"Ye are come ... to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect."—Heb. xii. 23.
HE principle of arrangement in this "rand section of this letter is obscureand I am afraid that I cannot cast much, if any, light upon it. We u r'" might, at first sight, have expected that
the two clauses of our present text should have been inverted, so as to bring all the constituent parts of "the city of the living God" closely together—viz., " the angels," the members of the militant Church on earth, and those of the triumphant Church in Heaven; and also to bring together "God the Judge of all," and "Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant." But the arrangement as it stands in our text, may be compared profitably with that of the preceding verses, which we were considering in the last sermon. There, as here, the allusion to the immediate presence of God passed at once into the reference to the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. And just as there Zion, the palace, was immediately connected with the city of the living God, so here the writer, harking back, as it were, to his original starting-point, no sooner names " God the Judge" than he passes on to set before us " the spirits of just men made perfect." In the earlier clauses we have had the more general reference to the palace and the city around it. Here, if I may so say, we pass within the palace gates, and the writer tells us what we find there. This interweaving of the presence of God with that of the creatures that live in His love witnesses to the great truth that our God dwells in no isolated supremacy, but in the midst of a blessed society; and that the solitary souls that find their way into His presence have a welcome, not only from Him, but from all their brethren of His great family.
So the arrangement may not be so inexplicable, as, at first sight, it strikes us as being, if it suggests to us the close and indissoluble connection between God Himself and all those who, in every place, whether the place above or the place beneath, call upon the name of Him who is both their God and ours. In dealing with these words, I have simply to consider these two ideas thus set before us.
I.—Faith plants us at the very bar of God.
"Ye are come to God the Judge of all." Now, it is to be observed that, more accurately, the words might be rendered, "Ye are come to the God of all as Judge"; for the point which the writer wishes to brine; out is not so much the general idea of the Divine presence, as that presence considered under a specific aspect, and referring to one mode of His action—viz., the judicial. It is further to be noticed that the judgment which is here spoken about is not, as the very language, "Ye are come to the Judge," implies, future, but present. The Old Testament, with continual reference to which this letter is saturated, has a great deal more to say about the present continuous judgment which God works all through the ages than about the final future judgment. And, in accordance, not only with the language of our text, which makes coming a present thing, but, in accordance also with the whole tone of the Old Testament, we should recognize here, not so much a reference to the final tribunal before which all mankind must stand (at which the Judge is characteristically represented in the New Testament as being, not God the Father, but Jesus Christ), as to the continual judgment, both in the sense of decision as to character and infliction of consequences, which is being exercised now by the God of all.
So, then, the first thought that I would suggest from this idea is, Here is a truth which it is the office of faith to realize continually in our daily lives. Your loving access to God, Christian men and women, has brought you right under the eye of the Judge, and, though there be no terror in our approach to that tribunal, there ought to be a wholesome awe as the permanent attitude of our spirits, the awe which is the very opposite of the cowering dread which hath torment. He would be a bold criminal who would commit crimes in the very judgment hall and before the face of his judge. And that must be a very defective Christian faith which, like the so-called faith of many amongst us, goes through life and sins in entire oblivion of the fact that it stands in the very presence of the Judge of all the earth. Oh, if we could rend the veil as death will rend it, and see the things which are, as faith will help us to see them —for it thins, if it does not tear, the envious curtain between—would it be possible that we should live the low, mean, selfish, earthly, sinful lives, devoured by anxieties, defaced by stains, depressed by trivial sorrows, which, alas! so many of us do live ?" Ye are come . . . unto God the Judge of all." "If ye call Him Father, who, without respect of persons, judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear."
Then, again, notice that this judgment of God is one which a Christian man should joyfully accept. "The Lord will judge His people," says one of the psalms. "You only have I known of all the inhabitants of the earth; therefore will I punish you for your iniquities" says one of the prophets. Such sayings represent this present judgment as inevitable, just because of the close connection into which true faith brings a man with his Father in Heaven. Inevitable, and likewise most blessed and desirable, for in the thought are included all the methods by which, in providence, and by ministration of His truth and of His Spirit, God reveals to us our hidden meannesses; and delivers us sometimes, even by the consequences which accrue from them, from the burden and power of our sin.
