Contemplating the Splendors of Heaven
We left off in the previous article by asking how meditation on “the things that are unseen” (i.e., the glory and beauty of heavenly realities) might affect us in practical living in the here and now. Here is John Calvin’s four-fold answer.
First, contemplating the splendor of heaven empowers the believer to patiently endure unjust suffering.
Calvin’s life was an unending, torturous ordeal in which he was subjected to slander, reproach, vilification, hatred, taunting, incessant resistance to his proposals and public mockery of his attempts to proclaim the gospel and pastor the people of Geneva. Perhaps nothing exacted a greater toll on his spirit and body than the aftermath of the execution of Michael Servetus. Many believe it contributed to his early death. In a letter to Johannes Wolf we get a sense for the devastating effect it had on him. He wrote this on Christmas Day in 1555 when he was only forty-six years old:
“Believe me, I had fewer troubles with Servetus . . . than I have with those who are close at hand, whose numbers are beyond reckoning and whose passions are irreconcilable. If one could choose, it would be better to be burned once by the papists than to be plagued for eternity by one’s neighbours. They do not allow me a moment’s rest, although they can clearly see that I am collapsing under the burden of work, troubled by endless sad occurrences, and disturbed by intrusive demands. My one comfort is that death will soon take me from this all too difficult service” (cited in Gordon, 233. Letter to Johannes Wolf, 25 December, 1555. Rudolf Schwarz, ed., Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk in seinen Briefen [Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1909], 2:118-19).
As we consider his observations on the many biblical texts that address this theme, we must not think for a moment that he writes as a detached and distant observer, as if he were only concerned with the academic accuracy of his interpretations. These passages were his very life! They sustained him and gave him hope.
Consider our Lord’s encouragement in Matthew 5:12a where he responds to the reality of persecution and slander against those who follow him: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The meaning, said Calvin, is that “a remedy is at hand, that we may not be overwhelmed by unjust reproaches: for, as soon as we raise our minds to heaven, we there behold vast grounds of joy, which dispel sadness” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 267). Calvin never suggests, as do the purveyors of health and wealth and the power of positive thinking that if we but “raise our minds to heaven” all such pain and persecution will disappear. No, but there, in the midst of unending pain and persecution, we “behold vast grounds of joy, which dispel sadness.”
Calvin must have resonated in an unusually personal and vivid way with Paul’s language in Romans 8:23 where the apostle speaks of “groaning” in anticipation of the redemption of our bodies. Don’t merely listen to Calvin the commentator. Hear the heart of a suffering man whose grip was strengthened by the promise of resurrection:
“And he requires that there should be a feeling of two kinds in the faithful: that being burdened with the sense of their present misery, they are to groan; and that notwithstanding they are to wait patiently for their deliverance [both groaning and waiting]; for he would have them to be raised up with the expectation of their future blessedness, and by an elevation of mind to overcome all their present miseries, while they consider not what they are now, but what they are to be” (Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 308).
Note again: it is by “an elevation of mind” to contemplate your “future blessedness” that you can overcome all your “present miseries.” He says much the same thing in view of Paul’s comments in Romans 8:25.
“It may be added, that we have here a remarkable passage, which shows, that patience is an inseparable companion of faith; and the reason of this is evident, for when we console ourselves with the hope of a better condition, the feeling of our present miseries is softened and mitigated, so that they are borne with less difficulty” (ibid. 310).
Merely being aware of how bad things are in the present and speaking at length of the pain they inflict does nothing to help us persevere. In 2 Corinthians 5:1 the apostle reminds us that notwithstanding the decay and destruction of our earthly body we have “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” It is not enough, says Calvin, “to be aware of the miseries of this life” (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 216). That will only serve to create a morbid and sullen existence. He insists that at the same time we must have in view “the felicity and glory of the future life.” It is thinking often and deeply of “the supreme and perfect blessedness, which awaits believer in heaven after death” that empowers us to endure” (ibid.).
We find much the same emphasis in his comments on 1 John 3:2 where we are assured of being conformed to the image of Christ. Our bodies are but dust and a shadow and death is ever before our eyes. We are, said Calvin, “subject to [a] thousand miseries, and the soul is exposed to innumerable evils; so that we find always a hell within us” (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 204). This is what makes it necessary to turn our thoughts from the present, lest “the miseries by which we are on every side surrounded and almost overwhelmed, should shake our faith in that felicity which as yet lies hid” (ibid.).
Nowhere does Calvin say it with more passion and energy than in the Institutes. There you can hear the echo of his own suffering and the heaviness of the constant reproach that he endured, yet also through it all is the hope of heaven that sustained him:
“To the huge mass of miseries that almost overwhelms us are added the jests of profane men, which assail our innocence when we, willingly renouncing the allurements of present benefits, seem to strive after a blessedness hidden from us as if it were a fleeing shadow. Finally, above and below us, before us and behind, violent temptations besiege us, which our minds would be quite unable to sustain, were they not freed of earthly things and bound to the heavenly life, which appears to be far away. Accordingly, he alone has fully profited in the gospel who has accustomed himself to continual meditation upon the blessed resurrection” (Institutes, Book III, chapter xxv. 1).
To be continued . . .