THE GLORY OF CHRIST
As the godly John Owen came to the day of his death he was told that the first sheet of his Meditations on the Glory of Christ had been printed under the superintendance of William Payne. On hearing this he lifted up his hands and looking upward he said, ‘I am glad to hear it; but, O brother Payne, the long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing, in this world’.
These were wise words and they clearly distinguish between the two ways in which believers know the glory of Christ – by faith and by sight. Here in this life Paul teaches that we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 5.7), clearly emphasizing that ‘whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord’, then expressing his longing for the future, to be ‘absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord’. In this life we ‘see’ Christ by faith alone but in the glorious future of the church there will be the most blessed experience of the answer to the Saviour’s prayer, ‘Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me’ (John 17.24). This is the sight which the true church has always anticipated. ‘Beloved’, says John, ‘now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet 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’ (1 John 3.2).
It was one of the necessary credentials of an apostle that he had seen the risen Christ; as Paul expresses it in 1 Cor. 9.1, ‘Am I not an apostle? – Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?’ Yet, having seen Jesus Christ in a most unusual way, ‘last of all – as one born out of due time’ (1 Cor. 15.8), he nevertheless says in 2 Cor. 5.16, that ‘though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more’.
Sadly, church history shows that these lessons and warnings have not always been received. The wholly Biblical longing for ‘a closer walk with God’ and ‘that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings’, has led some beyond the limits set by these warnings. The history of the Roman Catholic church has produced many claims to visions of Christ, [usually with Mary, of course), even to the extent that some have claimed to receive physical marks in their bodies corresponding to the marks in Christ’s flesh on the cross, called stigmata. Crosses, crucifixes, stained-glass windows, paintings etc., all depicting a physical, visible Christ are yet further evidences of this departure
from Scripture’s great principle, that in this life we walk by faith, not by sight.
Down the centuries there have been those who have believed that to concentrate the mind and the imagination on the physical aspects of the Saviour’s sufferings so as to have a vivid mental picture of Christ’s supposed appearance on the cross, is the height of spirituality. To be so overcome with sorrow and grief through sympathy with such a vividly imagined sufferer is mistakenly viewed as ‘godly sorrow’ and that this is what is meant by fellowship with Christ in His sufferings, or what Paul meant when he spoke of .having ‘Christ formed in you’ (Gal. 4.19).
This, sadly, is to make carnal and misunderstand the gospel which is essentially spiritual. Its truth is to be spiritually discerned, 1 Cor. ‘..14. Isaac Watts very significantly wrote,
Not with our mortal eyes
Have we beheld the Lord;
Yet we rejoice to hear his name,
And love him in his word.
On earth we want (i.e. lack) the sight
Of our Redeemer’s face.
Yet, Lord, our inmost thoughts delight
To dwell upon thy grace.
No one on earth knows, with certainty, the exact form of the cross of Christ, much less the physical appearance of the One who suffered there. The Holy Sufferer is no longer there but has risen victorious and has ascended into the glory of heaven. No one can conceive the full glory of His deity nor the extent of His present glory in the midst of His Father’s throne. We believe what we cannot now see and rejoice in what we cannot fully comprehend.
Paul the Apostle speaks much of the preaching of the cross but spends no time describing either the form of the cross or the physical appearance of the Crucified. His preaching of the cross is a proclamation of the fact and the doctrine of the crucifixion – the doctrine of the divinely-appointed Substitute and of His finished work of atonement for sin.
The gospels record the facts of the Saviour’s sufferings, death, and resurrection, with far greater emphasis upon what He did and said than upon His physical appearance. The epistles teach faith in a Saviour who died and rose again, with virtually no reference to His physical appearance and with not a single exhortation to seek for such an imagined view of the physical appearance of Christ the Lord. Yet the practical and spiritual implications of the doctrine of the cross in the lives of true disciples are constantly enforced, ‘But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus
Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world’ Gal.6.14).
With the greatest tenderness of spirit and with holy joy a believer I say, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’; not seeking some son of that Saviour but content to say, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’.
However, some may say, ‘But surely there are times of special blessing in some believer’s lives when they have seen spiritual things an exceptionally clear, vivid, and personal way’. Yes, indeed there are, and the experience of Mr. Stanley Delves, of Forest Fold, illistrates the point very beautifully. Having spoken of some of his trials he said,
“Now all this brought me into a very dark and very burdened state of mind about myself. Other things too gathered on my spirit, until I was brought down so low that I felt I could echo those words of Jeremiah, ‘My strength and my hope is perished from the Lord’. I remember going out on a business round one morning in this state of mind when the Lord appeared for me wonderfully. I had one of the outstanding experiences of my whole spiritual life. It began like this; that word came to my mind for as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us’. And, in a way that I cannot exactly describe, my mind and my heart was turned to the Lord Jesus Christ in His sufferings and death for sin and His bearing my sin in His own precious body on the tree.
