1Th_5:1-8. Of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they, that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breast-plate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
ON an occasion like the present, when God is so loudly speaking to us by his providence, I am anxious that his voice, and his alone, should be heard amongst us: for as, on the one hand, it would be peculiarly difficult so to speak, as to cut off all occasion for misconception, so, on the other hand, filled as your minds are with holy fear and reverence, it will be far more grateful to you to sit, as it were, at the feet of Jesus, and to hear what the Lord God himself shall say concerning you [Note: Preached before the University of Cambridge, on occasion of the death of the Rev. Dr. Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law; Nov. 21, 1813.]. Methinks, in the spirit of your minds you are all, even this whole congregation, like Cornelius and his company, saying, “Now are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God:” yes, I would hope that each individual is now in the posture of Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” To meet these devout wishes in a suitable manner, I have chosen a portion of Scripture, which contains all that the occasion calls for, and bears the impress of Divine authority in every part. It comes home to our business and bosoms: it turns our minds from the distinguished individual whose loss we deplore, and fixes them on our own personal concerns; proclaiming to every one of us, “Prepare to meet thy God.”
The point to which it more immediately calls our attention, is, the coming of our Lord to judgment. The precise period when that awful event shall take place has never been revealed either to men or angels: it is “a secret which the Father has reserved in his own bosom.” This only we know concerning it, that it will come suddenly and unexpected to all them that dwell on the earth: and therefore it is our wisdom to be always standing prepared for it. We believe indeed that it is yet far distant from us, because there are many prophecies which yet remain to be accomplished previous to its arrival: but to us the day of death is as the day of judgment; because as death finds us, so shall we appear at the bar of judgment; and “as the tree falleth, so will it lie” to all eternity. We shall therefore speak of death and judgment as, in effect, the same to us; and we shall notice in succession,
The uncertainty of the period when doath shall arrive—
The character of those who are prepared for it—
The duty of all in reference to it—
As to the uncertainty of the period when death and judgment shall arrive, the idea is so familiar to our minds, and the truth of it so self-evident, that, as the Apostle intimates, ye have no need to have it brought before you. Yet though universally acknowledged as a truth, how rarely is it felt as a ground of action in reference to the eternal world! We look into the Holy Scriptures, and there we see this truth written as with a sun-beam. We behold the whole human race surprised at the deluge in the midst of all their worldly cares and pleasures; and all, except one little family, swept away by one common destruction. A similar judgment we behold executed on the cities of the plain: and these particular judgments are held forth to us as warnings of what we ourselves have reason to expect. Our blessed Lord says to us, “Be ye also ready; for in an hour that ye think not the Son of Man cometh:” yet we cannot realize the thought, that death should ever so overtake us. Nay, we even try to put the conviction far from us, and, in every instance of sudden death that we hear of, endeavour to find some reason for the mortality of our neighbour, which does not attach to ourselves. When, as in the instance now before us, a person is snatched away suddenly, and in full health, as it were, we are constrained for a moment to reflect, that we also are liable to be called away: but it is surprising how soon the thought vanishes from our minds, and how little permanent effect remains. We are told, that our danger is in reality increased by our security; and that we are then most of all exposed to the stroke of death, when we are most dreaming of “peace and safety;” yet we cannot awake from our torpor, or set ourselves to prepare for death and judgment. We are not altogether unconscious, that destruction, even inevitable and irremediable destruction, must be the portion of those who are taken unprepared; and yet we defer our preparation for eternity, in the hope of finding some more convenient season. We see our neighbour surprised as by “a thief in the night;” and yet we hope that notice will be given to us. We even bear about in our persons some disorders or infirmities which might warn us of our approaching end; and yet we look for another and another day, till like a woman in travail, we are unexpectedly seized, and with great anguish of mind are constrained to obey the call.
Now whence is it, that notwithstanding “we know perfectly” the uncertainty of life, we are so little affected with the consideration of it? If there were no future state of existence, we might account for it; because men would naturally put away from them any thoughts, which might diminish their enjoyment of present good. But when this life is only a space afforded us to prepare for a better, and when an eternity of happiness or misery depends on our improvement of the present hour, it is truly amazing that we should be able to indulge so fatal a security. One would think that every one would be employing all the time that he could redeem from the necessary duties of life, in order to provide for his eternal state: one would think that he should scarcely give sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eye-lids, till he had obtained a clear evidence of his acceptance with God, and had “made his calling and election sure.” But this is not the case: and therefore, evident as the truth is, we need to have it brought before us, and enforced on our minds and consciences by every argument that can be adduced.
