Westminster Sermons, 21 – THE WAR IN HEAVEN
REV. XIX. 11-16.
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
Let me ask you to consider seriously this noble passage. It was never more worth men’s while to consider it than now, when various selfish and sentimental religions–call them rather superstitions–have made men altogether forget the awful reality of Christ’s kingdom; the awful fact that Christ reigns, and will reign, till He has put all enemies under His feet.
Who, then, is He of whom the text speaks? Who is this personage, who appears eternally in heaven as a warrior, with His garments stained with blood, the leader of armies, smiting the nations, and ruling them with a rod of iron?
St John tells us that He had one name which none knew save Himself. But he tells us that He was called Faithful and True; and he tells us, too, that He had another name which St John did know; and that is, “The Word of God.”
Now who the Word of God is, all are bound to know who call themselves Christians; even Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose again the third day, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God.
He it is who makes everlasting war as King of kings and Lord of lords. But against what does He make war? His name tells us that. For it is–Faithful and True; and therefore He makes war against all things and beings who are unfaithful and false. He Himself is full of chivalry, full of fidelity; and therefore all that is unchivalrous and treacherous is hateful in His eyes; and that which He hates, He is both able and willing to destroy.
Moreover, He makes war in righteousness. And therefore all men and things which are unrighteous and unjust are on the opposite side to Him; His enemies, which He will trample under His feet. The only hope for them, and indeed for all mankind, is that He does make war in righteousness, and that He Himself is faithful and true, whoever else is not; that He is always just, always fair, always honourable and courteous; that He always keeps His word; and governs according to fixed and certain laws, which men may observe and calculate upon, and shape their conduct accordingly, sure that Christ’s laws will not change for any soul on earth or in heaven. But, within those honourable and courteous conditions, He will, as often as He sees fit, smite the nations, and rule them with a rod of iron; and tread the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
And if any say–as too many in these luxurious unbelieving days will say–What words are these? Threatening, terrible, cruel? My answer is,–The words are not mine. I did not put them into the Bible. I find them there, and thousands like them, in the New Testament as well as in the Old, in the Gospels and Epistles as well as in the Revelation of St John. If you do not like them, your quarrel must be, not with me, but with the whole Bible, and especially with St John the Apostle, who said–“Little children, love one another;” and who therefore was likely to have as much love and pity in his heart as any philanthropic, or sentimental, or superstitious, or bigoted, personage of modern days.
And if any one say,–But you must mistake the meaning of the text. It must be understood spiritually. The meek and gentle Jesus, who is nothing but love and mercy, cannot be such an awful and destroying being as you would make Him out to be. Then I must answer–That our Lord was meek and gentle when on earth, and therefore is meek and gentle for ever and ever, there can be no doubt. “I am meek and lowly of heart,” He said of Himself. But with that meekness and lowliness, and not in contradiction to it, there was, when He was upon earth, and therefore there is now and for ever, a burning indignation against all wrong and falsehood; and especially against that worst form of falsehood–hypocrisy; and that worst form of hypocrisy–covetousness which shelters itself under religion.
When our Lord saw men buying and selling in the temple, He made a scourge of cords, and drove them out, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and said,–“It is written, my Father’s house is a house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.”
