2 Corinthians 4:18
Great Texts of the Bible
The Seen and the Unseen

The things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.—2 Corinthians 4:18.

The Apostle looked on the things that are temporal as not looking on them, but as looking straight through, on the thing eternal, which they represent and prepare. He looked on them just as a man looks on a window-pane, when he studies the landscape without. In one view he looks on the glass. In another he does not. Probably enough he does not so much as think of the medium interposed. Or, a better comparison still is the telescope; for the lenses of glass here interposed actually enable the spectator to see, and yet he does not so much as consider that he is looking on the lenses, or using them at all; he looks only on the stars. So also the Apostle looks not on the things that are temporal, even while admiring the display in them of God’s invisible and eternal realities. He looks on them only as seeing through; uses them only as a medium of training, exercise, access to God. Their value to him is not in what they are but in what they signify.

It is a true use of things temporal, that they are to put us under the constant all-dominating impression of things eternal. And we are to live in them, as in a transparency, looking through, every moment, and in all life’s works and ways, acting through, into the grand reality-world of the life to come.1 [Note: Horace Bushnell.]

Crathie, 29th Oct. 1854.—This has been a heavenly day of beauty—the sky almost cloudless; the stones on the hill side so distinct that they might be counted; the Dee swinging past with its deep-toned murmur. I preached before the Queen and Royal Family without a note the same sermon I preached at Morven; and I never looked once at the royal seat, but solely at the congregation. I tried to forget the great ones I saw, and to remember the great Ones I saw not, and so I preached from my heart, and with as much freedom, really, as at a mission station.2 [Note: Life of Norman Macleod, ii. 38.]


The Seen is Girdled by the Unseen

1. There are two worlds—the world of sense and the world of spirit; and the world of spirit surrounds, enspheres, and inter-penetrates the world of sense. We speak as if the world of sense came first, and the world of spirit came after; whereas the truth is that the world of spirit is about us now, though the veil of sense hangs between. We imagine that we dwell in time here, and shall dwell in eternity hereafter; while the fact is, we dwell in eternity here, though we take a little section of it and call it time.

Each of these two worlds must be discerned by its own faculty. One is made up of places, people, circumstances, possessions—the physical; the other of ideas, feelings, affections, expectations—the spiritual. We are conscious of the house we live in, the faces that look at us, the tasks we do, the afflictions that befall us. We are conscious also of the sins that are past, of the love we have tasted, of the aims we cherish, of the sorrow that wounded our hearts. Both worlds surround us, one of them tangible like water, the other intangible like air. We see one with our eyes, we feel the other with our soul.

God keeps His holy mysteries

Just on the outside of man’s dream,

In diapason slow we think,

To hear their pinions rise and sink

While they float pure beneath His eyes

Like swans adown a stream.

Things nameless, which in passing so,

Do touch us with a subtle grace,

We say, Who passes? They are dumb,

We cannot see them go or come;

Their touches fall, soft, cold as snow

Upon a blind man’s face.

It is a marvellous but familiar fact that, when an orchestra is playing, the ear of the listener can so concentrate itself upon one particular class of sounds in the united harmony—the note of the clarionet, the note of the violoncello—as to hear that alone; the rest subordinate, if not all but extinguished. Mysterious truth, showing that even in the realm of physical nature we do not see with the eye only, or hear with the ear only, but with the brain, or something more spiritual still that lies behind eye and ear. And so it is, not less but more so, with the visions and melodies addressed to man’s eternal part. We see what we wish to see among all the sights that tempt our souls; and we hear what we wish and set ourselves to hear. We can see only the temporal, if all we wish is to see the temporal; and we can see the eternal, if our desire is to see the eternal.1 [Note: A. Ainger, The Gospel and Human Life, 161.]

2. Both worlds minister to us. If we were to track the first steps in the growth of a flower just emerging from the seed we should discover, upon the cracking open of the seed, that one minute vegetable fibre commences presently to be pressed thence away up through the overlying soil into the air and the light, and another vegetable thread begins, at the same time, to wind itself away down through the underlying soil into the ground beneath. If now we sink a single delicate thought into the botanical fact just stated, we shall see that that very process of groping up into the air of one part of its nature, and at the same time groping down into the deep places of the earth with the other part of its nature, is a statement in miniature, and a quiet prophecy, of the double affinity with which the plant is endowed, and the twin congeniality with which it has been by God made instinct.

