Romans 13:12 “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
The opening words of this passage are fascinating and make a most important point, that the Christian church exists in the unique light of dawn. Our entire life as believers is lived with the night nearly over and the day almost here. We are to understand that we are no longer living at midnight darkness even in days of declension, barrenness and persecution; we’ve been delivered from the kingdom of darkness for ever. We walk through life in the light of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. However, neither do we yet live in the full blaze of the midday sun as it shines in all its brightness; that time is yet to come when the King returns in all his glory with all his holy angels with him, and the shadows will flee away and the light of the knowledge of his glory will fill the whole cosmos. You know that we shall not see such a time until the end of the world. No great reformations and religious awakenings, no latter day glory will bring that effulgence of splendour, not before the second coming of Christ. No. We have to live our lives in the light of dawn. We do not live in total darkness, and we do not yet live in the full light of day. We live in this special light that marks the certainty that a new day has begun.
1. THE PROMISED NEW DAY HAS DAWNED.
As the apostle wrote almost 2,000 years ago in the words of our text, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” What was true then is certainly true today. Lord Kelvin was a great scientist who lived during the late19th century and early 20th century. He had many interests especially in the physical properties of light and how we see and understand them. One day in August 1899, on a holiday in the Alps, he rose early in the morning to make some observations about the first light of dawn and he wrote down his conclusions in an article in Nature. He got up at 4 o’clock and sat on balcony of his hotel, which was 4,000 feet above sea-level, all of 40 miles south of Mont Blanc. He knew that before him he would have a magnificent view of the Alpine ranges of Switzerland, Savoy, and Dauphiné; at 4 a.m. they were all hidden in the darkness of the night. He screwed up his eyes waiting and watching keenly for the earliest instantaneous light of sunrise; the air was cool and very clear. It was still an hour before the official time of sunrise but he kept alert. Where would the sun rise? Ah, he saw the first rosy tint appear in a certain place, and then there, and then there. A full moon had been shining, but as the light from the sun began to spread the moon’s light faded and faded until eventually it was to disappear from view. Then beams of sunlight began to spread and the very summit of distant Mont Blanc could be seen. In less than one-twentieth of a second it became dazzlingly white, as if a brilliant search-light had been trained on it, but yet all around and in the valleys there was complete darkness. That is how Lord Kelvin chronicled the first light of dawn, the mysterious darkness hanging on and the spreading light which at times seemed to burst into view but more generally imperceptibly spreading its rosy light. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
Let me explain theologically and historically what the apostle is talking about. This is one of Paul’s great themes. He uses similar language in 1 Thessalonians 5 and the teaching there complements the teaching here; it reflects what all these early Christians had been taught. Paul says in I Thessalonians chapter five and verse 2: “You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” That’s the midday glory of the day when Christ will pull aside the curtain that now veils him and return to this world from heaven. It will come like a shock to a householder as if he were discovering the presence of a thief who had broken into his home. One moment everything is as it has always been; “what you see is all there is,” says the man without God, and then Christ appears in majesty.
That is the future coming of Christ. It will not be some gradual imperceptible progress of the influence of Jesus Christ over the centuries in a slow transformation and improvement of mankind by education and politicians and scientists and the United Nations. No, it will not be like that at all. It is not by human engineering that he comes. That is not the second coming of our Lord. No. This world will be suddenly perforated by the arrival of the King of glory and every eye shall see him. Here it described in the previous chapter, I Thessalonians 4, “the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever” (I Thess.4:16&17). That is the day of Christ and Paul says in our text that it is “almost here.”
The Thessalonians had been grounded in this vision of the future just as the Romans had; “we are heading out of this dawn light into the bright light of his appearing.” They knew it; they lived with this hope, and so Paul can complement them in Romans 13:11 that they understood the present time. This was the dawn of the day which would climax in midday glory. It was on its way; it was not here yet, but what dawn was not followed by mid-day brightness?
Every Christian in the early church was taught that Christ was coming back to earth from heaven to judge the quick and the dead, and that this was the next great event in God’s plan for his creation. That was the apostles’ doctrine out of which real fellowship in the gospel came. There already had been decisive and definitive extraordinary events. You know them, there’s been the incarnation of the Son of God, the atonement of the Lamb of God, the resurrection of the God-man, his ascension and enthronement, the coming of the Spirit in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They were all unrepeatable events that announced the dawning of the Messiah’s great day, but now, standing at the dawn of this new day, we are looking forward to the second coming. We are like a bride who cannot sleep on the night before her wedding day and she wakes at dawn standing in her bedroom window and looks across the city as the sun begins to rise and thinking of what lies ahead of her that day and all the days of her life. What a change this marriage day will accomplish, living henceforth with the one she loves. So it is that the first coming of Christ has announced the dawning of the day and the spreading of his light, and before us the climax of it will be the return of the Lord from heaven. We long for it, the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 that that event is going to take the world off guard. “Peace and safety,” says the unbelieving world. “No need for us to get excited about religion.” Then Christ comes suddenly. Richard Dawkins will be as shocked as if he’d discovered a thief had broken into his home during the night. But we will not be shocked, the apostle says. We are not unprepared. We will not be taken off guard as those militant forces that oppose our Lord Jesus will be. Why not? Paul goes on in verses 4 to 9 of I Thessalonians 5 to give the answer, and as we read it we can hear all the echoes of our text in Romans chapter 13: “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, [you see the connection with Romans 13:11] but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, a
nd those who get drunk, get drunk at night [another link with our text in Romans 13]. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet [this is what Paul is referring to in Romans 13 as the armour of light]. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5:4-9).
We are walking in the early light of a new day and our full salvation is near, and all this is our conviction. It is not wishful thinking. It is based on fact and history, because the Son of God has come, he has preached the word of God, he has told us of the future – “if I go I will come again and take you unto myself.” He who said those words healed all the sick who were brought to him, and he raised the dead. Creation obeyed him, the sun grew dark at his death, the winds and waves did his will. He walked on water. He is more powerful than the devil. Not a demon could resist him.
Christ, the light of the world, has come and shone in this dark world. The long-awaited Messiah has arrived and a new age has begun to dawn in the world, so that from Jerusalem, and through Judea and Samaria and out into the uttermost parts of the world the light of the gospel is spreading and the darkness of demonic paganism is disappearing. It is still happening in this glorious dawn in which we live. I heard a leading theologian from Korea, Dr. Jae Sung Kim, lecturing this summer on the state of the gospel in Asia. He said that China was a remarkable place to visit today, that you could walk in the main street of any Chinese city and engage in conversation with any educated men and women and tell them that you were a Christian and they would immediately show the greatest interest. They would ply you with questions about the faith. I bumped into my friend Tony Lambert the O.M.F. expert on China in a bookshop in the Hebrides on Monday afternoon and I told him what the Korean theologian had said and he responded, “It is absolutely true.” The day of the spread of grace to the nations of the world is dawning. Christ is the Saviour and Deliverer of multitudes from the evil reign of darkness; he is the blazing center of the Age to come. He has come. He will come again this glorious gospel day. We live in the dawning of this day and we are beneficiaries of these two salvations, our past salvation from the penalty and power of our sin, and our future salvation from its very presence. He has saved us, he is saving us, but – ‘you aint seen nothing yet’ – he will save us. We are not “appointed to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thess. 5:9). That is the glory awaiting us on this wonderful day that has dawned.
So let me return to this little phrase of Paul’s. We are now living in this curious dawn light shining here and there, but where there are still valleys of darkness and at times they seem to grow darker as a cloud moves across the face of the sun, but then the light pours into other valleys which were once in darkness; new beams of light come from the rising sun. Do you see the picture? We live our entire lives in the dawn light with patches of darkness of this present evil age and then gleams of light showing the presence of the kingdom of God. This is the age Isaiah the prophet spoke about in the 60th chapter of his prophecy: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:1-3). That day has dawned, and nothing can stop the rising sun shining in its zenith.
Right at the heart of Christianity is this certainty that when Jesus Christ came then the long-expected promised age of the reign of the Messiah had finally arrived; the kingdom of God was even now here on earth, and whoever believed in him did not perish but had eternal life. Paul told the Christians in Corinth that the events and prophecies of the Old Testament, “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (I Cor. 10:11). That is, this is a world-wide dawn, with its mixture of this age and the age to come. It had also dawned in pagan Greece, and the Corinthian Christians were the beneficiaries. The apostle told them, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” to Greece! (2 Corinthians 5:17) So the new creation, the new age, the new day has come. It is here; it is even in this assembly today. The only explanation for the change in so many of you is that the Saviour has visited you in grace and delivered you from that darkness of unbelief and ignorance in which you were living your lives. He has shown the power of his new influence over you. He has conquered the lordship of sin over your lives and he has become your King and Shepherd. Again Paul wrote to the Colossians in the opening chapter and thirteenth verse, “[God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” So the Kingdom of the Messiah has come, just as Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). He was announcing the dawning of the glorious day of grace.
In other words, when Christ came “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4), the age to come arrived, the kingdom of God was here at hand, the new creation was in our midst. The book of Chronicles in the Old Testament is called in the Hebrew the ‘book of days.’ Then the Messiah comes and the last days begin. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebs 1:1&2). That is the whole perspective of the letter to the Hebrews. He is pleading with them to endure suffering and not to be looking back to the time of preparation and anticipation with all their types and promises because the reality has come; this time in which we live is the end of the ages. “[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebs 9:16). Again he says that we Christians are now tasting “the powers of the age to come.” (Hebs. 6:5). The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. The kingdom has arrived, but of course the activity of sin and pain and death has not yet ceased. There are still forces of darkness in this dawn light. That is the time we live in; it is six o’clock in the morning on God’s clock, but noonday brightness will come and in the period before that hour comes the elect in every nation must be drawn in, the fulness of the Gentiles must come, the man of sin must be destroyed and all the true Israel of God must be saved.
You might be tempted to say that God’s clock has been stuck at 6 o’clock in the morning for a very long time. Almost 2,000 years after Paul wrote these words seems like a long dawn. From one standpoint it is, and we cry, “How long, O Lord, how long will you let it go on?” but biblical thinking is different in a number of ways. A key way it is different is its insistence that the day has dawned in Jesus Christ. The Light of the world has come;
Jesus’ person and work is the end of the nations of the earth being locked in darkness under the dominion of Satan as they had been throughout the Old Testament period. The Messiah came and he defeated principalities and powers in his great royal death making a show of them openly on the cross. He rose triumphant o’er his foes on the third day as he said. The decisive battle of redemption is over. The kingdom has been planted in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and now in the uttermost corners of
the earth. Eternal life has come. Again, another way that biblical thinking is different is that God’s reckoning of time and ours are not the same. Peter said, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). That is how we understand that, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
2. THE EFFECT THIS KNOWLEDGE SHOULD HAVE ON US.
i] We are given hope for the future. Every dawn leads to a new day. If we did not have this knowledge, that the night is nearly over and the day is almost here then how fearful we would be. What does this 21st century hold for us? The world is in despair seeking oblivion in alcohol and drugs and entertainment. If our knowledge of the future was restricted to theirs then we would faint. “What’s the point of it all?” we would ask. Our hands would start to hang down and our knees grow weak. The antidote to despair is to consider these great biblical statements. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here! Then our hopes are revived. Remember how the apostle John cheered his readers in the early church with this same message when he told them “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (I Jn. 2:8).
I was reading this week of a Russian pastor who was arrested and sent to prison. He did not despair knowing God would be with him. He was admitted to a cell containing twenty prisoners, some of them violent men. “What are you here for?” he was asked. “For preaching the gospel,” he replied, “I am a minister.” They would not believe him and laughed at him. He protested that he was speaking the truth. “Prove it!” they shouted. So he went into his little bag and brought out a gospel of Mark. Then he began to read it to them, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’ And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:1-11).
They had never heard anything like that in their lives, but he was weary. He hadn’t slept for two nights and he asked them if he could rest for while. He slept soundly for an hour, and as he woke up he could hear the voice of a man reading familiar words. One of the literate prisoners was reading chapter fifteen of the gospel to the silent prisoners. He had read almost the entire gospel aloud while the pastor slept. They noticed he was awake and they said to him, “We have a question: Is there forgiveness of sins for murderers?” “Yes,” he said, “if they deeply repent with sorrow for what they have done and cast themselves on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son cleanses us from all our sin. If we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The next day he was moved out to another prison but they pleaded with him that he leave the little book with them and he did so cheerfully. His enemies had thrown him into prison, but he was there at God’s appointment proclaiming God’s mercy to sinners. In every dark situation there is hope. Peter and the apostles were in the blackest of days; their Master had been crucified and buried. They were filled with despair, but on the third day he rose from the dead. They were begotten again to a living hope by his resurrection. From Jesus’ resurrection flow all our hopes, and how many and how great they are, of deliverance from the very presence of sin, the triumph and glory of Jesus Christ when every knee must bow to him, when we see him we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. The Christian labours in hope.
ii] We work in the indistinct light of dawn. There are still the vestiges of night hanging onto God’s world, though it is nearly over; the day has not fully arrived yet, it has almost come. So we do not see everything distinctly as we long to. There are differences of opinion among true Christians who believe the Bible. We attach various labels to ourselves and to others. I was particularly struck by this last week on the Island of Lewis taking a communion week-end of meetings in Stornoway. What godly happy Christians. How mature these Presbyterian folk are. You would give your right arm to have many of them worshipping here. They read the covenant God made with Abraham and they see how the covenant sign of circumcision is put on the children. Then they ask, “Do children under the new covenant have less than children under the old covenant?” and so they go ahead and pour water on the heads of their baby children in baptism. We do not do that; we do not see those verses in Genesis in that way. That is not the light we have on them, and yet we recognize that these paedo-baptist men and women are amongst the most godly Christians in the world, and their preachers are the most favoured and used by God, Knox, Owen, Baxter, Whitefield, Edwards, Daniel Rowland, Thomas Charles, M’Cheyne, Ryle, Machen, John Murray and most of my favourite preachers today.
We are divided one from another over the issue of baptism because we have to look at the issue in the indistinct light of dawn. Given clearer light and we will be united, and we long for that. We know now a spiritual unity but we want it to be stronger. The Lord keep us from falling out with one another on the way to the full bursting forth of light from glory. George Whitefield was preaching one day from the Court House balcony in Philadelphia and there were different groupings in his vast audience. He stopped in his sermon and suddenly directed his message to heaven; “Father Abraham . . . whom have you in heaven? Any Anglicans there? “No.” Any Presbyterians? “No.” Have you any Independents or Baptists? “No.” Have you any Methodists? “No, no, no.” Whom do you have there? “We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians – believers in Christ – men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony.” Whitefield put those true words in the mouth of Abraham. Let us keep that same spirit that was in Whitefield and we shall do so by seeking closer fellowship with our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and by longing for the day when we shall see him and be like him. There will be no divisions amongst us in that great day.
iii] The destination before us transforms us and our labours. We must return to this again because this is the great conclusion of this chapter. You remember the exhortation of Paul to the Corinthians to be steadfast and unmovable and always abounding in the work of the Lord? Then he adds this assurance, “Knowing that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” Why isn’t it in vain? Why do we know that it is not fruitless, but rather that it is important, and it serves the Lord and his peop
le, and it is to the glory of God? Because we are heading for the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Our work will be vindicated in that day. The cup of cold water given in Christ’s name – vindicated. The stumbling words of testimony will be vindicated. The visiting, the giving, the praying, the self-denial has been noted will all be vindicated. None of what we have done will be in vain. Not one tear shed for Christ will lose its reward. Not a word will have fallen to the ground. God will honour it all in that great day.
Think of men engaged in hopeless tasks – setting out to row across to Ireland in a boat full of holes, or going into battle armed with wooden swords and bows and arrows against an army with tanks and rifles, or building a skyscraper without enough money to purchase the materials or the manpower to do the job. How is the morale of those men? It is at rock bottom. They are men without hope; they lack any desire to do the job because they are on course for disaster. They can never succeed. But how different is the Christian. He is working at the dawning of a day which will result in enormous success for his work and God vindicating his cause. What encouragement to him, in the toughest of places, to go on working for the Lord, for his labour is not in vain. Let me end by clothing the life that believes in the coming Lord of glory in one particular life.
There are three men in the Bible who were called ‘Er’. One of them was a wicked man. Another is mentioned as an ancestor of Joseph and Mary in Luke 3, verse 28. A 19th century father and mother in Ossett in Yorkshire, Mr. and Mrs. Grace had a baby boy and they named him Er Grace. He was converted and became a true Christian, in fact an eminent follower of Jesus Christ. Of course, he wouldn’t have claimed that, because he was a meek and humble man. Then he was called to be a preacher, and later became the pastor at Ossett and his congregation loved him greatly. They couldn’t support him more than giving him one pound and 25 pence a week, and so he was also a coal miner. He worked down the pits for well over fifty years of his life. He began working when he was only eleven years old, and in that place, deep in the darkness of a coal mine he walked in the light of Jesus Christ and showed the world how a Christian who hops in the coming glory of the King of kings should live.
He was scrupulously honest in everything he did. Now it was the practice of these miners to fill their tubs with coal and then put in a claim to the owner of the coal mine for what they had hewn out of the seam. They were only to be paid for the actual coal, and not all the debris and rock which would inevitably come away when the seam was attacked. Each miner was responsible for filling his tub, and then wheeling it to the tramways to the mine outlet. The work was poorly paid and some of the seams were very narrow. The miners endured great hardship and most of them had families to look after.
The foreman knew that Er was a Christian and so deliberately put him to work in the narrowest seams. There in the darkness he faced the temptation of disguising the true content of the tub, by putting rubbish in the bottom and covering it with coal at the top. The other miners noticed that in all the fifty or more years that he worked with them in the pits, never once did they see Er put in a false claim. In fact Er had a terrible fear of the sin of covetousness. He knew that he was closely watched by the other men to whom he had often talked about Christ. He knew that by a false step at any time, he could bring reproach upon his Lord. Sometimes Er was deliberately put in the more dangerous areas of the mine, and yet some of the miners, notwithstanding that, preferred to work with Er because they felt safer working with him. God looked after him.
When the church wanted to put his very modest salary up from 125p to 150p he was most concerned lest this should be a snare to him. He also refused to do any business in the Coop store once it decided to trade on Sundays. So he lost his not inconsiderable Coop dividend. He was a man who lived with Judgment Day honesty and integrity because of the hope he had of one day seeing the Saviour and being with him for ever. He knew that his labour in the Lord was not in vain. God vindicated Er Grace. “Them that honour Me, I will honour." That is the difference that second coming faith makes to the lives of those conscious that their night is nearly over and the day is almost here.
6th September 2009 GEOFF THOMAS