2 CORINTHIANS, 4:18.—“The things which are not seen are eternal.”
THERE is a difference between things that are not seen, and things that are invisible.
An object may not be seen at this particular moment, or under the present circumstances, and yet it may come into sight hereafter, or under a different set of surroundings. But an object that is strictly invisible cannot be seen either now or hereafter; from the present point of view, or from any conceivable position whatsoever. There are stars in the heavens that have never yet been observed by any human eye, but which can be brought into view by a higher power of the telescope. They are unseen, but they do not belong to the class of absolute invisibilities. But the spiritual essence of God, and the immaterial substance of the human soul, are strictly invisible. Not only are they not seen as yet, but they never will be seen by any vision whatsoever.
This distinction is marked by the apostle Paul, and indicated by the difference in the phraseology which he employs. In the text, he uses the same form of words (μὴ βλεπόμενα) with that employed in Hebrews 11:1, where it is affirmed that faith is “the evidence [conviction] of things not seen” (οὐ βλεπομένων). In this latter instance the writer refers to objects that are not visible now, but which will be visible hereafter. “Faith,” he says, “is the conviction of things not seen” in the present, but to be seen in the future.
He cites in illustration the case of Noah. The flood had not yet come and was a “thing not seen,” when the patriarch exercised the act of faith; but it afterward came, and was both visible and tangible. But when St. Paul, in Rom. 1:20, declares that “the invisible things of God, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead,” he employs a different word (ἀόρατα) which denotes that these things are intrinsically invisible. The eternal power and godhead—the Divine essence itself, with its inherent attributes—cannot be seen with the bodily eye. It can only be “understood,” that is, illustrated and interpreted, “by the things that are made.”
The text, then, leads us to contemplate those objects which we do not see now, but which we shall see hereafter. It does not call us to a metaphysical investigation of those things which are absolutely beyond the reach of finite cognition, because they are intrinsically invisible and incomprehensible; but it invites us to examine those realities which we do not now see, or which at least we see through a glass darkly, but which we shall hereafter see, and see face to face.
The first and greatest of these realities is God.
After what we have remarked concerning the Divine essence, it will of course be understood that we do not mean to teach that we shall comprehend the mystery of the Godhead in the future life. “No man hath seen God at any time.” No finite intelligence whatever, be it man or angel, can penetrate the inscrutable abyss of the Divine nature. This is an absolute invisibility, and neither in this world nor the next will the created mind comprehend it. But there is a manifestation of God, whereby he puts himself into relation and communication with his creatures, so that they may know him sufficiently to glorify and enjoy him.
The apostle John alludes to this, when, after saying that no man hath seen the invisible and unsearchable God at any time, he adds, “The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” In the incarnation of the second trinitarian Person, the deity steps out, as it were, from behind the thick clouds and darkness that veil him from the human intelligence, and shows himself. Think of the difference that has been made in man’s knowledge of God, by the Word’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
Compare the view of God which is enjoyed by all who have the four Gospels in their hands, with that which was granted to the wisest and most reflecting of the heathen. The little child in the Sabbath-school knows more of the being and attributes, and particularly of the purposes of the Most High, than Plato himself. For Christ, the God-Man, stands before his infantile vision “the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the exact image of his person;” so that the deity possesses for this little child’s mind in a Christian land a reality, a distinctness, an excellence, and a beauty, that never was revealed to the most serious, the most capacious, and the most highly disciplined intelligence of pagan antiquity.
In the incarnate Word, that “unknown God” whom Paul alluded to on Mars hill, whom the philosophers of Athens were ignorantly worshipping, and after whom they were blindly groping if haply they might find him, assumes a corporeal human presence. He breaks through the sky, he bursts the dim ether, and stands out like the sun on the edge of the horizon a sublime and glorious Form. We see his face, alas! marred more than any man; we hear his voice. He is Immanuel—God with us. I tell you that many sages and philosophers, many kings and prophets, have desired to see those things which the little child now sees, and have not seen them; to hear those things which the little child now hears, and have not heard them.
But the future manifestation of God that is to be made in heaven is yet more impressive and refulgent than this.
