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The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 4

By Henry Alford


      We are to speak to-day of the final state of bliss of those who have died in the Lord. Their state of waiting has ended; the resurrection has clothed them again with the body, the final judgment has passed over them, and their last unending state has begun. There are no words in Holy Scripture so well calculated to give a general summary of that state as those concluding ones of a passage from which I have before largely quoted: 1 Thess. iv. 17: "And so shall we ever be with the Lord."

      For these words contain in them all that has been revealed of that glorious state, included in one simple description. The bliss of the moment after death consisted in being with Christ: the bliss of unlimited ages can only be measured by the same. Nearness to Him that made us, union with Him who redeemed us, the everlasting and unvexed company of Him who sanctifieth us: what glory, what dignity, what happiness can be imagined for man greater than this?

      And yet it is not by dwelling upon this, and this alone, that we shall be able to arrive at even that appreciation of heaven which is within our present powers. We may take these words, "for ever with the Lord," and we may find in them, as in our Father's house itself, many mansions. In various ways we are far from the Lord here; in various ways we shall be near Him and with Him there.

      But first of all we must approach these various mansions through their portals and the avenues which lead up to them. And one of those is the consideration, who, and of what sort, they shall be, of whom we are about to speak. It will be very necessary that we should conceive of them aright.

      Well, then, they will be men, with bodies, souls, and spirits like ourselves. The disembodied state will be over, and every one will have been reunited to the body which he or she had before death. What do we know of this body? Very glorious thoughts rise up in our minds when we think of it: but in this course of sermons I am not speculating; I am inquiring soberly what is revealed to us about the blessed dead. Well then, again, what do we know of this body of the resurrection? In Phil. iii. 21, there is a revelation on this point. It is there said that "our home is in heaven, from whence also we expect the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change the body of our degradation that it may be fashioned like unto the body of His glory." And this change is very much dwelt on as a necessary condition of the heavenly state in 1 Cor. xv. "Flesh and blood," we are told, i.e., this present natural or psychical body, the body whose informing tenant is the animal soul, cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither can corruption, that which decays and passes away, inherit incorruption, that state where there is no decay nor passing away. So, then, a change must take place at the resurrection: a change which shall pass also on those who are alive and remain at the Lord's coming. The bodies of the risen saints, and of those who are to join them in being for ever with the Lord, will be spiritual bodies: bodies tenanted and informed in chief by that highest part of man, which during this present life is so much dwarfed down and crushed by the usurpations of the animal soul; viz., his spirit.

      Now, it would be idle to conceal the fact, that we cannot form any distinct conception what this spiritual body may be. No such thing has ever come within the range of our experience. But some particulars we do know about it, because God has revealed them. And of those, the principal are specified in this very passage: "It is sown in corruption: it is raised in incorruption." It cannot decay. Eternal ages will pass over it, and it will remain the same. Again, "it is sown in dishonour: it is raised in glory." There will be no shame about it, as there will be no sin. Thus much from these words is undoubted. What else they may imply we cannot say for certain; probably, unimagined degrees of beauty and radiancy, for so the word glory as applied to anything material seems to imply. Further: "it is sown in weakness: it is raised in power." That is, I suppose, with all its faculties wonderfully intensified, and possibly with fresh faculties granted, which here it never possessed, and the mind of man could not even imagine. This last also seems to be implied by its being called a spiritual body. As here it was an animal body, subject to the mere animal life or soul, hemmed in by the conditions of that animal life, so there it will be under the dominion of, and suited to the wants of, man's spirit, the lofty and heavenly part of him.

      And if we want to know what this implies, our best guide will be to contemplate the risen body of our Lord, as we have it presented to us in the gospel narrative. As He is, so are we in this world in our essence even now--and as He is so shall we be entirely there. He is the first-fruits, we follow after as the harvest. What, then, was His resurrection body? While it was a real body and admitted of being touched and seen, and had the organs of voice and of hearing, yet it was not subjected to the usual conditions of matter as to its locomotion, or its obstruction by intervening objects. It retained the marks of what had happened before death. In order to convince the disciples of His identity, our Lord ate and drank before them. We must therefore infer that these were natural acts of His resurrection body, and not merely assumed at pleasure.