When He faced the Pharisees, who were covetous, He had no meek and gentle words for them: but, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
And because His character is perfect and eternal: because He is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, we are bound by the Christian faith to believe that He has now, and will have for ever, the same Divine indignation against wrong, the same determination to put it down: and to cast out of His kingdom, which is simply the whole universe, all that offends, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
And if any say, as some say now-a-days–“Ah, but you cannot suppose that our Lord would propagate His Gospel by the sword, or wish Christians to do so.” My friends, this chapter and this sermon has nothing to do with the propagation of the Gospel, in the popular sense; nothing to do with converting heathens or others to Christianity. It has to do with that awful government of the world, of which the Bible preaches from beginning to end; that moral and providential kingdom of God, which rules over the destiny of every kingdom, every nation, every tribe, every family, nay, over the destiny of each human being; ay, of each horde of Tartars on the furthest Siberian steppe, and each group of savages in the furthest island of the Pacific; rendering to each man according to his works, rewarding the good, punishing the bad, and exterminating evildoers, even wholesale and seemingly without discrimination, when the measure of their iniquity is full. Christ’s herald in this noble chapter calls men, not to repentance, but to inevitable doom. His angel–His messenger–stands in the sun, the source of light and life; above this petty planet, its fashions, its politics, its sentimentalities, its notions of how the universe ought to have been made and managed; and calls to whom?–to all the fowl that fly in the firmament of heaven–“Come and gather yourselves together, to the feast of the great God, that ye may eat the flesh of kings, and of captains, and of mighty men; and the flesh of horses and of them that sit on them; and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”
What those awful words may mean I cannot say. But this I say, that the Apostle would never have used such words, conveying so plain and so terrible a meaning to anyone who has ever seen or heard of a battle-field, if he had really meant by them nothing like a battle-field at all.
It may be that these words have fulfilled themselves many times–at the fall of Jerusalem–at the wars which convulsed the Roman empire during the first century after Christ–at the final fall of the Roman empire before the lances of our German ancestors–in many another great war, and national calamity, in many a land since then. It may be, too, that, as learned divines have thought, they will have their complete fulfilment in some war of all wars, some battle of all battles; in which all the powers of evil, and all those who love a lie, shall be arrayed against all the powers of good, and all those who fear God and keep His commandments: to fight it out, if the controversy can be settled by no reason, no persuasion; a battle in which the whole world shall discover that, even in an appeal to brute force, the good are stronger than the bad; because they have moral force also on their side; because God and the laws of His whole universe are fighting for them, against those who transgress law, and outrage reason.
The wisest of living Britons has said,–“Infinite Pity, yet infinite rigour of Law. It is so that the world is made.” I should add, It is so the world must be made, because it is made by Jesus Christ our Lord, and its laws are the likeness of His character; pitiful, because Christ is pitiful; and rigorous, because He is rigorous. So pitiful is Christ, that He did not hesitate to be slain for men, that mankind through Him might be saved. But so rigorous is Christ, that He does not hesitate to slay men, if needful, that mankind thereby may be saved. War and bloodshed, pestilence and famine, earthquake and tempest–all of them, as sure as there is a God, are the servants of God, doing His awful but necessary work, for the final benefit of the whole human race.
It may be difficult to believe this: at least to believe it with the same intense faith with which prophets and apostles of old believed it, and cried–“When Thy judgments, O Lord, are abroad in the earth, then shall the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” But we must believe it: or we shall be driven to believe in no God at all; and that will be worse for us than all the evil that has happened to us from our youth up until now.
But most people find it very difficult to believe in such a God as the Scripture sets forth–a God of boundless tenderness; and yet a God of boundless indignation.
The covetous and luxurious find it very difficult to understand such a being. Their usual notion of tenderness is a selfish dislike of seeing any one else uncomfortable, because it makes them uncomfortable likewise. Their usual notion of indignation is a selfish desire of revenge against anyone who interferes with their comfort. And therefore they have no wholesome indignation against wrong and wrong-doers, and a great deal of unwholesome tenderness for them. They are afraid of any one’s being punished; probably from a fellow-feeling; a suspicion that they deserve to be punished themselves. They hate and dread honest severity, and stern exercise of lawful power. They are indulgent to the bad, severe upon the good; till, as has been bitterly but too truly said,–“Public opinion will allow a man to do anything, except his duty.”
Now this is a humour which cannot last. It breeds weakness, anarchy, and at last ruin to society. And then the effeminate and luxurious, terrified for their money and their comfort, fly from an unwholesome tenderness to an unwholesome indignation; break out into a panic of selfish rage; and become, as cowards are apt to do, blindly and wantonly cruel; and those who fancied God too indulgent to punish His enemies, will be the very first to punish their own.
