Richard Sibbes on the Knowledge of Heaven
There be three degrees of discovery of heavenly things:
First, in the doctrine of them; and so they are hid to them that are out of the church.
And then, secondly, in the spiritual meaning of them; and so they are hid to carnal men in the church.
And then, thirdly, in regard of the full comprehension of thern, as they are indeed; and so they are reserved for heaven. We have but a little glimpse of them, a little light into them in this world. Now, in this place is meant the things that are discovered in the gospel, especially as they are apprehended by the Spirit, together with the consummation of them in heaven. For they differ only in degree, the discovery of the heavenly things in the gospel here; the privileges, and graces, and comforts of God’s children, and the consummation of them in heaven. And we may reason from the lesser to the greater, if so be that a natural man–though he have natural eyes, and ears, and wits about him–cannot conceive the hidden mysteries of the gospel spiritually with application; much more unable is he, and much less can he conceive, those things of a better life. Now the things of the gospel, the privileges, the graces, and comforts which Christ, the spring and head of them all, in whom all are, and whence we have all, cannot be comprehended by a natural man. He can discourse of them as far as his natural wit conceives them, but not understand heavenly things in their own light as heavenly things, as the things of the gospel. They can talk of repentance–that we commonly speak of, which is a mystery–but notwithstanding who knows repentance by the light proper to it, but he that by the Spirit of God hath sin discovered to him in its own colours! He knows what it is to grieve for sin.
The sick man knows what it is to be sick. The physician knows it by definition, by books, and so he can enlarge it; but if he be not sick, the sick patient will speak to better purpose. So there is a mystery in the common things of the gospel, repentance and grief for sin. A holy man feels it another matter, because he feels sin discovered by the Spirit of God. And so in faith, in the love of God, and every grace of the gospel is a mystery. If one come to the Schoolmen, they will tell you of faith, and dispute learnedly of it, and deduce this from that ; but when he comes to be in extremity, when the terrors of the Lord are upon him, when he comes to use it, he is a mere stranger to it ; to cast himself, being a sinful creature, into the arms of God’s mercy, he cannot do it without a further light of the Spirit discovering the hidden love of God to him in particular; and so for other graces. Therefore they do but speak of these things men that are unsanctified-as a blind man doth of colours. They inwardly scorn the truth they speak of; and those to whom they speak, if by the power of God’s Spirit they come to profit by the things they teach, if themselves be carnal, they hate them. A carnal man believes not a whit of what he saith; he hath only a common light for the good of others, a common illumination to understand and discover things, and a doctrinal gift to unfold things for others, and not for themselves. For themselves they scorn them in their hearts, and in their lives and conversations, and they will speak as much when it comes to self-denial in preferment, in pleasures, in anything that is gainful. Tush! tell him what he hath taught, or what he knows out of the book of God, he cares not, he knows them only by a common light; but for a particular heavenly light with application and taste to himself, springing from an alteration by the Spirit, he never knows them so. Therefore content not thyself with a common light, for together with our understanding God alters the taste of the whole soul; he gives a new eye, a new ear, to see and hear to purpose, and a new heart to conceive things in another manner than he did before.
But you will ask, How can a godly man know them at all, seeing ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,’ &c.?
I answer, first, the things of another life, as we see here, are known by negation, as God is, by way of removing imperfections. The natural eye sees them not, nor the natural ear hears them not, &c. No; nor the spiritual eye nor ear in a full measure. So things transcendent, that are above the reach of man, are described in the Scriptures by the way of denial, which is one good way of knowledge.
That ‘ye may know the love of God that is above knowledge,’ saith the apostle, Eph. 3:19 ; that ye may know it more and more. But it is above all knowledge in regard of the perfection of it. As a man may see the sea, but he cannot comprehend the sea. He may be much delighted in seeing the sea, but he sees neither the bottom nor the banks; he can not comprehend such a vast body. He may see the heavens, but he can not comprehend them. So a man may know the things when they are revealed, but he cannot comprehend them; apprehension is one thing, and comprehension is another. There may be apprehension in a poor degree, suitable to the capacity of the soul here; but, alas! it is far from the comprehension that we shall have in heaven. That is one way of knowing them, by way of negation and denial of imperfections to them.
And then, secondly, they are known, as we call it, by way of eminence; that is, by comparing them with other things, and preferring them before all other excellencies whatsoever; as we may see the sun in water by resemblance. For God borrows from nature terms to set out grace and glory, because God will speak in our language. For they are called a ‘kingdom’ and a ‘ feast,’ and a ‘crown’ by way of comparison. Shallow men think there is a great deal in a kingdom; and indeed so there is, if there were no other. There is great matters in a ‘crown,’ in ‘the feasts’ of kings, and the like. But alas! these be shadows; and there is no rhetoric or amplification in this, to say they be shadows. A shadow is as much in proportion to the body as these are to eternal good things. The true reality of things are in the things of another world, for eternity. If we talk of a kingdom, let us talk of that in heaven; if of a crown, of that wherewith the saints are crowned in heaven. If we talk of riches, they are those that make a man eternally rich; that he shall carry with him when he goes out of the world. What riches are those that a man shall outlive, and die a beggar, and not have a drop to comfort him, as we see Dives in hell had not? Luke 16:19ff. Here are riches indeed. So if we talk of beauty, it is the image of God that sets a beauty on the soul, that makes a man lovely in the eye of God. True beauty is to be like God. And to be born anew to that glorious condition is the birth and inheritance. All these poor things are but acting a part upon a stage for a while, as the proudest creature of all that is invested in them will judge ere long; none better judges than they. This is one way of knowing the things of the gospel, by naming of them in our own language. As if a man go into a foreign country, he must learn that language, or else hold his peace : so God is forced to speak in our own language, to tell us of glory and happiness to come, under the name of crowns and kingdoms, and riches here. If God should set them out in their own lustre, we could not conceive of them.
But, thirdly, the most comfortable way whereby God’s people know the things of heaven, and of the life to come, is in regard of some taste; for there is nothing in heaven but God’s children have a taste of it before they come there in some measure. They have a taste of the communion that is in heaven, in the communion they have on earth: they have a taste of that eternal Sabbath, by some relish they have of holy exercises in these Christian Sabbaths. A Christian is as much in heaven as he can be, when he sanctifies the holy Sabbath, speaking to God in the congregation by prayer, and hearing God speak to him in the preaching of the word. That peace that we shall have in heaven, which is a peace uninterrupted, without any disturbance, it is understood by that sweet peace of conscience here ‘that passeth all understanding,’ Eph. 3:19. We may know, therefore, what the sight of Christ face to face will be, by the sight we have of Christ now in the word and promises. If it so transform and affect us, that sight that we have by knowledge and faith here, what will those sights do? So that by a grape we may know what Canaan is: as the spies, they brought of the grapes of Canaan into the desert. We may know by this little taste what those excellent things are.
The fourth way is by authority and discovery. St Paul was rapt up in[to] the third heaven; he saith, they were such things that he saw, that could not be spoken of, strange things, 2 Cor. 12:4. And Christ tells us of a kingdom. Christ knew what they were. And the word tells us what they are. Our faith looks to the authority of the word, if we had not the first fruits, nor any other discovery. God that hath prepared them, he saith so in his word, and we must rest in his authority. And there are some that have been in heaven. Christ our blessed Saviour, that hath taken into a perpetual union the manhood with the second person, which he hath knit unto it, he knows what is there; and by this means we come to have some kind of knowledge of the things to come.
Fifthly, Again, by a kind of reasoning likewise from the lesser to the greater, we may come to know not only the things, but the greatness of them. As, is there not comfort now in a little glimpse, when God shines upon a Christian’s soul, when he is as it were in heaven? Is there such contentment in holy company here, what shall there be in heaven? Is there such contentment in the delights of this world, that are the delights of our pilgrimage ? (They are no better; our houses are houses of pilgrimage; our contentments are contentments of passengers.) If the way, the gallery that leads to heaven, be so spread with comforts, what be those that are reserved in another world! A man may know by raising his soul from the lesser to the greater. And if the thing that God hath provided in common for his enemies as well as his friends (as all the comforts of this world, all the delicacies and all the objects of the senses, they are comforts that are common to the enemies of God, as well as his friends): if these things be so excellent, that men venture their souls for them, and lose all to be drowned in these things, Oh what peculiar things are they that God hath reserved for his own children, for those that love him, when those that are common with his enemies are so glorious and excellent! These kind of ways we may come to know them by the help of the Spirit.
Those unmixed joys, those pure joys, that are full of themselves, and have no tincture in heaven, are understood by those joys we feel on earth; the joy of the Holy Ghost, which is after conflict with temptations, or after affiictions, or after hearing and meditating on good things. The heavenly joys that flow into the soul, they give us a taste of that full joy that we shall have at the right hand of God for evermore. That comfort that we shall have in heaven, in the presence of God, and of Christ, and his holy angels, is understood in some little way by the comfortable presence of God to the soul of a Christian, when he finds the Spirit of God raising him, and cheering him up, and witnessing his presence; as ofttimes, to the comfort of God’s people, the Holy Ghost witnesseth a presence, that now the soul can say, God is present with me, he smiles on me, and strengtheneth me, and leads me along. This comfortable way God’s children have to understand the things of heaven, by the first fruits they have here. For God is so far in love with his children here on earth, and so tender over them, that he purposes not to reserve all for another world, but gives them some taste beforehand, to make them better in love with the things there, and better to bear the troubles of this world. But alas! what is it to that that they shall know? as it is 1 John 3:2, ‘Now we are the sons of God, but it appears not what we shall be.’ That shall be so great in comparison of that we are, that it is said not to appear at all. It appears in the first fruits in a little beginnings; but alas! what is that to that glory that shall be! ‘Our life is hid with Christ in God,’ Col. 3:3. It is hid. There is no man knows it in regard of the full manifestation; because here it is covered with so many infirmities, and affiictions, and so many scorns of the world are cast upon the beauty of a Christian life; it is hid in our head Christ. It is not altogether hid, for there is a life that comes from the root, from the head Christ to the members, that quickens them; but in regard of the glory that shall be, it is a hidden life.
This piece is exerpted from the second sermon (on 1 Corinthians 2:9 – ‘As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, &c.’) in A Glance of Heaven, which is found in Volume 4 of the Works of Richard Sibbes.
Featured Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash
Four Meditations from John Owen September 26, 2023
This is a reprint of an article that was first published in the Banner of Truth magazine, July – August 1968. His words remain searching and pertinent today. * * * The Value of the Gospel No men in the world want help like them that want the Gospel. A man may want liberty, and […]
Peacocks and Rutterkins: Calvin the Colloquial Communicator August 31, 2023
John Calvin is thought of, principally, as a theologian. Of course, he was that. But, as Andrew W. Blackwood once told me, in his day he was first of all considered a preacher. Too few of his sermons have been preserved.1 English translations are mainly in 16th century English!2 Nevertheless, the more I read them, […]