So, then, the office of faith in regard of this continuous judgment which God is exercising upon us because He loves us is, first of all, to open our hearts to it by confession, by frank communion, by referring all our actions to Him to court that investigation. That judgment is no mere knowledge by cold Omniscience, such as a heathen conception of the Divine eye might make it to be; but just as a careful 117
gardener will go over his rose-trees, and the more carefully the more precious they are in his sight, to pick from each nestling-place at the junction of the leaves the tiny insects that are sucking out their sap, and destroying them, so God will search our hearts in order to pluck from these the crawling evils which, microscopic and tiny as they may be, will yet, in their multitude innumerable, be destructive of our spirits' lives.
It is a gospel when we say, " The Lord will judge His people." Therefore in manj- a psalm we have the writers spreading themselves out before God, and beseeching Him to come and search them, and try them, and sift them through His sieve, and know them altogether, in the sure confidence that wheresoever He beholds an evil He will be ready to cure it, and that whosoever spreadeth out His sin before God will be lightened of the burden of his sin.
This merciful judgment, which is, in fact, all directed to the perfecting and sanctifying of its subjects, reaches its end in the measure in which we register its decisions in our consciences. God writes His mind about us on them, and when they speak they are only speaking an echo of the sentence that has been pronounced from that loftier tribunal. Therefore, whosoever professeth himself to be a Christian and does anything, be it great or small, which his conscience rebukes when done, and prohibited before it was done, that man is despising the judgment of God, and bringing down upon himself the condemnation which follows despised judgment. "If we should judge ourselves we should not be judged." Reverence your consciences: they are the echo of the Judge's voice; peruse their records: they are the register of the Judge's sentence; and whensoever that inward voice speaks, bow before it and say, "Lord! Thy servant heareth."
And then, further, remember that this judgment is one that demands our thankful acceptance of the discipline which it puts in force. If we knew ourselves we should bless God for our sorrows. These are His special means of drawing His children away from their evil. "When we are chastened, we are chastened of the Lord that we should not be condemned with the world." Oh! there would be less impatience, less blank amazement when suffering comes to us, less vain and impotent regrets for vanished blessings, if we saw in all the dealings of our Father's hands the results of His judgment, and believed that it is better for us to be separated, though it be with violence and much bleeding of torn-away hearts, from our idols than that our idolatry should destroy us and mar them. "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth." This judgment is not only the merciful separation of us from our sins, but it is also a judgment on our behalf.
The office of the early Jewish judges was not only the judicial one which we mean by the word, but was much wider, and some trace of that idea runs through almost all the Old Testament references to the Divine judgment. It comes to mean, not merely a decision adverse or favourable, as the case may be, as to the moral character of its subjects, but it also substantially means pleading their cause, defending their right, intervening for them. And so in many a psalm you will find such petitions as this, "Judge me, 0 Lord; for I am poor and needy. Plead my cause against them which rise up against me." And the same conception of the Judge's office appears in one of our Lord's parables, familiar to us all, in which we are told that "the Lord will judge His own elect, though He bear long with them."
Thus, another of the blessed thoughts that come out of this conception of our approach to "the Judge of all" is that we may confidently commit our cause to Him, and leave our vindication in His hands. So abstinent from self-assertion, from self-vindication, from vengeance or recompense, patience, courage, consolation, strength, all these virtues will be ours if we understand to whom we come by our faith, and can behold, on the throne of the universe, One who will plead our cause, and undertake for us whensoever we are burdened or oppressed.
II.—Secondly, Faith carries us while living to the society of the living dead.
"The Judge of all, and the spirits of just men made perfect." Immediately on the thought of God rising in the writer's mind, there rises also the blessed thought of the blessed company in the centre of whom He lives and reigns. We can say little about that subject, and perhaps the less we say the more we shall understand, and the more deeply we shall feel. We get glimpses but no clear vision, as when a flock of birds turn in their rapid flight, and for a moment the sun glances on their white wings; and then, with another turn, they drift away, spots of blackness in the blue. So we see but for a moment as the light falls, and then lose the momentary glory, but we may at least reverently note the exalted words here.
"The spirits of ... . men made perfect." That is to say, they dwell freed from the incubus and limitations, and absolved from the activities, of a bodily organization. We cannot understand such a condition. To us it may seem to mean passivity or almost unconsciousness, but we know, as another New Testament writer has told us, that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord; and that in some deep, and to us undiscoverable, fashion, that which the corporeal frame does for men here, immersed in the material world, there the encircling Christ in whom they rest does for them. We know little more, but we have a glimpse of a land of deep peace in which repose is not passivity nor unconsciousness, any more than service is weariness. And there we have to leave it, knowing only this, that it is possible for a man to exist and to be, in a relative sense, perfected without a body.
