How Christ Came to Church / A. J. Gordon

ADONIRAM JUDSON GORDON (1836-1895) is mostly known in contemporary Evangelical circles by two Christian institutions bearing his name: Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Both schools are located in Massachusetts. However, long before these schools were launched, Dr. Gordon became widely known as the pastor of Clarendon Street Baptist Church, Boston. It was in the early years of his ministry at the church when Gordon experienced both a remarkable dream and special anointing of the Holy Spirit. These events precipitated a change in his own life and ministry that would eventually impact thousands around the world. 

(This article is taken from chapter 2, How Christ Came to Church: An Antholgy of the Works of A. J. Gordon by Ralph I. Tilley (Sellersburg, IN: LITS Books, 2013). The book can be ordered through this website (go to “Books” on the menu), and is available in paperback, hardback, and Kindle. The impact this dream/vision had on Gordon is related in further chapters.

NOT THAT I ATTACH any importance to dreams or ever have done so. Of the hundreds which have come in the night season, I cannot remember one which has proved to have had any prophetic significance, either for good or ill. As a rule, moreover, dreams are incongruous rather than serious—a jumble of impossible conditions in which persons and things utterly remote and unconnected are brought together in a single scene. But the one which I now describe was unlike any other within my remembrance in that it was so orderly in its movement, so consistent in its parts, and so fitly framed together as a whole. I recognize it only as a dream, and yet I confess that the impression of it was so vivid that in spite of myself, memory brings it back to me again and again, as though it were an actual occurrence in my personal history.

And yet why should it be told or deliberately committed to print? “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1), says the apostle. His was undeniably a real, divinely given, and supernatural vision. But from the ecstasy of it, wherein he was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, he immediately lets himself down to the common level of discipleship: “Yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities” (2 Cor. 12:5). God help us to keep to this good confession evermore; and if perchance any unusual lesson is taught even “in thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men” (Job 4:13), let us not set ourselves up as the Lord’s favorites to whom he has granted special court privileges in the kingdom of heaven. No, the dream is not repeated as though it were a credential of peculiar saintship, or as though by it God had favored me with a supernatural revelation; but because it contains a simple and obvious lesson, out of which the entire book which we are now writing has evolved.

It was Saturday night, when wearied from the work of preparing Sunday’s sermon, that I fell asleep, and the dream came. I was in the pulpit before a full congregation, just ready to begin my sermon, when a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church, looking first to the one side and then to the other as though silently asking with his eyes that someone would give him a seat. He had proceeded nearly halfway up the aisle when a gentleman stepped out and offered him a place in his pew, which was quietly accepted. Except for the face and features of the stranger, everything in the scene is distinctly remembered—the number of the pew, the Christian man who offered its hospitality, and the exact seat which was occupied. Only the countenance of the visitor could never be recalled. That his face wore a peculiarly serious look, as of one who had known some great sorrow, is clearly impressed on my mind. His bearing, too, was exceeding humble, his dress poor and plain, and from the beginning to the end of the service, he gave the most respectful attention to the preacher. Immediately when I began my sermon, my attention became riveted on this hearer. If I would avert my eyes from him for a moment, they would instinctively return to him so that he held my attention, rather than I held his, till the sermon had ended.

To myself, I constantly said, “Who can that stranger be?” And then, I mentally resolved to find out by going to him and making his acquaintance as soon as the service was over. But after the benediction had been given, the departing congregation filed into the aisles, and before I could reach him, the visitor had left the house. The gentleman with whom he had sat remained behind, however, and approaching him with great eagerness, I asked: “Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?”

In the most matter-of-fact way, he replied: “Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.” With a sense of the keenest disappointment, I said: “My dear sir, why did you let him go without introducing me to him? I was so desirous to speak with him.” And with the same nonchalant air, the gentleman replied, “Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.”

And now came an indescribable rush of emotion. As when a strong current is suddenly checked, the stream rolls back upon itself and is choked in its own foam, so the intense curiosity which had been going out toward the mysterious hearer now returned upon the preacher: and the Lord himself, whose I am and whom I serve, had been listening to me today.

What was I saying? Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public? Well, thank God it was of himself I was speaking. However imperfectly done, it was Christ and him crucified whom I was holding up this morning. But in what spirit did I preach? Was it “Christ crucified preached in a crucified style?” Or did the preacher magnify himself while exalting Christ? So anxious and painful did these questions become that I was about to ask the brother with whom he had sat if the Lord had said anything to him concerning the sermon, but a sense of propriety and self-respect at once checked the suggestion.

Then immediately, other questions began with equal vehemence to crowd into the mind. “What did he think of our sanctuary, its gothic arches, its stained windows, its costly and powerful organ? How was he impressed with the music and the order of the worship?” It did not seem at that moment as though I could ever again care or have the smallest curiosity as to what men might say of preaching, worship, or church, if I could only know that he had not been displeased, that he would not withhold his feet from coming again because he had been grieved at what he might have seen or heard.

We speak of “a momentous occasion.” This, though in sleep, was recognized as such by the dreamer—a lifetime, almost an eternity of interest crowded into a single solemn moment. One present for an hour who could tell me all I have so longed to know; who could point out to me the imperfections of my service; who could reveal to me my real self, to whom, perhaps, I am almost a stranger; who could correct the errors in our worship to which long usage and accepted tradition may have rendered us insensible. While I had been preaching for a half-hour, he had been here and listening who could have told me all this and infinitely more—and my eyes had been blind that I knew him not, and now he had gone. “Yet a little while I am with you, and then I go unto him that sent me” (John 7:33).

One thought, however, lingered in my mind with something of comfort and more of awe. “He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.” And mentally repeating these words as one regretfully meditating on a vanished vision, “I awoke, and it was a dream.” No, it was not a dream. It was a vision of the deepest reality, a miniature of an actual ministry, verifying the statement often repeated that sometimes we are most awake toward God when we are asleep toward the world.

Author: Ralph I. Tilley

I joyfully identify with the long history of the orthodox, evangelical stream of the Church. Theologically, I am a conservative. On issues of secondary importance, I will not quibble with my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I would hope I have no doctrinal biases; however, I realize that is a practical impossibility: “Now I know in part.” You can read more on the About page.