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THE CITY OF GOD.
“Our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body.”
ST. PAUL, in these words, is strengthening the Christians at Philippi, by setting before them the greatness of their calling and of their destiny. They had much need of encouragement; for a time of sore and peculiar trial was then upon them. They had to endure not only bitter persecutions and the assault of Antichrists, wielding the powers of the world to wear out the saints of the Most High, but a still more dangerous, because more subtil trial. They were being tried by false and sensual men mingling in the communion of the Church. There were among them false teachers, 183who mixed up the law of Moses with the gospel of Christ; double-minded men, steering between both; striving to escape persecution, and yet desiring to obtain the reputation of Christians. These were very dangerous tempters, who entered the Church in disguise, defiling it, and destroying souls for whom Christ died.
There was one special mark by which such men (as we see both from St. Paul and St. John) might be known: they lived evil lives. Therefore here St. Paul sets before the Philippians a contrast of carnal and spiritual Christians, and of the earthly and the heavenly life. After saying, “Many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the Cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things;” he adds, “For our conversation is in heaven.”
The word here rendered ‘conversation’ means something further and more specific than our word commonly signifies. It means the estate, and therefore the rights and the duties of a citizen of any city.
We see, therefore, that by this word he intends:
1. First, to bid them remember that God had made them citizens of the holy city. “Our conversation 184is in heaven:” that is, our true home is not here, but on high. “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”109109 Gal. iv. 26. And we, by our Baptism, are made free of it: we are partakers of the freedom which is in Christ. This is the city of which St. Paul speaks when he says, “Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.”110110 Heb. xii. 22, 23. And again, when he says, “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come;”111111 Heb. xiii. 14. “a city which hath foundations.”112112 Ch. xi. 10. And St. John, in the last great prophecy given through him to the Church, saw that city, builded four-square, perfect every way, on twelve foundations, having in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. It was built at unity with itself, perfect in structure and in symmetry, its length as great as its breadth; its walls were of all manner of precious stones, and its streets of pure gold, clear as glass: a wonderful vision, full of mystery, and of meaning partly revealed, partly hidden, and by hiding made even more glorious and majestic. It sets before us the unity, 185multitude, perfection, glory, and bliss, of Christ’s saints, gathered under Him in the kingdom of God. Of this city and company, the whole Church on earth, and, in it, the Christians in Philippi, were citizens and partakers. St. Paul tells them this, to remind them that they were no longer isolated one from another, but incorporated into one body. Sin, as it rends man from God, so it rends man from man. It is the antagonist of all unity—a power of dissolution and of isolation. But the grace of Christ, by its first gift, binds again the soul of man with God, and the spirits of all the regenerate in one fellowship. We are taken out of a dead world, to be grafted into the living Church. Therefore St. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus, that they were “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” They were thereby made subjects and servants of the King of saints, the Lord of the holy city. It became their own inheritance. Its courts were their resting-places, pledged to them and sure. Their names were written among those who should walk in the light of God and of the Lamb. This is the first meaning of the word.
2. And next it taught them, that as their state was, so their life should be; that as they were citizens of heaven, so their manner of life should be 186heavenly too. Our word ‘conversation’ has a very complex and extensive signification. It means the whole course and context of a man’s life, words, and actions; as in the hook of Acts, where it is said, “while the Lord Jesus went in and out among us;”113113 Acts i. 21. that is, was familiarly present with us in the whole course and detail of His earthly life. By this, then, St. Paul means, that the whole of their life must needs be sanctified, penetrated in every part by the spirit of their calling. Though they were in the world, they had nothing in it, nor it in them. All its provinces and kingdoms, its cities and palaces, were nothing to them. All the pomps and gifts, the glitter and the pleasures of the world, were but snares and burdens. What part in these had they whose lot was in the heavenly Jerusalem? To them the fashion of this world was but a vision, luring and false, shifting and passing away. They were united to the eternal world, which has no variableness, neither shadow of turning; and to it they were fast advancing. The maxims, examples, rules of men, were no laws for their guidance: their only laws were the lives of God’s servants—the order and the unity of heaven. As the visible Church bodies forth the invisible to the eye of flesh, so the invisible imposes its supremacy and dominion upon the visible Church. As the 187head is the seat and source of thought, power, and command, so Christ is the fountain of all law, power, and order, to the body on earth. From Him comes holiness, and to Him holiness ascends again in adoration. Worship is the intense utterance of the sanctity of the Church. We see, then, in what the fellowship of the city of God consists: in the unity of the imperfect with the perfect; of the Church of one age with the Church of all ages; in the presence of Christ the Head through the Holy Ghost, in all the body visible and invisible; and this issuing on earth in the heavenly conversation of His servants. This has been the mystery at which the world has wondered, and upon which, in fear and foreboding, it has made incessant war. “Who shall not fear Thee, O King of saints,” and Thy Body, which is eternal; the Church visible and imperishable, witnessing and suffering, but never consumed? This is the marvel of the mystery, at which the kings of the earth have shut their mouths, upon which the host of heaven look and worship, learning “the manifold wisdom of God.” This, then, only too briefly, is the substance and outline of those few but great words of the apostle, “our conversation is in heaven.”
