Great Texts of the Bible
The Crown of Righteousness
For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day: and not only to me, but also to all them that have loved his appearing.—2 Timothy 4:6-8.
These are among St. Paul’s last words, and they are bathed in unutterable pathos. The old man, his hair whitened with age, his face furrowed with care, his body worn with disease and damaged by brutal persecution, is a captive in a miserable dungeon in Nero’s Rome; and although his speech breathes the calm of heaven, yet the wretchedness of his imprisonment makes him regret that he left “a cloak at Troas” that would have warmed him in the winter’s biting cold, or shielded him from the dungeon’s perilous damp. Still more keenly does he regret that he has to face his loneliness without the tender solace of his son Timothy’s presence, and the cheering companionship of his “books and papers.” It is a hard lot for the aged Crusader; but he is a hardy and chivalrous knight, who has braved a thousand perils in love for his Divine Leader, and therefore he is not cast down.
St. Paul’s Present State
“I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come.”
1. Notice, first, the quiet courage which looks death full in the face without a tremor. The language implies that St. Paul knows his death hour is all but here. “I am already being offered”—the process is begun, his sufferings at the moment are, as it were, the initial steps of his sacrifice—“and the time of my departure is come.” The tone in which he tells Timothy this is very noticeable. There is no sign of excitement, no tremor of emotion, no affectation of stoicism in the simple sentences. He is not playing up to a part or pretending to be anything which he is not. If ever language sounded perfectly simple and genuine, this does. With an unforced courage St. Paul fronts his fate and looks death in the eyes. The anticipation does not dull his interest in God’s work in the world, as witness the warnings and exhortations of the context. It does not withdraw his sympathies from his companions. It does not hinder him from continuing his studies and pursuits, or from providing for small matters of daily convenience. If ever a man was free from any taint of fanaticism or morbid enthusiasm, it is this man waiting so calmly in his prison for his death.
Perhaps nothing in the memory of this generation has touched the hearts of the English-speaking race, and indeed of the whole world, like the pathos and the courage of those last letters of Captain Scott’s, written in the Antarctic solitudes, with Death at his very elbow. The world has been thrilled to see how nobly and splendidly an Englishman can die. “We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the track.” It is fine. But this is finer: “For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”1 [Note: Archibald Alexander.]
St. Paul had looked too often into death’s dark face to be afraid of it now. Yet, after all, that is but a little thing to say. There are many to whom death is no longer “the shadow feared of man,” who have not St. Paul’s high hope. Some there are, indeed, who welcome death; it is for them the one door of escape from the unutterable pain and weariness of life. St. Paul welcomed death because he saw beyond death. “There is the Mainstream,” writes James Payn, “the Backwater and the Weir, and there ends the River of Life.” What is after that he does not know; with him it is from death to dark. But with St. Paul it was from death to day. “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day.… The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me unto his heavenly kingdom.” What are Nero’s judgment-seat and the executioner’s flashing brand to the man who holds that faith?2 [Note: G. Jackson, The Table-Talk of Jesus, 248.]
I had a friend very ill. For three days his life hung in doubt with his physician. When he began to recover, he said to me: “Death came and looked me in the face; but, thank God! I could look him in the face without fear.” Here stands a man face to face with the last enemy in a far more terrible form. To die as a public criminal at the hand of the executioner is very different from lying down to sleep one’s self into another world—very different even from falling in the field fighting for all that is dearest to the patriotic heart. Yet the Apostle speaks of his fate as calmly as if he were only about to set out on a journey or embark for a voyage.1 [Note: J. Cross, Old Wine and New, 142.]
