By William S. Plumer, 1867
"Come, let us shout joyfully to the Lord, shout
The family of Christ was the most interesting society that ever existed on earth. Most of its members were remarkable characters; and the head of this household was the most wonderful person that ever appeared in any world.
In such a brotherhood we should look for affecting scenes. Nor are we disappointed. It is not rash to say that the last interview, before the crucifixion, between Christ and his disciples, was as tender and overpowering as any of which the human mind can form a conception. While inspiration employs no epithets to characterize it, we yet have the substance of what was said and done. The chief source of affliction to the disciples in the upper chamber, where for the last time they celebrated the Passover, and for the first time partook of the Lord's supper, was the prospect of their Master's leaving them. To prepare their minds for this event, he said many soothing things, yet did he not conceal the fact of his departure: "I go away;" "I go unto my Father;" "I tell you the truth: it is expedient for you that I go away." John 14:3, 12; 16:7.
The subject of Christ's absence from the visible church is in many respects one of great interest, and has always been made to hold an important place in Christian doctrine, and in pious meditations. Their belief on this point, greatly affects men's comfort and efficiency.
From the best views we can get, it is clear that it was in itself proper that our Lord should go to his Father when he did. In proof it may be said—
That it is fit and right that honor should follow faithful and eminent service, and that the highest honors should follow so distinguished services as those rendered by Jesus Christ. This is the Scriptural method of speaking on this subject: "When you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed. He shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied." Isaiah 53:10, 11. Compare Phil. 2:7-9.
It was right that Moses after serving God and his generation, should enter upon his reward; but Moses was a mere servant, and an imperfect one too. He owed all the obedience he ever rendered. But Christ was a Son, and his whole work was in the highest sense voluntary. Yet in the form of a servant he rendered perfect and blameless obedience. He never once failed. Truly did he say to his Father, "I have glorified you on the earth." He brought to God such a revenue of honor as none else in heaven or earth ever did or can do. Well, therefore, might he say, "Now, O Father, glorify me"—in the presence of all your creatures, let suitable honors follow my humiliation. If angels, who owe all the obedience which they render, are crowned with heavenly glory, how much more proper that Christ should receive honor and glory from God. If he who so preeminently merited the richest gifts of God had failed to receive them, how could poor sinners, though they believe in him, hope for anything good?
Moreover, ever since Christ's incarnation, a large majority of his real people have been in heaven, and it seems proper that as their bliss and glory are in and through Christ, he should be personally with them, and by his presence make them glad.
From the days of righteous Abel to the time of Christ, there was a long succession of pious men, who believed in the Redeemer, and walked with God. They endured much for his name. They loved him. They saw his day approaching and rejoiced in it. They were as dear to Christ as the people of God in any age could be. They were saved by his blood. And there were many of them. Even in one nation, and when there was a great apostacy, God says there were seven thousand who had not revolted to idol-worship. What number of souls before Christ's birth were saved, none can tell; but beyond a doubt far more of the redeemed have for long centuries been in heaven than have been living on the earth at any one time. Is it not proper that the great body of Christ's followers who are in heaven, should enjoy his personal presence? Is he not their light and life and glory? Is he not the admiration of all his saints? Yes the Lamb is the light of that bright world. His presence fills it with radiance and effulgence. His ascension brought to it a vast accession of gladness. It may then be asked, Would it be proper that we upon earth, a mere handful, should have his bodily presence, while all heaven should be left without it? Blinded as we are by ignorance and sin, even we may see a fitness in this arrangement. Surely it is right that the great cloud of witnesses, who have, in ages of darkness long gone by, stood their ground and fought the good fight, should have with them the great Captain of salvation and rejoice in his fullness and glory, even though we, who for the trial of our faith remain on the earth, should be deprived of his blessed presence.
Besides, it seems proper that one having so vast dominions should dwell in the capital of his empire. Christ's authority and government are over all creatures and all worlds. This earth is a mere speck in creation. It probably constitutes not a millionth part of the intelligent universe. Since sin has entered, this world has become peculiarly unfit for the residence of any one in a glorified state. Much less is it suited to be the great center of influences in the kingdom of God. When Christ was in the world, it was in a way of voluntary exile from his proper home and country. One thing we know: he has chosen another part of the universe for the seat of his throne; having fixed the center of his kingdom there, it is right that he should not desert it.