See, therefore, how high is our calling. We are incorporated with the city of the living God. 188It is all around us even now; we are within its walls, builded upon the apostles and prophets, encompassed by a cloud of witnesses. It is the city of refuge from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Many generations of its citizens have overcome, and are gone on before, ascending up on high, There is pledged to you as sure a mastery over all these enemies and powers as to them. They have won their crown; but yours, too, is sure. They who are now entered into rest, a little while ago were sinners and tempted; then penitents, now resting and crowned. Their earthly warfare has received its complement and fulness: what they strove to be, they are. They who prayed for humility, are humble; for meekness, are meek; for purity, are “pure, even as He is pure.” They who desired to know the truth, now see God, the Truth, uncreated, eternal. Remember this in all your temptations, doubts, and perils. When you are afraid, when you are ready to give way, when sluggish unwillingness weighs you down, and to persevere unto the end seems to be impossible,—then remember what they were who have entered through the gates into the city. The very same bliss is pledged to you: a spirit perfect as the Spirit of Christ, when He shall change your vile body, that it may be like unto His glorious body. They whom you have yielded up, 189are only parted for awhile. They have gone up, after their mortal toil, and are resting now, laid up for the morning of the resurrection.
How great comfort is there here for all mourners. Be of good cheer, every one that is afflicted; for the Lord is preparing you for the city of God. Whatever he your sorrow, it is the token of His love, for the Man of sorrows is our King: and the path of sorrow is the path of His kingdom; there is none other that leadeth unto life. Your reward is sure, if you are but true to yourself. Do we believe these things? Are they realities, or are they words? They are God’s Word, which is a reality. “Heaven and earth shall pass away; but My word shall not pass away.” It is when speaking of sorrows that St. Paul says, that God hath “predestinated us to be conformed to the image of His Son.” “O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, but not comforted, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones. And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.”114114 Isaiah liv. 11-13.
And if our calling be so high, how holy and searching must be the laws of that city. They 190are the laws of the heavenly court, of saints and of angels. Our law is the royal law, which has two great chapters, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbour as thyself.”115115 St. Mark xii. 30, 31. This is the decree which governs earth and heaven; it embraces the whole man, and searches out the depths of the spirit. “It was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”116116 St. Matt. v. 21, 22. This command is spiritual, sharper than any two-edged sword. It is the law of interior holiness—the Cross realised in the will—carried out in the manifold actings of life. If we would know how to expound it, we must imitate Christ our Lord. The words and the deeds of the King of saints are both text and comment. But if this be so, what is the state of the Church visible on earth? What signs does it bear of its heavenly origin? Where is its unity, and where its holiness? Where is the perfection of its citizens; where are the tokens of the royal law? Let us try ourselves by this rule.
1. It is plain, then, that where there is no 191outward obedience to these heavenly laws, there can be no real citizenship of heaven. A certain estate of citizenship there must be, because God gave it to us by our regeneration in holy Baptism. He bestowed upon us our justification; and gave us an inheritance among the saints in light. This is His act; for “it is God that justifieth.” But though He bestow this freedom, what He gave, we may forfeit. If we break the laws, we thereby disfranchise ourselves of “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” Sinful Christians make themselves outlaws from the heavenly city; and the enemies of His Cross have no part in it. They are under a ban of outlawry, beyond the protection of the law, though still subject to its penalties. Such are all blasphemers, scorners of God and of His grace, gluttonous and excessive persons, the impure and sensual, uncharitable and bitter, proud, hard-hearted, unmerciful, “whose end is destruction.” “Into the holy city there shall enter nothing that defileth, or that worketh abomination, or that maketh a lie.” And what is the condition of multitudes in the visible Church but this? It has even come to pass, that through the evil lives of the regenerate, men disbelieve the gift of regeneration; and deny the grant of heavenly freedom, which God of His sovereign grace gives to the Baptized. True, indeed, it is, 192that sinners have no fellowship in the heavenly city, as rebels have no franchises or rights: yet they are subjects still; and must be judged by the violated laws of their heavenly Prince. Though we will not have Him to reign over us, He is still our King, and must be our Judge.