2. There is great beauty and force in the metaphors which St. Paul here uses for death.
(1) We have, first, that of an offering or, more particularly, of a drink-offering or libation: “I am already being poured out.” No doubt the special reason for the selection of this figure here is St. Paul’s anticipation of a violent death. The shedding of his blood was to be an offering poured out like some costly wine upon the altar. But the power of the figure reaches far beyond that special application of it. We may all make our deaths a sacrifice, an offering to God, for we may yield up our will to God’s will, and so turn that last struggle into an act of worship and self-surrender. When we recognize His hand, when we submit our wills to His purposes, when “we live unto the Lord,” if we live, and “die unto Him,” if we die, then death will lose all its terror and most of its pain, and will become for us what it was to St. Paul, a true offering up of self in thankful worship. We may even say that so we shall, in a certain subordinate sense, be “made conformable unto his death” who committed His spirit into His Father’s hands, and laid down His life, of His own will. The essential character and far-reaching effects of this sacrifice we cannot imitate, but we can so yield up our wills to God and leave life so willingly and trustfully that death shall make our sacrifice complete.
(2) Another more familiar and equally striking figure is used when St. Paul speaks of the time of his “departure.” The thought is found in most tongues. Death is a going away. But the well-worn image received new depth and sharpness of outline in Christianity. To those who have learned the meaning of Christ’s resurrection, and who feed their souls on the hopes which it warrants, death is merely a change of place or state, an accident affecting locality, and little more. We have had plenty of changes before. Life has been one long series of departures. This is different from the others, mainly in that it is the last, and that to go away from this visible and fleeting show, where we wander aliens among things which have no true kindred with us, is to go home, where there will be no more pulling up of the tent-pegs, and toiling across the deserts in monotonous change.
How strong is the conviction, spoken in this name for death, that the essential life lasts on quite unaltered through it all! How slight the else formidable thing is made! We may change climates, and for the stormy bleakness of life may have the long still days of heaven, but we do not change ourselves. We lose nothing worth keeping when we leave behind the body, as a dress not fitted for home, where we are going. We but travel one more stage, though it be the last, and part of it be in pitchy darkness. Some pass over it as in a fiery chariot, like St. Paul and many a martyr. Some have to toil through it with slow steps and bleeding feet and fainting heart; but all may have a Brother with them, and, holding His hand, may find that the journey is not so hard as they feared, and the home from which they shall remove no more better than they hoped when they hoped the most.
In my schooldays I often put my head under the blankets and sobbed bitterly because I thought that death would some day come and snatch my father from me. Life to me then—so I dreamed—could only speak disaster, for I thought of Death as a foe who dealt out devastating blows. But the thoughts and dreams of boyhood were false. Death came not as a foe, but as a friend; and his mystic message was Life. We said, not, “God’s finger touched him and he slept,” but, “and he lives.” For that is what his passing taught us. In the days of his flesh this eager and active soul had a way of standing before you in unlikely spots and in unexpected moments. This is just what he still does, for after his soul had flown out through the window of his bedroom it came in through the front door. He had kept his biggest surprise to the end.1 [Note: Love and Life: The Story of J. Denholm Brash, by his Son, 204.]
To the aged, the world beyond is no strange place. Its door has opened so often to admit now one, now another of their friends that the passage has grown familiar to them. Professor Jowett, writing to Lady (then Mrs.) Tennyson to suggest, as a subject for the Laureate’s muse, old age, quotes the words of an old lady to himself: “The spirits of my children always seem to hover about me!” Tennyson, his son tells us, had heard the saying before, and it was the germ of his poem, “The Grandmother.” It will be remembered how the aged heroine of that poem, hearing of the death of her eldest-born, stays her tears with the reflection, “What time have I to be vext?—… how can I weep for Willy, he has but gone for an hour. Gone for a minute, my son, from this room into the next; I too shall go in a minute.”1 [Note: P. W. Roose, The Book of The Future Life, 125.]
