The Great Gathering
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C Ryle
"Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed." 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2
Our text this morning contains an expression which deserves special attention. That expression is,—“Our being gathered together.”
“Our being gathered together!” Those four words touch a note which ought to find a response in every part of the world. Man is by nature a social being: he does not like to be alone. Go where you will on earth, people generally like meeting together, and seeing one another’s faces. It is the exception, and not the rule, to find children of Adam who do not like “being gathered together.”
For example, Christmas is peculiarly a time when many people are “gathered together.” It is the season when family meetings are a common tradition. In town and in country, among rich and among poor, from the palace to the workhouse, Christmas cheer and Christmas gatherings are proverbial things. For many it is the one time in the year for seeing their friends at all. Sons snatch a few days from business abroad to run down and see their parents; brothers get leave of absence from the desk to spend a week with their sisters; friends accept long-standing invitations, and contrive to pay a visit to their friends; those studying abroad rush home and enjoy the warmth and comfort of the old house. Business for a little space comes to a standstill: the weary wheels of incessant labour seem almost to cease revolving for a few hours. In short all throughout the land there is a general spirit of “gathering together.”
Happy is the country where such a state of things exists! Long may it last in Canada, and never may it end! Poor and shallow is that philosophy which sneers at Christmas gatherings. Cold and hard is that religion which pretends to frown at them, and denounces them as wicked. Family affection lies at the very roots of well-ordered society. It is one of the few good things which have survived the fall, and prevent men and women from being mere devils. It is the secret oil on the wheels of our social system which keeps the whole machine going, and without which no fuel would be of any use. Anything which helps to keep up family affection and brotherly love is a positive good to a country.
But earthly gatherings after all have something about them that is sad and sorrowful. The happiest gatherings sometimes contain disagreeable members: the happiest meetings are only for a very short time. Moreover, as years roll on, the hand of death makes painful gaps in the family circle. Even in the midst of Christmas merriment we cannot help remembering those who have passed away. The longer we live, the more we feel to stand alone. The old faces will rise before the eyes of our minds, and the old voices will sound in our ears, even in the midst of holiday cheer and laughter. People do not talk much of such things; but there are few that do not feel them. We need not intrude our inmost thoughts on others, and especially when all around us are bright and happy. But there are not many, I suspect, who reach middle age, who would not admit, if they spoke the truth, that there are sorrowful things inseparably mixed up with a Christmas gathering. In short, there is no unmixed pleasure about any earthly “gathering.”
But is there no better “gathering” yet to come? Is there no bright prospect in our horizon of an assembly which will far outshine the assemblies of Christmas and New Year,—an assembly in which there will be joy without sorrow, and laughter without tears? Thankfully there is a plain answer to these questions; and to give it is the simple object of this sermon. Give me your attention for a few minutes, and I will soon show you what I mean.
I. There is a “gathering together” of true Christians which is to come. What is it, and when shall it be?
This gathering will take place at the end of the world, in the day when Christ returns to earth the second time. As surely as He came the first time, so surely will He come the second time. In the clouds of heaven He went away, and in the clouds of heaven He will return. Visibly, in the body, He went away, and visibly, in the body, He will return. And the very first thing that Christ will do will be to gather together His people. “He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt. 24:31.)
The manner of this “gathering together” is plainly revealed in Scripture. The dead saints will all be raised, and the living saints will all be changed. It is written, “The sea will give up the dead which are in it, and death and hades will give up the dead that are in them.”—“The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”—“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (Rev. 20:13; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17; 1 Cor. 15:51, 52.) And then, when every member of Christ is found, and not one left behind, when soul and body, those old companions, are once more reunited, then shall be the grand “gathering together.”
The object of this “gathering together” is as clearly revealed in Scripture as its manner. It is partly for the final reward of Christ’s people: that their complete justification from all guilt may be declared to all creation; that they may receive “the unfading crown of glory,” (1 Pet. 5:4) and the “the kingdom prepared… from the foundation of the world;” (Matt 25:34) that they may be admitted publicly into the joy of their Lord.—It is partly for the safety of Christ’s people, that, like Noah in the ark and Lot in Zoar, they may be hid and covered before the storm of God’s judgment comes down on the wicked; that when the last plagues are falling on the enemies of the Lord, they may be untouched, as Rahab’s family in the fall of Jericho, and unscathed as Daniel’s three friends in the midst of the fire. The saints have no cause to fear the day of gathering, however fearful the signs that may accompany it. Before the final crash of all things begins, they will be hidden in the secret place of the Most High. The grand gathering is for their safety and their reward. “Do not be afraid,” will the angel-reapers say, “for … you seek Jesus who was crucified.”—“Come, my people,” shall their Master say: “enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by.” (Matt. 28:5; Isa. 26:20.)
(a) This gathering will be a great one. All children of God who have ever lived, from Abel the first saint down to the last born in the day that our Lord comes,—all of every age, and nation, and church, and people, and tongue,—all will be assembled together. Not one will be overlooked or forgotten. The weakest and feeblest will not be left behind. Now, when “scattered,” true Christians seem a sparse and little flock; then, when “gathered,” they will be found a multitude which no man can number.
(b) This gathering will be a wonderful one. The saints from distant lands, who never saw each other in the flesh, and could not understand each other’s speech if they met, will all be brought together in one harmonious company. The dwellers in Australia will find they are as near heaven, and as soon there, as the dwellers in Canada. The believers who died five thousand years ago, and whose bones are mere dust, will find their bodies raised and renewed as quickly as those who are alive when the trumpet sounds. Above all, miracles of grace will be revealed. We will see some in heaven who we never expected would have been saved at all. The confusion of tongues will at length be reversed, and done away with. The assembled multitude will cry with one heart and in one language, “What has God wrought! “(Num.23:23.)
(c) This gathering will be a humbling one. It will make an end of bigotry and narrow-mindedness forever. The Christians of one denomination will find themselves side by side with those of another denomination. Things that were all along indifferent will be finally seen by all as such. And all will be able to praise together from then on to all eternity. Never will the world have seen such a complete overthrow of sectarianism, party spirit, un-brotherliness, religious jealousy, and religious pride. At last we will all be completely “clothed with humility.” (1 Pet. 5:5.)
This mighty, wonderful “gathering together,” is the gathering which ought to be often in men’s thoughts. It deserves consideration: it demands attention. Gatherings of other kinds are incessantly occupying our minds, political gatherings, scientific gatherings, gatherings for pleasure, gatherings for gain. But the hour comes, and will soon be here, when gatherings of this kind will be completely forgotten. One thought alone will swallow up men’s minds: that thought will be, “Will I be gathered with Christ’s people into a place of safety and honour, or be left behind to everlasting woe?”
Let us take care that we are not left behind.
II. Why is this “gathering together” of true Christians a thing to be desired? Let us try to get an answer to that question.
The apostle Paul evidently thought that the gathering at the last day was an encouraging object which Christians ought to keep before their eyes. He classes it with that second coming of our Lord, which he says elsewhere believers love and long for. He exalts it in the distant horizon as one of those “good things to come,” which should enliven the faith of every pilgrim in the narrow way. Not only, he seems to say, will each servant of God have rest, and a kingdom, and a crown; he will have besides a happy “gathering together.” Now, where is the peculiar blessedness of this gathering? Why is it a thing that we ought to look forward to with joy, and expect with pleasure? Let us see.
(1) For one thing, the “gathering together” of all true Christians will be a state of things totally unlike their present condition. To be scattered, and not gathered, seems the rule of man’s existence now. Of all the millions who are annually born into the world, how few continue together until they die! Children who draw their first breath under the same roof, and play by the same fireside, are sure to be separated as they grow up, and to draw their last breath far distant from one another.
The same law applies to the people of God. They are spread abroad like salt, one in one place and one in another, and never allowed to continue long side by side. It is doubtless good for the world that it is so. A town would be a very dark place at night if all the lighted candles were crowded together into one room.
But, good as it is for the world, it is no small trial to believers. Many a day they feel desolate and alone; many a day they long for a little more communion with their brethren, and a little more companionship with those who love the Lord! Well, they may look forward with hope and comfort. The hour is coming when they will have no lack of companions. Let them lift up their heads and rejoice. There will be a “gathering together” before long.
(2) For another thing, the gathering together of all true Christians will be an assembly entirely of one mind. There are no such assemblies now. Mixture, hypocrisy, and false profession, creep in everywhere. Wherever there is wheat there are sure to be tares. Wherever there are good fish there are sure to be bad. Wherever there are wise virgins there are sure to be foolish. There is no such thing as a perfect Church now. There is a Judas Iscariot at every communion table, and a Demas in every Apostolic company; and wherever the “sons of God” come together Satan is sure to appear among them. (Job 1:6.)
But all this will come to an end one day. Our Lord will at length present to the Father a perfect Church, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” (Eph. 5:27.) How glorious such a Church will be! To meet with half-a-dozen believers together now is an exceptional and rare event in a Christian’s year, and one that encourages him like a sunshiny day in winter; it makes him feel his heart burn within him, as the disciples felt on the way to Emmaus. But how much more joyful will it be to meet a “multitude that no man can number!” (Rev 7:9)
To find too, that all we meet are at last of one opinion and one judgment, and see eye to eye,—to discover that all the miserable controversies of the Church are buried for ever.
To join a company of Christians in which there is neither jarring, squabbling, nor discord,—every man’s graces fully developed, and every man’s besetting sins dropped off for ever,—all this will be happiness indeed! No wonder that the apostle Paul encourages us to look forward.
(3) For another thing, the gathering together of true Christians will be a meeting at which none will be absent. The weakest lamb will not be left behind in the wilderness: the youngest infant in Christ that ever drew breath will not be overlooked or forgotten. We will once more see our beloved friends and relatives who fell asleep in Christ, and left us in sorrow and tears, better, brighter, more beautiful, more pleasant than ever we found them on earth. We will hold communion with all the saints of God who have fought the good fight before us, from the beginning of the world to the end.
Patriarchs and Prophets, Apostles and Fathers, Martyrs and Missionaries, Reformers and Puritans, all the host of God’s elect will be there. If to read their words and works has been pleasant, how much better will it be to see them! If to hear of them, and be stirred by their example, has been useful, how much more delightful to talk with them, and ask them questions! To sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and hear how they kept the faith without any Bible,—to converse with Moses, and Samuel, and David, and Isaiah, and Daniel, and hear how they could believe in a Christ yet to come, to converse with Peter, and Paul, and Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, and listen to their wondrous tale of what their Master did for them,—all this will be sweet indeed! No wonder that the apostle Paul encourages us to look forward.
(4) In the last place, the gathering of all true Christians will be a meeting without a parting. There are no such meetings now. We seem to live in an endless hurry, and can hardly sit down and take a breath before we are off again. “Good-bye” treads on the heels of “How do you do?” The cares of this world, the necessary duties of life, the demands of our families, the work of our various stations and callings,—all these things appear to eat up our days, and to make it impossible to have long quiet times of communion with God’s people.
But thankfully it will not always be so. The hour is coming, and will soon be here, when “good-bye” and “farewell” will be words that are laid aside and buried forever. When we meet in a world where the former things have passed away, where there is no more sin and no more sorrow,—no more poverty and no more money,—no more work of body or work of mind,—no more need of anxiety for families,—no more sickness, no more pain, no more old age, no more death, no more change,—when we meet in that endless state of being, calm, and restful, and unhurried,—who can tell what the blessedness of the change will be? It is no wonder that the apostle Paul encourages us to look up and to look forward.
I lay these things before you this morning, and ask your serious attention to them. They contain food for reflection for every one who calls himself a Christian. One thing is absolutely certain: the man who sees nothing much in the second coming of Christ and the public “gathering” of Christ’s people,—nothing happy, nothing joyful, nothing pleasant, nothing desirable,—such a man may well doubt whether he himself is a true Christian and has got any grace at all.
As we close, in the first place,
(1) I ask you a plain question. Do not turn away from it and refuse to look it in the face. Will you be gathered by the angels into God’s home when the Lord returns, or will you be left behind?
One thing, in any case, is very certain. There will only be two groups of mankind at the last great day: those who are on the right hand of Christ, and those who are on the left;—those who are counted righteous, and those who are wicked;—those who are safe in the ark, and those who are outside;—those who are gathered like wheat into God’s barn, and those who are left behind like tares to be burned. Now, what will your portion be?
Perhaps you do not know yet. You cannot say. You are not sure. You hope the best. You trust it will be all right at last: but you won’t attempt to give an opinion. Well! I only hope you will never rest till you do know. The Bible will tell you plainly who are those that will be gathered. Your own heart, if you deal honestly, will tell you whether you are one of the number. Take this advice seriously and do not rest, do not rest, until you know!
How men can stand the partings and separations of this life if they have no hope of anything better,—how they can bear to say “good-bye” to sons and daughters, and launch them on the troublesome waves of this world, if they have no expectation of a safe “gathering” in Christ at last,—how they can part with beloved members of their families, and let them move away to the other side of the globe, not knowing if they will ever meet happily in this life or a life to come,—how all this can be, is hard to understand. I can only suppose that the many never think, never consider, never look forward. Once let a man begin to think, and he will never be satisfied until he has found Christ and is safe.
In the second place,
(2) I offer you a plain means of testing your own soul’s condition, if you want to know your own chance of being gathered into God’s home. Ask yourself what kind of gatherings you like best here on earth? Ask yourself whether you really love assembling together, spending time with God’s people? If you are given the choice what do you choose?
How could that man enjoy the meeting of true Christians in heaven who takes no pleasure in meeting true Christians on earth? How can that heart which is wholly set on work, and feasts, and amusements, and worldly assemblies, and worldly advancement, and thinks earthly worship a weariness;—how can such a heart be in tune for the company of saints, and saints alone? The thing is impossible. It cannot be.
Never, never let it be forgotten, that our tastes on earth are a sure evidence of the state of our hearts; and the state of our hearts here is a sure indication of our position hereafter. Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people. He that hopes to be gathered with saints in heaven while he only loves the gathering of sinners on earth is deceiving himself. If he lives and dies in that state of mind he will find at last that he had better never have been born.
(3) If you are a true Christian, I exhort you to be often looking forward. Your good things are yet to come. Your redemption is drawing close. The night is far gone. The day is at hand. Yet a very little time, and He whom you love and believe on will come, and will not delay. When He comes, He will bring His dead saints with Him and change His living ones. Look forward! There is a “gathering together” yet to come.
The morning after a shipwreck is a sorrowful time. The joy of half-drowned survivors, who have safely reached the land, is often sadly marred by the recollection of shipmates who have sunk to rise no more. There will be no such sorrow when believers gather together round the throne of the Lamb. Not one of the ship’s company will be found absent. Some on planks, and some on broken pieces of the ship,—all will get safe to shore at last. (Acts 27:44.) The great waters and raging waves will swallow none of God’s elect. When the sun rises they will be seen all safe, and “gathered together.”
Even the day after a great victory is a sorrowful time. The triumphant feelings of the conquerors are often mingled with bitter regrets for those who fell in action, and died on the field. The list of “killed, wounded, and missing,” breaks many a heart, fills many a home with mourning, and brings many a grey head sorrowing to the grave. One great general often said, “there was but one thing worse than a victory, and that was a defeat.” But, thankfully, there will be no such sorrow in heaven! The soldiers of the great Captain of our salvation will all answer to their names at last. The roll-call will be as complete after the battle as it was before. Not one believer will be “missing” in the great “gathering together.”
Does Christmas, for instance, bring with it sorrowful feelings and painful associations? Do tears rise unseen in your eyes when you mark the empty places round the table? Do grave thoughts come sweeping over your mind, even in the midst of your children’s laughter, when you recollect the dear old faces and much loved voices of some that have passed away? Well, look up and look forward! The time is short. The world is growing old. The coming of the Lord draws close. There is yet to be a meeting without parting, and a gathering without separation. Those believers whom you laid in the grave with many tears are in good keeping: you will yet see them again with joy. Look up! Lay hold by faith on the “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him.” Believe it, think of it, rest on it. It is all true.
Do you feel lonely and desolate as every December comes round? Do you find few to pray with, few to praise with, few to open your heart to, few to exchange experience with? Do you learn increasingly, that heaven is becoming every year more full and earth more empty? Well, it is an old story. You are only drinking a cup which myriads have drunk before. Look up and look forward. The lonely time will soon be past and over; you will have company enough before long. When you wake up after your Lord’s likeness you will be satisfied. (Ps. 17:15.) Yet a little while and you will see a congregation that will never break up, and a sabbath that will never end.
“The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him,” will make amends for all.