The wonderful mystery of Calvary! It seemed unfolded to my mind and my heart wonderfully, and it is true for me to say that it seemed as though the streams of love and mercy and cleansing blood flowed straight from Calvary into my soul filling me with such feelings as I can hardly describe. I remember that morning walking down the High Street, Tunbridge Wells, and it seemed to me as though the traffic in the street and all the noise going on was just a distant rumble, like something on the horizon, and O! I went through that hymn:
The wonderful love of his heart,
Where he hath recorded my name,
On earth can be known but in part;
Heaven only can bear the full flame.
In rivers of sorrow it flowed,
And flowed in those rivers for me,
My sins are all drowned in his blood;
My soul is both happy and free. Swain
I felt every word of it. O! it seemed as though I was full with it. I had never had an experience like that before. It seemed to me as
though the power of that love and precious blood of Jesus Christ was such it would have eliminated sin from my very nature. But we live to learn. We live to learn! And it is sad to see what sin can survive in our souls, it really is.
Now that experience was very wonderful to me. I look back on it sometimes and feel that if ever the Lord revealed Himself to me in love and mercy. He did there. I thought ‘Now I shall be able to preach. Now I shall be able to preach’. But a heavy trial was ahead of me.”*
It is important to notice a few points in this moving account. It was an experience given before a very serious illness which would have been fatal, apart from the mercy of God. It began in a meditation on the infallible written word of God. It was the truth of that scripture, Psalm 103.11-12, which led the mind to the person and work of Christ. It was the Holy Spirit who made these truths very personal in a way that could not be ‘exactly described’ and yet in a way which could be recorded and with effects which could be so clearly expressed. It was the mystery of Calvary which was unfolded, but notice, it was unfolded to the ‘mind and to the heart’ and not to the natural eye and not in some merely ecstatic visionary way. It was the sin-atoning nature of the sufferings and blood of Jesus Christ which was so important and the spiritual power of that love and precious blood which was felt. Nowhere in this account is there a suggestion of an emphasis on the purely physical aspects of the crucifixion, and the mention of the blood of Christ is wholly consistent with the Apostle John’s way of speaking, ‘and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin’, which evidently refers to the spiritual doctrine of the sin-atoning life-blood of Jesus, the ‘one sacrifice made for sin for ever’. Let John Owen sum the matter up.
“There are, therefore, two ways or degrees of beholding the glory of Christ, which are constantly distinguished in the Scripture. The one is by faith, in this worldÂ—which is ‘the evidence of things not seen;’ the other is by sight, or immediate vision in eternity, (2 Cor. 5.7). ‘We walk by faith, and not by sight.’ We do so whilst we are in this world, ‘whilst we are present in the body, and absent from the Lord,’ (v.8). But we shall live and walk by sight hereafter. And it is the Lord Christ and His glory which are the immediate object both of this faith and sight. For we here ‘behold him darkly in a glass’ (that is, by faith); ‘but we shall see him face to face’ (by immediate vision). ‘Now we know him in part; but then we shall know him as we are known,’
1 Cor. 3.12.”
“No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter, who doth not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world. Grace is a necessary preparation for glory, and faith for sight. Where the soul is not previously seasoned with grace and faith, it is not capable of glory or vision. Nay, persons not disposed hereby unto it cannot desire it, whatever they pretend;
they only deceive their own souls in supposing that they do. Most men will say with confidence, living and dying, that they desire to be with Christ, and to behold his glory; but they can give no reason why they should desire any such thingÂ—only they think it somewhat that is better than to be in that evil condition which otherwise they must be cast into for ever, when they can be here no more. If a man pretend greatly to desire with what he never saw, nor was ever represented unto him, he but dotes on his own imaginations. And the pretended desires of many to behold the glory of Christ in heaven, who have no view of it by faith whilst they are here in this world, are nothing but self-deceiving imaginations.
So do the Papists delude themselves. Their carnal affections are excited by their outward senses to delight in images of ChristÂ—in His sufferings. His resurrection, and glory above. Hereon they satisfy themselves that they behold the glory of Christ Himself, and that with love and great delight. But whereas there is not the least true representation made of the Lord Christ or His glory in these thingsÂ—that being confined absolutely unto the Gospel alone, and this way of attempting it being laid under a severe interdictÂ—they do but sport themselves with their own deceivings.”
* Preaching Peace, pp.44-45.