The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.Sustaining Truths
2 Corinthians 5
We need truths that can sustain us. Appearances are deceitful. Even in our most poetic moods, life is a struggle, a trial, a tragedy: even when we are in health we are not always just as well as we should like to be. There is a worm at the root of the flower: things do not fall squarely into place: we find in all the action of life a creaking and straining and groaning: nothing is harmonically complete. If that man were in another place the figure would be almost perfect, but he is not in another place; if that enemy were dead, we could carry on life to an easy and early victory, but he is not dead. We have to calculate with so much that is unseen and immeasurable, ghostly, imponderable, inevitable. Nothing can be handled altogether. We sow seed, and nothing comes of it; we have had all our ploughing to do over again, and the very earth seems to have conspired against us; it does not like the plough, it will not answer its well-intended rip. The very air is hostile at times; it is full of blackness, blight, coldness, mocking death. The child is ill; the bank is broken; trade is going down; those upon whom we leaned most squarely are getting tired of the pressure. This is one aspect of life. We tell the truth, and no man believes it; we persuade men to their salvation, and they mock us as though we were alluring them to their destruction: we mourn, and they do not lament; we pipe, and they do not dance; and all things are upside down. A man goes forth to do good, and he is treated as a felon; a Man, by the election and decree of God, is revealed to us as the Son of Man, and we give him five mortal wounds, and we shall know him for ever and ever by the scars we have made upon him. This is life in some of its multiplex aspects. What is to be done? Is there any bread? Is there any solid food? Is there any nourishment for the soul 7 The old Puritans in reading these verses written by the hand of Paul called these comforts "sweetmeats." It was after the Puritanic fashion, not without quaint beauty, and much suggestiveness. But in very deed they are not sweetmeats, these are solid foods, this is none other than spring water, and this is none other than a banquet spread by the hands of God, of which if a man eat he shall kill lions, he shall lay his hand upon the cockatrice' den, and he shall know pain, fatigue, defeat no more.
What was it that sustained Paul—"in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings"? What kept him up? That is the penetrating and ennobling inquiry. There is not too much detail in Paul's statement:—troubled, perplexed, persecuted, cast down; afflictions, necessities, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, labours, watchings, fastings. There are times when men find some degree of mournful satisfaction in going into the detail of their trouble—"it soothes poor misery hearkening to her tale." There is a system of spiritual evaporation, by which if a man shall submit his trouble to the pure noonday sunlight, the very action of the sun will cause a diminution in the trouble. It is easy for those who read the troubles of another man to say, He ought to have been more condensed in style. He was condensed enough in style; no man could put so much into a sentence as Paul: but when a man is subjected to the kind of discipline which fell to the lot of the Apostle, he is not magnifying himself but magnifying the Cross, as we shall see, when he details in painful minuteness all the sorrows which constituted his daily burden. If Paul had drawn up a mere catalogue of his own sufferings he would have been the victim of a species of egotism: we shall see that he only builds up the pillar of his endurances that he may make it burn with the glory of his Lord.
What comforted Paul under all these distresses? First of all he said, This is not all: if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, it matters nothing; in fact the sooner it is dissolved the better for us; it will be the opening of a prison-door, it will be the liberation from a painful school, we shall get home sooner. "We have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Paul was a tent-maker; he takes his image from his tent-making—"If our earthly house of this tabernacle"—if this framework, this mere outline of a house be broken up, we shall not be left houseless, we have more houses than one; this is only the outside hut, this is the little place we commence in, this is the shell that encrusts us; when it falls off we shalt get our wings, all our faculties, and we shall fly away into the country of the sun. "If in this life only we have hope," said Paul, "we are of all men most miserable"; if you measure things by what can be seen and handled, then the Christian has nothing to say; he has chosen the Christ, he has chosen the economy of self-denial that shall end in self-obliteration. He will not take the wine as it is going, and there will be no wine to drink in the darkness into which he is about to fall. If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men the most disappointed; we have made a fatal miscalculation; we are not taking things in their real meaning, and devoting them to their real use; we are fools; we might have snatched something; when a weak man was putting the goblet to his lips we might have taken it from him and swallowed its contents ourselves; but, fool-like, we let him drain the goblet; we simply fall down dead, and have no home to go to, and no God to welcome us, and no King to say, Well done! exchange mortality for life. But, Paul said, "our conversation," literally, our citizenship, "is in heaven." Paul had only one foot upon the earth; all the rest of him was among the angels. He sustained himself in God.
