The Puritan Vision of God – Charles E. Jefferson (historic sermon 1860-1937)
The following Charles E. Jefferson sermon was delivered before the National Council in Portland, Maine on October 17, 1901.
“And I saw a great white throne.” Rev. 22:2
The apostle is on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea. He is an exile, driven from his country and his work. He is a prisoner. His cell is ten miles long. The roof of it is God’s great heaven and the walls of it are the waves of the encircling sea. And from his prison cell he looks out upon the world. There is darkness upon the lands, but in the darkness here and there he sees a light like the flame of a candle which a group of the followers of Jesus have kindled. And a great wind is blowing. It is a terrible world upon which the apostle looks. Cruel despotisms and ancient tyrannies lift their frightful thrones and still go on writing a story which is tragedy. All sorts of evils in divers shapes and in many forms of aggression and devastation move across the scene, squirming like serpents, devouring like locusts, crunching and crushing like dragons, torturing like fiends. Above the level of the sea the spirit of rebellion lifts its hideous head like a great beast, huge, majestic, mighty, concentrating in itself the characteristic features of the brute creation. Sin with flashing crown and scarlet robe, bedizened and spangled, moves in the midst of the nations leading men captive to her will. It is worth noting that evil to the man on Patmos is no pallid or puny thing. It is not a petty and impotent antagonist, but majestic, persuasive, alluring, mighty, magnificent, with crown and scepter and royal robes, captivating the eye with the glamour of its magnificence, and swaying the imagination by the exhibition of its power.
And against this vast and terrible hierarchy of evil another kingdom is making war. There is a tremendous struggle in the world, immeasurable forces are contending for the mastery, and the land trembles under the shock of the opposing armies. But the apostle is nothing daunted. His eye does not quail nor does his heart grow faint. Undisturbed he looks upon the great thriving picture with light upon his face, because over the arena in which the age-long war is carried on he sees the glory of the great white throne. With this throne burning in his eye he looks upon the world with a heart undismayed and a soul radiant with hope.
This vision was not peculiar to the apostle John. It was one granted to all of the apostles. It was the secret of their overmastering power. We err when we suppose that the apostles turned the world upside down because they carried in their memory the parables and the Sermon on the Mount. The words which Jesus spoke were mighty words, but not by means of them did the apostles lift empires off their hinges and turn the stream of centuries into a new channel. The New Testament explicitly tells us that after the disciples had listened to the teaching of Jesus for three years, drinking in his parables, his discourses and his prayers, they were still impotent in the face of a world which they were sent to conquer. They had seen Jesus as a teacher teaching on the hillside and by the sea and on the corner of many a street; they had seen him as a great physician healing men in Capernaum and Bethsaida, and in the market-places of old Jerusalem; they had seen him as a reformer upsetting the tables of the money-changers and driving the desecrators of the temple in dismay into the streets; but none of these things were sufficient to brace their hearts for the great work entrusted to their hands. In spite of all of Jesus’ teaching and all of Jesus’ mighty deeds, the disciples after the death of their Master were limp and impotent, helpless as children, timid as cowards, hiding behind doors that were locked and barred, incapable of sending up a shout of triumph or a song of praise.
And then all at once a change came. They stood upon their feet like so many giants of the Lord, and began to speak words and to sing songs at which the world wondered. What wrought this transformation? A vision of Jesus on the throne! Listen to Simon Peter in that great sermon by which he broke the hearts of three thousand men, as he says to them, “He hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear!” The teacher, the physician, the reformer has ascended to the throne, and from the throne he will henceforth as King rule the world.
It was with this vision flashing before their eyes that the apostles went out to convert the nations. The wildest storm that ever swept across the lands broke in their faces, but nothing could bend or melt them. A deacon by the name of Stephen was stoned, but even while the stones were crashing into his flesh his face bore no marks of agony, but rather shone like the face of an angel because he caught glimpses of the glory of the throne. James, one of the sons of thunder, lays down his head upon the executioner’s block without a tremor or complaint. It had been his supreme ambition to be near Jesus on His throne, and when death comes he does not fear it but meets it gladly, saying, “I shall through death come nearer to the throne!” Saul of Tarsus travels from city to city and from country to country, everywhere hated and hounded and persecuted. He is imprisoned, he is whipped, he is stoned, he is threatened with death, he is made the offscouring of all things, a contemptible creature upon which men wiped their feet and spit their venom, but he never winces or falters, never groans or laments, but sings wherever he goes, “Now unto the King Eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.” It was this vision of the throne that inspired Paul in the writing of his letters. He breaks into song in the midst of his very severest arguments. In his great letter to the Romans in which he climbs up one of the most splendid ladders of logic which human genius has ever framed, he pauses halfway up the ladder, shouting: “O, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever.” The strength and peace and joy of all of the apostles came from their vision of the throne.
