The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
THE MEETING OF A PIOUS FAMILY IN HEAVEN
The strength of our social feelings, and the pleasure which we derive from the indulgence of them, have very naturally originated the question, "Will those who were known to each other on earth, renew their acquaintance in heaven?" The feelings which prompted the question, have led us to answer it in the affirmative. It might, indeed, be enough to satisfy our hopes in reference to eternal happiness, to be assured that—nothing shall be present which could operate as an alloy—nothing be absent that shall be felt as a defect. We know that the manifold wisdom of God is employed under the impulse of infinite love, in preparing a place for us; and we are also assured that God "is not ashamed to be called our God, because he has prepared for us a city." All that is most essential to a state of perfect and everlasting felicity is exhibited and promised in the word of God—the beatific vision of God and the Lamb; complete resemblance in body and soul to the Lord Jesus; the light of perfect knowledge; the purity of perfect holiness; the glow of perfect love; the eternal exclusion of sin and of the sinner; the company and converse of the spirits of just men made perfect, and the myriads of holy angels; the absence of pain and sickness, care and labor, sorrow and sighing, death and the curse—all of which are explicitly assured to the believer in the gospel of Christ. These form a heaven which might entirely satisfy us, as a state of felicity seemingly incapable of addition. This is glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life. And, yet, in view of all this, our social nature often prompts that one me question, "Shall we know each other in the celestial world?"
The scripture, I admit, has not, in so many words, replied to the question, nor relieved the concern which asks it; and in this very reserve, we see a proof of the wisdom of God. Had the scriptures been explicit and diffuse on such topics; had they said much about the social communion of the unseen world; had they represented its felicity as arising in a great degree from the renewal of those friendships which were formed on earth but suspended by death—how many would have concluded, in the total absence of all pious feeling from their hearts, that they were fit for such an inheritance as this. Whereas, the Bible, by representing no part of the happiness of heaven but that which arises from sources strictly devotional, has given no countenance to delusion, nor furnished occasion for self-deception. None of the splendid visions which lie behind the veil are manifested—but such as tend to impress us with the conviction that, in order to behold and enjoy them, we must be holy even as God is holy.
These considerations, while they account for the reserve which is maintained by the Scripture on this subject, do not, by any means, disprove the sentiment. Though I would not say with Iraenaeus, one of the earliest fathers of the church—that Christians will retain the likeness and figure of their bodies, so that they may still be known thereby in the other world—though I by no means pretend even to speculate on the precise manner or means whereby glorified immortals will attain a knowledge of each other, whether by Scripture or information—by any resemblance in the newly raised body, to what they formerly were—or by that intuition which will, no doubt, be the way in which many things will be known. Yet still I think that, in some way or other, this knowledge will be obtained.
1. The enjoyments and occupations of heaven are uniformly represented as social—but where is the charm of society without mutual knowledge.
2. Heaven is uniformly represented as perfecting all our faculties—is it then probable that it will diminish memory, one of the most important of them? And if memory be still retained in full vigor, and if it be perpetually employed, as it inevitably must be, on the past scenes of our earthly existence, is it likely that the friends and companions of that existence—now inhabiting the same celestial world with us—will be unknown to us?
3. The chief grace that will be increased in the regions of the blessed, next to love to God, will be love to our companions in glory. But will not one of the most pure, elevated, and delightful exercises of this holy passion be lacking, if we are ignorant of our glorified relatives?
4. In the general judgment, which is appointed to vindicate the ways of God to man, it is nearly certain that individuals will be known to each other; and if this be the case, is it likely that their mutual knowledge will be immediately obliterated?
5. Is it likely that individuals, whose names and labors bear such a close and extensive connection with the redemption and history of the church, as those of the prophets and apostles, will be unknown? And if they are known, may it not be inferred that others will be?
6. During our Savior's abode upon earth, he afforded to the three favored disciples a glimpse of the heavenly glory; he himself was transfigured, and Moses and Elijah descended in celestial brilliancy. These two eminent servants of God were known by the astonished apostles; and if known on Mount Tabor, is it not likely they will be known in the New Jerusalem?
7. Our Savior, in one of the most impressive of his parables, represents the rich man in torments, as knowing Lazarus and Abraham in glory; now though it be a parable, and though the whole scenery of a parable is not to be considered as conveying some moral sentiment, yet certainly nothing materially and obviously at variance with the truth is ever taught by even the appendages of the chief parabolic idea.
8. We find the apostle Paul very frequently consoling himself under the sufferings and persecutions which he had to endure, by the prospect of meeting in heaven those who had been converted by his ministry on earth. His address to the believing Thessalonians is especially in point. "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, at his coming?" I do not see how these Christians could be Paul's crown of rejoicing in that day, if they were not known to him.
