Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which you have, that no man take your crown.
Those who are overtaken by spiritual bankruptcy and ruin are probably often very much surprised by such a result befalling them. Every one who has ever had spiritual treasures is tempted to think that his spiritual treasure must be secure. Every one who has had a religious reputation is apt to think that such a reputation is abiding.
I. THE CAPACITY OF RELIGIOUS FEELING AND EFFORT, LIKE ALL OTHER POWERS OF THE SOUL, DIES OUT FOR WANT OF USE. There is a tendency to believe that because we could once do a thing, or understand a thing. the power or capacity must remain, although for years we have been out of practice. "Oh yes, of course, I can do that; I have done it often." How frequently you have heard a man say that, and then, after a desperate, pitiful struggle, he has to give it up and admit his failure. A man has been an expert in rowing, or running, or climbing. Mature years are upon him now, but he laughs at the suggestion that his lungs are not still as strong and his arms as muscular as ever. He makes a severe drain some day on his bodily strength, and finds to his surprise and vexation that the nervous force is giving out long ere the day's work is done. Or we once knew a foreign language. We fancy it must still flow to our tongue as easily as ever. We are suddenly called upon to use it, and are chagrined to find that the words will not come at our bidding. Now, what is true of our physical and of our intellectual nature is quite as profoundly and terribly true of our spiritual nature. There are organs by which we live to God, and these, if they get no exercise, decay. The practice of ten years ago does not secure their existence and activity now. Their present existence depends upon their present use; but once they have declined, all that province of our nature becomes incapable of impression and feeling, just as to the unintellectual man. Shakespeare has no more significance than a daily newspaper. The inner eye loses its faculty of discerning spiritual things; and yet the tongue may go on talking of them as fluently, perhaps even more fluently than ever. Others will very likely detect the change. For ii a man attempts to describe what he has never seen, or gives merely the loose recollection of ten or twenty years ago, an intelligent listener will soon find out something amiss. But the man himself thinks it is all as it should be. He knows the expressions about revealed truth as well as before. Perhaps he is even a trifle more orthodox than he was before; but for all that the spiritual faculty may be gone, perhaps for ever. Let us apply some tests to ascertain our spiritual vitality, the keenness of our spiritual vision. Your nature is perhaps active enough on some sides. You are not suffering from intellectual or emotional lethargy. Your wants and desires have multiplied in number; but are they as baptized with the Christian baptism as they were ten years ago? You have acquired means, you have greatly increased your resources; but is there as much of the gold of the kingdom, of the treasure of heaven there? There are wide harvests of the heart waving from carefully sown seed; but are you sure their roots would not be as rottenness, and their blossomings up as the dust, if the fiery winds of God began to blow across them? In the remote recesses of the soul, in its hidden depths, what response are you making now to spiritual appeals and promptings? Is there a deep undercurrent of your life setting towards Christ?
II. WE ARE NOT AT ALL SO NECESSARY TO GOD, SO ESSENTIAL FOR HIS PURPOSES, AS WE SOMETIMES THINK WE ARE. We can be useful to God, helpful in carrying out His purposes. It is right that the ambition of being a fellow-worker with God should stir a man. One of the grandest features in the character of the Puritans was that they learned thus to regard themselves, unreservedly. We may not use precisely the same phrases, or give exactly the same colour and form to our thinking. It is in some respects better that we should not, but it is as possible now as then to be representatives of God's cause, fighters for God, enthusiasts, zealots in His behalf; to have our joys and sorrows completely wrapt up with His joys and sorrows. It is as possible and as blessed. But close behind this spiritual attitude lies a subtle temptation. It lurks even in that extreme doctrine of predestination in which the Puritans found so much support and consolation. When fighting God's battles amid discouragement and failure of hope, against great odds, they comforted themselves with the thought that they were safe in God's hands; that their salvation and ultimate triumph were guaranteed by a Divine decree. This decree was irreversible, they felt and said, and in its absolute certainty they gloried. But you see how dangerous this position may become. So long as we are certain that our heart is beating with God's, our souls yearning for His righteousness, our hands busy about His work, we are right to comfort ourselves with the thought of the Divine decree, and to take for granted that it is in our favour. But the attitude may change, and the old idea remain. We are far too inclined to take for granted that we must be on God's side — that His decree must be in our favour. Do we suppose that God has special favourites — that He is a respecter of persons? What is there in us, apart from His grace, which makes us specially attractive or necessary? The history of Christ's Church is one long tale of gifts forfeited and privileges transferred. The crown is not lost, but with a little alteration it is made to fit another's brow. The talent is not melted down; it becomes another man's. There is no empty space either in the arena of conflict below or in the place of victory and banqueting above.
III. SALVATION AND ULTIMATE REWARD DEPEND ENTIRELY ON FAITHFULNESS TO PRESENT LIGHT AND STEADFASTNESS IN PRESENT DUTY. Our crowns are being shaped by our present efforts and prayers and sacrifices. We are like men moulding in clay. God pours in gold and brings the crowns out in gold. The crowns will be out of proportion to our deserts, yet will bear the impress of our personality. Each of Christ's disciples has something — some attainment, some experience, it does not matter how humble. Whatever be his ultimate salvation and reward, his crown depends on his holding it. You have learnt, perhaps, some rudiment of Christian faith — as, for example, that you cannot keep your own feet when the enemy assails; and you have learnt when you feel your own weakness to cry out to God. Well, that is not much, but it is something. "Hold that fast." You have perhaps got further — acquired some deeper laws of the Christian life. You have found that the soul grows by giving. You have tasted the strange, Christlike sweetness of doing good; the new strength won by bold witness-bearing. "Hold that fast." Or you have found out that, however it may be with others, there are certain assaults of evil which have for you a special danger; certain places and atmospheres peculiarly perilous; a certain set of truths on which your soul must feed. It is much to have found out what these are. "Hold that fast." Don't think it a small thing merely to hold what you have. Don't think it always necessary to be opening your hands and grasping at more, sometimes, in your eagerness, dropping what you were holding. It is well to think and speak of progress, but let your edifying, your building up, be done carefully; see that the new stones lie evenly on the top of the old. Permanence in spiritual things is as important as progress, and a permanence that is essential is sometimes sacrificed to a progress that is not essential. Let us make sure that we are husbanding what we have won. To gather up, to retain, to make use of all the wisdom we have ever got from God; never to fall behind the best epochs of our former spiritual selves — if we do this we shall not fall.
(John F. Ewing, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.