The subject dwelt upon by the Apostle in the preceding passage, not unnaturally leads him to a prolongation of the same theme. The wailing and travail-pangs of material nature and of the irrational creation, have their climax in the groans of the human spirit and its cry for deliverance. Though these have already claimed our consideration, we shall so far pursue the topic, in connection with the "adoption" and "redemption" now brought before us--a new Antiphon, in the deeper, sadder music of which the voiceless material world can only very partially participate.

In the first part of the verse to which our thoughts are here invited, we have, what may be called (carrying out the simile of our volume), "The Harp on the Willows." In the second, that Harp is taken down, and its broken strings renewed, in order to warble one fresh and superlatively glorious strain in the believer's Song.

(V. 23) "And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body."

No ceremony of the Jewish nation was more imposing or picturesque than when (some time during the interval between the Feast of Pentecost and Tabernacles) groups of Israelites, from different parts of the land, were seen approaching the Temple with their offering of "first fruits." These were carried in baskets--from the golden basket of the prince or chief, to the wicker one of the peasant. A sacrificial ox with gilded horns and crowned with an olive branch, preceded by pipe and tabret, formed part of the procession. Each member of these little companies, with his basket on his shoulder, was met in the Temple area by Levites singing an appointed Psalm of welcome; while the officiating priest waved the offering before the altar, on the steps of which it was finally placed by the worshiper before returning to his home.

Such, in our present verse, is the typical reference to a custom whose occurrence, during his residence in Jerusalem, must have been familiar to the Apostle, as well as to many of those to whom he now wrote.

The spiritual life, begun on earth, is only the pledge of the far nobler, fuller life beyond; its first feeble pulsations. The basket of first fruits graciously bestowed by Him who is the divine Agent in their sanctification--"the Spirit who bears witness with their spirits, that they are the children of God"--is laid by them on the steps of the earthly altar, as the pledge of the great harvest and harvest-home of glory; that reaping-time of heavenly bliss, when the words of the evangelical prophet will obtain their true and everlasting fulfillment--"They rejoice before You according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil" (Isa. 9;3). Most commentators on the passage have been led to quote the Apostle's parallel one in the Epistle to the Ephesians--"And now you also have heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God's guarantee that he will give us everything he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. This is just one more reason for us to praise our glorious God." (Eph. 1;13, 14). The one verse interprets the other.

From neither, however, are we to infer, that the believer's adoption is in itself, in the present state, partial and incomplete--a blessing only to be received in heaven. Not so. The words, in the immediately preceding context, distinctly assert--"The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirits, that we ARE the children of God." But, though complete in kind, it is partial in degree; and these first fruits--the graces and virtues of the new life (confessedly imperfect) which the Holy Spirit has wrought in the soul, are the pledges of a perfected state, when the bud of earth, liable to be nipped and blighted with hail and frost and storm, will expand into full flower; when the sips at the earthly fountain, will be followed by full draughts from "the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb." All the graces manifested in the present economy of being are only heralds and harbingers--voices crying in the wilderness--"When that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part shall be done away" (1 Cor. 13;10).

It is under the acute--the terrible consciousness of this present shortcoming, that believers are here represented as "groaning within themselves." "Groaning;"--a word, in the original, expressive of deep anguish and depression. "We that are in this tabernacle groan, being burdened." And though, as we have seen in our last, there are manifold other causes for suffering and heart-pang, the deepest--most intense to God's children--are the pangs of conscious sin--the pangs of grieving that Holy Spirit of God whereby they are "sealed unto the day of Redemption;"--the pangs of daily offending the Father who has adopted them and the Son who has redeemed them. True, most true, the Christian--the member of the ransomed family--is the owner of a peace which passes understanding--a peace which the world with all its treasures cannot give, and which the world with all its tribulations cannot take away.