The tabernacling of God in the flesh, eighteen centuries ago, was only preparatory to the great final manifestation of himself to his Church in the world of light; and glorious as was the former, yet far more glorious will be the latter. “For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious” (2 Cor. 3:10, 11). Christ upon earth in his state of humiliation was indeed glorious; but Christ upon the mediatorial throne, still clothed in human nature but in his estate of exaltation, is far more glorious.
It is not for us to say in what particulars God will be manifested to the blessed on high, whereby his presence will be far more impressive than it was in the theophanies of the Old Dispensation, or even in the earthly incarnation of the New. But we know the fact from the teaching of Scripture. The appearance of Jehovah to Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran; to Moses in the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai; to the child Samuel in the dim recesses of the temple; to Isaiah when he saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple; and last of all, the actual residence of this second Person of the Trinity on the plains of Palestine, and among the hills of Judea—all these graduated and growing revelations of the deity fall short of that which shall be in the future world. For the future world is the final one.
All the preparatory steps and stages in the religious education of the Church; all the gradual and growing revelations that have been employed to bring man into nearer and nearer communication with the unseen God; will have accomplished their purpose. The last wall of separation between the finite and the infinite Spirit will have been broken down; man and God will meet face to face, and know even as they are known. Hence the last manifestation must be the crowning one. In heaven, God assumes a form more glorious and distinct than he has before assumed upon earth. He puts himself into a relation to human creatures that will influence them, and affect them, more profoundly and vividly than ever before.
There is one proof of this to which we invite attention.
It is the fact that the heavenly world is a world of perfect worship; and perfect worship supposes a resplendent manifestation and clear vision of the Object of worship.
We see the operation of this principle in the idolatries of the world.
The pagan requires some visible form before which he can bow down, and to which he can address his prayers. His error and his sin does not lie in the fact that he craves an object to worship, but in the fact that he selects a wrong object. No creature can offer prayer or praise to a nonentity; and the idolater is following a legitimate and constitutional conviction of the human mind, when he seeks some being, real or imaginary, toward whom his religious aspirations may go out, and upon whom they may terminate. He cannot pray into the air. His words need to strike upon some object, and rebound to him in an answer. All this is natural and proper.
But his error consists in substituting an image of gold and silver, or the sun, moon, and stars, or the forces of nature, for the Invisible Spirit. Rejecting that idea of an “eternal power and Godhead” which St. Paul asserts to be innate in every man, and to be “clearly seen and understood by the things that are made,” the idolater betakes himself to the notions of his fancy, which are more in accordance with his vile affections. Leaving his reason, he takes lessons in theology from his imagination. “Becoming vain in their imaginations, their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” Not, then, in seeking an object of worship, but in substituting a false for the true one, does the sin and folly of the idolater consist. There must be an object, in order to any worship.
We find this same principle operating in the minds of believers themselves.
What a craving there oftentimes is in the heart of a child of God, to behold the Being whom he has worshipped so long, but whom he has never seen. It is true that he enjoys many aids to his faith and worship. The history of all these Divine manifestations to the patriarchs, and prophets, and apostles, is before him, and he reads it often and again. Still more, the story of the incarnation, and of the residence of God the Son here upon earth, he peruses over and over. These place the object of worship very plainly before him, in comparison with the dimness of natural religion, and the darkness of idolatry. Nevertheless, he desires a fuller manifestation than this, and looks forward to one in the future. He sees through a glass darkly, though living under the light of revelation; and says with David, “I shall be satisfied [only] when I awake in Thy likeness.”
“If,” says Richard Baxter, “an angel from heaven should come down on earth to tell us all of God that we would know, and might lawfully desire and ask him, who would not turn his back upon libraries, and universities, and learned men, to go and discourse with such a messenger? What travel should I think too far, what cost too great, for one hour’s talk with such a messenger?” This is the utterance of that holy man when he was standing upon the borders of eternity, and was about to go over into the “everlasting rest” whose felicity he has described so well. This is one of his “Dying Thoughts,” and from it we see how ardently he desired to behold God, the great Object of worship, face to face. He had worshipped him long, and he had loved him long. He had enjoyed a clearer mental vision, probably, than is granted to most believers. And yet he is not satisfied. With the Psalmist he cries out: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”
Now from these facts in the human constitution, and in the Christian experience, we infer that there will be a full and unclouded vision of God in the future life. This is one of those “eternal things” which are not seen as yet, but which will be seen hereafter. For the future world is the world where worship reaches its perfection; and therefore it must be the world where the Object of worship shines out like the sun. The Scripture figures and representations imply this. “I saw a great white throne,” says St. John, “and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God.” In this description of the last judgment, the creature and the Creator meet face to face. Who can doubt, from this statement, that when the books are opened and the final reckoning is made, the phenomenal appearance of the Deity will be far more startling and striking than any previous manifestation that he has made. “Behold he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him.” Here we are told that the human eye looks directly into the Divine eye.
