The Seal

William Henry Westcott

We will now consider the operation of the Holy Spirit in sealing believers.

  1. In the Scripture use of the term, one of the meanings of sealing is the concluding of a transaction as in Romans 15:28, the putting into a person's hands of something that has been designed for him and prepared for him, so that he can possess and use it.
  2. A second idea connected with it is the closing up for safety of something important and vital, as in Jeremiah 32:10,11; Revelation 20:3. A remarkable illustration is found in Job 41: 15-17, where the scales of "leviathan" are compared to a close seal,and are described as impenetrable even to air.
  3. A third meaning is illustrated by the letters and books said to be sealed; they were to be opened at their destination by competent persons, or the persons for whom they were intended (see Dan. 12:4, 9; Rev. 5:1).
  4. Yet another and additional application of the seal was to ratify a certain resolution or determination (Neh. 9: 38 and Neh. 10:1). We may add the thought of proof of a mission or service, as in 1 Corinthians 9:2, And there is in its use by high personages the undoubted thought of authority, so that no one who feared the power of the high personage would dare to break the seal. Such seems to be the bearing of passages like Daniel 6: 17; Matthew 27: 66; and those which refer to Christians.
  5. Finally, the seal expresses claim in the sense of title to possession (Cant. 8: 6; 2 Tim. 2: 9; and Eph 1: 13, etc.).

It is helpful to study the history of certain of the saints at Ephesus which has been recorded for us, because in their case we learn more clearly than elsewhere the process of soul which leads up to Christian sealing. While we have the fact stated also in Corinthians, we are in the former shown what experience they passed through they received the Holy Ghost. In hardly any place was the contrast between Christianity and all else so emphatically shown.

In Acts 16: 6, Paul and his companions were forbidden to preach the word in Asia, the Holy Ghost very definitely leading him at that moment to the then heathen Europe. But after his years of service there, he called in at Ephesus, the capital of the province called Asia, and reasoned withcertain Jews in the synagogue which had been erected in that place. The Scriptures  i.e. such as the Jews had at the time, the Old Testament as we call them  were evidently known and taught even in that centre of idolatry. God as Creator and Lawgiver, and the Messiah as the hope of Israel, were of course known to the minds of those in that limited company. Evidently they appreciated Paul's talks, but he would not be persuaded to stay with them at the moment. He moved on to Judaea and was for a time occupied in other labour. But he had left a Christian couple in Ephesus (Acts 18, 19); a man and his wife who appear to have been a quiet plodding yoke of oxen, not eminently giftedbut toiling privately and painstakingly with individual souls. They had, as Christians, more light than the Jews of the synagogue, but patiently waited till God showed them how they might help them into further light.

Such was the situation when a notable preacher came along, who had been the subject of blessing under John the Baptist's ministry. Just how he had been reached we are not told; possibly, and even probably, he had been among the throngs who listened to John himself at the Jordan. The truth as preached by the Messiah's forerunner, with its terrible exposure of Israel's state, his appeal to their consciences, his demand that they should repent, had all told  either directly or indirectly on Apollos; and he had bowed in the confession of his sins, awaiting along with hundreds of others similarly reached the coming in of the expected Messiah of Israel. Nay, John had even gone further; for when multitudes had been reached by his ministry, had been born again, and led up to a right and true sense of their sins, confessing them, he went so far as to point out to them who the Messiah was, the lowly Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).

This we must understand in order to appreciate the exercises of Apollos and his service. He had been at Alexandria, and now came to Ephesus with the deep desire to lead his Jewish brethren into the same position and hope as himself. For him it was not enough that a man was a Jew, a descendant of Abraham; the axe was laid to the root of the tree, and if even a Jew did not bring forth fruits for repentance he would meet with judgment and would perish. We can picture with what earnestness he would proclaim the kingdom of God in its moral bearings, showing his startled hearers their sins against God, proved, as the Old Testament had so clearly foretold, by their dispersion among the Gentiles. Moreover, he may have informed them, too, that the Messiah had actually been seen in Judaea and Galilee, for this was true, and formed part of John's own testimony before he was beheaded. But even if he included that much, beyond it he could not go. Nor could he lead his hearers further than John had led him. He was then a new-born soul, a confessed sinner, repentant, and hoping to be saved sooner or later.

Among those who felt his earnestness were Aquila and Priscilla, the godly couple whom Paul had left behind. Perceiving an opening to show kind hospitality to the devoted preacher they took him under their roof, and while giving him every attention, showed him clearly how things had moved on since the time of John's preaching; and how the Saviour-Messiah pointed out by the Holy Ghost and through the Baptist's voice, had completed his earthly course of humiliation by suffering for Israel's sins, and indeed making propitiation in view of the sins of the whole world. Thus the atonement foreshadowed under the law being affected, God had raised the Messiah from the dead, and given Him the place of glory and honour also foretold in the sacred writings; from whence He would in due time bring in Israel's blessing, and fulfil all the purpose of God. Apollos evidently was greatly helped by these quiet talks, and when the time came for his itinerations to be extended to other districts, he carried with him the very definite help that he himself had received.

But in the meantime his ministry had been so far owned in Ephesus that some of the Jews there had taken the same step that he had taken long before, i.e. they had been baptised with John's baptism. They do not seem to have been swept off their feet by any popular craze; they were plainly good solid men who had seen how John was the forerunner of the Messiah, and that his appeal for the repentance of Israel was indeed God's trumpet voice to them. They then had owned their sin, publicly confessed it on the lines of John's baptism, and were now quite ready to receive any further light God would vouchsafe. In point of fact many, we suppose, who are called Christians in our days are just where they were in the state of their souls; earnest, pious, devoted souls, who yet would be unable to say definitely that they were saved. The preaching which they had heard was sound enough as far as it went, and they knew they had been led forward by it in a right direction; but they were too honest to go beyond what they really knew; and they were waiting, and while waiting, very earnestly hoping, to be saved. They were not yet assured of forgiveness from God, and they were not yet sealed by the Spirit. They may have heard the name of Jesus, and have looked to Him to be their Saviour; but the spiritual benefits of His death and resurrection had not yet been declared to them, the "full gospel" had not been preached, and they were neither saved nor sealed.

At this stage in their history, Paul returned (Acts 19: 17). Meeting at an early moment with the little group of earnest, longing souls, he swiftly discerned as might some skilled physician with his patient that underneath their earnestness there lay a craving not yet satisfied, and that they had not yet apprehended the first lessons of Christianity proper. Oh how tenderly and yet fully he laid bare their lack, while quickening their desire to have it met, by his searching question, "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" Or, (as our Revised Version puts it), "Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?" He knew that the true gospel of God when believed does not leave the believer in the mere expectancy of salvation, but clenches the possession of the forgiveness of sins by the gift of the Holy Ghost to dwell in the believer.

Their defect, however, was not wilful. Blessed as it had been to be the subjects of a work of God, blessed to be awakened from any trust in the mere formalities of their Jewish religion, and to be concerned about their soul's welfare in the desire to make their calling and election sure, they had never yet heard the emancipating gospel of Christ. The coming of the Holy Ghost was a consequence of the accomplishment of redemption, and the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the right hand of God (John 7:39; John 16:7; Acts 2: 32-38). They had not so much as heard whether the Holy Ghost had come. The tidings of redemption as God presents it in His gospel, of the complete and eternal settlement of sin's desert in the death of Christ, the absolute defeat of Satan, the break-up of his claim for eternity on the soul who trusts in Christ, the right of God to every believer, the establishment of blessing and eternal life in Christ, never to be contradicted or annulled, for all who believe in Him, the consequent gift of the Spirit with all that His entrance involved all this was as yet unknown because it had as yet been untold; they had not so much as heard. Oh how many thousands of converted souls, pious and devoted, are void of the peace and power that they all are entitled to by grace, because they have never been told of Jesus glorified and the Spirit given.

How pleasant it must have been to "our beloved brother Paul," as Peter called him, to tell these men of Jesus. They had willingly gone as far as John's teaching could carry them and were earnestly hoping for salvation. Now just as willingly did they listen to "the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation" (Eph. 1: 13). It presented Christ to them as the object of their faith, outside of themselves, in whom their redemption had been wrought out through His blood. His atonement is not an uncertain factor, to leave the believer in a wretched poise, a neutral position, between certainty and uncertainty. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of offences, absolute and eternal, for it is according to the riches of His grace.

There is a wealth of grace in the heart and purpose of God as opened out in Ephesians 1: 3-14, in accordance with which He has bestowed upon the believer the forgiveness of sins; it is not of some sins, nor sins up to a certain time, but absolute and eternal forgiveness of sins. And this is intelligible, for it is in Christ that this has all been wrought out and in whom it subsists. Had He remained in some way under a cloud, had there been in His case any reluctance on God's part to clear Him when He had once charged Himself with our liabilities, we could have harboured some uncertainty as to our relations with God. But when we see that God has first wrought out our redemption in Christ, and has then raised Him from the dead and greeted Him in resurrection with unalloyed satisfaction, and has awarded to Him the highest place in the heavenlies where does uncertainty come in? I no longer look at myself, for it is not in me that redemption has been wrought; but I look at Christ, and Christ glorified, in whom it has been wrought out, and I am saved. It was to the Ephesians the gospel of their salvation, not the hope of it, but the good news of all accomplished in Christ.

Paul, in Acts 19: 4, connects what they had previously learnt with what he was telling them, implying that John's preaching was a necessary preliminary, but leading them up to Jesus that they might believe upon Him. It was enough. They had been hoping to be saved before; now they learned that they were saved, and saved by Jesus. The forgiveness of sins formerly lodged for was now possessed; and the happy believers at once took sides openly and out and out for the Lord Jesus (ver. 5). Further, seeing that they had committed themselves definitely and for ever to the Lord Jesus, Paul had no hesitation about committing himself to and identifying himself with them. It is at this point, where they definitely committed themselves to the Lord Jesus, the risen Saviour, that the Holy Ghost took possession of them. The taking possession by the Holy Ghost is common to all who thus believe the gospel of their salvation; the speaking with tongues and prophesying is particular to their case and is not referred to in the epistle (Eph. 1: 13, 14).

