And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?…
I. The persons unto whom these words are uttered, in the particle "your": "Lift up your heads."
II. What things they are of which our Saviour here speaks, in the first words of the text: "Now when these things begin to come to pass."
III. The behaviour which our Saviour commends unto us, in these words: "Look up, lift up your heads."
IV. Last of all, the reason or encouragement; words of life and power to raise us from all faintness of heart and dulness of spirit: "For your redemption draweth nigh." It will not be amiss a little to consider whence it comes to pass that in the late declining age of the world so great disorder, distemper, and confusion have their place: and it shall yield us some lessons for our instruction.
1. And, first of all, it may seem to be natural, and that it cannot be otherwise. For our common experience tells us, that all things are apt to breed somewhat by which themselves are ruined. How many plants do we see which breed that worm which eats out their very heart! We see the body of man, let it be never so carefully, so precisely ordered, yet at length it grows foul, and every day gathers matter of weakness and disease, which, at first occasioning a general disproportion in the parts, must at the last of necessity draw after it the ruin and dissolution of the whole. It may then seem to fall out in this great body of the world as it doth in this lesser body of ours: by its own distemper it is the cause of its own ruin. For the things here mentioned by our Saviour are nothing else but the diseases of the old decaying world. The failing of light in the sun and moon — what is it but the blindness of the world — an imperfection very incident to age? Tumults in the sea and waters — what are they but the distemper of superfluous humours, which abound in age? Wars and turnouts of wars are but the falling out of the prime qualities, in the union and harmony of which the very being of the creature did consist. Scarcely had the world come to any growth and ripeness, but that it grew to that height of distemper that there was no way to purge it but by a general flood, "in which, as it were in the baptism, its former sins were done away" (Hosea 4:17).
2. But you may peradventure take this for a speculation, and no more; and I have urged it no further than as a probable conjecture. And therefore I will give you a second reason. Besides this natural inclination, God Himself hath a further purpose in it. He that observes the ways of God as far as He hath expressed Himself, shall find that He hath a delight to show unto the world those that are His; to lift them up on high, and mark and character them out by some notable trial and temptation. To draw this down to our present purpose: To try the strength, the faith, the love, the perseverance of those who are His, God is pleased to give way to this tumult and danger in the last days. He sets before us these terrors and affrightments, to see whether we fear anything more than Him, or whether anything can shake the reliance and trust which we repose in Him; whether our faith will be strong when the world is weak; whether our light will shine when the sun is darkened; whether we can establish ourselves in the power of God's Spirit when "the powers of heaven are shaken" (Matthew 24:29). And indeed what are all these signs here mentioned but mormoes, mere toys to fright children with, if we could truly consider that, if the world should sink, and fall upon our heads, it cannot hurt a soul, nor yet so grind the body into dust that God cannot raise it up again?
3. As sin and iniquity have increased, so have the means to reclaim it. As wickedness hath broken in as a flood, so hath judgment been poured forth, and doth swell, wave upon wave, line upon line, judgment upon judgment, to meet it, and purge it, and carry it away with itself, and so run out both together into the boundless ocean of God's mercy. This is God's method; who knows whereof we are made, and therefore must needs know what is fittest to cure us. If His little army of caterpillars, if common calamities, will not purge us, He brings in sword, and famine, and pestilence, to make the potion stronger.
III. Our third general part was the consideration of the behaviour which our Saviour commends unto us in these words: "Look up, and lift up your heads"; words borrowed from the behaviour which men use when all things go as they would hare them. As herbs, when the sun comes near them, peep out of the earth, or as summer-birds begin to sing when the spring is entered, so ought it to be with us "when these things come to pass." This winter should make us a spring; this noise and tumult should make us sing. Wars, famines, plagues, inundations, tumults, confusion of the world, these bring in the spring of all true Christians; and by these, as by the coming of summer-birds, we are forewarned that our Sun of Righteousness draws near.
1. Fear is a burden that maketh us not able to look upwards, towards that which might rid and ease us of it, but towards something that may hide and cover us.
2. Grief is another weight that presseth down. "Why art thou cast down, O my soul?" saith David (Psalm 42:5, 11).
3. These two, fear and sorrow, are the mother and the nurse, the beginners and fomenters, of all murmuring and repining. What are all the pleasures, what are all the terrors, of the world to him that is made one with Christ, who conquered also?That therefore this doctrine may pass the better, which at first sight is but harsh and rugged, we will show you —
1. That it is possible to arm ourselves with such courage and resolution in common calamities.
2. That it is a great folly not to do so.
3. What impediments and hindrances they be which overthrow our courage, and take our hearts from us, when such things as these come to pass.
1. And, first, of the possibility of this doctrine. And, if we look a little upon the manners of men, we shall find them very apt and ready to plead impossibilities and difficulties where their own practice confutes them. Now to manifest the possibility of this, I think I cannot do it better than by an ensample: and I will give .you one, and that too of an Ethnic man, that knew not Christ, nor His rich promises, nor ever heard of the glory of the gospel. There is a hill in Italy, Vesuvius they call it, which is wont sometimes to break cut in flames of fire, to the terror and amazement of all that dwell nigh unto it. The first time that in the memory of man it fired, was in the days of Vespasian the emperor; at which time it brake forth with that horrible noise and cry, with that concussion and shaking of the earth near about it, with that darkness and stench, that all within the compass thought of nothing now but aeternam illam et novissimam mundo noctem, "that time was ended, and the world drawing to its dissolution." Pliny, the great philosopher, and the author of the famous "History of Nature," lay then at Micenum, not far off: and out of a desire he had to inform himself, he drew near to the place where he thought the fire began. And in the midst of that horror and confusion so undaunted and fearless was he that he studied, and wrote, and ate, and slept, and omitted nothing of his usual course. His nephew, a great man afterwards with Trajan the emperor, out of whom I take this history, reports himself, that being there at that time, notwithstanding all the terrors and affrightments, yet he called for his books, he read, he noted, as if he had not been near the mountain Vesuvius, but in his study and closet: and yet was at that time but eighteen years of age. I have been somewhat the more large, besides my custom, in opening the particulars of this story, because it is the very emblem, the very picture, of the world's dissolution, and of the behaviour which is here enjoined Christians when that time shall come. What, though there be signs in the sun and moon and stars? must my light thereof be turned into darkness? must my sun set at noon, and my stars, those virtues which should shine in my soul, fall out of their sphere and firmament? When the world is reedy to sink, do thou raise thyself with expectation of eternal glory.
2. I have done with the first point — the possibility of the doctrine, that we must arm ourselves with courage and resolution against common calamities. I proceed now to the second — that it is an argument of great folly not to do so. Is it not a great folly to create evil, to multiply evils; to discolour that which was sent for our good, and make it evil; to make that which speaketh peace and comfort unto us a messenger of death?
3. Let us now consider the lets and impediments, or the reasons why our hearts fail us at such sights as these. I shall at this time only remove a pretended one; having spoken of self-love and want of faith, which are real and true hindrances of Christian courage. The main pretence we make for our pusillanimity and cowardice is our natural weakness, which we derived from our first parents, and brought with us into the world. Fear not, therefore: why should we fear? Christ hath subdued our enemies, and taken from them every weapon that may hurt us. He hath taken the sting not only from sin, but from those evils which are the natural issues and products of sin. He hath made afflictions joyful, terrors lovely, that thou mayest "look up" upon them, and "lift up thy head." I have done with this pretence of natural weakness, and with my third part; and I come now to the fourth and last, the encouragement our Saviour giveth: "For your redemption draweth nigh."
IV. And "when these things come to pass," when such terrible signs appear, this news is very seasonable. "As cold waters to a thirsty soul" (Proverbs 25:25), so is the promise of liberty to those "who have been in bondage all their life long" (Hebrews 2:15), under the fear of those evils which show themselves unto us, and lead us captive, and keep us in prison, so that we cannot look up. How will the prisoner even sing in his chains, when news is brought that his ransom is paid, and his redemption near at hand! It is a liberty to be told we shall be free: and it is not easy to determine whether it more affect us when it is come, or when it is but in the approach, drawing nigh; when we are free, or when we are but told that shortly we shall be so. And indeed our redemption is actus individuus, "one entire act"; and we are redeemed at once from all; though the full accomplishment of it be by degrees. But we may say 'truly of this first redemption what some in St. Paul said falsely of the second resurrection, This redemption's time "is past already" (2 Timothy 2:18); past on our Redeemer's side, nothing left undone by Him: only it remains on ours to sue out our pardon, and make our redemption sure. And therefore there is another redemption that they call praeservantem, "which settles and establishes us, preserves" us in an angelical state, free from sin, from passions, from fear. And when this comes, we shall sin no more, hope no more, fear no more: all sins shall be purged out, all hope shall be fulfilled, all tears shall be wiped from our eyes, and all trembling from our hearts. And this is the redemption here meant, the only trust of the Christian, the expectation of the faithful.
(A. Farindon, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?