St. Paul’s Past Achievement
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”
Surprise has been expressed in some quarters that St. Paul should write of himself in what seems to be a self-righteous and boastful strain; and some textual critics have seized on this passage as furnishing some sort of suggestion or proof that this letter is not genuine, but that it was written by some admirer of St. Paul’s in the second century. Well, even if there were this self-congratulatory note we must remember that we have here a man who is always writing about himself (he is the most sublime egoist in the New Testament), because he is to himself the most amazing example of what the grace and power of God can do; also, that the letter is to a dear personal friend, and not a letter to a church, which would naturally become public property. This is probably a letter which the writer never dreamt would be preserved or seen by anybody but Timothy, to whom he is accustomed to pour out his most intimate thoughts, and to whom in a previous letter he has described himself as the chief of sinners. But when we come to look into the words, all that seems self-righteous is not there. St. Paul is not saying, “I have been a good man.” He is not even saying, “I have made a good fight of it.” The Revisers have properly put in the definite article, and have thus rather shifted the centre of thought from the Apostle to the nature of life he has lived and the ministry he has fulfilled; which, mark you, is the life and ministry he wants Timothy to fulfil. The situation is most natural. There is the old warrior, laying aside his weapons, putting off his armour, going to his reward. Here is the younger man, needing a heartening and bracing word. And this is the word that comes to him from one who would pass on the leadership, if possible, to his hands.
1. “I have fought the good fight,” says the Apostle. He is speaking in the language of the Olympian Games, and is referring to the athletic contests of the arena. “I have fought the good fight.” The term ought not to surprise us. We are continually talking of the struggle for existence, of the fight for position, the battle of life. And when we come to the highest life that man can live, the life of mastery of sin and of the world, it ought not to surprise us that it can fittingly be described only under the term fight.
(1) Where does the fight begin? Where did it begin with St. Paul? Within. Here are his words: “I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind.” “The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that ye may not do the thing that ye would.” Here and there we come upon a passage that surprises and comforts us in the flashes of autobiography that light up St. Paul’s writings, as: “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” We hardly knew that he had a body; he seemed a man composed of mind and spirit; but we see by the light of that passage a man at war with that which is seeking to be master, and which must be kept in the place of a servant, if life is not to be entirely spoilt. It may not have been that he was in danger of yielding to those coarser cravings which belong to the flesh, but rather that his body cried out for rest and ease and comfort, and against the labour and hardship which his spirit demanded; and what we have is a man who realizes that no outward victory could be won worthy of the name unless and until the inner victory was achieved. The Christian life is not the passive, reclining, restful experience that some have thought, sitting at Jesus’ feet, leaning on His breast. There is that side; but the battle is to get there, and to keep there. “Believe me,” wrote Samuel Rutherford to the Earl of Lothian, “I find it hard wrestling, to play fair with Christ and to maintain a course of daily communion with Him.” It takes the whole of a man the whole of his time to be a Christian. The world, the flesh, and the devil are all real enough to the earnest soul, and must be faced and fought in the pathway to spiritual success. The New Testament does not deceive anybody on this score. The strait gate, the narrow way, the much tribulation, the cross of which it speaks, as well as the hosts of darkness—all point to a strenuous conflict as the very condition of Christian life.
(2) And although the battle must begin within, it by no means ends there. There is a cause of Christ in the earth as well as in a man’s own heart; and if we take St. Paul as a model in any way, we see him the champion of truth and purity and liberty. Fighting against legalism in the Galatian letter, against impurity and sectarianism in the Corinthian letter, against idleness in the Thessalonian letter, and much more; till we find him in the Ephesian letter, the letter of the heavenlies, charging people to take unto them the whole armour of God, that they may stand and withstand in the Christian life. Of course, men can avoid the battle by making terms with the enemy both as far as the inward strife is concerned and the great moral struggles that are going on in the world. They can say, “These are no concern of mine, and I will not adventure myself in them.” But that is not living the Christian life as St. Paul understood it. It is rather the way in which a man loses his soul.
In some quarters it is taught that there is not now the same opportunity for arduous action and painful sacrifice in the cause of personal and public righteousness as existed in primitive days. Lecky writes: “The more society is organized and civilized, the greater is the scope for the amiable and the less for the heroic qualities.” We cannot think so. Our age is indeed different from that of St. Paul, but it does not less demand heroic qualities. Only as we strive and suffer for right and purity as against the baser elements have we any part or lot in the glory of the future.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, Themes for Hours of Meditation, 202.]
(3) But the fight, be it within or without, is pre-eminently a good fight. If we will let the Apostle give us the full meaning of this word in English, he will tell us that it is a noble, a beautiful contest. Timothy may be shrinking from it; Demas has given it up; but it is the one fight in the world worth waging. Everybody is fighting, some for wealth, some for place and power. Many a pitiful contest is being waged in the world. Here is the one noble conflict in which the honest warrior will ultimately triumph, and in which completest satisfaction will be his. Never is man so noble in the sight of God and His holy angels as when he is fighting against the base within him and without, striving for goodness, purity, truth, and love, fighting the good fight of faith, striving to lay hold on eternal life.
She went on to develop this idea of God as Law in relation to human fate, and to those problems of “free will and necessity” which Milton thought to be inscrutable mysteries, and around which metaphysicians and logicians have for ages disputed. She found her ultimate solution in a hypothesis which Mr. Mill told her that he had at one time tried but abandoned—the hypothesis of “a Being who, willing only good, leaves evil in the world solely in order to stimulate human faculties by an unremitting struggle against every form of it”; a Perfect Being who created a Perfectible one, and so ordered the world that its course should be a constant struggle towards perfection. Miss Nightingale did not blink the fact that her hypothesis left mysteries unexplained. “It is evident,” she wrote, “that creation is a mystery, but God’s end and object (in creating) need not be a mystery. Everybody tells us that the existence of evil is incomprehensible, whereas I believe it is much more difficult—it is impossible—to conceive the existence of God (or even of a good man) without evil.” Good and evil are relative terms, and neither is intelligible without the other.1 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 481.]
It is a poor life that never stands above itself in some supreme moment of aspiration. But to live a life of aspiration—to stay on the lofty level, to breathe the keen air of the upper heights habitually—this is the strain of life. It is learned only by constant effort, and by many failures. But if we persevere, there is an end which will fulfil all our hopes and aspirations. In Watts’s “Happy Warrior” [the companion picture to “Aspiration”] we see what that triumphant end is. He is pictured as slain in battle. He has fallen in the thickest of the fight. Like the greatest Life ever lived, he failed as the world counts failure. But he succeeded in achieving the high end which he had set before him, beyond the range of most men’s touch and sight. And out of his saddest experiences had come the purest joy known to humanity. And now in the article of death, the pain vanishes, the darkness disappears, the fear subsides. There is a great calm in his soul. His helmet falls back from his head; and an angelic form, the fair symbol of his aspiration, as the shining heaven above him opens to receive his parting spirit, bends over him and imprints the kiss of everlasting peace upon his brow.1 [Note: H. Macmillan, The Life-Work of G. F. Watts, 185.]
2. But the Christian life is also represented as a Race. “I have finished the course.” There is a little difference here; for while St. Paul is still thinking of the Olympian Games, and therefore of strenuous and contested effort, there is something more definite and personal. We must place beside the text other words of St. Paul, spoken to the elders of the Ephesian Church; in the pathetic farewell interview recorded in Acts 20, when, speaking of the sufferings awaiting him, he said: “None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus.” A course indicates not only strenuous running, but running over a marked-out and well-defined track. “If a man strive in the games, he is not crowned except he has striven lawfully.” So the words mean more than that he had run his natural earthly course: they mean that he had fulfilled his God-appointed destiny. “He has held the course, he has kept the line God bade him go.” We know his cherished ambition—to apprehend that for which also he had been apprehended by Christ Jesus; to have a life governed absolutely by the will and plan of his Master. And in Acts 16:6-10 we have a man who is searching for the track, and who, when he has found it, goes along it without any question. Nothing else mattered. It was a very inglorious course that he had run, from the point of view of the man of the world; but to the man who ran it, it was full of glory. It was God’s course for him, and in that assurance he found infinite peace.
One step more, and the race is ended;
One word more, and the lesson’s done;
One toil more, and a long rest follows
At set of sun.
Who would fail, for one step withholden?
Who would fail, for one word unsaid?
Who would fail, for a pause too early?
Sound sleep the dead.
One step more, and the goal receives us;
One word more, and life’s task is done;
One toil more, and the Cross is earned
And sets the sun.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Some Feasts and Fasts.]
3. In the third place St. Paul thinks of his past life as a Stewardship. “I have kept the faith.” He has kept the faith (whether by that word we are to understand the body of truth believed or the act of believing) as a sacred deposit committed to him, of which he has been a good steward, and which he is now ready to return to his Lord. There is much in these letters to Timothy about keeping treasures entrusted to one’s care. Timothy is bidden “keep that good thing which is committed to thee,” as St. Paul here declares that he has done. Nor is such guarding of a precious deposit confined to us stewards on earth; the Apostle is sure that his loving Lord, to whom he has entrusted himself, will with like tenderness and carefulness keep that which he has committed unto Him against that day. The confidence in that faithful Keeper made it possible for St. Paul to be faithful to his trust, as a steward who was bound by all ties to his Lord, to guard His possessions and administer His affairs. Life was full of voices urging him to give up the faith. Bribes and threats, and his own sense-bound nature, and the constant whispers of the world had tempted him all along the road to fling it away as a worthless thing, but he had kept it safe; and now, nearing the end and the account, he can put his hand on the secret place near his heart where it lies, and feel that it is there, ready to be restored to his Lord, with the thankful confession, “Thy pound hath gained ten pounds.”
(1) What is meant by a sincere and loyal keeping of the faith? It is, for one thing, to hold it in trust for the benefit of others and to always give it out. To keep the faith is to defend it, if we are able, by force of argument against all that assail it. But, above all things, to keep the faith is to live it, to exemplify it in one’s thought and speech and actions. We all know people who keep their religious creed very much as they keep their insurance policies. They have got them signed and sealed and locked up in a safe. There is no need to look at them again; they are of use only at death. You may possibly keep religious creeds in that way. You cannot keep the faith in that way. There is a beautiful old legend which tells us how two crosses were given to two young men to carry through life. One of them fastened the cross upon his breast and wore it in the open light every day before the whole world. That cross became luminous in the hour of death, and lighted his way across the dark river. The other took his cross and hid it away somewhere, and did not bring it out again until the hour of death, and that cross was just a bit of common wood and gave no light.
(2) The faith which a man has kept up to the end of his life must be one that has opened with his growth and constantly won new colour and reality from his changing experience. The old man does believe what the child believed; but how different it is, though still the same. The joy of his life has enriched his belief, his sorrow has deepened it, his doubts have sobered it, his enthusiasms have fired it, his labour has purified it. This is the work that life does upon faith. This is the beauty of an old man’s religion. His doctrines are like the house that he has lived in, rich with associations which make it certain that he will never move out of it. His doctrines have been illustrated and strengthened and endeared by the good help they have given his life; and no doctrine that has not done this can really be held up to the end with any such vital grasp as will enable us to carry it with us through the river and enter with it into the new life beyond.
Another friend, amongst other things refers to a strange and beautiful trait in my father’s character—he had no age-consciousness. He could speed down the years so as to be able to be of the same age as a young lad, and if he had met Methuselah he would have felt no disparity in years betwixt himself and this primeval ancient. He was quite young enough to say of many a student’s preaching, “He greatly blessed me,” and quite old enough to listen with glowing joy to the rich sermon of a patriarch. For this “youth who refused to grow up” had all that is most beautiful in joyous age and happy youth, and loved both, for he knew that Eternal Life folds both within its warm embrace. The same friend writes: “It cannot be an easy thing as a rule for an older man to bridge the gulf of about thirty years, and put himself alongside a younger generation. It never occurs to most men to try, and they have no idea how remote and inaccessible they are. I can’t say that your father bridged the gulf. It simply wasn‘t there; he waved his wand and it was gone. I understood better afterwards where the secret was. Strictly speaking, he did not grow old. If there was a stale thought in his mind, he never showed it. He never acquired that look of superhuman wisdom which makes many ministers so depressing, and he had no disillusioned tones. If I wanted to maintain that selfishness is always a deadening thing—slow suicide—and that love is always a vitalizing thing, I should think of your father as my shining instance of the second proposition.”1 [Note: Love and Life: The Story of J. Denholm Brash, 174.]
Old,—we are growing old:
Going on through a beautiful road,
Finding earth a more blessed abode;
Nobler work by our hearts to be wrought,
Freer paths for our hope and our thought:
Because of the beauty the years unfold,
We are cheerfully growing old!
Old,—we are growing old:
Going up where the sunshine is clear;
Watching grander horizons appear
Out of clouds that enveloped our youth;
Standing firm on the mountains of truth;
Because of the glory the years unfold,
We are joyfully growing old.
Old,—we are growing old:
Going in to the gardens of rest,
That glow through the gold of the west,
Where the rose and the amaranth blend,
And each path is the way to a friend:
Because of the peace that the years unfold,
We are thankfully growing old.
Old,—are we growing old?
Life blooms as we travel on
Up the hills, into fresh, lovely dawn;
We are children, who do but begin
The sweetness of living to win:
Because heaven is in us, to bud and unfold,
We are younger, for growing old.1 [Note: Lucy Larcom.]
St. Paul’s Future Certainty
“Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day: and not only to me, but also to all them that have loved his appearing.”
The climax of all is the triumphant look forward. “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” In harmony with the images of the conflict and the race, the crown here is the emblem, not of sovereignty, but of victory, as indeed is almost without exception the case in the New Testament. The idea of the royal dignity of Christians in the future is set forth rather under the emblem of association with Christ on His throne while the wreath on their brows is the coronal of laurel, “meed of mighty conquerors,” or the twine of leaves given to him who, panting, touched the goal. The reward, then, which is meant by the emblem, whatever be its essence, comes through effort and conflict. “A man is not crowned, except he strive.”
It is recorded in history that Bernadotte, one of the generals of Napoleon, became a Lutheran in order that he might become King of Sweden. A fellow-officer of Bernadotte’s became a Christian, and some of his companion soldiers began to tease him on account of his change. He answered, “I have done no more than Bernadotte, who has become a Lutheran.” “Yes,” they replied, “but he became so to obtain a crown.” “My motive is the same,” said the officer, “we differ only as to the place. The object of Bernadotte was to obtain a crown in Sweden; mine is to obtain a crown in heaven.”2 [Note: J. Aitchison, A Bag with Holes, 191.]
1. “The crown of righteousness!” Does St. Paul mean that it is righteousness which is crowned, or that righteousness is the material of which the crown is made? There are two similar expressions in the New Testament to describe the reward of the blessed; they are “the crown of life,” and “the crown of glory.” In these it is plain that what is meant is, not that life is crowned, but that the crown of the blessed is life; not that glory is crowned, but that the crown of the blessed is glory. Life, glory, these are—if the word were not too rude—the very material and substance of the heavenly crown. And so it is with righteousness. “The crown of righteousness” is a crown of which righteousness is the material; this crown is of the same fabric and texture as that which it should decorate; it is a crown whose beauty is moral beauty; the beauty, not of gold and precious stones, but of those more precious, nay, priceless, things which gold and gems can but suggest to us; the beauty of justice, truthfulness, purity, charity, humility, carried to a point of refinement and high excellence of which here and now we have no experience. Once, and only once, was such a crown as this worn upon earth; and, to the eyes of men, it was a Crown of Thorns.
