The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 16. The Universal Sovereignty of Christ
17 min read
17 min read
There are many parts of the book of Revelation which I do not profess to understand. Here and there, at times, the golden haze of symbolism has seemed to melt away, or rather the visions have seemed to take a firm and solid and enduring form; but there are many passages in the book which, to me at least, are absolutely and altogether mysterious. It does not follow, however, that even these passages are without great and precious uses. It is not necessary to reduce a Divine revelation to an exact and logical form, in order to receive from it consolation and strength, and even guidance. Some of the most glorious expressions of the Divine power and goodness refuse to be subjected to any rigorous interpretation. I have often sat among the hills of Cumberland, and watched the sun go down in the distant sea. I have seen the glow which comes with the brief twilight on the Nile, when the whole heaven is filled with rose and violet, melting away into the purest white, and then into depths of transparent purple. I have listened to the solemn music of the tide rolling in upon a lonely coast in the twilight, and to the song of the lark in the English sky and over the hills of Judea. I have been filled with awe by the majestic forms of the Alps, and by the stern grandeur of the granite cliffs of Sinai. If I were asked what these things meant, I could not tell. If I were asked to translate these sounds and visions into exact pro positions, to define their meaning, to give them a logical and coherent form, I could not do it. But for all that, they have given me larger conceptions of the greatness and goodness of God. They have lifted me, when I have been in a devout mood, beyond themselves. Without understanding them, I find them to be true revelations of the unseen and eternal; and through them, as through the majestic outer courts of a vast temple, I pass into the inner sanctuary; the earthly music is silent; the material splendours are dissolved, and I find myself in the presence of God.
And so there are visions in this book, in the attempt to interpret which the understanding is perplexed, but which are full of inspiration and of power. If I begin to ask questions, I find that the questions receive no adequate answer. Have the visions a direct reference to past conflicts between the truth and love of God on the one hand and the falsehood and miseries of mankind on the other } or do they point to conflicts yet to come? I do not know. Are they fulfilled already? If they are, will they be fulfilled again? I cannot tell. The adverse powers which are cast alive into the lake of fire and brimstone — are they systems of imperial tyranny, or are they systems of commercial selfishness? Or are they cruel and gloomy forms of heathenism, or are they corruptions of the Christian faith? Who can say t But of this I am sure, that these stormy and gorgeous visions reveal to me a Divine presence and energy in conflict with all the worst evils which afflict our race, Divine anger, sternly punishing and relentlessly consuming all that is evil. Divine righteousness re-dressing the injustice of human affairs. Divine mercy -pitying our sorrows. Divine grace recovering mankind from sin and restoring them to purity and to blessed ness; and so, in the midst of the confusion and tumult and uncertainty of this world’s condition, I am at rest, for the victory at last will be on the side of goodness, of justice, of truth.
I do not know the exact reference of the vision recorded in this chapter; I cannot tell whether it refers to some great and critical conflict between the power of Christ and everything that is hostile to Him — the final struggle which will end in perfect and everlasting victory, or whether it is a concentrated and vivid representation of the prolonged struggle which has been going on for eighteen centuries, is proceeding still, and will not close until the whole earth is subdued under the power of Christ. In any case, the vision should fill our hearts with joy and strength; it is a translation into terms which appeal to the imagination, of the great promise, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world;” and I single out a particular element in the vision, “On His head are many crowns,” and I find in it not only joy, but suggestions for the guidance of the work of the Church and for the right ordering of our individual lives. ‘
The image is not a familiar one. To us, perhaps, it is not a very natural one. We are not accustomed to imagine more than one crown on one head. But when I was in Egypt lately I saw, again and again, among the figures sculpted on the walls of ancient temples, an illustration of this vision. Egypt is separated into two great divisions, Upper and Lower Egypt. The two districts were at times governed by rival sovereigns, and the crowns they wore were very distinct in form; but, in the period of Egypt’s greatest glory, the whole country was united under the same king; and on the head of a great monarch like Ramses the Second, or Ramses the Third, and on the head of the chief gods, like Osiris, for instance, you see the crowns both of the Upper and the Lower country, symbolically declaring their sovereignty over both. And when, in this vision, John saw many crowns on the head of Christ, it was a symbolic revelation of the extent and variety of the kingdoms over which He rules. Kingdoms which had been governed by conflicting monarchs; races ruled by different traditions; provinces remote from each other and dissimilar, are alike subject to His authority, and are alike to enjoy the blessings of His reign. Heaven and earth, angels and men, are included under His glorious sovereignty; He is not only Lord and King, He is “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” In this vision He is represented as moving forward to the subjugation of the empire over which He has been enthroned, making war against all the powers that are in revolt against His authority; and we might find in it great encouragement in the enterprise to which the Church is committed, of winning the whole world for Christ. That enterprise is not ours so much as His; and as, in the hour of battle, armies are said to have sometimes seen in the heavens the forms of supernatural warriors rushing with them against the foe, so we, in our great crusade, may look up and see the very form of Christ, Captain and King, leading the hosts of the Church, against His foes and ours.
But I propose to make a somewhat different application of the vision this morning. In times of deep religious earnestness, many Christian people are apt to forget the most obvious principles by which their conduct ought to be governed; and the very intensity of their desire to serve Christ perfectly causes them to overlook the actual service to which He has appointed them. When we speak of Christ’s ultimate reign over all the world, we do not always remember what this means. It surely means not only that all men will confess His authority and rejoice in His salvation; but that, in all the various provinces of human life, men will be governed by His laws, and that, in all the forms of their activity they will perpetually reveal their loyalty to Him and their love. We may not only speak ol” the various races of mankind as the kingdoms over which Christ will reign, and the crowns of which are already on His head; we may also speak of the various departments of human life as constituting different kingdoms in which the authority of Christ must be acknowledged and His laws obeyed. Christ is to rule over our commercial life, over our literature, over our home life, as well as over our spiritual life; and it is a legitimate use of the symbolism of this vision to insist that the sovereignty of Him on whose head are many crowns is to be recognised and honoured in all these various regions of our activity.
The first impulse of some persons when they begin to be in real earnest about serving Christ is to look at a great part of their life with sorrow, and to feel bitter regret that so much time should be, as they think, alienated from Christ’s service and from the great ends of the religious life. The young clerk, for instance, thinks of the hours which he has to spend at the desk, and is troubled that he has not more time, as he would say, to give to Christ. The tradesman thinks of his shop, and is distressed that this world’s affairs should necessarily consume so much of his thought and energy, and that he has so little to give to God. Poor women, servants, labouring men, think of the nine, or ten, or twelve hours a day during which they are occupied in household work, or in looking after their children, or in exhausting physical labour — they look upon these hours as a kind of desert, in which the fair fruits of the religious life cannot flourish, or as a kind of profane territory which cannot be consecrated to God. Now, what I ask you to remember this morning is that on the head of Christ are many crowns — that not only all nations are His, but that all the occupations of human life are His. He is King of all the world, and therefore King of our homes, King of our trade, King of our literature, King of every province of the life of man. His kingdom is not shut in by narrow bounds; it extends over all space and overall time. He rules not only within these walls, but within the walls of our own homes, rules in the schoolroom, rules in the workshop, rules in the merchant’s office, rules wherever Christian men can go, and over whatever Christian men can do. Every one of us that desires to serve Christ can give Him not fragments of our life, an hour here and an hour there, but the whole of life from first to last. Whatever we do, whatever we say, whether we buy or sell, whether we work with the brain or work with the hand, in private and in public life, whatever we do, we are to do it to the Lord.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Here is a young man with a real genius for art, for painting, for music, for poetry. He is suddenly arrested by the discovery of his sin, and of the appalling ruin to which he is exposed as long as sin is unrepented of, unforsaken, unforgiven. He finds rest at last in the revelation of the infinite mercy of God to our race, through the life and the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he devotes himself to the service of God. Should he give up his art? God forbid! Sometimes, no doubt, a man has a call to separate himself altogether to spiritual work; but the faculty for that work does not exist in all men, and to all men the call to that work does not come. Is the artist to think of his art as something alien and foreign to his religious life, and of the time that he gives to it as so much time withdrawn from the service of Christ? Why should he? Let him remember that on the head of Christ are many crowns, and let him crown the Lord Jesus King of his art, serve Him in the painting-room as well as here, at his easel as well as on his knees; with his brush in beautiful lines and colours, as well as in hymns and prayers. If you ask me how you are to do this, the answer is very obvious. God has given you, if you are a true artist, an eye to see beauty and picturesqueness of form and of colour where we cannot see them. Tell us on canvas about the loveliness you have found in quiet glens, in the forest, and by the sea; let us know more about the glory of the mountains which God has built, and of the sky which He fills with so pure a blue, and over which He draws the pomp of His curtains of cloud. Be God’s minister to us, interpreting the mysteries and illustrating the beauty of the book of nature, as I am God’s minister, interpreting the mysteries and illustrating the beauty of this other book, in which we have recorded a revelation of another kind. Christ made the world, and all that is in it. Through the artist we are to discover, in the work of Christ, a grace, a majesty, and a nobleness which otherwise we should have never known. And the artist gives to those of us who can seldom escape from towns, something of the refreshment and joy which God intended us to receive from direct communion with His own works. Look at some of the pictures of my late townsman, David Cox, and you almost feel the fresh wind blowing on your face. Look at a Harvest Field of Linnell’s, and here, in London, in the chill of November fogs or January frost, you feel the warm August sun upon you, and are with the reapers among the hills of Surrey. And there are touches of humour, and of kindliness, in domestic scenes, which, caught by the eye of the artist and transferred to the canvas, help to sweeten care and to give cheerfulness and brightness to the monotony of human life. The true artist can give to a childless home the laughter of children, and can make us in our strength look with new tenderness on the sorrows of old age. Never think of art as though it were a province of human life lying outside the limits within which Christ reigns. Remember that He is the King of art, and in your artistic life render to Him loyal service.
And so I might speak of music, and illustrate the same principle in relation to that. But most of us have to spend our strength in regions less imaginative and lovely than these — in trade, and in manufacture, and in the occupations of domestic life. Let us be thankful that over all of them Christ is King. Yes, He is King of industry as well as art. Over our industrial occupations He asserts His authority, and in pursuing them we render Him service. Is it not so? Take the trade of a builder. Is there any more Christian occupation than to give shelter to the homeless on a winter’s night, when the hail, and the snow, and the north wind are making the condition of the homeless most desolate? Well, but we should all be homeless all the year round if there were none to build houses for us. Christ has appointed those of you who may happen to be carpenters and builders to do that. See that you make the foundations honest, and the walls strong, and the roof water tight, remembering that under whatever earthly master you may seem to work, Christ is the real Master whom you have first of all to please. Is there any more Christian work than to clothe the naked? But we should all be naked but for cotton spinners, and cloth weavers, and the people that trade in cotton goods and cloth goods, and that prepare them for our use. See that you make the material good and strong, and, if your customers will let you, the form graceful and beautiful. Is there any more Christian work than to feed the hungry? But we should all starve but for the farmers that grow the corn, and the sailors that bring it to us from Canada and the Black Sea, the merchants that carry on the trade, the millers that grind the corn, and the bakers that make it into bread.
I might go through all the trades which occupy your ingenuity and task your strength, and show that to a Christian man every legitimate occupation, legitimately carried on, may be a service rendered to man in Christ’s name. He is the King of industry and of trade, and in all industry and trade we ought to be serving Him. You may give a bedstead to a poor woman who cannot pay for it. That is a Christian act. But people that can pay for bedsteads want them just as much as those that cannot, and it is a Christian act to make them for us too. The payment is but a subordinate element in the transaction, and is just as good for those who make the payment as for those who receive it. You send a present of fruit to a sick person who is very poor. That is an act of Christian kindness. But if there were no fruit shops, many of us who are not poor would get no fruit, and it is Christ’s will that you should help us to get it who can pay as well as those who cannot. If men of business would look at their business in this light, and get it transfigured and glorified by considering it in its relations to Christ, the corrupting influences of trade would soon disappear. They would not be less successful than those who carry on their business from purely selfish motives, and their business would become a positive means of grace. You need not give up trade, if it is an honest one, to serve Christ. Serve Him in the trade itself, and remember that in trade, as in everything besides. He is King.
