Christ the Keyholder of the Eternal World
by James Buchanan
"When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hell." Revelation 1:17-18
Every clause of this sublime declaration, coming as it does from our glorified Redeemer, is pregnant with assurance and consolation to his believing people, and is specially fitted to banish those fearful and anxious forebodings which oppress their minds in the prospect of dissolution.
"I am the living one" the first and the last, without beginning of days or end of years, self-existent, and, therefore, independent of every outward condition, and incapable of change. He asserts his supreme divinity as a reason why his disciples should "not fear;" and, surely, to every Christian mind, the fact, that the Son of Man, in whom they have trusted as their Savior, is "the Living One," may well furnish a ground of unshaken confidence, since it assures us that, happen what may, our trust is reposed on one, whose existence, and whose power to affect our welfare, cannot be destroyed by any event whatever, and that our interests for eternity are absolutely safe, being placed in his hands.
But how much greater ought to be our confidence in him, and how much sweeter the consolation which his words impart, when he adds, "I WAS dead." He appears to the Apostle not simply as "the Living One," the self-existent Son of God but as God manifested in the flesh, the Son of God in human nature, and even in his glorified state, "like unto the Son of Man," whom the beloved disciple had ofttimes seen and followed as the "man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief."
Let us attempt to conceive of the feelings with which the beloved disciple must have looked on his glorified Master; let us remember that he had companied with him on earth, that he had leaned upon his bosom, and that he knew the sad history of his crucifixion and we cannot fail to perceive how the mere fact, that the same divine Redeemer now stood before him, and spoke with him of the decease which he had accomplished at Jerusalem, must have served to annihilate in the mind of the Apostle the fear of death, and to open up to his view such a glorious prospect into the invisible world, as would strip the pathway that led to Heaven of its terrors, however dark and dismal it might otherwise be.
And to every Christian, the words of our Lord, "I was dead," will suggest reflections that should serve to fortify the mind against the fear of dissolution; or, at all events, to rebuke and mitigate the aversion with which it is usually contemplated.
Did the Redeemer die a Being who claims to himself the dignity of "the Living One" a Being not only of infinite dignity but of spotless purity, and who, from the beginning until the end of his existence on earth, was the object of God's supreme delight and approbation? And shall we complain that death is allotted as our portion also? We, who, as created beings, are insignificant by inheritance, mortal by actual guilt, polluted and debased? To us, death comes as wages earned by guilt; but even were it otherwise did death come to us as an accident of our being should we complain of the hardness of our lot, when Christ himself declares, "I was dead?"
Did the Redeemer die as the surety and representative of sinners? Was his death a solemn expiation of our guilt, and an adequate satisfaction to God for the penalty which we had incurred? Is there no reason, then, to suppose, that dying, as he did, in the room and on behalf of the guilty death met him in a more formidable shape, and put into his hands a bitterer cup than can now fall to the lot of any of his people; and that their dissolution will be greatly less terrible than it would have been, by reason of his enduring in their room the heaviest part of it? For what is it that mainly embitters death, and surrounds it, even when viewed at a distance, with innumerable terrors? Not surely the mere pain with which it is accompanied for equal or greater pain we have often endured not the mere dissolution of the tie between soul and body for if that was before all, however our sensitive nature might shrink from the shock, our rational nature might enable us to regard it with composure not the mere separation from the society and business of the present world for that, however it may awaken a feeling of melancholy regret, can hardly account for the forebodings and terrors of which every mind is more or less conscious when it contemplates death.
No, it is something more than the mere pain of dying, or the mere dissolving of the elements of our being, or the mere separation from this world, that embitters the cup of death. "The sting of death is sin" the same sin which gave us over as a prey to death, makes us also slaves to the fear of death; for, by the unvarying law of conscience, sin and fear are bound up together; and it is a conscience burdened with guilt, and apprehensive of punishment which arrays death with terrors unknown to the inferior and irresponsible creation. But Christ died to expiate and cancel the guilt of his people; he has already endured, and by enduring, has taken away the penalty of their transgression. Death remains but its sting is taken away; so that we may "thank God, who has given us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord," and may exclaim with the Apostle, "Oh! death, where is now your sting! Oh! grave, where is your victory!"