Permit me then to remind those who are living in open sins, that they know not how soon they may be called into the presence of their God, with all their sins upon them. And how will they endure the sight of their offended God? Will they, when standing at his tribunal, make as light of sin as they now do? Will they prevail on him to view it as mere youthful indiscretion, and unworthy of any serious notice? No, in truth: if any could come to us from the dead, they would not designate their crimes by such specious terms as they once used respecting them; but would tell us plainly, that “they who do such things cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Think then, ye who make a mock at sin, how soon your voice may be changed, and all your present sport be turned to “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!”
Nor is it to open sinners only that we must suggest these thoughts: we must remind the moral also, and the sober, that death may quickly terminate their day of grace: yes, we must “put them in remembrance of these things, though they know them, and be established” in the belief of them. We mean not to undervalue sobriety and outward morality: no; we rejoice to see even an external conformity to Christian duties. But more than outward morality is wanting for our final acceptance with God. We must have a penitent and contrite spirit: we must seek refuge in Christ from all the curses of the broken law: we must be renewed in the spirit of our mind by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost: we must be brought to live no longer to ourselves, but unto Him who died for us, and rose again. These things are absolutely and indispensably necessary to our salvation: the form of godliness, how far soever it may carry us, will profit us nothing at the bar of judgment, if we possess not the power of it. How awful then is the thought, that, in a few days or weeks, those persons who are most respected and revered amongst us for their wisdom and learning, for their probity and honour, may be called to give up their account to God, before they have attained that vital godliness which must constitute their meetness for heaven!
But indeed the uncertainty of life speaks loudly to the best of men; it bids them to “stand upon their watch-tower,” and be ready at every moment to meet their last enemy: for, as mere morality will profit little without real piety, so the lamp of outward profession will be of no service, if it be destitute of that oil which God alone can bestow.
It is a matter of consolation to us, however, that some are prepared for death, however suddenly it may come.
Who they are, and what their character is, we now come to shew—
The Scriptures every where draw a broad line of distinction between the true servants of Christ, and those who are such only in name and profession. Thus, in the words before us, they are called “Children of the light and of the day,” in opposition to those who are “of the night and of darkness.” Doubtless this distinction primarily referred to their having been brought out of the darkness of heathen superstitions, into the marvellous light of the Gospel of Christ. But we must not suppose that it is to be limited to this. The ways of sin and ignorance are justly denominated darkness, no less than idolatry itself: and the paths of faith and holiness may be called “light,” whether we have been brought into them suddenly from a state of heathenism, or gradually, under a profession of Christianity itself. Now of the Thessalonians he could say, in the judgment of charity, that “they all were children of the light and of the day.” The state of profession was very different then from what it is at this time: people did not embrace Christianity unless they had been strongly convinced of its truth; and the moment they did embrace it, they strove to “walk worthy of their high calling,” and to stimulate each other to “adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour in all things.” The persecutions they suffered obliged them to have constant recourse to God in prayer for his support; and to watch carefully over their own conduct, that they might not give any just “occasion to their adversaries to speak reproachfully.” Hence their religion was vital and practical, and very different from that which obtains among the professors of Christianity at this day. Now men are reputed Christians, though they have their affections altogether set upon the world, and their habits differing but little from those of heathens. A man may be a Christian, though he drink, and swear, and commit evils, which ought scarcely to be so much as named amongst us. A man may be a Christian, though he have no real love to Christ, no sweet communion with him, no holy glorying in his cross and passion. But “ye have not so learned Christ, if so be ye have heard him, and been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus.” The distinction between light and darkness is the same as ever: and those only who walk according to the example of the primitive Christians, can be called “the children of the light and of the day.” But those, whoever they be, are prepared for death: to them, though it may come suddenly, it cannot come unlooked for: it “cannot overtake them as a thief.”
And such was that exalted character, whom it has pleased our God so suddenly to take from the midst of us. In whatever light we view him, he was a bright and consistent character, an ornament to his profession, an honour to his God. It is the peculiar excellence of religion, that it operates in every department of human life, and stimulates to an exemplary discharge of every duty. It is superfluous for me to mention, with what unwearied diligence, and distinguished ability, he filled the high office which had been assigned him in this university; and how uniform have been his exertions, for upwards of thirty years, for the advancement of learning, the maintenance of order, and the due regulation of all the complicated concerns of the university at large. Long, long will his loss be felt, in every department which he had been called to fill. To him every one looked, as his most judicious friend, in cases of difficulty; assured that, whilst by his comprehensive knowledge he was well qualified to advise, he was warped by no prejudices, nor biassed by any interests: he ever both advised, and did, what he verily believed to be right in the sight of God. His superiority to all worldly considerations was strongly marked throughout the whole course of his life; more indeed to his honour, than the honour of those, by whom such eminent talents and such transcendent worth have for so long a period been overlooked.
Had these excellencies arisen only from worldly principles, though they would have shed a lustre over his character, and conferred benefits on the body of which he was a member,—they would have availed little as a preparation for death and judgment. But they were the fruits of true religion in his soul. He had been brought out of the darkness of a natural state, and had been greatly enriched with divine knowledge. He was indeed “mighty in the Scriptures;” his views of divine truth were deep, and just, and accurate; and, above all, they were influential on the whole of his life and conduct. He not only beheld Christ as the Saviour of the world, but relied on him as his only hope, and cleaved to him with full purpose of heart, and gloried in him as his Lord, his God, and his whole salvation. Nor was he satisfied with serving God in his closet: no; he confessed his Saviour openly; he was a friend and patron of religion, he encouraged it in all around him; he was not ashamed of Christ, nor of any of his faithful followers. He accounted it no degradation to shew in every way his attachment to the Gospel, and his full conviction that there is salvation in no other name under heaven than the name of Jesus Christ. He was, in the highest sense of the word, “a child of light:” and verily he caused “his light so to shine before men,” that all who beheld it were constrained to glorify God in his behalf.
To him then death came not as a thief in the night. Though it came suddenly, so suddenly that he had not the smallest apprehension of its approach, it found him not unprepared. His loins were girt, his lamp was trimmed, and he entered, a welcome guest, to the marriage-supper of his Lord.
O that we all might be found equally prepared, when the summons from on high shall be sent to us! O that we may have in our souls an evidence, that we also are “children of the light and of the day!” Happy indeed would it be, if the state of religion amongst us were such, that we might adopt with truth the charitable expression in our text, “Ye all are children of the light and of the day.” But if we cannot do this, we have at least reason to be thankful, that real piety is certainly more prevalent amongst us than it was some years ago; that prejudices against it have most astonishingly subsided; and that, where it does not yet reign, its excellence is secretly acknowledged; so that on this occasion we may doubt whether there be so much as one amongst us, who does not say in his heart, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
Let me then proceed,
To point out the duty of all, in reference to that day—
We should “not sleep as do others.” Those who put the evil day far from them, can live unmindful of their God, and regardless of the sentence that he shall pass upon them. They can go on dreaming of heaven and happiness in the eternal world, though they never walk in the way thither, or seek to obtain favour with their offended God. But let it not be thus with any who desire happiness beyond the grave. If ever we would behold the face of God in peace, we must improve our present hours in turning to him, and in labouring to perform his will. If the prize held out to those who wrestled, or ran, or fought, could not be obtained without the most strenuous exertions, much less can the glory of heaven be obtained, unless the acquisition of it be the great object of our lives. It is true indeed that “the Son of Man must give unto us the meat that endureth to everlasting life;” but still we must “labour for it” with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. To expect the end without using the means, is to reverse the decrees of heaven, and to deceive ourselves to our eternal ruin. We must “watch and be sober.” It is an inordinate attachment to earthly things that keeps us from the pursuit of heavenly things. The cares, the pleasures, the honours of this life, engross all our attention, and leave us neither time nor inclination for higher objects. This grovelling disposition we must resist and mortify. We must set our affections on things above, and not on things on the earth; and must not only keep heaven constantly in view, but must so run as to obtain the prize. The men of this world affect darkness rather than light, as being more suited to the habits in which they delight to live. “They that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken, (if not lost to all sense of shame,) are drunken in the night:” but we, if indeed we are of the day, shall delight to “come forth to the light, that our deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God.” We should study the Holy Scriptures, not merely to acquire a critical knowledge of them, (though that is good and necessary in its place;) but to find what is the will of God, and what is that way in which he has commanded us to walk: and instead of being satisfied with doing what shall satisfy the demands of an accusing conscience, we must aspire after a perfect conformity to the Divine image, and endeavour to “walk in all things even as Christ himself walked.”
