The Promise of Incompleteness
Hebrews 11:39-40
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:…

There was a plain mechanic in a little town in Scotland who feared God; and built houses for a livelihood. He never had more than three months of schooling in his life. Let us draw a circle round the seventy-five years of that life, and look at it merely by itself. Measured by the ordinary standards of the world, how cramped it is I how insignificant! But then can we look at that life in that way? It is plain that we cannot; for every life establishes connections and creates consequences. It is with a life as it is with a large estate. It cannot be closed up at once upon the death of the testator. Certain obligations have a given time to run. Certain outstanding amounts of capital may not be paid in for years. Indeed, it is doubtful if the real sum total of any man's life can be stated until the end of all things. This humble mechanic, for instance, was the father of a son whose name is known and honoured wherever the English language is spoken. To James Carlyle's life must be added the sum of Thomas Carlyle's life and the influence of his writings, and the influence of the men whose thought has been stimulated or shaped by those writings. I have taken this familiar illustration as containing in itself the substance of my text to-day. The truth it gives us is that no man's life can be estimated by itself, but helps to complete the past, and is completed by the future. These people — Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and the rest — were the spiritual heroes of an earlier time, representing the nation's moral high-water mark. They were powers, and society acknowledged and bore witness to their power. Yet there was a good in store, which, though they contributed to it, did not come to them. There was a promise infolded in their life which was not fulfilled to them, but to those who came after them. If their life is to be estimated only in itself, if its record is to cover only the sum of its years, then this state of things seems unjust and cruel, and the life itself of little account. But you at once see that the writer is taking a far wider view than this. He is contemplating these early heroes, not only by themselves, but as links in a great succession of men of faith. He is viewing the results of their life as parts of the great development of humanity at large. Now, the recognition of this as a law of life has a vast influence upon any man's character. It shapes a man of a different type from one who regards his life as an end to itself; and it is here set down to the credit of these Old Testament heroes, as an element of their faith, that they apprehended this larger law and lived by it; that they put mere personal considerations out of sight — were content to be merely stages, and not finalities, in the great growth of human history. So far as this world is concerned their life goes to minister to other lives, and is simply a factor in the progress of mankind as a whole. This is a far wider conception of faith than we commonly form. We are disposed to make faith exclusively personal, to trust God mostly for what He will do for us, or for those most closely bound to us. We say to ourselves, "We must trust God for daily bread, for provision for old age or sickness, for a place in heaven"; and so we must. So Christ commands us to do; but, at the same time, He teaches us to give faith a much wider range. We are parts of a great Divine economy, of a great march of ideas and character; builders on a great building of God, each carving his stone, or laying his few courses of brick; husbandmen in God's vast domain, each tilling his few acres — one sowing, another reaping; one planting, another watering. No man's faith is perfect which regards merely his own salvation; no man's prayer is according to Christ's standard which leaves out "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Thus identifying ourselves with the interests of God's kingdom — the whole development of our race — we find ourselves identified with a process. The perfect man, the perfect society, are not created out of hand. They have not come yet, but they are slowly coming, and coming through much crudeness and imperfection by the way. Thus, then, the kingdom of God is no exception to the law which obtains in other kingdoms — that growth involves imperfection and destruction. Take the law as it holds in nature. Growth comes through death. The corn of wheat brings forth fruit only as it dies. In nature's processes we find much which serves merely as the step or the scaffolding to something better and greater and more beautiful, and which, when its purpose is accomplished, passes away. There is the worm. It crawls in the sun, and lies upon the leaf, and then wraps itself in the cocoon; and then springs forth the butterfly in all the glory of gold and purple: and the worm-life and the cocoon-life have done their work, and have given that beautiful creation to the air and the flowers, and they pass away. Go higher up, into the life of man. A perfect, healthy child, how beautiful it is! how winning! how innocent! how natural and graceful its attitudes! What parent has not found himself looking back to the years of infancy with a feeling that the years which have made his children men and women have robbed him of something ineffably sweet and precious? Childhood is only a stage: so is youth, with its flush of hope, its high aims, its fulness and vigour of life; and so manhood, with its strength and achievement. In a normally developed life each stage as it passes away hands over to its successor something better and stronger. Does the process end with old age? Is there not something better beyond the line which we call death? So of society. It passes through crude conditions, which give place to higher and better conditions. One life is spent in evolving the powers of electricity: the man who comes after reaps the full benefit of the telegraph and telephone. A Columbus discovers America, we enjoy it. Go still higher, into the region of religion and worship,. The same law holds. Religion is not given to man full-grown. The true faith works its way into shape and power out of a mesh of false faiths. One by one these fall off and die, leaving only what is essentially true to be taken up into the new and higher form. Not one of the men mentioned in this catalogue in the eleventh of Hebrews can be held up as a perfect model of character for the men of a Christian age. The New Testament morality is higher than that of the old. The humblest Christian believer has what Samuel and Elijah had not. And as to worship, we say, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." We come to God without priest or victim or symbol; but what a stretch between our standpoint and that of the Israelite! — a stretch strewn with broken types. Prophet, priest, king — one after another, God breaks these types in pieces as the fulness of time draws on, when Christ, the Teacher, the great High Priest, the Lord of lords, is to come into the world.

II. We come, then, to the second truth of our text. Having seen the fact of imperfection, WE SEE THAT ALONG WITH THE IMPERFECTION GOES A PROMISE. You notice the peculiar word here, "received not the promise." It is noted as a mark of the faith of these good men that they saw a promise of something better in the imperfection of their own age. Christ bears witness to this in the words, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad." In like manner Moses saw a nation in the rabble which went out of Egypt. To him the desert meant Canaan. So in nature, the seed, even in its falling into the ground and dying, utters the promise of the corn: the blossom, as it is borne down by the wind, promises the fruit. Even the falling leaf, as it settles down to its new task, promises next spring's juices and leaves. So in the moral progress of our race. Paul tells us that "That is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural," that "The first man is of the earth, earthy"; but in these he sees the promise of something better. "Afterwards, that which is spiritual. As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption." Society in its best development to-day is imperfect: the ideal form of government is yet to be revealed; but as we turn over to the vision of John on Patmos, we see a perfect society, a holy city, a heavenly Jerusalem, a faultless administration. Now, the practical question for us is, What is our true attitude toward these two facts of imperfection and promise? Our text tells us, by the example of these men of old. There were imperfect men; they saw a possible good which was not for them: but through faith they accepted the imperfection and made the best of it, and cheerfully gave their energy, and endured their suffering, to make the coming man and the coming time better than themselves and their time. We are on the same line. We and our time are simply a stage toward something better. With all our boast of high civilisation, elaborated jurisprudence, rich spiritual acquirement, and vast knowledge, there is something better for the men of the coming time. They will know more, and enjoy more than we do. They will be better men than we are. They will have greater riches of spiritual culture. It is a high test of faith for a man to do his best under temporary conditions, as a mere faction of a great whole, as a mere means to the development of some better thing in a future which he is not to enjoy; and yet that is the lesson which God's administration teaches us. How much care and skill and beauty go into merely temporary things! Take a wheat-corn, that very thing which is to fall into the ground and die, and split it open, and put it under a microscope, and what a perfect and beautiful organism it is! Look at that apple-blossom, which in a few days will be blown away by the wind, and what perfection of form, what delicacy of texture and tint! Each one of those living motes which dances for an hour in the setting sunlight is finished with all the nicety of your own anatomy. Nature is prodigal in her apparent waste of beautiful and perfect things. So, when God gave a temporary system of worship to carry men over to Christ, how carefully selected were the types; how stringent the insistence on details which seem trivial to us! Cannot we read this lesson? Shall we refuse our best because our best is to be merged into something better? Or shall we not rather feel ourselves at once stimulated and honoured by being allowed to contribute our best to the great result which is by and by to gather up into itself the best of all the ages? You have read how, in the old border-wars of Scotland, the tidings of invasion and the summons to arms were carried by the fiery cross. One runner took it and went at full speed to a certain point, telling the news as he went, and then gave it to another, who ran on in like manner. It was not for the messenger to whom that summons came to sit down and prepare for the defence of his own house and the protection of his flocks and herds. He must take the cross and run for the next stage. The message of Christ's Cross points us beyond ourselves and our own interest and our own time. It lays on us the charge of the coming time. It bids us do our best in our own time, as a means to making that Cross the central fact of the future time. Our stage of life contains a promise for the next stage that it shall be better and higher for our faithful toil. Our problem is to push that promise nearer to its fulfilment. Thus, then, let us take the promise of the better thing into the inferior, incomplete conditions of to-day. Let us accept the fact of incompleteness, not passively, nor idly: that were to exclude faith, and faith is the very keynote of this lesson; nor, on the other hand, despairingly nor angrily that were presumptuous and useless as well. But let us recognise in it a promise of completeness, a stage towards it, and a call to promote it. No one of us can be more than a factor in the world's history. The power of each factor will appear only when the whole column shall be cast up. The sum total will be greater than any factor, but for the very reason that it will include all the factors. "We must be slow," as one remarks, "to judge unfinished architecture." Truthfully said the old Greek poet, "The days to come are the wisest witnesses." If there be truth in that theory of development, so widely ,accepted in this day; if we are living in an incomplete physical universe, no less than in partly developed moral and spiritual conditions, that fact goes to show that one law holds from the natural up to the spiritual. That holds out the hope that all the apparent waste in nature will one day be accounted for and shown to be no waste. That points again to the larger hope, that the imperfect work of true men, the imperfect teaching of half-taught men, the imperfect moral development of primitive men, and all the disappointed aspiration and seemingly fruitless toil, and rejected testimony of God's workmen in all times, will be found again, revealed in its true value and power. It was a profound remark of a modern essayist, that the continual failure of eminently endowed men to reach the highest standard has in it something more consoling than disheartening, and contains an " inspiring hint that it is mankind, and not special men, that are to be shaped at last into the image of God; and that the endless life of the generations may hope to come nearer that goal of which the short-breathed three-score years and ten fall too unhappily short." The present, for each of us, bears the sign of the Cross. The crown is in the future.

(M. Vincent, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:

WEB: These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn't receive the promise,

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