Did the Redeemer die that he might show us an example of suffering affliction with patience, and be to us a pattern of faith and hope in our last extremity? And is there no consolation in the thought, that when You reach the shore of that dark water which divides time and eternity we can fix our eye on one who, for our sakes, crossed it in triumph before us; and think of the love of our Redeemer, who, in compassion to our fears, became "bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh," that, by his own example, he might teach us how to die? Had he returned from earth to Heaven in triumph; had he avoided the dark valley himself, and, summoning his legions of angels, left the world by a direct ascension to glory, then, whatever lessons he might have taught, and whatever commands and encouragements he might have addressed to his followers, respecting their conduct in that last hour of darkness and distress his instructions would have had little effect in comparison with the charm of his example, when, placing himself in their circumstances, and submitting to their fate, he "bowed his head and gave up the spirit;" and met death, as he commands his people to meet it, in the exercise of an unshaken confidence in God, and humble submission to his will. Where shall we find such another example of holy fortitude for our imitation? Where shall we find such another instance of success for our encouragement?
Did the Redeemer die that he might not only deprive death of its sting but overcome him that had the power of death, and take it into his own hands? Let us, then, rejoice in his success; for once Satan had the power of death but Christ has "carried captivity captive," and "Satan has fallen before him as lightning from Heaven." In that hour, which he did himself emphatically call "the hour and the power of darkness," when he was in more than mortal agony, travailing in the greatness of his strength, he vanquished death and Hell, and he wrested from the hands of our greatest enemy, and took into his own possession, the keys of death and of the invisible world. Death still reigns but Christ has now the dominion over death.
In token of his victory, the Redeemer adds, "I am ALIVE FOR EVERMORE." The grave received but it could not retain him; and while the fact of his interment may well serve to reconcile us to the peaceful grave, with all its loneliness and darkness, since it was embalmed by the presence of our Lord himself, the fact of his resurrection from the grave should enkindle the bright hope of a glorious morning, after that dark night has passed away.
For, did the Redeemer arise from the tomb? Then here, at least, is one example of restoration to life after the agony of death was past one case in which the spell of death was broken, and the cerements of the tomb burst, and the power of Satan vanquished one living monument of the immortality of man one incontestable proof, that the same body which died, and the same spirit which departed, may meet again after that fearful separation. Christ has risen, and in his resurrection we find the ground of an eternal hope.
Did the Redeemer arise from the grave in the same character in which he died as the head and representative of his people? Then his resurrection is not only the proof but the pledge; not only the evidence, but the pledge of our own. For if the head is risen, shall not the members of his body rise also? If, as our representative, he has passed into the heavens, shall not we, in whose name, and for whose behalf, he undertook and accomplished his mediatorial work, follow him in our order and time? Did we die with him and shall we not rise with him? "If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection." "If we are dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him." "Because I live, you shall live also."
Did the Redeemer not only rise from the grave but does he live for evermore? Is he the same yesterday, today, and forever? Not only eternal in his being but unchangeable in his character, as our Redeemer? What, then, should cause us to despond, or make us afraid? Or "what shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Since Christ has died, yes, also, and has risen again, and is now and forever at the right hand of God, "I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall separate us from his love!" True, we know not what may yet befall us, nor into what untried circumstances, or state of being, we may hereafter be brought; we are sure that one day we must die and enter the invisible world; and we may well be concerned for an event which will have an everlasting outcome for good or for evil; but placing our trust in the efficacy of the Redeemer's death, and believing in the fact of his resurrection, we may take his own word as the rock of our confidence and hope, "I am alive for evermore. Amen;" and "because I live you shall live also."
If these views of the death and resurrection of our blessed Lord are fitted to banish, or mitigate, the fear of dissolution, and to inspire the hope of a glorious immortality then how much should their impression be aided by the sublime statement in the last clause of the passage, "I have the keys of Hell and of death!"
The power of the keys is an absolute power a royal prerogative. Christ's authority is not confined to the visible Church on earth; it extends to the invisible world, and embraces under its jurisdiction all the disembodied spirits, of whatever character: although they have left this world, they are still under the dominion of him, of whom it is said, that "at his name every knee shall bow, of things in Heaven, of things on earth, and of things under the earth; and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
It is as the Redeemer, that he asserts his claim to the keys; that claim is founded on the fact, that "he overcame death and him that had the power of death, in order to deliver those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage;" and it is expressly declared by the Apostle, that, for this end, Christ both died and rose again, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living."
That he is the Lord of the dead, is here asserted, "I have the keys of Hell." In the original there are two terms, each of which is rendered by the word "Hell" in the English version; the one, however, literally imports the invisible world at large, while the other denotes that department of the invisible world which is specially appropriated to the punishment of the wicked.
In the passage before us, the more comprehensive term is used; and here, as elsewhere, it is to be regarded as signifying not merely the place of future punishment, although that is unquestionably included in it but, more generally, the world of spirits, the entire state of retribution, whether of reward or punishment. We learn from Scripture, that the whole of that vast world is divided into two departments, and only two Heaven and Hell; and that between the two, a great gulf is fixed an impassable gulf of separation: but separated as they are, Christ reigns over both; and when he says, "I have the keys of the invisible world," he asserts his dominion over all the spirits that have ever passed from this world, either into Heaven or Hell; and his absolute control over them in their final destination of happiness or woe.
When it is affirmed, that he has also "the key of death," it is plainly implied that no spirit can pass out of this present world without his permission or appointment; and, more generally, that he is lord of the living not less than of the dead, and has a thorough control over everything that can in any way affect the lives of men. An absolute power over death necessarily presupposes a corresponding power over life and its affairs; and it is by the exercise of his providence in sustaining life, that he fulfills his purpose as to the time and mode of their departure hence.
So that, combining these several views, we arrive at this grand and comprehensive result, that the Redeemer is possessed of absolute power over the course of our lives on earth, over the time and manner of our departure out of the world, and over that invisible state, in each of its great departments, on which our spirits enter when they leave their mortal tabernacles. And this noble testimony to the universal power and everlasting presence of Christ with his disciples, is fitted to suggest several reflections, which may be useful in dissipating their anxieties, and in fortifying their courage, when they contemplate either the future course of their pilgrimage here, or the solemn prospect of its termination, or the still more solemn, because untried and eternal, state on which they shall enter hereafter.
Has the Redeemer the keys of death? Then this consideration ought to relieve our minds both of the anxieties and the regrets which we are too apt to feel, in reference to the changes of the present life.
It should mitigate the anxiety which often preys upon the mind when we look forward into futurity, and contemplate the prospect of our own dissolution. We should remember, that as the Redeemer alone has the keys of death nothing can happen to send us forth from our work, before the time which he has appointed for our departure. Neither man nor devils can abridge the term of probation assigned to us by our gracious Master. Nor, until he is pleased to call us away, shall any power on earth or in Hell prevail against us no accident, no hostile violence, no insidious snare, no dark conspiracy, can touch our life but by his command!
The same consideration should prevent or repress the anxiety which is too often felt respecting the mode and circumstances of our dissolution not less than respecting the time of its occurrence.
This consideration should repress, not only the anxieties which we feel in regard to the future but also the regrets which we are too apt to cherish respecting the bereavements with which we have already been visited. It is not less instructive and consoling, when viewed in reference to the death of relatives and friends, than when it is considered in respect to our own prospect of dissolution. For it teaches us, that the duration of each man's existence here is determined by the Redeemer that it belongs to him to appoint a longer or shorter period to each, as he will. And in doing so, we have reason to be satisfied, that he determines according to the dictates of infallible wisdom, although the reasons of his procedure must necessarily be to us, for the present, inscrutable. We cannot tell why one is removed in infancy, another in boyhood, a third in the prime of manly vigor, and a fourth reserved to the period of old age; and, above all, why the most promising in talent and character, and the most useful in their several stations, are taken away while others of inferior worth are often left behind. But suffice it for us, that this happens not by chance, neither is it the result of caprice or carelessness but flows from that unerring wisdom, whose counsels are formed on a view of all possible relations and consequences, whether as to the visible or invisible, the present or the future states of being.
The power of death being in the hands of the Redeemer, the duration of human life is, in every instance, determined by him; and none, therefore, ought to entertain the thought, either that death is, in one case, unduly premature, or, in another, unduly delayed. None live, either for a longer or for a shorter period, than infinite wisdom has assigned to them. And as reason teaches, that to his appointment we must submit, however unwilling it being irresistible, and far beyond our control. So, as Christians, we should learn to acquiesce in it cheerfully, as the appointment of one who cannot err.
That the determined hour had arrived, is a reflection that should serve to banish every useless regret but that this hour was fixed by one in whose wisdom we confide, and of whose interest in our welfare we have the strongest assurance, is a thought which should not only induce resignation but inspire comfort and peace.