      With a body, then, of this kind will the blessed be clothed upon at the resurrection, and remain invested for ever in glory. Now let us see what further flows from this as an inference. We may further say, that we have implied in it a surrounding of external circumstances fitted to such a state of incorruptibility and glory. Man redeemed and glorified will not be a mere spirit in the vast realms of space, but a glorious body moving in a glorious world. Nor is this mere inference, however plain and legitimate. Holy Scripture is full of it. The power of words does not suffice to describe the beauties and glories of that renewed and unfailing world. I need not quote passage after passage--they are familiar to you all. Nor, again, is it nature alone which shall be glorious above all our conception here. It would appear that art also shall have advanced forward, and shall minister to the splendour of that better world. The prophets in the Old Testament, and the beloved Apostle in the New, vie with one another in describing the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, adorned as a bride for her husband, lighted by the glory of the indwelling Godhead.

      Where this glorious abode of Christ and His redeemed shall be, we have not been told by revelation; and it were idle to indulge in speculations of our own. From some expressions in Scripture, it would seem not improbable that it may be this earth itself after purification and renewal: from other passages, it would appear as if that inference were hardly safe, and that other of the bodies in space are destined for the high dignity of being the home of the sons of God.

      We have now, I believe, cleared the way for the answer to a question which presses upon us to-day: as far, at least, as that answer can be given on this side of death. Of mankind in glory, thus perfected, what shall be the employ? For I need hardly press it on you that it is impossible to conceive of man in a high and happy estate, without an employment worthy of that estate, and in fact constituting its dignity and happiness.

      Now, some light is thrown on this inquiry by Holy Scripture, but it must be confessed that it is very scanty. It is true that all our meditations on and descriptions of heaven want balance, and are, so to speak, pictures ill composed. We first build up our glorified human nature by such hints as are furnished us in Scripture; we place it in an abode worthy of it: and then, after all, we give it an unending existence with nothing to do. It was not ill said by a great preacher, that most people's idea of heaven was to sit on a cloud and sing psalms. And others, again, strive to fill this out with the bliss of recognising and holding intercourse with those from whom we have been severed on earth. And beyond all doubt such recognition and intercourse shall be, and shall constitute one of the most blessed accessories of the heavenly employment; but it can no more be that employment itself than similar intercourse on earth was the employment of life itself here. To read some descriptions of heaven, one would imagine that it were only an endless prolongation of some social meeting; walking and talking in some blessed country with those whom we love. It is clear that we have not thus provided the renewed energies and enlarged powers of perfected man with food for eternity. Nor, if we look in another direction, that of the absence of sickness and care and sorrow, shall we find any more satisfactory answer to our question. Nay, rather shall we find it made more difficult and beset with more complication. For let us think how much of employment for our present energies is occasioned by, and finds its very field of action in, the anxieties and vicissitudes of life. They are, so to speak, the winds which fill the sail and carry us onward. By their action, hope and enthusiasm are excited. But suppose a state where they are not, and life would become a dead calm; the sail would flap idly, and the spirit would cease to look onward at all. So that, unless we can supply something over and above the mere absence of anxiety and pain, we have not attained to--nay, we are farther than ever from--a sufficient employment for the life eternal. Now, before we seek for it in another direction, let us think for a moment in this way. Are we likely to know much of it? We have before in these sermons adopted St. Paul's comparison by analogy, and have likened ourselves here to children, and that blessed state to our full development as men. Now ask yourselves, what does the child at its play know of the employments of the man? Such portions of them as are merely external and material he may take in, and represent in his sport: but the work and anxiety of the student at his book, and the man of business at his desk, these are of necessity entirely hidden from the child. And so it is onward through the advancing stages of life. Of each of them it may be said, "We know not with what we must serve the Lord, until we come hither."

      So that we need not be utterly disappointed, if our picture of heaven be at present ill composed: if it seem to be little else than a gorgeous mist after all. We cannot fill in the members of the landscape at present. If we could, we should be in heaven.