It is also expedient for Christ's people on earth that he should not be in this world, but in heaven. Suppose that he were here; he must be here either in glory or in humiliation; either bearing the signs of majesty and divinity which now attend him in heaven, or in apparent weakness, his godhead covered with a thick veil, and himself appearing much like other men. If here in glory, who could abide his coming? His brightness is intolerable to the eyes of mortals. Even when Moses had been in the mount but forty days, conversing with God and beholding his glory, his countenance acquired such brightness that upon his coming among the people it was necessary that he should put a veil upon his face. They could not look upon him. Yet Moses was a mere man, and a sinful man too. How then could we, with open face, behold the KING in his glory? Isaiah saw Him in a vision before His incarnation, and the sight so overpowered him as to make him cry out, "Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty!" Isaiah 6:5; John 12:41. When Christ was transfigured before his disciples, and his raiment became shining, even his most intimate friends who were present became "sore afraid," so much so that Mark says Peter "knew not what to say." If the transfiguration produced such terror even on bosom friends, how could the mass of men, even of Christian men, while in the body, endure his divine effulgence?
From these and like known facts, it is apparent that a full vision of Christ's unveiled glory would not be to us, in our present state, tolerable. In his 'History of Redemption', Edwards properly says: "It is not to be supposed that any man could exist under a sight of the glory of Christ's human nature as it now appears." At such a vision we should, like Saul of Tarsus, become blind; or like John, as dead men. Should Christ, therefore, be personally present on earth for our good, it could not be in his glorified condition, but in a state of humiliation. And is it right that the Son of God should again humble himself and assume the form of a servant? If he should reappear in a lowly state on earth, where would be the assurance that his faithful followers shall ever be glorified? The servant may not expect more honor than the Master; the disciple will not rise higher than his Lord. How then could we believe that our glorification should ever come and never cease, if Christ should be brought back to earth in a lowly condition? Verily it is expedient for us that Christ, having overcome, should sit down on his Father's throne, and thus certify us—that when we shall have overcome we shall sit down with him on his throne.
Nor is this all. If Christ were here in person, that is, in his human nature, in any state in which we could bear his presence, it is evident that he could not be everywhere on earth at once. Omnipresence belongs not to manhood in any state. Christ's human nature possesses not the attribute of omnipresence. If then he were here, he must at any one time be in some particular place in a sense in which he could not be in other places. Then, in order to enjoy his bodily presence, the whole church must be assembled in one spot or vicinity, and thus the perishing nations would be left without the light of holy examples and gospel preaching; or the Savior would of necessity travel over the earth, visiting every portion of the world; and even then many of his devoted followers would never see him. The sick, and the poor, and the prisoner would be among the less favored of his followers. Thus would be created continual dissatisfaction in the church, some thinking one place too highly favored, and others neglected. Indeed it is very probable that, blind as we are, all the pious now feel the Savior to be nearer to them than they would if he were anywhere upon earth. Is not this view of the matter just and important?
There is still another thought upon this subject. The absence of our Savior is the means of furnishing an excellent test of character. In the parable of the talents, our Lord seems to teach this doctrine. He represents himself as one "traveling into a far country," and "after a long time coming and reckoning with his servants." In this way all motives except those arising from genuine love to him lost their force; and if his servants were not sound at heart, they would evince their true character by disregarding his will; and if they really loved him, their devotion to his interests would not die out as he left them. Eye-servants are often very industrious when their master is looking on; but faithful servants are governed by higher principles. Their controlling purpose is to do right, whether they are applauded, or neglected, or blamed. Our Lord alludes to this matter when he says, "Blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when he comes, shall find watching; verily I say unto you that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down at table, and will come forth and serve them . . . . But and if that servant say in his heart, 'My Lord delays his coming,' and shall begin to beat the men-servants and maidens, and to eat and drink and to be drunken, the Lord of that servant will come in a day when he looks not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers." Luke 12:37, 45, 46. No man ever loved Christ who did not love him present or absent; and all must admit that cheerful and uniform obedience to him in his absence, is to us and to our neighbors the best proof we can give of sincere attachment to his cause and his person.
Furthermore, if Christ were here upon earth in an humble state, would not the feelings of his people be continually mortified and deeply wounded by the direct insults and personal indignities offered him by his foes? The world is in no better humor with holiness than it ever was. Christ's presence on earth would be a continual and sharp rebuke to the abounding wickedness of every age and country; and those who are in love with sin, and determined not to forsake it, would bear reproof no better now than formerly. To a godly man, what could be more trying than to have continual slanders uttered respecting the daily conduct of his Savior, and to know that wicked conspiracies were constantly forming against his person? Even if all plots should be defeated by miracle or otherwise, it would still keep the church in deep distress to witness fearful exhibitions of deadly malice against their Beloved. Or if the Lord were here and invulnerable, his friends would be subjected to unusual and dreadful persecutions for cleaving to One whose light terribly condemned the world. Now the Christian rejoices that, however malevolence may vent itself against Christ, he is forever beyond its reach. May not this explain what he means by that saying, "If you loved me, you would rejoice because I said, I go unto the Father?" John 14:28.