For, when death does seize any of our friends, whether in the ordinary course of disease and decay, or by violence or accident how consolatory to the mourning relatives is the thought, that it came at the bidding of the Savior, and that it has not arrived without his sanction and appointment! Otherwise, we might be apt to reflect, with unavailing regret, on certain needless exposures that might have been avoided, certain remedies whose virtues might have been tried, certain names high in professional reputation, who might have been consulted; or to dwell, with painful self-reproach, on certain accidents that might have been prevented, and injuries which timely care might have cured. The mind will often busy itself with such reflections after the loss of a near and dear friend; but the very intensity of feeling which is thus called forth, is a sufficient proof that any carelessness or negligence that may have been manifested was far, very far, from being designed or willful. And although, where criminal negligence has been shown, no doctrine, however consolatory, can prevent regret, or should repress feelings of penitential sorrow. Yet, in other cases, where the heart bears witness to its own interest in the beloved object, the doctrine of Christ's absolute command over the keys of death, and the consideration that our friend was summoned away by a deliberate act of his sovereign wisdom may well assuage the grief which such reflections on the commencement, progress, and treatment of the disease, are accustomed to awaken in the most sensitive and affectionate minds.
While this sublime statement should banish, or at least mitigate, the anxieties and regrets which we sometimes experience, in reference to the events of the present life, inasmuch as Christ's power over death implies a corresponding power over life and its affairs, it is equally fitted to fortify our minds for the last struggle of nature, since it assures us that Christ will then he present with us. In the very article of death, it gives us comfort. For, has the Redeemer the keys of death? Then he presides over that dark passage which leads from this world to the next; his power does not terminate with our present life; it extends from the world which is smiling in the cheerful light of day, to that mysterious passage which lies amidst the sepulchers of the dead, and which, to our imperfect vision is shrouded in impenetrable darkness. We know not the secrets of that passage. We cannot know what it is to die. The mind may then have views and feelings of which it is impossible for us at present to form any conception; for who shall attempt to describe what may be passing in the soul when, the tie that binds it to the body is breaking, and nature is undergoing dissolution?
And what renders that scene still more solemn is, that we die alone alone we enter on the dark valley. Friends and family may stand around our couch, and watch the progress of dissolution; but they cannot accompany us, neither are they sensible of what we feel, nor able in any way to help or deliver us. The spirit departs alone; and in that solemn hour of separation from human fellowship in that solitude of death, when, placed on the verge of the invisible world, we know that all behind must be forsaken, and are ignorant of what may meet us as we advance oh! how consolatory to reflect, that death itself is subject to the Redeemer's power that he watches over the dissolution of his people, and keeps his eye, not only on the busy scenes of life but also on the secret mysteries of death!
Yes, "precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his saints." There he is, where most we need a friend and comforter, standing at the gate of death, with absolute power over every enemy that can assail us, and with unquenchable zeal for our welfare. As dark, then, as the passage is, and unknown as are its dangers and pains surely we may venture to commit ourselves into his hands, and to say with the Psalmist, "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me;" for, says the Apostle, "all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or life or death."
As Christ has the key of the invisible world at large, so has he the key of each ward or department the keys of Heaven and of Hell.
Has he the key of Hell? Then, knowing as we do, that there are rebellious spirits of great subtlety, and power, and malice, and that they are sometimes permitted to go about as roaring lions, seeking whom they may devour, we might have many an anxious fear, lest, in the dark hour of death, some such should be watching for our spirit, when it ventures alone into the invisible world. But "precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his saints" to that death-bed, the watchful eye of the Savior is directed; he can and will restrain the malice of our enemies; and his promise is, that "whoever believes on him shall never come into condemnation," and that "none shall pluck them out of his Father's hand!"
And has the Redeemer the keys of Heaven that blessed asylum of purity and peace, where, in the midst of his redeemed, the Savior himself dwells? Then, in the hands of our best friend, one who is pledged to us by the sacredness of his word, and by the shedding of his own blood in his hands is the power of admitting us. And will he shut the door against us? he who, for the opening of that door, descended from Heaven to earth, and whose prayer was and is, "Father, I will that those who you have given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory?"
No! The door of Heaven is thrown open for the reception of his penitent and believing people. Even now is he "preparing a place for them in his Father's house, where there are many mansions;" and thus will he receive and welcome them, on their departure hence:
"Come, you blessed of my Father inherit the kingdom prepared for you!"
"Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Lord!"
"I am the Resurrection and the Life!" John 11:25
Dead in sin, and deep in shame,
Kindle, Lord, a vital flame;
Bid the clouds and darkness flee,
Bid me rise and rest in Thee
Raise me Savior,
Raise to all eternity.
Breathe into this soul of mine
Life eternal, life divine;
Slay these passions, fierce and rife,
End, end this mortal strife
You the victory are and life.
Free from sin from Satan free;
Let my life be hid with Thee;
Send your seraphs from the skies,
Seal this living sacrifice
Ceaseless let this incense rise!
O'er the silence of the tomb,
May celestial vigor bloom;
When the world dissolves in fire,
Then in robes of light attire
May I join the immortal choir!