This vision has been given to isolated individuals in every land and time, and wherever the vision has been granted there has been one more name added to the roll of the heroes and the saints. Never has the vision come but that it has been lighter in the world. It came to a whole group of men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who, next to the apostles, are the mightiest men who have ever lived. They were the Burghers of the Netherlands, the Huguenots of France, the Puritans of England, the Covenanters of Scotland, and the founders of New England. These are the five tribes of the Israel of God who have molded the temper of modern civilization and changed the structure of the world. Men may say what they will about these men, dwelling on their peculiarities and scoffing at their limitations; men may caricature them, dislike them, denounce them, despise them, but this one thing must in all fairness be admitted, that no mightier men have ever lived. They were mighty in the realm of thought, thinking out ideas which burn like fixed stars in the firmament of the mental world, by which stars men still direct their courses and nations build their institutions. Their words were mighty, having hands and feet, and as they have traveled down the highways of the centuries, they have taken hold of everything they have met, subduing them to their own lofty temper. They were mighty in deed. They laid their hands upon the Church, society and the State, and the prints of their fingers are on them all.
We cannot understand the times in which we live, interpret the movements and problems of modern Christendom, nor appreciate the meaning of our flag until we make the acquaintance of this immortal company of intrepid souls by whose genius the world has been recreated. These men were different from the apostles in many points in language and in customs, in race and natural temperament and disposition; they differed from them in many an opinion and conviction, but the Puritans and the apostles were alike in this, they saw in heaven that a throne was set and that one sat upon the throne who was the sovereign of this world.
What kind of God was it that the Puritans and the apostles saw? It is sometimes intimated that the God revealed in the Scriptures is a rather barbaric and degraded being, with savage propensities and limitations which make it impossible that he should be reverenced or loved by thinking men. I do not so read the Scriptures. To the men who wrote the Bible God was so glorious in his attributes and so exalted in his character that it was impossible for human pen to describe him. Moses tried to do it, and his language quivered, gasped, and then broke down completely. Isaiah tried to do it, but his pen refused to write. He noticed that even the seraphim were hiding their faces, not daring to look upon the eternal glory, and the prophet falling on his face cried in distress, “Woe is me! I am undone, for mine eyes have seen the King.” Job tried to do it, but he also failed. He attempts to enumerate God’s works, but scarcely has he begun when he ceases, saying, ” These are but a part of His ways.” We leave Job where we left Isaiah, prostrate on his face saying, “I abhor myself!”
The only man in the Scriptures who makes a sustained effort at describing the Eternal is the prisoner on Patmos. And he also fails. He begins by comparing the King to the most precious stones that the earth affords, but feeling how inadequate this is, he says, I will not attempt to tell you what he looks like; let me describe to you the surroundings in the midst of which he lives. The four-and-twenty elders, representatives of redeemed humanity, take their crowns of gold and cast them at his feet; and the four great beasts, representatives of the animal creation, they also fall down before him, rendering to him their homage and their praise; and outside the beasts there rise rank above rank the angels, and all these, ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands break out in praiseful song; and out of the great heart of the universe there comes up a voice saying, “Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.”
The God of the Scriptures is so infinitely glorious that he cannot be described. John’s effort to describe him is laudable and earnest, but his language is very difficult to read. We who try to read it are perplexed and baffled by it, not knowing exactly what he is trying to do. He makes havoc of grammar and rhetoric, hurling his words into magnificent chaos in his herculean effort to paint the face of the King. He takes every noun that has color in it, and every adjective that has luster, and every verb that has music, and every figure that has a wealth of suggestion, and every image that has in it the power to find the blood, and every verbal gem created by the genius of scholar and orator and poet, and all these he weaves into sentences which coruscate and flash and blaze until we are dazzled and bewildered by the unparalleled splendor and turn away our eyes fatigued and overwhelmed. The genius of human speech in the Book of the Revelation simply falls down in a swoon completely exhausted by its” effort to hint at the indescribable glory of Him who sits on the throne.
And that was the God whom the Puritans also saw. It is interesting to see how the great Puritan writers pile up their words in their efforts to picture their idea of the Eternal. “What is God?” they used to say, and their answer was, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” The Puritan, like Job, threw himself on the ground saying: “I abhor myself. I have seen him, therefore I abhor myself.” Like Isaiah he cried: “Woe is me ! I am undone, for mine eyes have seen the King.” Like John he fell at Christ’s feet as one dead.
But the King, although infinitely glorious, was a God who spoke to men. “Out of the throne there came a voice.” God is a revealing God. He cares enough for man to speak to him. He speaks to him in a voice that is intelligible. Man can understand him if he will. This conception of the Eternal is never departed from from the first chapter of the Scriptures to the last. God is everywhere a speaking God. In the Garden of Eden he spoke to man. He spoke to Noah, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets. Jesus Christ is the complete word that comes out of the infinite heart. It was this speaking God whom the Puritans also saw. “Thus saith the Lord,” they cried as they went out to subdue the world.
God speaks, he speaks to you, he speaks to every one. You must therefore prepare yourself to listen. You must train your mind that you may interpret his message. His message is recorded in the Scriptures, and that message you must read and understand and profit by. No priest or king shall read it for you. You must read it for yourself. Therefore you must be educated. It was the conception of the speaking God that built Harvard College and Yale College and all the other Puritan colleges of the world. Every one of our Puritan schools is built on the Puritan vision of the Eternal.
The God who sits upon the throne is the sovereign of the world. His sway is absolute, his dominion has no end. He is the sovereign judge. He holds man accountable for his deeds. To him every soul must give account. ” He will judge every one of you after his ways.” “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” “We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and render an account of the deeds done in the body.” “And I saw the dead, great and small, stand before God.” That was the vision by which Hebrew thought was always haunted. And that was the vision which haunted the Puritan through all his days. “Draw the curtains and leave me alone,” said old John Cotton on his death-bed, on the last day of his earthly life.” Draw the curtains and leave me alone. I would speak for a while to the King!”
The outcome of this vision, it is not necessary for us tonight to consider. You know what it was in apostolic history, and you know what it has been in the history of the Puritan world. From this vision there came a courage which has never been surpassed. The Puritans had in them the intrepid temper of Drake and Frobisher and the other sea kings of the sixteenth century, and did not hesitate to cut the cables and push their ships out upon seas whose bounds had not yet been determined. They were not afraid to trample down precedents when precedents were wrong, and burn up customs however ancient if those customs had proved destructive to the soul. There was no enemy however terrible whom they hesitated to fight, there was no suffering however fearful from which they shrank. As the historian Froude says in one of his essays, “They were the only men who in that great age stood up and fought,” the only men who dared to strike at the Duke of Alva and resist the tyranny of Philip. When men told William the Silent that his cause was hopeless and tried to induce him to give up, his reply was, “When I took in hand to defend these oppressed Christians I made an alliance with the mightiest of all potentates, the God of Hosts, who is able to save us if he choose.” “It is not with us,” said one of the founders of New England, “as it is with those whom small things can discourage.” The Puritan was heroism incarnate. And along with this splendid courage there was a magnificent hatred of shams and lies.
The Puritans hated mendacity, despised all contradictions to duty and to truth. They saw that the throne was white. Because the throne of the Pope was black they hurled their thunderbolts against it. Religion in their day had become an elaborate and embroidered lie, and so they trampled it beneath their indignant feet. They took off the head of a king because he was a liar. And along with this hatred of hypocrisy and falsehood there was a fidelity to duty which never wavered and never failed. The Puritan conscience became a new factor in the progress of the world. The initial note of the new age was struck in Martin Luther’s answer to the officials of the Roman church who demanded that he recant. “I can do naught else. Here stand I. God help me. Amen.” A new age dawned when those words were spoken. That was the temper of the Puritan everywhere.
Listen to John Knox on his trial for treason saying, “I am demanded of conscience to speak the truth; and therefore the truth I speak, impugn it who so list.” They have inscribed those words around the frieze of one of the rooms in the old house in Edinburgh in which the Scotch reformer lived. And along with this fidelity to duty there came a steadfast and unquenchable hope. Like the old Hebrew prophets the Puritans could never be beaten down. In the darkest night, amid the wildest discords, when the storm was at its highest they still kept saying to themselves, “Sometime, somewhere, somehow, His kingdom shall come, and His name shall be glorious throughout the world!”
Is not this the vision which we need? We are living in confused and troubled times, when the winds are blowing a hurricane across the lands and the currents are sweeping us onward toward what we do not know. Sin still wears] her scarlet and lifts her scepter, and evil in a thousand forms devastates the peoples of the earth. Many a fixed star has been dissipated to mist, and many a hope in these recent days has gone out. In current literature and in the conversation of the aged I detect now and then a tone of weariness and despondency, sometimes sinking into a sigh of hopelessness and despair. Many men have lost hope in their city and in our republic and in the world. Would that we might have a fresh vision of the throne! And if the prisoner on Patmos could speak to us tonight, he would say: “Look up! Look up!” But how difficult it is to look up. You remember John Bunyan’s man with the rake. His eyes are fixed upon the ground, for he is raking up sticks and straws, while over his head hangs a golden crown which he never sees. It was hard for men in the sixteenth century to look up when they were raking sticks and straws; immeasurably more difficult is it now when men are raking together diamond dust and bars of gold.
