I do not like, and do not often indulge in, the practice of taking fragments of Scripture for a text, but I venture to isolate these two words, because they correspond to one another, and when thus isolated and connected, bring out very prominently two aspects of one thing. In the original the correspondence is even closer, for the words, literally rendered, are 'a going in' and 'a going out.' The same event is looked at from two sides. On the one it is a departure; on the other it is an arrival. That event, I need not say, is Death.
I note, further, that the expression rendered, 'my decease,' employs the word which is always used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to express the departure of the Children of Israel from bondage, and which gives its name, in our language, to the Second Book of the Pentateuch. 'My exodus' -- associations suggested by the word can scarcely fail to have been in the writer's mind.
Further, I note that this expression for Death is only employed once again in the New Testament -- viz., in St. Luke's account of the Transfiguration, where Moses and Elias spake with Jesus 'concerning His decease -- the exodus -- which He should accomplish at Jerusalem.' If you look on to the verses which follow the second of my texts, you will see that the Apostle immediately passes on to speak about that Transfiguration, and about the voice which He heard then in the holy mount. So that I think we must suppose that in the words of our second text he was already beginning to think about the Transfiguration, and was feeling that, somehow or other, his 'exodus' was to be conformed to his Master's.
Now bearing all these points in mind, let us just turn to these words and try to gather the lessons which they suggest.
I. The first of them is this, the double Christian aspect of death.
It is well worth noting that the New Testament very seldom condescends to use that name for the mere physical fact of dissolution. It reserves it for the most part for something a great deal more dreadful than the separation of body and soul, and uses all manner of periphrases, or what rhetoricians call euphemising, that is, gentle expressions which put the best face upon a thing instead of the ugly word itself. It speaks, for instance, as you may remember, in the context here about the 'putting off' of a tent or 'a tabernacle,' blending the notions of stripping off a garment and pulling down a transitory abode. It speaks about death as a sleep, and in that and other ways sets it forth in gracious and gentle aspects, and veils the deformity, and loves and hopes away the dreadfulness of it.
Now other languages and other religions besides Christianity have done the same things, and Roman and Greek poets and monuments have in like manner avoided the grim, plain word -- death, but they have done it for exactly the opposite reason from that for which the Christian does it. They did it because the thing was so dark and dismal, and because they knew so little and feared so much about it. And Christianity does it for exactly the opposite reason, because it fears it not at all, and knows it quite enough. So it toys with leviathan, and 'lays its hand on the cockatrice den,' and my text is an instance of this.
'My decease ... an entrance.' So the terribleness and mystery dwindled down into this -- a change of position; or if locality is scarcely the right class of ideas to apply to spirits detached from the body -- a change of condition. That is all.
We do not need to insist upon the notion of change of place. For, as I say, we get into a fog when we try to associate place with pure spiritual existence. But the root of the conviction which is expressed in both these phrases, and most vividly by their juxtaposition, is this, that what happens at death is not the extinction, but the withdrawal, of a person, and that the man is, as fully, as truly as he was, though all the relations in which he stands may be altered.
Now no materialistic teaching has any right to come in and bar that clear faith and firm conclusion. For by its very saying that it knows nothing about life except in connection with organisation, it acknowledges that there is a difference between them. And until science can tell me how it is that the throb of a brain or the quiver of a nerve, becomes transformed into morality, into emotion, I maintain that it knows far too little of personality and of life to be a valid authority when it asserts that the destruction of the organisation is the end of the man. I feel myself perfectly free -- in the darkness in which, after all investigation, that mysterious transformation of the physical into the moral and the spiritual lies -- I feel perfectly free to listen to another voice, the voice which tells me that life can subsist, and that personal being can be as full -- ay, fuller -- apart altogether from the material frame which here, and by our present experience, is its necessary instrument. And though accepting all that physical investigation can teach us, we can still maintain that its light does not illumine the central obscurity; and that, after all, it still remains true that round about the being of each man, as round about the being of God, clouds and darkness roll,
'Life and thought have gone away,
That, and nothing more, is death -- 'My decease ... an entrance.'
Then, again, the combination of these two words suggests to us that the one act, in the same moment, is both departure and arrival. There is not a pin-point of space, not the millionth part of a second of time, intervening between the two. There is no long journey to be taken. A man in straits, and all but desperation, is recorded in the old Book to have said: 'There is but a step between me and death.' Ah, there is but a step between death and the Kingdom; and he that passes out at the same moment passes in.
I need not say a word about theories which seem to me to have no basis at all in our only source of information, which is Revelation; theories which would interpose a long period of unconsciousness -- though to the man unconscious it be no period at all -- between the act of departure and that of entrance. Not so do I read the teaching of Scripture: 'This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.' We pass out, and as those in the vestibule of a presence-chamber have but to lift the curtain and find themselves face to face with the king, so we, at one and the same moment, depart and arrive.
Friends stand round the bed, and before they can tell by the undimmed mirror that the last breath has been drawn, the saint is 'with Christ, which is far better.' To depart is to be with Him. There is a moment in the life of every believing soul in which there strangely mingle the lights of earth and the lights of heaven. As you see in dissolving views, the one fades and the other consolidates. Like the mighty angel in the Apocalypse, the dying man stands for a moment with one foot on the earth and the other already laved and cleansed by the waters of that 'sea of glass mingled with fire which is before the Throne,' 'Absent from the body; present with the Lord.'
Further, these two words suggest that the same act is emancipation from bondage and entrance into royalty.
