Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Philippians 1:21 - 1:21

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Philippians 1:21 - 1:21

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

St. Paul’s Ruling Passion

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.—Php_1:21.

1. The words of this text are not the words of a newly-born Christian, but the language of a full-grown man in Christ. They contain the ripe experience of a well-matured Christian. There are thirty years of Christian life and experience at the back of these words, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We must not expect to leap into a religious experience of this kind; like St. Paul, we must grow in grace and knowledge to attain it. St. Paul grew more of a saint every day he lived, and his last days were the crowning days of a glorious and triumphant life.

2. When the Apostle wrote the sentence, “For me to die is gain,” he felt that he was near the experience of which he spoke. Death could not appear to him as a remote event, but as one that might come to him at any hour. He was in prison, and amid all the uncertainties of such a position. The executioner might enter his cell at any moment. He felt that the hour of his martyrdom was drawing nigh. He was writing, as it were, his farewell love-letter to the church which, of the many he founded, he seems to have loved the best. He had led a chequered life, and it was drawing to a close. It was under such circumstances that, sitting in his lonely cell, he calmly wrote to his dear children in Christ at Philippi, “For me to die is gain.” It was not a boast, it was not even exultation; it was only a statement, but a statement in which all the forces of his faith, all the fulness of his hope, all the longing of his soul, were centred. It was as the sky when it spreads out in calm, motionless, unruffled blue; no shade of jasper, no tinge of azure in it; but here and there a deep-seated star shines out, and the gazer feels that at any moment the blue may break into orange, and the curtain be changed to the colour of the out-streaming glory behind it.

3. A circumstance that seemed more deplorable than Paul’s imprisonment, and one more likely to depress the spirit and almost break the heart of the great Apostle, was the fact that, while many of those who preached the gospel preached it in love and in hearty sympathetic co-operation with him, knowing that he was “set for the defence of the gospel,” others, filled with envy, while in some sense preaching Christ, never missed an opportunity of making a thrust at him. So they stirred up contention and strife, hoping to add to his afflictions; and this greatly aggravated and discouraged his loyal friends at Philippi. But Paul’s own reply was in the ringing words: “What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.” And then he broke out in the jubilant language of this text, a single golden sentence that ought to be engraven on every Christian heart and wrought out in every Christian life, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

4. The Apostle’s thoughts and feelings have here, as it were, a threefold bend in their flow. First, we have the clear unhesitating statement of the comparative advantages of life and death to a Christian man, when thought of as affecting himself alone. The one is Christ, the other gain. But we neither live nor die to ourselves; and no man has a right to think of life or death only from the point of view of his own advantage. So the problem is not so simple as it looked. Life here is the condition of fruitful labour here. There are his brethren and his work to think of. These bring him to a stand, and cheek the rising wish. He knows not which state to prefer. The stream is dammed back between rocks, and it chafes and foams and seems to lose its way among them. Then comes a third bend in the flow of thought and feeling, and he gladly apprehends it as his present duty to remain at his work. If his own joy is thereby less, his brethren’s will be more. If he is not to depart and be with Christ, he will remain and be with Christ’s friends, which is, in some sort, being with Him too. If he may not have the gain of death, he will have the fruit of work in life.

Hamlet is oppressed by the frightful discovery that his uncle has murdered his father and then hastily married his mother, and that upon him lies the duty of avenging his father’s death. With this burden weighing upon him, life becomes unbearable; he longs to be rid of it, and he cries:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and, by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.

But then he remembers that sleep is not always unconsciousness; it may be troubled with dreams.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect,

That makes calamity of so long life.

Who, he says, would bear all the troubles and vexations and wrongs and rebuff’s of life, when he could at once put an end to them, if it were not for the fear of what may come after?

Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Now, clearly in this famous passage Shakespeare is setting Hamlet before us simply as a man of the world, thinking of death as an intelligent heathen might think of ‘it—as a terrible mystery, which might or might not be the end of conscious existence. And I ask you to compare this with St. Paul’s view. Hamlet, like St. Paul, would gladly have done with life in the flesh but he wishes simply to escape from the ills of life, and is frightened back by the dread of what may come after death. St. Paul wishes to depart and to be with Christ, he has no shrinking fear of “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns”; to him to die is not escape from trouble merely, but positive gain; but he accepts life in order that he may do some more service in it. Hamlet regards both life and death as evils, and does not know which is the less; St. Paul regards both as blessings and knows not which to prefer. To Hamlet, death is going out of the light into the dark; to St. Paul, it is rather going out of the dark into the light of Christ.1 [Note: R. E. Bartlett.]


The Ideal Life

In every possible phase of the word “life,” Christ is the life of the Christian. To live is Christ, for He is the mystical source from whom all our life flows. With Him is the fountain of life, and all life, both of body and of spirit, is from Him, by Him, and in Him. “To live is Christ,” for He is the aim and object as well as the Lord of all, and no other is worth calling life but that which is for Him by willing consecration, as well as from Him by constant derivation. “To live is Christ,” for He is the model of all our life, and the one all-sufficient law for us is to follow Him.

There were two outstanding characters residing in Rome at the time of St. Paul’s imprisonment. These were Nero, the Emperor, and Seneca, the philosopher. What is Nero’s conception of life? To live, to him, is to be as unbridled as a wild beast in pleasure and passion and revelry. If that is to live, it is a pity that we cannot forget that we are not beasts. It is a pity that we have a conscience. It is a pity that we fear to die. It is a pity that we cannot forget that there is a hereafter. The answer of Nero does not satisfy the unceasing desire of my heart for a noble conception of life. What is Seneca’s conception of life? “Life,” says he, “is to enjoy oneself in the realms of ideas—to think, to learn, to master the laws of Nature and make the mind the master of the man.” The answer of Seneca is as far as the East is from the West from Nero’s conception of life, and as great in value and superiority. It is a good answer, for it is a blessed thing to live in the world of thoughts at the feet of poets and scientists, philosophers and theologians. We cannot think too much and too well, and spend too much time in the company of the best thinkers of the ages. But Seneca’s answer is too vague and too negative and abstract. It is good to think, but it is not good enough to remain like a fairy among the hills and valleys of enchanted ideas. What is Paul’s conception of life? “Life,” answers Paul, “is to reproduce Jesus Christ in character, by thought, word and deed. Life is to preach Christ; to cross mountains and seas, to magnify Christ in a prison. In a word, life to me is Christ—Christ equals life, and life equals Christ.”1 [Note: J. S. Rees.]

O Christ upon the Tree,

Thou art not dead to me:

Though Thy pierced arms be cold

They yet my heart enfold:

Though Thy head droop in death

I draw from Thee my breath,

Round Thee my being rolls

Thou art my soul of souls:

O dead Christ on the Tree,

I only live in Thee.2 [Note: Edwin Hatch, “Juxta Crucem Magdalena.”]

1. Paul derived his life from Christ.—He felt that he was indebted for the life he lived, not to any happy combination of circumstances, or to the sudden awakening into energy of any dormant element in his nature, but to Christ Himself, with whom for the first time it had come into direct and open contact, and from whom it took its new and triumphant departure. He it was who had met him and struck him down, who had shown him his error, quickened him with His Spirit, and sent him forth to live and die under the spell of His ascendancy. And we must not imagine that when the Apostle says, “to me to live is Christ,” he uses Christ simply as an equivalent to what we call Christianity, or the Christian Church. A man may be indebted to the Church for his creed or his opinions; he may have received from it all the notions he has about God and the world to come; but he cannot possibly receive life from it. Nothing can communicate life but a living person—neither sacraments, nor worship, nor any orthodoxy, however pure. Extract from these all they are able to yield, and you will not get life. That flows only from one Source, is contained for us only in one Person, and that Person is Christ. From Him St. Paul’s life came, and into Him it pushed its springs and was abundantly fed.

There are three cardinal words in the passage, “me,” “live,” “Christ.” The middle term “live” is denned in the union of the two extremes. The two carbon electrodes of the arc-lamp are brought into relationship, and the result is a light of brilliant intensity. And these two terms “me” and “Christ” are brought into relationship, and there is revealed “the light of life,” and I become “alive unto God.” The human finds life in union with the Divine. Now this is the only contact which justifies the usage of the term “life.” Any other application of the word is illegitimate and degrading. The word “life” stands defined in the relationship of the Apostle’s words. But we take other extremes and combine them, and we name the resultant “life.” “For me to live is money.” Me—money! And we describe the union as “life.” We are using a gloriously spacious and wealthy term to label a petty and superficial gratification, which is as transient and uncertain as the ephemera that dance through the feverish hour of a single summer’s day. “For me to live is pleasure!” Me—pleasure! And we describe the union as “life.” It is a mere sensation, having no more relationship to life in its reality than the sluggish and ill-defined existence of the amoeba has to the large mental and spiritual exercises of the Apostle John. “She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” “For me to live is fame.” Me—fame! And we describe the union as “life.” It is a mere galvanized spasm, and is no more worthy of the regal term “life” than a will-o’-the-wisp is worthy of bearing the name of the sun. Of all these relationships we may employ the New Testament indictment and say, “Thou hast a name to live and art dead.” All other combinations fail. By no other fellowships can we produce the resultant. Life is the unique product of a unique union. “This is life, to know Jesus.” “For to me to live is Christ.” Such was the rich and ineffable life of the Apostle Paul.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The School of Calvary, 11.]

2. Paul looked to Christ as the great end and ideal of life.—In every walk of life men are haunted by the dream of perfection. The last word is never said, the last effort is never made. Ideals are necessary to growth, an absolute condition of progress. John Stuart Mill said, “A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do never does all he can.” If men are to put forth all the powers that are in them, if they are to be fired with enthusiasm, and brightened by hope, they must set their affections on things above. The words of St. Paul describe the condition of progress in every pursuit—“Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect.” The men to whom this world owes most have been contemptuously called “visionaries,” “dreamers.” They have saved the world from putrefaction. They stir and thrill the generous heart of youth. Men sick of commonplace routine, wearied by monotony, are roused by them to fresh effort and new enterprises. They tell of a glory that is to come, and their fellows are roused and kindled once again.

