We stand to-day at this point in our consideration of the state of the blessed dead. They depart, and are with Christ. "This day," the day of the departure, they are consciously, blissfully, in His presence. Their faith is turned into sight: their misgivings are changed for certainty: their mourning for joy. Yet, we said, their state is necessarily imperfect. The complete condition of man is body, soul, and spirit. The former of these three, at all events, is wanting to the spirits and souls of the righteous. They are in a waiting, though in an inconceivably blissful state. Of the precise nature of that state,--of its employments, if employments it has, we know nothing. All would be speculation, if we were to speak of these matters.
Our concern to-day is with the termination of that their incomplete condition. When shall it come to an end? We have this very definitely answered for us by St. Paul, in a chapter of which we shall have much to say, and in a verse of that chapter which we will take for our text, 1 Cor. xv. 23. Notice, he is speaking of the resurrection of the dead: and he says, "But every one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits: afterward they that are Christ's at His coming."
Well then: from these words it is clear that the end of the expectant state of the blessed dead, and the reunion of their spirits with their risen bodies, will take place at the coming of Christ. Here at once we are met by a necessity to clear and explain that which these words import. In these days, it is by no means superfluous to say that we Christians do look forward to a real personal coming of our Lord Jesus Christ upon this our earth. I sometimes wonder whether ordinary Christian men and women ever figure to themselves what this means. I suppose we hardly do, because we fancy it is so far off from ourselves and our times, that we do not feel ourselves called upon to make it a subject of our practical thoughts. To this we might say, first, that we are by no means sure of this; and then, that even if it were true, the interest of that time of His coming for every one of us is hardly lessened by its not being near us, seeing that if we be His, it will be, whenever it comes, the day of our resurrection from the dead. It is evidently the duty of every Christian man to make it part of his ordinary thoughts and anticipations--that return of the Lord Jesus from heaven, even as He was seen to go up into heaven. Now, our object to-day is to ascertain how much we know from Scripture, without indulging in speculations of our own, about this coming, and this resurrection which shall accompany it. The latter of these two we made the subject of a sermon a very few Sundays ago; but it was not so much with our present view, as to lay down the hope of the resurrection as an element among the foundations of the Christian life.
Now one of the first and most important revelations respecting this matter is found in the fourth chapter of 1 Thess., ver. 13-18. These Thessalonians had been, as we learn from the two epistles to them, strangely excited about the coming of the Lord's kingdom. Perhaps the Apostle's preaching among them had taken especially this form; for he was accused before the magistrates of saying that there was besides or superior to Caesar another king, one Jesus. And in this excitement of the Thessalonians, fancying as they did that the Lord's kingdom would come in their own time, they thought that their friends who through Jesus had died a happy death were losers by not having lived to witness the Lord's coming. Indeed, they sorrowed for them as those that had no hope: by which expression it seems likely that they even supposed them to be altogether cut off from the benefits and blessedness of that coming by not having been able to see it in the flesh. Thereupon St. Paul puts them right by saying,--using the same argument as in that great resurrection chapter, 1 Cor. xv.,--that "if we believe that Jesus Himself died and rose again, even so also those who through Jesus have fallen asleep will God bring with Him," that is, will God bring back to us when He brings back to us Jesus.
You may just observe, by the way, that the whole force of what the Apostle says is very commonly lost, by a wrong method of reading these words. We very commonly hear them read, "will God bring with him." But thus we, as I said, lose the force of the argument, which is:--If Jesus, our first-fruits, our representative, died and rose again, so will all who die in union with Jesus rise again. And in order to that, the same power of God which brings Jesus back to us, will with Him, with Jesus, bring their spirits back, in order to that resurrection.
Well, what then? "This we say unto you by the word of the Lord"--thus the Apostle introduces, not an argument, not a command or saying of his own, but a special revelation--"that we, which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord" (for notice that at first, at the early time when these Thessalonian epistles were written, first of all St. Paul's letters, the Apostle looked forward to that day of which neither man nor angel knoweth, as about to come on in his own time) shall have no advantage, no priority, over them which have fallen asleep. And why? For this reason--that "the Lord Himself shall come down from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first:" that is, shall rise before anything else happens--any changing, or summoning to the Lord, of us who are alive.