The next sustaining thought that Paul received and lived upon was that what he already possessed was but an earnest, called in the fifth verse, "the earnest of the Spirit." What is the "earnest?" The first money, the money that means the promise. In the country fair the servant hires himself; so long as it is a mere word between two parties it amounts to nothing, but let an earnest pass, one little shilling, and the bond is sealed. That shilling means all the rest; holding that, you hold a bond that the law will not allow to be broken. So the Christian has the first money; that is to say, the first thought, the first comfort, the first pledge; and having the earnest he has the harvest; the first ear, nay the first blade that comes up above the ground, means the whole cornfield. There is no little blade that stands alone and says, I am the only thing you can see; if you do not take me, there is nothing else to take. No, the solar system never grew just simply one blade and no more; wherever there is a blade there is a harvest. Why not accept the teaching of this simple and tender thought, and live upon it? Have you any comfort, any noble impulse, any real consolation, any hold, how feeble soever upon spiritual things, eternal realities? That is enough; that is the earnest; the rest will come; meanwhile be faithful, be true, be simple-hearted, be frank-minded, be generous, be as Christ; for that one experience of joy means all heaven; heaven is nothing but that emotion made infinite. An earnest is a most important fact. The earnest once accepted cannot be thrown back again, without breaking law and bond and honour. Why not see the inner poetry and feel the higher music of things? Do not be felons in God's great house, the world; taking earnests as if they had no further obligations and meanings attached to them; simply living upon your capital when you might say, As long as I have this impulse, this thought, this power of prayer, this faculty of vision, I hold heaven; my proof is in the earnest. An earnest is more than the firstfruits; an earnest is a pledge that the other and remaining larger sum will accrue and be realised if the proper service is willingly rendered. Is there a man who can stand up and say that he is a naked pauper in God's universe? Not one. There are little hedge flowers, as well as garden floral pets; there are wild flowers as well as cultivated. You may have one little half-blade of grass; you could not take that out of a meadow which may be fenced and bounded and owned by somebody; such earnests grow in the open turnpike. There is no simply naked, absolutely destitute pauper in all God's universe. Is there ever a tear of pity in your eye? That is an earnest; that means all the love of God. Is there ever a noble impulse in your thoughts? Do you ever say, even under the pinch of poverty and the clutch of crime, Yes, I will be better? That is prayer, the battle is won; it is no longer a fight, it is a victory. We cannot follow the earnest to its consummation:—"Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard neither hath entered into the heart of man to conceive what God hath prepared for them that love him." Yea, and though they are revealed to us by his Spirit, yet the Spirit never can reveal its whole self to us, any more than that the Atlantic can pour itself into a child's thimble; it is a revelation that astounds or encourages or enlarges the soul; it is not a revelation in the sense of telling all that can be told; what ear of man can hold all the music of creation?
"Wherefore we labour, that, whether present, or absent, we may be accepted of him." That was the one grand purpose for which Paul lived, and that was his third sustaining thought. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ": literally, we must all be made manifest before the presence of Christ: every garment must be stripped off, every fold must be laid aside, every motive must be exposed; the whole soul must show itself to God's noonday sun. That is a terror, and yet, on the other hand, it is a comfort. Many are first who shall be last, and many are last who shall be first, and many a great giver shall be proved to have given nothing, and many who have given out of their poverty shall hardly find throne enough in heaven worthy of the excellence which Christ shall impute to them. All-constraining love was the motive by which Paul accounted for his heroic patience, endurance, and sanctified suffering:—"The love of Christ constraineth us." You may take this passage in either of two ways: either Christ's love for us, or our love for Christ; and they both come to the same thing in the end. When we think of Christ's love for us we say,—
Besides all these thoughts, Paul refers to a new spiritual sense. He says, "We walk by faith, not by sight." Literally, we do not walk according to the appearance. "Sight" does not here mean the act of seeing; sight means the thing that is seen, the appearance, the shape; so that the godly man who is under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost says, That is a lie: That is a sophism: or, That is a snare: or, That is a temptation: the real meaning of things is behind them: take care that words do not muzzle your thoughts; let your words rather endeavour to express your thoughts. There is a way that seemeth good unto a man, and even right, and the end thereof is death. Paul says: We do not walk according to appearances, according to "phenomena," according to things that can be seen with the eyes and handled with the hands: we have had enough of these lies: all such walking ends in darkness, if there be not another light and another faculty. Any man can wear out his body. You can make yourself blind by looking too much. You can be so grubbing amongst insects and specimens, flies and butterflies, and things that are picked up in out-of-the-way places, that at last no spectacles on earth will suit you. You should have looked otherwise. You might have looked for a few insects, and boxed them and classified them if you liked, but you lived for them. What have you got at the end? You are only yourself pinned into another case as a larger insect than any of the rest. But these men are called very scientific. It comes to nothing, if there be not above it another faculty, another power; then all other under-searching may be made most useful, contributive to what may amount to a revelation. We are dealing only now with those who are the victims of what they call phenomena. And yet no wonder they delight themselves; for, if you will read the life of Charles Darwin, you will be perfectly amazed at the names which innocent insects are made to bear. As some one said, he did not wonder at men knowing all about the stars, but wondered how they got to know their names. But certainly, if ever you saw poor little innocent insects maltreated, it would be under the enormous weight of Greek and Latin which they had to bear, without the slightest thought on their own part. You would not know your own garden, if you saw it in type after a real botanist had been in it. You would disown it; you would feel partially insulted, you would feel decidedly complicated,— to think that you had ever anything to do with all that sort of thing!—a kind of classical profanity! No, not you. But there are men who live in appearances, and men who hold conversations with one another when they have discovered a Latin name with three more syllables in it by which to distinguish a butterfly. Whether we may not live too much in appearances in what are called "phenomena," which is but another term for appearances, is a very serious question. We should live by faith, by imagination, by the highest poetry of the soul, by that Divine faculty of transubstantiation which makes the very stones memorials of God. There is no harm in searching into under-life, and all life; there is no harm in biology itself: the harm is in limiting knowledge to that which can be seen only with the bodily eye or handled only with the bodily hands. We rather believe with the Apostle that things, as seen, represent things not seen, and that things that are not seen are the real things, and the things that are seen are not realities. Your body is not yourself. Your friend is not dead. His body is in the pit called the grave, but his soul is marching on. "What," said some one, speaking about the Virgin Mary, "worship a dead woman!" There is no dead woman. It is a fool's speech. The Virgin is not dead, but liveth. No creature that ever lived, in Christ's sense of that term, can die. But because the poor framework, so many bones and so much sinew, flesh, and blood has been dissolved, we say, Our friend is dead. The term may be used for mere convenience; but as expressing a Christian thought it is a lie. Our friend was never so much alive as he is to-day, and when men come to see his poor dead flesh shrouded on the bed, say to those who look on, He is not here, he is risen! These were the thoughts that sustained the heroic Paul, and they will stand, and they will nourish the soul, when all the ignorance of impiety is forgotten like a nightmare.
Almighty God, our only confidence is in thee; in ourselves we have no trust, for we have proved ourselves, and know that in us—that is, in our flesh—there is no good thing. But thou wilt accomplish thine own work; we will not interfere with God, or seek to hinder him, or to counsel the omniscient; we will put ourselves into thine hands, saying only, Thy will be done. How thou art to make of us saints in Christ Jesus, we cannot tell; how thou art to work out the miracle of our perfect redemption, we know not: we fall back so much, we are so ignorant, so feeble, so inconstant, we cannot dream how wondrously thou shalt bring on the topstone; but thou wilt surely do so, thy work shall not be surrendered because of want of strength; thou dost not begin except that thou mayest conclude. Inasmuch as thou hast called us thou hast sanctified us: the call is the proof of the redemption; that we are at the altar at all is our confidence and our joy, that we shall ascend, little by little it may be, but with the certainty of thy decree, to all that is meant by heaven. Surely thou hast never forsaken us; we have not had one day's experience of orphanhood; we have always known how near thou art and how good; if for a small moment thou didst seem to have forsaken us, we have lost the painful memory in the everlasting kindness with which thou hast gathered us. We will speak aloud of thy goodness; we shall not be ashamed of the Lord's name; we shall ascribe unto thee honour and power and glory world without end; but, more than this, we shall ascribe to thee the glory of having redeemed us, though our unworthiness is unspeakable. All this thou hast done in thy Son Christ Jesus; without him is not anything done that is done: by him were all things made, and for him and to him shall be their final glory and their eternal praise. Such words thou hast taught us; such thoughts thou hast inspired in our minds; such visions thou hast spread out before our imagination. Enable us to walk according to thy law and commandment: may thy love not be a licence to us but a discipline; may the mercy of the Lord not encourage our presumption, but deepen our humility and our thankfulness! Let the Lord's light be round about us like a blessing and delight. Let the Lord's grace be in our hearts like the warmth of summer. Amen.