Chapter 2 - Indirect References to the Lord's Coming for Living Believers

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We have looked at the direct teaching of scripture concerning the Lord's return for His living saints. The language is clear, setting it forth as a present hope, and, though avoiding dates, speaking of it as an event for which the believer should be constantly waiting. God does not repeat Himself, and we have not elsewhere the same full statement of the doctrine, but the epistles abound in allusions to it from which we may gather much valuable truth. Such incidental references prove the familiarity of the hope to the early Christians, the large place it occupied in their thoughts and hearts, and the various practical aspects in which it was regarded. It is in this last light that it may be most convenient for us now to examine them.
I. The expectation of the Lord's speedy return is constantly used as an incentive to sobriety, moderation, and godliness of walk. Thus the apostle, after various practical exhortations, writes” And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:11,1211And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. 12The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:11‑12)). Now “salvation” is here held out as a near prospect, and the question is, what the salvation referred to means? It is not conversion or forgiveness of sins, for these are not a hope, but a present portion; the believer being “in Christ,” and subject neither to condemnation nor separation. It is not death, at least death is never elsewhere thus described. It is not the end of the world, for that, as the Romans knew, was a distant event, to the near approach of which any appeal would have been both fruitless and false.
What, then, is the “salvation” here spoken of? We have seen that in the Hebrews “salvation” is connected with the Lord's coming “the second time.” Having put away sin at His first coming, He will “appear the second time,”—not to the world, but — “unto them that look for Him,” “apart from sin unto salvation.” All believers look for Jesus, and I doubt not that all are here included. Their salvation, then, takes place at His second advent.
If, therefore, “salvation” is used in the same sense in the Romans as in the Hebrews, the “salvation” which is said to be drawing near is that which is wrought by the coming of Jesus for His saints. But as the character and object of the epistles are different, it may be well to inquire whether any light as to the meaning of the word can be gathered from the Romans itself. Let us take this passage — “We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope” (Rom. 8:23,2423And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. 24For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? (Romans 8:23‑24)). The salvation here spoken of, then, is not security, or freedom from condemnation, which the believer already enjoys; but a hope for which, though having “the first fruits of the Spirit,” he waits and even groans. Nor is it the death of the body or the spirit going to be with Jesus. Just the opposite; it is “the. adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” Believers are “predestinated to be conformed to the image of God's Son” (Rom. 8:2929For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)). They have already “received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” But the body is not yet conformed to Christ's image, and the work of adoption is not completed until this also is redeemed. It is, then, for this we wait. This is the salvation for which we hope. But this “redemption of the body” is what Christ effects at His coming for His saints, when living believers “shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”; or, as stated in Thessalonians, “we which are alive and remain, shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Salvation, then, in the Romans, as in the Hebrews, is the change wrought in believers when Jesus returns to take them to the place He has gone to prepare for them.
And how is this salvation spoken of? As a distant hope, to be realized at some remote period? No, but as a living hope, which might be realized at any moment, and in the near prospect of which vigilance and sobriety are urged as befitting the Christian. It is regarded, indeed, as already at hand, for in God's thoughts one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. Times and seasons are in His power, and the believer's place is not to be calculating dates, but to be looking for the Lord's return. God in wisdom and grace may postpone the day; but to the Church the hope should be ever present.
