THE AGES TO COME
IT is not very far into the coming ages that we can see; nor do I write as though we thought that we could. “We know in part;” that is, our knowledge is imperfect and broken; and hence “we prophesy in part,” speaking with stammering lips, and writing with a faltering pen.
“We see through a glass darkly,” or, more exactly, “we see dimly by means of a mirror;” as if God’s book had been set up like a mirror to catch the vision of objects within the veil, and to reflect them down to earth. All the ancient promises, and types, and rites, were mirrors in which man was to see the things of God—the things of the ages to come—reflected to his eye. And that which comes to us only by reflection, like the image of a star upon the sea, cannot be so distinct and vivid as what is seen by looking directly at the object, or the person, face to face.
Besides, our powers of vision are feeble, even though our eyes are anointed with the heavenly eye-salve (Rev. 3:18); and then we do not forget that God has set bounds to their range. Yet these very limits are in themselves wonderful; that wall which hems in our vision is in itself so goodly to look upon that we feel no desire to pass beyond. For, unlike anything else here below, our horizon is not one of clouds but of glory. It is not an obstruction that our eye meets with, but a resting place.
Still it is true that the range of our vision has widened amazingly since “the eyes of our understanding were enlightened, that we might know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance, in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). Hence the Apostle Peter, warning the brethren of the exceeding peril of unfruitfulness in holy deeds, says, “He that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off;” as if by such an expression he would teach us that a saint ought to be a far-sighted man; and that, if he is not, it must be because he is not living the holy, fruitful life which God expects him to do, and which becomes his character, as one “purged from his old sins,” and “delivered from a present evil world.”
The saints in other days were far-seeing men. The “secret of the Lord was with them,” and he “shewed them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). He “did not hide from them” that which he meant to do (Gen. 18:17). He “revealed his secret” to them (Am. 3:7).
Enoch, the seventh from Adam, looked into the ages to come, and saw the Lord coming with ten thousand of his saints. Abraham saw the day of Christ afar off, and was glad. Job, even in the land of the Gentile, kept his eye upon the distant glory, and speaking as a far-seeing man, comforted himself in his sorrow with—“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.” So was it with the saints in later ages as well; with him who said, “Behold, he cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see him;” and with him who said, “We, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
Near-sightedness is, then, the result of unbelief; far-sightedness, of faith. When we maintain our walk of holiness, we see into the remotest reaches which the Word of God spreads out before us; when we walk inconsistently, or break our fellowship with God, or grow sluggish in the way, we become “blind, and cannot see afar off.” A holy man is not merely a man placed upon an eminence, whence the vast view spreads out on every side, onward to Canaan itself; but he is a man gifted with keen clear vision, who can make use of that lofty position for surveying fully the kingdom of which he has been made the heir.
Our prospect, then, is a wide one. It goes far into the regions of immortal life. On every side it stretches out immeasurably, passing beyond these hills and skies of earth, which are at best but the foreground of a picture, the filling up of which embraces the whole compass of the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. Beyond the range of present hope and fear, of present joy or sadness; beyond the calms, no less than the storms, of earth; beyond the breadth of seas or the height of clouds; beyond the pole-star, or the Pleiades, or the Southern “Cross;”—beyond all these our prospect ranges, nor ends till intercepted by the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem.
When the Church’s Bridegroom said, “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense” (Song 4:6), he meant that his bride should take up his words and follow him to that fragrant region whither he has gone. He went to that mountain when he ascended on high, and when he comes again he bears about him tokens of the place where he has been, for “all his garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia” (Ps. 45:8). To that same eminence he summons his bride, for he makes her by faith “to sit with him in heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6). On this mountain we sit, far above the smoke and din of earth, inhaling the rich odour, and enjoying the vast prospect, until the morning break.
Most commanding is that height on which we are thus placed; and it is no common sweep of landscape that our eye embraces. Seated there, we lose sight of the things around us, and we can for a season almost forget that we are still in our sojourn below. The sorrows, the vexations, the annoyances of this present world diminish to our view, and seem, at most, but as a narrow stripe of darkness, beyond which spreads onward to infinity the excellency of an everlasting splendour. The breadth of that vast outer zone of light makes the inner one of shade to appear as nothing.
And how real, how certain, is that prospect, and all that it contains! It is no deceitful mirage nor picture of fancy, appearing and dissolving, then again reappearing, and again passing off. It is steady and abiding. Sometimes it may be clearer than others—more visible, more palpable—but still, in its great features and excellencies, it is always the same. The time when it puts on its steadiest and most inviting aspect is just the day of grief. For as in some showery noon the distant hills look nearer, and take on a sharper outline, so in the day of the heart’s bitterness and weary suffering, the eternal hills assume an aspect of far clearer and more vivid reality; nay, seem as if so nigh—so very nigh—that, could we but cross the slender stream that winds beneath us, we should at once proceed to take possession of the goodly heritage.
