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:…
It is hard to disenchant our minds of the spell which is laid upon them by words — hard to divest ourselves of the associations which words call up. That solemn and awful word "hell," which occurs in my text, how inevitably does its very sound bring up into the thoughts the idea of everlasting torments. And yet, as is well known, by the "hell" of the Apostles' Creed, into which our Lord is said to have descended, is not meant the place of torments, but the place of departed spirits — the very sense attaching to the word in the passage now under examination. "The unseen realm" is, upon the whole, a just representation of its meaning in our language. All that is invisible — all that we cannot see, or the senses (represented by the eye, as the chief or ruling sense) cannot reach — it is a wonderfully comprehensive term. Think how much wider, how infinitely wider, is the range of the unseen than of the seen. This little ball of earth is a very insignificant district of God's domain. Midnight reveals to us, twinkling through all the realms of space, thousands of other suns, each perhaps the centre of its own planetary system, having worlds revolving round them, which from their immense distances coupled with their opaqueness, are to us unseen. Think how many substances, there are, so minute, or of so subtle an organisation, that we cannot see them — substances like the air, or like the life-blood of the tiniest insect which floats as gossamer upon the bosom of the air, and drinks in through imperceptible vessels the genial warmth of the golden summer day. But in addition to the most subtle organisations of matter, there are in the world spiritual essences. God is a spirit. We are taught to conceive of the holy angels as pure spirits, although we are quite unable to say for certain, that there may not be, attaching to the nature of angels, a certain very subtle organisation of matter. But, speculation apart, of this we are quite sure, that there are multitudes of angels. But this Hades has human, no less than heavenly, inhabitants. Think of the countless souls which, from the first formation of man upon the earth, have forsaken the tenement of the human body, and filed forth into the receptacle appointed for their safe keeping, until the day of the resurrection. Endowed, all of them, with an immortal being — where do their spirits, their proper selves, now reside? We do not know, nor can we know. All we know is that we see them not; of their existence our senses take no cognisance; for us they are as if they were not; they are inhabitants of the Hades, the great unseen realm, which the veil of gross matter shrouds from our view. Aye, as I said, a great realm — exceeding vast — and, in some of its districts, exceeding glorious. The unseen bears to the seen world the same relation which the vast universe bears to a house or mansion. Every house, however sumptuous, is more or less dark, more or less confined, limits more or less the view of the surrounding country, defiles more or less, through its enclosures, the purity of the atmosphere. But go abroad from the midnight festival, where lamps shed an artificial glare, and the house reeks with the odours of the banquet — go abroad into the still, solemn starlight, and catch the fresh breeze on thy brow, and look upwards into the vast expanse, lit up with the lamps of heaven. Or go forth from the close and darkened chamber of sleep, into the light and stir of the fair summer morning, when the woods and streams are vocal with melody, and every little insect is on the wing, and all nature teems with life and animation. Such is the passage from the sphere which is seen with the eye of flesh, to that which is not seen; from the false artificial lights of time, to the solemn stillness of eternity; from the noxious vapours of the world, to the pure breath of heaven's atmosphere; from scenes where man's art and man's handicraft have on all sides set up their memorials, to scenes which man has never trodden. The division of God's universe, which has been thus suggested, into a seen and an unseen sphere — a sphere which is, and a sphere which is not, under the cognisance of sense — is probably as satisfactory, and certainly as simple, as any which could be devised. But there is another word in our text which, although common in every mouth, will yet be illustrated by definition. That word is death. Hades is the world unseen, which has its door or portal, by which men enter into it. Death is the departure from the seen world, which seen world has its door of exit, by which men pass out of it. Hence death is called, in two or three passages of Scripture, exodus, or going out. There are many doors or avenues by which men pass out of this life, none of which can be opened except by the key which the risen Son of God holds in His hand. There is the door of disease, sometimes sharp and rapid, sometimes chronic and gradual. And the forms of disease, how various are they. There is the lingering decline, which keeps the patient waiting upon the threshold of the door, and mocks him, on bright days, with the hope (how soon to be blighted) of ultimate recovery. There is the burning fever, which hurries him, all hot, from the earth in a fit of frenzy or delirium. There is apoplexy, with its stroke of insensibility shattering the consciousness — paralysis, which ties up the utterances of the