Again, in Christ's absence faith has full scope for exercise; whereas, were he present we should walk somewhat at least by sense, and not by faith only. Any arrangement friendly to the vigorous growth of faith is advantageous to the pious. It was, indeed, a great privilege to be able with the disciples to say: "We have seen with our eyes, . . . and our hands have handled of the Word of life." Compared with ages preceding, the lifetime of our Savior afforded great privileges to the godly. Nor is it asserted that faith and sight necessarily destroy each other; but we may say that faith has now fewer obstacles to overcome than if Christ were here. For then it would not be easy to separate, or even distinguish emotions awakened by sight from those which spring from a living faith. In the days of our Lord's flesh many, moved by what they saw, outwardly became his followers. Though they had no pious confidence in him, nor reliance on him, yet they mistook their strong feelings for true piety; but the root of the matter was not in them. Under one pungent discourse many such forsook him. John 6:66.
It is indeed true that the distance of the sun makes it appear to us very small; but by the aid of science, we learn its dimensions and know his vastness. Now faith is "divine reason," as Leighton calls it. It corrects the errors of sense. It teaches us firmly to believe, and on the best grounds—the word of God—that the Sun of Righteousness is far more glorious than we can conceive; and of course more glorious than we could possibly apprehend by our senses. Foster well says that it is "evident that to see the Messiah in his personal manifestation was a mode of contemplating him very inferior, for the excitement of the sublimer kind of affection, to that which we have to exercise by faith. It is true that to those who regard him as nothing more than a man, all this will appear impertinent and fantastic. But those who solemnly believe that their salvation depends on his being infinitely more, will feel the importance of all that gives scope to their faculties for magnifying the idea of their Redeemer."
Now that Jesus is in heaven "we have no exact and invariable image, placing him before us as a person that we know; exhibiting him in the mere ordinary garb of humanity." Now "we can with somewhat more facility give our thoughts an unlimited enlargement in contemplating his sublime character. Thus also we are left in greater freedom in the effort to form some grand though glimmering idea of him as possessing a glorious body, assumed after his victory over death. Our freedom of thought is more entire for arraying the exalted Mediator in every glory which speculation, imagination, devotion can combine to shadow forth the magnificence of such an adored object."
Our Savior himself has pronounced a special blessing on those who believe without seeing. To Thomas he said, "Because you have seen, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed." This settles the point. We may fearlessly assert that the present arrangement is more advantageous to believers, however weak their faith, than if our Lord had continued on earth after his resurrection, or were now to return again to this world.
We should not forget that no physical view of Christ is profitable to the soul. Thousands saw him, conversed with him, traveled with him, ate with him, heard his sermons, witnessed his miracles—were as little profited as if he had been a common man. It is a remarkable fact that no picture of our Savior was ever taken, fables to the contrary notwithstanding, and that we have no reliable description of his stature, of his figure, of his gait, of his complexion, or of anything respecting his personal appearance. The Bible says, "his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men;" and there it leaves the matter, as if to warn us not to indulge in carnal thoughts of him.
If an artist should give to the church a perfect likeness of our Savior, as he appeared in the days of his flesh, he might indeed lead many into idolatry; but he would render no real service to any true believer. It is as true of the Son as of the Father that he who worships him must worship him in spirit. Does anyone seriously believe that our spiritual conceptions of the glory and grace of Christ would be in the least aided by the knowledge of anything respecting his outward appearance as a man?
It is enough for us to know that the Son of man is glorified, and that he shines with a brightness above the brightness of the sun. His is a "glorious body."
Nor should we forget that our Savior assigns yet other reasons for leaving his disciples: "I go to prepare a place for you." "I tell you the truth: it is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you." John 14:2; 16:7. The great promise of a copious descent of the Spirit is in importance second to none ever made. The Holy Spirit is God, has all divine perfections, has never been incarnate, works in the church unseen, yet mightily. He is essentially everywhere present, he is infinitely loving and tender, and in all respects suited to apply the work of redemption. He comes not to speak of himself, but he takes of the things of Christ, and shows them. He glorifies Christ. John 16:13-15.