Then, further, these spirits are " perfect."
The writer has said, at the close of the preceding chapter, that the ancient saints "without us should not be made perfect." And here he employs the same word with distinct reference, as I suppose, to his previous declaration. From which I infer that that old thought is true, that Jesus Christ shot some ra)rs of His victorious and all-reconciling power from His Cross into the regions of darkness, and brought thence those who were waiting for His coming through many a long age. A great painter has left on the walls of a little cell in his Florentine convent a picture of the victorious Christ, white-robed and banner-bearing, breaking down the iron gates that shut in the dark rocky cave; and nocking to Him, with outstretched hands of eager welcome, the whole long series from the first man downwards, hastening to rejoice in His light, and to participate in His redemption.
So the ancient Church was "perfected " in Christ; but the words refer, not only to those Old Testament patriarchs and saints, but to all who, up to the time of the writer's composition of his letter, had " slept in Jesus." They have reached their goal in Him. The end for which they were created has been attained. They are in the summer of their powers, and fullgrown adults, whilst we here, the maturest and the wisest, the strongest and the holiest, are but as babes in Christ.
But yet that "perfecting" does not exclude progress, continuous through all the ages; and especially it does not exclude one great step in advance which, as Scripture teaches us, will be taken when the resurrection of the body is granted. Corporeity is the perfecting of humanity. Body, soul, and spirit, these make the full-summed man in all his powers. And so the souls beneath the altar, clothed in white, and lapt in felicity, do yet wait for the adoption, even the redemption of the body.
Mark, further, that these spirits perfected would not have been perfected there unless they had been made just here. That is the first step, without which nothing in death has any tendency to ennoble or exalt men. If we are ever to come to the perfecting of the heavens, we must begin with the justifying that takes place on earth.
Let me point you to one other consideration, bearing not so much on the condition as on the place of these perfected spirits. It is very significant, as I tried to point out, that they should be closely associated in our text with " God the Judge of all." Is there any hint there that men who have been redeemed, who, being unjust, have been made just, and have had experience of restoration and of the misery of departure, shall, in the ultimate order of things, stand nearer the Throne than unfallen spirits, and teach angels? It is the "just men made perfect," and not the festal assembly of the angels, that are brought into connection here with " the Judge of all." Is there any hint that in some sense these perfected spirits are assessors of God in His great judgment ?" Ye shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel," seems to point in that direction. But the ground is precarious, and I only point to the words in passing as possibly affording a foothold for a "perhaps."
Bat the more important consideration is the real unity between poor souls here who are knit to Jesus Christ, and the spirits of the just made perfect who stand so close to the judgment seat.
Ah! brethren, we have to alter the meaning of the words "present" and "absent" when we come to speak of spiritual realities. The gross localized conceptions that are appropriate to material space, and to transitory time, have nothing to do with that higher region. It is no mere piece of rhetoric or sentiment to say that where our treasure is, there are our hearts, and where our hearts are there are we.
Love has no localities. It knits together two between whom oceans wide roll; it knits together saints on earth and saints in heaven. To talk of place is irrelevant in reference to such a union; for if our love, our aims, our hopes be the same, we are together. And if they on the upper side, and we on the lower, grasp each the outstretched hand of the same God, then we are one in Him, and the same life will tingle through our earthly frames, and through their perfected spirits. He is the centre of the great wheel whose spokes are light and blessedness; and all that stand around Him are brought into unity by common relation to the centre.
Our sorrows would be less sorrowful, our loss less utter, if we truly believed that while apart we are still together. Our courage and our hope would rise if we came closer in loving contemplation and believing thought to the present blessedness of those once our fellow-travellers, who, weak as we, have entered into rest. Heaven itself would gain some touch of true attractiveness if we more clearly saw, and more thankfully felt, that there is "the Judge of all," and there also "the spirits of just men made perfect."
But howsoever great may be the encouragement, the consolation, the quieting that come from them, let us turn away our eyes from the surrounding and lower seats to fix them on the central throne. Let us ever realise that we are ever in our great Judge's eye. Let us spread out our hearts for His scrutiny and decision, for His discipline if need be. Let us commit to Him our cause, and, in the peace that comes therefrom, we may understand why it was that psalmists of old called upon earth to rejoice and the hills to be glad because He "cometh to judge the earth, to judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth."