By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"I wish you did reign, so that we also could reign with you!" 1 Cor. 4:8
This is one of the very few passages in which the apostle gives vent to his feelings as a suffering and injured man. Through no less than six verses here (8-13), there runs the utterance of a solemn sorrow—we might almost call it melancholy—at the contemplation of his present lot as an apostle of the Lord.
His life had many a bitterness. Danger, weariness, contempt, persecution, hunger, thirst, nakedness, buffeting, reviling, stoning, bonds—these were its chief earthly ingredients; and had there not been something heavenly, compensating for all these, he would have been, of all men, most miserable. He felt the sorrow; for conversion had not lifted him out of the region of human feeling; yet, he seldom refers to it; and when he does, it is more with triumph than with sadness; as when he says, "I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18.)
Here his reference to his sorrows has more in it of sadness than elsewhere. Yet he has not repented of his course; he is not ashamed of his apostleship; he is willing to drink even a bitterer cup than he has yet tasted. The sadness that thus comes out is altogether natural, and shows how truly the apostle was a man; a man of like passions with ourselves. We get a passing insight into the noble soul, and learn how profoundly he felt the evils, that, like the waves of the storm, beat upon him without ceasing; and how oftentimes his heart was likely to break, even in the midst of the joy unspeakable and full of glory.
He does not draw back, nor refuse to pay the cost of apostleship. He accepts the present honor and the coming glory, with all their conditions and penalties. For the joy set before him he endures the shame. But he feels the agony; and Oh, with what a tone of serene, yet shaded feeling do we hear him speak these words, "For I think God has displayed us, the apostles, in last place, like men condemned to die: we have become a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! Up to the present hour we are both hungry and thirsty; we are poorly clothed, roughly treated, homeless; we labor, working with our own hands. When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we entreat. We are, even now, like the world’s garbage, like the filth of all things." 1 Corinthians 4:9-13
With some, I fear, there is more than the apostle's sorrow. They do not, perhaps, repent having taken up the cross; but they shrink sometimes from what it has brought upon them. They counted on a little suffering—but it has come to much. They gladly took up the cross—but they had not ascertained its weight and its sharpness. They were prepared for some bitterness; but not for all this gall and wormwood. They made ready for battle—but the fight has proved sorer and longer than they dreamed of. They were not unwilling to bear shame for his name; but the reproach has proved heavier than they can bear. They knew that they were to meet resistance from the world—but not all this enmity, this malignity, this misrepresentation. They did not refuse sacrifice and suffering; but the poverty, the disappointment, and the all but broken heart, have gone beyond their calculations. The wounds are deeper, the fiery darts are sharper, the furnace is hotter, the road is rougher, the hill is higher, the stream is deeper—than they had anticipated.
They do not wish they had not become Christians; but they hardly know what to do, nor which way to turn. They submit—but they do not count it all joy. They have the sadness of the apostle, without his exulting gladness. His was but half a sorrow, because of the joy; theirs is but half a joy, because of the sorrow. In such a case, they need to be put in mind of the apostolic hope, by which the primitive Church was sustained, lest Satan should get an advantage over them, or lest they be weary and faint in their minds.
There is another class of Christians, however, of whom Paul here more especially speaks. They are the easy-minded and self-satisfied, who think themselves full and rich. They have not been emptied from vessel to vessel, and so they have settled on their lees. They are not Laodiceans—but very near them; they are not foolish virgins—but very like them. They would not think of following the world; but they do not like the idea of confronting and condemning it. They would rather be saved from the ill-will and scorn which separation from its vanities and gaieties is sure to produce; all the while enjoying Christianity at their firesides, and congratulating themselves on the prudence by means of which they have succeeded in avoiding the reproach, without relinquishing their profession. They would rather not expose themselves to too much shame, for over-zeal, or over-decision, or over-boldness in the cause of Christ. A little compromise with the world, they think, does no harm. A proper enjoyment of its harmless amusements, they are persuaded, is of great benefit to themselves, and of wonderful use in conciliating worldly men, and smoothing away their prejudices. They look with great dislike upon the outspoken fervor of fearless single-eyed disciples, to whom Christ is everything, and the world nothing; no, they join with the scoffer in reviling these men as excited enthusiasts; professing themselves the best of Christians all the while, and announcing that the religion they admire is unostentatious and undemonstrative, modest and retiring; no, they grow warm in denouncing zeal for Christ, and never fail to add that these over-zealous Christians do more harm than good.