2. Again; this shews us that, even where there is outward obedience, there may yet be no true inward participation in the life and freedom of the heavenly city. This is a warning specially needed in these latter times: for there is much seeming and false Christianity in the world.
The orders and usages of society are a great check upon grosser transgressions. Public opinion—a heartless motive—is a very strong restraint, and has in these days erected for itself a tribunal from which to act the censor, and to exercise an irresponsible discipline. The worship of men, self-worship, world-worship, all conspire to keep up the semblance of Christian obedience. Civilisation is an extensive refiner of outward manners. It purifies, at least, the language of men, while their thoughts are all the while uncleansed. It establishes higher standards of moral judgment, and gives a tone to private life, and to the spirit of laws and tribunals, and to the proceedings of commutative justice. Custom also is a powerful support of the better habits passively received in childhood. 193Men float as upon a stream, buoyed up, passive, and inert. And intellect has a vast and versatile power of putting on the appearance not only of religion, but even of high sanctity. It is hard to believe that a man is not what he is able both powerfully and persuasively to describe. And what is true of individuals is true also of societies. A civilised Christian state has a thousand agencies to assist in supporting the belief of its own religious character; and the Christian tradition of eighteen hundred years yet floats on. This is a danger to which we are specially exposed at this time. The powers of the world, though professing to be Christian, have grown weary of Christ’s yoke, and are divorcing themselves, one by one, from Him. We have new ideas, new theories, new forces at work. Education now is the regenerator of individuals; and civilisation is the modern city of God. We hear of individual and social development; individual and social progress; of the destiny of mankind, and of the golden age yet to come, when all shall be loyal, moral, intellectual; Christian, but not sectarian; religious, though unable to unite; one with God, though divided from each other. But we seem to forget that, for the development of individual perfection, there is needed a principle above nature; and for the development of society, an unity above national institutions. In what does 194Christianity differ from philosophy on the one hand, but in revealing to us the regeneration of the Spirit; and from Judaism on the other, hut in absorbing all nations into the unity of the Church? The true and only fruitful principle of education is the gift of our spiritual birth; the mightiest power of national development and progress is subjection to the city of God. But if we will invert these things, we simply adopt the principle of philosophical education, and a Judaic nationality. In these days, when Christian realities are fast passing away, Christian terms are still retained; but they are retained only to be transferred to shadows. We hear on all sides of unity and regeneration; but the spiritual laws of the heavenly city are out of date. In modern civilisation they are, if not formally rescinded, cast aside as obsolete. The powers of the world need something more akin to themselves than a “conversation in heaven;” and to uphold their religious contradictions, they must find a higher unity than the Church of Christ.
All these things engender a specious outward Christianity, which descends from age to age, on the surface of nations and households, and under it there is often no fellowship with the world unseen; no living hold of the Head, which is our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our peril now. Laxity, 195indifference, false theories of charity, fear of being derided for narrowness, or of being assailed for tenacity, make men shrink from their heavenly allegiance. They try to make it chime with the policy of the world. And where these clash, the world has its will, because it is near and imposing: the Faith must give way, because the city of God is silent, abiding its time in heaven. Deep-working evils eat out the heart of such a Christianity, whether in nations or individuals. Vainglory, worldly greatness, luxury, softness, traffic and barter, wealth and selfishness,—these make men and empires to be secret and stubborn enemies of the Cross and kingdom of Christ. Its realities are hateful, because sharp and rebuking. Worldliness, follies, and pleasures, with the lusts which are never far apart from them, turn the whole heart from God. St. Paul says of all such, “who mind earthly things,” that is, they buy and sell, and grow fond of their gains; ever busy, ever full of thought and care, policy and scheming. They live among earthly things, till they catch their taint, and themselves become earthly. And all these, and they with them, must “perish with the using.”
Such men may be known by this—they never forego any thing for the sake of Christ; gain, honour, place, ease, pleasure, and the like. When 196 the trial comes, they choose the world; and sell their Master for thirty pieces of silver, or for a bauble, or for the gambling hope of wealth—for an ambitious dream; whereby we may know that they are none of His.
3. Lastly, we may learn, that there may be living and habitual conversation in heaven, under the aspect of the most simple, ordinary life. For on what does it depend but on these two things, on faith, which keeps alive the consciousness,—or, if I may so say, the vision of the city of God,—and on the obedience of our heart to its laws of love? And what are faith and obedience but realities of the Spirit, which all who desire may attain?
The greatest mysteries of Christ’s kingdom, like the highest laws of creation, are the broadest and largest in their range. The communion of saints, the consciousness of Christ’s presence, and of our fellowship with all who are united with Him, is an article of our Baptismal faith; and may be, therefore, universal. It is not the intellectual and the contemplative, the retired and highly favoured, alone, who may converse with the heavenly city, and have fellowship with all who dwell in it. We live too little in the presence of the world unseen. Even religious minds are too little conscious of it. If some high mountain rose above our dwelling, we should never pass our 197threshold, or look abroad, without seeing it. The first lights of the morning would fall upon it; the last glow of evening would redden it; all day long the sun’s heat would burn upon it; all our distances would be measured; all our paths guided by it. Such to the eyes of faith is the Mount Zion which is in heaven. It hangs over us, and we dwell upon its base. If only our eyes were open, as those of Elisha’s servant in Dothan, we should be more conscious of our heavenly fellowship than of our earthly friends. With them would be our true home; the only world of reality; our only abiding rest. This would be the universal consolation of every member of Christ; the secret stay of souls under the burden of this weary world. Wheresoever we be, we may look upward, and see “Jerusalem which is above,” “the mother of us all.” When we kneel down, it, as it were, descends, and we enter into it; we pass through its open gates, and fall down even before the presence of the King. But at all times, even the busiest, and in all lawful ways, even the most crowded by the world, we are “still within its shelter and its sphere. A holy life is its very gate. And let us always remember that holiness does not consist in doing uncommon things, but in doing every thing with purity of heart. It is made up of relative duties and of habitual devotion. Such 198works of faith, patience, and charity, as our life admits, even to the very lowest state may he sanctified. Some of the greatest saints of God have been formed in the humblest paths of life, in private homes; as Anna, and Simeon, and in all ages of the Church; for secret fellowship with God is the source of all sanctity. The world soon wears out and withers up the soul which is familiar with its works, but a stranger to the Divine presence. If we do not converse with God in daily worship, we shall soon he swallowed up by the attractions of this earthly state. In the temptations of the world there is this special danger, that they are incessant. There is no moment when they are not upon us. Like the law of gravitation, which universally takes effect wheresoever it is not kept out by a special counteraction, so it is with the cares, pleasures, labours, anxieties of life. Nothing but fellowship with God keeps them in check. The moment we relax, they resume their power. The earth is nearer to us than the heavenly city; and all our affinities are more with earth than heaven. We need, therefore, something more than general intentions, and general habits of religion, to keep ourselves stedfast to our true home. We need some special and definite rules; such, for instance, as a careful reminding of ourselves, every morning, of the peculiar dangers of our calling in 199life, and of the particular sins to which we are most inclined; with a prayer that God will keep us all day long, by His Spirit, from tempting ourselves. At night, again, we ought to review the day, and see in what we have fallen, praying His forgiveness. And this habit of watchfulness needs two great supports,—the one, a daily recollection of the city of God, and the other, an habitual consciousness of God’s presence. And these, again, run up into the true sources of all spiritual strength, which are frequent communion—as often as, if possible not less than, once a month and persevering prayer. If we will watchfully and patiently walk by this path, then no matter where we be: in the throng and turmoil of great cities, in the crowded ways of life, you may live as citizens of heaven. There need be no affected singularity of gait or speech, nothing outwardly unlike the busy world around you; though you be all estranged within. It is a blessed thought, that no lawful state is a bar to any aspiration, to any reward in the kingdom of God. Our desires may go up direct from the thickest entanglements of life, to the throne before which ascend the prayers of saints. In the midst of this evil world, “the Lord knoweth them that are His.” They are lifted up, as it were, out of time, and have their lot among those who are already partakers of eternity. 200They go in and out of the heavenly gates, which are open evermore: for “the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day,” and “there shall be no night there.” Little as we often think it, there are at our side those who shall be high in the city of God. Many that are slighted and despised,—many that now seem afar off,—are ripening to be saints. At that day “many that are first shall be last, and the last first:” “they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south,” from all lands, and from all ages, from all ways and paths of life, “and shall sit down in the kingdom of God,”117117 St. Luke xiii. 29. Be this our prayer, our lot, our rest for ever.201
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