The Lord's coming is applied in the same practical way in the Epistle to the Philippians. They are warned not to “mind earthly things,” and exhorted to follow the apostle: “For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord. Jesus Christ, who shall change our body of humiliation, that it may be fashioned. like unto His body of glory” (Phil. 3:20,2120For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: 21Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. (Philippians 3:20‑21)). Here, again, the apostle is waiting, not for death, but for the coming of Jesus, whom he expects as a Savior, that is, One who brings salvation; and the salvation He brings is that same “redemption of the body” named in Romans as the Christian's hope; that same transformation described in Corinthians as the expectation of the living believer; that same rapture referred to in Thessalonians as awaiting us “who are alive and remain”; that same salvation spoken of in Hebrews as the object of Christ's second appearing to His own redeemed ones. And here, again, it is a present hope; the apostle says — “We are looking for the Savior,” that is, are now in the attitude of expectation. Nor is it merely the present tense which shows this. The immediate character of the hope is urged as a reason against their being engrossed with earthly things, just as, in the next chapter, they are exhorted — “Let your moderation (or yieldingness) be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” The anticipation of the Lord's speedy return was to check self-assertion and self-seeking. It is no general exhortation to yieldingness, but an exhortation founded on the truth that the Lord is at hand. So real and practical was this hope to the Philippian believers!
It is used with a similar object in the Epistle to Titus. “The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope, and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-1311For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, 12Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; 13Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; (Titus 2:11‑13)). Here are two things looked for, “the appearing of the glory,” and “that blessed hope.” What is meant by these last words? Not conversion, for that is a fact; nor death, for that is never spoken of as a hope. In Romans the hope is “the redemption of the body,” in Philippians the changing of the body into Christ's likeness, which would take place at His coming, and might be in the believer's lifetime. This hope, then, was familiar to Titus, and surely it can be to none other that the apostle alludes, in these terms. This will be still more evident when we see how closely the other part of Christ's coming, here called. “the appearing of the glory,” is associated with the first act of His return for His saints. But apart from this inference, the nature of the hope held out in the other epistles, makes it morally certain that the “blessed hope” thus mentioned, is the same to which such frequent reference is elsewhere made.
As a prospect exercising a sanctifying power over the soul, it is further used by Paul in writing to the Thessalonians. He desires that their “whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:2323And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)). Now if the Lord's advent might be expected in their lifetime, this language is quite natural. But how could it be used, if the Holy Ghost meant believers to regard this coming as long after their own deaths? Where death is looked for, the words are — “I am ready to be offered up,” or, “Be thou faithful unto death.” Such language is used by most Christians as of universal application. Why, then, does the Spirit here speak so differently? Why does He bid them look for the Lord's coming instead of death? Surely because the Lord's coming, and not death, is that for which He would have the believers waiting. This attitude of longing expectation is what Jesus and the Holy Ghost alike enjoin. And so, in writing at a later period to the same Church, the apostle prays that the Lord would direct their hearts “into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ” (2 Thess. 3:55And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ. (2 Thessalonians 3:5)), or rather, “the patience of Christ,” He waiting in heaven, and we, in fellowship with Him, here on earth.
Nor is this truth confined to Paul. Its doctrinal exposition is not, indeed, found elsewhere, but it is often alluded to as a familiar truth, forming the basis of practical exhortations. Thus Peter says, “The end of all things is at hand; be ye, therefore, sober and watch unto prayer” (1 Peter 4:77But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. (1 Peter 4:7)). “The end of all things” is not death; and it cannot mean the end of the world, for the end of the world was not at hand. It was an event of the utmost magnitude, as the words import, and at the same time one which might be speedily anticipated. Only one such event is elsewhere spoken of. The Lord's coming is held out as a present expectation, as an incentive to sobriety and watchfulness, and as a transaction of tremendous importance, closing God's present dealings, and bringing in an entirely new order of things. The coming, indeed, is here viewed in its widest sense, including both its parts, but that it is the coming there can be no doubt. And this event is said to be “at hand,” and is used as a ground of exhortation to sobriety and prayerfulness.
II. In the above quotations we have seen how this “blessed hope” is constantly employed to enforce holiness and godliness in individual walk. In the same spirit it is further used to enjoin faithfulness in the midst of ecclesiastical corruption. It is the fence God has provided against the evils within the Church, as well as against the evils of the surrounding world. Fearful corruption and wickedness had shown themselves at Thyatira, and judgment was threatened.
