Part First. - The Hope of the Church

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The point of most immediate interest to the believer is the meaning to be attached to the phrase, “The Coming of the Lord.” Does Scripture in these words speak of the Christian's death, or of Christ's coming to raise and judge the dead at the end of the world? Or do the words hold out a hope of a totally different nature? I propose, in this first part, to examine what the Word of God says about the coming of the Lord, first as it affects the living saint, and next as it affects the dead.
The Old Testament Scriptures are full of the coming of the Messiah in glory and power. Indeed the Jews were so occupied with these prophecies that they overlooked those which foretold His coming in weakness and humiliation. His coming in power is often spoken of by Jesus Himself and by His disciples in their converse with one another. They ask, “What shall be the sign of Thy coming” (Matt. 24:33And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? (Matthew 24:3)); are told to watch, “for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (ver. 42); and admonished by the question — “When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth” (Luke 18:88I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8))? Christ's second coming was, therefore, expected by the disciples, and held a considerable place in His own teaching.
But in the epistles there appears another fact, a “mystery” hidden from the Old Testament prophets, and only hinted at by Jesus Himself. This is that the Lord's coming is divided into two different acts. The prophets only foretell the coming of the Messiah Himself. But the New Testament shows that in this glorious advent He will be accompanied by His saints. In order for this, however, it is necessary that before Jesus comes to reign over the earth, His saints should have been taken up to heaven. Accordingly the epistles make known that the first act in the Lord's coming will be to take believers to be with Himself, and the second His return with them to the world. When our Lord was on earth the time for revealing this mystery had not arrived, so that He usually speaks of His coming in general terms, without distinguishing its two different parts. Hence it is only from the epistles that we can fully understand His teaching on this subject, though when seen in their light, its Divine perfection becomes obvious.
In the first three gospels especially, the two parts, though both alluded to, are so blended, that it will be desirable to postpone the examination of their teaching until we have discovered the key by which its hidden treasures are unlocked. In the fourth gospel, however, though the mystery is not distinctly revealed, the return of the Lord for His saints is held out as a hope before the hearts of the disciples. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you; and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-31Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:1‑3)). These words were spoken to comfort His disciples on His departure. He tells them that while absent He will prepare a place for them; and will presently return to take them to be with Himself.
This passage is often applied to the death of believers. Such an interpretation, however, is unwarranted by other scriptures, and is open to serious objection. The disciples knew, not only of a resurrection, but of the separate existence of the spirit, whether in happiness, like Lazarus, or in torment, like the rich man. If, therefore, Jesus was only telling them that after death their spirits would be with Him in paradise, He merely told them what they knew. Concerning death, moreover, it is said that the believer goes to be with Jesus, never that Jesus comes for the believer. Nor would the hope given to the disciples, at such a crisis, be that of entering into any imperfect state, such as the existence of the spirit even in paradise. The passage implies completeness, that perfect reunion which only takes place “when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality.” Death is not the believer's hope, but the redemption of the body. “If our earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved,” still the hope is the” house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul is willing, no doubt, “to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord,” but his desire is, “not that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life” (2 Cor. 5:1-91For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: 3If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. 4For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. 5Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. 6Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: 7(For we walk by faith, not by sight:) 8We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. 9Wherefore we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. (2 Corinthians 5:1‑9)). This, the perfect state, is the true Christian hope, and surely in the parting words of comfort to His disciples, when promising to come again and take them to Himself, nothing short of the fulfillment of this hope can have been in the Lord's mind.
That these words disclose a new prospect, not the spirit's presence with Jesus after death, is clear from the closing verses of this gospel. There our Lord first foretells Peter's death; then, being asked what should become of John, replies — “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” (John 21:2222Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. (John 21:22)). Now this could not mean that John might live till the end of the world. But neither could it mean that John might go to be with Jesus at his death. In this case, how would he have differed from Peter or any of the other disciples? Moreover, this interpretation would rob the words of all meaning, making them equivalent to this — “If I will that he lives till he dies, what is that to thee?” The coming referred to, therefore, is neither the departure to be with Jesus at death, nor His appearing at the end of the world.
