THE PLACE AND THE WAY.
We are naturally jealous of many of the changes which have been made in the Revised Version of the New Testament, especially in those passages which, like this chapter and the following chapters of St. John's gospel, are peculiarly familiar and dear to all Christian hearts. It seems almost a sacrilege to touch a letter, to disturb the rhythmic cadence of a phrase, even in our English translation of them, which has come to have a sacredness of its own, in addition to that which belongs to the original words, from the tender and hallowed associations with which it is invested through the reverent use of centuries.
And yet even in these most precious portions of God's word, a change in the rendering cannot but be accepted and welcomed when it brings out more clearly an important thought which the former version had obscured, or represents a truer reading of the original text, where it has in some way be come corrupted. Thus in beginning His last dis-. course to His disciples, it is almost certain that our Lord did not say, "Ye believe in God; believe also in Me, "as if their confidence in Him were to be added to or derived from that reverence for Jehovah which was felt by every Jew. It was the want of a true belief in God, as their Father and His own, that had caused the sorrow with which their hearts were filled. And therefore His com mand is, "Believe in God, and believe in Me, as the manifestation of God, and let not your hearts be troubled." In the words which almost immediately follow these, the error lies not in the translation but in two words which have crept into the text and which in the judgment of the best modern authori ties should be removed from it. Their removal gives a new force and beauty to the passage, and as it now stands, it suggests an important and practical train of thought. As it appears in our Bibles it shows us one of the disciples flatly contra dicting the Lord. Jesus says, "Whither I go ye know, "and Thomas answers, "We know not whither Thou goest."He had supposed that the Messiah, when He came, was to abide forever on the earth, to restore the kingdom to Israel, to re establish the throne of David at Jerusalem, and to extend His sway over all the nations. But Christ had told them that He must go away, and that they could not follow Him at once. He had spoken to them of a home, which He had called His Father's house, in which were many dwell ing-places, where He would prepare a place for them and into which by and by He would receive them. And He adds, "Whither I go ye know the way."He does not say"Ye know whither I am going, "for that, as Thomas testifies, they did not know. But the way was plain to them, though the point to which it led was still beyond their sight. Then it is that the slow and cautious mind of the disciple, lingering bewildered over the picture of a royal palace far away, so different from that which his fancy had painted as the future home of the Messiah, replies, "But Lord, we do not even know whither Thou art going; how then do we know the way? First tell us plainly where Thy future abode shall be, and then per chance we may discover the path which will lead us also to it."There is at once instruction and reproof in our Lord's reply, "0 thou honest but narrow soul, hast thou not learned that I am the way? I came forth from the Father, and I am going again to the Father. That is all ye need to know, and ye would have known it, if ye had known Me for what I am. To be with the Father is heaven for Me, for you, for every human soul, and no man cometh unto the Father but by Me. The fulness of meaning that My words contain, it is not in human power to conceive. No mortal eye hath seen or can see the glories that are re served for the children of God. Not upon any earthly hills, shadowed by clouds and swept by storms, do the walls and towers of the New Jerusa lem stand in their divine strength and beauty. And not even in thought can ye follow Me now to that realm of joy and peace which is so soon to open its gates of pearl to My ascending spirit. It is enough for you to know that it is My Father's house. He is its light and life and glory, and wherever He is, there is heaven. To Him even now ye may draw near through Me, and through Me alone. Cease then from your idle and vain inquiry, Whither goest thou? ' and let not your hearts be troubled, because though ye know not whither I am going, ye know that I am the way." The question of Thomas is one which it is nat ural for us all to ask. Our lips shape themselves more easily to the word"Whither?"than to the word"How?"We too are apt to ask it, as he did, concerning what we call the future world, the world beyond the grave. We carry the idea of space, which is so inwrought into all our thinking, and the material conditions with which we are now so familiar, into our reveries and our speculations concerning the life of the soul hereafter. We are accustomed to think of heaven as a place far above us and far before us, and our curious minds vex themselves with the endeavor to bring it near and make it real to our thought. We strive to form some definite image of the spiritual body, which is appropriate to it, and of the activities and enjoy ments which belong to that higher realm of being. We try to follow the vanished forms of those who have gone from us into the eternal silence, and to imagine the scenes amid which they are now mov ing. How often, as we have stood by the bedside of one who was dying, while the winter storm was beating against the windows of the hushed and darkened room, have we thought with a shudder of the long and lonely journey that lay before the gentle soul, which was, as we are wont to say, about to take its flight. Somewhere in the vague realms of air above us, beyond the clouds, beyond the stars, but 0, how far from our aching hearts, is the city that hath imperishable foundations, the ever-blooming Paradise of God. There, we are sure, they are at rest, whose earthly toil and strife are over; their feet have touched the golden threshold, their eyes have seen the King in His beauty, their voices are chiming in the seraphic song. But 0, if the mists that surround us could be parted for an instant, so that we might once more behold them and know whither they have gone! And so when we think of that last hour, which is so certainly and so swiftly drawing near to each of us, when we too must leave the places and the friends that we have known so well, and go forth into the silent land, how eagerly we long for some more precise knowledge of that which we are there to find! Shall we pass at once to the house not made with hands, when this frail earthly tent is broken up? Or shall the departing spirit wander off, like some lonely bird, higher and higher through the cold and empty spaces of the universe, till at last it sees in the distance above it the far-shining splendors of its celestial mansion, and folds its weary wings in the safe shelter of the immortal home! The fear of death by which many Chris tian hearts are haunted, is not the fear that they shall fall under the displeasure of God and be banished from His presence; they are confident of His forgiving mercy and love. It is the natural dread of the mystery which involves the beginning of the future life; the dread of the passage from one world to the other; the timidity which springs from the belief that there is a vast interval between them, and that the soul at death must traverse this, not knowing whither it is going.