But there are those left, I thank God, in this land, who have a clear understanding of what they ought to be, and an honest desire to be it; who know that a manful indignation against wrong-doing, a hearty hatred of falsehood and meanness, a rigorous determination to do their duty at all risks, and to repress evil with all severity, may dwell in the same heart with gentleness, forgiveness, tenderness to women and children; active pity to the weak, the sick, the homeless; and courtesy to all mankind, even to their enemies.
God grant that that spirit may remain alive among us. For without it we shall not long be a strong nation; not indeed long a nation at all. And it is alive among us. Not that we, any of us, have enough of it–God forgive us for all our shortcomings. And God grant it may remain alive among us; for it is, as far as it goes, the likeness of Christ, the Maker and Ruler of the world.
“Christian,” said a great genius and a great divine,
“If thou wouldst learn to love,
Thou first must learn to hate.”
And if any one answer–“Hate? Even God hateth nothing that He has made.” The rejoinder is,–And for that very reason God hates evil; because He has not made it, and it is ruinous to all that He has made.
Go you and do likewise. Hate what is wrong with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. For so, and so only, you will shew that you love God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, likewise.
Oh pray–and that not once for all merely, but day by day, ay, almost hour by hour–Strengthen me, O Lord, to hate what Thou hatest, and love what Thou lovest; and therefore, whenever I see an opportunity, to put down what Thou hatest, and to help what Thou lovest–That so, at the last dread day, when every man shall be rewarded according to his works, you may have some answer to give to the awful question–On whose side wert thou in the battle of life? On the side of good men and of God, or on the side of bad men and the devil? Lest you find yourselves forced to reply–as too many will be forced–with surprise, and something like shame and confusion of face–I really do not know. I never thought about the matter at all. I never knew that there was any battle of life.
Never knew that there was any battle of life? And yet you were christened, and signed with the sign of the Cross, in token that you should fight manfully under Christ’s banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to your life’s end. Did it never occur to you that those words might possibly mean something? And you used to sing hymns, too, on earth, about “Soldiers of Christ, arise, And put your armour on.” What prophets, and apostles, and martyrs, and confessors meant by those words, you should know well enough. Did it never occur to you that they might possibly mean something to you? That as long as the world was no better than it is, there was still a battle of life; and that you too were sworn to fight in it? How many will answer–Yes–Yes–But I thought that these words only meant having my soul saved, and going to heaven when I died. And how did you expect to do that? By believing certain doctrines which you were told were true; and leading a tolerably respectable life, without which you would not have been received into society? Was that all which was needed to go to heaven? And was that all that was meant by fighting manfully under Christ’s banner against sin, the world, and the devil? Why, Cyrus and his old Persians, 2,400 years ago, were nearer to the kingdom of God than that. They had a clearer notion of what the battle of life meant than that, when they said that not only the man who did a merciful or just deed, but the man who drained a swamp, tilled a field, made any little corner of the earth somewhat better than he found it, was fighting against Ahriman the evil spirit of darkness, on the side of Ormuzd the good god of light; and that as he had taken his part in Ormuzd’s battle, he should share in Ormuzd’s triumph.
Oh be at least able to say in that day,–Lord, I am no hero. I have been careless, cowardly, sometimes all but mutinous. Punishment I have deserved, I deny it not. But a traitor I have never been; a deserter I have never been. I have tried to fight on Thy side in Thy battle against evil. I have tried to do the duty which lay nearest me; and to leave whatever Thou didst commit to my charge a little better than I found it. I have not been good: but I have at least tried to be good. I have not done good, it may be, either: but I have at least tried to do good. Take the will for the deed, good Lord. Accept the partial self-sacrifice which Thou didst inspire, for the sake of the one perfect self-sacrifice which Thou didst fulfil upon the Cross. Pardon my faults, out of Thine own boundless pity for human weakness. Strike not my unworthy name off the roll-call of the noble and victorious army, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and let me, too, be found written in the Book of Life: even though I stand the lowest and last upon its list. Amen.