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THE WAITING OF THE INVISIBLE CHURCH.
“And when He had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.”
THESE are the sights and sounds which St. John saw and heard in heaven, when the Lamb had opened the fifth of the seven seals which made fast the awful book. He saw an altar, and under it the souls of Christ’s faithful servants who had been slain for His sake. And they were weary of waiting for the day when God should judge the earth. They were at rest, and yet there was a rising of desire for the end: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood?” They were impatient, not so much for their own wrongs as for the glory of God. They were weary that sin should so long war against the majesty of heaven; that God’s world should so long be torn by the rending strife of spiritual evil. They had, in their lifetime, made full trial of its tyranny and hate; and the long train of remembered wrongs heaped on them for their loyalty to Heaven kindled a fire in their souls. But the time was not yet come. Very awful was the answer to their cry. “White robes were given unto every one of them;” some larger visitations of His sustaining grace: they were refreshed in their weariness by some mysterious gift; and it was said unto them—no need to say who it was that bade them tarry; for who but He could stay their yearnings?—it was said unto them, “that they should rest yet for a little season.” God had a work yet to do. Their fellow-servants must needs be slain as they were; and all must be fulfilled. Then should the end come.
Now there is one point in this to which we will direct our thoughts: I mean, the light it throws upon the great mystery of Christ’s second coming. We may gather with all certainty from this wonderful revelation of the inner mysteries of the heavenly court, first, that God has a fixed time for the end of the world. This we know from our Lord’s words while He was yet on earth. While He declared the secrecy of that time to be such that it was hidden from all, both men and angels, yet He specially added, that it was a time fixed and known to the Father. I do not mean simply known as all things must be known to an all-knowing God, but foreseen and fore-determined in the secrets of His hidden wisdom. And this leads on to another truth revealed in the same vision; namely, that God has fixed that time according to the measures of the work which He has to finish: even as Christ had a work to finish on earth; so that we read, again and again, that His “hour was not yet come.” In like manner now in heaven, He has a definite fore seen scheme for the administration of His mediatorial kingdom; and according to the accomplishing of this work, will be the time of His coming. So much in a general way. But in this passage we have somewhat more specific and detailed.
1. He has shadowed out to us the nature of the work that He has to do before the end come; that is, to make up a certain number whom God has foreseen and predestinated to life eternal. This we read throughout Holy Writ. “They shall be mine in that day when I make up my jewels,”9191 Mal. iii. 17. the Lord has said by the prophet Malachi. Then shall the angels “gather together His elect from the four winds.”9292 St. Matt. xxiv. 31. And, to take only one more passage, the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews shews us how God has ever been gathering out His chosen ones, from righteous Abel to this day. After running down the list of the faithful, St. Paul adds, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them.” And, again, “God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”9393 Heb. xi. 13 and 40. Abel waited for Enoch, and Enoch for Abraham, and Abraham for Moses, and Moses for Paul; and so all holy men, bishops, and pastors, and saints, along the whole line of this world’s history, have waited for us; and we shall wait, it may be, for others yet to come. God is gathering out a mystical number—the hundred and forty and four thousand, which is a symbol of all numbers innumerable—of the twelve tribes of the Israel of God; and He has been gathering them out one by one, from an age or a generation, from a people, a family, or a household, taking one, and leaving another, in the inscrutable mystery of His choice. Whether this secret number be measured by the fall of angels, as some of old were wont to believe; whether the companies of angelic ministers shall be filled up by the redeemed of mankind,—we know not, but we know certainly that until the foreseen number is completed, the course of this turbulent world shall still run on. This, then, in general, is the nature and direction of the mystery of this seemingly entangled world. Out of the midst of it He is. drawing the children of the regeneration, knitting them in one fellowship, in part still visible, in part out of sight. When the Son of God passed into the heavens, He began to draw after Him a glorious train of saints, like as the departing sun seems to draw after him the lights which reflect his own splendour, till the night starts out full of silver stars. So shine the saints in an evil world; rising and falling above the boundaries of earth in stedfast and silent course, till all are lost in the brightness of the morning: and so shall the firmament of the Church break forth with the glory of the resurrection. But now, for a while, it tarries. Some saints are yet in the mid-heaven, and some are yet to rise upon the world; and, until all is fulfilled, the desire of the Church unseen is stayed with the “white robes,” and the sound of the Bridegroom’s voice.
Again; in this gathering out of the mystical body of His Son, God is carrying on the probation of mankind. In the inscrutable secrets of His providential government, He is so ordering the strife of the seed of the woman with the seed of the serpent, of the Church with the world, as to fulfil the manifold purposes of love and of long-suffering.
And, first, we see that this long-permitted strife is ordained for the perfecting of His saints.
