JOHN 14:2.—“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.”
ALL Scripture is profitable, and conduces to the growth of the Christian. But some portions of it seem to be more particularly adapted than others to certain stages of his growth in the divine life, and certain experiences in his history. In the season of affliction, the heart loves to give itself utterance in the mourning and plaints of the afflicted Psalmist. In the hour of joy, it pours forth the flood of its thanksgiving and praise in the songs and anthems of the joyful Psalmist. If the believer feels the need of instruction and exhortation, he turns to the fulness and earnestness of the apostolic Epistles. If he needs encouragement and hopefulness in view of the sin and misery of the human race, he listens to the voice of the Prophets saying: “As the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth: so the Lord God will cause righteousness and peace to spring forth before all nations.”
If, however, a singular interest attaches to any one portion of the Bible more than to others, it is found in the Gospels. These parts breathe a peculiar spirit, and exert an uncommon influence upon the soul. The Christian often resorts to them, for they bring him into the personal presence of his Lord, and his spirit burns within him as Christ talks with him on the way to heaven. He enters into the house with his Master, and walks with him by the seashore, and hears words that come directly from the mouth of God incarnate. He is thus brought near to the Infinite Being without trembling or terror, because the infinitude and glory are enshrouded in the garments of meekness and condescension. That awful fear of God as the Dread Unknown, which throws such a sombre color over the religions of the pagan world, is banished; for Christ is the only begotten of the Father, and full of grace and truth. By means of the Gospels, the believer converses with the Eternal One, as a man converses with his friend.
And of the Gospels, that of John is the most full of this kind of influence. He was the beloved disciple, and his is the beloved Gospel. He seems to have had granted to him a more direct and clear vision of the heart of the Redeemer, than was allowed to the other disciples. He leaned upon his breast at supper, and appears to have attained a fuller knowledge than did the others, of the mysterious and fathomless nature of the God-man.
Not only does this Gospel present to the contemplation of the believer themes of love and grace, but it everywhere offers to the human intellect the highest themes of truth and unsearchable wisdom. Its exordium is mysterious; revealing, in a way that no other part of Scripture does, the doctrine of the Triune God, and giving the fullest unfolding of the mystery that has yet been granted to the finite mind. And, running through the whole narrative, there is a series of high and deep disclosures concerning the being of God, and the problems of human destiny, that renders this Gospel the most profound of all books.
At the same time, while it is unsearchably mysterious, it is wonderfully soothing in its influence upon the soul. Like the Holy Ghost, it may well be called the “Comforter.” Full of deep wisdom, and full of deep love; full of mystery, and full of quickening instruction; full of the awfulness and infinitude of Deity, and full of the beauty and winning grace of a perfect humanity; the Gospel of John will ever be the solace and joy of the Christian in his loftiest and lowliest moods. He will always feel the truthfulness of the language in which the childlike Claudius describes his emotions while perusing this Gospel: “I have from my youth up delighted to read the Bible, but especially the Gospel of John. There is something in it exceedingly wonderful; twilight and night, and through them the quick flash of lightning; soft evening clouds, and behind the clouds, the full-orbed moon. There is something, also, so high, and mysterious, and solemn, that one cannot become weary. It seems to me in reading the Gospel of John, as if I saw him at the last supper leaning upon the breast of his Master, and as if an angel were holding my lamp, and at certain passages wished to whisper something in my ear. I am far from understanding all that I read; yet it seems as if the meaning were hovering in the distance before my mind’s eye. And even when I look into an entirely dark passage, I have an intimation of a great and glorious meaning within it which I shall one day understand.”
Among the varied moods that are addressed and comforted by the teaching of the Gospel of John, is that timorous and desponding temper which is produced by the fear of an exchange of worlds. Nothing contributes more directly to calm and assure the mind, than meditation upon those last discourses of our Lord which speak in such a majestic and sublime tone, and yet breathe a gracious, benign, and tranquillizing spirit. In them, the Eternal and Divine is strangely blended with the Finite and Human; so that the soul which receives their warm impression is both inspired with confidence in the Almighty Teacher, and love for the human friend. It is related that a strong and mighty mind on drawing near to the confines of eternity, and feeling the need of some unearthly and celestial support when flesh and heart were failing, was reminded by a friend of the beauty of the Scriptures, and of those general characteristics of revelation which so often blind the eye to the more special and peculiar truths of Christianity. He made answer—hastily interrupting his friend—“Tell me not of the beauties of the Bible. I would give more for the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel than for all of them.”