Just imagine where the Apostle’s life would have gone had it followed its original bent. What a crusade of persecution it would have become! With what swift and relentless fury he would have destroyed, one after another, the congregations of the hateful sect! Would not the name of the Apostle of the Gentiles have been found first on the roll of those who have devastated and devoured the Church of God? To him to live would have been not Christ, but anti-Christ. But now that his life had taken its rise in Christ it made for Him as its end. Left to work itself out to its natural issue, it would develop and expand exactly into such a life as Christ lived. He himself would become even as Christ was, pure as He was pure, perfect as He was perfect, his whole nature answering to His, enlarging till it filled out precisely into His stature and mould, line answering to line, and feature to feature. In short, Christ in His perfect manhood was that into which he would grow.1 [Note: C. Moinet, The Great Alternative, 61.]

3. The Apostle is not engrossed with a merely impersonal ideal.—He knows his Lord, knows Him for himself, knows Him, as it were, face to face and heart to heart; and he is possessed by the conviction that he and his Master are one in a union so close that the lesser is lost and fulfilled in the greater. It is difficult to find an analogy for this spiritual experience. Perhaps the nearest we can come to it is that of the father who lives his life again in the career of his boy, or the woman whose whole existence is bound up with that of her lover, or the soldier or the clansman of olden days whose body and soul were willingly yielded to the service of his chief, a service in which all the value of life was summed up for him. You know it is possible for one personality to fulfil itself, as it were, in ministering to and in living again in the career of another. This is what St. Paul did, and the sentence, “To me to live is Christ,” is the expression of it.

Language like this has sometimes been used to set forth the power of the pursuits, relationships, affections of human life. Patriotism has been such a passion to many a man that he could say, “To me to live is my country—my country lives in me!” So many a man is held and swayed by human affection. He may pursue his calling in distant lands, but in all the toil and change his dear ones live in him, and he lives for them. The influence of the departed is often a similar power. Tennyson tells how his departed friend became a celestial presence—

Thou standest in the rising sun,

And in the setting thou art fair.

The influence of a commanding, captivating personality is great. In a real sense Dr. Arnold lived in Dean Stanley, who said, “I certainly feel that I have hardly a free will of my own on any subject about which he has written or spoken.” Dean Vaughan tells of that growing and absorbing devotion to his great headmaster, of which he sometimes accused himself as tending to the idolatrous. The influence of Arnold’s character gave him a sort of fire of zeal which had in it the making of the future man, with that unresting energy, that forthright purpose, that resistless attraction, that clean and pure soul. And Mr. Prothero speaks of the influence of Dr. Arnold’s character as “permeating Stanley’s mind, remodelling his ideas, inspiring him with manly intents, earnest feelings, and large thoughts, which grew with his growth.”1 [Note: J. Lewis, The Mystic Secret, 204.]

About the year 1850 a little band of missionaries landed on the bleak shores of Tierra del Fuego. The natives, whom they found in a savage state, were very jealous and unfriendly, and their position was one of great difficulty and danger. Eventually they all perished by starvation. They were obliged to watch by turns at night, lest they should be attacked by the savages. It was agreed that the guard should sound a whistle if he saw any danger. Amongst this brave devoted band was a young doctor named Richard Williams, who had left a good position, family, and friends that he might aid in the conversion of these poor savages. One morning, about four o’clock, two dangerous-looking natives approached the guard, and the whistle was sounded. Williams had just fallen asleep a short time before the alarm was given, and in that short sleep had a dream, which he thus relates in his own words. He says: “At the moment the whistle disturbed me from my sleep, after some hours of troubled and anxious thoughts, I had just begun to slumber. During the night I could not but feel how dark was our present horizon, and what dangers, difficulties, and privations awaited us on all hands. I greatly deplored the presence of such thoughts, and resisted them over and over again with little success. But my compassionate Jesus enabled me to look up to Him as ready to help me even against myself. In this frame of mind I had sunk to sleep, and when the alarm awoke me it was just at the moment when I seemed to be hearing the songs of angels singing, ‘We live to Christ alone.’ Yes, yes,” adds Dr. Williams, “my heart, my soul responded, ‘By the grace of my blessed Saviour, I will live to Christ alone.’ ” This dream was a source of much comfort to him in the privations and trials he had afterwards to endure, and his death was very happy and joyful. He indeed could have echoed the Apostle’s language and said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For so triumphant was his end that he declared he “would not have exchanged situations with any man living, for the hope laid up for him in heaven filled his whole heart with joy and gladness.”1 [Note: J. Reid.]

4. Paul found in Christ the ruling passion of life.—There was never such a lover as Paul, and never such a self-sacrificing labourer for others as he. But it was the constraining love of Christ that girded and impelled him. Not for his own sake did he live, nor for the sake of his countrymen, nor for the sake of humanity; but he writes, “ourselves, your servants, for Jesus’ sake,” the motive being a personal love for Him who loved him and gave Himself for him. This is what he meant when he said, “For to me to live is Christ,” and this is the Christian conception of life, and this is its highest realization.

Principles, in order to dominate and suffuse the life, need to have the power of awakening enthusiasm; truth needs to be aglow to work to any purpose. And what but the thought of a great personality can awaken enthusiasm? It is the ring of a name, summing up in itself all truth and goodness, that puts heart and soul and eyes into principles: it is this that makes men aware what the word enthusiasm means. “For me to live is Christ”—that is something to stir the blood, that is something to make the nerves tingle and the heart throb. “For me to live is Christ”—that speaks of Gethsemane and Calvary, of days and nights devoted to the highest good of man; that speaks the noblest thoughts that have ever been uttered, revelations of God and searchings of the human heart; that breathes the tenderest wooings to the sinful soul. It is the bugle call to the sad and despondent. “For me to live is Christ”—with that there is light in the darkest hour and hope in the most desperate day. Christ Jesus—with that name of infinite love we dare not be cast down, we dare not yield to sloth or sin, we dare not keep terms with distrust. “For to me to live is Christ” is a word of joy. Rejoice! Rejoice! is the word that issues from Him as the perfume from a flower. Christ purposes to conquer the world by great, overpowering joy. If you have deep and abiding joy in Christ you know what it is to be always triumphant, and yet always humble. Your triumph is in Him.

Sunday, July 10. I slept on deck last night and enjoyed it much—simply and solely slept. I am now a masher in whites. Though hot, we had an interesting service—the captain read prayers admirably; the purser read lessons, fatigued; I preached and enjoyed it. I felt homely on the first paragraph of John 21. I do love Christ; He is simply, solely everything. You know, people speak about a religious life, and they mean going to church and prayer-meetings. That is not it, surely, I feel it, and believe it. Christ everywhere, in all things. Means are good, but they are only bulrushes. It must be Christ all round, Alpha and Omega, end, between and beginning.1 [Note: James Chalmers, Autobiography and Letters, 285.]

When Henry Martyn was labouring as a missionary in the East, some reproach was cast by a native who was with him on the name of Jesus. And the saintly man says, “I was cut to the soul by this blasphemy. I told him I could not endure existence if Jesus were not glorified; that it would be hell to me if He were to be always thus dishonoured.” And when the person who had occasioned him this grief expressed sorrow for his unintentional offence, yet would know the cause why it distressed him—“If any one pluck out your eyes,” was his reply, “there is no saying why you feel pain. It is feeling. It is because I am one with Christ that I am thus dreadfully wounded.”1 [Note: A. Roberts, Miscellaneous Sermons, 2.]

5. Paul regarded life as an opportunity to serve his fellow-men.—Life assumes a new value when we view it as an opportunity to serve others. And no man has a right to forget others in settling the question whether he would live or die. We see the Apostle here brought to a stand by two conflicting currents of feelings. For himself he would gladly go, for his friends’ sake he is drawn to the opposite choice. He has “fallen into a place where two seas meet,” and for a minute or two his will is buffeted from side to side by the “violence of the waves.” The obscurity of his language, arising from its broken construction, corresponds to the struggle of his feelings. As the Revised Version has it, “If to live in the flesh,—if this is the fruit of my work, then what I shall choose I wot not.” By which fragmentary sentence, rightly representing as it does the roughness of the Greek, we understand him to mean that if living on in this life is the condition of his gaining fruit from his toil then he has to check the rising wish, and is hindered from decisive preference either way. Both motives act upon him, one drawing him deathward, the other holding him firmly here. He is in a dilemma, pinned in, as it were, between the two opposing pressures. On the one hand he has the desire (not “a desire,” as the Authorized Version has it, as if it were but one among many) turned towards departing to be with Christ; but on the other, he knows that his remaining here is for the present all but indispensable for the immature faith of the Churches which he has founded. The attraction of life contends with the attraction of heaven in these verses. That is a conflict of which many good men know something, but which does not take with many of us the shape that it assumed with Paul. Drawn, as he is, by the supreme desire of close union with his Master, for the sake of which he is ready to depart, he is tugged back even more strongly by the thought that, if he stays here, he can go on working and gaining results from his labour. It does not follow that he did not expect service if he were with Christ. We may be very sure that Paul’s heaven was no idle heaven, but one of happy activity and larger service. But he will not be able to help these dear friends at Philippi and elsewhere who need him, as he knows. So love to them drags at his skirts, and ties him here.

“Other-worldliness” finds no place in the truly Christian conduct of life. Not so to wrap ourselves up in the Christ and in the things of Christ as to be oblivious of the duties and joys and sorrows that visit us, but so to wrap ourselves up in Christ and in the things of Christ as to be the more mindful of duties and joys and sorrows, remembering that by them, by our faithfulness in them, our Lord makes the triumph of His gospel to come. What worthier interest than that could life possess? Christ calls to us, “If all your heart is Mine—if for you to live is Christ—you can best show it by caring, for My sake, for the common experiences of every day.” He uses them, and makes them holy so. Christianity produce indifference to life! No, to the Christian disciple everything that enters into life glows and burns with an interest unsurpassed, for Christ uses it; by his heart’s absorption in Christ the Christian disciple is sent back to his life with a care for it which will make him live it out to the full, for Christ uses it; and when we can truly say “To me to live is Christ,” then life becomes transfigured and glorified as by selfishness it could never be transfigured and glorified, for Christ uses it. And so Christian discipleship combines the most entire selflessness with the greatest practical sanity, if I may use the word. The more enthusiastic we are in the cause of Christ’s gospel, the more will our life, even in the most commonplace incidents of it, come to have worth in our eyes, since by our life and by our faithfulness in life does the cause of Christ’s gospel win its way.1 [Note: H. W. Clark, Meanings and Methods of the Spiritual Life, 234.]

Rousseau once said that Christians could not make good citizens or good soldiers, “because, their hearts being fixed upon another world they must necessarily be indifferent to the success or failure of such enterprises as they take up here.” But this theory is contradicted by facts. It will scarcely be denied that the most useful citizens and the bravest soldiers the world has ever seen have been believers in immortality, and loyal servants of Christ. This may easily be understood when we consider that God has set in man’s heart the love of life and the law of self-preservation, over against the belief in another world, to keep the balance true and to adjust the claims of the life that now is in due relation to those of the life to come. It was because the Apostle was so evenly loaded on either side that he stood so erect and walked thus steadily under his burden. And hence it is that the Christian, though he desires a better country, does not on that account despise his present lodging.1 [Note: A. E. Hutchison.]

Summing up the Bishop’s character, a Dignitary of Lincoln says: “Saintliness and shrewdness were equally characteristic of him. He never touched a topic without displaying an original view. He was, in the best and highest sense, a man of the world, without an atom of worldliness.”2 [Note: G. W. E. Russell, Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, 113.]

“To me to live is Christ”—and yet the days

Are days of toiling men;

We rise at morn, and tread the beaten ways

And lay us down again.

How is it that this base, unsightly life,

Can yet be Christ alone?

Our common need, and weariness, and strife

While common days wear on?

Then saw I how before a Master wise

A shapeless stone was set;

He said, “Therein a form of beauty lies,

Though none behold it yet.

When all beside it shall be hewn away,

That glorious shape shall stand,

In beauty of the everlasting day,

Of the unsullied land.”

6. It is sometimes charged against the Christian religion that it leads men to take a false view of life, and a selfish view of death. It kindles an ecstatic rapture which makes men discontented with the prosaic realities of life and leads them to long for a luxurious, sensuous heaven. This contention, in so far as it has any truth, simply shows the unfairness of judging any religion or system of thought by the one-sided representation of its feeblest followers. Enthusiastic martyrs have welcomed death so eagerly that their enemies have been led to regard their religion as a fatal fanaticism, which kindled in their minds a blind hatred of life. Even the great teachers have been inclined to insist too much on the power “to die well,” as the main proof of the inspiration and solace that come from religion. Without such fearless enthusiasm, without the high consciousness that even life may be purchased too dearly, great movements could never have fought their way in the face of fierce bigotry and cruel persecution; but, on the other hand, it is well to be reminded that in rapturous exalted moods there is as much danger of a narrow selfishness as in any other form of life. Paul’s balanced statement, his lack of prompt decision and definite choice, give us a noble vision of life and a sublime thought of death; from this point of view, life is a sacred trust, and death a great deliverance.

When Ambrose was on his death-bed, Stilicho, apprehending the loss of such a man to Italy and to Christendom, urged the principal inhabitants of Milan to entreat the effective prayers of the Bishop for his own recovery. “I have not so lived among you,” replied Ambrose, “as to be ashamed to live. I have so good a Master, that I am not afraid to die.”1 [Note: Milman, History of Christianity, iii. 169.]

David Hill’s talk when he visited us at Headingley College, Leeds, in 1881, was not only earnest, but it ranged over many subjects, and it showed much insight, much knowledge, much intellectual force. Martin Luther once said that a Christian ought to be the most worldly of men, and in Martin Luther’s sense of the word, that all the affairs of this world were the affairs of Christ, David Hill was very “worldly.” To hear him discuss mission work in China was to hear him discuss China and all that belonged to her. That her whole national life should be subjected to Christ involved much thought, force, and enterprise on the part of His followers, and it was not possible that they could be content with the inadequate resources and the partial and limited operations that already existed.2 [Note: J. E. Hellier, Life of David Hill, 157.]

I had felt a return of spleen during my stay at Armidale, and had it not been that I had Dr. Johnson to contemplate, I should have sunk into dejection; but his firmness supported me. I looked at him, as a man whose head is turning giddy at sea looks at a rock, or any fixed object. I wondered at his tranquillity. He said, “Sir, when a man retires into an island, he is to turn his thoughts entirely to another world. He has done with this.” Boswell—“It appears to me, Sir, to be very difficult to unite a due attention to this world, and that which is to come; for, if we engage eagerly in the affairs of life, we are apt to be totally forgetful of a future state; and, on the other hand, a steady contemplation of the awful concerns of eternity renders all objects here so insignificant, as to make us indifferent and negligent about them.” Johnson—“Sir, Dr. Cheyne has laid down a rule to himself on this subject, which should be imprinted on every mind: To neglect nothing to secure my eternal peace, more than if I had been certified I should die within the day: nor to mind anything that my secular obligations and duties demanded of me, less than if I had been insured to live fifty years more.”1 [Note: Boswell’s Journal of a Tour in the Hebrides (Napier’s ed. 123).]


The Ideal Death

1. “To die is gain.” Paul is ready to welcome death, because he knows that it will usher him into the presence of Christ. “To die is gain,” says Paul, and he defines this gain as being with Christ. In life we represent Christ, but in death we gain His companionship and presence. Paul gave up the things that were worldly gains to him for Christ, and suffered the loss of all things to gain Christ. Is it any wonder that he could face death with such a sublime hope? “And to die is gain.” This is the only place in the New Testament where death is called a gain. The Apostle was in a strait betwixt life and death, and yet what a sublime confidence! He looked upon death as a means to an end, and the end was gain.

“To die is gain.” The eye of true life can see clear through the dispensation of dying, and behold the “gain”—can see straight through the troubled night of the final act of man upon earth, and gladden itself with the sight of the morning glory that falls for ever on the hills of heaven. To die is mystery; to die is speculation; to die is life’s most desperate venture; to die is life’s annihilation; this is the creed of those whose life is not centred in Christ.2 [Note: Joseph Parker.]

The ways of Death are soothing and serene,

And all the words of Death are grave and sweet.

From camp and church, the fireside and the street,

She signs to come, and strife and song have been.

A summer night descending, cool and green

And dark, on daytime’s dust and stress and heat,

The ways of Death are soothing and serene,

And all the words of Death are grave and sweet.

O glad and sorrowful, with triumphant mien

And hopeful faces look upon and greet

This last of all your lovers, and to meet

Her kiss, the Comforter’s, your spirit lean,

The ways of Death are soothing and serene.1 [Note: W. E. Henley.]

“Love and Death” is one of the best known, as it is one of the most finished, of Watts’s paintings. In his prefatory note to the catalogue of the Winter Exhibition at the New Gallery in 1896, the artist said of it that it manifested “the progress of inevitable, but not terrible death, partially but not completely overshadowing love.” These words exactly describe the conception. We see death as a gigantic female figure, mounting the steps and opening the door of a house where the tragedy of life is accomplishing itself, and the parting agonies within that are left to the imagination. Love is seen in the form of a winged youth, small in stature compared to death, but strong and resolute in endeavouring with all his might to prevent the entrance of death, but altogether in vain. With irresistible force he is swept out of the way, and his wings are bruised, and his form battered in the dread encounter. The bright roses that were growing round the doorway have fallen from their trellises, and are withering away unheeded on the ground. The problem of expressing harmoniously at the same time violent action and graceful attitude, attempted resistance and irresistible might, has been solved with wonderful success in these two typical figures.

Never did Grecian art express so graphically the hopelessness of human love to stay the step of death. The inequality of the contest could not possibly be represented to us in a more striking manner. It seems to be cruel, remorseless, inevitable Fate, the sight of which strikes us dumb. And yet there is wonderful consolation in the picture; a calmness, a sense of submission, before which the most passionate nature must yield itself. We yield to death, as we yield to nothing else. It rules us like a law of nature; and it stills our most desperate struggles. And on the drapery of the majestic figure of death, falling in such graceful folds around her person, there gleams a bright light from a hidden source, as if from another world out of sight, transfiguring the cerements of the grave. That light tells us of an unending day, into which we shall enter as surely as on this earth of ours we pass into the region of the midnight sun.… There is nothing stern about death itself. She shows, by her very attitude in the dread struggle with love, how reluctantly she engages in it. That drooping head, that veiled face, that arm stretched out in tenderness as in might, are each expressive of her infinite pity. And though we cannot see in her face, for it is in shadow, the shadow cast on earth by the very glory that is to be revealed in us, we see her back illumined with a light that streams from the open door of heaven, and we trust her with our own life, and with what is dearer far; for she is the mother of our higher life, as Watts himself so touchingly called her, “that kind nurse who puts us all as her children to bed.”1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan, G. F. Watts, 243.]

This is the house of life, and at its door

Young Love keeps anxious watch, while outside stands

One who with firm importuning demands

An entrance. Strange is he, but love with lore

Taught by quick terror names him Death; and o’er

Love’s face there comes a cloud, and the small hands

Would shut the door; for he from loveless lands

Is foe to Love, now and for evermore.

Nay, not for evermore! Love is but young,

And young Love sees alone what youth can see;

With age Love’s vision grows more clear and strong,

And he discerns that this same Death, whom he

Had thought his foe, striving to do him wrong,

Comes with the gift of immortality.

2. Here is an utterance of faith, reached, not by reasoning from a creed, but by seeing the real outcome of God-given life. This life of union and fellowship with Christ is a power that death cannot destroy. If it is possible to live in the presence of Christ now, and work under His inspiration, then, behind the veil, there is the same possibility in a richer form. There is no attempt at an elaborate description of that other life; the life beyond as well as the life here is viewed in its essential spirit, not in its circumstances. Here, as elsewhere, Paul reminds us that we see through a glass darkly, and prophesy in part. But even in the dim light of the present the man who is really united to Christ can assert his deep intelligent conviction that neither life nor death can separate the loyal soul from the love of God.

On one occasion when Jenny Lind, the celebrated singer, was recovering from a long and severe illness, she wrote to an author, thanking him for one of his books. “The passage,” she said, “across to the other side appeared to me so easy and so beautiful; the true home above, after which I was longing, seemed so heavenly that everything earthly in me—all anguish, all grief, all the countless sufferings of a very sensitive soul, were hushed to rest. My soul was in such intimate communion with its Maker that it only longed to go home.” Her desire was to go to be with Christ which is far better.

As I stand by the Cross, on the lone mountain’s crest,

Looking over the ultimate sea,

In the gloom of the mountain a ship lies at rest,

And one sails away from the lea;

One spreads its white wings on the far-reaching track,

With pennant and sheet flowing free;

One hides in the shadow with sails laid a-back,

The ship that is waiting for me.

But lo! in the distance the clouds break away,

The gate’s glowing portals I see,

And I hear from the outgoing ship in the bay

The song of the sailors in glee.

So I think of the luminous footprints that bore

The comfort o’er dark Galilee,

And wait for the signal to go to the shore

To the ship that is waiting for me.1 [Note: Bret Harte.]

3. The fact that Christ is alive for evermore guarantees the permanence of all that is essential in our relation to Him. It secures that death, which had hitherto been looked upon as an absolute loss, shall only confirm and glorify that relationship, relieving it of all that is alien to its development, and providing it with the noblest sphere for its expression. In short, fellowship with Christ abolishes death. It lifts the soul into a region where its power to hurt is gone. The death which is loss is the issue of the life that is natural, but when that life is changed into Christ its issue undergoes a corresponding change, and the death into which it passes is no longer loss, but gain. When to live is Christ, to die is, so to speak, more Christ.

For this man the Alps were tunnelled. There was no interruption in his progress. He would go, he believed, without “break of gauge,” and would pass through the darkness, scarcely knowing when it came, and certainly unchecked for even a moment, right on to the other side where he would come out, as travellers to Italy do, to fairer plains and bluer skies, to richer harvests and a warmer sun. No jolt, no pause, no momentary suspension of consciousness, no reversal, nor even interruption in his activity, did Paul expect death to bring him, but only continuance and increase of all that was essential to his life.1 [Note: A Maclaren, in The Sunday Magazine, 1884, p. 429.]

If we live for Christ, Christ lives for us; and if Christ lives for us, Christ will see to it that the world into which death ushers us shall be in harmony with our highest needs and capabilities. The life which is Christ has in it not only the seed of eternity, but also the seed of perfection; and it were assuredly a strange thing if He who gives it such capability should not bring it to ripeness and realization when it passes into the world where there is no sin, where He reigns without a rival. He is the guarantee that a life which is His shall close with a death that is gain.2 [Note: Principal D. W. Simon.]

A few years since the Metropolitan Railway ended at Moorgate Street; there came an extension to Aldgate; and forthwith Moorgate Street was abolished as a terminus, but remained as a station. So the terminal character of death is abolished by Christ, a line is added stretching into infinity and terminating in the many mansions of our Father’s House, and death becomes forthwith simply a starting point for the pilgrims journeying to the glories and joys of the Divine Home. To Paul, death is, therefore, no actual break in the continuity of his life, but merely a station at which there is a momentary halt in his eternal progress.3 [Note: J. Clifford, The Dawn of Manhood, 194.]

4. For those to whom to live is Christ, death is the gate to ampler powers and a wider ministry. Our life, transferred into a region where everything is congenial to its exercise and growth, clothed in due season with a new and perfect body, which will give the amplest expression to all its powers, a body like unto Christ’s glorious body will develop freely and without restraint. In short, death will lead to the perfection of our identity with Him, bringing about the end of that which is here begun. Hope will change into fruition. Desire will be satisfied. The painful, humbling disproportion between the will to do and the power to accomplish will pass away, for the stature of the perfect man shall then have been reached. All the faculties and powers we possess will be turned into harmony, and that harmony will be Christ.

Professor Wundt, in his System of Philosophy, has formulated a law of the universe which he calls the law of increase of spiritual energy, and which he expressly opposes to the law of conservation of energy in physical things. There seems no formal limit to the positive increase of being in spiritual respects; and since spiritual being, whenever it comes, affirms itself, expands and craves continuance, we may justly and literally say, regardless of the defects of our own private sympathy, that the supply of individual life in the universe can never possibly, however immeasurable it may become, exceed the demand. The demand for that supply is there the moment the supply itself comes into being, for the beings supplied demand their own continuance. I speak from the point of view of all the other individual beings, realizing and enjoying inwardly their own existence. If we are Pantheists, we can stop there. We need, then, only say that through them, as through so many diversified channels of expression, the eternal Spirit of the Universe affirms and realizes its own infinite life. But if we are Theists, we can go farther without altering the result. God, we can then say, has so inexhaustible a capacity for love that His call and need is for a literally endless accumulation of created lives. He can never faint or grow weary, as we should, under the increasing supply. His scale is infinite in all things. His sympathy can never know satiety or glut.1 [Note: William James, Human Immortality, 80.]

The sense in which men rest from their labours while their works follow them is surely not the sense in which human beings fall asleep in glad fatigue with a feeling upon their hearts of having earned their rest, for that would imply a cessation rather than an expansion of life—a long night of half-conscious or unconscious repose, instead of a great increase of Divine power. It seems almost monstrous to regard the initiation into Divine life as implying a cessation of all that we most closely associate with life here, as the happy trance of languid ecstasy instead of the new glow of creative vigour. Clearly, the “beatific vision” must there, as here, be the vision which makes happy; and the vision which makes us happiest is never a vision of indolent contemplativeness, but a vision to which we lend all our powers and all our vitality. It is, in fact, a vision in which the will is as much alive as the intellect, the sympathies as the imagination; in which the whole nature springs into a new vividness of activity as well as insight. The ordinary anticipation of the blessedness of the future is of a kind of happy trance. But a trance is not the fulness of life, rather, on the contrary, a kind of half-death, half-life, in which the mind catches a glimpse of something beyond the verge of its ordinary horizon. Heaven, we may be sure, produces, not a trance but a steady growth in the knowledge of God; and growth in the knowledge of Him whose very Sabbath of rest is glad work still, cannot be mere contemplation. “My Father worketh hitherto and I work,” said our Lord, when justifying on the Sabbath the restoration of power to the paralytic. And the “beatific vision,” however free it may be from the sense of exhaustion, which really means the inadequacy of our powers to the work they have to do, can certainly never be free from the sense of growing life and strength and of that Divine energy which we call creative.1 [Note: R. H. Hutton, Aspects of Religious and Scientific Thought, 413.]