These are some of the reasons which led me to suppose, that in heaven the saints will know each other.
I am aware that it is felt by some as an objection to this sentiment, that if we shall know those of our friends who were present in glory—we shall, of course, know that our unsaved beloved friends and relatives are forever lost. And that, if we derive pleasure from the former consideration, we shall experience as much distress from the latter. The only way of solving this difficulty, is to realize that a perfect knowledge of God, and of the wisdom and justice of all His designs and operations, will constitute a chief part of the happiness of heaven. We shall be so convinced of the equity of His dealings towards the wicked, so divested of all the weakness of 'human sentimentalism', so absorbed in the love of what is right to be done, that the absence of our loved ones from the world of glory, will cause no interruption of our heavenly bliss! This, I acknowledge, is now hard to conceive. The day shall reveal it. "Now we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." 1 Cor. 13:9-10
Assuming then the fact, that saints will know each other in the celestial state, let us imagine, my dear children, if indeed the imagination is equal to the effort, what must be the joy attendant on the final meeting of a pious family in heaven. One of the most exquisite delights which we ever experience on earth, is the enjoyment which springs from the first interview with a friend, from whom we have been separated; and this delight is in proportion to the length of time, and greatness of distance, and magnitude of danger, which have intervened between the separation and the meeting. What language can describe the thrill of transport, the almost agony of rapture which the wife experiences in that moment, when she receives a husband back again to her arms—who has been away from home for months, who has been separated from her by half the circumference of the globe, and threatened to be torn away from her forever, by the dangers of shipwreck or of battle? Or who shall set forth that scene of domestic bliss, which is exhibited when the sailor boy, after having been absent for years, returns from the dangers of the sea, and the horrors of captivity, to the bosom of his family, and exchanges ecstatic greetings with his parents, and his sisters, and his brothers, until all seem ready to dissolve with excess of joy?
What then must be the meeting of these same relatives in heaven, after having been separated by worlds and ages; that meeting, when the mother receives her children to the skies, from this degenerate earth; and the father hails his offspring from the world of death, to the region of life and immortality! Here imagination confesses its weakness. It is a scene we have never witnessed ourselves; nor have we ever conversed with one who has. My heart, while I write, seems to beat quicker at the thought; and the very anticipation, my dear children, raises a commotion of pleasurable feelings in my bosom, which no words could enable me to express.
Then remember this meeting is not for a mere transient meeting—but for an eternal fellowship! It is to take place in a world, where adieus and farewells are a sound unknown. What an interruption does it now form to the enjoyment of domestic communion, that the different branches of the family cannot always live beneath the same roof, or in the vicinity of their parents. One member after another goes from the paternal abode, and settles at a distance, until counties and kingdoms separate them from each other. Rarely does it happen, where the children are numerous, and grown to maturity, that they can all meet together. Occasionally this does happen, perhaps on a parent's birthday, or at the festive season of the year, and then home puts forth all its charms, and pours out in copious streams its pure and precious joys; such a circle is the resort of peace and love, where friends and near relations mingle into bliss. The parents look with ineffable delight upon their children, and their children's children—and see their smiles of love reflected from the faces of the happy group.
Piety gives the finishing touch to the picture, when, before they part, they assemble round the domestic altar, and after reading in that Book, which speaks of the many mansions in our Father's house above, where the families of the righteous meet to part no more; and after blending their voices in a sacred song of praise to Him, who has united them, both by ties of nature and of grace, they receive the benedictions, and join in the prayers of their saintly and patriarchal father, who over the scene which surrounds him, feels a divided heart, one moment thinking he has lived long enough in that he has been permitted to witness it—but the next breathing an aspiration to heaven for permission to witness it a few years longer.
This scene, and it is not an uncommon one, is one of the purest to be found on earth. It is, as nearly as it can be, paradise restored! or if it be, as it certainly is, still without the gates of Eden, it is near enough to the sacred enclosure, to receive some of the fruits which drop over the wall. What is wanting here? I answer, Continuance. It is bliss only for a season. It is a day that will be followed with a night. And the heart is often checked in the full tide of enjoyment, in the very meridian of its delights, by looking at the clock, and counting how rapidly the hours of felicity are rolling away, and how soon the signal of parting will be struck. But the meeting in heaven shall be eternal. The family shall go no more out forever from the mansion of their Father above. Their fellowship shall not be measured nor limited by time. They shall meet for one day—but then that day will be everlasting, for "there is no night there." They shall spend eternal ages together. Neither the fear nor the thought of parting, shall ever pass like a cloud over the orb of their felicity, nor let fall a passing shadow to disturb the sunshine of their bosom. "We are met," shall they say one to another, "and we shall part no more. Around us is glory! Within us is rapture! Before us is eternity!"