In meditating upon the utterance of our Lord recorded by St. John in the text, let us notice, in the first place, the familiar acquaintance with the heavenly world which is indicated by the words: “My Father’s house;” secondly, the definiteness of this world denoted by the words: “Many mansions;” and, thirdly, its reality taught in the assertion: “If it were not so, I would have told you.”
I. In the first place, the words, “My Father’s house,” betoken the most intimate familiarity with heaven.
It is the home of Christ. Nothing more conclusively evinces the difference between Jesus Christ and other men who have lived and died upon the earth, than the confidence and certainty with which he spoke of the invisible world. Not only is there no doubt or hesitation in his views as expressed in his language, but there is no ignorance. He never says: “Now I know in part.” On the contrary, we feel that he knew much more than he has disclosed; and that if he had chosen to do so, he could have made yet more specific revelations concerning the solemn world beyond the tomb. For all other men, there are two worlds—the one here and the other beyond. Their utterances respecting this visible and tangible sphere are positive and certain; but respecting the invisible realm they guess, and they hope, or they doubt altogether. But for our Lord, there was, practically, only one world. He is as certain in respect to the invisible as to the visible; and knows as fully concerning the one as the other.
No mind unassisted by revelation ever reached the pitch of faith in the unseen and eternal that was attained by Socrates. But he was assailed by doubts; and he confesses his ignorance of the region beyond the tomb. After that lofty and solemn description in the Phædo (113, 114) of the different places assigned after death, to the good, the incorrigibly bad, and those who have led a middle life between the two, he adds: “To affirm positively, indeed, that these things are exactly as I have described them, does not become a man of discernment. But that either this or something of the kind takes place in regard to our souls and their habitation—seeing that the soul is evidently immortal—appears to me most fitting to be believed, and worthy of hazard for one who trusts in the reality. For the hazard is noble, and it is right to charm ourselves with such views as with enchantments.”
How different is the impression made upon us by these noble but hesitating words, from that which was made upon John the Baptist by our Lord’s manner and teaching upon such points, as indicated in his testimony: “He that cometh from above, is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all: and what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth.” How different is Plato’s dimness of perception, and only hopeful conjecture respecting another life, from the calm and authoritative utterance of Him who said to Nicodemus: “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen. And no man hath ascended up to heaven but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man who is in heaven.” How different is the utterance of the human philosopher from that of Him who said to the cavilling Jews: “I am from above, ye are from beneath; I go my way, and whither I go ye cannot come; I proceeded forth, and came from God; Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?”
How different are the words of Socrates from the language of Him who in a solemn prayer to the Eternal God spake the words, blasphemous if falling from the lips of any merely finite being: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” Christ, then, speaks of heaven and immortal life as an eye-witness. The eternal world was no “dim, undiscovered country” for him; and therefore his words and tones are those of one who was “native, and to the manner born.”
There are periods in the believer’s life when he needs to cling hold of this fact, that his perturbation may be calmed. The viewless world of spirit has never been entered by any mortal who has been permitted to return and divulge its secrets. So long as man is in the flesh, and accustomed only to objects of sense, it is a most baffling and mysterious world for him, and a shadowy solemnity invests it. He is not familiar with its scenes and objects. Nay, he is so habituated to that which can be seen and handled, that the very terms “spirit” and “spiritual” have come to denote the vague, the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the fearful.
Without Revelation, the world beyond is eminently a “dim, undiscovered country.” The Ancients, it is true, peopled it with the shades of the departed, and divided it into the regions of the blest and the regions of the unblest; but they still felt it to be an unknown land, and a dark, mysterious air veiled it from their vision. The dying heathen, notwithstanding the popular faith and the popular teachings respecting the future life, dreaded to go over into it, not merely because of the guilt in his conscience which caused him to fear a righteous retribution, but also because of his uncertainty and ignorance. He turned his glazing, dying eye back to the visible world, and longed for the continuance of a life which, though it was full of unsatisfaction and wretchedness, was yet invested with clearness and familiarity. He recoiled at the prospect of being hurried away from the bright sunlight, and the green earth, into the obscurity and darkness of the world of shades. The pagan or instinctive view of death, and the future world, is vividly delineated by the great dramatic poet in the feeling utterance of Claudio:
“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To-lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those, that lawless and uncertain thoughts
Imagine howling! ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.”
