And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand on me, saying to me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:…
This sublime Apocalypse is the climax of Revelation. It carries us forward from narrative to prophecy, from facts to truths, from present conditions to permanent issues. Without such a revelation the religion of Jesus Christ would have lacked its crowning assurance, and the dispensation of grace its adequate interpretation. What is going on in the invisible above is essential to the understanding of what is going on in the visible around. Only as we get glimpse of the issue can we appreciate the purpose and strength of grace. The vision of Christ in His glory alone completes and justifies the history of Christ in His humiliation. The way-book of our faith could not stop with the record of an ascending Christ. For deep and clear as may be our inward fellowship with Christ, we cannot always escape the tyranny of our eyes. We see too much and too little — too much because too little. With awful precision we see the ravages of sin, the desolating frenzy of passion, the hungry eagerness with which graves close over hopes unrealised and lives whose record is vanity. But with all our seeing we see too little. Sin and strife and death are assuredly here. But with our unaided vision we do not see the large arena on which God is working out His gracious purpose: we do not see how these vast and appalling forces are under the control of a triumphant Redeemer; we do not see where, or how, or to what degree the conquering grace of Christ cleaves its way to the very heart of the conflict and robs the enemy of his spoil. It requires an Apocalypse to show us the wide empire and masterhood of Christ. Only as we see ahead can we see properly around. And in the goodness of His grace God has given us the larger, clearer sight. He has torn aside the veil.
I. OUR TEXT IS CHRIST'S NEW INTRODUCTION OF HIMSELF TO THE CHURCH MILITANT. It is the revelation of Himself in His Lordship, clothed with the authority and resource of spiritual empire. In His hands are the keys of mastery. To His service bend all heaven's powers. But what I want just now to emphasise is, that right in the centre of this vision of glory the old familiar Christ of the gospels is made clearly discernible. Not only is He the Living One with the keys; He is the One who became dead; the One, therefore, who lived and moved within range of historic observation. This is a point of present and pressing importance. It indicates and guards us against two opposite tendencies which threaten the vitality of Christian faith. On one hand there is a too evident readiness to minimise the importance of our evangelic narratives; to pass lightly over the great historical facts on which our gospel is based, and even to acquiesce in an account of those events which rob them of all special, not to say trustworthy, significance. On the ether hand, there is a not less evident and equally disastrous tendency in the opposite direction. Some men never seem to get beyond history. The Christ they know is the Child at Nazareth, the homeless Wanderer in Judaea, the sympathetic Teacher and Worker in town and village, the willing Sufferer on Calvary. All this is good. It is a gain for which we ought to be devoutly thankful to have recovered from superstition and conventionalism the simple grandeur of Christ's actual human life. But this revived interest in the Christ of history is accompanied with some peril to the adequate conception of our Lord and Saviour. The absorbing study of His example, His principles, His revelation of God, His interpretation of man, His work and sacrifice for the redemption of the race, may very effectually obscure the grandeur of His eternal supremacy, and rob us of the strength and comfort derivable from fellowship with the living Lord. Christ is not dead; He is risen. His life to-day is more than the influence of an unquenchable memory and of a love which the world cannot let die. The Christ of history is the living Christ upon the throne. He who was on earth is in heaven. He who is in heaven has come down again and fills the earth. His real presence has entered into every epoch of history. His personality is the most potent contemporary presence in life to-day. Our text sets us in right relation alike to the historic and the risen Christ. It saves us from the indefiniteness of that dreamy faith which declines to seek foothold on the solid earth, which claims self-sufficiency of intuitive knowledge and spiritual certainty. And, on the other hand, it leads us on from that mere back-looking and wingless faith which never escapes from earth and time, which never realises and rejoices in the personal presence of the living Lord.