In December 1844, Mrs. Long, wife of an old shepherd living in Graffham, came to me and said that her husband had taken to his bed, and that his deafness, always great, was so much worse that they could hardly make him hear. I gave her a print of the Good Shepherd, and said, “Give him this book from me.” She said, “He can’t read.” I said “I knew that, but give it to him from me.” I went that afternoon and found the print on his bed. I took it up; he reached out after it, and said, “That’s mine.” I said, “Do you know what it is?” He said, “Yes, yes—the lost sheep—that’s me.” I put my hand round my head to signify the crown of thorns. He said, “Yes, the crown of thorns,” and turned his head over on the pillow and sobbed. Some days after he said to me, “I hope I shall just walk in,” that is, to the fold. Another day he took it up, and pointing to the crown of thorns said, “That’s what cuts me most of all,” and turned over and sobbed. I went to him in the January following to administer the Holy Sacrament. As I gave him the paten I saw something on his neck or throat. At last I saw it was the print. After the Holy Sacrament I asked his wife when he had asked for it. She said, “As soon as it was light.” I took it up, and he said, “I haves it most days.” He then said, “I hope He will have me like that,”—the sheep on His shoulders. I said, “He has you like that. ‘Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.’ He does not wait for the lost sheep to come to Him, but He goes oat to seek till He finds it.” He said, “No, no, He don’t wait for he to come to He, but He goes after he; and I hope I shall not give Him much trouble.” Long had been a shepherd on the South Downs all his life; and had had trouble enough in seeking the sheep that wandered and were lost. He then took up the print and said, “I shall be glad to see that Man.” That night he died.1 [Note: Life of Cardinal Manning, i. 291.]
2. Now, the crown being itself righteousness, how striking is the Apostle’s assurance! “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” St. Paul did not always write thus. In earlier years he felt and expressed anxiety lest by any means, when he had preached unto others, he himself should be a castaway. And long after he “counted not himself to have apprehended”; he could only forget those things that were behind, and reach forward unto those things that were before; he was still pressing forward to the mark of the prize of his high calling in Christ Jesus. But now he has no misgivings; now all is clear; “henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” And why? Is it not because, in the solitariness of his last trial, he has an assurance from on high which was withheld before; which was vouchsafed only when all human aid and human sympathy had failed him, and when he was thrown, without any reserve whatever, upon his hope in the Unseen and the Future? And even now, not seldom, they who fashion their lives as did St. Paul, by faith in an Unseen Saviour, do learn to know that there is for them a morally assured future of happiness in the World of Light. It is not an arrogant confidence, it is a humble yet well-grounded hope; it is a hope which grows in strength as the solitudes of the advancing years press with more and more gloom upon the natural spirits, and when, in the absence of departed or of alienated friends, the majesty and consolation of one sacred, overpowering Presence makes itself increasingly felt.
On the subject of religion George made no sign, as the years went by, resembling his brother Phillips in the reserve with which he guarded himself. After his enlistment, and just before he joined his regiment, he was confirmed at Trinity Church, September 28, 1862. That event counted with his mother for more than the victories or defeats of armies. After his confirmation, the veil of reserve removed, George spoke freely of his religious experience. The change to him had been momentous and thorough. His religious life was deepened by the events of the Civil War. In his company, a prayer-meeting was held daily morning and evening, conducted by the captain. “He told me,” said the chaplain of his company, “that he had never had full assurance of his pardon and acceptance till he became a soldier; that in the battle of Kingston, under the terrible fire of the enemy, his Saviour came to him as never before, declared His presence, revealed His love, and held his soul in His hands.”1 [Note: Phillips Brooks: Memories of His Life, 140.]
3. And observe who bestows the crown—“which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day.” It is only right that a princely hand should bestow princely gifts, and that a Divine hand should bestow immortal gifts. It is a righteous Judge that bestows a righteous crown. He will distribute the rewards of eternity justly. The rewards of heaven will not be distributed as the rewards of earth too often are. The highest rewards of earth are at times given to the undeserving and worthless. It will not be so in that day. No one undeserving will obtain a prize, and no one deserving will be without one. The judge who awarded the prize to the victor at the Grecian games might decide unjustly, whether through culpable partiality or from involuntary error; but “the Lord, the righteous judge,” is no respecter of persons, and His perfect knowledge and infallible wisdom render mistakes with Him impossible. St. Paul’s imperial judge was the very incarnation of iniquity; but Christ “shall judge the world in righteousness,” and “reward every man according to his works.”