Thus is the believer sealed. When the sovereign action of God, at work in a man's soul, has produced the fear of God and the burden in the conscience of sin, there will be a true turning from sin, and exercise as to what is good and evil, right and wrong; there will be piety and earnestness and often much zest and activity. But it is not till there is definite committal to the risen Saviour, it is not until the forgiveness of sins is truly enjoyed (Acts 10: 43, 44) that the Holy Ghost is given. And this is learnt when we see the Saviour risen whobore them all, and put them all away. It is when the believing soul is seen under the efficacy of the precious blood of Christ that the Holy Spirit at once enters God's seal upon the work of Christ - God claiming for Himself the now redeemed one, and thereby challenging and refuting all rival claims. In the wisdom of God Paul was used instrumentally at Ephesus to communicate the Holy Spirit to them; but in Acts 10 even when Peter was present the Holy Ghost ignored him, and came directly to Cornelius and the believing company in his house. The laying on of an apostle's hands might be an accompaniment but it was plainly not a necessity: the essential thing was faith in Christ to the forgiveness of sins; and that, God owned. This is helpful to us in these days when apostles are no more.

A reference or two to the Old Testament may help us to see what is included in the idea of sealing.

  • In 1 Kings 21: 8, Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal, sending the letters to the elders and the nobles that were in his city, dwelling with Naboth. Those to whom the letters were sent read the contents as being Ahab's commands, and the seal showed that Ahab's power and authority were behind the sealed contents.
  • In Esther 3: 12, and Esther 8: 8, are found two letters of King Ahasuerus, the one written under Haman's influence and intrigue, for men to rise up against and exterminate the Jews; the other under Mordecai's guidance, authorising the Jews to exterminate every one that dared to lay hands upon them. Both letters were written in the king's name and sealed with the king's ring, and neither was cancelled; for the writing which is written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's ring may no man reverse.The sealing, therefore, implied the unalterable purpose and will of the one whose seal it was. No man could reverse it.
  • In Ezekiel 9: 4 (to which may be added an explanatory reference to Rev. 7: 2, 3) we see that ere the Lord brought in judgment, He secured for Himself those who owned their sin and were humbled because of it. The judgment was terrible, as will be also God's judgment upon the unbelieving and the sinner; but verse 6 is explicit: "Come not near any man on whom is the mark." Explaining the "mark" by the sealing of the twelve tribes of Israel in Revelation 7, we see that those who are sealed or marked are immune from the judgment of God; no judgment for them.

These three elements connect themselves with sealing. First, the power and authority of the one whose seal it isare behind the thing sealed. Secondly, no man may reverse what is declared under the seal. Thirdly, when the day shall come for the execution of the judgments of the Lord, there is no judgment from God for those who are sealed and so have God's mark set upon them.

Now dear fellow-believers, let us read a verse in 2 Corinthians 1: 22: God, who hath also sealed us." In verse 2 is shown where we are seen in God's eye, whether apostles or ordinary Christians, i.e., in Christ. God gives us our new footing there, and loves to settle us consciously into our new position. But I will ask, "Who is it that has sealed us?" The answer is "God."

We have seen that it is by His Spirit that He has sealed us, taking possession of us for Himself on the ground of what Christ is, and His work for us. Let us then understand that HIS power and authority are behind our sealing: that He repudiates every other claim to us; That He guarantees our safety against all comers. Further, He will allow no interference with His will and purpose in sealing us; no man may reverse it. Try as the devil may to upset our blessing, greater is He that is in us than He that is the world; and we can with joy say, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Finally our being sealed by God's own Spirit is God's guarantee that no judgment will fall upon us. There is a day coming, awful in the extreme for all whom it concerns; a day when the long restrained wrath of God must fall upon all who know Him not and believe not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. But that day has no terrors for us who are saved and therefore sealed; we have boldness in the day of judgment, because as He is so are we in this world. We move through this world but are not of it; God looks down on His beloved redeemed ones here, and loves to place His hand upon us, uttering His great secret to our stilled and happy hearts. "You are Mine." Do we not look up gratefully and gladly, and in quiet rest in Christ's atonement for us, knowing we are sealed by His Spirit, say reverently, "My God, I am Thine?"

In this hearty recognition that we are God's we have the support of the Holy Ghost. For of course He is not anything less, even as the seal, than a living, acting, Divine Person. He comes into us to convey to us the sense every moment and every day and in every circumstance, "You belong to God." In so far as He is unchecked and ungrieved in us will He constantly assure us of the results of Christ's work for us, and engage us with the thought of God being for us, the infallibility of His purpose, the impossibility of any reversal of His claim to us or His will for us, and the blessedness of His unchangeable favour. It is the fact He is prepared to do all this in us that gives such weight to the important exhortation in Ephesians 4:30. Saints are sealed truly until the day of redemption; i.e. the day when Christ will publicly claim what is lawfully His even now (Eph. 1:14). Naught reverses or changes this blessed fact.

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