      Remembering this our necessary incapacity for the inquiry, let us try to carry it as far as we may. And that we may not be forsaking the guidance of Holy Scripture for mere speculation, let us take the words of St. Paul--"Now we see in a mirror, obscurely, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I was known (by God.)" This immense accession of light and knowledge must of course be interpreted partly of keener and brighter faculties wherewith the blessed shall be endowed; but shall it not also point to glorious employment of those renewed and augmented powers? How could one endowed with them ever remain idle? What a restless, ardent, many-handed thing is genius even here below? How the highly endowed spirit searches about and tries its wings, now hither now thither, in the vast realms of intellectual life! And if it be so here, with the body weighing on us, with the clogs of worldly business and trivial interruption, what will it be there, where everything will be fashioned and arranged for this express purpose, that every highest employment may find its noblest expansion without let or hindrance? Besides, think for a moment of the relative positions of men with regard to any even the least amount of this light and knowledge of which we are speaking. In order to take in this the better, think of the lowest and most ignorant of mankind who shall attain to that state of glory. Measure the difference between such a spirit and an Augustine, and then recollect that Augustine himself, that St. Paul himself, was but a child in comparison of the maturity of knowledge and insight which all shall there acquire. Such a thought may serve to show us what a gap must be bridged over, before any such perfect knowledge will be attained by any of the sons of men. And when we remember that all blessings come by labour and the goodly heat of exercised energy, shall we deny to the highest of all states the choicest of all blessings? So that the attainment of, and advance in, the light and knowledge peculiar to that glorious land must be imagined as affording unending employment for the blessed hereafter. And this gives us another insight into the matter. As there is so great disparity among men here, so we may well believe will there be there. All Scripture goes to show that there will be no general equalizing, no flat level of mankind. Degrees and ranks as they now are, indeed, there will be none. Not the possession of wealth, not the accident of birth, which are held here to put difference between man and man, will make any distinction there: but inequality and distinction will proceed on other grounds; the amount of service done for God, the degree of entrance into the obedience and knowledge of Him, these will put the difference between one and another there.

      But we hasten to a close: and in doing so, we come back to the simple words of our text, "for ever with the Lord;" and we would leave on your minds the impression that these, after all, furnish the best key to the employment of the blessed in heaven. If they are fit companions for the Lord, then must they be like Him as He is there; and thus we seem to have marked out an employment alone sufficient for eternity. Look at it in its various aspects.

      What is, what will be, the Lord doing in that state of blessedness? Will He be idle like the gods of Epicurus, sitting serene above all, and separate from all, created things? No, indeed, no such glorified Lord is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." The created universe will be then as much beholden to His upholding hand as it is now. If they are to be for ever with Him, attending and girding His steps, they, too, will doubtless be fellow-workers with Him there, as they were here. And in this, only consider how much of His creation was altogether hidden from them here! Look abroad on a starry night--behold a field of employment for those who shall be ever with the Lord. The greater part of His works never came within sight of this our mortal eye at all. These are only hints, it is true, which we have no power of following out: but they may serve for finger-posts to point to whole realms of possible blessed employment.

      Then, again, there is more in the words "for ever with the Lord" than even this. Who can tell what past works, not of creation only, but of grace also, the blessed may have to search into--works wrought on themselves and others which may then be brought back to them by memory entirely restored, and then first studied with any power to comprehend or to be thankful for them?

      Then, again, the glory of God Himself, then first revealed to them,--the redeeming love of Christ,--the glory of the mystery of the indwelling of the Spirit,--dry and lofty subjects to the sons of men here, will be to them when there as household words and as daily pursuits. It seems to me, my brethren, when we look at all these sources of blessed employment, though we are unable from our present weakness to follow them out into detail,--and when we think that perhaps after all in our earthly blindness we may be omitting some which shall there constitute the chief, it seems to me, I say, as if we should have to complain not of insufficient employ for the ages of eternity, but of an infinite and inexhaustible variety, for which even endless ages of limited being hardly seem to suffice.

      Such, then, beloved, are the thoughts which have occurred to us on a subject of which I pray that it may be one of personal interest to every one here present.

      When we are to leave this present state, is a matter hidden from our eyes, and not dependent on ourselves: but how we will leave it, whether as the Lord's blessed ones, or with no part in Him, this is left for ourselves to determine. There is set before us life and death. May we choose life, that it may be well with us; that we may wake from the bed of death and find ourselves with the Lord; that we may pass in joyful hope through the waiting and disembodied state, and wake at the morning of the resurrection to that fulness of completed bliss of which we have this day been speaking.

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See Also:
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 1
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 2
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 3
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 4

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