Then add to this, the happy circumstances under which they meet, and in which they will dwell together forever.
They will meet as spirits of just men made perfect. The best-regulated families on earth will sometimes experience little interruptions of their domestic enjoyment. We all have some imperfection or other, some infirmity of temper, or some impropriety of manner, from which, through lack of caution on one part, or lack of love or forbearance on the other—occasional discords will be heard to disturb the harmony of the whole. We see that others are not altogether perfect, and we feel that we are not so. We lament the failings of the rest, and still more lament our own. This prevents perfect domestic bliss—but in heaven we shall all be perfect. We shall see nothing in others to censure—nor feel nothing in ourselves to lament. We shall have all that veneration and love for each other, which shall arise from the mutual perception of unsinning holiness. We shall mutually see reflected the image of God from our character. There will be everything lovely to attract esteem—and the most perfect love to show it. Everyone will possess the virtue which is loved, and the satisfaction by which it is beloved. Everyone, conscious of unmingled purity within, approves and loves himself for that divine image, which in complete perfection, and with untarnished resemblance, is stamped upon his character. Each, in every view which he casts around him, beholds the same glory shining and brightening in the circle of his parents, his brothers, and his sisters. Out of this character grows a series ever varying, ever improving, of all the possible communications of beneficence, fitted in every instance only to interchange and increase the happiness of all. In the sunshine of infinite satisfaction, the light of the New Jerusalem, the original source of all their own beauty, life, and joy—this happy family will walk forever.
The joy of that meeting will arise from seeing each other in the possession of all that happiness which God has prepared for those who love him. In a family where genuine affection prevails, the happiness of one branch is the happiness of the rest—and each has his felicity multiplied by as many times as there are happy members in the circle. In heaven, where love is perfect, how exquisite will be the bliss of each, arising from being the constant witness of the bliss of all—where the parents will see the children basking in the sunshine of divine love; receiving the warmest expressions of the favor of Christ—shining in the beauties of unsullied holiness—and bounding in the fields of uncreated light; and where the children shall see the parents, and each other, in the same happy circumstances; where each shall see all the rest in the full possession of the inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and which does not fade away—the exceeding great and eternal weight of glory.
How, amid all this unrevealed and inconceivable splendor, will the joy be increased by a recollection and enumeration of the benefits conferred by one party, and the obligations incurred by the other. What must be the delight of parents in thus seeing the fruit of their prayers, instructions and concerns, constantly before their eyes, in the honor and felicity of their glorified children. How happy and grateful will they feel, that their solicitude on earth was chiefly exercised in reference to the spiritual and eternal welfare of their offspring—and not wasted upon trifles which had no connection with piety and immortality!
With what thrilling emotions of delight will they hear these children ascribing all their salvation, so far as instruments are concerned, to them; and giving a high place in their anthems of praise, to the names of their father and mother. While, on the other hand, it will raise the felicity of the children to the highest pitch, to see those parents near them, to whom they owe, under God, their possession of heaven. With what mutual interest will both parties retrace the winding ways of Providence, which led to such a termination of the journey of life. How will they pause and wonder at those mysterious links, now invisible—but then plainly seen, which connected the events of their history, and united them into one perfect whole. Especially, with what intense excitement will they mark each effort of parental concern for the salvation of the children, and see the individual and collective results of all. The revolutions of empires, the fate of armies, will then have less to engage and charm the attention, than the influence of any one piece of advice which was ever delivered on earth, and which had the smallest influence in impressing the heart, awakening the conscience, converting the soul, or forming the character.
What felicity will arise from the sublime converse and employment of such a state. Conceive of a family even on earth, where of all the numerous branches of which it is composed, each one for dignity was a prince, for science a philosopher, for affection a brother, for purity a saint, for meekness a child, all meeting in sublime and affectionate fellowship; all employed in exploring together the secrets of nature, and tracing the streams of knowledge; blending, as they proceeded, the ardor of love with the light of truth. But this, what is it—compared to the heavenly state, where with minds inconceivably more capacious than that of Newton's, when he weighed the gravity, and measured the distance of the stars; with hearts perfect in holiness; and ages endless as eternity; we shall converse on all the highest themes which the universe can supply. Think of studying together the laws of creation, the history of all God's providential dealings with mankind, the wonderful scheme of human redemption, the character of the great Jehovah, the person of Jesus Christ, with all that stands connected with the whole range of universal being, and the manifestation of the First Cause.
