Are You Looking?
Adapted from a Tract by J.C. Ryle
“Looking to Jesus.”—Hebrews 12:2
Are you looking? The question may seem an odd one at first sight. To whom or to what does it apply? The words of the Apostle Paul, below it, give us the key to its meaning. It is a question regarding your soul and the Lord Jesus Christ. It means neither more nor less than this,—“Are you looking, fixing your eyes on, Jesus?”
“Looking to Jesus” is a very simple expression: it is soon spoken and soon written; it contains no difficult words. But it is an expression which is rich in content, and filled to the brim with food for thought: Here is a brief account of the Christian’s character: he is one who “looks to Jesus.” Here is the secret of running successfully the race that leads toward heaven: we must be ever “looking to Jesus.” This is the way to begin well; this is the way to go on prosperously; this is the way to end in peace. Here is the photograph of patriarchs and prophets, of apostles and martyrs, of church fathers and reformers, of saints, in every land and age: they were all men and women who “looked to Jesus.” Here is the essence of all creeds, and articles, and confessions of faith: to “look to Jesus.” if you and I wish to be saved, let us begin by asking ourselves the simple question, Am I looking to Jesus?
But how can you look to Jesus? He is not physically here. He has ascended up into heaven in the body, and is there sitting at the right hand of God. As God, no doubt, He is present everywhere, and fills heaven and earth: as Man, He can only be in one place at once,—and that place is the place of honour at the Father’s right hand. The notion that He is present in the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper is a weak invention of man, and one that has led to many superstitions: it is a notion flatly opposed to Scripture. You may look at the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and as you look and eat and drink, your memory may be enlivened, your soul refreshed, and your faith increased. But you cannot literally and physically look at Jesus. His body and blood are in heaven, and not there. How then are you to look at Him?
There is only one answer to this question. You must look to Jesus by faith. True believing with the heart is the “looking” of which the Apostle Paul makes mention to the Hebrew Christians. Faith is the eye of the Christian’s soul. As Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, and the suffering Israelite who looked at it was immediately healed, so must you look at Jesus Christ with trust, confidence, reliance, and expectation. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he talked of “looking to Jesus.”
In what point of view ought you to look to Jesus, in order to get full benefit from Him? This is the very important question which we will address this morning. Vague, general, and indistinct notions in religion are dangerous things, and do great harm. Thousands are continually saying “they trust in Christ and no one else,” and yet can hardly tell you what they mean: no wonder they feel little comfort in their Christianity. Weak, indistinct perceptions of Christ will always produce weak consolations.
Let us try to get into a right position of soul: let us investigate how we ought to look to Jesus, so as to get the greatest amount of good from Him. It is an old saying, that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing everything; in nothing is that saying so true as in spiritual things, and specially in the relations between Christ and the soul.
There are three points of view in which your soul should look at Jesus Christ. Let us look at them in order, and see what they are.
I. You should look backward, to Jesus on the cross.
II. You should look upward, to Jesus at the right hand of God.
III. You should look forward, to Jesus coming again at the last day.
Happy is the one who takes these three looks every day that he lives! This is the one who will be found a peaceful, a strong, and a cheerful Christian.
I. In the first place, you should look backward, to Jesus on the cross.
Let your faith’s eye every day look on Christ crucified, and rest in the sight.
What will you see, as you look at Jesus on the cross? You will see the eternal Son of God suffering, bleeding, agonizing, dying, in order to pay your soul’s debt, and atone for your sins. You will see the most wonderful transaction taking place that ever took place since the foundation of the world. You will see a Divine Substitute suffering in your place, the Just for the unjust; bearing your sins, carrying your transgressions, allowing Himself to be counted as a curse and sin for you, in order that you, sinner as you are, might be set free from all guilt, and counted innocent before God.
What will you get from the sight? Clear views of the way of pardon and peace with God,—clear knowledge of the true medicine for an aching conscience,—clear perception of the only plan of forgiveness,—justification, reconciliation, and acceptance with God. Nothing but Christ’s atonement on the cross can ever clear up these things. Christ’s substitution, Christ’s satisfaction, Christ’s atoning death, Christ’s sacrifice for sin,—this is the grand secret of peace with God. To know that when we were guilty, One bore our guilt,—that when we were lost, One died that we might he saved,—that when we were ruined, One died that we might be redeemed and set free,—to know this is to know the foundation of all saving Christianity.
If you want to feel inward peace, look steadily at Jesus on the cross. Look to anything of your own, and you will never feel comfortable. Your own life and doings, your own repentance and improvements, your own morality and steadiness, your own church-going and Sacrament-receiving, your own Bible-reading and your prayers, your own almsgiving and your charities,—what, what are they all but a huge mass of imperfection? Do not rest on them for a moment, in the matter of your justification. As evidences of your wishes, feelings, bias, tastes, habits, inclinations, they may be useful helps occasionally. As grounds of acceptance with God they are totally worthless. They cannot give you comfort; they cannot carry the weight of your sins; they cannot stand the searching eye of God. Rest on nothing but Christ crucified, and the atonement He made for you on Calvary. This, this alone is the way of peace.
Look steadily to Jesus on the cross, and do not listen to those who would persuade you to look elsewhere. Thousands of people today are constantly looking to something else instead of Christ crucified, and secretly wondering why they do not find rest and comfort. They look to the Church, or the Sacraments, or the service,—or the ministry, and use them as ends, instead of using them as means. They must change their plan, if they want to find peace. It is the blood of Christ which alone can purge the conscience, and take the burden off the soul.
And in the valley of the shadow of death, nothing seems to cheer and support but the “precious blood of Christ,” and simple faith in the atonement. You will never have reason to be ashamed of the doctrine of the cross. Let the first look of your soul to Jesus, be a look backward. Look at Him dying for your sins on the cross, and as you look, say to yourself, “This was done for me.”
II. In the second place you ought to look upward, to Jesus at the right hand of God.
Let your faith’s eye see Jesus as your Priest in heaven, and rejoice in the sight.
What will you see there? You will see the same Saviour who died for you exalted to the place of highest honour, and doing the work of an intercessor and advocate for your soul. All was not done when He suffered for your sins on Calvary. He rose again and ascended up to heaven, to carry on there the work which He began on earth. There, as our Priest and Representative, He ever lives to make intercession for us. He presents our names before the Father; He continually pleads our cause. He obtains for us a never-ending supply of mercy and grace; He watches over our interests with an eye that never sleeps. He is ready, morning, noon, and night, to hear our confessions, to grant us forgiveness, to strengthen us for duty, to comfort us in trial, to guide us in perplexity, to hold us up in temptation, and to preserve us safe on our journey heavenward until we reach home.
What will you get by looking upward to Jesus? Comfort and strength in all the daily battles of life. What can be more encouraging than the thought that Jesus is ever looking at you and watching over you! What idea can be more strengthening than the idea that you are never alone, never forgotten, never neglected, never without a Friend who is “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him!” (Heb. 7:25.)
This daily upward look at Jesus is a most important point. The life of Christ for His people in heaven is only second in importance to His death for them on the cross. The blood, the sacrifice, the atonement, the satisfaction for sin can never be too much prized or thought of. But his being in heaven, the priestly intercession, the daily advocacy of Jesus should not be forgotten.
Many have been content with looking backward to the cross, and dwelling on Christ’s death, and have forgotten the resurrection, and Christ’s life as an Advocate at the right hand of God. They have confined their thoughts of Christ to the atonement He made for sin when He died. They have forgotten that He rose again, ascended up into heaven, and there acts as our Priest and Advocate when we come to God by Him. In a word, they have looked backward to Christ’s crucifixion, but they have not looked upward to Christ’s priesthood and intercession.
We ought to beware of falling into this mistake: of leaving out any part of the truth concerning Jesus. That great theologian, John Owen, declared, three hundred years ago, that there was no office of Christ which Satan hated so much as the priestly one, and none which he laboured so incessantly to obscure and bring into contempt.
Understand that office thoroughly, and cling to it firmly. No earthly priest can be so wise, so sympathizing, so trustworthy, so able to help, as Jesus, the Son of God. From no place will you go away so light-hearted, so cheerful, so satisfied, as from the throne of grace, and from communion with Christ. Look up to Him daily, if you would be a happy Christian; pour out your heart before Him, if you would enjoy the consolations of the Gospel. This daily look to a living interceding Jesus is one great secret of strength and comfort in religion.
III. In the last place, you ought to look forward to Jesus coming again.
Let the eye of your faith look forward to the day when Christ will come again the second time.
What will you see when that great event takes place? You will see the eternal Son of God return in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will come to raise the dead saints and to change those who are living, to punish the wicked and to reward the godly, to summon every one before His bar, and to give to everyone according to His works. He will come to bind Satan, and deprive him of the authority he has seized; to deliver the earth from the curse, and to purify it as the eternal dwelling-place of a holy nation; to cast out sin, and all its accursed consequences,—disease, death, sorrow, wars, poverty, injustice, and oppression. You see the world defiled now by the presence of evil. You will see it before long restored to its former state, and the days of paradise before the fall brought back again.
What will you get by looking forward to Jesus coming again? You will get that which is the best remedy against anxiety and depression,—hope poured into your heart about things to come. When the minds of others are cast down and perplexed, you will feel able to lift up your head and rejoice; when all around seems dark and gloomy, you will see light, and be able to wait patiently for better days.
Few things are so remarkable in the present time as the universal anxiety and suspense about the future. On all sides, and among all classes, you hear of lack of confidence and gloomy forebodings of coming evil; Church and State alike seem shaken to their foundations: no one seems to know what to expect next. On one thing alone men seem agreed: they look forward with more fear than hope to the future. Governments seem afraid of their subjects, and subjects seem to have no confidence in their Governments; the rich seem unable to satisfy the poor, and the poor seem unable to trust the rich.
On all sides you hear of restlessness, anarchy, lawlessness, disquiet, envy, jealousy, distrust, suspicion, and discontent. The cement seems to have fallen out of the walls of society: the bands which kept nations together seem to be decaying, snapping, and giving way. One might think that the devil was exerting special efforts, and allowed to have special power.
We have again today, as in Ryle’s time, what seems like a fulfilment of the words of our Lord in the Gospel of Luke: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25, 26.) Wherever we may look we can see something very like an accomplishment of these words. Everywhere men are looking forward with alarm. Alarm about the environment, or the economy, or basic freedoms.
In a day like this there is no comfort like that of looking forward to Christ coming again. The Christian who reads his Bible, and believes what it contains, can behold the shaking of all things round him unmoved. He, at any rate, is not uncertain about the future: he, at least, can explain to any one the nature of his expectations.
He expects nothing from the rulers of this world: he knows that their boasted laws and reforms will never satisfy mankind, or give peace and freedom to the earth. He expects nothing from the Churches and ecclesiastical systems of Christendom: he knows that they are all breaking down, going to pieces, and melting away. He expects but little from missions, either at home or abroad: he knows that they will call out an elect people for the glory of God: but he looks for little more.
His expectation is wholly fixed on Christ’s second coming and reign. This is the great event to which he is continually looking forward; this is “the blessed hope” that sustains him, and makes him calm amidst confusion. His eye is steadily fixed on his Saviour’s return. In the darkest hour he does not despair: “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay” (Heb. 10:37.)
We ought to pity those who look for the perfecting of the Church or the world by any human effort. We ought to pity politicians who dream that any reforms will ever pacify and content mankind; Pity Christians who dream that missionary societies will gradually regenerate the nations, and fill the earth with true religion, till it silently and gently blooms into a state of perfection. Both camps are sowing for themselves bitter disappointment: they might as well expect grapes from thorns or figs from thistles. The only safe position in looking into the future, is that which is occupied by the Christian who fixes his hope on the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Does false doctrine rise and spread among professing Christians? Are many falling away on the right hand and left, some going towards Formalism, and others leaning towards Atheism? Are myriads bowing down before such idols as the intellect, reason, generosity, charity, earnestness, and the like? The courage of the believer in a personal second coming and reign of Christ will not fail. He falls back on the thought that all is ordered for good: all is permitted for wise ends, for the purification of Christians and the exercise of their graces. There is a good time coming: the Lord of the harvest will soon appear, and send out His angels to separate the wheat and the tares; then will the righteous shine like the sun. The time is short, the Lord is at hand.
Do rulers and governments throw the nations of the earth into confusion, changing, pulling down, mismanaging disestablishing, rearranging, in their feverish anxiety to make everything work smoothly? Does everything in society gradually become more disorderly, more out of joint, and more full of confusion? Does a grand crash seem impending, when the whole machine of government will break down and come to a standstill? The believer in Christ’s second advent and reign, can view it all without dismay. He knows who has said, “A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it. This also shall not be, until he comes, the one to whom judgment belongs.” (Ezek. 21:27.) He expects no perfect peace or rest until the Prince of Peace comes, and the King’s Son has His own kingdom again, and the prince of this world is cast out. He believes that all will end well: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Rev. 11:15.)
Do the best believers seem to die off and leave the Church below? Are the gaps in families and congregations apparently increasing, which nothing seems to fill up? Do the friends ahead in the voyage of life, who have crossed over and got home before us, begin to seem far more numerous than the friends here below? Does heaven seem to become every year more full, and earth more empty, the Church above more rich, and the Church below more poor?
The man who believes in the speedy coming and kingdom of Christ can bear it all without despairing. He does not sorrow, as those who have no hope; he believes that the parting is only for a small moment, and the meeting will be for ever; he believes that the time is short, the fashion of this world passing away, the first resurrection drawing near, the Conqueror of death about to return. He knows that he will soon see all the saints again; the whole family will be reassembled: God will look over all those that sleep in Jesus. Happy is he who believes Christ’s second personal advent. Happy is that man who can look forward.
Remember these three looks at Jesus, backward, upward, forward; and make use of them every day. The first is the secret of peace of conscience: no peace unless we look backward at the cross of Christ!—the second is the secret of real daily strength and comfort in our walk with God: little solid comfort unless we look upward to Christ’s intercession!—The third is the secret of bright and cheerful hope in a dark world: no bright prospect unless we look forward to Christ coming again! Backward, upward, forward,—these are the three ways in which we should look at Jesus. The one who looks at the cross is a wise man; The one who looks at the cross and the intercession also, is wiser still; but the one looks at all three,—the cross, the intercession, and the coming of Jesus,—he is the wisest of all.
(1) And now, as we come to a close let me end, first, by asking you a friendly question. Let me ask you what you are looking to for your soul’s salvation?
You have a soul, you know full well: there is something within you that bears witness to that. That there is a world to come, and a judgment too,—that there is a life to come for which this life is only a preparatory school,—that you were not sent into the world to live the life of a beast, to eat and drink and sleep and care for nothing but your body,—to all this your conscience testifies. You may not live, perhaps, as if you believed all this,—a man might often think you did not believe it; but for all this, you do believe it. In your heart of hearts, you know that it is all true.
Once more, then, I ask, what are you looking to for your soul’s salvation? Anything? or nothing? Something solid and substantial? or something weak and infirm? For your soul’s sake, and as one that must die one day, I urge you to give an answer.
Will you tell me, “You don’t know: you hope it will be all right: at any rate you don’t pretend to make any profession.” You cannot surely think that excuses like these are reasonable, or adequate, or sensible, or wise. To leave that uncertain on which your eternal happiness depends,—to make no insurance against the future necessities of the only part of you that never dies,—to float down the current towards the fall, and yet make no provision for your safety,—to muddle away life in meaning, and hoping, and intending, and resolving, and yet never really prepare to meet God,—to know that death and judgment are every day drawing nearer, and yet never to make up your mind how you are going to meet them,—this, this is not the conduct of a wise man. This is the conduct of a man without sense, or a child.
Hear the good news in these many verses of Scripture:
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!”—“Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.”—“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” before the Master arises and locks that gate for ever.—“Work … for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” And—“though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool”—Come to Christ, and He will give you rest.—“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find.”And—Whoever comes to Christ, He will in never cast out. For—“The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (Eph. 5:14; Acts 3:19; Luke 13:24; John 6:27; Isa. 1:18; Matt. 11:28; Matt. 7:7; John 6:37; 1 John 1:7.)
Do not rest until you know what you are looking to for your soul! Make use of the beautiful passages of Scripture which you have just heard. Look to Christ, and you will live.
(2) In the second place, if you know anything of looking unto Jesus, I have only one piece of advice to give you. That advice is, to keep on looking unto Jesus to the end.
That old way, in which saints have now walked for two thousand years, is the only way of safety and the only path of peace. All the wit and wisdom of man will never find a better way to heaven, and a surer way to keep our souls in comfort. All the Councils that have ever met together can never frame a better answer than the Apostle Paul gives to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” They cannot add one jot or tittle or grain to the Apostle’s prescription: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31.) In other words, that prescription means, “Look to Jesus Christ.” Stick to that prescription until you die. Add nothing to it, and take nothing away. You cannot improve it. The least addition or subtraction spoils it altogether.
And beware of novelties. Never leave the old paths. They are marked with the footsteps of myriads of old pilgrims. Not one ever found the old paths lead him wrong. The footsteps are all in one direction.—Beware of short-cuts, however deceptively they may be recommended.
Keep on simply looking to Jesus. Other plans of religion look well in the days of health and prosperity, but break down entirely in the hour of death, and on the sick bed. Faith in Jesus will be found better, more useful, more encouraging, more comforting, the more it is used.
Keep on looking to Jesus. Faith will soon be changed to sight, and hope to certainty. Looking to Jesus on earth by faith, you will end with seeing Jesus eye to eye in heaven. Those eyes of yours will look on the head that was crowned with thorns, the hands and feet that were pierced with nails, and the side that was pierced with a spear. You will find that seeing is the blessed consequence of believing, and that looking at Jesus by faith, ends with seeing Jesus in glory, and living with Jesus for evermore.
And in the end, with the Psalmist, when you awake, you will be satisfied with his likeness. (Ps 17:15)