Man similarly buds in two directions; he, too, is underlaid with a twin tendency. He is divinely endowed with one impulse that tends to push him out into the world, and into the association of things that lie easily in sight, and he is endowed also with a companion impulse that inclines to conduct him into the fellowship of things upon which the sun does not shine. But each, like the soil under the plant, offers to become to him the means of his life, and the material for his fixity, his power, and his hope.

The idealizing of the outer world is one of God’s ways of teaching us to see the beauty and fineness that lie hidden in the uncouth and rough and commonplace; the victory that waits our grasp within every difficulty. It spells out for us the great simple secret Paul had learned: while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are often coarse and commonplace and are only for a passing hour; but the things that are not seen are full of beauty and power, and last for ever. The God-touched eye sees through fog and smoke to the unseen harbour beyond. It insists on steering steady and straight regardless of the storm overhead, and the rock or snag underneath. There is a victory in hiding in every knotty difficulty. Every trying circumstance contains a song of gladness waiting to be freed by our touch. Each disheartening condition can be made to grow roses.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 17.]


The Seen Interprets the Unseen

1. Only by looking at the things that are seen do we gain any idea of the unseen. “All visible things,” said Carlyle, “are emblems. What thou seest is not there on its own account; strictly speaking, is not there at all. Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some idea and body it forth.” And so John Ruskin:—“The more I think of it, I find this conclusion more impressed upon me—that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think; but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion—all in one.”

Nature is a mirror of the Unseen. The world around is an ever-present witness to us of the existence of things unseen. The world of Nature—that ever-changing world, the world of that which is ever being born out of the life of God, the world in which we may look upon ever-new manifestations of the great life of the Divine One—that itself is an ever-present token of a Presence Divine. The Sacramentalism of Nature—for such is the name we may give to this great principle—is presenting itself to the minds of men with increasing vividness. “The things that are made” are being more and more discerned as suggestive to the human mind of thoughts respecting “the invisible things of God.” These thoughts are presenting themselves only to reverent and loving souls.

When love interprets what the eye discerns,

When mind discovers what is really meant,

When grace improves what man from Nature learns,

Each sight and sound becomes a sacrament.

There is an experience which I remember well. The time was evening, the scene a valley in a foreign land. The crystalline sky stretched above, lit by the summer moon; the wide, still lake spread beneath, surrounded by the summer woods; not a cloud in the air; not a rustle in the leaves; not a ripple to stir the glassy expanse or break the reflection of the tiny church where it glimmered on its birchen knoll—the whole such a picture of perfect, ethereal, and dreamlike rest that it seemed ready to pass off into spirit before one’s very gaze. It was an hour when talk about common things was hushed, and the thoughts went back to the distant and banished. “What a beautiful sky!” said one of the company. “Yes,” was the sudden reply of another, whose words breathed the longing of these lone mountain lands, yet fitted themselves to the mood of us all,—“yes, if we could only see behind.” So near may Nature bring us to the heart and the secret of things! So clear are her tokens! So thin is her veil! The spell of the eternal lies upon her. The mystery of the eternal breathes through her. Thanks to faith, we may pass beyond, and, entering through the outer curtain, gaze, and wonder, and worship in the inner shrine!1 [Note: W. A. Gray, Laws and Landmarks of the Spiritual Life, 20.]

The world is round me with its heat,

And toil, and cares that tire;

I cannot with my feeble feet

Climb after my desire.

But, on the lap of lands unseen,

Within a secret zone,

There shine diviner gold and green

Than man has ever known.

And where the silver waters sing,

Down hushed and holy dells,

The flower of a celestial spring—

A tenfold splendour dwells.

Yea, in my dream of fall and brook

By far sweet forests furled,

I see that light for which I look

In vain through all the world.

The glory of a larger sky,

On slopes of hills sublime,

That speak with God and Morning, high

Above the ways of Time!1 [Note: H. C. Kendall, Songs from the Mountains.]

2. It is the unseen things that give meaning to the things which are seen. A man who studies the universe without his thought outrunning his eye, and his heart distancing his thought, is like a child who fumbles over the letters in his primer without drawing an idea from the word in which the letters meet or an inspiration from the sentence in which the words combine. The body takes its beauty from the invisible spirit that is sheathed in its features of expression and organs of action. The single life gains meaning and becomes worth living because of the subtle threads by which it is bound into the general life and the silken meshes that make it part of the fabric universal. This earth of ours is interesting because inaudible messages flash between it and the farthest star, and because it moves in rhythmic tread with all the flashing host that throng the ethereal plain. History first draws to itself our interested regard because it bends upon an invisible axis, and because its events are spelling out in ever-lengthening lines the wisdom, power, and tenderness of God. Each smallest thing everywhere and always wins character and grace from the ties that relate it to the distant and unsounded, as the bay is tremulous with the tide that throbs out in the bosom of the sea.