But in the midst of the failure were some faithful ones, whom the Lord thus addressed — “But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak, I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have, hold fast till I come” (Rev. 2:24,2524But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden. 25But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. (Revelation 2:24‑25)). The Church at Philadelphia was weak, but was maintaining the truth amidst opposition. To it the Lord writes — “Behold, I come quickly; hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (Rev. 3:1111Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. (Revelation 3:11)). All around were weakness and wickedness, and the faithful are enjoined to “hold fast” what they have. But till what time? In one case it is said,—”till I come”; in the other—it is implied, and the hope is given—”Behold, I come quickly.” Now why name the Lord's coming, if the believers were to look for death, and not the Lord's coming? Where death is meant, it is mentioned. In these very epistles, the Lord writes — “Be thou faithful unto death”; just as when on earth He had told His disciples — “Whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” Death, then, was not what the faithful brethren in Thyatira and Philadelphia were to look for, but another event. And this other event might happen in their lifetime, for how else could they be exhorted to hold fast what they had until it occurred? Or why should they be told that the Lord would come quickly, if it were not meant to cheer their hearts as a present anticipation?
So, too, in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Some of those addressed were in danger of being shaken in the faith. Persecution was at hand, and they had “not yet resisted unto blood.” The apostle trembled for the reality of the work in some of their hearts, and warns them most solemnly against apostasy after receiving so much truth and being made partakers of such outward privileges. He earnestly beseeches them — “Cast not away, therefore, your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward; for ye have need of patience, that after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise; for yet a little while and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry” (Heb. 10:35-3735Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. 36For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. 37For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. (Hebrews 10:35‑37)). A modern preacher would say — “Yet a little while and this scene will close; death will put an end to your troubles, and you will depart to be with Jesus, which is far better.” But this is not the language of the Holy Ghost. Why? Because the Holy Ghost, knowing the mind of God, always puts the Lord's coming, and not death, as the expectation of the Christian. This blessed hope was before the Hebrews, and in its cheering light, let them have patience, do the will of God, and look for the certain promise. We are told, too, to “consider one another, to provoke unto love and to good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another, and so much the more as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24,2524And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24‑25)). Here “the day” is not exactly held out as a hope, but rather as an incentive to faithfulness. It is the Lord's coming viewed in its whole scope, more than the special prospect of His advent to take the believer to the Father's house. Still, this, as the first part of the coming, was, of course, included, and we again find that this event is spoken of as approaching, as near enough to give point to exhortations urging a line of behavior suited to the believer under such circumstances.
III. In these last cases the idea of trial and persecution was before the apostle's mind, and the Lord's coming is named in order to strengthen the tried ones against the evil around. But the same hope is also presented to stay the heart against suffering arising from quite different causes. In such a practical epistle as James, no matter of mere curious speculation would enter. Yet here the hope of the Lord's return is brought in to comfort the poor brethren, who were groaning under oppression. “Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord” (James 5:77Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. (James 5:7)). If James had meant “unto death,” he would have said so. It is manifest that he could not mean the end of the world. He intended, therefore, to point to the Lord's coming as an event that might happen before death, and in the prospect of which they were to find their comfort. This is obvious, also, from the way in which he continues- “Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (ver. 7, 8). Mark how accurate and tender the words of comfort here spoken. The blessed hope is presented, not once, but twice, for the healing of their wounded spirits, and yet they are warned against impatience. Long waiting may be needed, but they are not to lose the hope because of its delay; for, though in man's estimate it might tarry, according to God's Word, “it draweth nigh.”
IV. But this hope of Christ's return, however it may be used for warning, for exhortation, or for comfort, derives its chief power from the fact that it is the expression of the true heart's affectionate longing for an absent Lord. The One, “whom, having not seen, we love,” is the One for whose return and presence our hearts should long. And it is, therefore, in this aspect that we have the Lord's coming once more placed before us. In the closing chapter of the Apocalypse, “the Spirit and the Bride,” that is, the Church—say, “Come”; and our Lord's last words in this book are, “Surely I come quickly,” to which the response arises — “Amen, even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:17-2017And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. 18For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 19And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. 20He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:17‑20)). To what coming, then, is it that the Lord here alludes? Surely to that which He left behind Him as a legacy of hope to His disciples, when He told them that He went to prepare a place for them, and would come again and take them to Himself; to that with which He linked the writer of this book in those memorable words — “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” And here I would point out that the language is not that of individual believers, but that of the Church, the Bride, and also of the Spirit. In an individual Christian, it might be urged that it meant a longing for death and to be with Jesus. But such an interpretation is manifestly inadmissible if used by the Spirit and the Bride. Still more forced and unmeaning would such language be in the mouth of the Church, if the coming which it invites were the coming at the end of the world. In this very book the most tremendous catastrophes are foretold, which had certainly not taken place when the book was closed. Yet even then Jesus says, “Behold, I come quickly,” and even then the response goes up — “Amen, even so, come, Lord Jesus.” What can we infer but that the coming of the Lord might legitimately be anticipated before these events occurred? No one, knowing the predictions of Scripture, could have said, “Come, Lord Jesus,” if this coming were not to be till after these predictions were fulfilled. The words imply that the event prayed for was one which might happen at any moment, not one which could only take place at the close of a long series of unaccomplished prophecy.
V. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” and if the heart be really full of this prospect, its expectation will make itself known in various unforeseen and casual ways. This is another form in which the hope appears. Thus it is used as a general basis for appeal. “Now, we beseech you, brethren,” says Paul to the Thessalonians, “by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto Him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind” (2 Thess. 2:1,21Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, 2That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. (2 Thessalonians 2:1‑2)). Again, in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, which might seem simply a retrospective act, the same thought of the Lord's coming is presented: “For, as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till He come” (1 Cor. 11:2626For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come. (1 Corinthians 11:26)). These passages do not, indeed, like others, define the character of the coming, or its speedy occurrence. But they show how constantly it was before the mind of the apostles and the early believers, how it entered into and colored all their thoughts, words, and actions. No dim general expectation of His advent at the end of the world would account for its introduction in the way in which it is brought in here.
VI. But this coming of the Lord has yet another aspect, which we solemnly urge on those believers who are disposed to treat it as a curious and even frivolous speculation. It is by the contempt and ridicule of this doctrine that the decline of the last days will be especially marked. “There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water, and in the water; whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished; but the heavens and the earth which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night” (2 Peter 3:3-103Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, 4And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. 5For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: 6Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: 7But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. 8But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (2 Peter 3:3‑10)).
If the Lord's coming is to believers a blessed hope, to professing Christendom it is the end of hope. It shuts the door of grace, reserving those left behind for the terrible ushering in of the day of the Lord, when He comes to take “vengeance on them that know not God,” and for the still darker hour when that day shall close in the conflagration of the world and the judgment of the great white throne. The apostle, speaking of professing Christendom, there foretells that in the last days the Lord's coming will be a subject of derision. Men will point to the world around, declare everything to be prosperous, and discern no sign of change. Alas I they are “willingly ignorant” that so it was before the flood. Did the mockery excited by the long warning prevent the deluge coming and sweeping the scoffers away? Nor will it stay the execution of judgment on the world in whose stability men are trusting. The delay may seem long, for God's measure of time is not like man's; but the Lord has not forgotten His promise. If He has delayed its fulfillment, it is that the despisers of His grace might be gathered in, not being willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. When the time is arrived, the promise will be fulfilled, and then the terrible day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night for the destruction of those who are left behind.
Is not this scoffing what we see around us? But there is something still sadder in beholding many of the Lord's true children swelling this cry of mocking incredulity, and both in their religious systems, in their political calculations, and in their whole scheme of worldly conduct, asking with like unbelief, or putting aside with like indifference, the solemn question—Where is the promise of His coming?