That holy fellowship is not more perfect in the integrity of its number, than in its absolute perfection of holiness. And the prolonged duration of this world is a school of discipline, to liken them to their perfect Lord. The powers of evil which are arrayed against the Majesty of heaven, are so overruled by the Almighty will as to work out unwittingly His high behest. The continual strife of spiritual good and evil is a mystery, of which we know only the outskirts. It has one end in the mystery of the fall, and the other in the mystery of the atonement: we know not what are the effects in the world unseen of this never-ending warfare. It is in some way related to the mystery of the cross; not, indeed, as propitiatory, which nothing can be, but as a carrying out and consequence of that great overthrow of evil in which the Conqueror was bruised by the foe He crushed. Therefore we find St. Paul speaking of filling up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in his flesh;9494 Col. i. 24. and of the apostles he says, that they were set forth last, as it were, appointed unto death, “a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men:”9595 1 Cor. iv. 9. and “that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God.”9696 Ephes. iii. 10. It would seem, then, that this relentless strife between the seed of the serpent and the body of Christ is fulfilling some unrevealed design of God in the world unseen; that even the spirits of heaven, the elect angels, look on as learners upon this sleepless war. We are greatly ignorant what may be the place of this world in the universal scheme of God’s creatures; what we think to be a great and final end, may be only a subordinate means to some transcendent purpose. And thus much is plainly revealed to us, that the trial of the Church and the probation of the world shall run on till the purpose of the Divine wisdom is fulfilled. And this was the key of the strange earthly lot of those who had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, of bonds and imprisonment; who were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; who wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy. When they and their cause seemed lost for ever, then were they more than conquerors; even as Christ then overcame when He was crucified. In each one of them He overcame again.When they suffered most, they most mightily triumphed over the serpent. Let us remember, that not martyrs only are perfected through sufferings. They, indeed, are made glorious by a share of His sufferings in the flesh: but of His sorrow and self-denial all saints are partakers. The world is still the same; bitter, treacherous, and full of enmity against God. The law, that every man that will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution, is still unrepealed in this fallen earth. Every faithful man will have the grace-tokens of the cross upon his inmost soul. By temptation, by wrest ling against evil, by crucifixion of self, by wrongs and snares from without, by sorrow and afflictions from above, every brother of the First-born in the family of man will bear His likeness, and be perfected by the keen edge of pain. By this long-drawn and weary strife, our patience, meekness, faith, perseverance, boldness, and loyalty to Christ, are ever tried; and by trial made perfect.
And this mysterious work, as it has an aspect of love towards the saints, so it has an aspect of long-suffering towards sinners. It is thus that God gives them a full season for repentance. Christ delays His return, and tarries in the heavens; and scoffers have asked, Where is the promise of His coming? “But the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”9797 2 Pet. iii. 9. He lets the life of man run on through all its stages, from childhood to old age. He gives all things for our salvation, warnings, blessings, chastisements, sorrows, sicknesses, words of fire, and sacraments of love; He stays His hand, and leaves the sinner without excuse, that at the winding up of this weary life, “every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God.” What shall men say at that day? All the mysteries of truth and grace were ever near them; they lacked neither knowledge nor strength. They had a long life chequered with the tokens of His hand; sharp sicknesses, sudden accidents, desolating sorrows, slow death-beds, all speaking clearly and piercingly to the dull ear on which the words of grace had fallen in vain. They lacked nothing which could awaken the soul of man. The whole order of mysteries in His Church and in His providence worked together, interweaving their powers, and bringing them to bear, as one manifold divine influence, upon the hearts of the unawakened; if any thing were still lacking, it was that they lacked the will.
Such is this wonderful work of unwearied love. And all the while His Church is crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true?” the saints unseen waiting and longing for their perfect bliss; the saints on earth crying, day by day, “Thy kingdom come:” day by day, from all lands, throughout the whole Church, this cry goes up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth: “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together:” all things would hasten the coming end: heaven is well nigh weary, and earth sick, for bearing the burden of sin and wrong: and yet Christ tarries. We must rest yet “for a little season;” and then, so soon as the sinner’s day is done, and the saints are tried, and the foreseen number full, the end shall come; and time shall be no longer.
