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REV. vii. 2, 3.

“And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.”

SIX of the seven seals had been already opened before the prophetic vision of St. John, and both heaven and earth were filled with the tokens of God’s last judgment upon the world. “There was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;” and voices went up from the earth in terror and great fear, saying “to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of His wrath is come j and who shall be able to stand? 323And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree:” that is, in vision, where time and space are not, St. John saw the whole face of the earth as it lies expanded before the eyes of God. He saw the scourges of God gathered to the full, ready to burst upon mankind; and four angels, the ministers of the justice of God, holding back the powers of divine retribution for a time appointed. And afterwards he saw “another angel ascending from the east,” the minister of God’s grace and mercy—the harbinger of the day-spring, the bright and morning star—“having the seal of the living God,” that is, the power and commission to mark off, with a signet of salvation, the number of God’s elect. “And he cried with a loud voice,” laying a divine command upon the destroying angels, that they should stay their work till the elect should receive the seal of the living God. There was a suspense in heaven and earth until the work of grace should be accomplished. “And I heard,” writes St. John, “the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand.”

In this majestic vision we have clearly revealed to us, not only some special action of the kingdom 324 of God in judgment and in mercy, but also a revelation of the continuous exercise of His sovereignty of grace.

This awful transaction is not an event of time past, though, as in a type and prelude, it may have had already a fulfilment; neither is it an action simply in time to come, as if it were not yet in operation, though, doubtless, it will be once for all accomplished when, under the suspended judgments of the last day, the angels shall go abroad to gather His elect from the four winds of heaven. There is here revealed to us a divine idea, and a divine law of action, which is now advancing with perpetual energy, past, present, and to come.

It reveals to us the state of the world, doomed by God’s righteous sentence, but spared for a while till the work of God is done. It shews us:

1. First, that God has a foreknown number whom He will gather out unto Himself.

In the foreknowledge of God all is eternally perfect and complete. There is no succession in the eternal mind. All His works stand perfect in their first and final type; each one a whole and perfect idea, eternally conceived, willed, accomplished. Even now, in the Divine foreknowledge, the mystery of redemption is beheld in its fulness. To Him who “calleth those things which be not as though they were,” it now is as to us it shall be. 325The whole of the new creation sprung from, and surrounding, the second Adam in the kingdom of life eternal; the mystical Person of Christ, both the Head and the Body, all perfect “by that which every joint supplieth;” the true and eternal Vine, complete in all its symmetry from root to spray; the heavenly court, compassed about with ranks of angelic hosts: the order of patriarchs, and the multitude of saints, ascending to the Mother of God and to the Incarnate Son: all this divine and glorious mystery of miraculous love and power stands in the foreknowledge and gaze of the Eternal, full, perfect, and accomplished. Time is not with God, save as He works in time. Time is subject to the Divine intent. Time waits upon His will, and serves it; and then, as the Divine purpose is fulfilled, ceases to exist. What is with us gradual and successive, with God is absolute and complete. The series and unfolding of creation and redemption to us are progressive, to Him are one symmetrical and perfect whole, on which the Divine will and gaze is fixed.

Before creation, God dwelt in His eternal rest, blissful in Himself, in His own goodness, power, and love; and into the same rest He will return again when all the works of creation and of redemption shall be exhausted, and the fruit of them gathered in. Until then, all power in heaven and 326 in earth is given unto the Son. But when all is accomplished in time, then shall the Son also Himself, with all His elect, the hundred and forty and four thousand in perfection and in unity, “be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” When that predestined hour is come, all orders and ranks of sinless creatures, angels, archangels, virtues and dominions, thrones, principalities, powers, cherubim, seraphim, and the mystical body of the Word made flesh, shall dwell together in the eternal rest before the face of God. This is the end for which all is ordained, to which all conspires, for which all things are waiting.

2. We see further, that the course of this world will run on until this foreknown number shall be gathered in. All things are for the elect’s sake. For their sake the world standeth; for their sake the last judgments are held back; “for their sake these days shall be shortened.” “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”187187   2 St. Peter iii. 9. But though God’s work in creation was simultaneous, His dominion in providence is progressive. He has ordained the generations of mankind in a successive order; and 327from each succession, as it comes up, He gathers out those whom He hath foreknown. Meanwhile the world runs on its course. The power of sin, which entered in the beginning, casts itself into a thousand forms, lifts itself in enmity against God, moulds the fallen creatures of God into endless shapes of provocation, and wages a perpetual rebellion. Mankind had hardly multiplied upon the earth, when the world was ripe for destruction; wrath was long threatened, and yet long held back. It is withheld still for the sake of the elect. What is the history of the world, but a history of man’s warfare against God? of our provocation, and of His patience? What are the religions, philosophies, kingdoms of the old world, but idolatry, atheism, rebellion? What are they now? What is philosophy without faith, civilisation without Christianity, education without moral laws, empires owning no omnipotence but their own, wars without justice, wealth desecrated, refinement without the cross? And what are the traditions, characters, and moral life of the nations, people, and masses of our Christian world? What is the state of the whole world at this hour? Two -thirds heathen or infidel; and of what remains of the old wreck of Christendom, what judgment is recorded in heaven? What hatred and enmity, what mockery and provocation, what schisms and heresies, 328 what spiritual revolts and national apostacies, what challenge and defiance of the long-suffering of God and of His Christ!