The heathen knew that life brought its contest, but they expected from it also the crown of all contest: No proud one! no jewelled circlet flaming through Heaven above the height of the unmerited throne; only some few leaves of wild olive, cool to the tired brow, through a few years of peace. The wreath was to be of wild olive, mark you;—the tree that grows carelessly, tufting the rocks with no vivid bloom, no verdure of branch; only with soft snow of blossom, and scarcely fulfilled fruit, mixed with grey leaf and thorn-set stem; no fastening of diadem for you but with such sharp embroidery! But this, such as it is, you may win while yet you live; type of grey honour and sweet rest. Free-heartedness, and graciousness, and undisturbed trust, and requited love, and the sight of the peace of others, and the ministry to their pain; these,—and the blue sky above you and the sweet waters and flowers of the earth beneath; and mysteries and presences, innumerable, of living things,—may yet be here your riches; untormenting and divine: serviceable for the life that now is; nor, it may be, without promise of that which is to come.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (Introduction, § 16).]
4 The crown is given at a time called by St. Paul “at that day,” which is not the near day of his martyrdom, but that of his Lord’s appearing. He does not speak of the fulness of the reward as being ready for him at death, but as being henceforth laid up for him in heaven. So he looks forward beyond the grave. The immediate future after death was to his view a period of blessedness indeed but not yet full. The state of the dead in Christ was a state of consciousness, a state of rest, a state of felicity, but also a state of expectation, for they wait for “the redemption of the body,” in the reception of which, “at that day,” their life will be filled up to a yet fuller measure, and gleam with a more lustrous “glory.” Now they rest and wait. Then shall they be crowned.
The crown was not conferred as soon as the racer reached the goal or the gladiator gave the fatal thrust, but was reserved till the contests were all over and ended, and the claims of the several candidates were carefully canvassed and adjudicated. So the “crown of righteousness” is “laid up “to be given “at that day,” when the Lord Jesus shall come to be glorified in His saints. One says, “we must die first”; St. Paul tells us we must rise first. Blessed, indeed, are the dead in Christ; but their blessedness cannot be consummated till their Lord return from heaven and they appear with Him in glory.
5. It is no solitary blessedness to which St. Paul looked forward. Alone in his dungeon, alone before his judge when “no man stood by” him, soon to be alone in his martyrdom, he leaps up in spirit at the thought of the mighty crowd among whom he will stand in that day, on every head a crown, in every heart the same love to the Lord whose life is in them all and makes them all one. So we may cherish the hope of a social heaven. Man’s course begins in a garden, but it ends in a city. The final condition will be the perfection of human society. There all who love Christ will be drawn together, and old ties, broken for a little while here, will be reknit in yet holier form, never to be sundered more.
“Who have loved and do love his appearing.” That is the full force of the Greek perfect, which expresses the present and permanent result of past action; and therein lies the test whereby to try the temper of our Christianity. St. Paul, who had long yearned to depart and be with Christ, could not easily have given a more simple or sure method of finding out who those are that have a right to believe that the Lord has a crown of righteousness in store for them. Are we among the number? In order to answer this question we must ask ourselves another: Are our lives such that we are longing for Christ’s return? Or are we dreading it because we know that we are not fit to meet Him, and are making no attempt to become so? The Bible sets before us the crown of righteousness which fadeth not away, and the worm which never dieth. Leaning upon God’s unfailing love, let us learn to long for the coming of the one; and then we shall have no need to dread, or even to ask the meaning of, the other.
He is coming; and the tidings
Are rolling wide and far;
As light flows out in gladness,
From yon fair morning-star.
He is coming; and the tidings
Sweep through the willing air,
With hope that ends for ever
Time’s ages of despair.
Old earth from dreams and slumber
Wakes up and says, Amen;
Land and ocean bid Him welcome,
Flood and forest join the strain.
He is coming; and the mountains
Of Judæa ring again;
And shouts her glad Amen.1 [Note: Horatius Bonar.]
The Crown of Righteousness
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