The Apostle, near the close of this same Epistle to his Roman converts, speaks of them as being filled with "peace and joy in believing;" "abounding in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 15;13). But this can be said only relatively in a world of evil. We are encroaching on what has been already dwelt upon in previous pages, when we repeat that the new life of the spirit does not release or disentangle from the old temptations. The spell of these, the fascination of these, may be broken--but the demons of unbelief and passion still wield their iron weapons. You may refuse to bow to them, but you cannot hurl them from their pedestals. As little as the scientist can remove the disturbing forces in the planetary system--as little can you negative and neutralize existing moral perturbations. The voice of the siren call of sin may be, and is, sternly resisted, but it remains unstifled. It was not to defiant unbelievers, but to God's own children, the warning words were addressed--"Why, let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10;12).

The "groanings" of the Christian may, moreover, be intensified by the very keenness of his spiritual sensibilities. While he feels, on the one hand, that there is ever much remaining pollution in his own heart to be expelled--while in himself he has cause perpetually to mourn over the ungirded loins and the waning lamps, and the lack of vigilant watchfulness, it is equally true that the instincts of his new-born nature make him more alive to the turpitude of sin in general, and his own sins in particular--leading him, in familiar words, to confess that "the remembrance of them is grievous, the burden of them is intolerable." This spiritual probing and analysis becomes more acute with the advance of years. The figure, thank God, regarding the Christian, is generally as accurate as it is beautiful, when the close of life is spoken of as a golden sunset--"The path of the just is like the shining light which shines more and more unto the perfect day." But it is equally true that the shadows deepen and lengthen towards evening. Memory, dulled to other things, is quickened and energized as the tent-pegs are beginning to loosen and "the clouds return after the rain." In this and in many other ways, to dwell upon which would only be to reiterate--"Even we ourselves groan within ourselves."

But why prolong the gloomy strain, when it is the Apostle's present purpose to discard broken harp-strings and sing a true "Excelsior;"--to lead from pang and groaning, death and dissolution, to a perfection of bliss undreamt of, until HE came who revealed Himself as "the Resurrection and the Life." We must pass at once to the antithetical clause with which our verse closes--"Waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body."

WAITING. It is the watcher on tower or mountain waiting in eager expectation of the morning dawn. It is the son, knowing that he is a son--the child knowing of his adoption and its privileges, waiting for the summons within the father's home, to be delivered all the blessings of the purchased inheritance--"to be clothed upon with his house which is from heaven."

It is at once apparent that "the redemption of the body" is here represented as the consummation of the Christian's adoption. It is not the mere revelation of heavenly happiness; it is not the echo of the Apostle's assertion elsewhere--the most often quoted perhaps of his epigrams--"to die is gain." That is indeed a glorious assurance. It is a blessed hope, whether for ourselves or our departed, that when the spirit takes its arrowy flight at the supreme hour of all, it is not to pass into dreary solitude--dim shadowy regions of silence--but "to be with Christ which is far better." Yes, and with more than mere surmise, we can think of spirit re-linked with spirit--the loved and lost mutually rejoined and restored; together embarked in that spirit-land on lofty ministrations--the activities of the glorified.

This mere continuity of existence, however, in the state beyond, is not the theme for contemplation now, and which absorbs our thoughts in the present chapter. It is the truth certified at the sepulcher of our risen Lord--the Resurrection, or "Redemption of the body;" that the day is coming when "those who are in their graves shall hear His voice and shall come forth;" when earth shall be resolved into the prophet's wide valley of vision; when bone shall come to bone and sinew to sinew; when the same divine Spirit here spoken of shall "breathe upon the slain that they may live;" and when "they shall stand upon their feet an exceeding great army" (Ezek. 37.). Let us lay the emphasis, where the Apostle intended it, upon the BODY. Without this miracle of miracles--a glorified material frame, there would not be a complete salvation. There would be elements of bliss lacking, which go so far to brim even the cup of earthly happiness. If no glorified body in heaven, how could I know or recognize, how could I hold converse and fellowship with the company of redeemed? It is the visible countenance, the tones of voice--the loving word or the loving deed, which here below reveal the personality.

