The Interceders Encourager No. 51
Living in the Light of Eternity
(with acknowledgments for the first part, to Brian Edwards)
One of the great tragedies of today is that people in Britain and the West generally have no sense of eternity, and the fault for this lies with the church.
The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is the story of Solomon's backsliding. A wise king with absolute power and unlimited wealth, the envy of the world around him, allowed his heart to be turned away from God. According to Ecclesiastes 2:4-9, he tried everything as a substitute for God and yet he discovered that his life was empty and meaningless. The more he left God out, the more miserable he became.
This is because, as Solomon came to realize, God had "set eternity in the hearts of men" (Eccl. 3:11). This gift is part of the uniqueness of man. For this reason there are very few real atheists in the world because atheism is a hard religion to believe in; it runs contrary to that voice within man that cries out to him that there is a God and an eternity and a judgment to come. It is this gift that accounts for the fact that, historically, wherever we find man, we find him worshipping because he has "eternity in his heart."
The tragedy of modern man is that he has squeezed this sense of God and eternity out of his mind. An age of mind-blowing scientific achievement, colossal consumer choice and a soft luxury beyond imagination a few decades ago has all helped modern, Western man to convince himself that there is no eternity to worry about.
The terrifying thing about modern man is that he no longer feels afraid about eternity. To tell him that Christ came into the world to save sinners invites the question: "To save sinners from what?" And when we reply, "From judgment and hell," the response is invariably, "Oh, is that all? I thought you had something important to say."
To describe hell as a Christless eternity is an irrelevancy to modern man. He lives all right without Christ now, so why not in eternity? Man has lost his uniqueness. He has lost a mind filled with a sense of eternity. And, contrary to what we are often told, there is not a world out there just waiting to respond to our good news if only we will get onto the streets and tell people. Anyone with face-to-face experience will tell you that people simply do not want to know. Eternity is not in their minds.
And the reason society no longer thinks about eternity is because the church no longer declares it. Our lives as Christians, and our worship services impress the world with our love of this life. There is little about us to convince the world that we are motivated for eternity rather than for time. People do not touch eternity in our meetings. They rarely hear of it in our conversation and they certainly do not see it as the priority of our lives.
1. Revival Reawakens Eternal Issues
One thing that revival does, and it always does it, is to reawaken, in both Christians and the community around, a sense of the reality of eternal issues. In the eighteenth century, God sent an awakening that swept across the nation until hundreds of thousands knew that God was real. When 40,000 people gathered on Kennington Common in London in 1739, they had not come to watch the West Indies play England, they had
come to hear George Whitefield preach the Gospel of eternal things.
In 1737, when Whitefield was only twenty-two years old, he was preaching to crowded churches in London and thousands were turned away because there was no room; he had not yet begun preaching in the open air. At this time he said of the congregations, "They were all attention, and heard like people hearing for eternity."
Interestingly, this is exactly the same description that Alexander Webster used five years later during the revival at Cambuslang in Scotland: "They hear as for eternity." When God comes in revival power, whole communities are aware that there is a God and that eternal issues really matter.
In 1859 when God swept Ulster with revival, the October meeting at the Maze racecourse attracted less than 500 race-goers instead of the usual 10,000. Clearly some people were being made to think seriously about eternity. Here is a description given by a minister in Comber, a small town in County Down, just nine miles from Belfast: "The whole town and neighborhood were roused. Many did not retire to rest the first night at all, and for several days great numbers were unable to attend their usual vocations, but gave themselves almost unceasingly to the study of the Scriptures, singing and prayer: and for the first month, with about three exceptions, I did not get to bed till morning, such was the anxiety of the people for pastoral instruction and consolation."
In Wales in 1905, whole towns were stirred, and everybody was talking about God and eternity. The North Wales Guardian for 20 January 1905 carried the following reports: "In consequence of the revival, the annual eisteddfod arranged to be held on Friday January 27th at Llansantffraid near Oswestry has been postponed. The secretaries who have widely advertised the postponement, discovered that the usual eisteddfod enthusiasts were devoting themselves to the revival gatherings, and that choirs have been unable to obtain accommodation for practice.