Should any inquire why Christ's abode on earth was inconsistent with the abundant gracious presence of the Holy Spirit, we might, perhaps, without irreverence, assign certain reasons of fitness in the case, drawn from the nature of things. We might dwell upon the fact that the word Comforter and the word Advocate are in the original the same word, that both the second and the third persons of the Trinity are called Advocates or Comforters, and both make intercession for us, though in different ways. John 16:7; 1 John 2:1; Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:26. It seems proper that so long as a part of the church is above and a part below, one of the Advocates or Comforters should be on earth, while the other is in heaven. We need not speculate, but rest the whole upon Christ's word—that if he did not go away, the Spirit would not be poured out. He lays this down as an ultimate, though certain truth. The church may not expect the personal presence of Christ, and the copious effusion of the Holy Spirit at the same time. There were days of Pentecost when our Lord was on earth, but none of them was marked by the descent of the Spirit, like a mighty rushing wind, converting thousands in a day. All the glorious revivals witnessed since Christ's ascension, have been in consequence of his absence from the church below. He said: "He who believes on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do, because I go unto my Father." John 14:12. The blessed Spirit comforts ten thousands, yes, ten millions of hearts at once, filling with joy the souls of believers, at the same hour, in different parts of the world. This is better than Christ's personal presence on earth. The Spirit is in all, through all, over all. He is just such a Comforter, just such an Advocate, as the church militant needs. His presence may revive ten thousand churches at once, and each of them be as much blessed as if his visit was to it alone.
1. The present arrangement of all things concerning the church is the best.If there ever was a point respecting the expediency of which the pious might have doubted, it was Christ's leaving them on earth. Yet even his personal followers lived to see that this dark event was for the best. Man, with his ignorance and folly, will never be able to suggest any improvement in God's method of governing the world and saving the church. It is best that Christ should be on the other side of Jordan and beckon us over. Rays of heavenly brightness from the upper world light up our darkness even in our passage to eternity. The Sun of Righteousness gilds the path of dying saints. The departing believer now rejoices that he is going to his Savior. Death is far less dismal than it would be if, in leaving earth, we were going away from the blessed Redeemer.
Besides, after the High Priest has shed his blood, what is so proper as that he should go into the holy of holies, sprinkle the mercy-seat, appear for us in the presence of God, and execute the full work of intercession for his chosen?
As things now are, Christ is the great attraction to heaven and heavenly-mindedness.
2. Let the people of God everywhere and always rejoice in a Savior risen and made higher than the heavens.Let them do this in adversity as well as in prosperity. Bates says: "One of the sorest and most dangerous temptations of the afflicted is, that they are out of God's favor. The mourning veil darkens the eyes of their minds, that they cannot reconcile his gracious promises with his providential dispensations; or the good things he has prepared for hereafter with the evil he sends here. Gideon complained to the angel, 'If God is with us—why does all this evil come to us?' Augustine introduces God as thus addressing his afflicted and tempted child: 'Is this your faith? Did I promise temporal prosperity to you? Were you made a Christian that you might flourish in this world?'" Blessed be God, who has said, "As many as I love I rebuke and chasten." God had one Son in this world without sin, but never a son here without affliction. His promise is, I will bring them through the fire, and they shall be refined as gold and silver is tried; and they shall say, The Lord is my God. Zech. 13:9. If it were expedient for the Master to leave the disciples, surely it is no great stretch of faith to believe that it may be for our good that friends, and health, and prosperity, and reputation should leave us. He who overrules for good the heaviest losses, will not permit lesser ones to do us harm.
3. All things are now ready for the conversion of sinners and for subduing the world to knowledge, to love, and to obedience.The atonement is finished. Christ has made an end of transgression. His work has been owned and accepted before heaven and earth. His ascension was a public triumph in the presence of angels and men. In it he led captivity captive, and received gifts for men. The chief of the mercies he sends down to accompany pardon of sin and acceptance—is the sanctifying, enlightening, and comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. In God's government, all obstacles to the salvation of sinners who will believe have been removed. The propitiatory has been sprinkled with precious atoning blood. It is now indeed a mercy-seat, and it is accessible to all the guilty sons of men who are willing to bow before it; so that we may now proclaim aloud: "Let us come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." If we need more grace, more liveliness in our affections, more success in our labors, we have access to God. The door is open to poor, perishing men, the guilty and the helpless. Let them only look and live—believe and be saved.