And now, from all this, we see what ought to be the master-aim of our lives: that is, to make sure of our fellowship in that mystical number. We see that it is not enough that we belong to the one visible Church. Many partake of the visible unity who in the invisible have no portion. The Church is like a sacrament, having both its out ward and inward parts. The true Church has both a body and a soul: the body is that one, uniform, organised, universal polity, of which the succession of the apostles is the essential first condition: the soul is that inward unity of energetic faith, hope, and charity, which knits all saints, from the highest to the lowest, in one spiritual family. These are the fruits, or result, of the visible unity; as the likeness of Christ is the effect of the holy sacraments in the faithful receiver. The visible unity is a sacramental means to the formation of this fellowship of sanctity. All regenerate men are saints in capability, but these are saints in fact. The former may be, the latter are, conformed to Christ’s likeness. The difference is the same as between a moral nature and a moral habit: the nature may be passive, or be perverted; the habit must be developed by energy, and sustained by the powers of moral life. There is therefore no difficulty in testing ourselves. Every man can tell whether his life is energetically pure and holy or not. With the saints of old, martyrdom was the test, or saintliness of life, by which they bore martyrdom in the will, though they were never crowned with it in the body. And we, too, have no need to be doubtful of our state. The sure sign is the likeness of Christ growing in our hearts, waxing ever brighter from childhood, in boyhood, youth, and riper years; ever shining out more clearly as He draws nearer. This is His own countersign. Plainly the sinful, the slothful, the double-minded, the worldly, that is, all who, under the strong assimilating power of the world, are growing into its likeness, are aliens from the soul of the one Church, and are as yet severed from the mystical number which He is gathering out. It is true that we cannot draw any line so strongly marked as to cut off with absolute and visible certainty those who do, and those who do not, belong to that unseen fellowship. As there is twilight between noon and midnight, so are there infinite gradations of character: and yet this is certain, that no man that is not either freed from the power of sin, or repenting of his sin-soiled state, has any warrant to believe himself of that number. Many, indeed, there are of most imperfect sanctity; namely, those who are puffed up with vanity and ambition, and love of the pomps of life, its honour, power, high bearing, great friendships, and the like; and likewise those who are opinionated and self-confident, fond of controversy, and prone to a controversial temper; or again, tinged with self-complacency, and addicted to a self-sparing, soft, relaxed religion, which clings to the alluring, but shrinks with dislike from the severer precepts of the faith. Now all these, and the infinite shades of character contained in them, or related to them, may belong to the unseen fellowship; but their title to it is ambiguous, and their end doubtful. For all such the way is, not to strain after a high-toned devotion, till they have laid the deep basis of a thorough repentance. Their chief danger is, the weakness of an unnatural growth, which has got above its healthy powers. The imagination and the intellect have simulated the forms of faith and sanctity, and they are in danger of persuading themselves that they really are what they are so well able to delineate. Repentance is the threshold of the invisible sanctuary where the saints are gathering, and here they must fall down before they think to enter. None but they that have either a pure or a broken heart shall see God.
Be careful, therefore, above all things, to commit yourselves to the great movement of God’s providence in His Church, by which He is drawing His faithful within the curtains of His pavilion. Be not content to stand without, albeit in the precinct of the visible Church: there are more that gaze upon the outward ritual in which the earthly Church pays homage to her Lord, than enter into its mind and mystery. Pray Him to give you the white robes of sanctity and fellowship with the saints unseen, that you may wait in patience, lying under the altar, dead with Christ. Let daily worship, and the ever-returning sacrifice of the holy eucharist, be your life and food. We are fallen on an evil age; an age of bitterness and wrong, and deaf inexorable slander, accusation, and strife, and separation. Martyrdom, and all its high and stir ring fears, is gone, and the wearisome harassing of a petty warfare has fastened on the Church. We are fallen on an age in which the chief zeal for truth is, that men have not so absolutely ceased to care for it, as to keep from quarrelling about it. Almost are we tempted to cry out, Would that a season of stern trial might sift the Church of all shallow, petulant, self-loving, boastful men, that the true and loyal hearts might be made manifest, and, by one decisive trial, short as it is sharp, win their crown of life. But not so; God has willed otherwise. We must wait, and not be weary; we must bear all the fretfulness and provocation of earthly tempers and false tongues for a little sea son. Meanwhile, the perpetual worship of our unseen Master, and the communion of hidden saints, and the fellowship of the invisible Church, must be our strength and stay.
And see, also, how broad a light this throws on our duties towards all around us. The first debt we owe them is, to endeavour by all means to draw them into the same blessed fellowship. We owe this to every member of Christ’s visible Church, but, above all, to such as are bound to us by ties of an especial nearness, whether by blood or by the benediction of the Church. There is no other lasting basis of friendship or affection but this only, that our spirits be knit in the unseen unity of the saints. All else is mere falsehood. “Two men shall be working in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left;” so shall all fellowships be cut asunder but those that meet in God. In the choice of friends, in all great changes and casts in life, let this be your rule. Such is the mysterious action and re-action of moral beings on each other, that no one can say what may be the end of an ill-chosen fellowship. “What knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?”9898 1 Cor. vii. 16. On one side or the other the power of assimilation must prevail. How often has the earthlier mind drawn away a high and ripening spirit from the fellowship of saints! And O fearful fall which draws others in its ruin! Watch, then, and pray, that you may not only enter into the mystical sanctuary of saints, and go no more out, but gather in also all your loved ones, that there be no parting any more. Though God tarries, yet all things hasten on. Day by day we are nearer our last change. The unseen Church is crying “How long?” the Church in war fare ceases not continually to pray for the consummation of the elect. And albeit so short, yet this fleeting life to them is as a long and lingering night, which holds off a blessed morrow. Though the time be not yet, nevertheless there are tokens of changes coming on the earth. The shadows are lengthening out, and the day of its toilsome life is well nigh spent. Oh, when He comes, and the dead are judged, and the names of those that have overcome, which are written in the Lamb’s book of life, are read one by one in our ears, how shall our hearts thrill to bursting, while we hear prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, bid “come up hither;” and all our loved ones, a friend, a sister, a husband, each in turn called out, and clad in white robes for the marriage-feast! What if we should be left out at last? What if our name be “not found written in the book of life?”9999 Rev. xx. 15. “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord; for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified.”
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