But all such fears arise, it seems to me, from a false conception of the spiritual world. We forget that"flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God"and that the familiar imagery which we use in describing it, which pictures it to us as a new earth, and not something wholly different from the earth, is only misleading if it is literally under stood. There can hardly be an error more com plete than when men fix upon some distant star and say, "There is heaven, "or imagine that in the ages of the future this rocky ball on which we now are living is to be purified by fire and made the eternal home of the spirits of the blessed. If the spiritual world is composed of material elements, like the visible universe which now surrounds us, then there is a sharply defined boundary between •hem, and the one ends at least where the other begins. Two material bodies or systems of bodies certainly cannot occupy the same space, and heaven cannot encroach upon earth. Then we must pass beyond the orbits of Saturn and of Sirius, beyond the faintest fleck of light that shines in the misty nebula of Orion, before we can reach the sapphire walls and enter through the pearly gates to the glory that no mortal eye hath seen. Then there is before our souls an inconceivably long and desolate journey, and the spirits of those whom we have lost are removed to an immeasurable distance from us.
But did it never occur to you, when you have had such views of heaven, when you have shrunk back in dismay from the shore of that dim and un known sea on which you also must by and by launch out into the darkness, - did it never occur to you that if these thoughts are true, you have shut out God from the universe in which His chil dren are now dwelling?"Heaven is, "said Jesus, "My Father's house; I am going to the Father."Its glory and its joy are in the manifested presence of God, in the unclouded vision of His face, in perfect and immortal sympathy with Him. It is not a region of sensuous delights, a garden whose flowers never fade, a temple whose worship never ceases. The sea of glass that is mingled with fire, the song of the hundred and forty-four thousand, the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations - it is all a magnificent, inspired sym bolism, to lift our thought to a higher state of be ing, in which the glorified human spirit shall come into a new and near relation to the Divine Spirit. But that, and that alone, is heaven. To be with God, in constant, vivid, joyful fellowship, to lose our separate wills in His will, to be so mastered and possessed by Him that our life shall be con sciously a part of His life, that He shall be in us and we in Him, so that whether we are in the body or out of the body we shall neither know nor care, because God shall be to us all in all, - that is, if we may trust the Scriptures, the essence of the heavenly felicity. It is for the human soul to enter into immediate and immortal communion with the Divine Spirit. It is to"go to the Father." But now with this, time and space and the laws of matter have nothing to do. It may be realized, partially at least, wherever God and the soul are found, wherever God manifests Himself to the human soul. Heaven is not a locality, to be sought somewhere beyond the boundaries of the sensible universe; it is a character, an experience, a life. And it may as well be here as anywhere, - among us and around us as well as millions of miles away. It is not a foreign country; it is a new condition. Among the material objects of which the universe is made up, whose constitutions we can analyze and whose movements we can trace, we find an invisible, impalpable, spiritual being, with capacities that are not limited by its sensible environment, and powers whose action is not governed by physical laws. It is the immortal soul of man. And over it there is another spirit, of whose existence it alone has knowledge, to which it feels itself akin, a spirit of infinite power and purity, of light and truth, of life and grace. It cannot be discerned by the organs of sense; the eye does not behold its glory, the human ear does not hear its voice. The soul alone can apprehend it; but to the soul it is real and near. And now it is when these two spiritual beings, God and the soul, come together, in harmony and love, that the heavenly experience begins. The soul is then like a wandering star that has found its true orbit, like a wayward child that has returned to its home. It forgets, for the time, the physical conditions in which it is imprisoned, as the artist in communion even with the ideal images which are only the creatures of his fancy, may forget his hunger and poverty and pain. It has escaped from the lower
and material world into the higher, spiritual sphere which is the realm in which it is fitted to dwell. The claims of the body, the exigencies of the temporal, material, visible, soon bring it back within the earthly limitations, but in such an hour it has had a foretaste of the heavenly experience. For a little time, at least, it has been"with the Father." Now the higher and purer the character becomes, the more frequent and the more perfect becomes this experience. The soul may gain - as some human souls have gained it - a constant sense of God's presence and love, an abiding peace, a con tinual communion. It must always still be incom plete, so long as the earthly prison-house detains us, so long as the earthly temptations hedge us round. Yet even here it is possible for us to live a life which is truly described as a life"in God."And the joy and peace and victory of such a life is more than the pledge, it is the literal beginning of heaven. And this, it seems to me, is what the Saviour meant when He said, "I am in the Father and the Father in Me."He was still in the world, when He uttered these words, compassed by its infirmities, burdened by its sorrows, in contact with its sin; but already, in the perfect accord of His own will with the will of God, in the free and uninterrupted communion of His spirit with the spirit of God, He was ever in"His Father's house."What then was death to Him? It was not the beginning of a long journey, in which His soul was to be borne beyond the rim of the material universe. It was merely the falling away of every thing that had hindered and hampered His inter course with God."I am going away, "He said, "because My body, through which alone I am visible to you, will soon pass from among you. But I am with the Father already, and then I shall only be more perfectly and forever with Him. Nothing will be changed to Me, except that My soul will have shaken off the fetters of the flesh. Nothing will be changed to you, except that for a little while ye shall not see Me with your eyes or touch Me with your hands. But I am with you always, in a spiritual fellowship, and I shall by and by receive you to Myself, when the death of the body shall at last set free your souls." And that, and nothing more, my Christian friends, is what death means to you and me. The spiritual world is not far from us, it is all around us. It is not separated by a deep abyss from the world of material objects and of physical energies; it pervades and permeates this, as the sunlight fills the air. We are in it now; it is the realm in which our souls are living. It is in it that we are brought into contact and communion with God, and become aware of His presence, as He manifests Himself not to the outward eye but to the spiritual sense. But meanwhile we are also living another life under physical conditions, in common with the beasts that perish. From this, death sets us free, and then the life of the soul goes on forever. The transition from a sphere in which sense and spirit are blended, to one which is spirittial only, - from one in which our perception of God is dim and partial to one in which it is complete, - that is what it is to die. If our souls are now in friendship and harmony with God, so that to come into perfect communion with Him is the consummation of our highest human experience, it will be to us to pass from earth to heaven. If our souls are now at enmity with Him, so that they will shrink from Him in terror when they are no longer sheltered from Him by the barriers which now enclose them, it will be to pass from earth to hell. If there are no real walls of sapphire above the firmament, there is also no literal lake of fire. But to go thus to the Father, is heaven for one soul, and to meet God, face to face, spirit to spirit, is hell for another.
I have dwelt thus at length on this part of our Lord's teaching, because it seems to bring His doc trine of the future life into striking accord with our best thought concerning the nature of the soul. We cannot spare His figurative description of the con dition of the glorified spirit hereafter. The man sions of the Father's house, the city of God, whose length and breadth and height are equal, the streets of gold, the gates that are never shut, the praising company whose robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb, - no physical imagery is too striking or beautiful to set forth the transcendent spiritual fact. But if we ask for a clearer and more exact state ment of the truth that is behind the symbol, we have it here."I am now in the Father. My spiritual nature is even now. in constant communion with Him. Yet I am going to the Father, for that which here on earth makes this communion imperfect is to pass away, and My soul will then live its own life, unhampered by the flesh. Heaven is not a place to which My emancipated spirit shall ascend; it is the condition in which My spirit will be found, when it is emancipated from the body; it is the purest and best of all earthly experiences consum mated and made immortal; it is to be consciously and uninterruptedly and forever with God." But if this is so, then two or three things are made very plain. The first is that the Christian soul, which already knows what it is to hold such communion with God, need have no more fear of death than it has of prayer. Not that it is in prayer only that we realize God's presence and come into sympathy with Him, but it is in prayer usually that He draws nearest us, and that our sense of His be ing and His love is most vivid and most joyful. It is especially in prayer that the soul seems to break away from all its earthly limitations, and stand in awe, perhaps in rapture, before the very face of the Most High. And that is why prayer is the loftiest experience which is possible for the human soul. But it is an experience which death only intensifies and perpetuates. That which is on earth occasional and partial, becomes constant and complete, and we call it heaven. It is the celestial felicity; it is the beatific vision. And if you are not afraid to lose yourself, as we say, that is to lose the con sciousness of your physical surroundings, in such an overwhelming sense of God's presence, you need not be afraid to die. If such moments have been to you the moments of deepest and purest happi ness, if it is then that you have seemed to liye the largest and truest life, let not your heart be troubled, for. you have already stood on the threshold of your heavenly mansion, and for you to die will only be to enter in.
So too, if this is what is meant by heaven, the supreme importance of character is plain: The chief end of life is not to gain admittance, when we die, to an abode of endless happiness, to pass a cer tain line and feel ourselves secure. It is to acquire such a character that we shall rejoice to go to the Father, that we shall be in sympathy with Him, and find in fellowship with Him our heaven. Men sometimes say, "The descriptions of heaven which are given in the Scriptures do not attract me. The popular Christian conception of it, as a place where happy saints are forever singing hymns of praise, has no charm, no reality for me."Ah, but think a moment, and you will see that that is not it. The time will come when your body will perish and all your earthly interests will vanish away. And the great question for you is, What is the character of that spiritual nature within you which does not die - your thoughts, your affections, your will - in a single word, your soul? You live a double life at present, partly physical, partly spiritual; take the physical away - death will soon do it for you - and what have you left? Is your heart in sympathy with God, or at enmity with Him? Or is He not in all your thoughts? Remember that nothing but what you are can go over with you from the phys ical to the spiritual realm of being, not because you must leave it all behind you and wander off to some remote planet, but because you are already living a life with which all this has nothing to do. Your houses and lands, your books and friends, are not a part of you; you move among them, the body is the bond which unites you to them. But you are a spirit, and the spiritual world is that to which you rightfully belong. Now then, not with what earthly associates, but with what spiritual be ings are you in sympathy? What friends will re ceive you, and find you fitted for their society, when you are lost sight of by your earthly friends? Will you meet the great Spirit, into whose presence you pass, as one whom you have already known and loved, or one whom you have disregarded or defied? If you are dissatisfied with what you call the childish pictures which the Bible paints of the Judgment Day and that which follows it, take the subject up out of the region of metaphor into the most abstract realm of thought that you can reach; let us use words with the utmost precision, and tell me, when your spiritual nature is brought by death into immediate contact with the infinite Spirit, will it be as when a child rushes to the embrace of a father, or as when a criminal stands trembling be fore his judge? That, I think, is what, in its simplest terms, it is to be saved or to be lost.
And finally, how clear, in the light of what has now been said, is the meaning of the Saviour's words, "I am the way."He is the way to heaven because He is the way to God; no man cometh unto the Father but by Him, and to come to the Father is to go whither He has gone. In language that is simpler still, it is by Christ that we are brought into harmony with God, - by His life, by His teachings, by His death, by His indwelling presence in our souls. It is in Him that God has come near to us, making His voice audible to our ears, making His glory visible before our eyes. He that hath seen Him hath seen the Father, full of grace and full of truth. Out of that spiritual realm in which He is always near us He has come forth into the material world, and under mortal condi tions has manifested Himself to the actual percep tion of the senses. It was in order that we might be without excuse, if we do not know and trust and love Him. In the historic, human Jesus, He has shown Himself to the incarnate human soul; and He has shown us also how such a soul may live in fellowship with the spiritual world. He removed in His atoning death, the great barrier of unfor given sin which hindered the free approach of the soul of man to God. And now in this twofold sense He says, "I am the way! Make My sacrifice your own, and God will receive you. Live as I have lived, follow Me, and you may have a con scious, continuing fellowship with Him. Believe Me that I am in the Father, and come to the Father through Me. So shall you gain that knowledge of God which is life eternal, that spiritual communion with Him which is the foretaste of heaven. And by and by I will come 'again, and receive you into that richer experience, that clearer vision, which is its consummation." We have learned that in the kingdom of nature there are no sudden leaps or breaks, but only steady and continuous development. It will be well for us when we learn that the same thing is true of the kingdom of God. No man will be suddenly thrust into heaven through the open door of death. We must enter heaven here on earth, if we are to enter it at all.