Why was this? It was because their minds and lives were gripped with something far more important than the eisteddfod. In revival God puts eternity back into men's minds, not just as individuals, but as whole communities. Another newspaper in Wales, reported "a pervading and overwhelming solemnity dominated the atmosphere, convincing even the most stoical that eternal realities had come into intimate contact with the men and women present." Can you imagine a newspaper reporting in such a way today? But, however reported, how we need that to be true again.
Duncan Campbell recalls the same thing happening on the Isle of Lewis in 1949: "News of what was happening in Barvas spread faster than the speed of gossipů Within a matter of days the whole neighborhood was powerfully awakened to eternal realities. Work was largely set aside as people became concerned about their own salvation, or the salvation of friends and neighbors. In homes, barns and loom sheds, by the roadside or the peat stack, men could be found calling upon God...."
The population of New England in the eighteenth century was probably around 340,000, and it is estimated that the awakening there brought up to 50,000 to salvation. When such a proportion of the population is converted in a short time, almost everyone has to think about eternity!
2. The Present Position
So we know that in times of revival, the things of eternity become very real and relevant, but that is certainly not true now. It is not true in the world, and it is not true in the Church either. We need to face up to the fact that we are not an eternity-minded people. We live like the world we are supposed to be saving. We are too centred on the things of time rather than the things of eternity. The tragic result of this is that we cannot expect the world to take eternity seriously if we are not doing so.
3. The Previous Generations
We need to remind ourselves of how previous generations of Christians have lived. The Early Church, as is well known, lived such outstanding lives, that they out-thought, out-lived and out-died their pagan contemporaries. That was only possible because they lived in the light of eternity. To sing praises to God while they were being thrown to the lions or the gladiators shows the truth of this.
As worldliness and pride started to creep into the Church, groups of people sprang up which sought to remain faithful to the teaching of the Lord and the apostles, and to primitive piety; the Montanists, the Cathari, the Paulicians, the Bogomili, the Albigensi, the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Hussites, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Huguenots, the early Dissenters in Britain, the Pietists, the Moravians, the early Methodists, plus many others. These all sought to live in the light of eternity, and often had to pay for it with their lives, as do so many in the persecuted churches today.
Notice how nearly all of the groups named were the early members of the groups. This is because the devil hates it when people start living in the light of eternity, and will immediately do his utmost to distract them and make them concerned about worldly issues, usually succeeding quite quickly in lessening their devotion, taking away their first love, so that they lose their power and influence. If he cannot make them lukewarm and useless, he will try the frontal attack, to destroy the church completely, as is happening in so many parts of the world now.
4. The Pattern
The Lord Jesus Christ, of course, is the prime example of someone who remained firm, in spite of all that the devil did to distract and destroy Him. We are told the secret of this. It was because, knowing "the joy that was set before Him," He resisted the devil, "endured the hostility of sinners against Himself," " ran with perseverance the race that was set before" Him, endured the agonies of Gethsemane and Golgotha, "despising the shame," and, as a consequence, is now "seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
Looking at the example of Jesus is the key to living in the light of eternity for us. We need to accept that we have to resist the devil and to persevere. We need to expect that, as the followers of the crucified Suffering Servant, we will be put to shame and will have the hostility of sinners against us. We need to despise the shame and the rejection, looking to the joy that is set before us, knowing that Jesus is there waiting to receive us at the end of the struggle, giving us a kingdom that cannot be shaken, saying to us, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord."
5. The Problem But all this will come true only if we live and work and witness and persevere and endure, with the joy set before us dominating our lives. Most Christians today do not live like this. To them, Christianity is basically an extra in life, even if they are faithful to their church. They do not really live in the light of eternity. As A.W. Tozer has said, "The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve restful adjustment to unregenerate society, they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are." -
Or as A.B. Simpson has stated, "The chief danger of the church today is that it is trying to get on the same side as the world, instead of turning the world upside down. Our Master expects us to accomplish results, even if they bring opposition and conflict. Anything is better than compromise, apathy and paralysis."
How has this situation come about? Andrew Murray gives us a clue. "Nothing so effectually hinders hearing God's voice as opening the heart too much to other voices. A heart too deeply interested in the news, the literature, and the society of this world cannot hear the divine voice. It needs stillness, retirement, and concentration to give God the heed." We have gradually accepted too much of what the world offers, arguing that it is not sinful. The good has become the enemy of the best.