"The Communion of Saints" is one of the cherished articles in the creed of the Church militant. Is it to be expunged the moment we enter the Church triumphant? No, rather, we believe that with that "redemption of the body" there will be the remolding, only in deathless shape and beauty, of the cherished lineaments of earth--the resumption of personal identity--the face of the resuscitated dead lighted by the familiar terrestrial smiles; brother linked again with brother; husband with wife, parent with child; friend with friend. And if the old skeptic question be mooted--"How can these things be?" If science--and never more than in the present day, affects to discard all as phantasy and legend palmed on human credulity and ignorance--a figment incompatible with the elementary principles of chemistry--at war with all needful conditions, whether of absorption, or transformation, or assimilation, in the physical economy; it is enough to reply, "With God all things are possible." This world of His, guided and governed as unquestionably it is by a reign of law, is nevertheless crossed and traversed with ten thousand mysteries which bring what otherwise might well be called anomalies within that region of the possible. With the subtle questions and sophistries of the schools, we have no concern. We accept the explicit testimony of God's Holy Word. We leave all difficulties, and perplexities, and conceded discrepancies with Him. And when the doubter, with sinister look and accent, advances the defiant query--"Son of man, can these bones live?"--Our safe answer--our only answer is--"O Lord God, YOU know!"

But leaving the mere dogma--let us rather look at its comfort and solace as an accepted truth of Revelation.

There is a twofold consolation which the Redemption of the body imparts. First, regarding ourselves; and secondly, regarding our beloved dead.

(1) Ourselves. Mortality is an dreadful fact--a stern reality--which not one of us can lightly dismiss. There is the natural fear of death which Christian valor at its best cannot altogether overcome. No human philosophy can transform the last enemy into an angel of light. We cannot gaze without awe on the inspired realistic picture--man going to his long home, and the mourners going about the streets--the silver cord loosed--the golden bowl broken, the dust returning to the earth as it was. It is not on Roman or Athenian tombs alone, on which gloomy emblems may be carved. The spirit is hushed into solemn silence as we tread even the fairest of "God's acres" with their inscriptions of elevating hope and promise. It is not the voice of poetry but of nature; it is not the voice of fallen humanity alone but redeemed humanity also--which utters the words--

"It is a dread and dreadful thing to die!"

Then, turning from individual anticipations and musings; who that has stood by the deathbed and grave of their loved ones; of those, too, whose present bliss was felt to be most assured, but must have realized the terribleness of disrupted ties--the hushed voice--the denied touch of "the vanished hand," nothing left but the silent photograph, or the portrait greeting with speechless inanimate smiles on the wall. Infinite gain to them. Yes, but infinite loss to us!

Oh, is that grave to refuse ever to give back its sacred treasure? It is not the soul of which we now speak. That is safe. We confidently believe--the reverse is not questioned, that it has entered into bliss--"crossed the bar" and reached the stormless haven. But what of the earthly framework? When Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, wrote a special page of comfort to some family of mourners in their midst, it was this he dwells on. He takes for granted the solace they have in the old doctrine which even their Pagan systems taught them--of the immortality of the soul. But he who analyzed human nature and human feelings so well, knew that the problem of all problems--that which would most exercise their bereaved and desolate spirits would be–"The Jewel itself is safe, but what of the dear and precious casket which enclosed it? what of that body so lately laid in the catacomb or rocky tomb; or whose dust is treasured in the cinerary urn? Is it lost to sight forever? Can He who in Palestine reanimated the dead; who restored the son to the widowed mother at Nain, and the Bethany brother to his mourning sisters--can He not do for myriads what He did for individuals? Himself the Lord and Giver of life, can He not"--may we farther suppose that bereft Thessalonian to say–"draw near to me in this script Grecian home of mine, and dry my tears with the brief message of the old Hebrew prophet--Your dead shall live"?