Although man enlightened by Revelation has a much more definite knowledge respecting the future life, he is not entirely divested of this sense of uncertainty about his future existence. Though the gospel has brought life and immortality to light; has shot some rays into the gloom of eternity; man still feels that it is an unfamiliar world. How and what he shall be when his spirit is disembodied, he knows not. He is ignorant of the mode of existence upon the other side of the tomb. Living in the light of Christianity, knowing certainly that there is another world than this, and that Christ came out from it and dwelt for a time in this world, and then “ascended up where he was before,” man is still filled with some of the dread that overshadows the heathen, and like him clings with earnestness and nervousness to this visible and diurnal sphere. And for many men dwelling in Christendom, the other reason for dread that exists in the case of the pagan is also existing. The merely nominal Christian, like the pagan, knows that there is unpardoned sin upon the soul, and the pale realms of eternity are therefore, as were the gates of paradise for the departing Adam and Eve,
“With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms.”
Though the believer ought to be raised by his faith above all these fears, and the future life should be familiar as his own home to him, yet he is often conscious of uncertainty and misgiving when he thinks of an exchange of worlds. He cannot at all times confidently say: “It is my Father’s house.” He has little positive hope and desire to enter it. He does not steadily and habitually seek a better country, even a heavenly. He, too often, clings to life with anxiety, and the summons to depart sends perturbation and trembling through his soul. It is a mysterious world, and although he professes to have a God and Redeemer within it, yet he fears to enter.
Now the words of our Savior: “My Father’s house,” should calm and encourage us. We should believe with a simple and unquestioning faith, that they really indicate the nature of the spiritual world for the Christian—that eternity for the disciple of Christ is home. They should also invest the future world with clearness and familiarity. It should not be for us a vague and mystical realm, but our most cheerful home thoughts should gather around it; we should cherish the home feeling regarding it; and to our inward eye, it should present the distinctness and attractions of a father’s house.
That this may be the case with us, it is not in the least necessary to know the exact mode of our future existence. It is enough to know that the “Lord Jesus Christ shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the energy whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” It is enough to know that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is.” We need only to believe the words of our Savior: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” We need nothing but that unquestioning spirit which rests upon the word and power of an omniscient God and Redeemer, and which commends itself to the guardianship of Him who has promised to be with his Church, and with every member of it, “always, even unto the end of the world.”
II. In the second place, we are to notice the definiteness of the spiritual world, indicated by the words: “Many mansions.”
This language does not denote a dim, airy immensity; an unlimited ether in which the disembodied spirits shall wander; a shadowy realm in which ghosts pale and silent shall flit to and fro, like bats in twilight. Our spirits are finite and individual, and we start back at the thought of a dreamy existence diffused through a vague and indefinite infinitude. We recoil at the thought of a fluctuating and unfixed mode of being. Though flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of God, and we ought not to look for the material objects of this planet in a spiritual world, yet both Scripture and the profound instincts of our minds affirm a body for the clothing of our spirits, and a definite residence adapted to it. There is that within us which dreads a slumbering and uncertain mode of being. We are persons, and we instinctively desire the existence of a person, and a dwelling-place amidst personal relationships and circumstances.
The phrase “many mansions” denotes that there is a definite and appropriate residence beyond the tomb, for our finite and distinctly personal spirits; a residence in which they can unfold their powers in a well-defined and self-conscious manner; in which they can think, and know, and feel as vividly as they do here; in which as happy individualities they can look upon the face of a personal God and worship him; in which as blessed intelligences they can apprehend his excellence, and glorify him forevermore.
With all the spirituality with which the Word of God describes the abodes of the blest, there is united a remarkable clearness. In all other books, the great hereafter looks dim, strange, and forbidding; but in the Bible it appears real, natural, and life-like. In representing the kingdom of God as spiritual, Revelation keeps in view the wants of a finite creature, and therefore heaven is where the face of God shines with a more effulgent brightness than elsewhere, and where there is the most marked and impressive consciousness of his presence. There are times, even in the Christian life upon earth, when the veil is partially withdrawn, and that august Being whom man is prone to picture to himself as like the all-pervading air, or the mystic principle of life in nature, reveals speaking lineaments, and a living eye that meets his eye; moments when the finite spirit meets the Infinite face to face, and glances of Divine love and approbation send ineffable peace through it. And such, only in a perfect degree, will be the relation which the believer will sustain to God in the future life. He will see Him as He is. He will be a child, and God will be a Father. His existence will be that of distinct and blessed self-consciousness. He will dwell in “mansions.”
III. In the third place, we are to note the reality of the heavenly world, denoted by the remark of our Lord: “If it were not so, I would have told you.”
Man, here below, lives so entirely among sensible things, and meditates so little upon spiritual objects, that he comes to look upon that which is spiritual as unreal, and upon material things as the only realities. For most men, houses, and lands, and gold are more real than God and the soul. The former address the five senses, whereas “no man hath seen God at any time,” and the soul is not apprehensible by any sensuous organ. Yet the invisible God is more real than any other being, for he is the cause and ground of all other existence. It was an invisible Mind that made the material chaos from nothing, and brooded over it, and formed it into an orderly and beautiful cosmos. The invisible is more firmly substantial than the visible. “The things which are seen were not made of things which are seen; the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Still, it cannot be denied that mankind reverses all this, and looks upon spiritual things and the invisible world as very unreal and phantom-like. They do not have sufficient faith in an unseen future life, to live for it; and they do not regard it as so real and important, that their whole earthly existence should be devoted to a preparation for it.
Now, it is from such a mass of earthly and sensuous men, holding such views of the invisible, that the Christian is taken. He is born into the new spiritual kingdom, and professes to believe that God is, and that the soul verily is, and that heaven and hell are everlasting realities; but still the views and mental habits of the old carnal nature cling to him. He finds it difficult to live habitually with reference to eternity, to be continually conscious of the presence of God, and to act with an unwavering certainty of heaven. He is still much possessed by the spirit of this world, too frequently he finds his home among its vanities, and he attaches too much value to its objects. Hence, when the prospect of an entrance into eternity opens before him, he feels unprepared. He needs time that he may fix his thoughts upon God and invisible things, in order to realize that God is, and feel that he is going into a world more solid and satisfying than the one he is leaving. He has lived too carnal a life; he is not so spiritually minded as he should be, and his conversation has not habitually been in heaven; and therefore it seems to him as if he were entering a cheerless and ghostly realm. Thus the unfaithful Christian is surprised by death, and perturbation comes over him as he lies down to die. He is not so much at home in eternity as he is in time, and hence he is in bondage to the fear of death, and shrinks from the exchange of worlds.
One remedy for such a state of mind, for such a practical unbelief in God and heaven, is to be found in meditation upon the words of Him who came down from heaven, and who is in heaven. “If it were not so,” says our Lord, “if there were not many mansions in heaven; if it were not my home, and the home of my Father, and of the holy angels, and of the spirits of just men made perfect; I would have told you, I would have undeceived you.” This is the language of the Redeemer to his disciples, spoken that they might not be troubled or afraid at the prospect of his departure from them to God, or at the thought of their own departure out of this world. This voice of his sounds encouragement, through all ages, to the body of believers. It issues from the “mansions” of heaven, and for all who hear it, it is a voice that cheers and animates. It comes forth from the invisible world, and bids the Christian prepare to enter it; to expect the entrance with a hopeful and cheerful temper; nay, to be longing for the time when he shall go into the presence of God unclothed of the mortal and sinful, and clothed upon with the immortal and the holy.
It is evident from this unfolding of the subject, that the Christian needs an increase of faith. If he profoundly believed that God is his Father, and loves him; that Christ is his Saviour, and intercedes for him; that the Holy Spirit is his Sanctifier, and dwells in his heart—if he profoundly believed what the Word of God commands him to believe, that all the mercy and power of the triune Godhead is working out the eternal salvation of his soul, and that the Godhead dwells in a real and blessed world, and is preparing him for an entrance into it that he may be a priest and a king there forever—if he believed this with an undoubting and abiding faith, he would go through this life “tasting the powers of the world to come.” And when the hour came to depart hence, he would leap for joy because his salvation draws nigh; because he is soon to experience the truth of that glowing declaration: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive the things that God hath prepared for them that love him.”
We should therefore pray, as did the disciples of our Lord, for an increase of faith; and we should cultivate this particular habit and grace. Let us fix these particular truths and facts in our minds, and habitually ponder them: That heaven is a reality, if it were not, Christ would have told his followers so; that the dwelling-place of God must be an actual and happy abode; that our Father’s house is adapted to the wants and capacities of our finite personal spirits; and that its “mansions” are open to receive them when they leave the body. Let us believe and doubt not, that for all who are in Christ there is an ineffable blessedness in reserve, and that it will never end; that all who sleep in Jesus shall “with open eye behold the glory of the Lord, and be changed into the same image from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 167–180.