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“More Pilgrims Are Come To Town!”: Learning to Grieve with Hope

Geoff Chang January 5, 2021

For many churches, 2020 has proved to be a year of funerals. Pastors have walked alongside their people through the valley of the shadow of death and have buried many beloved church members. Yet, even as one who grieves with his people, the pastor must also model what it looks like to have hope amid death. This was the challenge that Spurgeon faced in January 1883.

Earlier in the month, one of Spurgeon’s beloved deacons, Mr. W. Higgs,[1] was called home. Nine days later, he learned that another one of his deacons, Mr. W. Mills, had also passed away. This was a heavy blow for Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The deacons were pillars in the church. They served lifetime terms and gave administrative oversight to this church of over 5,000 members. Not only that, but they were models of godliness and service, all with fruitful ministries of discipling and evangelism. The loss of any deacon was terrible, but now, the church faced a double loss.

On January 16th, 1883, at the funeral of Mr. Mills, Spurgeon spoke to a gathering of family and church members. Though he recognized the unique sorrow of the family in their loss, Spurgeon also identified the particular sadness of fellow church members in the loss of their brother and co-worker in the gospel.

I conceive that, in the departure of this dear brother, I am as great a loser as anyone alive. You lose much of domestic comfort, but I lose a true yokefellow. And let me say of my dear friends at the Tabernacle, associated with me in church work, that our communion is not one of a common kind. Our brethren are at the house of prayer most days of the week; and, in the case of some of them, the service of God there occupies much of their time as their own business receives; and, in the case of others of them, even more… Though we have not lost a father, we feel that we have lost a brother; and even his own dear wife, — whom may God most graciously sustain! — can scarcely feel more the loss than some of us will do who have been with her dear husband from day to day for so many years.[2]

In the face of loss, Spurgeon knew that his task was to remind them of their hope. For so many in the church, the hope of the resurrection was a matter of intellectual assent, but not of living faith. Amid their griefs, here was an opportunity for each Christian to test their creed and see if they truly placed their hope in the resurrection. Spurgeon’s job was to model what this living faith looked like.

How could Spurgeon give his people a vision for the hope of life beyond death? He would turn not to a systematic treatment of the resurrection, but once again to his favorite allegory, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the story, Bunyan describes the process of crossing over the Jordan river into the Celestial City. In the funeral sermon, Spurgeon used Bunyan’s story as a lens to help his hearers see their hope amid death. For all those who are struggling in their sadness, Spurgeon offers us three perspectives to encourage us in our hope.

God’s Kindness in Preparing His Saints for Death

So often, death does not come suddenly but is preceded by a severe illness or accident. This is a kindness of God, an arrow “sharpened with love,” used by God to prepare his saints for death.

A little while before Christiana crossed over the water, a letter came to her from the celestial city, saying, “Hail, good woman! I bring thee tidings that the Master calleth for thee, and expecteth that thou shouldest stand in His presence, in clothes of immortality, within these ten days.” When the heavenly postman had read this letter to her, “he gave her therewith a sure token that he was a true messenger, and was come to bid her make haste to be gone. The token was an arrow with a point sharpened with love, let easily into her heart, which by degrees wrought so effectually with her, that at the time appointed she must be gone.”

Well, so it was with our brother Higgs; he had his “arrow, with a point sharpened with love,” a year or more before, and there it lay until the time appointed for him to be gone. And our dear brother Mills had his loving token sent him some months ago, just to give him notice that the Master expected him soon; and of late he had great quietude from the cares of business, and he ripened, and mellowed in spirit very sweetly. The Lord was evidently getting His servant ready to cross over the stream. Christiana did not look upon her departure with any regret; she took loving adieux of her children and all her friends and fellow-pilgrims. Neither did our dear brother Mills look forward to death with any kind of apprehension. When I sat and talked with him, about his past life, and about the world to come, our conversation was that of two men who were glad to have known each other and would rejoice when either of the two entered into rest and would be happy to meet each other again on the other side of the river.

On these occasions, fellow Christians should not only grieve, but also rejoice at the prospect of their loved ones soon being in the presence of their Well-Beloved.

As soon as Christiana received her token, she did what most Christian people do, she sent for her minister, whose name was Mr. Great-heart, for he had helped her and her family on pilgrimage till they had come to the river; and what, think you, did Mr. Great-heart say, when she told him that an arrow had entered into her heart? Did he sit down and cry with her? No, “he told her he was heartily glad of the news and could have been glad had the post come for him.” And, though I am not Mr. Great-heart, I can truly say the same. You and I should not dread this message, but may even long for it, envying those who precede us into the presence of the Well-Beloved, and get the first chance of leaning their heads upon that bosom whence they shall never wish to lift them again, for therein they find joy and bliss forever.

The Joy of the Saints in the Face of Death

Over the years, Spurgeon witnessed many of his people approaching death. And yet, by God’s grace, these were often moments when their faith shined the brightest.

Remember how, when the pilgrims crossed over the water, poor Mr. Ready-to-halt left his crutches behind him. Are you not glad of that, dear friend, you who have been ready-to-halt for years? There was dear old Mr. Feeble-mind, who said to Valiant-for-truth, “As for my feeble mind, that I will leave behind me, for that, I have no need of it in the place whither I go. Nor is it worth bestowing upon the poorest pilgrim; wherefore, when I am gone, I desire that you, Mr. Valiant, would bury it in a dunghill.” And then there was poor Mr. Despondency, with his daughter Much-afraid, who crossed the stream together. The last words of Mr. Despondency were, “Farewell night, welcome day.“ As for Miss Much-afraid, she went through the river singing, but nobody could make out quite what the words were, she seemed to be beyond the power of expressing her delight.

Oh, it is wonderful how these pilgrims do when they come to die! They may tremble while they live, but they do not tremble when they die. The weakest of them become the strongest then. I have helped many pilgrims on the way, and among them some Mr. Feeble-minds and Mr. Fearings, and a very great worry have they been to me while on the road; but, at the last, either the river has been empty, and they have gone over dry-shod, or else, when they have come to the very depths of it, they have played the man so well, that I have been astounded, I never imagined they could have been so brave. They have stumbled at a straw before, but in death, they have climbed mountains. They have been the most weak, timid, sparrow-like people that you could meet with; and now they take to themselves eagle’s wings wherewith to fly away. Brothers and sisters, if you are in Christ, do not be afraid to die, for dying grace shall be given to you for your dying moments.

Spurgeon did not approach these moments stoically. He knew well the discouragement and sorrow that came with the deaths of his people. Yet, even then, Spurgeon charged himself and his fellow ministers not to lose heart but to continue caring for those who remained.

Come, then, dear brother-ministers, as we see that our people are soon going to die, we must not begin to dispirit them, but we must keep up our own courage. For we have to help other pilgrims on the road a little longer, and we have to fight Giant Grim for a few more of the women and children, and we must be faithful in this our duty till our work is done. Let us not be cast down at our friend’s departure; but let all of us who love the Lord say, “We could have wished the post had come to us.”

The Celebration of Heaven at the Arrival of the Saints

As Paul reminds the Philippians, to depart from the body is to be with Christ. Even as Christians grieve the loss of their brothers and sisters, we do not lose sight of their joy in the presence of Christ.

What does he think of it? Oh! what a glorious thing it must be to get out of the body, — I mean, a body that has grown to be sixty years of age, and that has been stricken with paralysis, and that has been upon the verge of death for many a month, — what a joy it must be to be quite clear of it! We do not know what it is to be undressed of this body; but there must be a wonderful freshness to the unclothed spirit! And what must it be to be free from all doubts and fears, and all tendencies to sin of every sort, and to be absolutely perfect? And then, what must it be, in the midst of ten thousand times ten thousand kindred spirits, all joying and rejoicing in one common, glorious God, and in the Christ whose life shall be the light that shineth over all? I warrant you that five minutes in heaven is better than Methuselah’s life on earth, even if spent in the highest happiness that life here below can afford. Oh, how our brother Mills would chide us if he could look back, and see us weeping! How he would reprove us, and tell us that the best thing that could have happened to him had happened, and ask us wherefore we deplored it.

But the hope of heaven is no individualistic joy. It is a cosmic celebration for the angels, the saints who have gone before us, and even for God Himself. Even though it is right for us to grieve at our temporary partings, we should not lose sight of the celebration that goes on in heaven at the arrival of each saint.

Last of all, it has cheered me most to imagine what the people up in heaven would think about this subject. As we are going to be up there, too, we may as well begin to learn their fashions and their ways. What do you think they say in heaven about our dear ones who fall asleep in Jesus? Why, the angels shall come to meet them! Lazarus died and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom, and that is what happens to all the saints. Bunyan says, “Now the day drew on, that Christiana must be gone. So the road was full of people to see her take her journey. But, behold, all the banks beyond the river were full of horses and chariots,” for the angels of God came to meet her as she “entered in at the gate with all the ceremonies of joy that her husband Christian had done before her.” Yes, the angels will come to meet the saints. They did come to meet our brother Higgs, and they had not long been back with him before they had to come and meet this other brother, to escort him up to the eternal seats. The angels do not come to mourn. I warrant you that there was not a hatband among them and that there was not one of them who wept. They stretched out their glittering hands, and said, “Welcome, brother; welcome, brother! You have long been a pilgrim; now you shall rest forever. Welcome to your eternal home!”

And what do you think the other saints up there thought of our brethren’s death? Why, doubtless, they welcomed them with gladsome acclamations; and all through the golden streets they ran, and cried, “More pilgrims are come to town! More pilgrims are come to town! More redeemed ones have come home!” And the Lord Jesus Christ smiled, and said, “Father, I thank Thee because those whom Thou hast given Me are with Me where I am.” He welcomed them. And God the Father, too, was glad to greet them in glory. Are you not all glad when your children come home? Lives there a man among you who does not rejoice to see his boys and girls come back to him even for the brief holidays? We like to hear their sweet voices, though they do trouble us sometimes; but then they are our own children, our own offspring, and somehow, to our ears, there is no voice so sweet as theirs; and to God, there is no music like the voices of His children. He is glad to get them home to Himself, to go no more out forever. And the Blessed Spirit, too, let us not forget Him, — He delights to see the holy souls He formed anew, those with whom He strove, with whom He wrought so many years. As a workman rejoices over his perfected workmanship, so does the Spirit of God rejoice over those whom He has made to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.

Conclusion

Though we live under the curse of death, yet we know that through faith in Christ, death has lost its sting. Dear pastors, dear Christians, “encourage each other with these words.” (1 Th. 4:18)

Wherefore, I counsel you, go to the grave with songs of gladness. Stand there, and if you drop a tear, let the smile of your gratitude to God light it up, and turn it to a gem; and then go home, each one of you, and wait until your own change comes.


[1] For the sermon Spurgeon preached on the occasion of Mr. Higgs’ death, see: https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/a-monument-for-the-dead-and-a-voice-to-the-living/#flipbook/

[2] Mr. Mill’s funeral sermon can be found in S&T 1894:109-114.

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