There is a remarkable passage in Prince Bismarck’s Conversations where he attributes the steadfastness of the German soldiers in the ranks to the deeply-rooted belief in God as ordering duty. But the virtue of heroes or saints or martyrs transcends this. What is its ultimate justification? How is it defensible that a man should lay down his life for duty, if the law of duty is relative only to this present life? I do not see a fair escape from this dilemma. Either life is the highest prize that a man possesses, or there is something beyond and above this present life, and, if so, something which belongs to the world of things unseen. But the Christian martyr lays down his life, and lays it down rationally, because in his eyes duty receives its justification not in this world but in the world for which he looks. Hence, self-sacrifice never seems to him a failure. He that loses his life shall save it. There is no possibility of a final antinomy between the law of duty and the law of interest. God has eternity in which to work out His purposes; and here on earth we touch but the hem of His great providence. The rest is faith. “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” But if this present life is all complete in itself, then we stand face to face with moral contradictions. Virtue does not always succeed. Vice triumphs. It is not always best to do our duty. The poet of to-day, in the new Locksley Hall, has seen with the eye of genius that to deny the eternity of the moral law is to deny the moral law itself—

Truth for truth, and good for good! The Good, the True, the Pure, the Just;

Take the charm “For ever” from them, and they crumble into dust.1 [Note: J. E. C. Welldon, The Spiritual Life, 61.]

3. Jesus Christ is the clearest evidence as well as the fullest interpretation of the unseen. It was not possible for the Jewish race of that day by any principle of evolution to have produced Him. He came from elsewhere. No one has ever lived after His fashion, with such becoming perfection. He belonged to elsewhere. Death did not bury His life; it remains unto this day the chief moral energy in the world. While He moved among men He suggested that other world where the hopeless ideals of this life are fulfilled. His biography breaks the bonds of sight; it lays the foundation for faith.

Years ago the English Academy and the French Salôn contained at the same time two pictures which, if they had been painted for the purpose, could not have been a more perfect illustration of St. Paul’s great utterance. In one the king is lying on his bed the moment after death—he was the mightiest monarch of his day—and the sceptre has just dropped from his hands. And behold, the servants who an hour ago trembled at his look are rifling his treasury and dividing his possessions. Below with fine irony was written the title, “William the Conqueror”—his conquests had ceased. In the other, a man is lying in a rocky tomb; His conflict is over, and His enemies have won. He denied the world, and the world crucified Him; He trusted in God, and God left Him to the cross. But love has wrapped His body in spices, and given Him a new tomb amid the flowers of the garden; love is waiting till the day breaks to do Him kindness. The Angels of God and not the Roman soldiers are keeping guard over Him while He takes His rest, after life’s travail. When the day begins to break, He will rise conqueror over death and hell—Lord both of this poor world which passeth away, and of the riches of the world which remaineth for ever.1 [Note: J. Watson, The Inspiration of our Faith, 358.]


The Seen is the Shadow, the Unseen the Substance

1. All the deeper realities of life are conveyed to us by intimation rather than by demonstration. They come to us by other roads than those of the senses. The persons to whom we are bound in the sweetest relationships or by the noblest compulsion are never really seen by us. We see and touch their garments; we never see or touch them. They may live with us in the closest intimacy, and yet no sense of ours ever made a path of final approach between us. When they vanish out of life, they leave behind them all that we ever saw or touched; but how pathetically unavailing is the appeal of the heart to the garment laid aside in the haste or pain of the final flight! All we ever saw is there, and yet it is nothing! That which we loved, and which made the world dear and familiar through the diffusion of its own purity and sweetness, we never saw or touched. It was never within the reach of our senses; it was accessible only to our spirits. So sacred was it that the final mystery was never dissipated; so Divine was it that the final veil was never lifted. One came our way and dwelt with us in a tabernacle of flesh, even as Christ did, and then departed, leaving behind all that we ever saw or touched, and yet taking with her all that was real, companionable, comprehensible. And yet with this constant and familiar illustration of the presence of a reality which we never touch or see under our roof and by our side, we reject the intimations that come to us from every quarter and bring us the truths by which we live.

2. The eternal persists in spite of outward changes. There is always a continuity in the midst of change, always something eternal rising out of decay, always something immortal to rebuke our mortal fears; there is a human love in us that never dies; there are hopes that never perish; there is a growth that never ceases; there are good thoughts that never leave us; there are joys which no man can take away; there is something always beyond that we are drawn to; there is something out of sight, to which we are always stretching our unsatisfied and aching hands. The body pants for a deliverance which lies beyond; the soul hungers for a larger portion than it has ever known; the whole of our nature cries out for that future which is still unrevealed. And God has written eternity in the hidden heart of all things, not to mock us with vain dreams, but to make us certain that there is a happier and nobler life behind the veil.

3. Let us make the most of the seen by living in the unseen. The statement of the Apostle implies, with reference to “the things which are not seen,” much more than a mere conviction of their existence, however lively and sincere. It implies also an earnest and steadfast contemplation of them—a turning of the thoughts to them, a fixing of the affections on them, and a bending of our aims and efforts to the attainment of them. The word here translated “look at” is in other passages translated by the expressions “take heed,” “mark,” “consider,” or “observe attentively,” and sometimes it means to aim at or to pursue. Indeed, as has been observed, our English word “scope” is derived from it, which signifies the general drift or purpose of a man’s conduct—the mark he aims at, or the end he has in view. When Christians, therefore, are said to “look at the things which are not seen,” the meaning evidently is, that they look at these things with earnest attention, with eager desire, with steady contemplation, as the marksman looks at the target which he seeks to hit, or the racer looks at the goal which he is striving to reach.

During the greater part of his illness he would have chosen to live, and he was hopeful, as we were hopeful, until within a few days of the last. Then he became glad to go. Though devoted doctors and nurses did all that skill and care could do, the walls of the Dwelling-House of that ardent spirit grew thin and more thin. One morning he beckoned to us to come nearer, and he tried to put into words a state of vision he had been in when he appeared to be neither sleeping nor waking. He had looked into the Book of Creation, and understood that the whole could be comprehended—made plain from that other point of view which was not our earthly one. “A glorious state,” he called it, and we looked on the face of one who had at last seen “true being” when he said, “Now I see that great Book—I see that great Light.”1 [Note: Mrs. Watts, in George Frederic Watts, ii. 323.]

I remember standing once on a high Swiss pass, the ledge of a perpendicular precipice, where I waited for the morning view. There was nothing as I gazed ahead but mist—mist puffing, circling, swirling, like steam from the depths of some tremendous caldron. But I watched, and there was a break for a moment far down to the left, and a flash of emerald green; it was meadow-land. Then there was a break to the right, and a cluster of houses appeared, with a white church steeple you could almost have hit with a well-aimed stone. Then they were covered, and the mist hid the scene as before, till it parted again, this time in front; and there was blue sky, and against the blue sky a vision of glittering snow peaks. So it went on, peep after peep, rift after rift, here a little and there a little, till at last, as if worked on unseen pulleys the mist curtain slowly drew up, and from east even unto west there stretched the chain of the Italian Alps, sun-smitten, glorious, white as no fuller on earth could white them. Have your faces to the sunrise. Be ye children of the dawn. Then “though the vision tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.” Though the revelation be fragmentary here, it will be perfect hereafter. Now we see through the mists darkly, then, when the mists have vanished, face to face, with the eyes that are purged by God’s Spirit, in the light that streams from His throne.2 [Note: W. A. Gray, Laws and Landmarks of the Spiritual Life, 22.]

The Seen and the Unseen


Ainger (A.), The Gospel and Human Life, 151.

Albertson (C. C.), College Sermons, 9.

Bright (W.), Morality in Doctrine, 102.

Bushnell (H.), Sermons on Living Subjects, 268.

Chadwick (G. A.), Pilate’s Gift, 171.

Crawford (T. J.), The Preaching of the Cross, 357.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, iv. 311.

Drummond (H.), The Ideal Life, 127.

Gray (W. A.), Laws and Landmarks of the Spiritual Life, 11.

Greenhough (J. G.), in The Divine Artist, 61.

Grimley (H. N.), Tremadoc Sermons, 248.

Illingworth (J. R.), Sermons Preached in a College Chapel, 32.

Ingram (A. F. W.), Under the Dome, 186.

Leckie (J.), Sermons, 350.

Little (W. J. K.), The Light of Life, 200.

Macfarland (C. S.), Spiritual Culture and Social Service, 101.

Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv. 200.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, ii. 128.

Parkhurst (C. H.), The Pattern on the Mount, 211.

Reid (J.), The Uplifting of Life, 94.

Christian World Pulpit, lii. 248 (H. S. Holland); lvii. 228 (G. Body); lxxviii. 374 (R. Mackintosh).

Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., xi. 290 (W. Burrows).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bible Hub
2 Corinthians 4:17
Top of Page
Top of Page