And He is King of the province of public life, too; and in politics, whether imperial or local, Christian men should still be serving and honouring Him. I know that this is regarded by some excellent people as a province of life which is utterly unreclaimable, given over to the devil, never to be subdued to the sceptre of Christ, or regulated by His laws; but for myself, I should as soon think of giving up a particular race of men, the Chinese, or the people of New Guinea, for instance, as beyond the reach of Christian grace. ” On His head are many crowns.” He claims to rule over all races, the lowest as well as the highest, and over all the occupations and interests of humanity, politics among the rest. I had a good little book sent me a little while ago, by some simple-minded, devout person. Indeed, good little books are often sent to me by Christian people, who seem somehow to have a kindly feeling for me, but who look with suspicion and disapprobation on many things that I do; and sometimes they are kind enough to write me letters, in which they express both their anxiety and their good-will. And on this little book there were written these very curious words — “There are no politics in heaven: there is where your life should be; sad, sad, that it is otherwise.” Now, that was very kindly meant, but can you imagine anything much more absurd? You might as well write to the chief physician of the Westminster Hospital, and say to him, ” There are no hospitals in heaven: there is where your life should be; sad, sad, that it is otherwise.” Or to the chairman of the London and NorthWestern Railway Company, and say, ” There are no railways in heaven: there is where your life should be; sad, sad, that it is otherwise.” I should not wonder if the good Christian person who sent me this admonition, sometimes gathers poor people together, and gives them tea and good little books; and I might write to her and say, ” There are no tea-meetings and good little books in heaven: there is where your life should be; sad, sad, that it is otherwise.” No politics in heaven! Well, I suppose not; but there are no agricultural labourers there living on twelve shillings a week, whose condition political action may perhaps ameliorate. There are no hereditary paupers there, born to live a life of weakness, and helplessness, and wretchedness, who by political action may perhaps be raised into living a manly, honourable, and self reliant life. There are no gaols in heaven, to which little children, born perhaps of criminal parents, are sent for an offence committed in ignorance, and where they are trained to a life of crime. In heaven there are no unjust wars to be prevented, no cruel, reckless ambition to be curbed by the will and power of a free people. Politics un-Christian! Why, the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies was a political act, and it was done mainly by Christian people in direct obedience to the authority of Him who, according to the old prophecy, was to listen to the cry of the oppressed, and to break in pieces the oppressor. The repeal of the Corn Laws was a political act, and it was almost a repetition of the miracle of Christ when He multiplied the loaves in the wilderness, because the people were faint from the want of bread. Christ is the King of our political life, and in that, as in every other province of our activity, we have to serve and to honour Him. It was a miracle of mercy when He laid His hand on those struck by fever, and cured them; and by going on to Boards of Works and into Town Councils, and improving the drainage of our great towns, and removing the causes of fever, men are but following in Christ’s footsteps. To make men sober is a Christian work, and the work may partly be done by resisting the combinations of liquor sellers, who in some parts of England are anxious to seize on every public office in order that they may the better resist the movement for diminishing facilities for drinking. To have your own house governed honestly, and to have it kept clean and wholesome, is a Christian duty; and to get your city honestly governed, and kept clean and wholesome, is a Christian duty too.
There are no politics in heaven, but there are many things on earth that are to pass away with this world, through which men are prepared for everlasting glory. There is no sorrow there, but it is by the bitterness of earthly sorrow that we are disciplined for heavenly joy. There is no suffering there, but in relieving the distresses of the suffering poor we are securing the approbation of Christ, who will say to us, “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me.” There is no trading there, but it is by resisting the temptations of trade that we are strengthened for the exercise of an immortal virtue. This world’s affairs are but the scaffolding of the great temple which God is building, and which is to be filled at last with His glory. If we remember, and act on the remembrance, that art, trade, politics, all the departments of human life, are to be made subordinate to God’s great design, then these activities are not only lawful, they are part of our Christian service; the scaffolding will someday disappear, but not till the temple is complete.