Why, then, “tarry the wheels of His chariots?” They “are twenty thousand,” “more than twelve legions of angels.” Why do not the armies of heaven ride forth on white horses to avenge the name of their Lord upon a hardened and hopeless world? Why are the four mighty whirlwinds yet stayed? What holds them from blowing upon the earth? They are hound by the hands of the Divine patience, only till the servants of God are sealed in their foreheads.

3. And this shews us, once more, that even now, while judgment is stayed, the Church in the midst of us is sealing God’s elect.

The angel ascending from the east is a type of the ministry of angels and men knit together in one order of grace, to gather out the heirs of salvation. Ever since the world began, this invisible work of mercy has been carrying on. “One has been taken, and another left.” Abel was sealed, and Cain cast out; Enoch “was not, for God took him:” and they are types of the ingathering of God’s secret ones from the ruin of the elder world. So afterwards, Noah and Abraham, Melchisedech and Job, the saints of Israel, every tribe in its own order, from generation to generation, 329yielding up its remnant to be sealed with the seal of God. In the darkest times of God’s Church of old there were found seven thousand men who had not fallen away: even at the last, when the holy city had become an harlot, and sects and factions in the Church of God crucified the Lord of glory, there were still saints hidden from the world, “waiting for the consolation.” Their feet wore the threshold of the temple; and they knelt, day by day, unknown before the altar.

So, too, in every age till now. In times of persecution, heresy, apostacy, or in earthly peace, splendour, and dominion, the Church has been gathering out God’s chosen servants from all nations and from all lands, from all families and households, here one and there another, one by one, sealing each individual soul, as if there were no other in the presence of God.

The visible polity of the Church, its stately ritual and public solemnities, its fasts and feasts, its chants and litanies, its missions and preachings, all the public order and movement which meets the eye and the ear,—all this is as the “not let down into the sea, which taketh of every kind, both good and bad.” But this is not the sealing of the elect. It is an inner work of grace, a choosing from among the chosen, a preparation for that day, when, upon the eternal shore, the angels 330 “shall gather the good into vessels, and cast the bad away.” There are, therefore, two special truths to be noted in this matter, lest we deceive ourselves.

The first is, that the ultimate and true election of God is not collective but several, not of bodies but of persons. The national election of Israel was a type of the Catholic election of the Church; the Jewish election was the personal election of Abraham enlarged, and the Catholic election is the visible ministry of grace for gathering in the heirs of Abraham’s faith. The visible Church is elect for the elect’s sake. It was this great mystery of grace of which St. John Baptist spoke, when he said, “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”188188   St. Matt. iii. 9. Their national or traditional election would not save them; nothing but the personal and individual election of grace. So with the visible Church of Christ. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” The world-wide tradition of baptism gathered into the visible election of the Church, first individuals, one by one, then households, then families, races, nations, all alike gathered into the way of life, and within the sphere and powers of the world to 331come, sealed all alike with the outward seal of confessions and sacraments. But what do we see all around? what does every age of the Church attest, every land in Christendom, every portion of the Church? The baptised are many, holy hearts are few; many called to be Christ’s, few chosen; many regenerate, few sons of God; much sowing, little reaping; much planting, but a scanty vintage. Let this teach us to look deeper than our baptism and our creed: both are of God, and both necessary to eternal life; but neither, nor both, suffice alone. Let us search below the passive Christianity of our childhood, and the visible election we share with the inconsistent and unconverted. Nations do not inherit the kingdom of God as nations, nor do households as households enter into life; but each several soul, as it is born into this world alone, is ever lonely before God: even in the throng of multitudes, when we fall down before God in worship before the altar, when we adore Him in united chants, and in fullest communion, with a voice as of many waters; yet even then each soul is several and alone, standing or falling by itself, bearing the weight of its own immortality, with the burden of its sins and graces, its gifts and responsibilities, its time past, present, and to come. Born alone, alone we must live; alone repent, pray, fast, watch, persevere, and die; 332 each one for himself “work out his own salvation,” and make his “calling and election sure.”

And the other truth is, that this mystery of election, as it is personal, so it is strictly consistent with our personal probation. Strange that they who believe the eternity of God should entangle themselves in questions about predestination. Once believe an Eternal Mind, and we have ascended into a sphere of faith where all things are transcendent. We can no longer reason by terms of logic or by definitions in words. If God be omniscient, must He not foreknow all things? and if He be omnipotent, why can He not create free agents. Who are we to set His perfections in contradiction? But it is plainly declared, not more by words of holy Scripture than by the whole revealed character of God, and the universal consciousness of man, that every several soul is a free moral being, responsible for the powers and will with which he is divinely endowed, and for the acts and words which issue from them.

On whom did St. John see the angel impress the seal of the elect? On the servants of God; that is, on those who were found faithful, each one in his place fulfilling his Master’s work. The parable of the talents is a key to the name ‘servant.’ It is the title of those who, having received the grace of their Lord to lay out in His service, 333use what is entrusted to them with care and diligence: it describes the state of the regenerate, and the law of their probation.

After years well spent in faithful service, when the will and heart are ripened by trial into steadfast faith and love, then, in His mercy, God bestows a crowning gift upon His servants—the grace of perseverance.

There is an interior ministry of the Spirit, ever working, sealing by an inward and divine seal the proved servants of Christ: not by a capricious or mechanical predestination, but by an election founded on the moral attributes of God and on the moral nature of man. God made man free, and elects him to and in the exercise of freedom, will, and power. And what is this seal of the living God, but the image of God renewed in the soul by the power of the Holy Ghost; the likeness and the mind of Christ stamped upon us by a perfect regeneration; the inward reality of a saintly spirit wrought in us, either by a life of steadfast obedience or by a true repentance, by a persevering grace or by a perfect conversion?

This work of grace is now, by the ministry of the Church, fulfilling all around, and will work on unseen unto the end. Then, when the mystical number is accomplished, and every soul foreknown has received the seal of God, the seventh and last 334 seal of the Book shall be opened, and the scourges of God, long pent up, come down upon the earth.

Ask yourselves, therefore, whether or no you are of this secret number? whether or no you have received this seal of God?

What else is worth living for? Though you should have all, and not this alone, what shall it profit in the day of judgment? Though you have nothing else but this alone, what shall you then desire?

But how shall we try ourselves? By what tokens shall we discern the hope of our election? Not by any external signs, nor by any supernatural intimations, nor by resting upon absolute decrees and the like; but by the deep inward marks of the work of God in us, by the correspondence of our spirit with the will and working of the Spirit of God. Let us, then, try ourselves by some plain questions of self-examination.

1. The first question to ask ourselves is, What is our character? This very word, which we so habitually use, signifies a stamp impressed upon our spiritual nature. It is the counterpart of sealing. And we use it to signify the whole outline of our moral being. Character is to the heart what countenance is to the features: it is the form and shape into which the affections, powers, and actions of the will have been cast and moulded. 335And this inward shaping is always at work. We are from childhood between two strong powers—this world and the world to come; and both exert a strange and searching influence, according as we turn our hearts towards them. To the one or to the other we are being surely likened. Therefore St. Paul says, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”189189   Rom. xii. 2 Either we are perpetually changing into a worldlier, earthlier soul, or we are being changed by union with Christ “into the same image from glory to glory.”190190   2 Cor. iii. 18. When we speak, then, of character, we mean the clear, conscious, and definite shape and direction which has been given to our whole spiritual nature.

How many people never ask themselves what shape their mind and spirit have assumed. How many live on unconscious that they are being either sealed or branded; that they are daily fixing their eternal state. Yet surely it is no hard thing to find out whether we are living in any known sin or not; whether we are striving against temptations or not; whether we have mastery over our faults or our faults over us; whether we desire the love of God or not; whether sin is to us a sorrow, and the very thought of holiness a delight; whether we are living for this 336 world or for the next. Surely it can be no hard thing to answer these questions, nor to find whether we are taking as our example the character of the world or the character of Christ; the tone of society or the sermon on the mount; the maxims of worldly wisdom or the eight beatitudes; whether we follow the majority of Christians or the company of saints, the plausible and pleasant religion of social life or the severe and lonely spirit of the cross.

Perhaps we are forced to confess that this higher character is so faintly traced upon us, that we hardly dare to claim it; then let us ask ourselves another and a more lenient question.

2. If we have not this character, what are our tendencies? To what do our desires, aspirations, thoughts, incline? To what does our will tend? If we dare not say that we are penitent or devout, dead to self and to the world, can we say that such is our tendency? that we are moving, be it ever so slowly, in that direction? If we look back on a number of years, do we seem to have moved at all in that direction? Has sin been losing hold, and the spirit of sanctity gaining power over us? Are our temptations weaker, and we stronger; our faults fewer, and our repentance deeper? Or, to take any one besetting sin, do we less often fall into it, more quickly rise from it, hate it more 337keenly, and humble ourselves more sorrowfully? Or, to take any one work of charity or devotion, do we give ourselves to it with a fuller, freer, and more generous heart? Are our prayers less wandering and irksome? Is crossing our own will easier? The service of the sick, the care of the poor, the instruction of the ignorant is it more soothing and pleasant? Do we exercise ourselves in meditation on the person, presence, and love of our Lord, on the purity and bliss of His kingdom, with greater desire and joy? By some such questions we shall see whither we are tending, and to what we are being conformed.

But it may be that we may be forced to give sorrowful answers to these questions, and to say that we feel neither holier nor humbler, more devout or penitent, than we did. And yet it is probably true that we are moving steadily onwards in the path of life; for the changes of our spiritual nature are like the changes of our stature, so slow as to be insensible: it is only after some years of growth that its advance can be perceived and measured; nevertheless the tendency is steady and unceasing. So with sincere hearts; the outline of the mind of Christ is ever shaping and deepening within them. It often happens that the more it advances, the less they perceive it, that the increase of inward sanctity conceals itself, 338 and shews only by an intenser light the sinfulness of their sinful hearts: so that the less sinful they grow, the more sinful they see themselves to be; that is, the more truly they see both what they have been and what they are. And by this they are often cast down, not daring to believe that the increased sense of sin is an increase of sanctification: but this is a sure token which way their whole spiritual nature is tending.

3. The last question we may ask is, What is our habitual intention? What, at your best seasons of recollection, is your deliberate aim? In times of sadness, sickness, anxiety, or in moments of prayer and devotion, what do you choose before all as the object of your supreme desire? At such seasons you feel the emptiness of time and the substance of eternity; you would give the whole world to save your soul; you would rather die sevenfold than sin once mortally; you would choose the love of God rather than all His gifts; to be numbered among His elect here in this world, albeit with repentance, hardness, solitude, temptation, and the cross, rather than to taste all sweetness, and possess all gifts of life, with a doubtful perseverance. At such times, it may be, your one great desire is to be sealed with the seal of the living God. And yet at other times you are conscious of sinking into a life so easy and forgetful, 339so unconscious of your one great aim, and so in harmony with this earthly state, that the higher tone seems to be artificial, and the lower to be your true tendency and character.

Now to this it may be said, Take courage. The true self of sincere minds is that which speaks and aspires in their better moments. The lower level on which they move at other times is the way of their infirmity. As the resistance of the atmosphere stays the keenest arrow’s flight, and bends it to the earth again, so the purest and directest intention is slackened by the gross thick airs of our daily life. Not to sink into a slower, earthlier motion is the portion of those who are lifted into a higher and heavenlier sphere, where the actings of the soul have nothing to resist them. In heaven “they rest not day nor night;” but on earth the most unresting intention is overcome by weakness and weariness at last. It cannot always be conscious and actual; but that does not take away its true and habitual reality.

Let this, then, be your continual endeavour, to uphold and to prolong these higher intentions. He who inspired them will sustain them. These heavenward aspirations are not the emotions of nature, but the stirrings of grace, which, as it descended from heaven, so always strives to ascend to heaven again. Quicken and strengthen 340 these desires by a life of prayer, by meditation, by habitual communion, by self-examination, by confession; by exercises of the heart, and by acts of faith, hope, and love. A soul united to God is endowed with the gift of perseverance; a will restored to its true freedom, hating sin, and delighting in the presence of Christ, shall be steadfast eternally; a heart kindled by the Holy Spirit is “sealed unto the day of redemption.”

Every day this work is advancing, and the impression of the saving sign sinks deeper and deeper in those who serve Him. It matters not where or what we are, so we be His servants. They are happy who have a wide field and great strength to fulfil His missions of compassion; and they too are blessed who, in sheltered homes and narrow ways of duty, wait upon Him in lowly services of love. Wise or simple, gifted or slender in knowledge, in the world’s gaze or in hidden paths, high or low, encompassed by affections and joys of home or lonely and content in God alone, what matters, so that they bear the seal of the living God? Blessed company, unknown to each other, unknowing even themselves; not daring to believe what they would die to gain; hoping against hope; hopeless in themselves; hopeful ever, because their Lord is patience, pity, and love. Blessed and numberless fellowship, from Abel until now; some in 341the world unseen, already sealed and sure; some yet scattered in all lands, of every tribe and tongue, most diverse and manifold in state, lot, and trial, yet all of one character, one stamp, one seal,—the image of the Son of God. In a little while, a few short years, it may be, and all will be over. We shall then know what now we hardly dare to hope. Our election will be revealed, the mystery of God’s elect accomplished, the world tried out in patience and long-suffering, in love and justice. Then cometh the end, when the angel of grace shall no longer stay the judgment of the earth. In that hour, before the face of the Lamb, who shall be able to stand? Be we among the quick or dead, may we “find mercy of the Lord in that day.”

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