There is even a specification of individuals. That Roman soldier who pierced the side of the Lord of Glory on Mount Calvary with his spear, will, in the day of doom, see that same Eternal One as distinctly as he saw him when nailed to the cross. These passages relate to the eternal judgment, and imply an immediate manifestation of God then and there; a direct vision of him, face to face. But with equal plainness do the representations of St. John respecting the eternal worship teach the same truth. “I saw,” he says, “no temple in the heavenly Jerusalem; for the Lord God Almighty, and the Lamb, are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And his servants see his face, and his name is in their foreheads.”
It is not possible, as we have before remarked, to imagine or describe this glorious and final theophany. We cannot draw a picture of that resplendent Form before which the heavenly hosts bow in reverence and love. And all such attempts to go beyond what is written are presumptuous. The Italian painters sometimes do this; and even our own Milton, in some of his attempts to delineate the state and glory of the Eternal God, not only shows a faltering pinion, but derogates from the Divine honor.
The subject is beyond human powers. Even the pen of inspiration could not convey to such faculties as those of man, and particularly to such an earthly-minded creature as he is, an adequate and full idea of the “excellent glory.” Nevertheless, there is such a glory; there is such a transcendant manifestation of the great Object of worship. And it is for us to think of it as we do of a star, or a sun, that is not yet within the range of our vision. We have no doubt that Sirius is this moment shining with a brilliancy beyond conception; that he is throwing out beams into universal space that glitter and gleam beyond any light that ever was on sea or land. We do not now see that star; our eyes are not now blinded by its intolerable brightness. But there are eyes that behold it; and if it should be brought within the range of our vision, we should be forced to shield our orbs from its glare.
Just so is it with the celestial manifestation of God. It does not now strike upon our vision, because we are upon earth. It is one of the “eternal things” which are not seen as yet. But it is none the less a reality. The star is shining in full effulgence within its own sphere; and there are creatures who behold and adore. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not appear what we shall be; but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
For it will not be possible to offer unto God a perfect worship, until we see him as the angels and the spirits of just men made perfect see him. Even here upon earth, the fervency of our love and praise depends upon the clearness with which we behold the Divine perfections. When our spiritual perception is dim, our worship is faint; but when we are granted, in the sanctuary or in the closet, some unusual views of our Maker and Redeemer, our languid affections are quickened. Worship, as we have repeatedly remarked, depends upon a sight of the Object of worship; and it rises or sinks as that comes into our view, or recedes from it. The Persian Fire-Worshippers adored the sun. So long as that luminary was below the horizon they were silent, and offered no worship; but when the first streaks of light and the first bars of crimson began to appear in the morning sky, they began to kindle in their own minds. Yet their worship did not reach its height, until
“Right against the eastern gate
The great sun began his state,
Robed in flames and amber light.”
So is it with Christian worship.
Here upon earth we see some faint streaks of the Divine glory, and we offer some faint and imperfect adoration. But when the full-orbed glory of God shall rise upon our clear and purged vision in another world, our anthems will be like those of the heavenly host. Here upon earth, our praise is to some degree an effort. We study, and we toil, to give unto God the glory due unto his name. And this is right. For here, in time, our religion must be to some extent a race and a fight. There are obstacles to a perfect service which arise from our own indwelling sin, and from the unfavorable circumstances in which we are placed in a world like this. And among these unfriendly circumstances is the fact, that here in time God does not reveal himself in the fulness of his glory.
We see him through a glass darkly. But when we shall “come and appear before God”; when we shall behold the Object of worship precisely as he is, it will cost us no effort to worship him. Our adoration will become spontaneous and irrepressible. For the Object itself prompts the service. We shall not need to urge our hearts up to the anthem. They will be drawn out by the magnetic attraction, the heavenly beauty of the Divine Nature.