Its true character is not far to seek. It is here spoken of, not as one of an indefinite number of similar events, like the deaths of individual believers, but as a single transaction, of which the disciples had already heard. Such a transaction Jesus had but lately named, when He promised to come again for His disciples. It is true He did not distinguish it from the other part of His coming, but He brought it out as a special feature, and it was to this feature that John's heart would turn when he heard the words uttered. What can be simpler? On a solemn occasion Jesus tells His disciples that He will come to take them to Himself. Shortly afterward He bids them not to be surprised if one of them tarries till He comes. However little the disciples might yet be able to distinguish between the two parts of His coming, there can surely be no doubt that these utterances were meant to bring before their minds the same blessed hope.
These two passages, then, teach us: First, the return of Jesus for His saints, not at death or the end of the world, but at some definite though unrevealed period, when all shall be brought together to the place He has gone to prepare for them; and secondly, that this coming again, though uncertain as to time, might occur before the death of one, at least, of the apostles. So the disciples understood it, for there “went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die” (John 21:2323Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? (John 21:23)), and though the Holy Ghost corrects this error, we are never told that it consisted in believing that Jesus might come in John's lifetime; still less in believing that if He did come, John would not die. Christ's own words expressly authorized the former belief; and other parts of Scripture make it clear that Christians living at the Lord's coming will be translated without seeing death. The disciples' error, therefore, did not consist in this understanding of the words of Jesus; but in adding to those words, and converting a statement that John might tarry into a prediction that he would tarry.
Nor is anything said about unusual longevity on the part of John. The time of the Lord's coming is studiously kept out of sight. The only event that must necessarily happen, according to these scriptures, before the promised return of Jesus for His disciples, was the martyrdom of Peter, a thing which, in an age of persecution, might have occurred at almost any hour. When that had taken place, there was no reason to be deduced from these passages why the return of Jesus should not be momentarily expected.
Let us look at the position of the early disciples, remembering that this was almost all the light they yet had on the subject. Of the two whose future career had been spoken of, one had been told that he must suffer death, the other that he might tarry till Jesus came. Would it not be a perfectly natural and lawful thing for John to be living in anticipation of the Lord's coming? Would it not, indeed, have shown sad unbelief if he had not looked for translation, but had looked for death instead of translation? Would it not also have been lawful for the other disciples, Peter excepted, to anticipate that the Lord might come in their lifetime, and to have constantly before their souls the refreshing hope that the One whom they loved, and who had departed from them, would soon return to take them to Himself?
It is important to ascertain the legitimate effect which these words of our Lord would have on the minds of the disciples, because they were the only clear light on this subject which they yet possessed. It is true there were other prophecies as to His coming uttered. by Himself, but these were intentionally obscure as to the great point here brought out, namely, the coming of the Lord for His saints apart from and before His coming in power and glory. In no other place had the Lord Jesus held out the hope of His return for His disciples, without reference to other events affecting His coming to the world. The hope, therefore, was clearly expressed, in very few words, and little capable of erroneous interpretations. It is a serious thing to maintain that a hope so clearly and definitely stated is a mistake; that the conclusion legitimately flowing from our Lord's own words was a conclusion which He did not mean His disciples to draw; that the hope reasonably founded on His own promise was a hope which He did not mean them to cherish. Rather, surely, should we infer that, though in His wisdom God has seen fit to conceal the time, and though in His mercy He has seen fit to delay that event, which, however blessed for believers, puts a period to the grace in which He is now acting towards the world, yet His purpose was to hold out this coming of His Son as a precious perennial hope for the souls of those who are His.
But though our Lord's own language seems sufficiently plain, it may be asked, whether it is in agreement with other portions of God's Word? Christ's teaching, as we have said, only slightly touched this special subject of His separate advent for His saints; and He left its full significance to be brought to the hearts of His disciples by that Spirit of truth, who was to “teach them all things, and bring all things to their remembrance whatsoever He had said unto them.” What, then, does this Holy Spirit teach us concerning the wondrous theme we are here considering?
The question is not treated at length in the Acts, which, however, contains a passage clearly announcing the Lord's return, in some form or other, before the end of the world. Immediately after His ascension, while the disciples still “looked steadfastly toward heaven, as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-1110And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:10‑11)). Now no time is here mentioned, and if the passage stood by itself, it might be supposed to refer to the end of the world. But, comparing it with other passages, this interpretation becomes impossible. For, in the first place, His coming again was to be “in like manner” with His ascension, and nothing can be conceived more unlike to this event than the appearance of the Judge upon the great white throne. Secondly, when the Judge then appears, He does not come to the world, for “the earth and the heaven flee away.” It is the dead who are summoned before the Judge, not the Judge who comes to them. (Rev. 20:11-1511And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 14And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11‑15).) But, thirdly, our Lord had Himself constantly spoken of His coming, and had only recently named its effect upon the disciples as a special ground of consolation and hope, as the one precious comfort to stay their hearts during His absence. What, then, is more natural than that now, when He had just departed from His last earthly communion with them, the promise of His coming should once more be presented to their hearts? True, the two parts of the coming were not yet clearly made known, nor was the special hope of His return for His saints, as distinct from the other act, here revealed. Still the coming, of which this feature was now taught, is presented as a general hope, to cheer and calm the souls of the disciples.
But it is in the epistles, where the Spirit has fully unfolded “all that Jesus began both to do and teach” while here on earth, that this “mystery” of the separate coming for the saints, hitherto hid in the counsels of God, is first distinctly revealed. The earliest of these epistles, as nearly all competent critics are agreed, is the first of those addressed to the Thessalonians. Paul had spent at the outside three or four weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:22And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, (Acts 17:2)), and the whole of the instruction possessed by the believers was derived from him during this brief visit, which was followed shortly by his first epistle. It is interesting, therefore, to observe the truth they had received, and to note its practical effect. On both these points the Holy Ghost has given full information. The apostle rejoices in their “work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” They “were ensamples to all that believe.” Not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place, people were relating how these Thessalonian converts had “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:9-109For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; 10And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9‑10)). These, then, were the two characteristics of the Thessalonian Church. Can it be said that they are the distinguishing marks of Christians at the present day? It may be answered that all believers expect Jesus to come from heaven, and this is, no doubt, true. But surely no person, looking at modern Christians, would seize upon this as a leading feature of their faith. The expression appears to imply, what the rest of the epistle plainly shows, that there was among these Thessalonians something much more than a distant expectation of the Lord's coming at the end of the world; that it was a present hope, influencing all their thoughts, their feelings, and their practical life, a hope so vivid and powerful as to attract the attention of “all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia.”
If, then, this was a delusion arising from imperfect knowledge, how is it that the apostle, instead of putting them right, records this waiting attitude, side by side with their turning to God, as a portion of the bright testimony they were bearing? In the next chapter he again incidentally alludes to the hope, and again without the smallest hint that the Thessalonians had fallen into error, or were cherishing unfounded expectations. In the fourth chapter, to which we shall presently have occasion more fully to refer, the apostle alludes to the Lord's coming in these remarkable terms — “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that WE which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep”; and later, “then WE, which are alive and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds” (1 Thess. 4:15-1715For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15‑17)). Jesus had told His disciples, that one of them might tarry till His return. Here the Holy Ghost intimates that believers then living might also remain to that time. He contrasts the “we which are alive” with “them which are asleep.” What is the significance of the word “we” used in this manner? A speaker might say to his audience — “We who live to the end of this century.” It would not mean that any of them must live till then, merely that they might. But it would be senseless to say — “We who live to the end of the next century.” So, here, the Holy Ghost is not revealing the time of Christ's return, but, while leaving this indefinite, is urging the hope which God would have believers cherish. If He did not mean them to be looking for the Lord's coming during their own lifetime, the use of the first person would be not only meaningless but erroneous.
Compare this language with our Lord's own words. Jesus says — “I will come again”; Paul says — “The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven.” Jesus says — “I will receive you unto Myself; “Paul says that the believer still living” shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.” Jesus gives as His motive, “That where I am there ye may be also”; Paul declares — “So shall we ever be with the Lord.” Jesus gives His promise that the hearts of the disciples might not be troubled; Paul exhorts sorrowing believers to “comfort one another with these words.” There can surely be no question that these passages, running so closely parallel, relate to the same event. And what is the event? Not the end of the world, for it might happen in the lifetime of the generation then on the earth. Not death, for the living were to be caught up without seeing death. It can be nothing else, then, but the coming of the Lord for His own, according to the gracious promise He had, before His departure, given the disciples.
Very similar, and in some respects even stronger, is the language used by the same apostle in addressing the Corinthian Church. “Behold,” he says, “I show you a mystery. We shall NOT all sleep, but we SHALL all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and WE shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51,5251Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51‑52)). Here, then, we are expressly told, what in the other passage we might confidently infer, that those living at the Lord's coming for His saints shall not die, but shall be changed. But is not this coming at the end of the world? Let us look closely at the text. There is no mention here made of the resurrection of unbelievers. The two classes put in contrast are, therefore, believers who will be living at this advent, and believers who are dead. Now, in which of these classes does the apostle range himself and those to whom he was writing? Not with the dead, but with the living. Had he meant that both he and they would be in their graves, he would have said” The trumpet shall sound, and we shall be raised incorruptible, and the living shall be changed.” So modern theology puts it. The Holy Ghost inverts it, classing the present generation as those who might live to the Lord's coming. If it be said that the Spirit, who searcheth “the deep things of God,” must have known that the Thessalonians would die before the Lord's return, and cannot, therefore, have meant them to look out for it as a present hope, the answer is, that Christ himself did so place it before John, though, of course, He knew that it would not happen till after John's death. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.” These words were chosen that the hope of the Lord's coming might be ever present to the believer's heart.
But does not scripture expressly say that “it is appointed unto men once to die?” Let us examine the passage in which these words occur. Speaking of Christ's one offering, it says — “Now once, in the end of the world, hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself: and AS it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time, apart from sin, unto salvation” (Heb. 9:26-2826For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: 28So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. (Hebrews 9:26‑28)).
This doubtless shows that, since sin entered, it is the order of nature that man should die. But why is this stated here? Simply to bring out the fact that Jesus has taken man's place, and endured the death and judgment which were his due. The argument is that AS these were appointed to man in consequence of sin, so, in like manner—Christ suffered the same lot; and now, having on His first appearing borne death and judgment as the believer's substitute, He can appear to him a second time, having nothing more to do with sin, for his salvation. This is in harmony with the whole argument of the chapter, which contrasts the partial and temporary result of the Levitical sacrifices with the perfect work of Christ, who “now once, in the end of the world, hath appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
Instead of proving, therefore, that death and judgment must necessarily come upon man, the text shows that neither death nor judgment, as the penalty for sin, remain to the believer.
And this is obvious from another consideration. The text declares that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” If it proves, then, that the believer must die, it proves that he must be judged; and if it does not prove that he must be judged, it does not prove that he must die. But our Lord Himself says — “He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment” (John 5:2424Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)). The word in the original is the same as in the Hebrews, though our translation renders it “condemnation.” The believer, then, has passed out of the condition described in this text, and having escaped the judgment, which is one penalty of sin, he cannot be liable to the death, which is the other.
But, if so, why do believers die? Not as the penalty for sin, for if the believer has to bear any part of the penalty of sin, the atonement of Christ is not a perfect work. But though the penalty for sin has gone, the consequences of sin have not yet been thoroughly effaced, nor will be until “the redemption of the body.” As connected with the old creation, the body is “of the earth, earthy,” and as such liable to natural decay. It is no longer judicially subject to death, and therefore, should the Lord come before its powers are exhausted, it will be changed at once, without tasting death, from “the image of the earthly into the image of the heavenly.” But it is naturally subject to decay, and should the Lord tarry till its strength fails, it falls asleep and awaits its own redemption and the Lord's coming in the grave, instead of upon the earth. Hence the death of the believer is spoken of in figures pointing to its transitory nature and blessed termination — “falling asleep in Jesus,” pulling down a tabernacle, or “sowing in weakness” what is “raised in power.”