But our duty is described in our text under some peculiar images, to which we shall do well to advert. We are supposed to be as sentinels, watching against the incursions of our spiritual foe. For our protection, armour of heavenly temper has been provided: “for a breast-plate, we are to put on faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” We might, if it were needful, mark the suitableness of these various graces to the protection of the part which they are intended to defend. But as this would lead us rather from our main subject, we content ourselves with a general view of these graces, as necessary for the final attainment of everlasting salvation. We must put on faith, without which indeed we are exposed to the assault of every enemy, and destitute of any means of defence whatever. It is in Christ only that we have the smallest hope of acceptance with God; and in him alone have we those treasures of grace and strength which are necessary for a successful prosecution of our spiritual warfare: “He is made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” But how must we obtain these things from him? It is by faith, and by faith only that we can “receive them out of his fulness.” This then is the first grace which we must cultivate; for according to our faith all other things will be unto us. To him we must look continually; renouncing every other confidence, and trusting altogether in him alone. In the fountain of his precious blood we must wash our guilty souls, or, as the Scripture expresses it, “Our garments must be made white in the blood of the Lamb.” To him, under every conflict, we must cry for strength; for it is his grace alone that can be sufficient for us; and “through his strength communicated to us, we shall be able to do all things.” Yet, notwithstanding all our exertions, we shall find that in many things we daily offend; and therefore, under every fresh contracted guilt, we must look to Him who is “our Advocate with the Father, and the propitiation for our sins.” Hence it is that all our peace must flow; and hence we shall find a satisfactory answer to the accusations of every enemy: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died; yea rather, that is risen again, who also maketh intercession for us.”
But together with this we must cultivate love; which indeed is the inseparable fruit of faith; for “faith worketh by love.” Whether we understand “love” as having God or man for its object, or as comprehending both, it is a good defence against our spiritual enemies. For, if we truly love our God, who shall prevail upon us to offend him? If we “love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity,” “who shall separate us from him? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No; in all these things we shall be more than conquerors through Him that loved us.” And if we love our fellow-creatures as ourselves, we shall strive to benefit them to the utmost of our power; and account no sacrifice great, which may contribute to their welfare: we shall be ready to “suffer all things for the elect’s sake,” and even to “lay down our lives for the brethren.”
Behold then, what a defence is here against the darts of our enemies! Who shall be able to pierce our breast, when so protected? We may defy all the confederate armies of earth and hell: “for I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
For the protection of our head there is an helmet provided, even “the hope of salvation.” Let a man have been “begotten to a lively hope in Christ Jesus, to a hope of that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for us,” and will he barter it away for the things of time and sense? or will he suffer his views of heaven to be clouded by the indulgence of any unhallowed lusts? No; he will contend with every enemy of his soul: he will “crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts:” he will “lay aside every weight, and the sins that most easily beset him, and will run with patience the race that is set before him, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith.” Instead of forgetting the great day of the Lord, he will be “looking for, and hasting unto, the coming of the day of Christ.” Though willing to live for the good of others, he will “desire rather for himself to depart, that he may be with Christ, which is far better” than any enjoyment that can be found on earth. “Not that he will desire so much to be unclothed,” because of any present troubles, as to “be clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life.”
This armour then must be procured; this armour must be worn; and, clothed in it, we must watch against all our enemies.
And though others sleep, yet must not we: yea, if all around us should be drowned in sleep, yet must not we give way to slumber: if to be sober and vigilant must of necessity make us singular, we must dare to be singular, even as Elijah in the midst of Israel, or as Noah in the antediluvian world. If it be true that none but those who are children of the light and of the day are ready for death and judgment, let us come forth to the light without delay, and endeavour to walk in the light, even as God himself is in the light. His word is light: it shews us in all things how to walk and to please him: it sets before us examples also, in following whom we shall by faith and patience inherit the promises, as they now do. Let this word then be taken as a light to our feet, and a lantern to our paths: and let us follow it in all things, as those that would approve themselves to the heart-searching God. Let us not listen to any vain excuses for delay. We see, in the instance before us, how suddenly we may be called away, and how soon our day of grace may come to a close. And how terrible will it be, if that day should overtake us as a thief! Let us be wise: I beseech you all, by the tender mercies of God, to have compassion on your own souls, and to “work while it is day, knowing that the night cometh wherein no man can work.”