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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : LECTURE XIII. MARK xii. 34.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold


MARK xii.34.

Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.

Whoever has gone up any hill of more than common height, may remember the very different impression which the self-same point, whether bush, or stone, or cliff, has made upon him as he viewed it from below and from above. In going up it seemed so high, that we fancied, if we were once arrived at it, we should be at the summit of our ascent; while, when we had got beyond it, and looked down upon it, it seemed almost sunk to the level of the common plain; and we wondered that it could ever have appeared high to us.

What happens with any natural object according to the different points from which we view it, happens also to any particular stage of advancement in our moral characters. There is a goodness which appears very exalted or very ordinary, according as it is much above or much below our own level. And this is the case with the expression of our Lord in the text, |Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.| Does this seem a great thing or a little thing to be said to us? Does it give us a notion of a height which we should think it happiness to have readied; or of a state so little advanced, that it would be misery to be forced to go back to it? For, according as it seems to us the one or the other, so we may judge of the greater or less progress which we have made in ascending the holy mountain of our God.

But while I say this, it is necessary to distinguish between two several senses, in which we may be said to be near to the kingdom of God, or actually in it. These two are in respect of knowledge, and in respect of feeling and practice. And our Lord's words seem to refer particularly to knowledge. The scribe to whom he used them, had expressed so just a sense of the true way of pleasing God, had so risen above the common false notions of his age and country, that his understanding seemed to be ripe for the truths of that kingdom of God, which was to make the worship of God to consist in spirit and in truth. Now as far as the knowledge of the kingdom of God is concerned, although, undoubtedly, there are many amongst us who are deficient in it, yet it is true also, that a great many of us are in possession of it; we are familiar enough with the truths of the kingdom of God, and our understandings fully approve them. But we may be near to or far from the kingdom of God, in respect also of feeling and practice; and this is the great matter that concerns us. It is here, then, that we should ask ourselves what we think of our Lord's words in the text; and whether he to whom they were spoken appears to us an object of envy or of compassion; one whom we envy for having advanced so far, or pity for not being advanced further.

|Not far from the kingdom of God.| Again, if we take the words Kingdom of God in their highest sense, then the expression contains all that we could desire to have said of us in this life; hope itself on this side of the grave can go no higher. For as, in this sense, the kingdom of God cannot be actually entered before our death; so the best thing that can be said of us here, is, that we are not far from it; but we are in the land of Beulah, so happily imagined in the Pilgrim's Progress; all of our pilgrimage completed, save the last act of crossing the river; with the city of God full in sight, and with hearts ready to enter into it. In this sense, even St. Paul himself, when he wrote his last epistle from Rome, could say no more, could hope for, could desire no more, than to be not far from the kingdom of God.

Yet again, take the words |Kingdom of God| in their lowest sense, and then it is woe to us all, if the expression in the text is all that can be said of us; if, in this sense, we are only not far from the kingdom of God. For take the kingdom of God as God's visible Church, and then, if we are not Christians at all, but only not far from becoming so; if we have not received Christ, but are not far from receiving him; this is a state so imperfect, that he who is in it, has not yet reached to the beginning of his Christian course; and we need not say how far he must be from its end, if he have not yet come as far as its beginning.

Thus, in one sense, the words express something so high that nothing can be higher; in another, something so low, that, to us, nothing can be lower. We have yet to seek that sense, in which they may afford us a useful criterion of our own several states, by appearing high, perhaps, to some of us, and to others low.

The sense which we seek is given by our Lord, when he declares that the kingdom of God is within us; or by St. Paul, when he tells us, that it is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. And now it is no more a thing which we cannot yet have reached, or, on the other hand, which we all have reached: there is now a great difference in us, some are far from it, some are near it, and some are in it; and thus it is, that they who are near it, seem in it to those who are afar off, and far from it to those who are in it.

Now, first, do they seem far from it? Then, indeed, ours is a happy state, as many of us as can truly feel that they live so constantly in holy and heavenly tempers, in such lively faith and love, so tasting all the blessings of God's kingdom, its peace, and its hope, and its joy, that they cannot bear to think of that time, when these blessings were not enjoyed except in prospect; when they rather desired to have faith and love, than could be said actually to have them; when their tempers were not holy and heavenly, although they were fully alive to the excellence of their being so, and had seen them already cleansed from the opposites of such a state, from ill-nature, and passion, and pride.

If any such there be, in whom good resolutions have long since ripened into good actions, and the continued good actions have now led to confirmed good habits, how miserable will they think it to be only |not far from the kingdom of God!| How ill could they bear to go over again the struggle which used to accompany every action, when it was done in defiance of habits of evil; or to be called back to that condition when resolutions for good were formed over and over again, because they were so often broken, but had as yet rarely led to any solid fruit! How thankful will they be to have escaped from that season when they were seeking, but had not yet found; when they were asking of God, but had not yet received; when they were knocking, but the door had not yet been opened! They were then, indeed, not far from the kingdom of God, but they were still without its walls; they were still strangers, and not citizens. It had held out to them a refuge, and they had fled to it as suppliants to the sanctuary; but they had not yet had the word of peace spoken, to bid them no more kneel without, as suppliants, but to enter and go in and out freely; for that all things were theirs, because they were Christ's.

I have dwelt purposely somewhat the longer upon this, because the more that we can feel the truth of this picture, the more that we can put ourselves into the position of those who are within the kingdom of God, and who, living in the light of it, look back with pity upon those who are only kneeling without its gates, -- the more strongly we shall feel what must be our condition, if those who are without its gates appear to us to be objects of envy rather than pity, because they are so near to that place from which we feel ourselves to be so distant. Or, to speak without a figure, if we could but understand how persons advanced in goodness would shrink from the thought of being now only resolving to be good, then we shall perceive how very evil must be our condition, if this very resolving to be good seems to us to be an advance so desirable; if we are so far from being good actually, that the very setting ourselves in earnest to seek for good strikes us as a point of absolute proficiency in comparison of our present degradation.

Yet is not this the case with many of us? Do we not consider it a great point gained, if we can be brought to think seriously, to pray in earnest, to read the Bible, to begin to look to our own ways and lives? We feel it for ourselves, and others also feel it for us: it is natural, it is unavoidable, that we feel great joy, that we think a great deal is done, if we see any of you, after leading a life of manifest carelessness, and therefore of manifest sin, beginning to take more pains with himself, and so becoming what is called somewhat more steady and more serious. I know that the impression is apt to be too strong upon us: we are but too apt to boast for him who putteth on his armour as for him who putteth it off; because he who putteth on his armour at least shows that he is preparing for the battle, which so many never do at all. We observe some of these signs of seriousness: we see perhaps, that a person begins to attend at the Communion; that he pays more attention to his ordinary duties; that he becomes more regular. We see this, and we are not only thankful for it, -- this we ought to be, -- but we satisfy ourselves too readily that all is done: we reckon a person, somewhat too hastily, to be already belonging to the kingdom of God, because we have seen him turning towards it. Then, if he afterwards does not appear to be entered into it; if we see that he is not what we expected, that he is no longer serious, no longer attentive to his common duties, we are overmuch disappointed; and, perhaps are tempted too completely to despair for him. Is it not that we confounded together the beginning and the end; the being good, and the trying to become so: the resolution with the act; the act with the habit? Did we not forget that he is not at once out of danger who begins to mend: that the first softening of the dry burning skin, the first abating of the hard quick pulse, is far removed from the coolness, and steadiness, and even vigour of health restored, or never interrupted?

But what made us forget truths so obvious? What made us confound things so different that the most ignorant ought to be able to distinguish them? Cannot we tell why it is? Is it not because there are so many in whom we cannot see even as good signs as these, -- of whom we cannot but feel that it would be a great advance for them, a matter of earnest thankfulness, if we could only see that they were not far from the kingdom of God, -- nay, even that their steps were tending thither? Let us look ever so earnestly, let us watch ever so carefully, let us hope ever so charitably, we cannot see, we can scarcely fancy that we see, even the desire to turn to God. We do not see gross wickedness; it is well; we see much that is amiable; that is well also: but the desire to turn to God, the tending of the steps towards the kingdom of heaven, -- that we cannot see. But this is a thing, it may be said, that man cannot see: it may exist, although we cannot perceive it. Oh, that it might and may be so! Yet, surely, as out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh, so a principle so mighty as the desire of turning to God cannot leave itself without a witness: some symptoms must be shown to those who are eagerly watching for them; some ground for hope must be afforded where hope is so ready to kindle. If no sign of life appears, can the life indeed be stirring? And if the life be not stirring; if the disorder is going on in so many cases, raging, with no symptom of abatement; is it not natural, that when we do see such symptoms, we should rejoice even with over-measure, that we should forget how much is yet to be done, when we see that something has been done.

To such persons, it would be an enviable state, to be not far from the kingdom of God. But what, then, must be their state actually? A hopeful one, according to many standards of judgment; a state that promises well, it may be, for a healthy and prosperous life, with many friends, perhaps with much distinction. We know that all this prospect may be blighted; still it exists at present; -- the healthy constitution, the easy fortune, the cheerful and good-humoured temper, the quickness and power of understanding; all these, no doubt, are hopeful signs for a period of forty, or fifty, or perhaps sixty years to come. But what is to come then? what is the prospect for the next period, not of fifty, or sixty, not of a hundred, not of a thousand, years; not of any number that can be numbered, but of time everlasting? Is their actual state one of hopeful promise for this period, for this life which no death shall terminate? Nay, is it a state of any promise at all, of any chance at all? Suppose, for a moment, one with a crippled body, full of the seeds of hereditary disease, poor, friendless, irritable in temper, low in understanding; suppose such an one just entering upon youth, and ask yourselves, for what would you consent that his prospects should be yours? What should you think would be your chance of happiness in life, if you were beginning in such a condition? Yet, I tell you that poor, diseased, irritable, friendless cripple has a far better prospect of passing his fifty, or sixty, years, tolerably, than they who have not begun to turn towards God have of a tolerable eternity. Much more wretched is the promise of their life; much more justly should we be tempted, concerning them, to breathe that fearful thought, that it were good for them if they had never been born. And now if, as by miracle, that cripple's limbs were to be at once made sound, if the seeds of disease were to vanish, if some large fortune were left him, if his temper sweetened, and his mind became vigorous, should not we be excused, considering what he had been and what he now was, if we, for a moment, forgot the uncertainty of the future; if we thought that a promise so changed, was almost equivalent to performance? And may not this same excuse be urged for some over-fondness of confidence for their well-doing whom we see so near to the kingdom of God, when we consider how utter is the misery, how hopeless the condition of those who do not appear to have, as yet, stirred one single step towards it?

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