Now here let us pause in the sacred text, and consider what it is which we have before us. Mind, we are speaking to-day, as the Apostle is speaking in this passage, entirely of the blessed dead; of those of whom it may be said that through Jesus their death is but a holy sleep. We have clearly this before us:--at a certain time, fixed in the counsels of God, the Father, known to no created being,--mysteriously unknown also, for He Himself assures us of this in words which no ingenuity can explain away, to the Son Himself in His state of waiting for it,--at that fixed time the Lord, that is, Christ, shall appear in the sky, visible to men in His glorified body; and His coming shall be announced to men by a mighty call, a signal cry, and by the trumpet of God.
Now let me at once say that as to such expressions as this, when we are told that they cannot bear their literal meaning, but are only used in condescension to our human ways of speaking, and thus an attempt is made to deprive them in fact of all meaning, I do not recognise any such rule of interpretation. If the words are used to suit our human ways of thinking, I can see no reason why the things signified by those words may not also be used to affect our senses, which will be still human, when the great day comes. As to the sound being heard by all, or as to the Lord being seen by all, I can with safety leave that to Him who made the eye and the ear, and believe that if He says so, He will find the way for it to be so.
Now let us follow on with the description. With the Lord Jesus, accompanying Him, though unseen to those below on the earth, will be the myriads of spirits of the blessed dead, And notice,--for it is an important point, since Holy Scripture is consistent with itself in another place on this matter,--that at this coming none are with the Lord, no spirits of the departed, I mean, except those of the blessed dead. In other words, this is not the general coming to judgment, when the whole of the dead shall stand before God, but it is that first resurrection of which the Evangelist speaks in the Apocalypse, when he says, chap. xx. 5, "The rest of the dead lived not again until (a prescribed time which he mentions, whatever that may mean) the thousand years were finished This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection; on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ."
Then, the Lord being still descending from heaven and on the way to this world, the dead in Christ shall rise first--the first thing: the graves shall be opened, and the bodies of the saints that sleep shall come forth, and, for so the words surely imply, their spirits, which have come with the Lord, shall be united to those bodies, each to his own.
Here, again, I can see no difficulty. The same body, even to us now on earth, does not imply that the same particles compose it. And even the expression "the same body" is perhaps a fallacious one. In St. Paul's great argument on this subject in 1 Cor. xv. he expressly tells us, that it is not that body which was sown in the earth, but a new and glorified one, even as the beautiful plant, which springs from the insignificant or the ill-favoured seed, is not that which was sown, but a body which God has given. Whatever the bodies shall be, they will be recognised as those befitting the spirits which are reunited to them, as they also befit the new and glorious state into which they are now entering.
This done, they who are alive and remain on earth, having been, which is not asserted here, but is in 1 Cor. xv., changed so as to be in the image of the incorruptible, spiritual, heavenly, will be caught up together with the risen saints in clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: to meet Him, because He is in His way from heaven to earth, on which He is about to stand in that latter day.
Thus, then, the words which I have chosen for my text will have their fulfilment. Christ has been the first-fruits of this great harvest,--already risen, the first-born from the dead, the example and pattern of that which all His shall be. This was His order, His place in the great procession from death into life; and between Him and His, the space, indefinite to our eyes, is fixed and determined in the counsels of God. The day of His coming hastens onward. While men are speculating and questioning, God's purpose remains fixed. He is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness. His dealings with the world are on too large a scale for us to be able to measure them, but in them the golden rule is kept, every one in his own order. Christ's part has been fulfilled. He was seen alive in His resurrection body; He was seen taking up that body from earth to heaven. And now we are waiting for the next great event, His coming. Wisely has the Church set apart a season in every year in which this subject may be uppermost in our thoughts. For there is nothing we are so apt--nothing, we may say, that our whole race is so determined to forget and put out of sight. It is alien from our common ideas, it ill suits our settled notions, that the personal appearing of Him in whom we believe should break in upon the natural sequence of things in which we are concerned. And the consequence is, that you will hardly find, even among believing men, more than one here and there who at all realizes to himself, or has any vivid expectation of, this personal coming of Christ. Think of the Christian Church as taking its faith and hope from the New Testament; and then compare that faith and hope, as it actually exists with reference to this point, with the New Testament,--and the discrepancy is most remarkable. In the days when it was written, eighteen hundred years ago, every eye was fixed on, every man's thought was busy about, the coming of the Lord. You will hardly find a chapter in the epistles in which it is not spoken of, or alluded to, with earnest anticipation and confidence. Whereas now, when it is brought so much nearer to us, it has almost vanished out of the consideration of the Church altogether. No doubt, something may be said by way of reason why it should occupy a less prominent place in our thoughts than it did in theirs. The Lord's own words, and those of the Divinely-commissioned messengers who announced His return, spoke of it simply as certain, without any note of time being attached. Hence, those who had seen Him depart believed that they themselves should behold Him returning. There can be no doubt in any fair-judging mind that, besides these eye-witnesses, St. Paul, when he wrote that fifth chapter of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, had a full persuasion that he himself should be of those on whom the house not made with hands that is to be brought from heaven was to be put, without his being unclothed from the earthly tabernacle. He looked at such unclothing in his own case as possible, but was confident that it would not happen so. And again, when, in the over-zeal of the Thessalonians, they imagined that the coming of the Lord was actually upon them, and he in his second Epistle checks and sets right that premature assumption, he does so in words which, as he wrote them, might very well have had all their fulfilment within the lifetime of man. Those words now appear to us in more of the true sense in which the Spirit, who spoke by Paul, intended them: we see that the apostasy there predicted, and the man of sin there set down as to be revealed, are great developments or concentrations of the unbelief of churches and nations; but there is no evidence that the men of that day saw any such meaning in the words. As it was gradually, and not without conflict of thought, revealed to Peter and his side of the apostolic band, that the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs and partakers of the peace of Christ, so it was gradually, and not without some sickness of hope deferred, made manifest to the Church, that the coming of the Lord should be for ages and generations delayed. Unmistakable indications of this truth appear in the Lord's own prophetic discourses, which we now know how to interpret.
And all this is no doubt a reason why the great subject should be less constantly and less vividly before our minds, than it was before theirs. But it is no reason why it should have dropped out altogether; none, why we should almost universally neglect the revelations of Scripture respecting the manner and details of His coming, and confuse them altogether in a vague popular idea of the judgment day; none, why we should forget the mention of the landmarks which He Himself has pointed out along the wilderness journey of His Church,--and so, as far as in us lies, provide for her being unprepared when He appears.
The end of the state of waiting of the blessed dead, the end of our present state of waiting will be, that day of His appearing. Let us fix this well in our minds; and do not let us be kept from doing so by being told that there is danger in allowing the fancy to exercise itself on the unfulfilled prophecies. No doubt there is. But I am not exhorting you to exercise your fancy on them. Faith and fancy are two wholly distinct things. To my mind, there can be hardly anything more detrimental to the faith of the Church, than always to be fitting together history and prophecy, magnifying insignificant present or past events into fulfilments of prophetic announcements. They who do this are for ever being refuted by the course of things; and then they shift their ground, and come out as confidently with a new scheme, as they did before with their old one. Nothing can more tend to throw discredit on God's prophetic word altogether; and it is no doubt in part owing to such speculations, that faith in the Lord's coming has become weakened among us. He Himself has told us the great use of His announcements of the future. "These things have I told you, that, when the time is come, ye may remember that I told you of them." When and as each prophecy comes to its time to be fulfilled, just as the years of the captivity predicted by Jeremiah were interpreted by the Church in Babylon, so the Lord's predictions, and the predictions of His apostles, will fall each into its place; and the Church, if she endure in faith and watchfulness, will stand on her look-out, and be prepared for the sign of His coming.
Let us, my brethren, with regard to those who have left us in the Lord,--let us, with regard to ourselves and our own future, be ever looking for and hasting to that day of God; the day when that better thing which God hath provided for us shall be manifested, and they with us shall be complete, who without us were not perfect.
And let us not be discouraged by unpromising signs, or by prevalent unbelief. Remember what our Master has said to us in the services of this day, "Heaven and earth shall pass away; but My words shall not pass away."