II. AN INTELLIGENT FAITH IN CHRIST MUST BEGIN WITH THE STUDY OF HIS EARTHLY LIFE. It must look to what He was in order to know what He is. It must understand His work below before it can appreciate the character of His reign above. It must master the facts as a means towards possessing the truths of God's dispensation of grace. The reasons for this are obvious. Our earliest knowledge of Christ must come to us as our knowledge of any other historical person comes, through the portraiture of competent witnesses and biographers. But not only for the outline of Christ's personality and purpose are we dependent upon New Testament history. We must betake ourselves to the same quarter for an explanation of Christ's living power, for an interpretation of the mission He lives to complete, for an understanding of how we are to come into relation with His grace. The evangelical records set forth no mere passing events, no mere transitory phase in the evolution of Divine unfolding, which may be left behind and forgotten as if superseded by clearer and loftier revelations. The Cross of Calvary fills every page of history and overflows into eternity, stretching back and on in perpetual enactment. The Apocalyptic Seer, standing on his high mountain, looked back and saw the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world; he turned his gaze towards the future, and saw the endless ages gathering around the Lamb that had been slain, singing the song of victory through sacrifice. And to the Cross we must go to find God, to know Christ, to learn penitence, to reap forgiveness, to discover life and liberty. Yea, it is by beginning at Jerusalem that faith discovers where and how to find the living Christ, in what way and with what joy to attain fellowship with the risen Lord. But there is yet another reason why faith has need to master and to appropriate the facts of historical revelation. The historic Christ who lived, spake, worked, died, and rose again in our midst, supplies the ultimate ground of verification on which faith rests for its spiritual beliefs and hopes. A religion which is to take adequate grip of man must satisfy the eye and the brain not less than the heart and the spirit. It must approve itself by facts as well as by reasons and sentiments. You tell me, for instance, that God is love. How do you know that? It is not a natural idea. It is, as men phrase it, too good to be true. So says my natural and hesitating heart. Do you refer me to your experience? Do you affirm that the faith has been kindled in you by direct operation of the Divine Spirit? But are there no possibilities of misinterpretation and mistake? Has God ever spoken or wrought in other ways to warrant your belief that He is now speaking and working in you? I cannot believe it until God proves it by an appeal to all the considerations and all the instincts and all the lines of evidence which can reach me down here in the darkness. And that is what God has done. He has come down and embodied His message in a life which appeals to all the faculties, and responds to all the demands, of my nature. The historic Christ proves the trustworthiness of my spiritual conviction, and from the con-temptation of that gracious life I go forward to the confident enjoyment of the elevating and constraining truth. So, too, in reference to the resurrection of the dead, that great gospel of glad tidings to a world filled with the dead and the dying. It is only when I can see and say, "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept," that I regain the balance of hope and faith. The intimations of immortality in me immediately radiate with fresh light. All the arguments grounded in nature, in reason, in justice, in spiritual experience, gather a clearer probative force. The accomplished fact of Christ's resurrection interprets and verifies the instincts and promptings of my spirit within me, and beholding the risen Christ I can ask with exultant confidence, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" and can sing with grand assurance the apostolic song, "Thanks be unto God," etc. Here, then, must Christian knowledge and spiritual faith find their foundation — in a devout mastery of the life and work of the incarnate Christ.
III. BUT BEGINNINGS ARE ONLY BEGINNINGS, AND MUST NOT BE MISTAKEN FOR COMPLETIONS. To have mastered the alphabet and the grammar of a language is to have come into possession of the key to its wealth of literature and ideas, but not into possession of the literature and ideas themselves. It is possible to know much about Christ and nothing of Him. For Christ is not contained in any or all the facts and doctrines concerning Himself. They interpret and point the way to Him. But He, the living Lord, whom they interpret, who gives significance and animation to them, is a Person, not an idea, and sits upon the throne of life, to be found of all who seek Him, waiting to bestow the blessings which His incarnate life wrought and revealed. Our study, therefore, of the great history, and of the doctrines of grace, is barren and futile unless we are guided thereby to seek and find the personal, living Saviour; to take from His own hands the gift which Christian history and doctrine explain, and to find in Him the actual enjoyment of promises made and truths revealed. There are two senses in the New Testament in which men are said to know Christ. Nicodemus said, "Master, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God, because..." Here we have an instance of close observation, of thoughtful appreciation, of faultless logic leading to an irresistable conclusion. "We know, because..." This was, for the moment, all he knew of Christ: an external understanding — logical, convincing, veracious, but ineffective. How different was Paul's declaration, "I know whom I have believed"! Not, mark you, "I know in whom I have believed"; still less, "I know in what I have believed." "I know," said he, "whom I have believed." The knowledge was personal, inward, constraining — a knowledge arising out of living fellowship with Christ, and which conferred upon him the power of a new and radiant heart. In this same sense Paul had once prayed that he might know Christ. At the time he uttered that prayer he knew all the facts of the great biography, and had expounded in his principal letters the profound significance of the Lord's death and resurrection. Not in that sense, nor in those relations, are we to interpret his prayer for more knowledge of Christ. It was for fuller, deeper, personal possession of the Christ who unfolds Himself within the sacredness of Christian experience, whose gracious personality fills heaven with ceaseless wonder and adoration, whose presence in the heart expands into fresh discoveries of significance and charm.
(C. A. Berry.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: