"Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; Whom no man hath seen, nor can see; to Whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen"
1 Timothy chapter 6 verse 16.
HE is an individual not to be envied whose mind does not sometimes meditate on the future. A man does not need to be religious to be moved profoundly by the contemplation of the ultimate destination of the mysterious ego of which he is so vividly conscious. Dr Johnson's agile mind was bound to have formed an opinion on such a universal subject, and Boswell has preserved for us his conviction that "The belief of immortality is impressed upon all men, and all men act under an impression of it, however they may talk." Probably some who would disagree with his view are the living embodiments of it. There is some indefinable urge within us that refuses the thought that we are made merely for this short span of life as we know it here.
Professor Huxley wrote to Mr Morley, " It is a curious thing that I find my dislike to the thought of extinction increasing as I grow older and nearer the goal. It flashes across me at all sorts of times with a sort of horror that, in 1900 I shall probably know no more of what is going on, than I did in 1800. I had sooner be in hell a good deal." That testimony is significant as revealing that the verdicts of men do not depend upon the mind only, but also upon deep unquenchable longings which have a close affinity with the eternal. It is not too much to say that in our highest and best moments we find the thought of total extinction in the grave intolerable.
Yet the mystery of it all appals preacher or writer as he seeks to illuminate, mould and inspire the thought of men upon the things that lie beyond our sight. He is but one of the vast army of mankind groping towards the light. By what right can he claim to pilot needy souls across so vast and intricate a sea? Only the man who essays the task can estimate the sense of utter feebleness which overwhelms the spirit of the navigator with not a little fear lest, by a careless word, a too easy assumption, he drive trusting souls on the reefs and rocks of danger and despair. For in this matter men plead and press for certainty, and it is possible that the zeal for certainty may obscure the uncertain character of that upon which they rest. The peril is that it is easy to say the word. There is such a vast expanse for speculation and for sentimentalism that the mind may run riot without ever reaching truth. Men, whose opinions carry great weight in their particular circles, are assuring the world of the life to come on the testimony of their own psychic experience. But ultimately, not one of us feels able, to push off into the unseen on the assurance of another feeble, limited being like ourselves. The issues are altogether too gigantic for such faith to be other than utter folly.
For this reason, therefore, if for no other, I propose to confine myself to the Scriptures and to examine their teaching. I may err in the interpretation, but I have no doubt the principle is sound and sufficient. To that course there are many critical objections. Canon Streeter, in a chapter on "The Resurrection of the Dead" says-" It may be asked whether some light on the relation of the present and future body cannot be derived from the accounts in the Gospels of the Resurrection of our Lord. This would undoubtedly be the case if only we might assume that every detail in these stories was to be relied upon as authentic. That assumption, however, is one which I personally am unable to make."
That is not my position. I believe that the Scriptures must be accepted as final and authoritative on the life to come. What they make clear we should accept with joy and, where the counsel seems to us confusing, we must wait until, with our own powers of perception increased, we discern the underlying unity in the apparent contradiction. And this attitude is by no means blind credulity. No Christian minister would willingly surrender the marvellous comfort to bereaved souls in the words of our Lord-" In My Fatherís house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have to1d you. I go to prepare a place for you." If these words have a sentimental value in soothing troubled hearts, and are in fact bereft of working certainty, then indeed the Christian ministry may survey its bankruptcy. But if He were right, as I believe He was then it is credible that He should leave behind Him testimony available for every generation, guided by the Holy Spirit, His living bequest to the Church. If the testimony is in our midst then without a doubt it is in the Scriptures.
In my own study, I have found that the best introduction to an understanding of the life to come is a clear view of the teaching of Scripture on Immortality. The word itself is so common in our speech that it needs special consideration. In Scripture it is used sparingly and significantly. The word does not occur in the Old Testament, where indeed, the ideas of the life to come, compared with those of the New Testament, are nebulous. It is surprising, however, that it is never recorded as on the lips of our Lord. He has much to say on the life to come but nothing on immortality. Paul alone uses the word in Scripture. In the Authorised Version it occurs five times but on three occasions only is it the translation of the original. It appears twice in 1 Corinthians 15. and also in our text.
What is Immortality? It has been rightly pointed out that the word is a negative. It is the state of being not mortal. To be mortal is to be subject to death, to be immortal means to be not subject to death. We are concerned in this study with that experience which we believe is not subject to death. Immortality is the state of deathlessness.
With that simple and sufficient definition in our minds let us look again at the text. Quite explicitly it asserts that our Lord Jesus Christ alone has immortality. The great thinkers, poets, saints are at one in being without immortality. He stands alone and unique in having immortality. Of the whereabouts of Buddha, Mahommed, and Confucius we may have no knowledge but of one thing we may be sure, they do not share with the Lord Jesus Christ the enjoyment of immortality. At this moment He alone is in a state of deathlessness. The corollaries of this fact are extraordinary and at first, somewhat disturbing. Because He alone has immortality, no human being has it. We are not born immortal, and there is no such thing as an immortal soul. That is a conception common in Christian thought but quite unknown to Scripture. The state of deathlessness is not the prerogative of the human being. We may have capacity for immortality, but capacity and possession are not the same. My pockets have capacity for a large number of bank notes but there is none inside them.
Another fact at once claims our attention and acknowledgment. The Scriptures clearly teach a difference between immortality and eternal life. Our Lord declared, "He that heareth my words and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation but is passed from death unto life." And in prayer to His Father He said-" And this is life eternal that they might know Thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent." Eternal life is the present possession of those who hear the words of Christ and know the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, who acknowledge Him as Saviour and Lord. There are many therefore, who possess eternal life now, there is none possessing immortality.
This verse I have just quoted declares of the believer that he has passed from death unto life. Our Lord evidently does not mean that he has passed from physical death, for then no believer could die and the grave would indeed be a chasm of despair. In the Garden of Eden God forbade the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, saying-" For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Commenting on this passage Dr Wheeler Robinson says" In regard to the consequences of the act of disobedience, the threat of 2:I7 is in any case unfulfilled, so that we are not entitled to infer from it that man's mortality is here traced directly to his sin." If God meant physical death then it was God that told the lie and the Serpent that told the truth! Death means in this passage what it always means- separation. In this case, separation from God. It was spiritual death with the certainty of physical death in its train. Now as in Adam all die, so all those in Christ live. The first death in Eden was separation from God, eternal life in the New Testament is re-union with God in Christ, the overcoming of the spiritual tragedy of man's first sin. Every man who believes in the Lord Jesus has escaped from death and has received and now enjoys eternal life.
According to the Scriptures, therefore, existence, eternal life and immortality are three distinct conceptions, which must never be confused. They are not interchangeable terms but each represents a particular condition. The Lord Jesus Christ exists, He has eternal life and He only has immortality. The believer in Christ exists and now possesses eternal life. The unbeliever exists. Much confusion will be swept away in the recognition that " life " and " existence " is not synonyms. It is fundamental that life and death are both aspects of existence. Death does not mean the end of existence, it is the initiation into another phase of experience. Death may be privative but it is not negative.
In his letter to the Corinthians the Apostle uses this word " immortality." " For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written Death is swallowed up in victory." Here Paul dwells upon the truth that the mortal puts on immortality. That which has been subject to death puts on that which death cannot touch. Immortality is a negative word, but its results are positive. It is a putting on and not a putting off, it is addition and not subtraction. We lose nothing worth keeping, we receive the transcendent gift of immortality. Immortality is superior to mortality; it is the unspeakable boon for which the heart of the believer yearns.
The Scriptures leave us in no doubt as to when immortality will be conferred on the believer. When the trumpet sounds, Paul tells the Corinthians, we shall all be changed, " in the twinkling of an eye." When will the trumpet sound? Paul tells the Christians at Thessalonica-" For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God and the dead in Christ shall rise first." The believer looks forward to the moment when the Lord shall descend from heaven and shall call the dead to put on their incorruptible bodies and the living in Christ to change the mortal for the immortal vesture of the glory. The day of Christ, when He shall come for His people, is the day of immortality. The Lord is still alone in the glory of immortality; for He has not yet come for His people, but the day is coming when by the gift of immortality the believer know the heavenly joy of fellowship with His Redeemer.
Paul is careful to link together the triple hope of the believer: the resurrection of the body and the gift of immortality and the glorious appearing of the Lord to His redeemed people. These are inseparable in Scripture, as they will be in experience. They constitute the living hope of the Catholic Church of the True Body of Christ. They are part of the peculiar revelation of Scripture, and if we cling to one we must cling to all. The Christian, who has hope of resurrection, grounds that hope in the Word of God. His confidence in immortality is on the same foundation. But to accept the hope of resurrection and immortality on the authority of the Word of God requires that with equal joy and confidence we look to the unveiling of the Living Christ in the Day of His Coming.
Finally, it must be observed that no man can receive the putting on of immortality who has not first received eternal life. He that hath the Son hath the life, the life is in the Son and those only who have the life of the Son can receive the blessing of that deathlessness which can never know separation from God. To die without Christ is to die without eternal life in the heart and that involves the loss of immortality. On this point the Scriptures leave no room for doubt and all other testimony has no ground of certainty. When the Lord comes no voice shall wake the dead who die in their sins. The Scriptures on that fact are clear and sure, and they impose upon us a serious sense of our responsibility in this the day of opportunity. In the light of this truth we understand the solemn desire of Paul-" If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead." Without that resurrection Paul knew his hope of immortality was gone.
The Scriptures therefore make plain the truth that immortality is reserved for those who take part in the first resurrection. That first resurrection is the experience of those only who have received eternal life. Eternal life is the present possession of those who have received the Son, acknowledged Him as Saviour, Redeemer and Lord, yielding the life to His Will. So the solemn issues of the vast unknown eternity proceed from the transient day in which we live, the moments and hours are invested with meaning and responsibility. To reject Christ is to reject forever the gift of immortality. So the Scriptures declare. Where is the man, blinded by the temporal senses, who dare say they are wrong?
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