling in the mansion which infinite love has prepared."
Surely, when you and I look round about that mansion, we shall be amazed to see the ten thousand proofs of loving forethought. Who knows what he has laid up in store for those that love him? When we get there we shall find that like a kind elder brother, he has been thinking of us for many a year, and made everything ready for our reception. There will be no passing through the doors and finding we were not expected — but in a moment we shall be embraced in the arms and welcomed to the home of our Savior!
"With Christ," Yes, with Him to see Him!
"Jesus, these eyes have never seen
That radiant form of Thine;
The veil of sense hangs dark between
Your lovely face and mine."
But when I am with him, I shall see him. Oh, dear friends, have you ever thought what it will be like to see Jesus — to look into that dear countenance that once ran with spittle for you — to look into those eyes of infinite compassion that once wept over guilty Jerusalem — to look into those dear wounds, and see the mark of the nails in his hands and feet?
To see him! Oh, how the soul will gaze upon Christ. How the ransomed will drink in with his eyes his blessed Redeemer!
With him — to see him. Yes, and with him, to hear him. Hear those lips of our adorable Savior saying, "Come, you blessed of my Father." Oh, what rapturous joy for Christ to take the soul by the hand and say, "Soul, as I died willingly for you on the cross — so I welcome you with all my heart into my home."
With him. Yes, with him, to worship him forever — to forever sing his praises, or sink adoringly at his feet! One long Sabbath, without the shadow of a Monday morning! All Lord's-day — all worship! All blessedness — all song. And then, as the joy increases, to be able to say. "Forever! forever! No nearer the end — no approaching termination!" And when ten million years have rolled their course, we are still only in the dew of our youth. Forever, and ever, and ever, singing and praising and worshiping — reveling in the great ocean of God's joy! This is what it is to be with Christ.
And now to conclude. Let me, for a moment, if I can, speak to you on these words as,
IV. The dying words of my own dear father.
It was only last month that he was in this Tabernacle. He came just before the prayer meeting, and saw me in the vestry. I never saw him in apparently better health or in a happier frame of mind; with a smile on his face he said, "I have been thinking. Archie, that I may as well pay you what I owe you towards your Tabernacle. You had better take the cheque while you can get it, for one can never tell what may happen." How little did I imagine that that was the last conversation I would ever hold with him on earth!
On the following Thursday he left home for business, seemingly in better health than usual, and very cheerful. In fact, many had noticed how much more cheerful he had been for the few previous weeks. As he left home he said, "I will not be back until late this evening, so none of you need to stop in." Doubtless, however, feeling ill, he returned home earlier than he intended. When they came home from the service at about nine o'clock, they were amazed to find my father speechless. He had been suddenly struck with paralysis, and was utterly powerless to hold any conversation. For six weeks he continued so, and sometimes it was almost more than the heart could bear to witness the efforts he made to convey his thoughts. God only knows how many prayers ascended during those six weeks, the burden of them being, "Lord, grant that before he dies, he may recover his speech!"
He never spoke to any one of us again — yet our prayers were answered, and God gave us more than we asked. We asked that he might speak to us — but the Lord said, "No, he shall speak to Me before you." It was on the Wednesday night, just as my beloved mother was rising from her knees after praying by his bedside, that the tongue which had been dumb for six weeks began to speak as clearly as it had ever spoken through life.
He said, "In the name of the Lord Jesus." Thinking it must be a dream more than anything else, she drew near the bedside, and then again she heard his voice, as clear as possible, saying, "Precious Jesus! Blessed Savior! With You soon! So precious! With you where you are! Peace; peace; peace!" and then" Rest; rest; rest!"
We tried to see if he was conscious of our presence. No, he was dead to the outside world. No pressure of the hand received any answer. No words brought any recognition. His spirit was already dwelling in another world. "Hear his praises, hear his praises!" said the dying one! Then came the closing words, "With Christ! With Christ! With Christ!" These were spoken very early on Thursday morning; and all Thursday he lay like a child asleep, gently breathing. We knew the end was near. It was just near the hour of midnight on Thursday, when he gave one deep breath; all were listening for the next, when the nurse quietly said "It's all over." And so my father fell asleep, "With Christ!" the last words on his lips.
It is not for a son to speak much of a father. I might say many things — but my heart is full. Suffice it to say that as a family, we shall ever look more upon this Tabernacle as his monument — than any stone that may be erected in the cemetery. If ever my father had his heart in anything, it was in the erection of this place.
As my friend, Mr. Spurgeon, told me the other day, "If I ever saw your father depressed, I only had to talk about the work in the East of London, and he was soon cheerful." We bless God that he ever put it into my father's heart to do what he did; but above all, we prize that precious testimony that dropped from his lips in those dying hours. And I do not know that, if I had the choice of the whole of inspired writ, I could have chosen a sweeter portion to be the last on a dying father's lips than this, "With Christ!"
Friend, when you die — will you be with Christ? Will your dying be going home? Are you ready to meet the last enemy? Oh, if not, I beseech you, as for your own life, flee to Christ! Rest your soul on him; and when death beads your brow with its cold drops, you shall then be able to say with the departed, "Precious Jesus! Precious Jesus! I can dare to die, for to die means to be with Christ."
May the Lord add His blessing for His Name's sake!