Yes, in that pastoral message of comfort, our Apostle does so bind up those brokenhearted ones. He speaks of "those who are asleep" (laid asleep, as the word may mean) "by Jesus"--God "bringing them with Him." "The dead in Christ," he continues, "shall rise first." Then, "together with them." "Together." With this thought of eternal reunion and fellowship and "ever with the Lord" he winds up in a postscript--a postscript intended for all bleeding souls and vacant homes--"Therefore comfort one another with these words."

In closing, I would recur for a moment to a special clause in our present verse--that of "the first fruits." Some of the Jews in Rome who read the Apostle's letter to the city of the Caesars, may, in the significant type, have had the possibility, at all events, of the body's redemption whispered to them. The analogy, we know, did not escape the mind of the writer himself. Take the most familiar of these offerings--the first sheaf of corn reaped in the fields near Jerusalem. What a silent preacher and sermon in that early tribute borne to the Temple on Zion! Our blessed Lord Himself selected it--consecrated it. "Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit." We have here the most frequently repeated of all nature's parables, the death of the grain-seed. That inert--if you will, that unsightly particle, is deposited in the ground and if the eye could follow it to its burial-place, it would see it becoming more repulsive in its first vital struggles with the dark mold to which it was temporarily consigned. But the insignificant, deteriorating seed watered by the early and latter rains, and nurtured by the summer sun, bursts forth in due time in strange vitality, "first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear."

Paul, as we well know, caught up and expanded his Lord's parable in perhaps the best known chapter of all his writings--that repertory of immeasurable comfort contained in the 15th of 1st Corinthians. "But someone will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? You fool, that which you sow is not quickened, except it dies. And that which you sow, you sow not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may be of wheat, or of some other grain; but God gives it a body as it has pleased Him, and to every seed his own body…So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body…For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."

In all this our Apostle shows, how, by an eternal sequence, life will spring, sooner or later, out of death. And if such be the great law of the universe, will it be departed from--will it have its only exception in the case of the fairest and noblest work of His hands? Shall golden ears and sheaves be reaped from the most insignificant grains, and shall the truest golden corn fail to fructify in heaven and fill immortal garners? No! impossible. It is with the body's resurrection in his thoughts that he closes with the challenge which is one day to wake the echoes of the universe--Christianity's special "Song of Songs"--the theme left unrevealed--the Song left unsung, until Christ Himself sounded the glorious note--"O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?" The cry of the Apostle and of the Church of the ransomed is not to ascend unheeded and unresponded to--"Not that we would be unclothed, but clothed, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now He who has wrought us for this same thing is God" (2 Cor. 5;4, 5).

With these triumphant words in our ears, let us conclude this meditation--seeking to look forward with joyful heart and hope to the true "manifestation of the sons of God;" when He "shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body." Thus shall I be enabled not only to triumph personally over the fear of death but with Paul's words in my ears, and feeling the elevating assurance that He who redeemed the soul redeemed the body too--in calm serenity and confidence, I can draw near to the couch around which the herald symptoms of dissolution are gathering. I can follow the funeral crowd and stand by the grave, while I take the Harp from the Willows and sing the Lord's Song--the Song which the living Redeemer, the Conqueror of Hades, has warranted me to employ--"He that goes forth and weeps bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."

"Sleep," says Luther, "is nothing else than a death, and death a sleep. For as through sleep all weariness and faintness pass away and cease, and the powers of the spirit come back again, so that in the morning we arise fresh and strong and joyous; so, at the Last Day, we shall rise again as if we had only slept a night, and shall be fresh and strong…It is best that the Potter should take the vessel, break it in pieces, make it clay again, and then make it altogether new…All that we lost in Paradise, we shall receive again far better and far more abundantly…There the saints shall keep eternal holiday, ever joyful, secure, and free from all suffering; ever satisfied in God."

Home       QUOTES       SERMONS       BOOKS