And now, finally, passing by other provinces of human life, over all which Christ claims to rule, let me remind you that Christ is King of the spiritual life of man. We admit this without hesitation. We are so familiar with it that it seems hardly to require thought. And yet much of the weakness and much of the sorrow of Christian people arise from forgetting it. He is King, I say, of our spiritual life. This is the very palace in which He reigns, the very sanctuary of the temple, all whose courts are consecrated to Him. He is King, and to Him, therefore, we should offer perpetual homage and worship. When we speak to Him, we should speak not only of our trouble, of our weakness, of our weariness; we should remember His greatness, and should rejoice in it. Why is it that some people find no comfort and strength from speaking to Christ } Because they do not apprehend how great, how strong, how glorious He is. He is only a human friend to them; He is not a Divine presence. He is one who sympathises as a brother might; He is not one who can help as God only can. He is King, and we have to give Him reverence as well as trust, homage as well as love.
He is King, and in the order and discipline of our spiritual life we have to recognise His authority, and to recognise only His. Even Christian people often endeavour to regulate and to perfect their spiritual nature by other laws than His, and this is to forget His supreme and inviolable rights. If you attempt to aid the development of religious sentiment by a merely sensuous worship, you forget that in ordering your religious life you have to recognise Christ’s authority and Christ’s only. If you feel, as I believe multitudes of men feel in these days, that the lives of some saintly men who were severely ascetic have a greater spiritual charm than the simple story of the Life of Christ given in the Four Gospels, and present a nearer approach to your idea of what true sanctity is; and if you strive to conform yourselves to this artificial sanctity instead of striving to live in the love of God and in the love of man, and to go about eating and drinking and doing good as Christ did, you are unfaithful to Christ’s authority in the region even of your spiritual life. Look, too, at much of the devotional writing which has been produced in our times, and which has so fatal a fascination for numbers of weak people. See how the hymns that congregations are singing nowadays fondle Christ, address Him in terms in which you would never address even a man for whom you had any deep reverence and any real respect. Why, people who talk to Christ in that way forget that Christ is King, that He is not to be fondled, but to be reverenced, not to be spoken to in terms of endearment of a kind that you would not use to your equals, but in terms of homage, such as He has a right to claim who is King of kings and Lord of lords.
He is King — not merely the Example of holiness, the Helper of infirmity, the Sacrifice for sins, our Prophet, our Brother, our Friend — He is King. To the spirit of man He speaks with authority; He claims its homage, He demands its obedience. He requires the tribute of its choicest and noblest treasure. All forms of earthly service and reverence are but imperfect symbols of the service and reverence which He claims from the soul of man. The awe and devout fear with which we bow down before God are His; for He is God manifest in the flesh. The reverence of the conscience for the eternal law of righteousness is His; for in Him that law has a personal life, and by Him its authority is sustained. The homage which the heart should render to supreme spiritual glory is His; for His own life is the Divine ideal of human perfection and He is the eternal fountain of all that is morally beautiful and noble on earth and in heaven.
Let us serve Him; He has served us. In ourselves, in our own character, there are provinces of His kingdom in revolt against His authority; and wherever there is revolt against Christ, there is confusion, misery, and shame. Let our lives, from their centre to their furthermost limits, be subdued under His power, and offer the homage of a happy loyalty to His throne; and then province after province, now full of desolation, disorder, and misery, shall be fair as the garden of God, and filled with the glory in which the nations of the saved walk for ever above. He blesses all those over whom He rules, and the measure of our obedience to Him is the measure of the blessing He confers; nay, the blessing goes far beyond the proportions of our obedience. Only let us yield Him an honest though imperfect service, and in the greatness of His bounty our whole life shall be filled with the glory of His beneficent reign.