I have already announced that during this Advent season I would call your attention to the state of the blessed dead. My object in so doing is simply that we may recall to ourselves that which Scripture has revealed respecting them, for our edification, and for our personal comfort. And I would guard that which will be said by one or two preliminary observations.
With Death as an object of terror, with Death from the mere moralist's point of view, as the termination of human schemes and hopes, we Christians have nothing to do. We are believers in and servants of One who has in these senses abolished Death. Our schemes and hopes are not terminated by Death, but reach onward into a state beyond it.
Again, with that state beyond, except as one of blessedness purchased for us by the Son of God, I am not at present dealing. It is of those that die in the Lord alone that I speak.
And this being so, it is clear that the first point about them demanding our attention is, the very commencement of their state at the moment of death. And this will form our subject to-day.
We shall be guided in its consideration by two texts of Holy Scripture. The one is that where Our Lord answers the prayer of the dying thief that He would remember him when He came into His kingdom, Luke xxiii. 43: "Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise."
And the other is an expression of St. Paul, Phil. i. 23, not improbably taken from those very words recorded in the gospel of that evangelist who was his companion in travel--"to depart and to be with Christ."
Now in both these one fact is simply declared, viz.: that the departed spirit of the faithful man is with Christ. It is as if one bright light were lifted for us in the midst of a realm brooded over by impenetrable mist. For who knows whither the departed spirit has betaken itself when it has left us here? One of the most painful pangs in bereavement by death is the utter and absolute severance, without a spark of intelligence of the departed. One hour, life is blest by their presence; the next, it is entirely and for ever gone from us, never to be heard of more. One word, one utterance--how precious in that moment of anguish do we feel that it would be! But we are certain it never will be granted us. None has ever come back who has told the story. Where the spirit wakes and finds itself,--this none has ever declared to us; nor shall we know until our own turn comes. Now in such a state of uncertainty, these texts speak for us a certain truth: The departed spirit is with Christ.
I shall regard this revelation negatively and positively: as to what it disproves, and as to what it implies.
First, then, it disproves the idea of the spirit passing at death into a state of unconsciousness, from which it is to wake only at the great day of the resurrection. If it is to be with Christ, this cannot be. Christ is in no such state of unconsciousness; He has entered into His rest, and is waiting till all things shall be put under His feet; and it would be a mere delusion to say of the blessed dead, that they shall be with Christ, if they were to be virtually annihilated during this time that Christ is waiting for His kingdom. Besides, how then would the Lord's promise to the thief be fulfilled? What consolation would it have been to him, what answer to his prayer, to be remembered when Jesus came in His kingdom, if these words implied that he should be unconsciously sleeping while the Lord was enjoying his triumph? Therefore we may safely say, that the so-called "sleep of the soul," from the act of death till the resurrection, has no foundation in that which is revealed to us.
It is perfectly true, that the state of the departed is described to us as "sleeping in Jesus," or rather, for the words are a misrendering, a having fallen asleep through, or by means of Jesus. But our texts are enough to show us, that we must not take such an expression for more than it really implies. Sleeping, or falling asleep, was a name current among Jews and Christians, and even among the best of the heathens, for death, implying its peace and rest, implying also that it should be followed by a waking: but apparently with no intent to convey any idea of unconsciousness. It is a term used with reference to us, as well as to the dead. To us, they are as if they were asleep: removed from us in consciousness, as in presence. The idea also of taking rest tended to make this term appropriate. But it must not be used to prove that to which it evidently had no reference.
The spirit, then, of the departed does not pass into unconsciousness. What more do we know of it? It is with Jesus.
We have now to consider what this implies. And in doing so we shall have further to make certain that which we think we have already proved. For first, it clearly implies more than a mere expression of safe-keeping, or reserve for a future state of blessedness. "The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there shall no harm happen to them." This is one thing: but to be with Christ is another. We might again appeal to the spirit of the promise made to the penitent thief, in order to show this: we might remind you that in the other text, St. Paul is comparing the two states--life in the midst of his children in the faith, and death; and he says, "I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better:" better than being with you, my Philippians.