"When is revival needed? asked Finney. "When there is a worldly spirit in the Church. When it is obvious that the Church has sunk down into a low and backslidden state. When you see Christians conform to the world in dressing as the world dresses; in seeking worldly amusements; in reading novels and other books such as the world reads," (or, as could be stated for our generation, 'watching television and the internet, such as the world watches.')
6. The Response
How are we going to get out of this state?
1. We have to believe and be absolutely convinced that the things of eternity are more real and more important than anything on earth; that our Creator God is greater than we can imagine; that heaven and hell are more certain realities than anything temporal.
""The reality of hell needs to be anguished over, and to be understood as a terrible and eternal calamity. We need "to realize that souls, precious, never dying souls, are perishing all around us, going out into the blackness of darkness and despair, eternally lost. If then, we feel no anguish, shed no tears, know no travail, how little we know of the compassion of Jesus!" (Oswald J. Smith)
"If there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire. Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things may be the true cause of our want of success." (Hudson Taylor)
2. We have to declare this to others, telling them, "Once your life ends, there is no turning back; there is no second chance; there is no way to make amends when you realize that what you have spurned all your living days in those who have preached to you, and witnessed to you is, in fact, true." (Art Katz)
"Let us not glide through this world and then slip quietly into heaven, without having blown the trumpet loud and long for our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Let us see to it that the devil will hold a thanksgiving service in hell, when he gets the news of our departure from the field of battle." (C.T. Studd)
"We shall have all eternity in which to celebrate our victories, but we have only one swift hour before the sunset in which to win them."(Robert Moffat)
3. We need to live in the light of eternity. This must affect our time, our treasure and our talents, especially our treasure. One of the main areas this should affect is covetousness.
Covetousness, i.e. seeking unnecessary things, is put together with immorality and impurity as terrible sins which should not even be named among the saints, (Eph. 5:3). We would recognize the other two as unworthy of Christian believers, but covetousness is not normally put on the same scale, but if we are living in the light of eternity, it should be equally rejected. For we are told that no one who is covetous has any inheritance in God's kingdom. The believers are told not to associate with them, assuming that all covetous people are unbelievers. Living in the light of eternity means being content with what we have, and not desiring anything else; a philosophy that runs completely counter to today's consumer society.
Everything we have is to be devoted to the Lord. Our life in Christ must be the most important thing we have. He must be our all in all, so we can say with .Paul,; "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain." Looking at today's churches, you would never know that is the heart of Christianity. When a person dies, the whole emphasis is on loss and sadness, with little or no mention of gain or victory. Those who are living in the light of eternity think very differently, "rejoicing in a brother deceased," as the early Methodists did, and "desiring to be with Christ, which is far better" than life on earth.
Once our minds are set on things above, not on things on the earth,(Col. 3:2), we will be criticized and regarded as cranks. This has always been true of real Christians. Our task is to present a completely different way of living based on belief that the real world is the eternal world. Only so can we be transformed by the Spirit of the Lord into His image.
So let us make sure that The Interceders truly believe, declare and live in the light of eternity, even if others do not. Does this mean that we are not to bother with this world at all? Definitely not. God has made us physical creatures, as well as spiritual beings, to work hard, to look after the earth, and be good stewards of all He has made, the air, the soil, the water, the plants, the animals. We are to manage everything responsibly, to be kind and never cruel, to try to leave everything better than we found it, as the Celtic Church emphasized, but to do so as pilgrims on their way to a better and a heavenly country.
Jsus said, "Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life," (Jn. 6:27) In the Appalachian Mountains in the USA, God found a couple, Mr and Mrs Riley, who were willing to live in the light of eternity, and do whatever God told them to do. They put God first, trusted Him to provide work, so their physical needs could be provided for, but also realized that God's purposes were much greater than that, so they surrendered their own agendas to Him, took God at His word, and "lived for the food that would outlast them." God took them at their word, and used them wonderfully in His service, pouring out His Spirit and changing the whole town where they lived.
Ask God to do the same for you.