What a view does it give us of the felicity of heaven, to think of parents and children engaged with millions all around them, in sounding the depth of that 'fathomless ocean of eternal truth', which is as clear as it is deep; and eternally employed in acts of worship, exercises of benevolence, and other pleasurable pursuits, now unknown, because unrevealed; and perhaps unrevealed, because not comprehensible by our present limited faculties.
But after all, my dear children, I seem as if I were guilty of presumption in thus attempting to describe that which is quite inconceivable. It does not yet appear what we shall be. We now see through a glass darkly. The Scriptures tell us much of the heavenly state—but they leave much untold. They give us enough to employ our faith, raise our most lively hopes, and produce a joy unspeakable, and full of glory—but they offer nothing to satisfy our curiosity. "They bring before us a dim transparency, on the other side of which the images of an obscure magnificence dazzle indistinctly upon the eye; and tell us, that in the economy of redemption, and the provisions of immortality, there is a grandeur commensurate to all that is known of the other works and purposes of the Eternal. They offer us no details, and man, who ought not to attempt a wisdom above that which is written, should be cautious how he puts forth his hand to the drapery of the impenetrable curtain—which God, in his mysterious wisdom, has spread over that region, of which it is but a very small portion that can be known to us."
In this state, amid all this glory, honor, and felicity—it is my sincere desire, my ardent prayer, my constant endeavor, my supreme pursuit—that your journey, my dear children, and my own, should terminate. Everything else appears, in comparison of this, as nothing. In the view of this, thrones lose their elevation, crowns their splendor, riches their value, and fame its glory! Before the effulgence and magnitude of celestial objects, their grandeur dwindles to an invisible point, and their brightness is but as the shadow of death. Did we not know the depravity of our nature, and that the natural man knows not these things, because they are spiritually discerned, we must indeed wonder, and inquire what bewildering influence it is, that is exerted on the human mind, by which its attention is so fatally diverted from things unseen and eternal—to the shadowy and evanescent forms of things seen and temporal. It is only on this ground that we can account for the folly, the madness—of neglecting the great salvation, and seeking anything in preference to eternal glory. Dreadful madness! which, though it indulges in the miscalculations of insanity, has none of its excuses. What but this moral insanity could lead men for any object upon earth—to neglect the pursuit, and resign the hope of eternal life?
My children! my children! whom I love with an affection which can be equaled only by that solicitude for your welfare to which it has given rise, and which never sleeps nor rests—receive my admonition, and make eternal happiness the end of your existence. Look at that heaven, which, though but partially revealed, is revealed with such pure brightness on the page of eternal truth, and "on the description of which, so to speak, the Holy Spirit employs and exhausts the whole force and splendor of inspiration"—look at it, that state of inconceivable, infinite, eternal honor, and bliss—and is there anything on earth, anything of pleasure or of gain, for which you will deliberately resign that crown of unfading glory.
I am anxious, as I have already informed you, that you may live in comfort and respectability on earth. I would have your mind cultivated by learning and science; your manners polished by affability; your industry crowned with success; in short, I would be thankful to see you living in comfort, respected, and respectable. But above everything else, I pray, I desire, I long—that you may partake of "that faith, without which it is impossible to please God," and that "holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." I have fixed my aim for you, high as heaven; and covet for you everlasting life. I love your society on earth, and wish to enjoy it through eternity in the presence of God. I hope I am traveling to that goodly land, of which God has said, he will give it to us for an inheritance, and I want you to accompany me there. Reduce me not to the mere consolation of David, who said, "Although my house be not so with God, yet has he made with me an everlasting covenant, which is ordered in all things and sure." Rather let me have to say with Joshua, "As for me, and my house, we will serve the Lord."
May it be granted me to see you choosing the way of wisdom and piety, and remembering your Creator in the days of your youth—giving to all your virtues that stability and beauty which can be derived only from true religion—first receiving by faith, and then adorning by holiness, the doctrine of God your Savior. Then will my highest ambition, as a parent, be gratified—my most painful solicitude relieved. I shall watch your progress amid the vicissitudes of life, with a calm and tranquil mind—assured that your piety will be your protector amid the dangers of prosperity; or your comforter amid the ills of adversity.
If called to follow your coffin, and weep upon your sepulcher, I shall only consider you as sent forward on the road, to await my arrival at our Father's house! Or if called, according to the order of nature, to go down first into the dark valley of the shadow of death, I shall find the agonies of separation assuaged, and the gloom of the dying chamber irradiated by those bright visions of glory, which connect themselves with the prospect of the meeting of a pious family, in the heavenly world!
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