'My exodus.' Israel came out of Egyptian servitude and dropped chains from wrists and left taskmasters cracking their useless whips behind them, and the brick kilns and the weary work were all done when they went forth. Ah, brethren, whatever beauty and good and power and blessedness there may be in this mortal life, there are deep and sad senses in which, for all of us, it is a prison-house and a state of captivity. There is a bondage of flesh; there is a dominion of the animal nature; there are limitations, like high walls, cribbing, cabining, confining us -- the limitations of circumstance. There is the slavery of dependence upon this poor, external, and material world. There are the tyranny of sin and the subjugation of the nobler nature to base and low and transient needs. All these fetters, and the scars of them, drop away. Joseph comes out of prison to a throne. The kingdom is not merely one in which the redeemed man is a subject, but one in which he himself is a prince. 'Have thou authority over ten cities.' These are the Christian aspects of death.
II. Now note, secondly, the great fact on which this view of death builds itself.
I have already remarked that in one of my texts the Apostle seems to be thinking about Jesus Christ and His decease. The context also refers to another incident in his own life, when our Lord foretold to him that the putting off his tabernacle was to be 'sudden,' and added: 'Follow thou Me.'
Taking these allusions into account, they suggest that it is the death of Jesus Christ -- and that which is inseparable from it, His Resurrection -- that changes for a soul believing on Him the whole aspect of that last experience that awaits us all. It is His exodus that makes 'my exodus' a deliverance from captivity and an entrance upon royalty.
I need not remind you, how, after all is said and done, we are sure of life eternal, because Jesus Christ died and rose again. I do not need to depreciate other imperfect arguments which seem to point in that direction, such as the instincts of men's natures, the craving for some retribution beyond, the impossibility of believing that life is extinguished by the fact of physical death. But whilst I admit that a good deal may be said, and strong probabilities may be alleged, it seems to me that however much you may argue, no words, no considerations, moral or intellectual, can suffice to establish more than that it would be a very good thing if there were a future life and that it is probable that there is. But Jesus Christ comes to us and says, 'Touch Me, handle Me; a spirit hath not flesh and bones as I have. Here I am. I was dead; I am alive for evermore.' So then one life, that we know about, has persisted undiminished, apart from the physical frame, and that one Man has gone down into the dark abyss, and has come up the same as when He descended. So it is His exodus -- and, as I believe, His death and Resurrection alone -- on which the faith in immortality impregnably rests.
But that is not the main point which the text suggests. Let me remind you how utterly the whole aspect of any difficulty, trial, or sorrow, and especially of that culmination of all men's fears -- death itself -- is altered when we think that in the darkest bend of the dark road we may trace footsteps, not without marks of blood in them, of Him that has trodden it all before us. 'Follow thou Me,' He said to Peter; and it should be no hard thing for us, if we love Him, to tread where He trod. It should be no lonely road for us to walk, however the closest clinging hands may be untwined from our grasp, and the most utter solitude of which a human soul is capable may be realised, when we remember that Jesus Christ has walked it before us.
The entrance, too, is made possible because He has preceded us. 'I go to prepare a place for you.' So we may be sure that when we go through those dark gates and across the wild, the other side of which no man knows, it is not to step out of 'the warm precincts of the cheerful day' into some dim, cold, sad land, but it is to enter into His presence.
Israel's exodus was headed by a mummy case, in which the dead bones of their whilom leader were contained. Our exodus is headed by the Prince of Life, who was dead and is alive for evermore.
So, brethren, I beseech you, treasure these thoughts more than you do. Turn to Jesus Christ and His resurrection from the dead more than you do. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that the Christianity of this day is largely losing the habitual contemplation of immortality which gave so much of its strength to the religion of past generations. We are all so busy in setting forth and enforcing the blessings of Christianity in its effects in the present life that, I fear me, we are largely forgetting what it does for us at the end, and beyond the end. And I would that we all thought more of our exodus and of our entrance in the light of Christ's death and resurrection. Such contemplation will not unfit us for any duty or any enjoyment. It will lift us above the absorbed occupation with present trivialities, which is the bane of all that is good and noble. It will teach us 'a solemn scorn of ills.' It will set on the furthest horizon a great light instead of a doleful darkness, and it will deliver us from the dread of that 'shadow feared of man,' but not by those who, listening to Jesus Christ, have been taught that to depart is to be with Him.
III. Now I meant to have said a word, in the close of my sermon, about a third point -- viz., the way of securing that this aspect of death shall be our experience, but your time will not allow of my dwelling upon that as I should have wished. I would only point out that, as I have already suggested, this context teaches us that it is His death that must make our deaths what they may become; and would ask you to notice, further, that the context carries us back to the preceding verses. 'An entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly.' We have just before read, 'If these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ'; and just before is the exhortation, 'giving all diligence, minister to your faith virtue.'
So the Apostle, by reiterating the two words which he had previously been using, teaches us that if death is to be to us that departure from bondage and entrance into the Kingdom, we must here and now bring forth the fruits of faith. There is no entrance hereafter, unless there has been a habitual entering into the Holy Place by the blood of Jesus Christ even whilst we are on earth. There is no entrance by reason of the fact of death, unless all through life there has been an entrance into rest by reason of the fact of faith.
And so, dear brethren, I beseech you to remember that it depends on yourself whether departing shall be arrival, and exodus shall be entrance. One thing or other that last moment must be to us all -- either a dragging us reluctant away from what we would fain cleave to, or a glad departure from a foreign land and entrance to our home. It may be as when Peter was let out of prison, the angel touched him, and the chains fell from his hands, and the iron gate opened of its own accord, and he found himself in the city. It is for you to settle which of the two it shall be. And if you will take Him for your King, Companion, Saviour, Enlightener, Life here, 'the Lord shall bless your going out and coming in from this time forth and even for evermore.'