Furthermore, the prisoner on Patmos would say to us: “Listen, God is speaking to you. Hear what he says! “Not a little of the mischief of our age has been caused by the growth of what is known as Agnosticism, a long and high-sounding word for unbelief.
It may be doubted whether there have ever been any genuine atheists on the earth, men who have denied the existence of Deity altogether. Even Lucretius, the Roman poet, believed in a Deity who was far removed from all that goes on in the world, hidden somewhere in the inexhaustible depths of space. The human mind in every age has felt that there must be something, be it law or force or principle or energy or fate or destiny or mind, by which the universe came into being, and according to which it moves. But all men are practically atheists who deny that God can speak, and that he does speak to the human heart. To say that one does not know whether God speaks or not is to cut away the ground upon which the world’s strongest characters have been built. “Out of the throne,” says John, “there comes a voice. Listen to it.” And if you listen you will hear it telling you to pray.
There is divine wisdom in the poet’s lines:
“Speak to Him thou for He hears, and
Spirit with Spirit can meet
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer
Than hands and feet.”
“Look up, listen, work.” Work while it is day, for the night is coming when no man can work.
Work, for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Work, in order that at the end of the day you may hear the King saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of thy Lord.”
What is the best gift which one can give to this world? What was the gift which the ancient Hebrew people gave to humanity? It is surprising how many things there are which it did not give. It never carved a statue which the world cared to preserve, nor painted a picture which the world cared to look at, nor wrote a piece of music which the world cared to hear, nor constructed a philosophy which the world cared to investigate, nor worked out a scheme of metaphysics which the world cared to follow. Palestine never produced a Phidias or a Plato, or a Raphael or a Caesar; all that she gave the world was an impulse Godward, and because she gave the world this, therefore God has given Palestine a name which is above every name, so that at the mention of this name human lips everywhere repeat with reverence and love “the Holy Land.”
And what did the Puritans give to the world? Certainly not pictures, nor statues, nor philosophy, nor metaphysics. They were not artists or scientists or architects or sages; they were nothing but heroes who gave the world a new impulse toward God. In many ways they are behind us, in delicacies, luxuries, skill, scientific knowledge ; and yet with all our ocean liners and our palace cars we feel in our highest hours that these men are still ahead of us. They are ahead of us because they are nearer to the throne. In many points they are below us. We have climbed high since the days in which they lived. We can look down upon them in knowledge, in experience, in achievement. Even our High School girls could tell John Milton a thousand things which Milton never knew. And yet somehow in our better hours we feel that these men are above us and their voices come down to us from some Alpine height, musical and sweet, freighted with a message which makes us. think of the song of the angels that fell long ago upon the December air in old Judea. With all our knowledge and acumen and attainments and accumulations we stand abashed before these men, acknowledging that they are indeed above us, and all because the radiance of the throne is on their foreheads.
This then is the greatest work which any man can do, which any set or society of men can do, which any state or any church can do; it is to blow the dust off the ideal, to pick up the lowered standards and lift them higher, to unveil the face of virtue that men may see her in her loveliness, to adorn the doctrine of the blessed God, to sound a note of warning that men shall not take the downward path, but turn their faces toward the throne.
If we should ask ourselves what our Puritan forefathers would say to us if they could speak to us tonight, no doubt they would say very simple and elementary things like this: “Better die than live ignobly, better be poor through life than be dishonest, better fail with honor than succeed by means that are unworthy of a man, better leave your boys nothing but an unspotted name than leave them a colossal fortune with a name that has been tarnished.” There is no tragedy on earth so terrible as the fading of the luster of an honored name. There is no spectacle so heart-breaking as the spectacle of laurel withered brows that have worn it nobly until their hair is gray. There lies upon this island one of the highest heaps of gold ever amassed by the genius and ingenuity and industry of man. That mass of gold can be an Aaron’s rod by means of which miracles shall be wrought for humanity, it may if wrongly used be a millstone and drown us in the depths of the sea. Let us keep repeating to ourselves the words of Jesus, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Let us ponder the meaning of the sentence, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?” And how in a world like this shall a man keep from losing his soul? Simply by living always within sight of the great white throne!