fluent tongue — nay, defects incidental to each vital organ, the due development of which may at any time issue in a departure from the world which is seen. There is the door of violence — the assassin's dagger and the foeman's lance. There is the door of animal decay, when the vital system is worn out, and the heart, wearied as it were with long toil, at first languidly discharges its functions, and then ceases altogether to beat. The only remaining word of the text which requires exposition is that of "keys" — "I have the keys of hell and death." The simple notion of a key is that which gives the power of opening a closed, or closing up an opened, door. But something more than a mere power of opening and shutting is, I believe, expressed by this imagery. General administrative power over a kingdom, or over a household (which is a kingdom in miniature), is expressed by the bearing of the key. Nothing more is necessary here, but that I should just advert to the plural form of the word "keys," which, of course, has reference to the two things specified — hell and death. The key of death is the key which unlocks the passage out of this world. The key of hell is that which unlocks the passage into the unseen and unknown. It is, I think, just worth observing that the notions are kept distinct by the phraseology employed-the notion, I mean, of a passage out of the seen, and an entrance into the unseen world — as if it did not follow that because the spirit has passed out by the door of death it has therefore received its admission into the unseen realm. This remark may throw some light upon the case of those who, after life had seemed to be extinct, have undergone resuscitation, and who can record nothing after the mortal agony beyond their having fallen into a deep swoon, a swoon in which they were perfectly unconscious. It is perhaps possible (at least the phraseology of this passage would incline us to think so) to have the door of death opened to us and closed upon us, and yet (so far as the experience of the soul is concerned) not to have the door of the unseen world opened. And now to pass from the consideration of the words employed in this sublime passage, to that of the statement made in it. The risen Saviour is the speaker — One who, by becoming partaker of flesh and blood for our sakes, subjected Himself to the experience of a cruel and bitter death, and yet One who is now triumphant over death in all the incorruptibility of a glorified body. From which we learn, first, that the Lord Jesus Christ, in His character of God-man — not in that of God — wields at present the administration of the entire universe, comprising both the little puny span of which man's senses and understanding can take cognisance, and also that vast and glorious domain which lies beyond the ken of flesh and blood — and of which it is our wisdom to confess, that we have neither seen it nor known it. We talk freely of God's administration in the realms of Nature and Providence, forgetting that it is the mediatorial kingdom, not the kingdom of mere Deity, under which we live at present. All power is committed unto Jesus in heaven and in earth. Upon His shoulder are laid the keys of all the vast Household, embracing thrones, and principalities, and powers among the heavenly hierarchy — men, with their unruly wills and fluctuating fortunes — together with the inferior creation, animate and inanimate, organised and inorganic, down to the meanest insect, and the plainest stone, and the hyssop that springeth out of the wall. Let the feeble and desponding Christian but duly weigh the truth that One who sympathises from personal experience with all his trials — One who was cradled in the manger, and inured to poverty from His youth — One who knew all the bitterness of persecution, and ridicule and abandonment of friends, and drained at last the dregs of the cup of death — is Vicegerent of the universe, and comfort shall soon dawn in the benighted heart, and light up in it the rainbow of a heavenly hope. But this general administration of Christ over the universe of God includes a particular dispensation towards every human individual, whereby He gives to each one of us, at the time of His appointment, our dismissal from the world which is seen, and our passport of entrance into that which is invisible. It is He who calls for the slow or rapid disease — He whose hand contrives the unforeseen disaster, so often attributed to chance — He who withdraws gradually the vital energy from some essential organ, so that, while the mechanism is complete, the function can no longer be discharged — and who thus opens to each separate individual the door of exodus out of this life. When the spirit has passed through this door, it waits awhile in the dark corridor which separates the seen from the unseen. Then, when life's last spark has really fled beyond the possibility of recall — then, then comes that Great Janitor, and sweeps past it down the dusky avenue, and takes the second key, and throws open to it a world of new experiences, and causes it to be thronged with new images from every district of the realm unseen. Thenceforth the spirit enters into Hades, there either to walk in Paradise and lie in Abraham's bosom, or to be tormented with a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall be consummated upon it at the sound of the resurrection trump.
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: