Jesus, the First and Last
Source: Singing the Faith: 329
Words: Charles Wesley
Music: “Hail to the Lord” by Malcolm Williamson arr Paul Leddington Wright
Ideas for use
The Methodist Prayer Handbook for 2017-18 has taken this hymn as its starting point. The Revd Norman Wallwork’s notes below offer an introduction to Charles Wesley’s hymn that complements the prayers in the handbook.
This hymn succinctly states the Wesleys’ understanding of Christian perfection. Together with the first letter of John 4: 17-18, Wesley’s words offer a good starting point for a group discussion or sermon on this theme.
It is also worth considering how this hymn contributes to our understanding of “Jesus Christ: prophet, priest and king” – the hymn book section in which it is to be found.
Notes written for Singing the Faith Plus by the Revd Norman Wallwork
Charles Wesley’s ultimate desire – to see the face of Christ
At the heart of Charles Wesley’s pilgrimage are the moments when he becomes a particular person in Scripture. Here, in one of his gems, Wesley becomes Saint John. In Revelation 1: 17 Saint John swoons and falls at the sight of the heavenly Christ, and hears Jesus say to him: ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever.’ This moment is recapitulated in Wesley and in those who sing his hymn.
A former Secretary of the Methodist Conference, Eric Baker, in The Faith of a Methodist (Epworth, 1958), noted that these two verses – unlike a number of Wesley hymns in their present form – are not extracted from a longer hymn, but since their first publication, in 1762, have been complete in themselves.
Eric Baker also believed this hymn encapsulated the heart of a Methodist’s faith. The Jesus to whom we entrust our whole life is the cosmic Christ, one with God before all things began and one with God when time is no more. Methodist pilgrims have a total trust in Christ’s saving work until Christ’s perfect love is replicated in them.
Thou didst thy work begin
By blotting out my sin;
Thou wilt the root remove,
And perfect me in love.
Eric Baker called the opening couplet of the second stanza ‘sheer religious genius’.
Yet when the work is done,
The work is but begun:
The Christian life is dynamic and cannot be static. The work of Christ for us and the work of Christ in us is ‘for ever beginning what never shall end’.*
Only the transforming grace of God in Christ can lead Wesley to his ultimate desire – to see the face of Christ.
Partaker of thy grace,
I long to see thy face;
There is a proof that belongs to the life of faith and grace now. Knowledge of Christ’s face comes only in heaven.
The first I prove below,
The last I die to know.
Eric Baker felt that it was a pity that, in popular Methodist experience, Wesley’s gem usually found itself eclipsed by Joseph Hart’s This, this is the God we adore (StF 67), with its celebrated couplet,
‘Tis Jesus, the first and the last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home . . .’
Dr. Baker believed that Wesley’s hymn was ‘fuller and richer’.
*Ed. The Companion to Hymns & Psalms finds in the opening of verse 2 (“Yet when the work is done, the work is but begun”) an allusion to John 19:30, which recounts the very moment of Jesus’ death on the cross after receiving some wine soaked into a sponge.