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:…
Sixty years ago that old man wandered, glad and radiant, round the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Word of Christ took possession of him, and he, led by it, followed after it till that blessed moment when, in the upper chamber, he lay upon the Master's breast. All through the life that followed he looked back that he might look before; his eyes turned to what had been, that his hope might reach up unto what was to be; and lo! he found that the issue was greater than his utmost expectation. The old man found a meaning in Christ the young man never discerned. Age is greater than youth. The glory of youth is the promise that is in it; the glory of age is the performance it represents. See how youth now ripened into perfect fruition in age. In that ancient John there lay the apocalyptic visions; visions of the world, the wonders that were to be. Whether would you have God dealing with you in a way that became God, or in a way that became man? Whether would you have God dealing with you in a God-like fashion, by standards that suit the Divine, or entirely in the measure of your own merit, and according to your own poor deserts? Whether would you have Divine pity, Divine grace, Divine long-suffering determine the great law of the Divine action, or would you regulate that action by standards of man's making and man's following? "I am the First and the Last and the Living." He is the great energy that works from first to last. "Indeed," saith our modern wise man, "He the energy! Energy, what is it but force? what is force but the power of doing work? what is force but a form of matter? Matter we know, God we do not know, all things that men discover and interpret they interpret in the terms of matter and motion and force. Matter doth make and matter doth rule; it is the one providence we know." Well, you know, and how do you know? Matter you know, ay, but "you" and "know." Subtract "you" and where is the matter? Take away thought and where is force? Has matter any being save to thought, save for thought? Matter without thought is not handled, discerned, spoken of, described, it is real only as thought is real. But if there can, even to man, be no reality or knowledge of matter without thought, "nor matter, as object, save to intellect, then below all, underneath all, lies thought "which is spirit, lies energy which is intellect, lies the great directive will that is but the abstract name for concrete God. "I am the First and the Last and the Living," and there is no life but the life God is, and makes. "And I became dead." There enters here another and entirely new order of ideas. The great first, last, Living One became dead. To die He had become flesh, to make visible His glory, to veil the glory that He had made visible. There is the great order of thought that speaks of redemption, redemption by Him who became incarnate, who died — died! but "I am alive for ever more" — died to live, yet not as of old, Loges, Word in God; but the great incarnate, the living human heart in the potent Divine breast. It is here now where the matter comes in mainly in need of discussion. Here is this great enthroned Christ alive for ever more. What is the function that He exercises? He has the keys of hell and of death. Well, then, if He has the keys of hell and death, what does hell mean? It does not mean the place of torment or penalty, but the invisible, the home of all the dead, the great unseen land. The heaven above, the hell beneath; these it comprehends; it denotes all the vast, boundless, invisible world. What we know is but a speck, the unseen constitutes the real universe. And this invisible, the great, vast, invisible world in which our minute and hardly-discernible visible world swims, is this Hades, this world unseen, yet most real. Then death, if hell has so great a meaning, death cannot have a shallower. What is death but crossing the ocean, leaving the land that is known and turning one's face to the great unknown to be unknown no more? Several hundred years ago some men and women gathered round a Southern harbour and they saw three small ships weigh anchor and spread sail and stand out to sea. They watched them as the hull disappeared, as the sail dipped, and as all faded from sight, but whether into the blue heaven above or whether still sailing on the sea below, who behind could tell? Months after in distant Western islands, men sat and wondered whether they were missed at home. In Italian and Spanish homes, longing wives and wistful sisters asked: "Where are they? our husbands, our brothers, float they still on the blue sea? faded they into the great blue heaven?" So our fathers, they that have been, have passed from sight and floated into the great blue heaven, but they are a mightier host than their sons. They think of the sons behind, we think of the fathers before; and thought and faith and hope reach o'er that mighty ocean, and grasp the vision of the mighty dead still living because Christ lives. "The keys of death and hell." Keys are symbolical, emblems that speak of judgment, the right to judge and the might to execute. As the throne, the sceptre, the crown speak of regal dignity and regal rights, so the keys speak of judicial function. A great Sovereign sits in judgment, and these keys, Jesus Christ, in His capacity as Mediator, holds. He hath the keys of all the visible and invisible — death and hell. Men die, but they die not by chance. Accidents concern men, they do not concern God. Sudden events surprise us, there is no suddenness and no surprise to Him. Death is in the hands of Christ. The dying in Christ's hands die unto life. In olden days when our fathers roamed the woods that stood where now busy cities are, they hewed from out the fallen oak trunk the frail canoe, they launched it on the ocean, then they skirted along the shore looking fearfully out for the coming storm, seeking safety by hugging the rock that was their very death. Now a mighty steamship which is a floating palace is launched upon the sea, and hundreds of men and women live there, and there, through night and day, in storm and calm, across the ocean the stately ship doth speed. So man without Christ is man facing the great ocean of death, the vast unknown land, in a frail canoe that the waters will surely utterly destroy. Man in Christ is man safe, wrapped in glorious security, resting in perfect peace, making painful yet peaceful and glad voyage out of time into a great eternity. And He who has these keys exercises the great function they give. He judges men. He who saves is He who judges, and who so good a judge as the gracious Saviour?
(A. M. Fairbairn, D. D.)
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: