From “The Life Of The World To Come”
by Henry Barclay Swete, 1835-1917
Eternal life is not only privilege or enjoyment. It is service, it is work. We make a great mistake if we connect with our conception of heaven the thought of rest from work. Rest from toil, from weariness, from exhaustion, yes; rest from work, from productiveness, from service, no. That abundant and increasing vitality of spirit and of body which is poured into the saints from the glorified Christ, that life from the very source of life, is not to be spent in idle harping upon harps of gold, reclining on clouds, or wandering aimlessly through the paradise of God, clad in white robes and with crowned heads. These apocalyptic pictures are symbols of bliss which passes words, but there is another side to the picture, which is too often forgotten in our anticipations of the life to come.
“They rest not day and night.” (1 Rev. 4:8)
“They serve day and night.” (Rev. 7:15)
“His servants shall do him service.” (Rev. 22:3)
The activities of the heavenly life are beyond our knowledge, as they are at present beyond our powers. From him that sits on the throne to the least of saints at his feet, all are at work.
“My Father works hitherto, and I work,” said our Lord. (1 John 1:17)
It is the law of the divine life. It is the law of all life which is worthy of the name. Here work is broken, necessarily rightly broken, by intervals of rest. God has given us the night for sleep, as he has given the day for work, and there are the longer intervals caused by sickness or enforced abstinence from work, and the last, immeasurable interval of death. To each of us “the night comes, when no man can work” (John 9:4). But beyond, in the age to come, there lie illimitable fields of work. Work without weariness, without rest, because there is no need for rest and no desire for it. Work which is rest and joy, the keen delight of overflowing vitality, perfect health, unclouded brain, untiring strength, absolute devotion.
And all this work is service.
“His servants shall serve him.”
It is one of the best features of our day that so much time and thought are given by men and women to the service of humankind. Christ served humanity, “the Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister,” not to be served, but to serve and even to give his life for mankind. It is Christ-like to serve man. Yet to serve God, as they will serve him in the world to come, is greater and nobler.
But let us understand what we mean by this. “Divine service” as usually understood, means the public prayers of the Church. We inherit the phrase from monasticism, which spoke of the hours of prayer as the “Opus” or “Servitium Dei” (the work or service of God). But we are mistaken if we think of the life of heaven as worship only in our sense of the word. Worship, no doubt, it will be, all of it, because in that world all work will be worship and every act will be brought into relation with God, will be a doing of his will, an offering of a free heart to him, a priestly service acceptable to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We shall serve as priests and kings, for, to serve God, as the old collect says, is to reign. It is perfect freedom, it is royalty. To serve God without intermission in every thought and action is the highest glory and the ultimate goal of human nature.
Will eternal service grow monotonous, as the ages advance? Many lives here are saddened by monotony. There is the same round of trivial duties to be discharged day by day, without any prospect of change or incident before the end. Men and women in this position become too often mere machines, their drab existence works itself out in unbroken dullness till the hour of death cuts it short. Imagine a deathless life of this kind, with immensely increased powers, to be employed eternally in the repetition of certain acts which at last become mechanical. Not such is the eternal life to which we are called. It is not only a life of knowledge, of possession, of service but a life of unceasing progress towards the infinite wisdom and goodness and power.
There is in the world as we know it much progress which is hurtful and downward in its tendency.
“Whosoever goes onward and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God,” writes Saint John in his second epistle.
Those are weighty words, worthy to be borne in mind in an age which attaches inordinate value to mere progressiveness. True progress is not found in breaking away from the old ways, but in abiding in the teaching of Christ and his Spirit in the Church. There is an apparent contradiction here, for how can we abide and yet advance? It is a paradox, like much else in scripture, but Christian experience proves it true. Those make the best progress in religion, who hold fast by the faith once for all delivered to the saints and not those who drift away from their moorings, rudderless upon a sea of doubt.
For the saints in the world to come there can be no change in the object of their faith and hope and love. They have Christ, they have God and they are satisfied. There can be no monotony in the contemplation and worship of the Infinite. Their great possession is unchangeable but also inexhaustible. No change is possible where all is love and truth. The centre of the heavenly life is fixed and immovable but the circumference may ever be advancing towards the centre, the saints may ever be drawing nearer and nearer to a goal which they can never reach. There may be progress in knowledge, progress in enjoyment, progress in service, a progress which at every point will open up new wonders, new opportunities, new outlooks into a greater future, and as that future unfolds itself, new and unsuspected scopes for the energies of the redeemed, new ways of fellowship with God in Christ, new companionships with the good and great of past generations, and with angelic beings who have watched and guarded us in life and rejoiced over our repentance and are ready to welcome us into the eternal mansions and will share our worship and our work, our service and our joy, in the ages to come.
But may we carry the idea of time into the life beyond? If not, how can there be progress? The true answer seems to be that which has been given by the great living philosopher, Henri Bergson, that while what he calls “clock-time” is limited to the present life, “duration” continues in the world to come. That is, as I understand him to mean, although we cannot think of divisions of time, such as hours and days and years, as existing in a future life, there will be succession there, age following age, though no age, as it passes, takes from the total sum of that deathless life. Certainly this is assumed everywhere in the “Bible,” where the next world is called “the ages of the ages” and even once by Saint Paul, “all the generations of the age of ages” (Ephesians 3:21). As the ages roll by, only that other ages may succeed them, the happy saints will find themselves nearer to God and to Christ, not raised as on earth by a cross, but drawn towards the throne by growing love and fellowship, of which there is no limit, and no end.