“And what do you think the other saints up there thought of our brethren’s death? Why, doubtless, they welcomed them with gladsome acclamations; and all through the golden streets they ran, and cried, “More pilgrims are come to town! More pilgrims are come to town! More redeemed ones have come home!” And the Lord Jesus Christ smiled, and said, “Father, I thank Thee because those whom Thou hast given Me are with Me where I am.” He welcomed them. And God the Father, too, was glad to greet them in glory. Are you not all glad when your children come home? “
For many churches, 2020 has proved to be a year of funerals. Pastors have walked alongside their people through the valley of the shadow of death and have buried many beloved church members. Yet, even as one who grieves with his people, the pastor must also model what it looks like to have hope amid death. This was the challenge that Spurgeon faced in January 1883.
Earlier in the month, one of Spurgeon’s beloved deacons, Mr. W. Higgs, was called home. Nine days later, he learned that another one of his deacons, Mr. W. Mills, had also passed away. This was a heavy blow for Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The deacons were pillars in the church. They served lifetime terms and gave administrative oversight to this church of over 5,000 members. Not only that, but they were models of godliness and service, all with fruitful ministries of discipling and evangelism. The loss of any deacon was terrible, but now, the church faced a double loss.
On January 16th, 1883, at the funeral of Mr. Mills, Spurgeon spoke to a gathering of family and church members. Though he recognized the unique sorrow of the family in their loss, Spurgeon also identified the particular sadness of fellow church members in the loss of their brother and co-worker in the gospel.
I conceive that, in the departure of this dear brother, I am as great a loser as anyone alive. You lose much of domestic comfort, but I lose a true yokefellow. And let me say of my dear friends at the Tabernacle, associated with me in church work, that our communion is not one of a common kind. Our brethren are at the house of prayer most days of the week; and, in the case of some of them, the service of God there occupies much of their time as their own business receives; and, in the case of others of them, even more… Though we have not lost a father, we feel that we have lost a brother; and even his own dear wife, — whom may God most graciously sustain! — can scarcely feel more the loss than some of us will do who have been with her dear husband from day to day for so many years.
In the face of loss, Spurgeon knew that his task was to remind them of their hope. For so many in the church, the hope of the resurrection was a matter of intellectual assent, but not of living faith. Amid their griefs, here was an opportunity for each Christian to test their creed and see if they truly placed their hope in the resurrection. Spurgeon’s job was to model what this living faith looked like.
How could Spurgeon give his people a vision for the hope of life beyond death? He would turn not to a systematic treatment of the resurrection, but once again to his favorite allegory, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the story, Bunyan describes the process of crossing over the Jordan river into the Celestial City. In the funeral sermon, Spurgeon used Bunyan’s story as a lens to help his hearers see their hope amid death. For all those who are struggling in their sadness, Spurgeon offers us three perspectives to encourage us in our hope.
God’s Kindness in Preparing His Saints for Death
So often, death does not come suddenly but is preceded by a severe illness or accident. This is a kindness of God, an arrow “sharpened with love,” used by God to prepare his saints for death.
A little while before Christiana crossed over the water, a letter came to her from the celestial city, saying, “Hail, good woman! I bring thee tidings that the Master calleth for thee, and expecteth that thou shouldest stand in His presence, in clothes of immortality, within these ten days.” When the heavenly postman had read this letter to her, “he gave her therewith a sure token that he was a true messenger, and was come to bid her make haste to be gone. The token was an arrow with a point sharpened with love, let easily into her heart, which by degrees wrought so effectually with her, that at the time appointed she must be gone.”
Well, so it was with our brother Higgs; he had his “arrow, with a point sharpened with love,” a year or more before, and there it lay until the time appointed for him to be gone. And our dear brother Mills had his loving token sent him some months ago, just to give him notice that the Master expected him soon; and of late he had great quietude from the cares of business, and he ripened, and mellowed in spirit very sweetly. The Lord was evidently getting His servant ready to cross over the stream. Christiana did not look upon her departure with any regret; she took loving adieux of her children and all her friends and fellow-pilgrims. Neither did our dear brother Mills look forward to death with any kind of apprehension. When I sat and talked with him, about his past life, and about the world to come, our conversation was that of two men who were glad to have known each other and would rejoice when either of the two entered into rest and would be happy to meet each other again on the other side of the river.
On these occasions, fellow Christians should not only grieve, but also rejoice at the prospect of their loved ones soon being in the presence of their Well-Beloved.
As soon as Christiana received her token, she did what most Christian people do, she sent for her minister, whose name was Mr. Great-heart, for he had helped her and her family on pilgrimage till they had come to the river; and what, think you, did Mr. Great-heart say, when she told him that an arrow had entered into her heart? Did he sit down and cry with her? No, “he told her he was heartily glad of the news and could have been glad had the post come for him.” And, though I am not Mr. Great-heart, I can truly say the same. You and I should not dread this message, but may even long for it, envying those who precede us into the presence of the Well-Beloved, and get the first chance of leaning their heads upon that bosom whence they shall never wish to lift them again, for therein they find joy and bliss forever.
The Joy of the Saints in the Face of Death
Over the years, Spurgeon witnessed many of his people approaching death. And yet, by God’s grace, these were often moments when their faith shined the brightest.
Remember how, when the pilgrims crossed over the water, poor Mr. Ready-to-halt left his crutches behind him. Are you not glad of that, dear friend, you who have been ready-to-halt for years? There was dear old Mr. Feeble-mind, who said to Valiant-for-truth, “As for my feeble mind, that I will leave behind me, for that, I have no need of it in the place whither I go. Nor is it worth bestowing upon the poorest pilgrim; wherefore, when I am gone, I desire that you, Mr. Valiant, would bury it in a dunghill.” And then there was poor Mr. Despondency, with his daughter Much-afraid, who crossed the stream together. The last words of Mr. Despondency were, “Farewell night, welcome day.“ As for Miss Much-afraid, she went through the river singing, but nobody could make out quite what the words were, she seemed to be beyond the power of expressing her delight.