Of such it is that the apostle writes these words of solemn rebuke—"Already you are full! Already you are rich! You have begun to reign as kings without us!" And it is in reference to their conduct that he adds these other words of sorrowful irony—"I wish you did reign, so that we also could reign with you!" I wish that the day of reigning were come, that we might be delivered from these calamities; but, alas for us, that day has not yet broken; we are not in the kingdom yet—but only suffering the tribulation on the way to the kingdom.
Let us now ascertain the exact teaching of these words.
I. There is a reign for us.We are made kings and priests unto God, in virtue of our oneness with him who is our King and Priest as well as God's King and Priest. The Church is a royal priesthood, a noble band of Melchisedecs, each one of which can say even now, "We have received the kingdom which cannot be moved." In unison with the multitudes above, we sing not only, "You have redeemed us by your blood," but, "We shall reign on the earth." It does not yet appear what we shall be—for the disguise of mortality is on us—but we know that the crown of life; the crown of righteousness, is in store for us, and that, if we suffer, we shall also reign. Not safety merely, nor blessedness, nor glory—but a kingdom, a scepter, a throne! The world's reign is now; the Church's reign is coming. Satan is now earth's prince; Christ will soon be king.
II. That reign will end our tribulation.There is first the suffering—and then the glory. The dawn of the glory is the dispersion of the clouds, and the stilling of the storm. For that glory comes from the presence of the glorious one; and in his presence there can be no mourning, and no darkness. It is his reign, as well as ours; and into his kingdom nothing that defiles or darkens shall enter. Were that era still the time of his absence, we could not be assured of its unmingled brightness; but it is the day of his presence, and that is the assurance to us of its sorrowless splendor. There shall be no night there, for the sun goes not down. There shall be no more curse, for the Blessed One is there. The winter is past; the rain is over and gone; the clouds return no more.
Not the kingdom only—but the King, has come; and with him all his saints. The last battle is over; the usurper dethroned and bound; mortality is swallowed up of life; the days of mourning are ended; the tears are wiped away. The marriage of the Lamb is come; the Bride and the Bridegroom have met; the New Jerusalem has descended; Solomon and Pharaoh's daughter are upon its throne. We shall hear no longer of a church militant and a church triumphant; no more of a "divided Christ," or a "divided Church;" part weeping, part rejoicing; some above, some below; souls in heaven, bodies in the grave; Christ's redeemed members scattered everywhere. All this is over. Separation, distance, death, toil, weariness, sighing—all have fled away. The year of the redeemed is come. Their reproach is ended; their reigning is begun.
III. We are to look and long for that reign.When the apostle says, "I would to God that you did reign, that we also might reign with you," he meant to say, "Oh that that day were come which you seem to think has arrived already; then should we and you rejoice and triumph together." He saw nothing on this side of that reign but reproach and tribulation. Streaks of sunlight there might be—but not the day. Hours of rest might relieve the lifetime's weariness—but "the rest that remains" was awaiting the arrival of the King.
In prosperous days the Church has forgotten these things; becoming contented with the imperfect and the mortal; ceasing to sigh for the incorruptible and the undefiled. Hence she cannot be trusted with 'ease'. This has always been to her a peril and a snare. In gracious wisdom God has made her path rough and her cup bitter; that she may not take her ease, nor tarry by the way; but set her affection on things above.
In telling us of the kingdom, God meant us to think much of it, to desire it, to count all earth but a shadow, when compared to it. Our eyes are to be upward, eastward, watching for the day. Our "hearts' desire and prayer" is to be for the hastening of the kingdom. For the Church's sake, as well as for our own, we are to plead for its arrival. This is our hope; and there is none like it! These are our prospects, and what is there here that can come between them and us! It is not sentimentalism, nor fanaticism, nor fancy—to desire the kingdom. It is simple faith; that faith which is the substance of things hoped for. Love, too, constrains us to these longings. Yes, love; love to the king compels us; for while the expectation of glory to ourselves is no base nor feeble motive; yet, above and beyond this, there is personal attachment to the Lord himself—true hearted loyalty which quickens within us the vehement longing that he should be glorified!