We have thus considered one of those eternal realities which are not seen as yet. We have meditated upon that special manifestation which God makes of himself to the worshippers in the upper sanctuary. Guided by the statements of Scripture, which are also confirmed by the instinctive desires of the renewed heart, as well as by the constitutional workings of the human mind, we have seen that the great object of our love and our worship will not always be seen through a glass darkly. The Christian will one day behold God face to face.
Man was originally made to live in the immediate presence of his Maker. The account that is given us in the opening chapters of Genesis shows that Adam’s intercourse with God was much like that which the angels enjoy. And is it reasonable to suppose that when the Creator had produced a creature in his own likeness, and had endowed him with holiness and knowledge, and made him capable of a blessed companionship with himself, he would then have thrust him away from his presence and shut him out of his communion?
In the pagan mythology, Saturn devours his own children; but that glorious and blessed Being “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,” delights to communicate the fulness of his own joy to his offspring. Nothing but apostasy and rebellion have interrupted this primeval intercourse between man and God. When guilty Adam heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, he hid himself. Previously to this, that voice had had no terrors for him. When, therefore, the restoration shall have taken place, and man shall have been reinstated in his original condition, the old intercourse will be resumed. The same direct vision, the same social converse, the same condescending manifestation, will be granted and enjoyed. “I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”
In concluding the examination of this passage of Scripture up to this point—for other important points still remain to be considered—we remark, that it is the duty of the Christian to live in hope of the full vision of God in heaven.
The apostle Paul, after saying that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together”—in other words, that there seems to be, even in the material world, a craving expectation of something higher and better—adds, that even those “who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan within themselves, waiting for the adoption, that is to say, the redemption of the body” from death and corruption. And everywhere in his Epistles, he represents the true believer as living in hope. “We are saved by hope,” he says, “but hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?”
This hope extends, of course, to everything comprehended in the Christian life and experience. It is a hope that temptation will one day wholly cease; that trials and sorrows will all disappear; that sin will be entirely cleansed from the soul, and that perfect peace and joy will be its portion.
But our subject directs our thoughts to a single particular—to the hope, namely, that we shall one day behold God face to face.
That good and gracious Being whom we have never seen; whose very existence we have held to by an act of pure faith without sight; who has never spoken a word to us that was audible by the outward ear; who has never given us any visible sign or evidence of his existence—that Being to whom we have committed our eternal interests, and our eternal destiny, without having either seen his shape or heard his voice; to whom we have lifted up our hearts in the hour of affliction, and in the watches of the night, while yet no visible ray has emanated from his throne and his presence; to whom in his temple, and in our own closets, we have endeavored to render a reverential homage and service, though we have had no visible object to bow down before—that invisible, inaudible, intangible, and utterly unsearchable Spirit, we shall one day behold face to face.
It is not the intention or the desire of our God to keep his children forever at this remote distance from him. He cannot wisely make such miraculous manifestations of himself to his Church in every age, as he has made to them in some ages; and he cannot appear in celestial glory here in these fogs and vapors of earth. A perpetual miracle would defeat its own end. The rejecters of the truth connected with the miracle would soon become accustomed to it, as they did under the miraculous dispensation; “for though Christ had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him” (John 12:37). And even the partially-sanctified people of God themselves would receive a fainter and fainter impression from it.
The celestial manifestation of God is therefore in reserve, and we must hope and wait for it. Let us, therefore, as Moses did, “endure as seeing him who is invisible.” For we shall not be called to endure forever. There is a time coming when faith shall be turned into sight; when that star whose beams have never yet fallen upon our vision, but which has all the while been shining in its glory, shall break through the dusky air, and we shall see it, and rejoice in its everlasting radiance and gleam.
“Then ‘Glory to the Father, to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit,’ rings aloud
Throughout all Paradise; that with the song
The spirit reels, so passing sweet the strain.
And what it sees is equal ecstasy:
One universal smile it seems of all things;
Joy past compare; gladness unutterable;
Imperishable life of peace and love;
Exhaustless riches, and unmeasured bliss.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 69–81.