"To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."—Eev. ii. 7.
THE seven-fold promises which conclude the seven letters to the Asiatic Churches, of which this is the first, are in substance one. We may, indeed, say that the inmost meaning of them all is the gift of Christ Himself. But the diamond flashes variously-coloured lights according to the angle at which it is held, and breaks into red and green and white. The one great thought may be looked at from different points of view, and sparkle into diversely splendid rays. The reality is single and simple, but so great that our best way of approximating to the apprehension of that which we shall never comprehend till we possess it is to blend various conceptions and metaphors drawn from different sources.
I have a strong conviction that the Christianity of this day suffers intellectually and practically, from its comparative neglect of the teaching of the New Testament as to the future life. We hear and think a great deal less about it than was once the case, and we are thereby deprived of a strong motive for action, and a sure comfort in sorrow. Some of us may, perhaps, be disposed to look with a little sense of lofty pity at the simple people who let the hope of heaven spur, or restrain, or console. But if there is a future life at all, and if the characteristic of it which most concerns us is that it is the reaping, in consequences, of the acts of the present, surely it cannot be such superior wisdom, as it sometimes pretends to be, to ignore it altogether; and perhaps the simplicity of the said people is more in accordance with the highest reason than is our attitude.
Be that as it may, believing, as I do, that the hope of immortality is meant to fill a very large place in the Christian life, and fearing, as I do, that it actually does fill a very small one with many of us, I have thought that it might do us all good to turn to this wealth of linked promises and to consider them in succession, so as to bring our hearts for a little while into contact with the motive for brave fighting which does occupy so large a space in the New Testament, however it may fail to do so in our lives.
I. I ask you to look first at the Gift.
Now, of course, I need scarcely remind you that this first promise, in the last book of Scripture, goes back to the beginning, to the old story in Genesis about Paradise and the Tree of Life. We may distinguish between the substance of the promise and the highly metaphorical form into which it is here cast. The substance of the promise is the communication of life; the form is a poetic and imaginative and pregnant allusion to the story on the earliest pages of Kevelation.
Let me deal first with the substance. Now, it seems to me that if we are to pare down this word "life " to its merely physical sense of continuous existence, this is not a promise that a man's heart leaps up at the hearing of. To anybody that will honestly think, and try to realise, in the imperfect fashion in which alone it is possible for us to realise it, that notion of an absolutely interminable continuance of being, its awfulness is far more than its blessedness, and it overwhelms a man. It seems to me that the "crown of life," if life only means conscious existence, would be a crown of thorns indeed.
No, brethren, what our hearts crave, and what Christ's heart gives, is not the mere bare, bald, continuance of conscious being. It is something far deeper than that. That is the substratum, of course; but it is only the substratum, and not until we let in upon this word, which is one of the keywords of Scripture, the full flood of light that comes to it from John's gospel, and its use on the Master's lips there, do we begin to understand the meaning of this great promise. Just as we say of men who are sunk in gross animalism, or whose lives are devoted to trivial and transient aims, that theirs is not worth calling life, so we say that the only thing that deserves, and that in Scripture gets, the august name of " life," is a condition of existence in conscious union with, and possession of, God, who is manifested and communicated to mortals through Jesus Christ His Son. "In Him was life, and the life was manifested." Was that bare existence? And the life was not only manifested but communicated, and the essence of it is fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. The possession of " the spirit of life which was in Christ," and which in heaven will be perfectly communicated, will make men "free," as they never can be upon earth whilst implicated in the bodily life of this material world, "from the law of sin and death." The gift that Christ bestows to him that "overcometh" is not only conscious existence, but existence derived from, and, so to speak, embraided with the life of God Himself, and therefore blessed.
For such a life, in union with God in Christ, is the only condition in which all a man's capacities find their fitting objects, and all his activity finds its appropriate sphere, and in which, therefore, to live is to be blessed, because the heart is united with the source and fountain of all blessedness. Here is the deepest depth of that promise of future blessedness. It is not mainly because of any changes, glorious as these must necessarily be, which follow upon the dropping away of flesh, and the transportation into the light that is above, that heaven is a place of blessedness, but it is because the saints that are there are joined to God, and into their recipient hearts there pours for ever the fulness of the Divine life. That makes the glory and the blessedness.
But let us remember that all which can come hereafter of that full and perfect life is but the continuance, the development, the increase, of that which already is possessed. Here it falls in drops; there in floods. Here it is filtered; there poured. Here, the plant, taken from its native climate and soil, puts forth some pale blossoms, and grows but to a stunted height ; there, set in their deep native soil, and shone upon by a more fervent sun, and watered by more abundant warm rains and dews, "they that" on earth " were planted in the house of the Lord shall," transplanted, "flourish in the courts of our God." The life of the Christian soul on earth, and of the Christian soul in heaven, is continuous, and though there is a break to our consciousness looking from this side—the break of death—the reality is that without interruption, and without a turn, the road runs on in the same direction. We begin to live the life of heaven here, and they who can say, "I was dead in trespasses and sins, but the life which I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God," have already the germs of the furthest development in the heavens in their hearts.
Notice, for a moment, the form that this great promise assumes here. That is a very pregnant and significant reference to the Tree of Life in the paradise of God. The old story tells how the cherub with the flaming sword was set to guard the way to it. And that paradise upon earth faded and disappeared. But it re-appears. "Then comes a statelier Eden back to man," for Jesus Christ is the Kestorer of all lost blessings ; and the Divine purpose and ideal has not faded away amidst the clouds of the stormy day of earth's history, like the flush of morning from off the plains. Christ brings back the Eden, and quenches the flame I of the fiery sword; and instead of the repellent cherub, there stands Himself with the merciful invitation upon His lips: "Come! Eat; and life for ever."