So that more must be meant than mere safe keeping in the Redeemer's hands. We may surely say, that nothing less than conscious existence in the presence of Christ can be intended. And if that is intended, then very much more is intended also, than those words at first seem to imply. Remember the contrast which this same Apostle elsewhere draws. "We know," he says, "that while we are present in the body, we are absent from the Lord: for we walk by faith, not by appearance: we are willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord." That is, if we follow out the thought, this present state of dwelling in our home the body is a state of severance from the Lord; but there is a better state, into which we shall be introduced when this house of the body is pulled down: and from the context in that place we may add, much as we wish to be clothed upon with our new and glorious body which is from heaven, yet even short of that, we have learned to prefer being simply unclothed from the body, because thus we shall be present with the Lord.
So that we may safely assume thus much, my brethren: that the moment a Christian's spirit is released from the body, it does enter into the presence of our Blessed Lord and Saviour, in a way of which it knows nothing here: a way which, compared to all that its previous faith could know of Him, is like presence of friends compared to absence.
Now let us take another remarkable passage of Holy Writ bearing on this same matter. St. John, in his first Epistle says, "Beloved, now are we children of God, and it never yet was manifested what we shall be; but if it should be manifested, we know that we shall be like Him: for we shall see Him as He is:" for this is the more accurate rendering of the words: meaning, if any one could come back, or come down, to us, and tell us what our future state is to be, the information could amount for us now only to this, that we shall be like Him, like Christ; because we shall see Him as He is. And in treating these words at considerable length last year, I pressed it on you that this concluding sentence might bear two meanings: either, we shall be like Him, because in order to see Him as He is, we must be like Him; or, we shall be like Him, because the sight of Him as He is will change us into His perfect likeness. For, our present purpose, or indeed for any purpose, it matters little which of these meanings we take. At any rate, we have gained this knowledge from St. John's words, that the sight of the Blessed Lord which will be enjoyed by the Christian's spirit on its release from the body, will be accompanied by being also perfectly like Him.
Now, here, my brethren, are the elements of an immediate change, blessed and joyous beyond our conception. Let us spend the rest of our time to-day in dwelling upon it.
And I will not now insist on the deliverance of the spirit from the infirmity, or pain, or decay of the body; because this is not so in all cases. Many a Christian's spirit is set free from a body in perfect vigour and health. Let us take nothing but what is common to all who believe in and serve the Lord. Now what is our present state with reference to Him whom all Christians love? It is, absence. And it is absence aggravated in a way that earthly absence never is. For not only have we never seen Him, which is a case perfectly imaginable in earthly relations, but also, which hardly is, we have no absolute proof of His existence, nor of His mind towards us. Even as far as this, is matter of faith and not of appearance. We have no token, no communication, from Him. I suppose there hardly ever was a Christian yet, living under the present dispensation, entirely dependent upon his faith, who has not at some time or other had the dreadful thought cross his mind--overborne by his faith, but still not wholly extinguished, "What if it should not be true after all?" And much and successfully as we may contend with these misgivings of unbelief, yet that frame of mind which is represented by them, that wavering, fitful, unsteady faith, ever accompanies us. The distress arising from it is known to every one who has the Christian life in him. Only those never doubt who have never believed: for doubt is of the very essence of belief. But some poor souls are utterly cast down by the fact of its existence--shrink from these half-doubting fits as of themselves deadly sin, and are in continual terror about their soul's safety on this account: others, of stronger minds, regard them truly as inevitable accompaniments of present human weakness, but of course struggle with them, and evermore yearn to be rid of them.
Now if what we have been saying be true,--and I have endeavoured not to go beyond the soberest inferences from the plain language of Scripture,--if so much be true, then the moment of departure from the body puts an end for ever to this imperfect, struggling, fitful state of faith and doubt. The spirit that is but a moment gone, that has left that well-known, familiar tabernacle of the body a sudden wreck of inanimate matter, that spirit is with the Lord. All doubt, all misgiving, is at an end. Every wave raised by this world's storms, this world's currents of interest, this world's rocks and shallows, is suddenly laid, and there is a great calm. Certainty, for doubt--the sight of the Lord, for the conflict of assurance and misgiving--the face of Christ, for the mere faith in Christ--these have succeeded, because the departed spirit is "with the Lord"--companying with Him.
Before we follow this out farther, let us carefully draw one great distinction. We must not make the too common mistake of confusing this sight of the Lord which immediately follows on the act of death, with that complete state of the glorified Christian man, of which we shall have to speak in a subsequent sermon. Though greater than our thoughts can now conceive, the bliss of which we are speaking to-day is incomplete. The spirit which has been set free from the body is alone, and without a body. This is not the complete state of man. It is a state to us full of mystery--inconceivable in detail, though easily apprehended as a whole. We must take care, in what we have further to say, that this is fully borne in mind. And, bearing it in mind, let us proceed.
This sight of Christ, this calm of full unbroken assurance of His nearness and presence, what does it further imply? As far as we can at present see, certainly as much as this. First, the entire absence of evil from the spirit. It would be impossible to be with Christ in any such sense, unless there were entire agreement in will and desire with Him. It would be impossible thus to see Him as He is, without being like Him.
Let us imagine, if we can, the effect of the total extinction of evil in any one of our minds. How many energies, now tied and bound with the chain of sin, would spring upward into action! How many imprisoned yearnings would burst their bonds, and carry us onward to higher degrees of good! And all these energies, all these yearnings, can exist in the disembodied spirit. It is in a waiting, a hoping state: the greater the upward yearnings, the greater the accumulated energies for God and His work, the higher will be the measure of glory to be attained after the redemption of the body, and the completion of the entire man.
Well--as another consequence, following close on the last, all conflict, from that same moment, is at an end. Conflict is ordained for us, is good for us, now. If it were to cease here below, we should fall back. We have not entered into rest, it would not be good for us to enter into rest, in our present state. Here, this little platform, so to speak, of our personality, is drawn two ways, downward and upward: and it is for us who stand thereon, to keep watch and ward that the downward prevail not; but from that moment, the dark links of the downward chain will have been for ever severed, and the golden cord that is let down from the Throne will bear us upward and onward, unopposed. So that as to conflict, there will be perfect rest.
And let us remember another matter. If the departed spirit were during this time dwelling on its own unworthiness, casting back looks of self-reproach, weighing accurately God's mercies and its own requitals during life past, there would of necessity be conflict: there would be bitter self-loathing, there would be pangs of repentance. It would seem, then, that during the incomplete and disembodied state, this is not so; but that all of this kind is reserved for a day when account is to be given in the body of things done in the body: and we shall see, when we come to treat of that day specially, how its account will be, for the blessed dead, itself made a blessing.
Again, as all evil will be at an end, and all conflict,--so will all labour, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours." Now labour here is a blessing, it is true: but it is also a weariness. It leads ever on to a greater blessing, the blessing of rest. Christ has entered into His rest; and the departed spirit shall be with Christ: faring as He fares, and a partaker of His condition. Any who have lived the ordinary term of human life in God's service (for it is only of such that we are now speaking) can testify how sweet it is to anticipate a cessation of the toil and the harassing of life: to be looking on to keep the great Sabbath of the rest reserved for the people of God. What more may be reserved for us in the glorious perfect state which shall follow the resurrection, is another consideration altogether: but it clearly appears that the intermediate disembodied state is one of rest.
And let none cavil at the thought, that thus Adam may have rested his thousands of years, and the last taken of Adam's children only a few moments. Time is only a relative term, even to us. A dream of years long may pass during the sound that awakens a man; and a sleep of hours appears but a second. What do we know of time, except as calculated by earthly objects? Day and night, the recurrence of meals,--these constitute time to us: shut up a man in darkness, and administer his food at irregular intervals, and he loses all count of time whatever. Surely, then, no cavil on this score can be admitted. In that presence where the departed spirits are, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
Let us conclude with a consideration, to a Christian the most glorious of all. The spirit that is with Christ in nearest presence and consciousness, knows Him as none know Him here. Here, we speak of His purity, His righteousness, His love, His triumph and glory, with miserably imperfect thoughts, and in words still more imperfect than our thoughts. We are obliged to employ earthly images to set forth heavenly things. The revelations of Scripture itself are made through a medium of man's invention, and are bounded by our limited vocabulary. But then it will be so no longer. The Apostle compares our seeing here to that of one who beholds the face of his friend in a mirror of metal, sure to be tarnished and distorting: and our vision there to beholding the same face to face,--the living features, the lips that move, the eyes that glisten. That spirit which has but now passed away, knows the love that passes our knowledge; contemplates things which God has prepared for them that love Him, such as eye has never seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive.
Therefore, beloved, let us be of good cheer concerning them that have fallen asleep through Jesus: and let us be of good cheer respecting ourselves. Good as it is to obey and serve God here, it has been far better for them to depart and to be with Christ; and it will be far better for us, if we hold fast our faith and our confidence in Him firm unto the end. If to us to live is Christ, then to us to die will be gain.