The effort to prove that there is a life beyond the grave is sometimes spoken of as selfish, by the very men who declare themselves most eager to promote the terrestrial welfare of their fellows. It is hard to say why it should be philanthropic to desire the lesser boon for mankind, and selfish to desire the greater; unless, indeed, the genuine philanthropist is forbidden to aim at any common benefit in which he himself may expect to share. In reality, this confusion of mind has a deeper source; it is a vestige of the old monkish belief that man’s welfare in the next world was something in itself idle and personal, and was to be attained by means inconsistent with man’s welfare in this. Whether Christianity ever authorized such a notion I do not now inquire. It is certain, at any rate, that Science will never authorize it. We are making as safe a deduction from worldwide analogy as man can ever make regarding things thus unknown when we assume that spiritual evolution will follow the same laws as physical evolution; that there will be no discontinuity between terrene and post-terrene bliss or virtue, and that the next life, like this, will “resemble wrestling rather than dancing,” and will find its best delight in the possibility of progress, not attainable without effort so strenuous as may well resemble pain.

There will, no doubt, in such a quest, be an element of personal hope as well; but man, after all, must desire something, and what better can he desire? There is little danger, I think, that, with eyes fixed on so great a prospect, he should sink into a self-absorption which forgets his kind. Rather, perhaps, the race of man itself may sometimes seem to him but a little thing in comparison with the majesty of that spiritual universe into whose intimate structure it may thus, and thus only, be possible to project one penetrating ray. Yet we ourselves are a part, not only of the race, but of the universe. It is conceivable that our share in its fortunes may be more abiding than we know; that our evolution may be not planetary but cosmical, and our destiny without an end. “Major agit deus, atque opera in majora remittit.”1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, Science and a Future Life.]

5. If life be not Christ, death is loss. For the worldly and selfish man has, no doubt, something here. The world has interests as well as Christ. The world’s interests are many. There are almost as many interests in the world as men. One is interested in a book. Another’s interest is in games. Then men are interested in politics, in merchandise, in science, in fashion, in work. There is hardly anything so small that it will not interest some one. Is this wrong? Far from it. It is right. How shall any one do well in anything unless he is interested in it? He who teaches history well is the one who is interested in history. So far, so good; but not enough. For all these things perish with the using. And when death comes, in an instant they are all gone to the dead. So, then, death is loss. The world as world has little of Christ in it. But there is worse still. If the world has little of Christ, hell has less. And, therefore, one well said of old, “This was the worst part of hell, no Christ.”

Before Christ’s coming the Tuscans made their tombs face the West, for death meant to them the close of life’s day and the passing into eternal night. After Christ’s coming the tombs face the East, for the Easter day had come with its radiant promise, bringing life and immortality to light. In this changed attitude is the secret of that overwhelming joy which Christianity brought into the world. It threw “a light upon the mountain-tops of death, which made them lovely.” The same vivid contrast is to be found in the Catacombs. In one chamber, which dates back to the time of Julius Cæsar, the tombs are marked with all the signs of pagan gloom and hopelessness. The inscriptions are either cynical at the expense of the gods, or embittered in their complaints. Hard by is a chamber where are buried those who suffered the extremities of persecution at the hands of men—martyrs who were burned, or crucified, or sawn asunder, or thrown to the beasts. But here there is no gloom; lilies adorn the tombs expressive of immortality; the inscriptions express a serene joy; the whole chamber is decked as if for marriage rather than for death, and the spirit pervading it is a gladness that excludes all sorrow. And that which created this was the conscious presence of the living Christ, and the present participation of His followers in the joy set before them.1 [Note: J. Burns, Illustrations from Art (1912), 29.]

Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat,

The mist in my face,

When the snows begin, and the blasts denote

I am nearing the place,

The power of the night, the press of the storm,

The post of the foe;

Where he stands, the Arch Fear is a visible form,

Yet the strong man must go:

For the journey is done and the summit attained,

And the barriers fall,

Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,

The reward of it all.

I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more,

The best and the last!

I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,

And bade me creep past.

No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers

The heroes of old,

Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears

Of pain, darkness, and cold.

For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,

The black minute’s at end,

And the elements’ rage, the fiend voices that rave,

Shall dwindle, shall blend,

Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,

Then a light, then thy breast,

O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,

And with God be the rest!2 [Note: Browning, “Prospice” (Poetical Works, i. 599).]

St. Paul’s Ruling Passion


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Campbell (R. J.), New Theology Sermons, 1.

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