"There never was one lost good ; what was shall live as before.
On the earth the broken arcs; in heaven the perfect round."
Eden shall come back; and the paradise into which the victors go is richer and fuller, by all their conflict and their wounds, than ever could have been the simpler paradise of which souls innocent, because untried, could have been capable. So much for the gift of life. II. Notice, secondly, the Giver.
This is a majestic utterance; worthy of coming from the majestic Figure portrayed in the first chapter of this book. In it Jesus Christ claims to be the Arbiter of men's deserts and Giver of their rewards. That involves His judicial function, and therefore His Divine as well as human nature. I accept these words as truly His words. Of course, if you do not, my present remarks have no force for you; but if you do not, you ought to be very sure of your reasons for not doing so; and if you do, then I see not how any man who believes that Jesus Christ has said that He will give to all the multitude of faithful fighters, who have brought their shields out of the battle, and their swords undinted, the gift of life eternal, can be vindicated from the charge of taking too much upon him, except on the belief of His Divine nature.
But I observe, still further, that this great utterance of the Lord's, paralleled in all the other six promises, in all of which He is represented as the bestower of the reward, whatever it may be, involves another thing— viz., the eternal continuance of Christ's relation to men as the Revealer and Mediator of God. "I will give "— and that not only when the victor crosses the threshold and enters the Capitol of the heavens, but all through its secular ages, Christ is the Medium by which the Divine life passes into men. True, there is a sense in which He shall deliver up the kingdom to His Father, when the partial end of the present dispensation has come. But He is the Priest of mankind for ever; and for ever is His kingdom enduring. And through all the endless ages, which we have a right to hope we shall see, there will never come a point in which it will not remain as true as it is at this moment: "No man hath seen God at any time, nor can see Him; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him." Christ is for ever the Giver of life, in the heavens as on earth.
Another thing is involved which I think also is often lost sight of. The Bible does not know anything about what people call "natural immortality." Life here is not given to the infant once for all, and then expended through the years, but it is continually being bestowed. My belief is that no worm that creeps, nor angel that soars, nor any of the beings between, is alive for one instant except for the continual communication from the fountain of life, of the life that they live. And still more certainly is it true about the future, that there all the blessedness and the existence, which is the substratum and condition of the blessedness, are only ours because, wavelet by wavelet, throbbing out as from a central fountain, there flows into the Redeemed a life communicated by Christ Himself. If I might so say—were that continual bestowment to cease, then heaven, like the vision of a fairy tale, would fade away; and there would be nothing left where the glory had shone. "I will give" through eternity.
III. Lastly, note the Recipients.
"To him that overcometh." Now, I need not say, in more than a sentence, that it seems to me that the fair interpretation of this promise, as of all the other references in Scripture to the future life, is that the reward is immediately consequent upon the cessation of the struggle. "To depart" is "to be with Christ," and to be with Christ, in regard of a spirit which has passed from the bodily environment, is to be conscious of His presence, and lapt in His robe, feeling the warmth and the pressure of His heart. So I believe that Scripture teaches us that at one moment there may be the clash of battle, and the whiz of the arrows round one's head, and next moment there may be the laurel-crowned quiet of the victor.
But that does not enter so much into our consideration now. We have, rather, here to think of just this one thing, that the gift is given to the victor because only the victor is capable of receiving it; that future life, interpreted as I have ventured to interpret it in this sermon, is no arbitrary bestowment that could be dealt all round miscellaneously to everybody, if the Giver chose so to give. Here on earth many gifts are bestowed upon men, and are neglected by them, and wasted like water spilled upon the ground; but this elixir of life is not poured out so. It is only poured into vessels that can take it in and hold it.
Our present struggle is meant to make us capable of the heavenly life. And that is—I was going to say the only, but at all events—incomparably the chiefest, of the thoughts which make life not only worth living, but great and solemn. Go into a mill, and in a quiet room, often detached from the main building, you will find the engine working, and seeming to do nothing but go up and down. But there is a shaft which goes through the wall and takes the power to the looms. We are working here, and we are making the cloth that we shall have to own, and say, "Yes, it is my manufacture!" when we get yonder. According to our life to-day will be our destiny in that great to-morrow. Life is given to the victor, because the victor only is capable of possessing it.
But the victor can only conquer in one way. "This," said John, when he was not an apocalyptic seer, but a Christian teacher to the Churches of Asia, " this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." If we trust in Christ we shall get His power into our hearts, and if we get His power into our hearts, then "we shall be more than conquerors through Him that loved us." Christ gives life eternal, gives it here in germ and yonder in fulness. In its fulness only those who overcome are capable of receiving it. Those only who fight the good fight by His help overcome. Those only who trust in Him fight the good fight by His help. He gives to eat of the Tree of Life ; He gives it to faith, but faith must be militant. He gives it to the conqueror, but the conqueror must win by faith in Him who overcame the world for us, who will help us to overcome the world by Him.
Help us, 0 our God, we beseech Thee ; "teach our hands to war, and our fingers to fight." Give us grace to hold fast by the life which is in Jesus Christ; and, living by Him the lives which we live in the flesh, may we be made capable, by the discipline of earth's sorrows, of that rest and fuller "life which remaineth for the people of God."