On this mountain of myrrh—this hill of frankincense—it was that the saints in other days seated themselves to watch for the flight of shadows, and the eternal day-break. Here David sat and mused as he looked down upon the sin and toil of earth—“As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15). Here sat Solomon, and as he saw the King in his beauty, thus uttered his desire, “Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices” (Song 8:14). Here sat Paul, and, anticipating the resurrection of the just, thus calmly comforted himself: “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body;” and thus comforting himself, he exulted over death and the grave: “O death! where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:42, 55).
It was here that Peter sat, and, vexed in his righteous soul with the scoffing and ungodliness of evil days, he called to mind the ancient hope of a renewed and holy earth (2 Pet. 3:13). It was here that John sat—“on a great and high mountain” (Rev. 21:10), beholding the glory of the heavenly city, and as he heard the well-known voice proclaim, “Surely I come quickly,” with instant eagerness breathed out the response, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
True, we know but in part; “we see through a glass (in a mirror) darkly.” But still what we do see and know is very glorious. The prospect, whatever may be the imperfection that hangs over it, is neither tame nor visionary. The mirror which reflects it to our eye is divine, and therefore faithful. It presents the scene to us with a warmth and a truth, such as no earthly mirror could have done. With our eye on that mirror, we ought surely to live in a very different way from what we too often do. God expects much of us.
1. He expects us to be holy.
The objects we are gazing on are purifying in their tendencies. They transform the gazer into their own likeness. “What manner of persons ought we to be in all holy conversation and godliness?” The ocean takes on the blue of the sky to which it looks up, and becomes itself as purely blue: so must we become assimilated to that holy heaven on which our affections are set.
2. He expects us to be steadfast and immovable.
Objects that shift and flit impart their instability to things around. Those that are stable give forth their tenacity and strength. We, looking on the great immovable landscape of this future, ought to find it transforming us into its own steadfastness,—gradually divesting us of caprice, and fickleness, and vanity, and infusing into us a vigorous consistency of character, along with calm solemnity of deportment, which would carry weight with it, and be of itself a witness to the reality of that heaven towards which we profess to be walking. Thus a feeble life becomes strong by gazing on that which is strong, and a poor life becomes great by gazing on what is great.
4. He expects us to be separate from the world.
The prospect on which our eye is fixed is not carnal nor earthly. It belongs, indeed, in some measure, to earth, for it takes in the “new earth” as well as the “new heavens.” But still, it has nothing in common with that world out of which we were delivered. It is of God; and he that gazes on it is, in the very act of gazing, drawn nearer to God, and separated from all objects and scenes in which God is not. We gaze as those who are “seeking the better, even the heavenly country.” We gaze as those who are not “mindful of that country whence they came out,” or seeking an “opportunity to return;” and the longer that we gaze we feel more and more satisfied with the step of separation—more and more willing to be strangers upon earth, whoso tie to this world is broken, but whose tie to the world to come is becoming stronger every hour.
5. He expects us to “glory in tribulation.”
For sharp as the wounds are that we are receiving, they will soon be healed. The tribulation that lays us down on a sick-bed, quickens our anticipations of the land where “the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick.” The tribulation that robs us of a beloved face, but opens another vista into the abiding heritage. The tribulation that throws down our earthly dwelling, that gives us poverty for riches, that makes home a desert, that estranges friends, that lowers our good name—does but the more effectually disentangle us from snares which might have been fatal, and “set our feet in a large room.” That tribulation that disenchants the world to us, and makes “the world to come” our all, is surely to be “gloried in.”
6. He expects our faith to grow.
For just as our faith lays hold of the prospect, so does that prospect in return by hold of and increase our faith. The belief of what is false destroys faith; in eats into its very core. The belief of what is true is self-rewarding, by invigorating the very faith which receives it. There is an innate healing power in truth just as there is an inherent corrosive power in falsehood; so that the more we let our faith spread itself out over the region of the true, the more do we find that faith gaining strength and rising into maturity, for it is itself “the substances of things hoped for.” The world’s faith shrivels up and becomes more and more emaciated, for it has no true future to look into: our faith ripens and strengthens in spite of the noxious gusts of earth, because it has a true future to rest on—a future be which no disappointments here can make less true, less real, and less glorious.
7. He expects our hope to brighten.
The prospect to which it points is a bright certainty, and as hope nears its object it partakes more of its hues. The world’s hope is a mere pretense. It builds on nothing, and its promises, which at first, perhaps, are fair, grow feebler every hour. Our hope, going beyond earth’s straitened circle, and passing forward into a region where all brightening influences abound, becomes more and more truly what God desires it to be—“a living hope,” a “good hope,” a hope “that maketh not ashamed,” a hope which, like the morning light, “shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” The bright future brightens hope. The true future makes it truer and more real. The world’s poor hope is like the troubled billow of the feverish ocean, ever rising and sinking till it dashes in foam against the rock or sand that hems it in. Our hope, like the atmosphere’s transparent wave, is rising ever upward, with a sure buoyancy, making its way farther and farther beyond the mists and the noises of earth, till it breaks at last upon a shore of stars.
Horatius Bonar, The Eternal Day, (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1854), 1–16.